On February 1, the Myanmar military enacted a coup d’état against the governing National League for Democracy (NLD). The party’s leadership, including former State Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, and former President, Win Myint, are still in detainment. The military, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, currently controls the government, having declared a year-long state of emergency. The country is now in a democratic crisis; each side alleges violations of a relatively recent, fragile democracy. Added to this is intensified civil unrest, as protests against the military have persisted across the country and Min Aung Hlaing’s government has continued to crack down on the civilians calling for the NLD to be reinstated.
Leading Up to A Military Coup
Myanmar military’s coup was a demonstration against the country’s November 2020 general election. In the election, the NLD won a majority of seats in both houses of parliament and hence, the mandate to form government. The military immediately contested the result, claiming that the opposition, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), was the rightful winner. The claims were based on allegations of ‘irregularities’ in the voting process, amounting to an undemocratic election.
Myanmar’s former President, and former general of the military, Thein Sein, currently leads the military’s favored party: the USDP. The Party became regarded as an avenue for members of Myanmar’s military to enter government. On the other hand, the NLD also posed a rising threat to the military, with Aung San Suu Kyi, a prominent anti-military rule activist and pioneer of democracy, at the forefront. Election results confirmed that the NLD remained popular among Myanmar’s people, maintaining Suu Kyi’s continued status as a favorable leader for a country recovering from military dictatorship.
After failing to contest the results with the Union Election Commission (UEC), however, Myanmar’s military imposed a state coup. Fears of a state coup were already prevalent in January, especially after General Aung Hlaing suggested revoking the country’s constitution under certain circumstances. Military chiefs attempted to alleviate these fears, however, assuring they will abide by the constitution. Nevertheless, a state coup was enforced shortly after, with the military claiming it to be constitutional. This stand against NLD rule also symbolized a refusal to accept further decline to the military’s power in the country. Now at the helm of government again, the military has suppressed the democratic movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, while claiming to be acting democratically.
A Crisis of Democracy
At the core of the military coup and the clash between Myanmar’s competing regimes is a crisis of democracy. The military move to overhaul the NLD was rooted in allegations of election fraud. The new junta government maintains that the election process and its results were undemocratic, stemming from a culmination of factors such as poor-quality ballot boxes. Hence, the election was declared fraudulent.
However, the military’s motive extends farther than the 2020 election. The NLD’s rule posed a conflict of interest with the increasingly side-lined military. The coup is largely seen as an undemocratic response to Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s undemocratic arrival to power in the first place. Her position as State Counsellor, essentially the leader of Myanmar, was regarded as a sidestep around the military-drafted constitution, which specifically highlighted that those with foreign family members (Suu Kyi was widowed by a British husband) were not allowed to be President. Furthermore, the coup re-instated military dominance following several NLD proposals to reduce military power in the country. Such proposals included the revision of the military’s hold of a quarter of seats in parliament. The coup, therefore, answered to perceived violations of the military’s own democratic instruments by the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi.
In spite of this, the majority of Myanmar’s population continues to vocalize its support for the NLD, and especially Aung San Suu Kyi. Following encouragement from the party itself, protests across the country have been demanding that the NLD be reinstated into government. Considering the role she played in scaling down the military’s power in Myanmar, and consequently instilling civic rule through the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi is widely regarded as seen as spearheading Myanmar’s democratic milestones, and hence a favorable leader for the country. In contrast, Min Aung Hlaing, as a military general, represents the oppressive instruments of authoritarian military rule that have kept Myanmar from democratizing for decades.
Although refusing to respond to civilian demands, the military asserts that its priorities during the state of emergency will be to unearth the alleged election fraud and manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite overhauling an elected government, the military’s approach is that of a perceived commitment to respecting democracy. This is not the first military coup to have taken place in Myanmar, yet it is more pacified. This complements the notion that repeating history is no longer an option in Myanmar, which has seen exceptional democratic milestones in recent years, regardless of recent events. By asserting that there is a commitment to investigate election fraud and deliver a new general election in a year’s time, the military is more or less demonstrating some respect for the country’s relatively new democratic boundaries.
While this would leave some possibility for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD to eventually regain leadership of the country, the dialogue surrounding the military’s planned future election largely avoids the prospect of NLD rule. Min Aung Hlaing’s assertion that the coup was inevitable and necessary for the military to “steer the country” suggests he no longer sees a pathway for Myanmar to include the leadership of the NLD and Suu Kyi. This would therefore amount to extensive democratic violations, as any positioning of the NLD in future government would be entirely discarded, despite the popular support of the party.
What further diminishes the prospect of a future democratic government in Myanmar is the new regime’s crackdown on the civil unrest that has ensued following the coup. Attesting to the majority vote for the NLD party, vast numbers of Myanmar’s civilians took to the streets to protest the military’s actions and demand the re-installment of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi into government. In response, the new regime imposed numerous repressive tactics against protests, which have grown bloodier by the day.
Initial steps taken by the military to suppress protests included disruptions to communication across the country; local media channels and internet services, including access to social media sites like Facebook and WhatsApp, have been cut. Furthermore, police forces turned out in large numbers to dissuade protest groups from growing. During the first weeks of protests, some police forces were present in riot gear, injuring protestors with rubber bullets and water cannons. The response to the protest movement has since escalated, as over 100 killings of protestors have now been reported across Myanmar, and more protestors have also disappeared. Activists and journalists continue to be arrested; over 2,000 people have now been detained following the military coup. Myanmar’s ruling military has threatened lengthy prison sentences for protestors partaking in the anti-coup and anti-military demonstrations.
The ensuing civil unrest signifies widespread dissatisfaction with the military’s decision to overhaul an elected civilian government. Chanting phrases, such as “We demand democracy!”, thousands of protestors have called out the military coup as undemocratic and illegitimate. Military actions to suppress these protests have contributed to the popular anger, as they demonstrated further restrictions to civic freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and in some cases, violations of their very basic human rights such as the right to life. These repressive actions have therefore also contributed to the country’s current democracy crisis, as the military continues to crack down on civilians who maintain they have elected the NLD as their government. Furthermore, by legally accusing protestors of inciting hatred toward the military, the current government has extended its capacity to suppress the electoral decision.
The International Sphere: Condemnation and Support
The international sphere has demanded that Aung San Suu Kyi, Win Myint, and other ministers and party officials, be released from detainment. International leaders have threatened action against Myanmar’s military for the take-over of the state, and for the crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. The US has announced sanctions against ten military officials and companies they are linked to. The UK has also voiced its reproach towards Myanmar’s military, calling for the vote of the people to be respected.
Although international support for Aung San Suu Kyi has declined following Myanmar’s 2017 Rohingya crisis, she is still highly revered in the international arena for her role in freeing Myanmar from military rule. On the contrary, Min Aung Hlaing has less international respect as the primary perpetrator of the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, during which 700,000 thousand Rohingya fled to Bangladesh following a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military, which was internationally branded as ethnic cleansing. The International Criminal Court’s case investigating Aung Hlaing’s crimes against humanity is ongoing.
In condemning the coup, international governments and institutions have affirmed the importance of democratic principles. Responding to the situation, the United Nations Security Council has stressed “the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes”. The UNSC has also called for “dialogue and reconciliation in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar”. International attention has therefore not been focused on the practices of the coup alone, but also on the repression of Myanmar’s citizens who have been protesting the coup as a result. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has highlighted the crackdown Myanmar’s civilians have faced, as well as the shutdown in communication services, restricting their ability to access and transmit information. International statements are therefore outlined by democratic values, and rooted in support for Myanmar’s electorate and their right to choose a government.
- Considering the democratic milestones made in Myanmar, and the justifications provided by the military for the coup, is the age of authoritarian rule in the country over?
- Does the military have no choice but to follow through with its promise of providing a free and fair general election once the state of emergency ends?
- Assuming that the military will deliver a new, free and fair general election, has the military coup caused a major disruption to Myanmar’s pathway to democracy?
- Or, was this simply ‘part and parcel’ of Myanmar’s relatively fresh status as a country with civil governance?
- Is there any prospect for Aung San Suu Kyi to lead Myanmar again?
Cuddy, Alice (2021). “Myanmar coup: What is happening and why?” BBC News, 9 February, 2021.
Human Rights Watch (2021). “Myanmar: Military coup kills fragile democracy.” Human Rights Watch, 1 February, 2021.
Regan, Helen (2021). “Why the generals really took back power in Myanmar.” CNN, 8 February, 2021.