The last time a military coup happened in Myanmar it lasted over fifty years under three different military heads until the military junta eventually dissolved in the year 2011. A decade after, the coup has once again tossed the country back into a long spell of uncertainty and instability. Himani Baid spells out the important details about the Myanmar Coup 2021, reflecting on its historical context.
By Himani Baid, a B.A. L.L.B student from Amity University Chhatisgarh
The last time a military coup happened in Myanmar, it lasted over fifty years under three different military heads until the military junta eventually dissolved in 2011. A decade later, the coup has again tossed the country back into a long spell of uncertainty and instability.
The morning of February 1, 2021, marked an end to Aung San Suu Kyi’s sojourn as the de facto head of Myanmar in a military coup.
On January 26, military spokesperson Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun had signalled to ‘take action’ against National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s landslide victory, alleging an election ‘fraud’. Five days later, despite winning the second democratic election in November 2020, Suu Kyi, along with several other senior figures of the NLD party, was detained by the State’s military, also known as Tatmadaw.
Hours after her detention, TV channels went off-air, internet activity slowed down, telecom networks were suspended. The unsettling lull was followed by an announcement on the military-owned channel, Myawaddy TV, declaring a state of emergency and military control over the nation for a year.
Myanmar has returned to military rule after a decade of ‘democracy’, with general Min Aung Hlaing as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces seizing power. Further, the military declared November 2020 elections invalid with a promise to hold fresh elections in a year. This announcement followed a series of charges against the NLD party’s member.
Aung San Suu Kyi was charged for violating emergency COVID-19 laws and the illegal import and usage of radio and communication devices. Specifically, six ICOM devices for her security team and a walkie-talkie are restricted and need clearance from military-related agencies before the acquisition.
After being in custody for two weeks, Suu Kyi was charged with an additional criminal charge for violating the National Disaster Act.
What Led to Myanmar Coup this Time?
To understand the coup and how it happened, it is necessary to engage with Myanmar’s complex history. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is located in South East Asia with about 54 million, most of whom are Burmese speakers.
The country gained independence from Britain in 1948, and since then, it has a history of political instability.
During the second world war, Myanmar was occupied by Japan. Thereafter, a local army fought against Japan with the help of the allies and gained control over Myanmar again. The leader of the local army, General Aung san, was also the father of former de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
General San drafted a historic agreement in 1947 with ethnicities other than the Bamar, the majority. With the promise to build a strong and united nation on the condition that they would adopt a federal system. This meant that non-Bamar ethnicity could govern their internal areas. But before this dream of Aung san could be fulfilled, he was assassinated.
Even though Myanmar began as a parliamentary democracy in 1948, it didn’t quite follow the promise of federalism as the central government was dominated by the Bamar Majority, which resulted in ethnic revolt against them.
The parliamentary democracy saw its end in 1962, rampaged by the first military coup.
The military took over the nation, claiming the necessity for their control to save the country from the threat of such revolts. General U Ne had heralded the coup, and he continued to wield control over Myanmar for twenty-six years until the 1988 protest broke out.
In 1988, Myanmar witnessed its largest pro-democracy protest, also called the 8888 uprisings, remembered mostly for the ‘bloody crackdown’ by General U Ne.
Many groups of students, hundreds of monks, housewives, doctors and common people revolted against military rule, but the army acted fiercely and killed many protesters.
The same year Suu Kyi gained prominence by leading the protest on behalf of the students against the military junta. The same year, Suu Kyi started her political party, National League for Democracy party. Given the disparage climate of the country, NLD won the election against the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) party controlled by the military.
Despite winning the election, the military refused to acknowledge the victory and imprisoned Suu Kyi and other party members in 1989. She continued to be detained in her lakeside home for several years. During her time inside, she rose as a celebrated figure for her silent protest.
In 2007, owing to a rise in fuel prices, anti-government protests ushered all through Myanmar. The 2007 protest saw thousands of Buddhist monks walking against the junta rule and protesting against the price hike. Often recalled as the ‘Saffron Revolution’, ironically enough, this protest was touted as one of the reasons that pushed for the 2011 political and economic reforms led by President U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government.
The military-backed President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government came to power after Suu Kyi’s party NLD boycotted the 2010 general election due to the military’s discriminating condition and practices junta. These conditions were laid down to keep Aung San Suu Kyi from running the elections.
But the transition that began with the dubious reforms in 2011 came to effect in 2015 when the country held a free and fair election, and the NLD party won and formed the government. The economy opened up, and the foreign companies gained permission to set up their bases in Myanmar.
Here, it’s important to note that after the ‘Saffron Revolution’ in 2007, the West perceived a very benign image of Myanmar’s ‘good monk’, which eventually tarnished. Especially after the crime against Rohingya Muslims sore, it soon became a humanitarian crisis as several ‘hardline’ Buddhist monks supported the military’s brutality.
What followed was military-led persecution in 2017, known as the Rohingya crisis. While lakhs of Muslims were forced to flee Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Suu Kyi stood uneffaced by their brutal persecution and statelessness.
Following the Rohingya Crisis and Suu Kyi’s deafening silence on the mass genocide, she fell from the pedestal as the crusader for peace.
Many defended her silence as a result of her feeble position due to the Constitution. Since the Myanmar Constitution was framed by the Tatmadaw, allowing them to control the police. Moreover, there could be no constitutional change without the military’s support.
However, Suu Kyi received a massive backlash after defended the military’s ‘genocidal intent’ against Rohingya Muslims before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) proceedings. Her implicit nod to the Rohingya persecution, followed by Myanmar’s debilitating economic situation due to conflicts and stalled policies, together led to what contemporaries call the ‘fall’ of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi’s ‘fall’ from the international pedestal and her implicit tuning with the military gave the latter the reasons to hope that the military’s political party will outperform the NLD.
But things didn’t quite work according to the plan.
In fact, Suu Kyi’s party outperformed its own result of the 2015 elections. Moreover, it dominated the districts that were primarily occupied by the military. Thus the resistance followed, the military called out the uncertainties and eventually overtook Myanmar’s ‘democratically elected government.
With the international pressure mounting post the Coup, many countries, including India, condemned the military-led coup. Additionally, it led to a mass anti-coup protest against the military regime in Myanmar. As of now, more than fifty-four protestors have lost their lives due to the military crackdown. To support the protesters, doctors and other civil servants have refused to work under the military. Others have protested from their homes by banging utensils and shouting slogans to show their defiance against the military.
Despite the failing regime of Suu Kyi, the fact that the people rejected the military junta could be telling of a dynamic shift. While the Bamar majority is protesting for the release of NLD leaders, the ethnic minorities are approaching this protest to bring a systemic shift. It is yet to be seen if this protest will usher a constitutional change within Myanmar or die down as yet another moment in Myanmar’s conflicted history.