After days of speculation about an impending coup, Myanmar’s military has formally seized power the very day a newly elected parliament was scheduled to meet for the first time. Military generals ruled the country from the early 1960s until 2011. Now they are taking back control, after a near-decade of sharing power with elected lawmakers.
Political Veto by Coup
The coup began in the early hours of February 1. The military detained senior politicians from Myanmar’s largest political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. Soon after, the military declared a state of emergency, alleging unproven claims of voter fraud in the November 2020 elections, which the NLD won by a larger landslide than it had in 2015. The declaration invokes emergency clauses in the Constitution to supposedly preserve stability. Power has been formally transferred to the military’s top general, Min Aung Hlaing, with a pledge to hold elections within a year. So far, there are no reports of violence, although the military is deploying in main cities like Yangon and Naypyidaw.
The Stakes of Myanmar’s Political Future
For months, the military has disputed the election results by touting widespread voter fraud without proof. The national election commission rejected their allegations due to a lack of evidence. Undeterred, the military pressed on with its claims, calling on the NLD to delay seating the new parliament until the election results could be reviewed. Last week, negotiations with NLD leaders broke down when they refused to meet the military’s demands for postponement, setting the stage for a head-on confrontation.
The coup ends a decade of limited democratic reforms in Myanmar, which came after almost half a century of repressive military rule. The military itself had launched these reforms in 2011, by setting up a power-sharing arrangement with elected leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi.
While initiating limited democratic reforms, the military did all it could to keep the deck stacked in its own favor. Before letting the highly popular NLD compete in the 2015 elections, the military built in constitutional safeguards to guarantee its continued political dominance. The 2008 Constitution, currently in effect, reserves a quarter of the seats in the parliament for the military, giving it an effective veto over any constitutional amendments. It bans Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president on account of her foreign-born children. Furthermore, it gives the military the right to dismiss parliament to preserve national stability, a power that the generals are now abusing to dismiss a democratically elected government on trumped-up charges of election fraud.
Why did the military disrupt a system that has preserved its supremacy in political decisionmaking for nearly a decade? The military’s choice to intervene appears to be more about future vulnerability than a present policy standoff with the NLD. While relations between the two sides have been tense, the NLD has been largely nonconfrontational. It has managed to walk the tightrope by letting the military keep its dominance over security affairs. In fact, many observers have criticized Aung San Suu Kyi for appeasing the military on human rights issues, especially in defending its mass atrocities against the stateless Rohingya people.
Ironically, the seeds of the current dispute may have been sown by NLD’s symbolic moves to seek reform rather than escalating resistance to military dominance. In March 2020, the NLD introduced constitutional amendments meant to take aim at the military’s constitutional safeguards to remain a major political player. The attempt was bound to fail from the beginning, given the military’s veto power in parliament. However, the NLD used the largely symbolic move to signal its commitment to further reforms ahead of the November elections.
Nonetheless, even this doomed attempt to contest the military’s sway signaled the generals’ future vulnerability. First, the move sparked public discussion about an issue that the military leadership considered settled and beyond debate. Second, it rallied support from some non-NLD parliamentarians from smaller parties, indicating a broader appetite for reform. Third, the move proved highly popular and helped the NLD increase its share of the parliament’s elected seats from 79 percent to 83 percent, excluding the 25 percent reserved for the military.
Why did the military take such drastic action now? The generals may have sought to hit the reset button due to concerns about the staying power of constitutional safeguards for military dominance, given the NLD’s increasing popularity. The next few months will show how the military seeks to renegotiate its political role.
Anticipating the Public Response
The military may not be able to act with as much impunity as it has before. While the generals have sought to shroud their intervention in a 2008 constitution they wrote for their own protection, a large majority of the population is likely to condemn the detention of senior civilian leaders. There is a high likelihood of mass protests against the coup: NLD leaders, especially Aung San Suu Kyi, remain hugely popular as their electoral success shows. So far, the NLD has called for nonviolent protests. Pro-democracy activists, students, and religious leaders have proven highly adept at mobilizing against past military repression. They will likely do so again to protect the hard-earned freedoms they have enjoyed for the past five years. The rapid penetration of mobile phones and increased prevalence of social media usage over the past decade might aid in their efforts.
The military seems pointedly aware of these risks to its grip on power. At least, that seems to be true given the detentions of civilian leaders, heavy deployments of security forces in major cities to prevent gatherings, and internet and phone service blackouts across the country. How far the generals may go to repress civilians’ dissent this time around is hard to say. On the one hand, increased media presence in the country and concerns about civil unrest from major investment partners may limit the military’s ability to use heavy-handed repression as it did in the past. On the other hand, these constraints on use of direct force may incentivize the deployment of militia proxies to suppress protests for plausible deniability.
The International Reaction
While domestic factors are likely to influence the military’s calculations, Western condemnation or threats of sanctions are less likely to have an impact. Meanwhile, the reactions from Myanmar’s neighbors have been mixed and cautious. Myanmar’s two largest democratic partners in Asia, India and Indonesia, have issued a muted response, expressing concern and urging all sides to avoid violence and find democratic solutions. ASEAN is split as usual—with Thailand and Cambodia saying it is an “internal matter.” China’s response has been most interesting, seeming to undercut speculation that Myanmar’s military must have had China’s support. Rather than outright downplay the coup like Cambodia did, Beijing’s formal statement emphasizes the need to maintain social stability and resolve differences. This may mean China (Myanmar’s leading economic partner) does not welcome any resulting civil unrest that could threaten its economic interests in the country.