Coup in Myanmar
After two months of disputes over November 2020 election results, the military of Myanmar has overthrown the country’s fragile democratic government in a coup d’état, and has arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected leaders. The military is now back in charge and has declared a year-long state of emergency, and the power has been handed over to commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. The coup returns the country to full military rule after a short span of quasi-democracy that began in 2011, when the military, which had been in power since 1962, implemented parliamentary elections and other reforms.
Myanmar’s military has ended its decade-long dalliance with democracy by launching a coup against the nation’s most popular political party and the former Nobel Peace Prize winner who leads it. In the early morning of February 01, the armed forces of Myanmar (Tatmadaw) took control of the country and imposed a state of emergency for at least one year after which “free and fair multiparty general elections will be rerun and the state power will be handed over to an elected party which meets the democratic standards,” the military said. It also arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and top members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in a raid. The military said the seizure of power was necessary because the government had failed to act on the claims of voter fraud in November 2020 elections, which the party of the country’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, won in a landslide. Vice President U Myint Swe handed over the highest authority in the country to the commander-in-chief of the defence forces, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, citing Art. 417 of the constitution. However, this action is unlawful as this article indicates that the president, not the vice-president, is the person authorised to make such a decision. The Tatmadaw announced that it would hold another election “as soon as possible”.
In the following paragraphs, we will try to analyze the coup from different angles.
Myanmar has toggled between military and civilian leadership since 1948, though the Tatmadaw, as the country’s armed forces are formally known, has remained the most powerful institution the entire time. In the late 1980s, a civilian pro-democracy movement gained strength with Suu Kyi as its leader.
The international community wasn’t happy with Myanmar’s autocratic leadership. The US, for example, placed sanctions on the country for decades, hoping those punishments would compel the generals to enact pro-democracy reforms and stop abusing human rights. In hopes of ending that economic and political isolation, Myanmar’s top brass decided to take some modest steps toward a more democratic system. The Tatmadaw spent five years drafting a constitution before it was accepted in 2008. The most noteworthy provision gave the military at least 25 percent of the seats in the legislature, no matter what. That was crucial, because no amendments to the new constitution could be passed without over 75 percent of lawmakers voting for them. The military, in effect, could veto any attempts to change the game. That gave Myanmar’s government a window dressing of democracy — the party in power could run the day-to-day aspects of domestic and foreign policy — while never actually threatening the Tatmadaw’s hold on power.
With those rules in place, the junta released Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010 under the condition that she could never be the president of Myanmar. But, then, the Tatmadaw steadily lost control. The quasi-democratic system no longer worked for the generals, who feared their ultimate authority would be curtailed despite the fact that the military retained extensive political power under this system. So, instead of letting Myanmar’s budding democracy continue to grow, the armed forces chose to quash it. Hence, the coup stops the Myanmar’s democratic transformation, hampers the prospects for peace, and deepens its international isolation.
In the November elections, Suu Kyi’s party captured 396 out of 476 seats in the combined lower and upper houses of parliament. The USDP, widely seen as a military proxy, was humiliated as it could win only 33 seats. Of the more than 90 parties that contested the vote, at least 17 have complained of mostly minor irregularities and all except the USDP are smaller parties. Election observers have said the voting was without major irregularities. The state Union Election Commission also confirmed the results. And the inaugural session of the newly-elected parliament was scheduled on February 01. But, before that session could start, the Tatmadaw launched a coup.
At first blush, this looks like a straightforward story: Suu Kyi and the NLD were getting a lot of support, translating into growing political clout. Instead of letting the pro-democracy movement gain even more strength, the Tatmadaw decided to shut it down before it got worse for them.
What it means for Myanmar’s internal situation?
The military takeover ends a decade of democratisation that started in 2011. Although the domestic situation has remained calm so far, further persecution of the opposition or media may provoke mass protests and violence. The military’s actions will ultimately undermine the system it created and within which it held a favoured position. It will have to either retain full power now or lose it completely. The latter seems less likely for now. The coup is also bad news for the ethnic minorities waging a civil war since the 1950s. The peace was an indispensable element of the democratisation process, and the next peace conference was to take place after the formation of the new government. The military may try instead to defeat the armed opposition groups by force, which could mean an escalation of the conflict. Instability and international isolation will also make it difficult to fight the Covid-19 pandemic and pursue economic recovery.
The coup will deepen Myanmar’s international isolation, caused by the 2017 expulsion of the Rohingya Muslim minority. The US, EU, and UK strongly condemned the military’s actions and called for the release of political leaders and a return to the democratic process. Western countries are likely to impose additional sanctions on Myanmar, but the Tatmadaw will probably be able to secure the support of China or Russia in blocking UN sanctions (recent ministerial visits to Myanmar by China and Russia confirmed their good relations). As a result, Myanmar’s dependence on China will increase. The takeover also dashes hopes of the Rohingya’s repatriation from Bangladesh. The coup may, however, improve Suu Kyi’s image as a defender of democracy and human rights, strained by her silence on the persecution of the Rohingya.
Several major world leaders quickly condemned it, demanding that Myanmar’s military immediately free Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and the other detained government officials and honour the November election results. But it was not immediately clear what sort of concrete actions, if any, other nations might take.
1. United Nations
António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, said the coup developments “represent a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a Twitter post that the “vote of the people must be respected and civilian leaders released.”
3. The United States
The Biden administration, which has sought to elevate human rights as a foreign policy priority, suggested that it would penalize Myanmar’s military hierarchy with unspecified sanctions.
“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 in a statement.
China, which shares a 1,300-mile border with Myanmar and is one of the country’s largest investors, has responded cautiously to the coup, having cultivated cordial relations with San Suu Kyi and the military hierarchy that detained her.
“China and Myanmar are friendly neighbours. We hope that all parties will properly handle their differences under the Constitution and legal framework to maintain political and social stability,” Wang Wenbin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told a regularly scheduled news conference.
Lesson for Pakistan
In many ways, what is happening in Myanmar should be of no surprise to us or to other similar faltering new democracies. But are there any lessons that we could draw from here and take a hard look at the hybrid model of power sharing that has been with us since 2012?
Although this model gives some semblance of democracy and there is a continuity of civilian rule with limited freedom of action, it has serious shortcomings. The major weakness lies in reconciling institutional and national interest. If the military continues to exercise power beyond its constitutional boundaries and receives a larger share of national budget on a long-term basis due to internal and external security challenges, then its size and power keep growing. For the political parties, moving away from the hybrid system becomes difficult. But the irony is that a hybrid system is not sustainable for too long as was recently witnessed in Myanmar and with us in the past when there were frequent military coups.
Myanmar and other countries like Thailand where the military dominates, are ethnically homogeneous. Whereas, Pakistan is not, and Punjab being much larger than the other three provinces gives rise to insecurities among smaller ones, especially in Balochistan and Sindh. Ensuring that power genuinely devolves to these provinces is essential for national solidarity and countering separatists’ tendencies
One of the important factors for Pakistan being unable to attract foreign and local investment is the uncertainty about its political future and lack of consistency in economic policies. Moreover, doubts on the legitimacy of the elected governments, whether justified or not, has become a routine in and a part of our political culture. The entire Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has been based on this assumption. These misgivings are undermining democracy and can be removed by holding elections under supervision of an independent body as is the norm in many countries including India.
Dynastic politics, and absence of democratic values and culture within Pakistan’s political parties will have to change if democracy has to be strengthened. Mere slogans and demonising opponents without a better alternative would be a repeat of the inglorious past.
Bringing about this transformation would not be easy as past history reminds us. Looking at the experiences of other countries would, however, be instructive. In Turkey, the change from years of military domination to civilian rule was, unfortunately, very traumatic. Its after-effects still continue to reverberate. Tunisia, the only country that opted for democracy after the Arab Spring, is facing serious economic and security challenges. Indonesia has made a relatively smooth transition after having suffered years of dictatorship. Japan became a democracy in 1947 and is the third leading economic power and has enjoyed for the last six years political stability and moderate economic expansion. And South Korea has gradually stabilised into a liberal democracy with a strong economy. This demonstrates that countries with a greater literacy rate, higher education standards and strong institutions are in a better position to assimilate the essence and spirit of democracy.
Pakistani leadership should draw lessons from the experience of other countries to strengthen democratic institutions and to place the economy on a sound footing. This would require a fundamental change in the power structure of the political parties and adherence to the Constitution by state institutions. Whether this happens through an evolutionary process or the nation would have to go through many jolts for that transformation to occur remains to be seen.
The writer is a member of staff.