Making sense of Myanmar’s coup

5. Feb 2021
Mikael Gravers, Aarhus University:
Early in the morning on 1 February 2021, the Myanmar armed forces (Tatmadaw) arrested President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, along with other high-ranking National League for Democracy (NLD) members. As the military staged the coup, armoured cars and soldiers guarded radio and television stations and the parliament. The Tatamadaw closed the NLD office in Mandalay and searched for activists known to oppose military rule, such as the 1988 leader Min Ko Naing and The Irrawaddy’s editor, who are probably underground.

Myanmar soldiers sit inside a vehicle as they guard in front of a Hindu temple in the downtown area in Yangon, Myanmar, 2 February 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Stringer).

The Tatmadaw alleges that elections held in November 2020 were fraudulent due to irregularities in voter lists. The Union Election Commission and Aung San Suu Kyi have denied the allegations and rejected demands for an investigation.

The recent elections showed no evidence of fraud. So why was Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Aung Min Hlaing so upset by the NLD’s landslide victory?

The Tatmadaw maintains 25 per cent of seats in parliament for non-elected military officials. But enacting changes to the Constitution requires the approval of 75 per cent of parliamentarians.

The Tatmadaw used a chapter on states of emergency in the Constitution to justify the coup. The National Defence and Security Council can call a state of emergency in cases of administrative malfunction. But only the President can convene the Council. Placing the President under arrest, former vice president and Tatmadaw general Myint Swe declared himself acting president and imposed a state of emergency for one year.

It appears that the military intends to appoint a new Union Election Commission and change the law to allow the armed forces to dominate it before the promised elections are held at the end of the emergency. The Tatmadaw chief now has full judicial power, as stated in Section 412 of the 2008 Constitution. The intention is probably to trial Aung San Suu Kyi for the alleged mismanagement of the elections and secure her banning from future elections.

Allowing the acting president to convene the Council is aimed at making the public believe that the Tatmadaw is protecting the Constitution by using its emergency clauses. Articles 217–418 of the Constitution mention the disintegration of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, national solidarity and the loss of sovereignty as justifications for a state of emergency. But Article 40 mentions the ‘inability’ of the government to perform executive functions. The Tatmadaw alleges that the newly elected parliament would take power and prevent an investigation into the elections.

Why stage a coup now? Is the Tatmadaw paranoid about the disintegration of the nation, as the emergency clauses would suggest?

The Tatmadaw expedited COVID-19 prevention controls to help the economy. This indicates that the Tatmadaw’s economic interests have suffered as much as, if not more than, civilian-controlled businesses.

Behind the accusation that Aung San Suu Kyi’s government rigged the elections is the fear that parliament would make substantial constitutional reforms — a process that stalled when former Tatmadaw officers assassinated Aung San Suu Kyi’s adviser Ko Ni in 2017. He was a prominent Muslim leader and an object of hate among nationalists within and outside the army.

Aung San Suu Kyi had also proclaimed that she would reinvigorate stalled peace negotiations and invite the ethnic armed organisations to new talks. This initiative might have been an attempt to take control from the Tatmadaw over the peace process. The army has broken ceasefires since 2015 in many ethnic regions such as Karen State, where numerous violent incursions into Karen National Union areas have resulted in thousands of civilian displacements and casualties. There have also been growing civilian protests against the Tatmadaw, making its ‘divide and rule’ policy increasingly untenable.

Since the 2015 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi has cooperated with the Commander-in-Chief to prevent him from using the emergency clause. Cooperation and her reluctance to criticise the Tatmadaw has stained her image internationally. This had helped to avoid a military coup until now. But she also clashed with the Commander-in Chief. In her defence speech at the Hague International Criminal Court, she did not exonerate the Tamadaw’s actions while she rejected ‘intended genocide’.

This time Aung San Suu Kyi decided to reject the Tatmadaw’s demands. Besides being humiliated by her landslide victory, the Tatmadaw may have been worried about its economic interests, constitutional reform and control over the peace process. Yet, more information is still needed to discern the Tatmadaw’s true intentions. What is certain at this moment is that the aim of the coup was to remove Aung San Suu Kyi from power and with her a source of military paranoia.

Mikael Gravers is Associate Professor Emeritus at the School of Culture and Society in the Department of Anthropology, Aarhus University.

This blog post was redirected to AsiaPortal from the East Asia Forum blog: