Explained: Myanmar’s Military Coup, and the Protests the Ensued

Human Rights Watch’s’ Phil Robertson pointed out that the move puts Myanmar in danger of becoming a “pariah state” once more.

Myanmar as a nation has had its troubles with military coups. This country had turned quasi-democratic ­only in 2011 when its military decided to adopt some democratic reforms after the last military coup de ‘tat lasted from 1962 to 2011.

On the 1st of February, 2021, this 7-year quasi democratic rule was once again shown the door by the military of the country with the allegations of election fraud against the government in the recently concluded polls. The coup started with the de facto leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi being detained along with her ally President Win Myint and many other senior leaders.

A crisis had been brewing in the country between the military and the democratically-elected government ever since Suu Kyi’s party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – claimed a resounding victory in the country’s elections on 9 November 2020. The NLD, in fact, pulled off a better performance than it did in 2015, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the NLD’s primary Opposition, fared rather poorly.

However, even as Myanmar’s military had vowed to honour and protect the state’s Constitution only two days back, on 30 January, it went ahead and declared a one-year emergency just hours before the Parliament was to resume for the first time since the elections.

Myanmar’s History of Military Coups and the Historical Basis of the Current Coup

The Burmese Way to Socialism

Burma became an independent nation in 1948 with U Nu heading the government and the ruling Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) which had resisted the Japanese occupation with help from the British Empire. The entry of the military into state politics for the first time was in 1958, when following a split in the AFPFL, Chief of Staff General Ne Win was asked to serve as the interim prime minister. When Ne Win was appointed Chief of Staff in 1949, he was given total control of the Army, which he went onto restructure along Socialist lines. And this was going to come back to haunt Burma’s democratic politics in 1962.

In 1960’s election as U Nu emerged victorious, Ne Win handed him back the government. However, two years later in 1962, he snatched it back in what was said to be a “bloodless coup”. Ne Win steered the state to the “Burmese Way to Socialism” with a mixture of Buddhism and Socialism, as he dismantled the federal structure and installed the Socialist Programme Party (SPP) as the only legal party in the state.

Explained: Myanmar’s Military Coup, and the Protests the Ensued - Digpu News
Image Credits: Adam Dean/NY Times

The Demonetizations and Anti-Government Protests

Ne Win embarked on an isolationist policy for Burma for the next two decades. He brought a slew of changes when he came to power such as nationalizing the economy, banning free media, free healthcare for all, expelling foreigners, and jailing political adversaries. With a sluggish economy, uncontrolled inflation, and repeated demonetizations to curb the black market, Burma soon paid the price of Ne Win’s disastrous policies.

As the demonetization of 1987 wiped off people’s savings, massive anti-government riots broke out as students, monks, and workers rose in rebellion. While thousands of people were killed in the riots, the increasing resentment against the military rule’s economic mismanagement and heavy-handedness became evident amongst pro-democracy groups. But by the time Ne Win stepped down as the Chairman of SPP in 1988, Burma’s economic status had fallen so low that the UN declared it as one of the “Least Developed Nations”, according to The Guardian.

General Saw Maung, who replaced Ne Win, then established The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to win back people’s trust. And it was around the same time that Aung San Suu Kyi co-founded the NLD with an aim to bring back democratic processes without any military intervention.

Military Rejects Election Results

In 1989, Burma is renamed Myanmar, while its capital Rangoon is renamed Yangon. And Aung San Suu Kyi – daughter of Aung San (a leader of AFPFL who was assassinated by political opponents soon after Burma’s liberation) – is put under house arrest in a bid to thwart political organizations. In 1990, the NLD wins the majority of the legislative seats in the Myanmar’s free election in nearly three decades with the support of ethnic minority groups who had been victimized under the military rule. This was not an election to form a new government, rather the election was to form a constitutional committee to draft a new constitution.

But the junta rejects the result and refuses to hand over the power to the people and thus begins a two-decade-long struggle for democracy as support for Suu Kyi increases internationally. While the junta made attempts to correct its international image, Suu Kyi was released from her house arrest in 1995, only to arrest hundreds of NLD leaders a year later.

Under International Pressure, the Army Tries to Rebrand Itself

Since the beginning of the 2000s, Myanmar witnessed a rather impetuous relationship between the State and the NLD. With the country’s rights abuses in international limelight, the military government was prompted to take progressive steps such as releasing pro-democracy leaders from jail and working to implement democratic systems.

The UN, the European Union, the International Labour Organization and even the International Committee of the Red Cross criticized Myanmar government’s military regime for human rights abuses, as per a report on BBC.

A Failed Attempt Towards Democratic Elections

As dissent continued to grow and fuel prices continued to rise, there came another bout of massive anti-government protests in 2007 led by Buddhist monks that came to be known as the “Saffron Revolution”. In 2009, while Suu Kyi is arrested and charged with government subversion for breaching house arrest rules, a year later the junta proposes a new constitution with a quarter of seats being allocated to the military but bans Suu Kyi from participating in the elections.

Several military leaders in the government resign from their posts to participate in the democratic elections but the NLD boycotted the election and officially dissolved. The first democratic election in 20 years to form a government is held in 2010, where the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) wins the majority and former General Thein Sein assumes power, although the Opposition groups to alleged an election fraud.

Explained: Myanmar’s Military Coup, and the Protests the Ensued - Digpu News
Image Credits: Thein Zaw/NY Times

Myanmar’s First Democratically Elected Government in 50 years

Soon after the elections, in 2010, Suu Kyi is released from detention after 14 years, along with other political leaders. As she rejoins the political processes, the NLD re-registers as a political party for the next elections in 2015. Led by Suu Kyi, the NLD wins enough seats. And after almost 50 years of a military government, Myanmar forms a democratically elected government.

Suu Kyi’s Government Fails to Do Away with the Trouble

The NLD government’s reign has been anything but smooth, especially with Suu Kyi turning the other way as Myanmar’s military leaders have been accused of carrying out genocide and war crimes against Rohingya Muslims. Endless persecution from the military on one side, and Rohingya insurgents launching attacks across Rakhine on the other, led to one of the largest exoduses witnessed in Asia in recent times.

Military Accuses Civilian Government of Election Fraud

Ahead of the election, the Myanmar election commission also cancelled voting in a number of areas across the Rakhine State, claiming that they “are not in a position to hold a free and fair election.” In the run up to the second democratic election since 2015, Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing said the civilian government is making “unacceptable mistakes”.

He reportedly told Popular News Journal, a local news outlet, that as the “guardian” of the country, the military forces were watching preparations closely, as he went onto accusing the election commission of “widespread violation of the laws and procedures of the pre-voting process”.

The Military Backed Party Demands Re-Election

As Suu Kyi’s party inched closer towards a resounding victory in the country’s election in November 2020, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party demanded a re-election. The NLD’s main Opposition party alleged irregularities like poor-quality ballot boxes and envelopes and government bribes and urged for a re-election “in order to have an election that is free, fair, unbiased and free from unfair campaigning”.

Even though the military denied planning any coup, even going onto vowing to protect the Constitution, in January 2021, Military Spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun warns it will “take action” if the election dispute is not settled. Even though the election commission rejected allegations of voter fraud, the Army asked them to look into discrepancies. Days after, Suu Kyi and other leaders were detained, as the military declared emergency via a TV broadcast.

How are people protesting the coup?

Weeks of protests came to a head on Feb. 22, when millions of anti-military demonstrators took to the country’s streets for a general strike. The strike came after several protesters were killed by the military during the preceding weekend, including two unarmed protesters killed by security forces in Mandalay on Feb. 20, one of whom was a 16-year-old boy.

Explained: Myanmar’s Military Coup, and the Protests the Ensued - Digpu News
Image Credits: NY Times

The general strike represented a broad cross-section of the country, including civil servants, bank workers, doctors and day laborers. The national boycott expanded a civil disobedience movement that has paralyzed the banking system and made it difficult for the military to get much done.

The protesters have been met with the might of the military, which erected barricades, deployed soldiers in riot gear and stationed snipers on rooftops along protest routes. As the demonstrations entered their fourth week, the military, notorious for having crushed democracy movements in 1988 and 2007 by shooting peaceful protesters, escalated the violence used to repress them.

On the 28th of February, 2021, the armed forces fired on demonstrators in several cities, killing at least 18 people, according to the United Nations, and wounding scores more. The bloodiest day to date has been March 3, 2021, when as many as 38 people were shot dead during one of these peaceful anti-coup protests. Security forces opened fire on people protesting against military rule across Myanmar, a day after neighbouring countries called for restraint and offered to help resolve the crisis.

Protestors to Face Up To 20 Years in Prison

Myanmar’s military has warned anti-coup protesters across the country that they could face up to 20 years in prison if they obstruct the armed forces. Long sentences and fines will also apply to those found to incite “hatred or contempt” towards the coup leaders, the military said. The legal changes were announced as armored vehicles appeared on the streets of several cities. In a statement posted on a military website, it said that people preventing the security forces from carrying out their duties could face 20 years in prison, while those found to stir up fear or unrest in public could be imprisoned for terms of three to seven years.

The military government on Saturday gave itself the power to make arrests, carry out searches and hold people for more than 24 hours without a court ruling. It has also told journalists not to describe the military’s takeover as a coup.

What does the future hold?

Indeed, experts appear unsure of exactly why the military acted now, as there seems little to gain. “It is worth remembering that the current system is tremendously beneficial for the army: it has complete command autonomy, sizeable international investment in its commercial interests and political cover from civilians for war crimes,” Gerard McCarthy, a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, told the BBC.

“Seizing power for a year as it has announced will isolate non-Chinese international partners, harm the military’s commercial interests and provoke escalating resistance from millions of people who placed Suu Kyi and the NLD in power for in another term of government.” Perhaps, he says, they hope to improve the USDP’s standings in future elections, but the risks of such a move “are significant”.

Human Rights Watch’s’ Phil Robertson pointed out that the move puts Myanmar in danger of becoming a “pariah state” once more, while angering the people at home. “I do not think the people of Myanmar are going to take this lying down,” he adds. “They do not want to head back to a military future. They see Suu Kyi as a bulwark against a return to military power.”

There are still hopes that this can be resolved through negotiation, he says, but adds: “If we start seeing major protests beginning, then we are into a major crisis.”

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