Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and key allies were detained in a series of overnight raids that culminated in a coup on the morning of February 1. The military, which had been downplaying talk of a putsch in the days before it struck, then suddenly announced a year-long state of emergency and installed an interim president and hand-picked cabinet. From detention, Suu Kyi urged supporters to reject military rule.
The 75-year-old Nobel laureate has spent 15 years of her life under house arrest opposing military rule. After a thaw with the generals, she swept into power with a large win in 2015′s landmark democratic elections. This latest coup happened after Suu Kyi came into conflict with armed forces commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, who questioned the legitimacy of elections in November 2020 that returned Suu Kyi with a massive majority.
The target of US sanctions for his alleged involvement in human rights abuses against the Rohingya minority and others, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has for 10 years maintained significant power even as the country moved towards democracy. Known to have close ties to neighbouring military leaders, he also met Chinese diplomats before the coup.
What’s behind the latest coup? Did Suu Kyi ever really have power? And isn’t Myanmar a democracy?
What do I need to know about Myanmar?
The south-east Asian republic, once a British colony called Burma, lies to the west of Thailand and also shares borders with China, Bangladesh, India and Laos. Officially a federation of states and regions known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, it is the 25th most populous nation in the world with 57 million people, nearly 90 per cent of them Buddhist.
Myanmar became independent from Britain in 1948, but endured military rule almost uninterrupted between 1962 and 2011. A decade ago a group of generals traded khaki for suits and set up a quasi-civilian government. They promised elections, and largely delivered in 2015 when Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, scored a resounding victory. Her party’s win was even more emphatic in November. The military has never handed over power unconditionally, though, and under the junta-drafted constitution of 2008 holds key positions in the cabinet, picks one of the three vice-presidents and is guaranteed a quarter of the seats in Parliament (which are therefore never up for election).
The capital, Nay Pyi Taw, is a planned city in the geographic centre built between 2002 and 2012.
Myanmar has seven large ethnic groups, of which the largest is Burman with about 68 per cent, and the government recognises nearly 200 ethnic minorities and clans. Importantly, the government does not recognise the Rohingya, a Muslim minority; Myanmar’s military has been accused of waging an attempted genocide against the Rohingya, leading to more than a million displaced people, including about 700,000 in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s military, called the Tatmadaw, has also been involved in civil wars with state-level armed forces that opposed central rule or rebelled against the oppression of a one-party state. The national government’s recent efforts to broker a truce among the states have yielded mixed results.
Demographically, the country is young: more than a quarter of the population is aged under 14, yet it has one of the lowest spending on education in the world as a percentage of gross domestic product. The CIA World Factbook ranks Myanmar at 175 out of 228 countries for real GDP per capita.
Who is Aung San Suu Kyi, and why is she controversial?
Born in British Burma on June 19, 1945, Suu Kyi is the daughter of a general who played an important role in the fight to establish an independent Myanmar after World War II. General Aung San was assassinated on July 19, 1947, and he remains a hero to the Burmese majority, including to the military leaders who detained Suu Kyi.
A diplomat and scholar, Suu Kyi married Oxford historian Michael Aris and had two children. She was outspoken on human rights issues and confronted the military as its hold on power grew more repressive in the late 20th century. Aris died in 1999.
The pro-democracy movement of 1988 was a turning point for Suu Kyi, who had returned to Myanmar from Britain to take part in the pro-democracy movement. The “8888 Uprising” grew during the year, building up to August 8, 1988, which they considered auspicious. However, the army cracked down and killed 350 people (activists claim the true toll is thousands) and detained many more. Suu Kyi’s speech urging non-violent resistance at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon on September 26, to more than half a million people in the aftermath of the massacre, became an iconic moment.
Adored as “The Lady”, Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy to a landslide victory in 1990 while under house arrest in Yangon. The generals refused to hand over power. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace while detained; she spent about 15 years in total under house arrest before being released in December 2010.
Her election victory in 2015 was hailed as a watershed moment for Myanmar democracy, but there were already questions about whether she had compromised too much of her credibility by engaging with the generals. She was criticised during the campaign for failing to rebuke the military’s longstanding abuses against the Rohingya minority, who had been denied citizenship and the right to vote.
The condemnation grew after she was in office, as the military launched a crackdown that United Nations agencies have likened to genocide, in October 2016. Two years later, at the World Economic Forum, she equivocated by saying “we have to be fair to all sides”. Amnesty International stripped her of the Prisoner of Conscience Award shortly after, while other honours have been revoked. Despite agitation from activists, there is no possibility of rescinding the Peace Prize under the Nobel statutes.
What does Myanmar’s military want?
The military has had some involvement in politics since independence. Military dictator Ne Win had already served as prime minister when he staged a coup in 1962, which led to the establishment of the one-party, socialist state that continued under various guises until 2011, when the army began ceding some control and opening the country to the world.
Ne Win had stood down during the protests of 1988 but he was replaced by the notorious State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which detained thousands of political prisoners. It renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council in 1997; armed forces chief Than Shwe led the council from 1992 to 2011 and served as prime minister for part of that time. Than Shwe, 88, remains an influential behind-the-scenes figure. His successor as armed forces chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has been in the post nearly 10 years.
Decades of military rule left Myanmar a pariah state. Australia was among countries that imposed sanctions on it after generals rejected Suu Kyi’s win in 1990 elections. Subject to sanctions and reliant on China, the former rice bowl of south-east Asia became an economic ruin. The country reached crisis point in 2008 after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy delta, killing 138,000 people. The military was criticised for blocking relief efforts and international aid.
After the disaster, the military began opening up the country to the outside world. In 2011, General Thein Sein became president of a quasi-civilian administration, which served as a transition to an elected government. Australia lifted some sanctions in 2012 in response to the moves, although retained an arms embargo.
The military ensured the constitution was stacked against the forces of democracy and Suu Kyi in particular. It has an automatic right to 25 per cent of seats in both houses of Parliament. As any constitutional changes require at least 75 per cent approval in both houses, the military can block any changes it disagrees with. The military also maintains control of key ministries, including Defence, Border and Home Affairs. The last of these oversees a vast bureaucracy that handles the government’s record-keeping of everything from tax collection and distribution to births, deaths and marriages, and property ownership.
The military also inserted a clause in the constitution forbidding anyone who was married to or the parent of a foreign national from being president; Suu Kyi’s sons are both British citizens. To get around this, before the 2015 election Suu Kyi promised voters she would be “above the president”. After the election, she established the position of state counsellor and installed a loyalist as president. She also picked his replacement, Win Myint, who was among those arrested in a round-up before the February 1 coup.
In seizing power, Min Aung Hlaing claimed he was acting in accordance with the constitution. The military arrested the former president Win Myint and installed former general and vice-president Myint Swe, who authorised the transfer of power.
Min Aung Hlaing has claimed, without evidence, there was “widespread voter fraud”. The Myanmar electoral commission had rejected the allegations before the coup. Local independent news magazine Frontier Myanmar reported legal experts questioning the constitutional grounds for the takeover.
So, who runs Myanmar? Why did the army strike now?
The civilian government never had oversight of the military. And key parts of Suu Kyi’s agenda involved pushing for constitutional changes, such as abolishing the army’s automatic entitlement to a quarter of the seats in parliament, the military would never allow. Analysts sympathetic to the National League for Democracy would stress they were operating in a state of constant compromise in order to make meaningful strides from within. “Her accommodation of the army over the past five years was viewed by some as political jujitsu, rather than appeasement,” New York Times correspondent Hannah Beech wrote of Suu Kyi. Critics saw Suu Kyi as part of the problem.
The electorate, however, clearly trusted Suu Kyi. The country has struggled during the coronavirus pandemic, and poor health infrastructure and a COVID-19 outbreak interfered with campaigning. There were questions, too, about transparency and whether minor parties had been unfairly treated but the vast bulk of the electorate trusted the NLD to keep the generals in check.
November’s thumping win reduced the military’s proxy party to irrelevance – they won 71 seats out of 1117 in local and national elections, with the NLD claiming 920. (These do not include their guaranteed 25 per cent.) The NLD government was due to sit in Parliament in Nay Pyi Taw with an expanded majority on February 1, but the generals never gave it the chance. The parliamentary humiliation partly explains the reason the military chose to strike now.
Another factor is the man who has clashed with Suu Kyi over the past 10 years.
The man in charge today is top army man Min Aung Hlaing, 64, who was described in a Reuters profile as an average cadet who avoided political upheaval early in his career. He has taken a hard line against reform.
He was due for mandatory retirement later this year, sparking questions about his long-term ambitions, and he hinted at a move into politics. After the coup, National League for Democracy patron and former political prisoner Win Htein denounced the commander-in-chief for giving “priority to power and his personal desire” over the “best interests of the country”.
What does the coup mean for the Rohingya?
Nothing good. The Muslim minority group has been subject to discrimination since Myanmar’s independence, and conflict flared during the years of military rule. However, since 2012 the Rohingya have been the target of brutal military campaigns in the northern state of Rakhine.
The violence has led to waves of refugees, who have fled either to Bangladesh or by boat to Thailand and Malaysia. The peak of the crisis came in 2017, when the Myanmar military razed villages, killed and raped an untold number and left almost a million people displaced. About 700,000 made their way to camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. About 600,000 from an estimated population of 1.4 million remain in Myanmar, with about 130,000 in camps. Human Rights Watch says the squalid conditions, lack of education, internet and denial of citizenship amounts to a form of apartheid.
Gambia has accused Myanmar of genocide in the International Court of Justice; Suu Kyi led the defence in her former capacity as foreign minister. Other cases are working their way through international courts. Other international responses have included sanctions against military leaders, including Min Aung Hlaing.
Suu Kyi and her government may have done nothing to prevent the atrocities, and actively defended the army, but those who committed them are now firmly in control of the country.
On the very day the NLD was due to take power with an enlarged majority, the military reminded everyone it was firmly in control. The announcement that it would be in control for at least a year before another election bodes badly.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the developments “rather disturbing” while US President Joe Biden warned that his administration could reimpose sanctions against Myanmar’s coup-makers. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the “unlawful imprisonment” of Suu Kyi and said democracy “must be respected”. Beijing noted the developments but said it was an internal affair and urged all sides to resolve their differences, the BBC reported.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council is holding an emergency meeting about the coup, which Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called “a serious blow to democratic reforms” in Myanmar.
A statement attributed to Suu Kyi from detention urged people not to accept military rule but “to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military”. Whether Suu Kyi is released quickly or is returned to house arrest, her time at the top appears to be over. So too, for now, is Myanmar’s movement towards democracy.
Michael Ruffles is the chief sub-editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.