The Myanmar coup, why it happened and what the consequences are

Myanmar’s history

Myanmar, formally known as Burma, is a very old country, going back as far as 1057, when the King Anawrahta formed the first version of Myanmar with the Pagan Empire. It knows a lot of wars, with the Mongols and the British since 1824, and being a colony of the latter as a result of the Anglo-Burma Wars. Burma became an official colony on January 1st, 1886, after three Anglo-Burma wars, and was ruled as a province of British India. Later, Burma became a crown colony of Britain, being used a bridge between British India and the rest of Asia. The British actually named the country Burma, after the Burmans, the biggest ethic group in the country (Hays, n.d.).

After being ruled by the British, Japan invaded the country in 1942. The main purpose of this invasion was to cut off the Burma road, the one remaining land supply route to China, at the time, Japan occupied Thailand. In 1948, Burma finally became an independent state, with U Nu as Prime Minister. In 1962, the first coup took place, the military ousted U Nu’s government and implemented a single party system and censored the newspapers (BBC News, 2018).

Aung San Suu Kyi is a famous name in Myanmar, she was the daughter of Aung San, he was a politician, the founder of the Myanmar Armed Forces and considered founder of modern day Myanmar. He was also the Governor of Burma, when it was still under British ruling. Aung San Suu Kyi is a prominent figure in current day Myanmar, from 2016 to 2021, she was State Counsellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs, she is also known for her many years of house arrest. This was caused by the fact that she is the founder and leader of the opposition party NLD, the National League for Democracy. This party was founded after the 1988 protests, when she started to get noticed by the people of Myanmar and started getting a following. She famously brought democracy to her country without using violence. She keeps being imprisoned, because she never stops promoting democracy, which gives the people hope and strength, and keeps protests going. Of the past 21 years, she has been under house arrest for 15 of them. It started in 1989, which lasted until 1995, then from 2000 till 2002 and again from 2003 till 2010, after many extensions (Burma: Chronology of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Detention, 2020).

The years leading up to the 2021 coup

In 2010, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) claims to have won the first elections in 20 years. There was a lot of uproar about these claims, also from other states around the world, saying that the claim is a sham. The opposition party, the NLD, says they have been fraudulent with the results of the elections. The junta says this is the introduction of a civilian democracy, leaving behind the military rule. In 2011, the new president, Thein Sein, is named and the new government is now has its power to rule. Thein Sein was formally Prime Minister of Myanmar from 2007 to 2010. During his ruling the same year, thousands of prisoners are released under amnesty, also hundreds of political prisoners are set free under general amnesty (BBC News, 2011).

In 2015, there were fights going on in Shan State, between the military and Kokang separatists. This is also one of the regions where the Rohingya are being chased away. This was also the year that hundreds of Rohingya’s fled to Bangladesh in unsafe boats, which Southeast Asian countries were criticized for by the UN for their lack of aid. This year, there were meant to be elections, but the Rohingya were deprived of their voting rights beforehand. The results of the elections were very favourable towards the NLD, Aung Suu San Kyi’s party, with enough seats to be able to form a new government. In 2018, the UN blames Myanmar for committing genocide on the Rohingya and calls 6 military leaders to court, and claims that Aung Suu San Kyi failed to protect the Rohingya from this violence. All claims were denied by Myanmar.

The course of the coup

In 2021, the NLD beat the military-backed parties in the elections with 83 percent of the votes. After not yet having reinstated the new parliament, the military claimed the results were fraudulent and were a popularity vote for Suu Kyi. This prompted the military to overthrow the government and keep Suu Kyi, other NLD members, activists and other parties under house arrest. In the weeks after the coup, nationwide protests rose up, thousands of people on the streets, ordinary people, who refused to go back to work until the rightful and elected  government was put into place. These protests started out peaceful, but turned ugly, with people needing to defend themselves from the military fighting back. At one point, the military was using live ammunition on protesters and shooting at people’s homes. At the end of 2021, the military was destroying complete villages if they believed they supported the opposition, killing ordinary civilians. It is believed that 1,500 people have been killed so far, this is believed to be more and arrested over 8,000 NLD members, journalists and protesters. The deposed members, protest leaders, and others have established the National Unity Government (NUG). Its goal is to restore the democracy and the elected government to lead the country, bring the groups opposed to the junta together and gain support form international governments. Seven months after the coup in September, NUG announced they were at war with the junta and set up an armed division, the People’s Defence Force (Maizland, 2022).

New government

Now that the military is in power, a state of emergency has been declared. With this state of emergency the military junta has total control over the country, meaning that they can implement any sort of policy without mingling from the opposition. The new head of state of the Union of Myanmar is Min Aung Hlaing, he is now leading the newly founded State Administration council. Prior to the coup Min Aung Hlaing already had a powerful position within Myanmar society, the army as well as the political field. He lead an offence during the Saffron revolution. The saffron were a series of protests that ignited after the government removed subsidies on the sales prices of fuel. The saffron refers to the color of the robes which the buddhist monks who participated in the protests wore. A large number of protesters were arrested following the crackdown (Maung, 2021).

During the 10 years that a civilian government ruled the country Min Uang Hlaing made sure the military knowns as the Tatmadaw kept a role of importance and influence in Myanmar politics. He was involved in an internal purge within the Union Solidarity and Development Party, after a party member called for legislation and constitutional amendments that would decrease the Tatmadaw’s military influence within the party. Min Aung Hlaing also played a role in the 2017 military violence against the Rohingya ethnic group in the North west of the country, which was labeled a genocide by the UN investigative panel (Maung, 2021).

During the reign of Aung San Suu Kyi allot of efforts were made to further democratize Myanmar. Via political reforms. Restrictive press censorships were lifted and freedom of speech was more widely introduced, internet restrictions on certain websites were lifted and state media made way for independent news outlets. A ton of political prisoners were also freed. Although not perfect, the reforms were seen as a huge improvement compared to the restrictive regimes that ruled Myanmar prior. But now that the military junta under Min Uang Hlaing has taken over, all of those reforms seem to be reversed. Opponents of the regime are either killed or put in jail, all forms of free press are restricted and allot of parts of the internet have become inaccessible (Maung, 2021).

Eruption of violence and a civil war

At first, the coup was met with allot of protests from the many civilians that supported the democratically elected government. The protests at first were concentrated within the city, but also spread to smaller towns in other regions of the country. Very early it was clear that the Junta did not consider negotiations or any sort of acceptance of these protests. The militaries response to the protests has been extremely violent. Junta forces have killed at least a 1,500 civilians that participated during protests. This violent response led to many protesters and supporters of the former government picking up arms and joining either the government om exile’s militia knows as the Peoples Defense Force, or joining other ethnic militias that side against the military junta. Many have traveled to the border regions of Myanmar to receive military training from the already experienced ethnic-militia members (Paddock & Times, 2022).

Prior to the coup, Myanmar was already had the world’s longest internal conflict, with many ethnic militias fighting for more autonomy, independence or federalization of the country in different states. For decades, the military battled these ethnic groups but never gained full control of the provinces. But after the 2015 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi was able to sign a peace deal with the many armed militias, for which Aung San Sun Kyi received a Noble peace prize. But after the coup many militias rejected the peace deals and picked up arms again. Now, the military has lost even more control over the rebellious territories (Paddock & Times, 2022).

The Kachin people of the Kachin state have had their own military known as the Kachin Independence army. They have been fighting the several governments that ruled Myanmar for years. Another large player within the current conflict is the Arakan army. Another militia or army that has been involved in ethnic conflicts for years. Although these Myanmar militias are not perse supporters of the Peoples defense force or the National Democratic league, they are all opponents of the military junta and have been collaborating with one another (Paddock & Times, 2022).

This civil conflict and the extreme violence used by the Myanmar military caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes in towns and cities across and the death of thousands of innocent civilians. As the military resorts to extreme violence, via rape, arson, mass executions the death toll keeps rising (Paddock & Times, 2022).

International response to the Myanmar coup

Problem

The Myanmar coup brought an abrupt halt to a decade in which the economy and politics liberalized. The increase in trade contacts and the movement towards a more modern and democratic society in Myanmar was severely jeopardized by this coup. This also had (and still has) effects on other countries.

Challenge

When it comes to international response or reaction to a coup in general, a mayor challenge can be to target only the coup leaders, without penalizing the citizens. Those who are responsible for the coup and its violence, should be sanctioned. But it must be avoided that the sanctions have a major effect on the economy or the population. Appropriate penalties and measures could include boycotting military-owned companies or companies owned by coup leaders.

First reactions

The reactions from around the world were varied. Matters about which concerns were expressed were:

  • The “arbitrary detention” of members of the government of Myanmar.
  • The need to preserve and protect democratic processes and institutions was emphasized.
  • The need for the preservation of fundamental freedoms, human rights and the rule of law were emphasized.

Governments that wanted to signal the importance of a return to democracy in Myanmar had to take sanctions. Some countries did this very quickly. New Zealand, for example, made it clear right away that it did not recognize this military-led government and suspended high-level military and political contacts. The US also reacted quickly, President Biden immediately approved sanctions against the coup leaders, and donated 40 million dollars to the Myanmar government for the benefit of civil society (Responding to the Myanmar Coup, 2021).

The UN Security Council met on February 4, 2021 to discuss the situation in Myanmar. It expressed deep concern and demanded the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The UN Human Rights Council also met to discuss this situation (Coup in Myanmar: What Can the UN Do?, 2021).

The Council of Europe has imposed sanctions on 8 individuals, 3 economic entities and the War Veterans Organization in response to the coup. The European Union’s restrictive measures correspond to those of the other international partners (Myanmar/Burma: Third Round of EU Sanctions over the Military Coup and Subsequent Repression, 2021).

Recently, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged the world leaders to increase the amount of pressure on Myanmar’s military rulers. She argued that although the coup had been condemned almost universally, the international response had been ineffectual. She also stated that there is a lack of realization of the degree of urgency in this situation. She also emphasized that it is important that the human rights violators and abusers are held responsible for their actions and that they must see punishment (Al Jazeera, 2022).

 

ASEAN

What was striking about ASEAN is that, unlike the UN and western countries, it made a fairly mild statement after the coup was committed. There were differences in the responses of ASEAN states. Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia described the events as an “internal affair”, but Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore did express concern about the military takeover.

As violence against protesters in Myanmar became worse, the ASEAN foreign ministers took the initiative to engage in conversations with Myanmar’s military. They called on all parties to stop the violence. Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines and also issued statements calling for the release of Myanmar’s leader.

The ASEAN leaders met Min Aung Hlaing on April 24 and agreed on a five-point plan to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. The “Five Point Consensus” included ending the escalating violence, fostering talks between the parties and appointing an envoy to facilitate dialogue. Russia, China and the United States backed the ASEAN’s diplomatic efforts to prevent the crisis from escalating (Al Jazeera, 2021).

 

Criticism on Aung San Suu Kyi and her position as leader in the future

The way Aung San Suu Kyi dealt with the human rights violations against the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority, does not fit well with the image that the world had of her. After all, she was seen as a human rights activist who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her fighting spirit.

Around 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh because their situation in Myanmar was simply unbearable. Myanmar has been indicted in a lawsuit accusing the country of genocide before the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court is meanwhile investigating the country for crimes against humanity.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized from all over the world for appearing to have done nothing about the rape, assault and murder in her country. And also for the fact that she does not want to acknowledge that this happened and because she does not want to condemn the military. Now it can be argued that her priorities lay elsewhere and she wanted to rule her country as pragmatically and as peacefully as possible. However, she had already described the army commanders in parliament in a positive way and in general appeared to be decreasing her resistance to the army. Her personal contribution to the ICJ hearing in The Hague was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many around the world.

But despite her international criticism, the people of Myanmar seem to want to stand behind her. A 2020 survey by the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, a watchdog, confirmed that 79% of people in Myanmar had trust in her at this moment an increase from the 70% in the previous year (BBC News, 2021).

It is difficult to say or predict anything about the future of Myanmar. But what can be expected is that if Myanmar has democratic elections in the future, Aung San Suu Kyi will once again become the leader of her country, despite the criticism.

However, even if the situation returns to the way it was before, that cannot be called optimal. There is and was a strange balance of power between the democratically elected parliament and the army, which occupies at least 25% of the seats in parliament. Besides, big positive changes are not yet in sight for Myanmar, with still a high level of violence, an economic crisis and severe effects of the covid pandemic. It might be too soon to look at a new constitution or restoring democracy. The first step is humanitarian aid, because the Myanmar people are suffering.

 

Sources:

Al Jazeera. (2021, October 26). Timeline: ASEAN tries to tackle Myanmar’s worsening crisis. ASEAN News | Al Jazeera. Retrieved 24 March 2022, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/26/asean-myanmar-timeline

Al Jazeera. (2022, January 29). UN rights chief says response to Myanmar crisis ‘ineffectual’. Politics News | Al Jazeera. Retrieved 24 March 2022, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/29/un-calls-for-more-pressure-on-myanmars-military-rulers

BBC News. (2011, October 12). Burma frees dozens of political prisoners. Retrieved 23 March 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-15269259

BBC News. (2018, September 3). Myanmar profile – Timeline. Retrieved 23 March 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12992883

BBC News. (2021, December 6). Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar democracy icon who fell from grace. Retrieved 24 March 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-11685977

Burma: Chronology of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Detention. (2020, October 28). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved 23 March 2022, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/11/13/burma-chronology-aung-san-suu-kyis-detention

Coup in Myanmar: What can the UN do? (2021, February 9). SWI Swissinfo.Ch. Retrieved 24 March 2022, from https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/coup-in-myanmar–what-can-the-un-do-/46344042

Hays, J. (n.d.). BRITISH RULE OF BURMA | Facts and Details. Factsanddetails.Com. Retrieved 23 March 2022, from https://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Myanmar/sub5_5a/entry-3007.html

Maizland, L. (2022, January 31). Myanmar’s Troubled History: Coups, Military Rule, and Ethnic Conflict. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved 23 March 2022, from https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/myanmar-history-coup-military-rule-ethnic-conflict-rohingya#chapter-title-0-8

Maung, Z. L. (2021, February 8). Amid Coup, Myanmar’s NLD Lawmakers Form Committee to Serve as Legitimate Parliament. The Irrawaddy. Retrieved 25 March 2022, from https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/amid-coup-myanmars-nld-lawmakers-form-committee-serve-legitimate-parliament.html

Myanmar/Burma: third round of EU sanctions over the military coup and subsequent repression. (2021, June 21). European Council. Retrieved 24 March 2022, from https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/06/21/myanmar-burma-third-round-of-eu-sanctions-over-the-military-coup-and-subsequent-repression/

Paddock, R. C., & Times, T. N. Y. (2022, February 1). Myanmar Is Mired in Conflict and Chaos a Year After a Coup. The New York Times. Retrieved 25 March 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/01/world/asia/myanmar-coup-anniversary-sanctions.html

Responding to the Myanmar Coup. (2021, February 16). Crisis Group. Retrieved 24 March 2022, from https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/myanmar/b166-responding-myanmar-coup

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