Coup returns Myanmar to military rule: what we know


February 1, 2021

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi

What’s happening in Myanmar?

The military of Myanmar overthrew the civilian government Monday, February 1st, arresting civilian leaders, shutting down the internet across large parts of the country, and canceling domestic and international flights. The stock market and many banks have also closed. Myawaddy TV, the military-owned television network, announced in a read statement that Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would lead the country for one year during a state of emergency. Throngs of migrant workers from Myanmar living in neighboring Thailand protested in front of the Myanmar embassy Monday, many holding pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi and donned in red, the signature color of the National League for Democracy party. 

Sources indicate that numerous arrests have taken place, potentially even extending to non-N.L.D. party members. After Myanmar’s slow march to democracy began in 2011, many citizens are concerned that new strife could prove to be detrimental to Myanmar’s sputtering economy, which has already been damaged by the Covid-19 Pandemic. 

How did the coup unfold?

The coup d’etat came the morning that Myanmar’s new parliament, elected last November, was about to begin its first session and followed days of concern that the overthrow was imminent. The military maintains its actions are legally justified, citing a section of the constitution that allows the military to take control during times of national emergency. The military has said that the take over was necessary, because the civilian government had not acted upon claims that election fraud was widespread during the November election, and because the government allowed the election to take place amid the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic. No major violence has been reported, but soldiers have blocked the main roads in the capital Nay Piy Taw, and the largest city, Yangon. The military has also announced that twenty-four deputies and ministers had been removed from their posts, and eleven replacements have been named, including positions in finance, health, the interior, and foreign affairs. A curfew is reportedly in effect from 8:00 PM to 6:00 AM local time. 

Sources on the ground in Myanmar indicate that, despite chatter among the government and international actors, the coup d’etat came as a surprise to many ordinary people. According to the Constitution drawn up in 2008, only the President has the power to approve a state of emergency. However, in the early hours of the take over, the military announced that Vice President Myint Swe, a former general, would be elevated to acting President, giving the military the go ahead for declaring a state of emergency. 

Why did it happen now?

Monday’s coup d’etat returns Myanmar to military rule after a brief stint of quasi-democracy between 2011 and 2021. Before the military government instituted parliamentary elections and other reforms in 2011, the military had single-handedly controlled the levers of power since 1962. In elections that took place on November 8, 2020, the National League for Democracy (N.L.D.), Myanmar’s leading civilian party, won a resounding victory, garnering approximately 83% of the parliamentary seats. The election was widely seen as a referendum on the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the N.L.D. and the de facto leader of Myanmar’s civilian government since 2015. Tensions further intensified in the days before the overthrow, after the military had tried to argue in Myanmar’s Supreme Court that the November election results were fraudulent, and threatened to take action and surround the houses of Parliament with soldiers. 

Who is in charge?

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief who is now leading the country, was supposed to age out as army chief this summer. His ascension to Myanmar’s top political leader prolongs his career and cements military rule in the country. Under the former power-sharing agreement, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing retained significant influence in the quasi-civilian government, presiding over two business conglomerates and having the power to appoint cabinet members who oversee the police and border guards. While leading the army, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has overseen campaign’s against several ethnic minorities which reside in Myanmar, including the Rohingya, the Shan, and the Kokang. 

The coup d’etat marks a significant fall from grace for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who came to power as state counselor in 2016. The daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero, General Aung San, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi spent fifteen years under house arrest, which made her an international icon. Since her release from detention, her reputation has been dimmed by her cooperation with the military and her defense of Myanmar’s campaign against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group. In 2019, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi defended Myanmar at the International Criminal Court against accusations of ethnic cleansing. Her cooperation with the military may have been a pragmatic effort to move Myanmar along the path to democracy, but Monday’s events show that the military’s commitments to democratic values are nil. 

How has Myanmar and the world reacted?

While many residents expected armed vehicles and protests in major cities, the situation on the ground in Myanmar has been eerily quiet. The most common reaction from ordinary citizens has been anger at the military for thwarting democratic rule in the country. The response in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, has been similarly subdued, with some supporters of the army waving flags in the streets. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the army’s actions a “serious blow to democratic reforms,” and the United Nations Security Council is preparing for an emergency meeting. The United States also condemned the coup, saying it “opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections.” European Union leaders have issued similar condemnations. China, which has been historically opposed to any outside intervention in Myanmar, urged all sides to “resolve differences.”

In order to better understand the situation, Canvas has contacted an activist on the ground in Myanmar. Even though experiencing a dangerous and unstable situation, the activist was able to provide an insight into the events taking place in the country right now. The following interview is edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: How are you? How do you feel about the events that have been taking place in Myanmar?

A: It’s hard to describe the feeling. People who are not activists do not really know what is happening. I, along with many other people, feel lost. I know of someone who has been arrested who is not even a member of N.L.D. [National League for Democracy]. I don’t support the military or the N.L.D., but I am against the coup because I do not want Myanmar to return to military rule. We are surprised and we are lost and we are suffering.

Q: Can you give a brief synopsis of what has taken place since yesterday based on the information you have been able to access?

A: Everything beforehand was normal, most people did not expect that the coup would take place. The military is facing international pressure because of the genocide against the Rohingya, and no one expected them [the military] to have the authority to launch a coup because of this international pressure. I, along with everyone else, was caught by surprise. The military has talked about seizing more power, but nothing had happened up until now. My understanding is that the N.L.D. leaders are under house arrest. According to the 2008 Constitution, there should be a meeting of the security council first, and then the President can approve a state of emergency. However, the President was detained and the military made the Vice President the new interim President so they could approve the state of emergency. 

Q: How are you currently speaking with us? There are reports that telephone and internet connections have been suspended across the country. How are people, including yourself, getting information?

A: It is true that some operators have made it so that you cannot access the internet. I am using one of the two telephone operators that are still working. After 8:00 PM tonight, the internet will be shut off entirely. Citizens in Myanmar already do not have access to many civil liberties, so I am worried that this will prove detrimental to our liberties in the future. I am worried that they will shut off the internet and social media entirely, so that people will not be able to communicate. 

Q: What are your biggest concerns right now?

A: I am concerned that life will go back to what it was like after the 1962 coup, or what it was like in 1988. The military already ruled the country for fifty years, the younger generation doesn’t want this because it is bad for the economy and it takes a toll on individuals and their families. 

Q: Do you think that the November election was fraudulent? Or do people think this is just an excuse for the military to return to power?

A: It is hard to say. Most activists know that the military already held the power because of the provisions outlined in the Constitution. Most of the public believes that the National League for Democracy holds power in the country, but it is actually the military who is in control. Most people are worried about the economy and what the return to military rule will mean for their families, but they are too afraid to go out into the streets. 

Q: A large number of people supposedly voted for the National League for Democracy. Do you expect protests? Who do you think will be at these protests?

A: Most of the NLD leaders have been detained, so it will likely be new faces that will fight for democracy, but it will be difficult for people to accept a new leader. Maybe 100 or 200 people will join a protest, but they will likely be crushed by police.

Q: What do you think are the next steps for the country? What will you do next?

A: Only international pressure will help us. I am going to work with international organizations and the international networks we are in. I will help to pressure the solidarity movement, that is what I am currently doing. 

Q: How do you think the Covid-19 Pandemic will affect the response to the coup, if at all?

A: People are not thinking about the Pandemic, only about the coup. I have no reason to believe that protests would be affected. 

What’s next?

At this time, the situation on the ground is still unfolding. There have been no reports of major violence, but the situation is fluid. The military has declared a one-year state of emergency, so it is likely the army will retain their hold on power for at least the remainder of 2021.  

Activists, such as the one interviewed by CANVAS, have highlighted the importance of international pressure as one of the crucial avenues for future progress towards democracy.

The high levels of fear, regarding the dominance of the military in Myanmar’s politics, will likely dampen any coordinated response by activists on the ground in the short-term. 

Regimes that rule through fear are unfortunately common in today’s world, but the people of Myanmar should look to other nations which have experienced military coups to formulate a strategy for the future. Sudan is an example of a state that was able to overcome military rule through political action. Activists there relied on tactics of non-cooperation and an international social media campaign, #BlueForSudan. As a part of the #BlueForSudan campaign, activists changed their Instagram profile pictures to a blue background, memorializing a 26-year-old protestor named Mohamed Hashim Mattar who was killed during crackdowns on the protests in Sudan; his favorite color was blue. Activists in Myanmar could use similar tactics, possibly including the color red as a symbol of the National League for Democracy. The tactic seemed to work, spreading awareness about the violence not only across Sudan, but across the entire world. Celebrities and public figures changed their profile pictures to Mattar’s blue and posted messages about the conditions in Sudan to large audiences. However, because #BlueForSudan lacked specific demands, calling only for solidarity and awareness, it is difficult to assess the actual impact of the movement. Activists in Myanmar could draw inspiration from tactics used by organizers in Sudan, while also learning from their mistakes. 

Fear of reprisal for speaking up is one of the main tactics the military has relied on in the past, to squash dissent and cement army control over the levers of power. However, activists have at hand a number of strategies to combat the fear instilled by the military government. Fear is an effective method of control because it relies on peoples’ anxiety about the future and what is to come. Thus, a remedy for counteracting a strategy of fear is a strategy of information. Pro-democracy movements should make their goals clear and identifiable, so that ordinary people understand the things for which activists are campaigning.

Pro-democracy campaigns should be truly grassroots in nature, as the people who witness oppression every day are the ones who know best what needs to be changed. It can also be productive to provide information about the tactics being used by the government, so that people can recognize that the goal of those in power is to terrify them into submission. The imprisonment of the National League for Democracy’s top leaders could be catastrophic for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar if leaders cannot find a way to communicate with the people, or if no new leaders arise from the chaos. The cultivation of a sense of trust and confidence in the leaders of a pro-democracy movement is essential to the cause. One way to instill this confidence is to place emphasis on preparation; if grassroots leaders are prepared and knowledgeable about the situation they face, then people will place more trust in them and feel more equipped to take on their fears.

Nonetheless, Monday’s coup is a significant step backwards on Myanmar’s journey towards becoming a functioning democracy. Overcoming fear should be the first step on the path to restoring democratic values in the country.