EARLY ON THE morning of February 1st the army toppled Myanmar’s elected government, arresting its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Next the army declared a year-long state of emergency and handed power to the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. Soldiers have been deployed to the streets of the capital, Naypyidaw, and the largest city, Yangon, where they have erected blockades on major roads. A decade after the generals voluntarily relinquished control of the country, they have clawed it back. The world has to decide how to react to this latest setback for democracy in South-East Asia and the wider world.
When the army ended nearly 50 years of military rule in Myanmar in 2011, making way for a civilian government, many were suspicious about its willingness to relinquish power. It initially tried to exclude Ms Suu Kyi, much the country’s most prominent democracy activist, from government; it handed authority instead to a party of military stooges. When it did at last allow Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to take power, in 2016, it still retained great authority—but not, apparently, as much as it would have liked.
The army, or Tatmadaw as it is known, twice seized power from democratically elected governments in the 20th century and ruthlessly quashed pro-democracy movements. It is used to being in charge. When it gave up absolute power in 2011, the army had envisaged a peculiar, hybrid “discipline-flourishing democracy”. The constitution that it drew up protected many of its powers. The Tatmadaw remained a law unto itself, and its relationship with Ms Suu Kyi’s administration has been fraught—no matter that she rushed to the generals’ defence at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019, where the army stood accused of committing genocide against the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority.
The catalyst for the coup was an election held in November. The vote was widely seen as a referendum on Ms Suu Kyi’s government. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) won a staggering 83% of the seats, trouncing the main army-backed opposition party. The generals alleged that the poll was conducted unfairly. Though independent election observers said that voters were “able to freely express their will at the polls and choose their elected representatives”, the army claimed that there had been widespread fraud. On January 26th, a military spokesman refused to rule out the possibility of a coup. The following day General Min Aung Hlaing told senior military personnel that if the constitution is not adhered to, it must be revoked.
Talks between the government and army on January 28th failed to defuse tensions. The Tatmadaw is reported to have requested a recount of the vote and a postponement to the new session of parliament, which was scheduled to start on February 1st. The government declined. The following day tanks and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of major cities.
Then, on February 1st, the army announced that 24 ministers and deputy ministers had been removed. A six-point statement from General Min Aung Hlaing’s office promised a fresh election. Other statements suggested this would take place after a year. It was all reminiscent of the army’s seizure of power after the bloody suppression of an uprising in 1988. It did hold an election in 1990. But, when it lost, it ignored the result.
In addition to Ms Suu Kyi, the army has detained senior figures in the NLD, the chief ministers of several regions and activists who rose to prominence during the protests of 1988, when Ms Suu Kyi first emerged as a leader of the democracy movement. Mobile internet connections and phone services were disrupted in the big cities. The state broadcaster, MRTV, citing technical problems, went off air. The main international airport, in Yangon, was closed. The city’s residents formed long queues at ATMs, but many of them were not working.
The army’s motivations are murky. Many analysts had believed a coup was unlikely because the constitution protects the Tatmadaw’s interests so well. The commander appoints the man who is notionally his boss, the minister of defence, as well as the ministers of the interior and border control. That gives him control over the police, intelligence services and border guards, as well as the armed forces. A quarter of the seats in parliament are reserved for serving military officers. Because amendments to the constitution require the support of three-quarters of MPs, the army can veto any changes it does not like.
Even after the army’s warning last week, few outside observers predicted a coup. A pandemic, after all, hardly seems an auspicious moment to seize power. But General Min Aung Hlaing may be concerned about his own future in a country where the army is reviled and the civilian government has been trying (fruitlessly) to bring it under civilian control. He was due to retire from the forces this year, and may have harboured political ambitions of his own, hopes that were snuffed out in the November election. “He didn’t have a plan B,” says a Western diplomat based in Yangon, yet “he needed something to guarantee his legacy, his liberty and his family wealth.” David Mathieson, an analyst, suspects that the commander “didn’t like the fact that [the army’s] standing has been diminished” and wants to restore the army’s authority.
The West has reacted with predictable remonstrances. President Joe Biden condemned what he called “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law”. He noted that America had lifted sanctions on Myanmar because of its apparent transition to democracy, and warned that decision could be reversed. The European Union, Britain and other democracies also voiced outrage. In Tokyo, hundreds of Burmese demonstrators gathered in protest. But there was little immediate prospect of the co-ordinated international pressure these governments called for. China “noted” the events and called for stability. Myanmar’s partners in the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations were also reticent.
The reaction at home was less predictable. In a statement prepared before the coup and her arrest, Ms Suu Kyi called on people to resist the coup. She remains adored within Myanmar. She is best known for having led the opposition for nearly 15 years from under house arrest, between 1989 and 2010, during which time she was awarded the Nobel peace prize. And in contrast to the years after the election in 1990, the Burmese have now experienced five years of democracy; they do not want to return to the dark days of the military junta. “The doors just opened to a very different future,” wrote Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian, on Twitter. “I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next.”
Editor’s note (February 1st 2021): The story has been updated since publication.