‘It’s military control that endures’: SOAS expert discusses Myanmar coup

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In the early hours of Monday, 1 February, the military under General Min Aung Hlaing took control of the Myanmar government and arrested the President, Win Myint, the State Councillor, Aung San Suu Kyi, and a number of their colleagues. Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader and a former human rights icon, had refused to back down regarding the legitimacy of the November 2020 election results which saw her party, the National League for Democracy, sweep the polls. 

The military did not have much to worry about, it seemed, until that election. After decades of military rule, the Myanmar military had written a constitution in 2008, promulgated in 2010, that has guaranteed them control of key ministries related to security and an effective veto over any challenging legislation. Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been kept out of power after winning elections in 1990, was barred from the presidency in the constitution and hesitated to validate it. She changed strategy and in 2016 her party contested the election. After her party’s victory, they created the office of State Councillor so that she could unofficially head the country despite the constitutional ban.

For much of the last four years, Aung San Suu Kyi did an about-face to show the military she was not their enemy and to soften them for more reform and possibly expand the Democratic space a little further. She praised the military, ignored their past crimes against the population, and, when they committed genocide in August 2017 in Rakhine against the Rohingya ethnic minority, she ignored that too. When she took the stand for Myanmar in the International Court of Justice in 2019, she claimed that no genocide had occurred. Her international halo was tarnished, human rights organisations and cities in the West that had lavished awards and honours on her for championing human rights in the past, rescinded them.

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Aung San Suu Kyi. Photograph: Asia Society/Flickr

Aung San Suu Kyi’s choice made over the Rohingya crisis is part of the problem that could explain why the military has moved now. With the aid of social media, there had been a massive flare up in the country of national Islamophobia (the Rohingya are also largely Muslim) in the country, extreme Buddhist politicisation, outright racial bigotry (the Rohingya are perceived as being physically different from the Bamar majority in the country, often by people who have never met them), and nationalism. It appeared that Aung San Suu Kyi would have to make a choice between the principles of civil liberties and tolerance that would have kept her western credentials, and domestic, ethno-religious populism that identified the Rohingya as outsiders who needed to be removed from the country, for which she would have to sacrifice her image so carefully cultivated for (and also by) the West.

The military hoped to ride this wave and expected her to stand against it. They had for decades tried to portray Aung San Suu Kyi as too foreign (she was banned by the constitution from the presidency because her late husband and children were foreign citizens). However, she took no such stand and as the isolation of the country continued, she grew more distant from the West and ever closer to the majority of Bamars. This was reflected in the huge display of support for her party in the polls in November. 

The military feared this popular mandate would empower Aung San Suu Kyi to the extent of enabling her force more changes to the Constitution. General Min Aung Hlaing, approaching 65 and retirement this July, feared that after 58 years of control over the country, the military would lose it under his watch. At stake was the wealth the extended families built around the leading generals had accrued. A civilian government, backed by an impoverished majority, might demand a return of some of assets and wealth pilfered from the country over the years. The military cried election fraud, taking a leaf from Donald Trump. But when the Election Commission ruled the elections were fair last week, Min Aung Hlaing threatened a coup. Two days of Chinese-brokered negotiations failed to force Aung San Suu Kyi to budge. On Monday, the military took control of the country. 

The military knows what it is doing when it comes to clamping down on the country. The airports have been shut down save for repatriation flights, the Election Commission has already been replaced, as has the President. Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint, the former President, have been charged with petty crimes that could land them in prison, for up to three years in Aung San Suu Kyi’s case. This will be sufficient pressure to force them to be less stubborn about military demands or, if not, they can be tucked away out of sight for a few years once convicted.

The military says there will be new elections after a year of their control. They will find ways to manipulate the results or, as a failsafe, they have the new Election Commission filled with their own people. What we have been seeing in Myanmar since 1962 has proven true yet again. Civilian opposition leaders in the country come and go–it is military control that endures.

Professor Michael W. Charney teaches security in the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy and the history of violence in the Department of History at SOAS.

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