from Asia Unbound and Asia Program

Myanmar’s Coup: The Aftershocks

Myanmar's military checkpoint is seen on the way to the congress compound in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on February 1, 2021.
Myanmar's military checkpoint is seen on the way to the congress compound in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on February 1, 2021. Stringer/Reuters

February 1, 2021, 7:00 am (EST)

Myanmar's military checkpoint is seen on the way to the congress compound in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on February 1, 2021.
Myanmar's military checkpoint is seen on the way to the congress compound in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, on February 1, 2021. Stringer/Reuters
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On Monday morning Myanmar time, the Myanmar military staged a coup, its first coup since 1988, but hardly unique in Myanmar’s modern history. This coup bore all the hallmarks of previous military takeovers, even in an era in which telecommunications technology is far different from 1988, and information about Myanmar cannot be hermetically sealed off from the world. The armed forces detained most senior civilian politicians, and went beyond just detaining political figures to detain a wide range of critics of the armed forces. The army also instituted many roadblocks, throttled internet traffic, cut phone lines and other types of communication, closed banks, and took control of regional governments and the central government, with power now clearly residing with the army’s top commander, Min Aung Hlaing.

Although the army has declared a state of emergency for a year, past history in Myanmar with such declarations could easily suggest that the state of emergency could go on for many years. After all, the Myanmar military still see themselves as the protectors of the country, despite several years of shaky democracy, and they wrote the current constitution, which has a clause that essentially allows for a coup and still gave the military significant powers. The army may have become afraid that Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) would be able to consolidate more power after last November’s elections and cut back the army’s power, that if the army commander retired he could become vulnerable to international prosecution for the army’s actions and might not be able to protect his family’s positions and wealth, and that at some point in the future Suu Kyi and the NLD might be able to change the constitution and diminish the power of the armed forces. Since November, the armed forces have been disputing the election results and claiming they were fraudulent.

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They also may have believed—possibly correctly—that the global pandemic, Myanmar’s close relationship with China, the democratic regression in other states in South and Southeast Asia, and the general U.S. disinterest in democracy issues in recent years would make it easier for them to launch a coup with little international pushback. And indeed, most South and Southeast Asian states said little about the coup, or simply referred to it as Myanmar’s internal problem. (Singapore did push back and called for Suu Kyi’s release and India expressed significant concern about the coup.)

Aung San Suu Kyi had, as de facto civilian leader of Myanmar, done little to marginalize the military or push forward real democratic reform. Instead, she had created a party in which she wielded enormous power, disdained important institutions like a free media, and continually defended the military’s often brutal actions, minimizing the armed forces’ massive abuses against the Rohingya. So, she failed to strengthen democracy in recent years and create democratic bulwarks.

Still, her party won victory in last year’s national elections—the fraud that the military claims occurred as a reason for stepping in has not been proven, and observers said that the election had minor irregularities but was relatively free and fair. Now, the coup has numerous potentially dangerous aftershocks.

For one, the shift in governance could create even worse management of the COVID-19 crisis, as people may try to flee the country or migrate to other parts of the country, as they did after prior coups, potentially spreading the virus. The army’s closure of banks and the uncertainty could cause even more damage to an already-suffering economy, in the midst of the pandemic.

Second, the coup could lead to an unwinding of deals with ethnic minority insurgencies, who could go back to war, further splintering Myanmar and leading to a massive spike in violence in what is already a conflict-ridden country. The insurgencies may now have the incentive to step up their battles, end cease-fire deals, and try to stake more gains in territory.

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There is also the prospect that, as the NLD and its allies try to rally Myanmar citizens, who now have lived through a decade of some degree of freedom—Suu Kyi has released a statement calling on Myanmar people to oppose the coup—that the army could crack down harder if the NLD, or other groups of Myanmar citizens, try to hold protests or rallies. In the past, during periods of absolute military rule—which has now returned—the military regularly used brutal force against any peaceful protests.

Some leading democracies have made strong statements in response to the coup. Australia, Canada, countries in Europe, and the United States condemned the coup and now are considering further actions, despite the weakening of the United States’ image on democracy issues globally, after the United States’ 2020 election. According to NBC News:

President Joe Biden said Monday that the military’s actions were a “direct assault” on the country’s transition to democracy and rule of law and said the U.S. would work with its partners to hold to account those responsible for overturning the country’s democratic transition.

“For almost a decade, the people of Burma have been steadily working to establish elections, civilian governance, and the peaceful transfer of power,” he said in a statement, using the country's name until it was changed by the ruling military junta in 1989. “That progress should be respected.”

But the Biden administration’s policy cupboard, though not bare, is fairly limited, given modest U.S. leverage over Myanmar and the fact that Myanmar’s neighbors mostly seem willing to live with the coup. Still, the United States and its partners do have some options, and I will go into these in the next post.

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