The Myanmar military coup is the first since 1988 but one that bears the hallmark of such previous military takeovers. Most senior civilian politicians including Nobel laureate Aung Saan Suu Kyi and large number of critics of the military were 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 regional governments and the central government, with power 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 proclamation of Emergency. 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 organize a fresh election when sure that the NLD cannot win it — or at least get a clear majority.
Because behind Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s decision to go for a military takeover lies the fear of marginalisation of the military.
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 a majority good enough to clear key constitutional amendments by announcing her intent to form a national government with the 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 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 for Gen Hlaing for going for the 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) made it possible for 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 would target the provisions that privilege the military-like holding 25 percent of the seats of the parliaments (Art. 14), reserving the nomination of ministers of defence, internal security and border affairs (Art. 17 b), enjoying the right to take over 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 from Bangladesh the Rohingya Muslim refugees in phases after a Chinese-mediated dialogue. Nearly 40000 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 to 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 began 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 modernization (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 NLD lacked the majority needed to carry through the amendments.
That changed with the sweeping landslide — 396 seats in Nov’2020 polls against 325 in 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 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 U.S. has threatened strong action but its influence is limited.
Some argue that, because Europe, the United States, and other partners have limited options, because they are dealing with their own massive domestic problems, and because Myanmar could respond by turning closer to China, leading democracies should respond modestly to the coup.
But China is going to pursue its policies in Myanmar regardless of what measures are taken by the United States and other democracies, and U.S. policy should not be determined by how China is going to respond in Myanmar.
For India, which has pitched for ‘ orderly democratic transition ‘ and ‘preservance of Rule of Law’, the challenge is formidable.
Delhi has to stand beside other democracies, partnership with whom is crucial to stand up to an assertive and authoritarian China, but it presses the military regime too hard, it stands to lose out on Burmese military cooperation to fight rebels from India’s Northeast based in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region. Its Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Corridor project could also suffer.