Ghosts of coups past in Myanmar

Mary Callahan

It has been a decade since urban residents of Myanmar had seen armoured vehicles on the streets. This streak was broken in late January 2021 as tensions between the military and the civilian government-elect escalated into a full-on political crisis, with the military launching a coup.

At the centre was a power struggle between 75-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi —State Counsellor and the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) leader — and 64-year-old Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the military’s commander-in-chief. Both consider themselves the embodiment of the nation. Aung San Suu Kyi is daughter of martyred national hero Aung San and architect of the NLD’s November 2020 landslide victory. Min Aung Hlaing is in his 10th year as Tatmadaw leader, which — as he is quick to remind — ‘has never betrayed the national cause’.

The future of the ‘disciplined democracy’ crafted by a military junta-led constitutional convention over 13 years is at stake. As is the Commander-in-Chief’s political future, as his retirement looms on his 65th birthday in July.

On 1 February 2021, weeks of increasingly fraught negotiations ended when the military detained Aung San Suu Kyi, other political leaders and civil society activists. Civil society actors around the country reported being questioned by police or premises raided by soldiers. While many government figures have been released, there is no telling how far-reaching the eventual round-up will be.

The rationale? Allegations that the Union Election Commission (UEC) failed on what the military considers evidence of electoral fraud in the November 2020 election. The promises? ‘Restoring eternal peace’, reviving the economy, managing COVID-19 and a ‘free and fair multiparty election’ — all ostensibly within a year.

Allegations surfaced that election commissioners had wrought fraud on the public. The military’s True News Information Team claimed it had counted 10.5 million irregularities on voter lists — double or triple entries for single names or national registration card numbers, dead people, underage voters. It charged the UEC with what it viewed as either malignant incompetence or outright rigging for the NLD. On 28 January 2021, the Commander-in-Chief’s office posted a video in which he threatened to annul the Constitution if the NLD refused to abide by it.

This crisis was probably inevitable given the cohabitation the 2008 Constitution imposes upon political and personal foes. Its implementation, which began after a rigged election in 2010, led to a significant policy arena opening up to civilian and elected officials for the first time in decades. It also carved out a place for the military in politics — the Tatmadaw were granted a quarter of legislative seats, security-related cabinet portfolios and autonomy in all intra-military affairs.

After then President Thein Sein presided over an election in 2015 and transferred power to the NLD, there were some initially cordial appearances of the Commander-in-Chief and the Lady. They share more than they differ. Both are moral, economic, religious and social conservatives. But they could not get past their common ambitions for supremacy to agree on a way forward that would allow ghosts of coups past to rest.

By mid-January 2021, the stakes elevated considerably. On 26 January, military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun read out their 29th statement on electoral misconduct, ‘dishonesty’ and ‘inconsistencies’. Harkening back to the rhetorical style of junta-era press encounters, he recited the long history of military dedication to democracy, rule of law and the people, before alleging fraud in voter lists. But the lists the military consulted appear to include preliminary drafts, later drafts and some photos taken on election day at polling stations. It had no access to evidence of actual voter behaviour or systematic NLD duplicity in rigging votes.

Then, when responding to a journalist, Zaw Min Tun could not rule out a coup, stating ‘the military will act in line with all laws, including the Constitution’.

The next day the temperature rose higher when the True News Information Team released a clip of the Commander-in-Chief threatening to annul the Constitution due to the government’s abuse of it. A half-dozen armoured vehicles were spotted on city streets, rumours swirled of deadlock and ordinary people stocked up.

The last week of January saw urgent high-level meetings. By 31 January, the military and the NLD stopped talking. The coup unfolded hours later.

In subsequent days, the shadows of a haunted past have rematerialised. Immediately, rumours of currency demonetisation — which actually predated the 1988 coup by two weeks — spread only to be put down by the central bank. But anxiety only deepened. Calls for symbolic civil disobedience led to nightly banging of pots and pans, horns, singing, shouting, followed by unsettling quiet in much of the country.

On 2 February, the new junta named itself the State Administration Council, and the next day — like juntas past — began establishing subnational councils. Flash protests began after Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with non-political crimes, a page out of the military handbook that led to hundreds jailed after 1988 for random crimes like ‘currency violations’. After a midnight announcement that Facebook would be shut down for three days (4-7 February), 70 of the 396 NLD members of the parliament elected in November swore themselves in, as elected parliamentarians had done when an earlier junta ignored results of the 1990 election.

What’s next is hard to predict. Will the regime head in the direction of juntas past: exercising heavy-handed censorship, seizing economic concessions and stifling civil society? Or will it take advantage of the frustration many had with the NLD’s inability to respond effectively to economic and health crises, roll out relief, and move in a direction that brings peace to conflict areas? And how will public anger find expression, if anything, beyond flash protests?

Either way, the coup will take an emotional toll on a society that was only beginning to shed the distrust and trauma of decades of coup-delivered autocracy.

Mary Callahan is Associate Professor at the Henry M Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington.

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