On the morning of Feb. 1, the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government and seized control. Why and how did this coup happen — and what is happening now?
Why did the military seize control of the country?
After the military’s preferred party was soundly defeated in the nation’s elections in November, the military claimed fraud impacted the results. The military previously wanted the election to be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
How did the military take control?
The military exercised a clause in the nation’s constitution that allows it to seize control of the government during an emergency. Military officials claim that the government’s failure to properly investigate its claims of election fraud amounts to an emergency. The election commission claimed there was no evidence of fraud.
If the constitution allows the military to take control, is it actually a coup?
The short answer is yes. The constitution technically allows the military to seize control, but the military added that clause to the constitution when it was previously in control of the government. The military took control of the government in 1962 and has held control for most of the last 60 years.
As part of the coup, the military detained various democratically elected political opponents, including State Counsellor and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her deputies. The military previously held Suu Kyi under house arrest for years because of her opposition to military control. In 2015, she became the leader of Myanmar after her National League for Democracy Party won a vast majority of seats in the country’s parliament.
In a pre-written statement on Facebook, Suu Kyi wrote, “I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military.” She claimed that the military’s move would put Myanmar “back under a dictatorship.”
Analyst Larry Jagan said the takeover was a “pretext for the military to reassert their full influence over the political infrastructure of the country and to determine the future, at least in the short term.” He said that the military doesn’t want Suu Kyi to be part of that future.
Who is leading the country now?
According to a report on the military-owned Myawaddy TV, Commander-in-Chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing will be in charge for one year.
What did Western leaders say about the coup when it first happened?
President Joe Biden issued a statement saying, “The United States removed sanctions on Burma [Burma and Myanmar are used interchangeably] over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action.”
EU Council President Charles Michel said,
“The coup follows outrageous claims of election fraud during the country’s recent general election, and this is now being used as a pretext for the state of emergency. We have long known that the military sought to consolidate its power, and they have done so today by force with the world watching. These efforts completely demolish any democratic progress the country has made and serve only to protect and elevate the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. The time for softball diplomacy is over, the international community must immediately impose targeted sanctions on the generals and their enterprises and should view these arrests as a continuation of the crimes which the Burmese military and its leadership are already being investigated for at the international court of justice.”
What did China say about the coup?
While Western nations called for sanctions, China attempted to take a neutral stance. “We have noted what has happened in Myanmar and are in the process of further understanding the situation,” said Wang Wenbin, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. He continued, “China is a friendly neighbor of Myanmar’s. We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability.”
Why did some in the West voice concern in the time leading up to Myanmar’s elections?
Despite the worldwide outrage over the military’s coup, many in the West were already on record in their criticism of the ruling party and its decision to hold an election in November despite the fact that it was in violation of some parts of existing election law. In particular, they noted the party’s decision to again disenfranchise the Rohingya Muslims during the election, along with other ethnic groups, who have all been subject to ongoing persecution and violence. In addition, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed concern over the “cancellation of voting in parts of several states and regions, and the disqualification of candidates ‘based on arbitrary application of citizenship and residency requirements.’”
The Rohingya, a group of about 1 million Muslims living in exile after being expelled from the country, had been able to vote and run for office in all elections prior to 2015, but are no longer allowed to even though election laws have not been changed under democratically elected political leaders.
Wai Wai Nu, the executive director of the Women’s Peace Network in Myanmar, a former political prisoner, and a current fellow at the Simon Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide within the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, wrote in Time magazine:
“An election that excludes entire communities because of their identity cannot be considered credible, free, nor fair…. Many Western pro-engagement groups and governments have demonstrated their willingness to put the promotion of democracy — flawed as it may be in Myanmar — over the protection of the Rohingya and others from future atrocities. But sacrificing the lives and safety of Rohingya in the name of promoting democracy is immoral and short-sighted.”
There is no indication that the military has any concern for the Rohingya’s voting rights in their claims of fraud.
What happened in the days following the coup?
After the coup, television signals as well as phone and Internet service were shut down. Passenger flights were also grounded.
On Feb. 6, the BBC reported that tens of thousands of protesters had taken to the streets in numerous cities across the country, and those demonstrations have continued ever since. Authorities have used water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets against protestors. There is also an unconfirmed report that live ammunition may have been used against one female protestor who has a critical head injury.
“We cannot stay quiet,” youth leader Esther Ze Naw told Reuters. “If there is blood shed during our peaceful protests, then there will be more if we let them take over the country.”
Protestors are defying bans on public gatherings of over five people and a curfew that’s been put in place. An 18-year-old protestor described the scene outside her house in Yangon, “There are hundreds of people protesting against the military coup. Everything is in total chaos,” she told BBC Outside Source on World Service Radio.
“Yesterday [Monday] I went in front of the U.N. [to protest]. Today I didn’t go because the situation is really dangerous. My biggest fear is our safety, because there are lots of people on the roads protesting, but there is also a lot of violence from police officers. We don’t know when we’ll be shot at or when they will arrest us.”
On Feb. 8, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing gave his first televised address since the coup. He claimed the seizure of power was due to election fraud. He stated that after one year, the military would form a new election commission and after a fair election would hand power to the winner. He insisted that this was different from the military’s previous seizure of control and would achieve “true and disciplined democracy.”
What is the latest on how the U.S. and other countries are responding to the military coup of Myanmar?
On Feb. 10, President Biden announced that the U.S. will impose sanctions on “the military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests, as well as close family members.” In announcing his executive order, Biden called on the military leaders to release everyone it has detained over the last 10 days, including Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders, and to cease its crackdown on protesters.
He went on to explain:
“The U.S. government is taking steps to prevent the generals from improperly having access to the one billion dollars in Burmese government funds held in the United States. We’re also going to impose strong export controls. We’re freezing U.S. assets that benefit the Burmese government while maintaining our support for health care, civil society groups, and other areas that benefit the people of Burma directly…. The military must relinquish power they’ve seized and demonstrate respect for the will of the people of Burma, as expressed in their November 8 election…. We’ll be ready to impose additional measures and we’ll continue to work with our international partners to urge other nations to join us in these efforts.”
The Biden administration plans to work with other countries to roll out collective actions against the Myanmar military, according to U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price. “We can impose substantial costs ourselves,” he said. “We can impose costs that are even steeper…by working with our like-minded partners and allies. It will be very clear to those around the world, but especially the military — the military elements in Burma who are responsible for this — that the cost for their anti-democratic action will be steep.”