Military Seizes back Power in Myanmar: Some Responses and Implications
Prof Rajaram Panda

In a rather worrying development in India’s neighbourhood Myanmar, in an early morning coup on 1 February the military seized control of the government, detained State Counsellor and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders.1 It was announced in the military’s television that the armed forces would remain in power for one year under a state of emergency. As per available information, all the civilian members of parliament, 26 of them, who were in the capital of Naypyidaw were detained. More could be arrested in the coming days.

It was speculated for some time after tensions built up between Suu Kyi’s ruling NLD and the military which felt without any credible evidence that the landslide victory of the NLD in the 8 November 2020 election were fraudulent.2 This time, the victory was even much bigger than the one the NLD had achieved in 2015. The election results unsettled the military, known as the Tatmadaw, rejected the decision of the country’s Election Commission’s stand that there was no evidence of voting irregularities. It is rather unfortunate that as the country was leapfrogging into the democratic fold after ending nearly five decades of military rule in 2011 and successfully conducted the second free general election, the military suddenly springs back into the limelight and snatches back power. The people of Myanmar who endured military rule and international pariah status from 1962 to 2011 when they saw a transition to democratic rule are now going to look back in despair that the past suddenly has returned. Overseas Mynamarese woke up in the morning of 1 February and received the news with disbelief.

Soon after the military takeover, the obvious happened: television, phone and internet communications were cut, banks closed and all passenger flights were halted. Among the prominent civilian leaders, President Win Myint was also arrested.

Reactions from Overseas

Reactions from many overseas countries which had accepted Myanmar into their fold following the transition to democracy and lifted many of the sanctions imposed during the military rule were a matter of consternation and disbelief. The new Joe Biden administration in Washington barely days in office suddenly finds a new challenge, one of its first foreign policy crises, adding too many that it inherited from the preceding Donald Trump administration. It reacted immediately by issuing a statement accusing the military of undermining the country’s democratic transition. The White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki warned that the US would not hesitate to “take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed”. Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken swung into action and called the military to release “all government officials and civil society leaders” and to “respect the will of the people of Burma (Myanmar) as expressed in democratic elections.” Washington which maintains sanctions on some of Myanmar’s military leaders, including Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing who took power in the coup, might increase punishment if the military does not bend. General Min Aung Hlaing, is already under economic sanctions by the US for his involvement in human rights abuses. More sanctions may return if the seizure is not reversed.

Though the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi’s reputation overseas was considerably dented in recent times over Myanmar’s Muslim ethnic Rohingya and their displacement issues, the NLD leader still remains popular in the nation of 54 million. Suu Kyi has been accused of defending the military against the treatment meted out to Rohingya Muslims, a minority population in the largely Buddhist country. About seven lakh Rohingyas were forced to flee to the neighbouring Bangladesh its refugee camps. When the government faced a formal accusation of genocide at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Suu Kyi defended the military, testifying that it was responding to attacks on its outposts by Rohingya rebel groups. Though the court continues to investigate, it is yet to declare Myanmar’s actions as genocide. This did not deter the military to topple and detain her.3

In a further advancement of the democratic process, Suu Kyi had been striving to expand civilian control in the country by trying to amend the constitution that guarantees the military one-quarter of representation in the country’s parliament. This strained the relationship between the NLD and the military, leading to the boiling point when the military intervened to seize power. The military with one-quarter of seats through its political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), could have in any case blocked amendments to the constitution but it saw in Suu Kyi’s move as a threat to its constitutional privileges. Though the NLD has urged the people to oppose the coup, it would be extremely difficult to replace the military as it would not hesitate to use the big stick to suppress dissent. The military’s hold on the country’s major business interests such as mining can also provide economic backing to withstand if sanctions return again.

The Human Rights Watch has warned that the military would be accountable if it mistreats those in custody and uses excessive force but little can be expected if the military decides to be repressive as it normally happens in any military rule. With the return of Myanmar to military rule less than a decade after President Barack Obama made history by being the first sitting American President to visit the country with a view to reward Myanmar’s return to democracy, he would now be the most disappointed man. Though the military has declared that it will remain in power for one year yet it seems extremely unlikely that the military would give up. It would have proved the adage that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, implying thereby that Myanmar’s future is likely to be bleak and return to the sanctions regime could be a distinct possibility. Myanmar’s military had never submitted to civilian rule during decades of its being at the helm of affairs. The US and other countries might feel compelled to impose “strict and directed economic sanctions” on the military leadership and its economic interests if the military does not respect democratic values and process. A military takeover as it is now and its continuance would be a severe blow to democracy in the region.

At a time when Myanmar was leapfrogging into a phase of reviving the country’s economic health amid surging rates of poverty, the new political crisis could be a setback to India’s neighbourhood vaccine diplomacy as the country is struggling to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. The average common citizens fear that worse days are not far off. Unless the military relents soon and restores the democratic process, it needs to be ready to deal with massive and strongest international response. The military seems to have made a major miscalculation and erred in its decision to take over power by toppling a democratically elected government. (The chart below has been taken from the below link)4


The developments triggered a quick response from around the world. Most reactions were dismissive of the military’s actions.5 Besides the US which condemned the coup, the Australian government expressed deep concern that the Myanmar military once again seize control of Myanmar and called for the immediate release of the unlawfully detained leaders and restoration of democracy. The worry is that China is likely to stand by Myanmar like it did when the military kicked out the Rohingya and that would be a challenge to persuade the military to change course.6 As expected, China’s response was muted. Viewed from that perspective, Myanmar and North Korea figure in the same page in China’s larger strategic calculation. China refrained from condemning the coup and urged all parties in Myanmar to "resolve their differences". Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin observed in a press briefing “China is a friendly neighbour of Myanmar and hopes the various parties in Myanmar will appropriately resolve their differences under the constitutional and legal framework to protect political and social stability". China, which shares a border with Myanmar and wields considerable influence in that country has strategic interests that it would like to use in furthering its own larger regional interests by befriending the military.

Malaysia called on all parties in Myanmar to resolve any electoral disputes peacefully after the military seized power. In a statement issued by the Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry, it said: "Malaysia supports the continuation of discussion among Myanmar’s leaders to avoid adverse consequences to the people and state of Myanmar, especially in the current, difficult COVID-19 pandemic situation".7 Japan said it was watching the situation but had no plans to repatriate Japanese nationals from Myanmar immediately. It called for the release of Suu Kyi and other senior figures of the NLD who were detained. In a statement released by Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, it said that Japan “strongly supports” democracy in Myanmar and “oppose any reversal of that process”. The statement further added: “We strongly call on the military government to restore democracy as soon as possible".

The European Council President Charles Michel condemned the military’s seizure of power and called for the release of all "who have been unlawfully detained". India too expressed “deep concern” over the latest developments in Myanmar. In a statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs, it said “We have noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern. India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld.”8

The United Nations too joined other nations to condemn Myanmar's military. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the developments were a "serious blow to democratic reforms" and urged all leaders to refrain from violence and respect human rights. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson also condemned "the coup and unlawful imprisonment of civilians, including Aung San Suu Kyi" and demanded that "the vote of the people must be respected and civilian leaders released".

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian slammed the coup "an unacceptable threat to the democratic process" and called for Suu Kyi’s immediate release. His German counterpart Heiko Maas also remarked that "military actions jeopardize the progress made so far towards democratic change in Myanmar". Singapore's Foreign Ministry also urged all parties to exercise restraint and work towards a positive and peaceful outcome. In an advisory, it advised Singaporeans in Myanmar to stay vigilant "in view of the fluid situation".

The core reason behind the intervention of the military stems from the fear that its role was being increasingly marginalised despite the fact that the Tatmadaw gets an unelected quota of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and controls the defence, interior and borders ministries, ensuring an important stake in the country’s politics. As the architect of the country’s 2008 constitution and fledgling democracy, the Tatmadaw sees itself as the guardian of national unity and the constitution.9 It has enshrined a permanent role for itself in the country’s political system. Its intervention to seize power, therefore, stemmed from its perceived feeling that it was under the threat of becoming irrelevant as civilian rule started getting greater currency in the political discourse of the country. The Tatmadaw felt that the NLD with its massive mandate mighty start initiating constitutional reform aimed at undermining its role in the country’s politics and governance.

The developments in its neighbourhood pose India a big dilemma and with critical choices. Since it is an internal matter of Myanmar, India or for that matter no other sovereign nation can directly be involved in the country’s politics. The best possible course is to exercise restraint and try to influence and persuade what could be the in the best interests of the country. Even earlier during the military rule, India did continue to engage with the junta and the transition to democracy as a better situation. Japan also pursued the same strategy like India. India needs to calibrate its Myanmar policy extremely carefully as it is the only gateway to furthering its Act East Policy and deeper engagement with the ASEAN bloc.

Endnotes
  1. “Aung San Suu Kyi, “Ruling Party Leaders Arrested in Sweeping Myanmar Military Crackdown”, 31 January 2021, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/myanmar/2021/myanmar-210131-
  2. By David Pierson and Andrew Nachemson, “Military stages coup in Myanmar, detains Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders”, Los Angeles Times, 1 February 2021, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-01-31/myanmar-military-coup?utm_source=sfmc_100035609&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=38597+Today%27s+Headlines+2%2f1%2f21&utm_te
  3. Carla Hall, “The military coup in Myanmar is an outrage”, Los Angeles Times, 31 January 2021, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-01-31/opinion-myanmar-military-coup-outrage
  4. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/myanmar-military-coup-state-of-emergency-aung-san-suu-kyi-14085866
  5. “Myanmar military coup draws condemnation from around the world”, 1 February 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20210201-myanmar-military-coup-draws-condemnation-from-around-the-world
  6. “Myanmar military seizes power, detains leader Aung San Suu Kyi”, Asahi Shimbun, 1 February 2021, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14153197
  7. https://www.rediff.com/news/report/rule-of-law-must-be-upheld-india-on-coup-in-myanmar/20210201.htm
  8. “Rule of law must be upheld': India on coup in Myanmar”, 1 February 2021, https://www.rediff.com/news/report/rule-of-law-must-be-upheld-india-on-coup-in-myanmar/20210201.htm
  9. “Crisis in Myanmar after army alleges election fraud”, 1 February 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/myanmar-crisis-aung-san-suu-kyi-arrest-army-election-fraud-14085728?cid=emarsys-cna_CNA+Evening+Brief+2021-02-01+19%3A00%3A00_newsletter_01022021

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://www.ft.com/__origami/service/image/v2/images/raw/https%3A%2F%2Fs3-ap-northeast-1.amazonaws.com%2Fpsh-ex-ftnikkei-3937bb4%2Fimages%2F1%2F2%2F6%2F0%2F32060621-1-eng-GB%2F%E5%90%8D%E7%A7%B0%E6%9C%AA%E8%A8%AD%E5%AE%9A%201.jpg?source=nar-cms

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
2 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us