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A coup in Myanmar, but to what end

On 1 February, Media reported that a ‘major cabinet reshuffle’ had just been announced in Myanmar. That’s a euphemistic way of describing what took place across the country beginning in the early hours that day. Another term is ‘military coup’.

As Melissa Crouch wrote on East Asia Forum the day after the detention of top civilian politicians and the appointment of military men in their place, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) has justified its actions by appeal to constitutional provisions which allow it to assume emergency powers at a time of national crisis. As Crouch writes, the invocation of emergency powers is merely ‘a fig leaf for a coup’. The decision-makers who in normal times would sign off on a declaration of emergency and transfer of power to the generals had been conveniently detained in early morning raids, starting with de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and broadening out to ministers, regional leaders and civil society figures.

Scores of people were detained in what was for many in Myanmar a harrowing reminder of the arbitrary detention, torture and disappearances that accompanied coups of the past. Supporters of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government are responding to the coup with acts of protest and civil disobedience — a brave thing, given they know full well the military’s capacity for violence against its own citizens.

Understanding the political calculations of the Myanmar military, a notoriously secretive and paranoid institution, is hard at the best of times. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and post-coup telecom blackouts, analysis is necessarily even more tentative and inferential.

What’s undeniable is that a coup is a calamity not only for civilian politicians — and the voters who elected them — but also for the military’s decades-long effort to preserve its large political and economic power in the context of a more democratic system. As Crouch writes, ‘the irony’ revealed by the coup ‘is that … the military doesn’t appear to like how its Constitution works’.

In our lead article this week, Mary Callahan writes from Yangon that the coup reveals just how dysfunctional the relationship between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was, with some kind of crisis ‘probably inevitable given the cohabitation the 2008 Constitution imposes upon political and personal foes’.

It looked like Aung San Suu Kyi and the military had united their fates when Aung San Suu Kyi defended them against accusations of crimes against humanity amid ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State. Yet behind the scenes Aung San Suu Kyi and the military ‘could not get past their common ambitions for supremacy to agree upon a way forward that would allow ghosts of coups past to rest’, says Callahan.

The breaking point was the NLD’s landslide victory in the November 2020 general elections, which the military insists was the result of fraud at the expense of its own proxy party. Independent observers have said that the election, while beset by problems of planning and administration, reflected the will of the Myanmar electorate.

The coup has been roundly condemned by Western governments. Hardened sanctions are back on the table. Will censure and isolation from the West further bring Myanmar ever closer to China?

Certainly, China would happily claim any influence forfeited by the West if it can. It cares little about the quality of Myanmar’s democracy — hence its refusal to call the coup a coup. But the Cold War template fits the facts imperfectly. While there’s plenty of baggage in China’s relationship with the Myanmar military, it earlier welcomed the move to democracy and invested heavily in its relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.

Beijing might be wary of jumping too quickly to defend the military in a domestic crisis that could end with a return to civilian government on renegotiated terms. Indeed, the UN Security Council was able to get China and Russia on board for a press statement (admittedly watered-down) that called for the release of civilian leaders, respect for human rights, and the resumption of the democratisation process.

What’s needed is international unanimity on a minimal set of expectations regarding the military’s negotiating a return to cohabitation with civilian politicians and political reform. ASEAN could be a constructive player, but as Mathew Davies wrote here: ‘In the absence of widespread violence ASEAN will not be coming to a stronger position’ than its ‘crushingly bland’ response to events. India, which has immediate security interests at stake in Myanmar, is wary of ceding any of its own influence to China by nagging the generals too much. Japan will likely tread carefully for similar reasons.

Everybody loses from this coup. The NLD, the people of Myanmar (who are entitled to be governed by the party they elected, for all its shortcomings), and even the military, which has now dynamited a reform process that offered its best chance of safeguarding a prize political role in a richer and more regionally influential country. Yet the impulse for personal and military political dominance, even if meant jeopardising the economic and diplomatic benefits of reform, was stronger at the top than so many had hoped.

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