Myanmar Crisis: Old habits die hard

10 mins read

Using election fraud as a pretext, general Min Aung Hlaing has decided to take over Burma thanks to a rather vague interpretation of the 2008
constitution. What happened to lead to these events?

Myanmar (also known as Burma) is a former British colony that obtained its independence in 1948. From 1962 to 2011 the country was governed by an oppressive military junta. In 1990, the government held free elections that were won by the National League for Democracy – Aung San Suu Kyi’s party – with 80% of the seats in parliament (i.e 392 out of 492 seats). However, it was too good to be true and the military junta refused to leave and therefore continued to rule the nation since its dissolution in 2011.

The country has gradually become more democratic since 2008, when a new constitution was adopted. The constitution, drafted by the junta, provides for power-sharing between the country’s civilians and military. This constitution gives lots of power to the military. Regardless which party won the elections (theirs or another), they automatically have 25% of seats in the Parliament of Myanmar, plus three keys ministries to with the ministries of home, border affairs and defence. The military also appoints two of the country’s vice presidents.

The 2015 election saw another National League for Democracy victory by a landslide. Aung San Suu Kyi – a world-famous woman for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 – became state counsellor and foreign minister, the country’s de facto leader (in Burma, the president is only honorary). In November 2020 the NLD won the general elections again. The party captured 396 out of 476 seats (82% of the seats in Parliament) while the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won only 33 seats.

Myanmar coup: Why the generals really took back power from Aung San Suu Kyi  - CNN
Roadblocks on the highway to the capital, Naypyidaw. Image Credit: CNN

The coup itself happened on the morning of 1 February. With a swath of early morning raids, Myanmar’s military has detained most of the country’s civilian leaders and anyone else likely to protest. Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior figures, such as the current president Win Myint, from the ruling party, were detained.

The military quickly seized control of the country’s infrastructures, suspending most television broadcasts, shutting off the internet and cancelling all domestic and international flights. The stock market and commercial banks closed down:

“The Army cut off the state media TV and radios, local phone lines and internet getting [got] disabled across
the country,” tweeted Burmese Reuters journalist Wa Lone. According to pictures and testimonies from local inhabitants (mostly on Facebook), the streets were full of military, trucks and roadblocks. The army occupied Yangon’s city hall.

Later that day, the coup was effectively announced on the military-owned Myawaddy TV station, hours after detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior figures from the ruling party. A news presenter quoted the 2008 constitution, which allows the military to declare a national emergency and the power will be transferred to the commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing. The state of emergency would remain in place for one year: “Legislative, administrative and judicial powers are transferred to the Chief Commander. This decree applies throughout the country for one year from today”.

This decision is necessary to preserve the “stability” of the state, the military said in a TV statement. They promise new free and fair elections once the one-year state of emergency is lifted. General Myint Swe is the newly appointed
interim president. The generals rely on an interpretation of the constitution that more or less authorises them to take
power under special circumstances. However, the Tatmadaw [the local name for the army] is not actually following the Constitution, only using it to claim authorities to which it is not entitled.

Various articles within the constitution of Myanmar help to illustrate the illegality of the actions taken by the military.

Bob Rae (an ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the UN in New York) argues on Twitter that,

“The Constitution of 2008 was specifically designed to ensure military power was deeply entrenched and protected. Tatmadaw wrote the Constitution this way so they could do this.”

Aaron Connelly adds in two tweets: “If S.G Min Aung Hlaing plans to continue arguing that he is following the 2008 Constitution he is likely to rely on Section 40(c), which can be interpreted as authorizing a coup under certain circumstances. Moreover, Section 40(c) should be read in combination with Sections 417 and 418, which clearly
place the authority for authorizing such a nationwide transfer of power in the hands of the president—an Aung Sang Suu Kyi ally who is reportedly now under arrest.”

In few hours the young Burmese democracy has fallen back into the darkest hours of its history.

The “official” reason given by the military to legitimate their coup is that they consider there were irregularities in the election. The army has claimed to have found 8.6m cases of fraud. However, the Myanmar’s election commission has rejected the military’s allegations of vote fraud, saying there were no big enough errors to affect the credibility of
the vote.

There is, however, an “unofficial” reason that may be more convincing. Aung San Suu Kyi is a very popular figure in Burma. Indeed, for many Burmese, she represents democracy, she is seen as an opposition figure facing the military dictatorship. Moreover, she has the absolute majority in parliament whereas military’s allied party -the Union, Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)- has been defeated in the 2020 elections, winning only 33 of the 476 seats in Parliament.

Myanmar coup: Min Aung Hlaing, the general who seized power - BBC News
Min Aung Hlaing, Senior General leading coup. Image Credit: BBC

The military felt threatened, afraid of losing power.

As might have been expected, there has been outcry from the Western world, with statements from Washington, London and Paris amongst others.

Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, strongly condemned the army’s arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political leaders:

“The detention of political leaders in Myanmar is a serious blow to democratic reforms in the country. I urge the military leadership to respect the will of the people & adhere to democratic norms.”

Following the President of the European Council, Charles Michel said,

“I strongly condemn the coup in Myanmar and call on the military to release all who have been unlawfully detained in raids across the country. The outcome of the elections has to be respected and democratic process needs to be

The head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell said, “Myanmar’s people want democracy. The EU stands with them.”

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, have called for the restoration of the legitimate civilian government and “the immediate and unconditional release of all those detained”.

The United States have strongly condemned the coup; on Twitter many high-ranking officials have reacted:

“The United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed,” the White House said.

“The United States stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace, and development,” Mr. Blinken said.

However not everyone reacted the same way around the world. China acknowledges the coup has made no comments.

Wang Wenbin, the foreign ministry spokesperson said: “We have noted what has happened in Myanmar and are in the process of further understanding the situation.”

Let’s keep in mind that China has substantial oil and gas interests in Myanmar.

Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines followed China in insisting that the issue was “internal to Myanmar”.

Feature Image Credit: Al Jazeera

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