On 27th March 2021, Myanmar’s military forces celebrated their Annual Armed Forces Day holiday with a parade, and soldiers and police elsewhere reportedly killed roughly 114 protestors as a result of the recent military coup which took place on the first of February. So what exactly happened? Why did the military declare a state of emergency and arrest various political leaders including Myanmar’s state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi? To answer these pressing questions, one must look back at Myanmar’s history and its rocky track record in terms of attaining a stable democracy.
Myanmar - or as it was known back then, Burma - spent 124 years under British rule. In the years after World War II, the country finally gained its independence
as the Union of Burma. Unfortunately, there was unrest and fighting between the many different ethnic and cultural groups that make up the country. In 1962, the military staged a coup, scrapped Burma's constitution, and created a military junta. What followed was a one-party state headed by the BSPP (Burma Socialist Programme Party). It wasn't until 1988 that the BSPP had its power truly challenged by a nationwide protest movement. Started by students, the movement spread to hundreds of thousands of protesters, and Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a leading voice. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, known as the father of the nation and a key player in the push for independence from British rule. However, within a few months, the protests were crushed. Thousands of people were killed and the military once again seized power. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she remained for fifteen years.
During that time, though, she still continued to push the change with her political party, the National League for Democracy. She eventually received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. It wasn't until the late 2000s that the military announced it was going to start moving towards a more democratic system of government. However, the 2010 election was surrounded by accusations of interference and fraud. The election was actually boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the military was replaced by a pro-military party called the USDP. So, it is safe to say that it was not exactly the open and free election everyone in the country had been hoping for.
The USDP was in charge between 2011 and 2015. During that time, the military still effectively controlled the country. It wasn't until 2015 that Myanmar actually held its first free and open elections, and the NLD won in a landslide. The constitution blocked Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming President because she has children who are citizens of another country. As a result, she had to settle for the title of State Counsellor, but she was still recognized by the majority of citizens as Myanmar's actual leader. However, even with such a big share of the vote, the NLD still had to deal with the military having a lot of political power.
The military only agreed to share power because the new constitution
guaranteed that they'd keep control over a large number of key areas. They
would also be unconditionally guaranteed 25% of the seats in parliament. The military has essentially used its control of the parliament to block reforms while still maintaining control over defence, immigration, and the judiciary.
In November 2020, Myanmar held its general elections in which the NLD again won by a majority and it is this election that has been stated as the official reason for the coup. The military claims that these elections were rigged and that there were terrible signs of fraud, even though they have not been able to produce any credible evidence. Many people consider it a power grab by the military. Myanmar on 1st February declared a year-long state of emergency and as of right now, military general, Min Aung Hlaing is the current leader.
Possible reasons for launching the coup
Now that we have a better understanding of Myanmar’s history, let’s look at the possible reasons which made the military decide to launch this coup. One of the most obvious reasons which comes to mind is that Aung San Suu Kyi has been talking about removing the military from parliament and taking away their seats in the Burmese parliament. Winning by such a huge margin in the election put her and the NLD closer to that goal than ever before. Additionally, the current military leader and the person who is now in charge of the entire country has been fairly open about wanting to be president. The military was not happy with the outcome of the elections. The initial hope of the commander in chief was that the military-backed political party would get up to a third of seats, and if so, he could potentially have become president.
According to experts, the coup was also about shielding himself from his dodgy military service history. He has been called one of the most wanted men on the planet for his role in the brutal crackdown of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, a Muslim minority group that lived in the Rakhine region. Over the past ten years, he's been in charge of the military that reportedly targeted and killed thousands of Rohingya people and burned more than 200 of their villages to the ground, resulting in hundreds of thousands more fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. Without the military holding political power, or the leader of the country protecting him, he would have to face formal consequences for his actions. It's important to note that the biggest recent military crackdown actually happened in 2017, while Aung San Suu Kyi was in power. She faced a lot of international criticism for not standing up to the military treatment of the Rohingya people, although she is still incredibly popular within Myanmar.
As of now, thousands of people are crowding the streets and are using various ways to condemn the military’s decision; however, soldiers have also taken to the streets and have mercilessly killed hundreds of protestors. On top of that, the internet has been cut in various parts of the country and social media has been blocked. Myanmar’s road to democracy has been sidetracked by this coup.
Many people of the international community want Myanmar to get back on track. Joe Biden stated that “[t]he military must relinquish power it seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people of Burma. I'm announcing a series of actions that we're taking to begin imposing consequences on the leaders of the coup.” It seems that only countries like Russia and China have a close relationship with the military and as a result, these two countries blocked a UN resolution condemning the coup.
The military will be ruling for a year, but the right mix of incentives and sanctions could convince the leaders of the junta to turn things around and reinstate some form of democracy. The people of Myanmar have survived similar turmoil in the past only to have emerged victorious; this must become another unfortunate and painful roadblock in a long and tumultuous road to democracy.