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Military coup in Myanmar

On a cold, wintry morning of Monday, February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military proved the weeks-long rumours of an impending coup correct. In early morning raids and other steps, the civilian de facto leader of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other senior government leaders were detained, a one-year state of emergency declared, an internet and communications blackout imposed, banks and all TV channels except the military-owned Myawaddy TV shut down and soldiers patrolled the streets of the capital, Yangon. The coup came just hours before the first session of the newly elected parliament in the November 2020 elections that Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), swept, garnering 83 per cent of the votes cast. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won just 33 of the 476 seats, much to the disappointment of army chief Min Aung Hlaing.

The military retaliated by levelling allegations of voting irregularities. Min Aung Hlaing’s office issued a statement that fresh elections would only be held after the Election Commission (EC) is ‘reconstituted’ and voter lists ‘investigated’. The EC responded by denying there had been any voter fraud, arguing that errors such as duplication of voters’ names were not enough to impact the result.

The coup has been greeted with widespread international condemnation. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement calling for the release of all detained government officials and civil society activists, respecting the people’s will, and reversing all the military’s actions immediately. Similar sentiments flowed from the self-described ‘international community’ (read the west).

Myanmar was in a perilous state even before this aborted election. The country has been awash with weapons for decades, not only because of the long running nationalist/ethnic insurgencies by minorities. With millions unable to feed themselves, a crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, and the arrest along with the NLD leaders of the chief minister of Karen state, one of the ethnic minorities with a long history of armed struggle since the first military coup that overthrew Suu Kyi’s father and national hero Aung San, the NLD’s call for peaceful protests may well be accompanied by a resurgence of the ethnic minorities’ insurgencies.

One set of speculations surrounding the coup and its timing revolves around the personal agenda of army chief Min Aung Hlaing. He is under US sanctions since December 2019 and under investigation by the International Criminal Court for serious human rights abuses of the Rohingya Muslim community/refugees. The military’s crackdown on and expulsion of the Rohingya also impacted Aung San Suu Kyi’s repute since she did not come out unequivocally against this treatment of the Rohingya. Despite this issue ‘sullying’ her Nobel Peace Prize of 1991, earned while she spent 15 years in detention from 1989 to 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi retains immense popularity amongst her people. It will be no simple matter for the military to overcome the peaceful protests and also possible armed ethnic insurgencies. Army chief Min Aung Hlaing is reported to have stashed away considerable investments abroad. He is due to retire later this year. Perhaps the coup is his way of safeguarding his wealth without questions asked and clinging to power despite his impending retirement.

Myanmar was under isolationist military rule for 50 years from 1962 to 2011. Amongst its few friends and supporters was China. Beijing has assumed (so far) a meaningful silence on the coup. It remains to be seen whether China resurrects its generous aid and investment relationship with Myanmar once again under the military’s thumb. In 2015, because of domestic and international pressure, the military, having released Aung San Suu Kyi from her 15-year internment in 2010, allowed elections under the 2008 Constitution drafted by the ruling military junta, which allocates 25 per cent seats in parliament to the military, control of key ministries such as defence and home affairs and veto powers on constitutional issues. Despite these formidable powers of and control by the military, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD scored a landslide victory. This led to the

formation of the first civilian government since the 1962 military coup. But even this ‘flawed’ democracy has now been demolished to prevent the NLD from forming a stronger government as a result of its November 2020 election sweep.

A military prone to coups, clinging for an interminable period to power, denying democracy and the rights of ethnic/national minorities. Why does this sound so familiar? Admittedly, unlike the Egyptian and Myanmar militaries, ours has only ‘intermittently’ mounted coups. Most of our military dictators have not been able to stay in power for more than a decade. With all the weaknesses and flaws of our political parties, the people of Pakistan have time and again shown their rejection of military rule. They may not be entirely enthused about the civilians in power in our history, but apart from members of the permanent collaborationist elite clique in our society, the people of Pakistan have time and again rejected military rule.

Ah, but tarry a bit. Unlike the Myanmar military that lives in a world of its own (supported by its few friends like China), ours is far more sophisticated in its ‘management’ of our polity. New and increasingly sophisticated means of control have flowered on our horizons over the years since military coups are by now frowned upon by even the west (unlike in the past), which finds sham democracies in the erstwhile Third World the best shell to protect and promote its capitalist interests. One such means of control over state and society is our version of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which today provides the ‘democratic’ window dressing to military control from behind an increasingly flimsy veil (no prizes for guessing its name). Alas, what we sorely lack is a leader of the courage, conviction and principles the world has come to associate with Aung San Suu Kyi, her failure to address the difficult Rohingya question notwithstanding.

Rashed Rahman, "Military coup in Myanmar," Business Recorder. 2021-02-02.
Keywords: Political science , Criminal court , Muslim community , Min Aung Hlaing , Aung San Suu Kyi , China , Beijing , Rohingya

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