On Monday (February 1) morning, the Myanmar military staged its first coup since 1988. However, it bore the features of previous military takeovers. Most senior civilian politicians, including Nobel laureate Aung Saan Suu Kyi and a wide range of critics of the armed forces, were forcibly detained without formal charges.
The troops installed many roadblocks, throttled Internet traffic, cut phone lines and other types of communication, closed banks, and took control of the regional and the central government. The power is now totally concentrated with the army’s top commander, Min Aung Hlaing.
Even President Win Myint, a Suu Kyi loyalist, was taken into custody after he refused to sign the Emergency proclamation. The military-backed Vice President Myint Swe hastily signed it ‘on behalf of the President’, without his formal concurrence.
Although the army has declared a state of emergency for a year, it will only organise a fresh election when they are sure that the National League for Democracy (NLD) will not win it – or at least get a clear majority.
This is because Senior General Min Aung Hlaing fears the marginalisation of the military, which was also the reason behind the military takeover. This fear has been growing since Aung Saan Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) won a sweeping landslide, bagging 396 out of the 476 seats in the Parliament. She went a step further to consolidate her majority, to ensure clearing key constitutional amendments by announcing her intent to form a national government with ethnic parties who had won 44 seats.
Suu Kyi’s logic was impeccable — the NLD had won in some areas dominated by ethnic minorities like Rakhines, Kachins and Shans — so they should be represented in the government through their regional parties. But, the military could see the writing on the wall — a huge majority good enough to bring about key amendments may finally lead to a complete loss of power for the military.
There was a personal reason as well for Gen Hlaing to go in for a military takeover, a day before the newly-elected Parliament convened. With his retirement due this year, the general had sought NLD backing for his Presidential ambitions but Suu Kyi was determined to retain the present incumbent until the scrapping of Article 59 (F), which enables her to contest for the top job.
According to Chapter 3, no 59(f) of the 2008 Constitution, the president must be someone who “he himself, one of the parents, the spouse, one of the legitimate children or their spouses not owe allegiance to a foreign power”. Suu Kyi’s late husband was British professor Michael Aris, both her sons are British citizens.
Secondly, the army fears the NLD, emboldened by the landslide, may attempt to bring amendments to change the 2008 military-drafted Constitution and challenge the military’s out-of-proportion role in running the country. The amendments may target the provisions that privilege the military – like holding 25% of the seats of the parliament (Art. 14); reserving the nomination of ministers of defence, internal security and border affairs (Art. 17 b); enjoying the right to takeover power in a state of emergency (Art. 40 c) and the setting up of the National Defence and Security Council, as the most powerful body during the crisis with military representatives enjoying an upper hand (Art. 201).
Thirdly, the army is upset with the NLD government now agreeing to take back the Rohingya Muslim refugees from Bangladesh in phases after a Chinese-mediated dialogue. Nearly 40,000 Rohingyas are expected to return in the first phase. The Tatmadaw, which was responsible for the alleged ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Rohingyas in 2017, is said to be less than comfortable with the prospective resumption of the repatriation process.
Fourthly, Suu Kyi and the NLD seems to have concluded that any genuine change in the constitution concerning federalism would be incomplete without finding a political solution for the ethnic armed groups.
In fact, the constitutional amendment was part of the Union Peace Conference-21st Century Panglong initiated by the NLD government in 2016, to take forward the peace process begun by the previous USDP government. The army is not too keen on the Panglong process because a political settlement of the ethnic conflicts would not only reduce the need for an ever-expanding standing army and may lead to lesser budget allocations for military modernisation (and expansion).
In 2014, when it was in the opposition, the NLD published a list of proposed amendments to 168 articles of the constitution. Then, the NLD party launched a process of constitutional amendments in the parliament by constituting a review committee tasked with collating views from MPs. But, it fell through because the NLD lacked the majority needed to carry through the amendments.
That changed with the sweeping landslide – 396 seats in November 2020 polls, against 325 in the 2015 polls. In 1990, the NLD led by Suu Kyi had achieved a similar landslide – the army had rejected the poll outcome then as it is doing now.
Meanwhile, the United States, Australia, Canada, and the European Union still have limited strategic and economic links with Myanmar, compared to regional countries like China, India, Japan, Singapore, and Thailand. The USA has threatened strong action but its influence is limited. Some argue that, since Europe, the United States, and other partners are dealing with their own massive domestic problems, leading democracies should respond modestly to the coup. Also, Myanmar too could respond by turning closer to China,
But, China is going to pursue its policies in Myanmar regardless of the measures taken by the United States and other democracies. Anyhow, American policy should not be determined by how China is going to respond in Myanmar.
For India, which has pitched for ‘orderly democratic transition’ and ‘upholding the Rule of Law’, the challenge is formidable. New Delhi has to stand beside other democracies, whose partnership is crucial to stand up to an assertive and authoritarian China, but if it presses the military regime too hard, it stands to lose out on Burmese military cooperation to fight rebels from India’s northeast region, who are based in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region. Moreover, India’s Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Corridor project could also suffer.
(Subir Bhaumik, a veteran BBC journalist and author, worked for Myanmar’s leading media group Mizzima as Senior Editor).