Myanmar military had holy grail of politics, so why the coup?

Myanmar military had holy grail of politics, so why the coup?

Myanmar military had holy grail of politics, so why the coup?
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The Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) last week threatened to retake power and “protect the constitution” unless its concerns of election fraud were addressed.

However, by the weekend, the military seemed to have had a change of heart and announced through its official spokesperson that its words had been misinterpreted, as “some organizations and media assumed what they (wanted) and wrote as Tatmadaw will abolish the constitution.”

With the threat of a coup diminished, many breathed a sigh of relief. That was until news emerged early Monday that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and a posse of other political leaders had been detained by the Tatmadaw and a state of emergency declared.

The timing was curious. The pre-dawn raids came hours before a new session of parliament was scheduled to open, with parliamentarians ready to take their seats from the November election. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won those elections in a landslide, securing 396 of the 476 seats across the House of Representatives and the House of Nationalities.

As internet and communication services were disrupted, the military issued a statement saying all power had been passed to army chief Min Aung Hlaing. No statement was issued from Suu Kyi and her whereabouts and condition were unknown at the time of writing.

Though the military claimed “election fraud” and “protecting the constitution” as the primary motivations for the coup, there are significant questions as to the real impetus and timing of this action.

The current political system seemed to be working favorably for the military. It was, in fact, designed by the military to ensure that it retained full power with a veneer of democracy to placate Western powers and avoid sanctions.

So, despite allowing elections, the military automatically retained 25 percent of parliamentary seats and controlled the major ministries of defense, border, interior and foreign affairs.

This allowed the military leaders to continue persecuting minorities in some of the longest-running civil wars in the world while at the same time enriching themselves considerably through corruption.

They, in effect, had the holy grail of politics: Power without any accountability. Why then would they wish to upset such an advantageous system?

There are a number of possible explanations. Firstly, the military may have concluded that the NLD, despite its most strenuous efforts, is far too popular and an alternative reality of Myanmar is slowly emerging.

The current political system ensured the military retained a veneer of democracy to placate Western powers and avoid sanctions

This may not be a realizable threat now but, if allowed to fester, it could evolve into a more formidable hazard, diluting the military’s authority as people demand more rights and ask more questions about corruption as information flows increase.

The military may have calculated that there is little point in having this veneer of democracy that is continuously enhancing the stature and authority of Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party when it can retake full control and end this charade.


* Jan. 4, 1948: Country then known as Burma wins freedom from British colonial rule.

* 1962: Military leader Ne Win stages a coup and rules the country through a junta for many years.

*  1977: Burma launches Operation Dragon King in northern Rakhine state. Rohingya Muslims are stripped of their citizenship, beginning a cycle of forced displacement. 

* 1988:  Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of an independence hero, returns to her home country. Security forces open fire on demonstrators in August, killing hundreds. 

* 1989: Burma is renamed Myanmar. The ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council increases its military presence in Rakhine. Some 250,000 Rohingya flee to Bangladesh. 

* July 1989: Aung San Suu Kyi is put under house arrest. 

* May 27, 1990: The National League for Democracy, founded by Aung San Suu Kyi, wins a landslide victory in elections, but the military refuses to hand over power. 

* Oct. 1991: Aung San Suu Kyi is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her peaceful struggle against the regime. 

* Nov. 7, 2010: A pro-junta party wins Myanmar’s first elections in 20 years, a vote that was boycotted as unfair and rigged in its favor. 

* Nov. 13, 2010: Aung San Suu Kyi is freed from detention after spending long periods of the past two decades under house arrest. 

* 2012: Aung San Suu Kyi wins a by-election and takes her seat in parliament, holding public office for the first time. 

* Nov. 8, 2015: The NLD sweeps general elections. The military retains significant power under a constitution, but creates the post of state counsellor for Aung San Suu Kyi to lead the government. 

* Aug. 25, 2017: Insurgents attack military outposts in Rakhine. The military responds with a massive crackdown on the Rohingya. 

* Dec. 11, 2019: Aung San Suu Kyi defends the military in a case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, denying it committed genocide.

* Nov. 8, 2020: Myanmar holds elections, with the NLD capturing an outright majority in Parliament. 

* Jan. 29, 2021: Myanmar’s election commission rejects the military’s allegations of fraud in the elections, finding no evidence to support the claims. 

* Feb. 1, 2021: Myanmar military takes control of the country for one year. The NLD says Aung San Suu Kyi has been again placed under house arrest.

The reaction of the international community will also have been muted. The crippling sanctions that forced the military to explore “democratization” are something that the Tatmadaw would not wish to revisit. But how effective would such sanctions be today?

The generals may have gauged that, with China firmly in their corner both literally and figuratively, their economic future is secure, with sanctions being easily neutralized by Beijing’s significant investment power. And neither can they expect the UN to mobilize any meaningful action as long as China’s veto is at hand in the Security Council.

China has, after all, ensured that no censure was forthcoming even after the Tatmadaw engaged in a full and open genocide against the Rohingya minority, so they can continue to count on its support.

Myanmar was never a real democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi was never a real democrat. Even her most ardent supporters in the West were speechless when they saw her attend the International Court of Justice in The Hague in December 2019 and justify the genocidal actions against the Rohingya.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s fall from grace was finally complete.

What will be most interesting now will be how the newly minted US President Joe Biden decides to handle this situation.

This will be his first real foreign-policy test, so the question will be whether he comes out batting for Aung San Suu Kyi and makes the same mistakes as President Barack Obama, or whether he pushes for real democratic reform with real democrats.

  • Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a director at the Center for Global Policy and author of “The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Genocide” (Hurst, 2017). Twitter: @AzeemIbrahim

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