On 1st February 2021, the state of Myanmar, also known as Burma, was seized by the military, following a massive country-wide protest. Hundreds of people have been detained, including elected State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, ministers, deputies, and members of the Parliament.
“Coups have no place in our modern world” ~ UN SecGen Guterres
Myanmar’s History of Political Instability
After its independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar has been almost always been under military control. A civilian government was formed in 1960, but it only remained in effect for two years, before the armed forces, called Tatmadaw, seized power again for about 26 years under commander Ne Win. A nationwide civil unrest in 1988, due to an economic crisis forced Ne Win to step down, but even then, the military maintained control by forming the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which remained in power till 30th March 2011 under Saw Maung, when it was officially dissolved by the Senior General and Council Chairman.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy
The daughter of Bogyoke Aung San, Father of the nation of Myanmar, Aung San rose to prominence in the 8888 Uprising and became the General Secretary of the National League for Democracy or the NLD. The NLD was formed by Suu Kyi and several retired army officials who criticized the people in power. Aung San was one of the most prominent pro-democracy activists during the protests of 1899.
The Tatmadaw, under the assumption that they had civilian support allowed free elections to be conducted in 1990 to appease the protesters. This election was consequently won by the NLD. However, the military refused to accept the results and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. In 2008, the Constitution of Myanmar was drafted and elections were again held in 2015; between Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party.
Once again Suu Kyi won the elections but though the military accepted the results, it still had the right to appoint one fourth of the parliament members. On 8th November 2020, general elections were held for the third time, and the NLD won the election by a landslide, boasting of an even larger margin than last time.
The Coup d'état : The Rise of Min Aung Hlaing
The military claimed widespread fraud and demanded a rerun of the vote. The election commission denied these accusations and declared there was no proof to support such claims. On 1st February 2021, the day before the Parliament of Myanmar was supposed to swear in the members of elected at the 2020 election, the Tatmadaw deposed the democratically elected members of the NLD and declared a year-long state of emergency, in the country’s first coup since 1988, bringing an end to a decade of civilian rule. Under the Commander in Chief of Defense Services Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw regained power. Min Aung Hlaing has long since been condemned by international powers for his alleged role in the military’s attack and “genocide” of the Rohingya Muslims ethnic minorities. He has justified the coup by claiming the military was on the side of the people and that they would form a true and disciplined democracy. He has also declared that a free and fair election will be held once the year-long state of emergency is over.
Following the coup, the country of Myanmar saw the rise of a nation-wide civil resistance, the largest since the “Saffron Revolution” led by the monks in 2007. The protesters, which include students, teachers, lawyers, bank officers and a variety of government workers; have employed non violent forms of protest, including acts of civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts, a pot banging movement and a red ribbon campaign. The protesters have shown their clear support of the NLD by donning the color red, which is associated by the party, and also by formally recognizing the election results. The military has retaliated by imposing strict restrictions, curfews, internet and social media blackouts. Reportedly, water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition has been used to disperse of the protesters. As of 15th February 2021, 452 confirmed protesters have been detained.
World Bank, Media and Facebook’s Stance
Following the coup, the World Bank has claimed that it would not process any requests for funds made after the February 1st. All payments for projects in Myanmar on withdrawal requests have been halted. President David Malpass claimed they were being “extra cautious” in dealing with Myanmar. They will, however continue to execute past projects, including emergency coronavirus relief. Media organizations have declared they would not comply with the state given order to stop using words like “coup” to refer to the Tatmadaw.
Military leaders claim the state of emergency was in accordance and even necessary and that calling it coup could be “acts of instigation that may arouse civil unrest”. Their calls to stop the use of terms like “coup”, “regime” and “junta” have so far been ignored. Facebook has said it will remove all Myanmar military and military controlled pages from Facebook and from Instagram, which it also owns.
Ads from military linked business will also be stopped. In a statement, the company said “Events since the February 1 coup, including deadly violence, have precipitated a need for this ban. We believe the risks of allowing the Tatmadaw on Facebook and Instagram are too great”. Pages that contribute to the public welfare, like the Ministry of Health and Sports and Ministry of Education will be left untouched.
Foreign Opposition and Support
Several international parties have expressed their condemnation of the coup and called for the junta to restore Suu Kyi’s government. The US, Britain and Canada have imposed sanctions against junta members for the killing of protesters. Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State has stated “We call on the military and police to cease all attacks on peaceful protesters, immediately release all those unjustly detained, stop attacks on and intimidation of journalists and activists, and restore the democratically elected government”
The European Union foreign ministers are set to take measures, targeting specifically those directly responsible for the coup. They are calling for an end to the state of emergency and the release of all political prisoners. The UK has also sanctioned another 6 military top-ranking officers to add to the previously sanctioned 19, including Aung Hlaing, to be immediately enforced. An official statement says “Today’s package of measures sends a clear message to the military regime in Myanmar that those responsible for human rights violations will be held to account, and the authorities must hand back control to a government elected by the people of Myanmar”.
China backed a UN Security Council statement calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and a return to democratic norms. Even though China is the only superpower willing to engage with the new regime, it is no secret China was much more comfortable dealing with the NLD. Anti-Chinese sentiments among the people of Myanmar over the belief that China is backing the junta has led to Chinese officials denying their contribution in helping the military build an internet firewall or providing them with special forces.
Indonesia has in the past taken a leading role in resolving issues like the Cambodian conflict of the 1980s. It is now trying to propose a compromise to resolve the situation. Retno Marsudi, Indonesian Foreign Minister, had been speculating holding a special ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meeting on Myanmar. The proposal was to hold the military to its promise of a new election within a year and insisting that all the political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi be released. However, anti-military protesters are arguing that the election results be honoured and that the NLD be restored to power. Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Cambodia have refused to criticise the coup, calling it an “internal matter”. On the other hand, Singapore, Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor has expressed “grave concern” and called the use of lethal force against protesters “inexcusable”.
The UN has had a history of mismanagement when it comes to Myanmar and its crisis. Over the past, we have seen several failed attempts at promoting a democratic opening since the 8888 Uprising, not to mention the ineffectual efforts of human rights rapporteurs. The most prominent failure so far, however, remains the silence of the UN agencies over the atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims’. The current special envoy, Swiss Diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener is tasked with mediating a compromise to lead the country out of the present condition. She is to come with a mandate from the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who has clearly stated that the coup must be made to fail.
“Coups have no place in our modern world”, Guterres stated. Furthermore, relief actors are working to resume activities that have been paused in some parts of the country, to deliver support to those in need. Ola Almgren, UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar stated “The UN and its partners have, for many years, been responding to humanitarian needs caused by conflict and natural disasters in Myanmar. It is our absolute intention to continue this work also under the current circumstances”.
Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for the UN Secretary General has voiced concerns over the increasing number of people held in detention in Myanmar. “The UN team is currently tracking more than 900 political and state officials, activists and civil society members – including journalists, monks and students – now being detained. And of course, we call for their immediate release."