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Why Myanmar’s military launched a coup, and what it means

Myanmar’s recent military coup was a shock, especially for subscribers to the view that democracy is inevitable. But it was not, for anyone who has watched the country, a surprise.

The country’s National League for Democracy (NLD, headed by the revered Aung San Suu Kyi, recorded a strong, 60 per cent, majority in the country’s 2015 elections. The military’s ‘civilian’ front party, the United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), won five per cent, with the rest going to minor parties, mostly representing the ethnic regions.

Despite media commentary to the contrary, Myanmar had not been a democracy since 2011, despite elections in 2010 which the NLD boycotted as Suu Kyi was still under house arrest. That election was marred by claims of violence, intimidation, bribery and fraud. It was the 2015 outcome which ushered in the first period of genuinely civilian rule since 1962.

An election observer report I wrote from Yangon in 2015 noted that Myanmar was not yet a true democracy, as a quarter of parliamentary seats remained reserved for the military, the Tatmadaw. At least as importantly, five of the government’s key ministries; Home Affairs, Defense, Border Affairs and Internal Affairs, were also reserved for the Tatmadaw.

But most importantly, Myanmar’s constitution, written by the Tatmadaw and passed in the immediate wake of the devastating 2008 Cyclone Nargis, created an unelected, Tatmadaw-dominated National Defence and Security Council (NDSC), which formally sits above the parliament. Under the 2008 constitution, the NDSC can revoke the writ of the elected parliament at any time for any reason.

In the five years since 2015, the NLD and Suu Kyi trod delicately in their relations with the Tatmadaw. Suu Kyi in particular has been internationally criticised for not speaking out against the Tatmadaw’s genocide against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the west of the country.

As nominal head of government – citizens with immediate family who are citizens of other countries cannot become president – Suu Kyi has been careful not to anger the Tatmadaw. To do so would threaten her government. However, as the daughter of her nationalist father General Aung San, Suu Kyi is also an ethnic Burman nationalist. As leader of an effectively Burman nationalist party, she has not wanted to alienate her own supporters and has not been inclined to do so in any case.

In November 2020, elections were held in which the Tatmadaw cancelled voting in many areas and the NLD used state-owned media to campaign, excluding non-NLD parties. The elections were imperfect, but broadly reflected the will of a majority of Myanmar’s citizens.

The NLD won an astonishing 83 per cent of the vote. With the hubris of such a compelling victory, some NLD leaders began to say it was becoming time to reconsider the constitutional role of military.

The Tatmadaw are not particularly imaginative. Looking to discredit the election result, the Tatmadaw turned to the United States, borrowing from Donald Trump’s empty claims of ‘electoral fraud’.

Myanmar’s independent election commission said it could not investigate claims of electoral fraud as there was no evidence presented that fraud had been committed. The Tatmadaw, however, held the NLD to account, in effect requiring it to admit electoral fraud and to give up some of its parliamentary seats, perhaps even the prime ministership. The NLD did not respond.

The Tatmadaw then looked to its immediate eastern neighbor, Thailand, for next steps. In 2014, the Thai military staged a coup, rewrote the constitution to ensure the military and its business associates would dominate, then called elections in which the effective outcome was known before the first ballots were cast. The Tatmadaw’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing saw this as a suitable model.

The coup, however, was not as simple as the military taking over government. Within the Tatmadaw have been reformist as well as hard-line factions. After a couple of failed attempts, it was the reformist faction that encouraged the Tatmadaw towards an open electoral process.

The Tatmadaw reformists argued that, as Myanmar’s economy opened up and greater financial opportunities beckoned, the country’s extensive military-controlled business would do well, as would individual officers. They also reasoned, by writing a constitution that retained the Tatmadaw as the real power in the state, there was nothing to fear from allowing an eventual civilian government. The hard-liners agreed.

It is conventional democratic transition theory that military reformists in positions of authority are the best positioned to lead and secure change from authoritarian government. Around the same time these changes were taking place – 2008-11 – the hard-liners marginalised the reformists within the Tatmadaw and re-established their primacy.

As Mynmar has opened its economy, China has increased its status as the country’s overwhelming trading partner, as well as being a key supplier of military hardware. While there is no evidence that China was behind the coup or even gave the go-ahead, it is likely that the Chinese government would have been sounded out by the Tatmadaw regarding its intentions. A military coup that was not accepted by China would be disastrous for the Tatmadaw, in economic, diplomatic and military terms.

On 1 February this year, the Tatmadaw struck, arresting senior members of parliament in pre-dawn raids, eventually expanding its intake of prisoners until all NLD leaders and other political activists were in custody. By that afternoon the Tatmadaw announced that it had taken over government, which was by then expected. Within a few further hours, the Tatmadaw announced it would remain in power for a year, before holding fresh elections. The civilian protests were immediate and have grown in size since then.

The Tatmadaw has a reputation for brutality, not least for its massacre of protesters in 1988 and attacks against protesting Buddhist monks in 2007, as well as against the Rohingya. Less visible has been the Tatmadaw’s long-standing military campaigns against ethnic insurgents.

The Tatmadaw has struck deals with some insurgent groups to control their own areas as ‘border guards’, in which they produce and export amphetamines and heroin, as well as other contraband. Others have resisted and the Tatmadaw has pounded them mercilessly. 

Initially taking a hands-off approach to the anti-coup protests, as the protests have continued the Tatmadaw has steadily increased repression, using greater direct force against protesters and arresting hundreds of protest leaders. In Myitkyna, the relatively remote capital of the rebellious northern Kachin state, the army has used live rounds.

Tatmadaw hard-liners might be tempted to use even greater force but for two groups they need to placate. The first is China, as the country’s main economic, diplomatic and military backer, which does not want to be embarrassed by a wholesale slaughter as its attempts to establish authority on the world stage. Being able to exercise veto power as a Permanent Five member of the United Nations Security Council, China is critical to the generals, who have long worried about UN-sanctioned ‘humanitarian intervention’.

Closer to home, the Tatmadaw can little afford to divide between military reformists and hard-liners. While the hard-liners have been dominant, Myanmar’s history has been one of internal division and a split within the Tatmadaw could fatally weaken the new military junta. So, to date the Tatmadaw has been relatively tolerant, by its own terms. But that tolerance is reducing by the day and, as with any military coup, guns remain an option.

The Tatmadaw has promised elections but, like Thailand, they will be elections that the Tatmadaw can secure the outcome of before the first ballot has been cast. That will mean returning to something like the 2010 elections, which a hobbled NLD did not contest and the USDP secured an all but unchallenged victory.

Such an election could be held within a year, although that seems like a tight time-line given widespread public protest. The pro-democracy movement would no doubt seek to subvert such elections.

More likely is that the time-line will be longer. It may not be necessary to rewrite Myanmar’s constitution, given it is already favorable towards the military. But it would be legally difficult to stop the NLD from competing and winning, without a new, restrictive constitution or extensive vote rigging.

Either way, the Tatmadaw is unlikely to cede political power in a year’s time. The best predicter of democratic success, the literature suggests, is prior successful democratic experience. On that basis, the Tatmadaw can be expected to remain in power, in one form or another, for the foreseeable future.