On 1 February, the military is back in power in a coup. It is the third time in the nation’s history since its independence from British rule in 1948. The capital and the bridge to parliament were blocked by police, and the roads were lined by the military. In the country’s largest city, Yangon, Military supporters play army anthems, and the police keep a close eye on the residents who shut into a country where the internet was shut off and the airports were closed. And on military TV declared a state of emergency and reported army leader Min Aung Hlaing would take control for a year. It is the end of five years of quasi-democracy. Early this morning, military officials arrested the country leaders, Aung San Suu Kyi, and dozens of others, including lawmakers holding his young son as he broadcast his arrest on Facebook. In a statement, Suu Kyi called for a peaceful resistance: “I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military… Only the people are important.”
In November 2020 Myanmar’s parliamentary elections were won (82% of parliamentary seats at the union, regional, and state levels) by Miss Ang San Suu Kyi’s NLD under a democratic government. The armed forces had backed the opposition, who were demanding re-election, claiming widespread election fraud. The election commission said there was no evidence to support these claims. The coup took place as a new session of parliament was set to open by the NLD party that secured the majority of the seats. One theory is that he and others are worried about the plans by the new government to bring in reforms, like changing the constitution. The NLD had tried it before and failed because of the military’s 25% hold on parliament, but is thought to have angered the military. Another theory is that Min Aung Hlaing was acting in his self-interest. He is on the verge of retirement, and this could very well be a desperate move to salvage his political career and future. Some military personnel is also not in the favor of a coup.
Story of Myanmar’s military and the coup
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a country in South East Asia. Here, is going on a rivalry between the military and a popular pro-democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party. People in Myanmar were put through almost 50 years of military rule. The country was closed off to the world and international sanctions hurt. There were recurring protests and violent crackdowns while Aung San Suu Kyi made a name for herself as the face of the opposition. She spent a total of 15 years under house arrest. Her efforts won her a Nobel Peace Prize. Then came what people call Myanmar’s experiment with democracy. There was a referendum, attempts at free elections and foreign investment increased. In 2015 Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD party won in a landslide. During this period people enjoyed 10 years of much greater freedom in terms of information, media, social media, communication, civil society organizations and it’s difficult to put that back in a bottle.
The military got so powerful because the power has come in handy for maintaining control. Its neighbors are Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, China, and India. It is a diverse country, it has more than 130 ethnic groups, and ethnic divisions only got worse under Japanese and British rule. Burma got its independence in 1989 from the British, and power was unexpectedly handed to the majority Burmans, a deal that excluded numerous ethnic minorities. In the first 10 to 15 years of independence, there were a series of regional rebellions. The military believed it was the only force that could take care of it to hold the country together and make sure that the ethnic Burman majority is on top. So, the military’s been in power but at one point decides to share control and create some kind of democracy.
In the 2010s, the military regime decided to transition the country towards democracy. In Myanmar’s Parliament, the military holds 25% of the total seats according to the 2008 military-drafted constitution and several key ministerial positions are also reserved for military appointees. The Military also created two huge conglomerates made up of local and foreign companies. (military’s economic holding extends right throughout the economy, in a sense, the military is a kind of a government within a government) Due to this influence of the military, a lot of people consider Aung San Suu Kyi, a puppet.
Ms. Suu Kyi’s powers were limited, she was disqualified from being president because her children were born abroad. That was also a clause written into the 2008 constitution. To get around that she created the role of state counselor for herself. The military was hair-trigger finger and they were ready to take over at any moment at the slightest sense their interest were not being met. While she was in power didn’t criticize the military, something that was obvious when it came to the crackdown on the Rohingya. Rohingya’s were stateless, Muslim minorities who live in Rakhine state, where the army says it’s been carrying out a counterterrorism offensive. However, the UN and others described it as a campaign of genocide and crimes that include killing children, raping women, burning homes, basically using fear to push out more than 800,00 Rohingya into Bangladesh. And yet Aung San Suu Kyi defended the military operation. That obviously cost her status as an icon of international communities and human rights communities. Now, she again back in detention.
In the 2015 election, the NLD had won the country’s first free and fair election participated by multiple parties, and formed the government, raising hopes that the country is on its way to full transition to democracy. However they also have a military-backed political party, was defeated very badly in November 2021 election. NDL party had election promises to decrease military influence in democracy.
Military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing has taken power. He has long wielded significant political influence, successfully maintaining the power of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) even as the country moved towards democracy. He has received international condemnation and sanctions for his alleged role in the military’s attacks on ethnic minorities. In his first public comments after the coup, Gen Hlaing sought to justify the takeover. He said the military was on the side of the people and would form a “true and disciplined democracy.” The military says it will hold a “free and fair” election once the state of emergency is over.
The military has detained Ms. Suu Kyi and other leaders at an unknown location since the coup. She is facing various charges, including possessing illegal walkie-talkies, violating Covid-19 restrictions during last year’s election campaign, and publishing information that may “cause fear or alarm.” NLD MPs who managed to escape arrest formed a new group in hiding. Their leader has urged protesters to defend themselves against the crackdown.
How have people reacted?
Some people seem to back the military, also known as the Tatmadaw. There are nationalist groups inside the country who see the Tatmadaw as a defender of the nation and in particular a defender of Buddhism. But the fact is Aung San Suu Kyi is by far the most popular. The people of Myanmar were given the chance to vote in a free and fair election twice. Their hero is Aung San Suu Kyi, the party they want to rule is the NLD. People are protesting, and there are some of the biggest crowds since 2007. They are spreading across the country. Some activists started what they call a civil disobedience movement, honking horns, banging pans, and giving a three-finger salute. (they said, “they have decided to fight until the end of their lives for their future generations”)
However, the military has imposed restrictions such as on the internet, including curfews and limits to gatherings, and more people are being arrested. This is a widening circle of not just the political figures but writers, journalists, artists, social media people, human rights defenders. Security forces have used water cannons, rubber bullets, and live ammunition to try to disperse protesters. The activists used social media to oppose the military coup and organize protests. Myanmar’s junta blocked Facebook and WhatsApp in the name of ensuring stability even as street protests were reported from some cities.
The Torturous Politics of Myanmar
- The Constitution of Myanmar was drafted in 2008 by the military with the intent to remain in power behind a civilian party. And they were concerned with the new democratic Myanmar that could emerge with the victory of the NLD.
- The 2020 elections, after the army, launched a brutal crackdown on Rohingya in Rakhine State in the name of fighting terrorism, forced over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee Myanmar.
- Myanmar has always preferred solving its internal conflicts by itself letting negligible interference from any Foreign or International Power. Many international mechanisms comprising Western and Asian countries that were formed to coordinate strategies on Myanmar were disbanded after the 2015 election.
- The military understands the people’s psyche well.
- The divide between the majority group Burmans, and the ethnic minorities remains wide. The latter are generally opposed to a strong Central government.
- In the recent military coup, the Burmans are supportive of Aung San Suu Kyi but it will be true only up to a point.
- They are largely Buddhists and peace-loving. Hence, they might accept the grabbing of power from elected representatives by the army.
What has the international reaction been to the coup?
The UN Secretary-General António Guterres has vowed to mobilize the international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to ensure that the military coup in the country fails. He said, “it was a serious blow to democratic reforms.” The US and UK have responded with sanctions on military officials and called for a concerted international response to press them to relinquish power. The US President has referred to the action as a coup and has called on the military “to relinquish seized power,” free all officials and advocates detained, lift the restrictions on telecommunications and refrain from violence.
Russia and China have a close relationship with the military and both blocked a UN resolution condemning the coup. ASEAN’s current chair, Brunei, called for ‘dialogue among parties, reconciliation and the return to normalcy. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia expressed concern, while Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines noted that this was Myanmar’s ‘internal affair.’ But pretty much everyone wants Myanmar to get back on track. There is no shortage of friends, no shortage of influences, the International community has to use whatever technique that it can to try to encourage a return to some kind of power-sharing with the civilians. The military has said it will be in power for a year, but the right mix of incentives and pressure could convince the generals to turn around and reinstate some form of democracy.
India’s point of view
India and Myanmar are neighbors with close cultural and people-to-people ties, bolstered by trade, economic, security, and defense-related exchanges. India supports the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. Though India has expressed deep concern over recent developments in Myanmar, cutting off from the Myanmar military is not a viable option as it has significant economic and strategic interests in Myanmar and its neighborhood.
India’s military-diplomatic outreach to Myanmar became a cornerstone of its Act East policy. On the eve of the recent visit of the Foreign Secretary Chief of the Army Staff to Myanmar in 2020, Myanmar handed over 22 Indian insurgents from across the border and it was decided to ramp up the sale of military hardware to Myanmar, including 105 mm light artillery guns, naval gunboats and more recently, lightweight torpedoes. Recent cooperation, Myanmar has begun to vaccinate itself with the 1.5 million doses of Covid vaccine sent by India, while putting China’s 3,00,000 doses on hold. India is also providing humanitarian support for the people.
India has cultivated several infrastructure and development projects with Myanmar, which it sees as the “gateway to the East” and ASEAN countries, such as Operationalization of the crucial Sittwe port in Myanmar’s Rakhine state by 2021 is committed, and India assists infrastructure projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. The Kaladan project will link Kolkata to Sittwe in Myanmar and then from Myanmar’s Kaladan river to India’s north-east.
The two countries signed the Land Border Crossing Agreement in 2018, which allowed bona fide travellers with valid documents to cross the border at two international points of entry/exit- Moreh-Tamu and Zokhawthar-Rih. India has been concerned over some militant groups like the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) from the North-East region taking shelter in Myanmar. Indian needs perpetual support and coordination from Myanmar for the maintenance of security and stability along its North East border areas.
India is committed ensuring the safe, sustainable, and speedy return of Rohingya refugees from the refugee camps of India and Bangladesh. Building on the progress made under the Rakhine State Development Program (RSDP), India has recently proposed to finalize projects under phase-III of the program, including setting up a skills training center and upgrading agricultural mechanization. Indian invested over USD 1.2 billion, Myanmar holds considerable importance than any other country in South Asia.
The two countries are also expanding partnerships in the area of energy cooperation. Recently, India approved an investment of over USD 120 million in the Shwe Oil and Gas project.
- Adhering to the communal division among the people of Myanmar would not be fruitful. In the current scenario, the military will continue to exploit ethnic and religious fault lines. Myanmar communities need to reduce the gap among themselves.
- The Myanmar military has always been able to economically withstand sanctions by striking deals with Asian countries in the past. Therefore imposing sanctions is unlikely to bring any major political change.
- India must want to remain engaged in Myanmar for quite a few reasons. Many insurgent groups find haven in Myanmar, which means India needs its help to counter them. India should work towards the mutual development of the people of both countries. It should support sharing experiences in constitutionalism and federalism to assist Myanmar in resolving the prevailing stalemate.
(Pictures from google)