Myanmar's coup: A move to wrest power from Aung San Suu Kyi, or to correct an ‘electoral fraud'?

The military cited electoral fraud as the reason for the coup, but the move is likely to be politically motivated.

Kayla Wong | February 05, 2021, 03:00 PM

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What happened?

In a coup on Monday (Feb. 1), Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and several leaders in the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party were arrested in pre-dawn raids.

While around 400 lawmakers were released by Wednesday, Feb. 3, about 15 NLD executives, including Suu Kyi and NLD President Win Myint, remain detained, Kyodo News reported.

On Friday, Feb. 5, a new arrest was made when Win Htein, Suu Kyi's right-hand man and a NLD stalwart, was detained, Reuters reported.

Why the coup now?

The place and time

Most of NLD's leadership were gathered in the country's capital Naypyidaw for the induction ceremony as the new parliament was to be sworn in for the coming five-year term.

Myanmar held a general election in November 2020, with the NLD winning a majority.

Those not present in Naypyidaw were detained in their home sates.

This suggests "a considerable degree of coordination and planning on the part of the military", Sebastian Strangio of The Diplomat opined.

The armed forces (Tatmadaw) and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have cited massive voter fraud in last year's elections as justification to conduct the coup.

A state of emergency was imposed for a year that will be followed by "free and fair" elections, the Tatmadaw said in a statement.

Wresting control of the country from the civilian government

But the coup, which comes after a decade of tensions between the Tatmadaw and the civilian government since Suu Kyi's release from house arrest and the start of the country's dalliance with democratic reforms, is likely to be politically motivated.

Suu Kyi’s massive popularity among the people appeared to have sharpened the divide between the military and civilian government, despite the Tatmadaw controlling three powerful ministries and occupying 25 per cent of seats in parliament, Strangio said.

The NLD's electoral victory had also thwarted Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing's ambitions to rule the country -- Win Htein told the New York Times that the general had planned to become president himself.

With the military general's mandatory retirement set to take place in June, the Tatmadaw might have wanted to consolidate its power before then.

Therefore, in order to prevent the civilian government from further weakening the military's control over domestic politics, due to the former's immense level of support from the people, the Tatmadaw might have made the decision to wrest power in a coup.

By putting power back in the hands of the military entirely -- it has ruled Myanmar directly for half a decade previously -- and by cutting off Suu Kyi’s political career, the Tatmadaw could then ensure its lasting place in the country's leadership.

What are locals saying?

They voiced their protest through peaceful means like singing songs, banging on pots and honking cars.

Civil disobedience efforts were organised mostly on social media platforms like Facebook.

Small-scale protests were also held in Mandalay.

Although the military cut access to Facebook, many continued their calls to protest against the military's actions by switching to Twitter or using VPN (virtual private networks) to bypass the Facebook ban, Myanmar Times reported.

What’s the foreign response so far?

U.S. condemnation of the coup is the strongest foreign response yet.

U.S. President Joe Biden, in his first foreign policy address on Thursday, Feb. 4, said a democracy should "never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election".

He added that the Tatmadaw should "relinquish power they have seized" and release those that they arrested and detained.

Previously, Biden had threatened to impose sanctions on the country, and called for the international community to come together to pressure the military to release their hold on power.

China, on the other hand, appeared to accept the military's takeover as a permanent change in Myanmar, calling it a “major cabinet reshuffle".

While China and Russia had blocked United Nations (UN) condemnation of the Tatmadaw initially, they later agreed on a joint statement released by the UN Security Council that contained language which was toned down from before.

The 15-member body called for the "immediate release” of those detained in Myanmar, and stressed "the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence and fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law", Bloomberg reported.

But the statement made no mention of the coup, and stopped short of condemning it.

In what appears to be an attempt to strike a balance, China also released a separate statement that said China is a "friendly neighbour" to Myanmar.

What next?

There isn’t much that external parties can do about the coup.

U.S. hands are tied as further pressure on the Tatmadaw might only drive Myanmar into China’s arms, which is something that the U.S. does not want in view of the larger strategic competition with China, despite their rhetoric of the need to uphold democracy.

And while China might prefer Suu Kyi to be in charge of Myanmar due to her greater receptiveness to joint infrastructure projects, as well as historical tensions with the Tatmadaw due to the latter's suspicions towards Beijing, China appears to be ready to work with whichever government that is in control of the country.

Myanmar’s political future, therefore, appears to lie in its own hands.

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Top image of a demonstration by Myanmar migrants outside the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok on Feb. 1 by LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images