Myanmar’s military power struggle on Monday follows weeks of tensions with Aung San Suu Kyi and her government (1/2/2021). Suu Kyi and other top civilian leaders were detained by the army on the same day as the first new parliamentary session was being held since the national elections last November.
Suu Kyi remains a hugely popular figure in Myanmar, even though her international reputation has been deeply tarnished by the crackdown on the country’s stateless Rohingya minority in 2017. The National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept last year’s poll by a landslide, winning by a margin which is bigger than the 2015 vote that brought the former Nobel laureate to power.
But the country’s military, which has ruled the country for most of the past 60 years, said the vote had gone wrong. They claim to have exposed more than 10 million instances of voter fraud and are demanding that the government-run election commission release voter lists for cross-examination.
Tensions rose after General Min Aung Hlaing, head of the military and arguably the most powerful man in Myanmar, gave a speech warning that the country’s constitution could be “repealed” if it was not respected. Last week’s military tanks were also briefly deployed on the streets of the commercial hub Yangon, the capital Naypyidaw and elsewhere, along with protests against the election results by pro-military supporters.
The army has declared a state of emergency and said it will take power for 12 months. Myint Swe, a former general who runs Yangon’s powerful military command and current vice president of Myanmar, will become acting president for next year.
Myanmar has been ruled by a military regime for most of its history since independence from former British colonial rule in 1948. General Ne Win overthrew the civilian government in 1962, arguing that the government led by president Win Maung was not competent enough to govern.
General Ne Win ruled the country for the next 26 years but stepped down in 1988 after massive countrywide protests against economic stagnation and authoritarian rule. A new generation of military-headed leaders took command weeks later, citing the need to restore law and order in the country.
Junta leader General Than Shwe, stepped down in 2011, handing power over to Lt, General Myint Aung, a member of the Junta, after adopting the country’s current constitution. The 2008 constitution engraves a strong continuing political role for the military, giving them control over the main interior, border, and defense ministries.
Any changes require the support of members of the military parliament, which holds a quarter of the seats in the country’s parliament. Its guarantee of military strength makes the constitution a “very unpopular” document, according to Yangon-based political analyst Khin Zaw Win.
Suu Kyi and her government have tried to change the charter since winning the 2015 election, with little success. During her last term in office, she circumvented a rule that prevented her from taking over the presidency by taking on the de facto leadership role as “state adviser”. This loophole is one of the few that the military did not expect. From that point of view, they have lost significant control over the political process.
Ideally, the civil government in a democratic system has the highest authority in the political field of a country. However, something else happened in Myanmar. Where there is a military influence in the political system so that the military participates in the decision-making process, the military should focus on national defense.
It turns out that this has been regulated in the prevailing constitution so that in playing a role in politics, the military already has a legal grip on any interests it wants to achieve through the government. Having many seats in parliament, controlling several strategic ministries, as well as an autonomous institution in national defense, has made the military an influential political actor in Myanmar policies. The question that arises now is whether the world, including ASEAN, can cultivate democracy and freedom of expression in Myanmar, which is currently shackled?