Myanmar Military Coup

By: Emily Mao — School News Editor

On February 1st, 2021, the citizens of Myanmar woke up to a coup executed by Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw. Early in the morning, an announcement saying that Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the military, was in control and that they would be in a year-long state of emergency was broadcasted on TV stations across the country. 

On November 8th, the National League of Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won Myanmar’s election against their opposing party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) by a landslide. The NLD won 396 out of the 498 parliamentary seats up for election. 

However, the military contested the results of the election due to claims of voter fraud, and after their requests were dismissed by the election commission, they took matters into their own hands. On February 1st, when the first session of Parliament was supposed to convene after the November elections which would have approved the election results and the new government, the Tatmadaw overturned the government and imprisoned political opponents.

“Due to the Union Election Commission, refusing to settle voter lists fraud, failing to take actions, not following the request to postpone lower house and upper house parliament sessions, there is a need to carry along with the plan, according to the constitution,” said a reporter in the TV broadcast which announced the transition in government. 

President Win Myint and state counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi were detained in early morning raids, along with prominent politicians and critics of the military. Suu Kyi has not been seen since Monday. 

All over the country, internet and phone services were disrupted for several hours, and international and domestic TV channels went off the air. The coup was mainly bloodless, but soldiers and military vehicles patrolled roads in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, and Yangon. 

“Waking up to learn your world has been completely turned upside down overnight was not a new feeling, but a feeling that I thought that we had moved on from, and one that I never thought we’d be forced to feel again,” one resident told BBC news. 

Myanmar has only been a democracy since 2011, so for many residents, this coup was a traumatic return to a not so distant past. After Myanmar gained independence from British Colonial rule in 1948, various groups have struggled for power. In 1962, the Tatmadaw gained control and ruled for almost half a century. 

During the military’s reign, advocates for human rights and democracy, like the NLD’s Suu Kyi, protested and urged citizens to speak out against them. Suu Kyi first rose to prominence in the 1990s during widespread protests against the military’s brutal attacks on student-led protests. She spearheaded the fight for democracy in Myanmar against the then-dictator, General Ne Win. As a result, she was a frequent target of the military and spent almost 15 years in detention from 1989 to 2010 for her work. She also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest. 

“It had made me real once again; it had drawn me back into the wider human community. And what was more important, the Nobel Prize had drawn the attention of the world to the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. We were not going to be forgotten,” she said in her acceptance speech in 2012.

And like she promised, her fight was not over, and she was elected as state counselor in 2015 and 2020 and became the de facto leader of Myanmar. 

On Monday, Min Aung Hlaing’s office issued a statement saying that an election will be held after voter lists have been investigated. Only at that point will “state responsibilities be handed over to the winning party meeting norms and standards of democracy,” said Hlaing. 

Additionally, in an attempt to neutralize their political rival, Suu Kyi was accused of illegally importing 10 walkie talkies. During her 15 day detention period after the coup, soldiers searched her villa and found pieces of communication equipment without the necessary paperwork. Although the charge might seem trivial, if found guilty, Suu Kyi could face another three years in prison. 

All over the country, support has rung out for Suu Kyi, as citizens bang pots and pans and teachers and medics go on strike. On Friday, February 5th, students gathered outside of a university in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, and held up the three-finger salute–a symbol of resistance against authoritarianism. 

In response, and as preemptive measures to prevent further protests, the military ordered an internet shut down on Saturday and banned many social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Despite their efforts, protesters showed up in large numbers on Saturday 

“The military playbook from the early 2000s is very out of date. It doesn’t take into account social media, it doesn’t take into account Facebook, it doesn’t take into account that most of the country is online,” said Horsey, a Yangon-based analyst. 

On Sunday, crowds gathered in the biggest protest in the country since 2007 while protesting peacefully. Some expressed outrage at the injustice of the coup, saying, “they don’t respect our people’s votes and I think they are betraying the country.” Others explained the importance of showing support for democracy. “There may be soldiers tomorrow, but I am not afraid,” said a 23-year-old protester. 

On Tuesday, more than a week after the coup, protestors faced the most violent day of the protest, with police firing rubber bullets and spraying water cannons at them. Guns were also fired into the air. There has been at least one death, as one woman was fatally shot in the head. 

As of now, the military’s end goal is not clear, but their rule will not be so easily dismantled, as they have been able to retain political significance even after 2011. As authors of Myanmar’s constitution, the military was able to permanently reserve 25% of parliamentary seats for their own party, giving them veto power over any constitutional amendment. 

“The military didn’t fade into the background with the start of the democratization process. It held on to its levers of power … with provisions in place to allow for exactly this sort of takeover,” said Shayna Bauchner, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. 

The international response has been mixed because not every country has come out with a strong repudiation of the military’s actions. The United Nations Security Council met on February 2nd to discuss the events but were unable to release a joint statement because China, who has veto power as one of the permanent members, did not agree.

Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US released a statement as the Group of Seven major economic powers, saying, “We call upon the military to immediately end the state of emergency, restore power to the democratically-elected government, to release all those unjustly detained and to respect human rights and the rule of law.” 

In line with their skepticism of international intervention, China has been careful to align itself with either side. They see the coup as a “cabinet reshuffle” and want both sides to “resolve differences.” Although some may see their silence as support for the military, Sebastian Strangio, author and South East Asia editor at The Diplomat, points out that they may not benefit from political instability in Myanmar. 

“They had a pretty good arrangement with the NLD and invested a lot to build a relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi. The return of the military actually means that China now has to deal with the institution in Myanmar that historically is the most suspicious of China’s intentions,” said Strangio. 

The Tatmadaw and Min Aung Hlaing’s return to power also draw concern for the Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Myanmar’s majority Buddhist country. In 2017, the military carried out an ethnic genocide of the Rohingya when they murdered and raped thousands, triggering a mass exodus of Muslims into Bangladesh. 

Both Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing faced international backlash for their actions, and Hlaing is still currently involved in a genocide case at the International Court of Justice. 

The reaction from the Association of South East Asian Nations is also split, with Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia condemning the coup, and Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines saying that this is an “internal affair.” 

President Joseph R. Biden threatened to reimpose sanctions on the Burmese military if they did not reverse their actions on Monday, February 1st. “The international community should come together in one voice to press the Burmese military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized, release the activists and officials they have detained,” Biden said in a statement.

As the world watches this coup unfold, citizens of Myanmar have been thrust into another reality, one where their voices are silenced and their hopes have been dashed. “The doors just opened to a very different future. I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next,” said Thant Myint-U, a Myanmar historian.

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