Days ahead of convening the first session of Myanmar’s newly-elected Parliament, scheduled for this week, the army has seized power by staging a coup, overthrowing the civilian government. It has been only about a decade since the military junta rule was dissolved in the country. Before that, Myanmar has a history of enduring nearly five decades of military rule.
The army has declared a state of emergency for one year in the country, following a reckless detention of prominent civilian leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who belong to the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), a party that has been in power since 2015. President Win Myint has also been taken into detention.
The army released Aung San Suu Kyi, then a pro-democracy activist, in 2010 from nearly a two-decades-old house arrest. More than a decade later, she faces another forceful detention.
The latest coup follows NLD’s landslide election victory in November, 2020,winning 83% of seats in what many saw as a referendum on Suu Kyi’s acceptance as a leader of the Burmese people.
But, Monday’s coup, in fact the first against a civilian government since 1962, flies in the face of future prospects of a smooth democratic transition, amid civilian attempts to reduce the military’s role in politics and government.
But, what the early hours of February 1, 2021 saw was the military seizing power from the democratically-elected government and handing it over to their commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, who has been in the spotlight for the past several days as speculations of a coup rose.
Election fraud allegations as a precursor to coup
The military and its aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have been alleging election fraud and irregularities since they have lost last year’s election. They have been unwilling to accept their defeat. But, the country’s election commission rejected all voter fraud allegations raised by the army.
A few days back, the army chief allegedly hinted at scrapping the 2008 constitution, setting the tone of an upcoming coup, alleging electoral fraud in a speech, inviting backlash from different corners of the world, including the United Nations.
Army downplays rhetoric first, but goes ahead with coup later
Several embassies and diplomatic missions, particularly of Western countries, in Yangon issued a joint statement opposing any attempt to forcefully alter the outcome of November elections or to impede the ongoing democratic transition in the country.
Following this,a couple of days back, the army chief downplayed the harsh rhetoric by stating that it would respect and abide by the constitution. But, what followed was utterly in violation of what the army just promised.
Suu Kyi’s is left only with an army-imposed fait accompli
Suu Kyi’s civilian government has been in an uneasy power-sharing agreement with the army ever since it came to power for the first time in 2015. Unfortunately, her independent voice as an icon of democratic aspirations and as a leader of the Burmese people has already been curtailed by the military since the beginning.
Even though NLD’s victory in the 2015 and the 2020 general elections raised hopes of democratic activists and supporters in perceivably Asia’s newest democracy, the country happens to be plunging again into chaos of another military rule, after a decade-long break.
The world reacts as Myanmar bumps into a forgotten past
The United Nations, the Western powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and neighbouring India have raised concerns on the sorry plight of Myanmar’s democracy and called for a reversal of actions by the army and restore democracy and the legitimate civilian government led by Suu Kyi.
With army back at the helm, the ongoing process of social cohesion between the majority Buddhists and minority communities like the Rohingya will not have a smooth road ahead. Moreover, if the world powers decide to impose harsh sanctions, it could hurt the Burmese economy that is trying to recover from the pandemic shock.
The army’s posture could further isolate foreign commercial actors, except perhaps the Chinese who look at strategic gains from its economic relations with Myanmar centred onBeijing-led infrastructure projects that are part of China’slarger Belt and Road Initiative.
Public anger could erupt any time, taking a violent form.The present crisis could also potentially escalate into wider nation-wide protests in the coming days, as the army loosen restrictions, making a negotiated settlement between the civilian and military leaders further entangled. All these could push Myanmar’s democratic transition into an uneasy terrain.