Why did the Myanmar military stage a coup?

People with a defaced portrait of Myanmar military Commander-in-Chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing stage a protest rally in front of the United Nations University in Tokyo Monday, Feb. 1, 2021

The military backed the USDP’s allegations of fraud, without offering any evidence

Myanmar’s powerful military chief Min Aung Hlaing had raised doubts about last year’s election results even before the polls were held. “We are in a situation where we need to be cautious about the outcome,” he told the local media before the November 8 elections. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept the polls by winning almost 80% of the vote, while the Army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) suffered a humiliating defeat. The USDP did not accept the result. The military backed the USDP’s allegations of fraud, without offering any evidence.

Myanmar’s Union Election Commission dismissed the allegations and re-endorsed the results. On Monday, hours before the new Parliament was to convene, the Generals moved into action. They detained State Counsellor Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other top leaders of the NLD. They declared a state of emergency for a year, and took power in their hands. Myanmar, which started a fragile transition to democracy 10 years ago after decades of brutal military dictatorship, is back in the hands of the Generals.

Why the transition failed?

The political climate in the junta-led Myanmar started changing around 2010. In 2008, the military had written a new Constitution that made sure the Generals’ interests would be protected even if there is a transition. Than Shwe, who had been ruling the country since 1992, shook up the power structure, promoted young soldiers who were loyal to him and conducted elections under the new Constitution. The NLD, which had not recognised the Constitution, boycotted the 2010 election, which the USDP won. In the next five years, the Army loosened its grip on the government and society. Political prisoners, including Ms. Suu Kyi, were released. Media censorship was eased. U.S. President Barack Obama visited Myanmar in 2012, signalling a thaw in relations between Myanmar and the U.S. Ms. Suu Kyi’s party also changed its earlier position and accepted the Army-written Constitution. The NLD won the 2015 election, 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.

But the 2008 Constitution has enough clauses to prevent such a change. According to the Constitution, the President must have military experience and the President himself, his spouse or children “shall not be subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country”. Ms. Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British citizens, cannot become President. The Constitution also mandates that the Defence and Interior Ministries would be controlled by the military. Also, 25% of the total seats in Parliament (166 out of the 664-member house) are reserved for the military, giving it a veto over any move to change the Constitution. So even when the Army allowed power to be transferred to an elected government, it made sure that it would continue to drive defence and internal security policies, and that the USDP, its political vehicle, has an edge over other parties in elections with the reserved seats in Parliament. But the Generals wanted more.

What does the Army want?

The timing of the coup is self-explanatory. It unfolded hours before the new Parliament was scheduled to convene. Had it happened, the results would have been constitutionally endorsed. Tensions have been rising between the NLD and the military ever since the November election. The 2015 and 2020 election results showed the growing popularity of Ms. Suu Kyi and the unpopularity of the military. The 2020 elections were held after the Army launched a brutal crackdown on Rohingya in Rakhine State in the name of fighting terrorism, which forced over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee Myanmar to neighbouring countries, mainly Bangladesh. The Army was also projecting Commander in Chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing as a tough soldier dedicated to the security of the country. He went to social media to popularise his activities. (His Facebook pages were taken down after the Rohingya crackdown).

But neither the war nor the public relations work helped the army-backed politicians win elections. With 166 seats reserved for the military, the USDP wanted only 167 seats to form the government and appoint the next President (according to some reports, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has presidential ambitions), whereas the NLD needed 333 seats for an outright victory. The voters gave the NLD 396 seats, while the USDP ended up with just 33. This set the alarm bells ringing in the headquarters of Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is called. The Generals may have sensed that even the limited democratic experiment was gradually threatening the military’s entrenched interests with Suu Kyi remaining immensely popular. Ms. Suu Kyi had tried to buy peace with the Generals in her first term, especially on the Rohingya issue. She defended the Army crackdown on the Rohingya, which UN investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent”. But the Generals were still not pleased.

What’s next?

The Army says it has declared an emergency as the NLD government failed to act on its complaints on voter fraud. It has promised elections, without offering any time frame. But the NLD has called for protests against the coup. The U.S., which under President Obama helped the transition, has reacted harshly. India has expressed “deep concern”. But if China’s response is any indication, the Generals won’t face any heat from Beijing. This means, they could circumvent pressure from the U.S., even economic sanctions, by moving closer to China, which is already making huge investments in Myanmar. But Suu Kyi’s popularity and an energised NLD that was in power for five years would be an impediment for them. And their own unpopularity, a burden.