Myanmar’s military coup has pulled the plug on its much-touted democratic transition

The COVID-19 situation and the November 2020 election gave the military a platform to discredit the NLD-led government and make a case for a full takeover

Angshuman Choudhury February 02, 2021 09:57:59 IST
Myanmar’s military coup has pulled the plug on its much-touted democratic transition

File image of Myanmar's Army Commander-in-Chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. AP

Just after 8 am on Monday, Myawaddy TV, a channel controlled by the country’s military, announced that the acting President of Myanmar, U Myint Swe, has declared a one year-long state of Emergency under Article 417 of the Constitution. Following this, Swe, who was Myanmar's military-appointed Vice President so far, transferred all executive, legislative and judicial powers to the military by virtue of Article 418, effectively initiating a coup d'état.

Article 417 empowers the President to declare a state of Emergency “if there is sufficient reason” to believe that a situation has arisen that “may disintegrate the Union or disintegrate national solidarity or that may cause the loss of sovereignty.” Article 418 allows the President to transfer all state authority to the military.

Just before the statement was read out on TV, the military arrested the entire leadership of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Myanmar’s largest political party and decisive winner of the 8 November 2020 general election. These include Aung San Suu Kyi (State Counsellor in the previous government) and President U Win Myint.

In addition, several federal and state-level ministers, Chief Ministers of various states and regions, NLD party members, lawmakers, Suu Kyi’s personal attorney and physician, along with a few political dissidents and civil society members have been taken into custody. Internet services and telephone lines have also been largely suspended.

The military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has said that elections will be held once all emergency measures have been implemented over a year, and power will then be handed over to the winning party.

The coup comes on a day when Myanmar’s Parliament was scheduled to convene for its first session since the 8 November general election. The last time such a thing happened was after the 1990 general election when the military, which was already in control, refused to recognise the results and took over for another twenty-odd years.

Today’s takeover triggered a massive international outcry, with most major Western capitals, India, Australia and ASEAN releasing statements of concern and urging authorities to respect the democratic process.

Why the takeover?

After the coup, the military issued a six-point statement to justify the takeover, in which it said that “huge” instances of alleged fraud in the general election, which seemingly threatened the “sovereignty of the people”, needed to be resolved. It also accused the Union Election Commission (UEC) of failing to address these so-called irregularities and rejecting the military’s demands to review the voter lists and delaying the new Parliament.

The statement also stated the need to contain the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak “with momentum” and revive stalled businesses “as quickly as possible.”

The dramatic coup followed in the heels of escalating civil-military tensions over the election results. The military and its proxy political party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), had been expressing serious concerns about the poll process and results, alleging fraud and manipulation. However, the UEC and independent election monitors had dismissed these concerns.

The military continued to dial up the decibels on these complaints in recent weeks, sparking fears that the Generals might overthrow the elected government if they don’t have their way. These apprehensions hit fever pitch on 28 January when the military’s Commander-in-Chief, in an address to senior trainees at the National Defence College, said that the “Constitution must be revoked” if “one does not follow the law.” Immediately, several Western embassies and even the UN released statements expressing concern.

Two days later, the military clarified that the comments were taken out of context, and that it would follow the law and respect the constitution. This eased fears of a coup for a while, before tanks rolled into Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, and troops began taking over government buildings.

But did the military actually follow the law and respect the constitution?

The military did use constitutional provisions to justify the takeover. Article 417 allows for a declaration of state of Emergency only on the initiative of the President in coordination with the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC). To tick this box, the military arrested President U Win Myint, who belongs to NLD, early on Monday morning and replaced him with his military-appointed deputy (who then acted, on orders of the Generals, as the supreme constitutional authority). It also convened the NDSC later in the day.

However, the legality of the takeover remains contested as the military effectively removed the sitting President by force and then directed its proxy VP to declare a state of emergency before even convening the NDSC. The whole coup, therefore, falls in a legally contested zone, much like all coups in history.

Why did the military suddenly usurp the elected government and abruptly end Myanmar’s much-touted process of democratic transition? How did it come to this?

The build-up

The most immediate reason behind this is the recent election.

The massive popular mandate that the NLD received this time had clearly unsettled the military, which enjoyed significant political clout within the negotiated parliamentary structure of Myanmar since the NLD first came to power in 2015.

In this regard, the 2008 constitution, drafted by the military itself, has been the primary source of political power for the Generals. It gave them a 25% reserved seat share in the union and state parliaments along with an effective veto over the constitutional amendment process.

But, these entitlements were being decisively challenged by the country’s political parties as part of the democratic transition process.

In 2019, the NLD and other civilian parties tried to amend the constitution through the parliamentary route. However, that process ended on a dud, with the Generals effectively vetoing most of the key amendments. A provision that the civilian parties, particularly the NLD, wanted to amend was one which bars anyone with foreign family members from becoming the President of the Union. Suu Kyi, whose children and late husband are British citizens, was the obvious target of this provision.

Despite its failure, the messy constitutional amendment process was enough to spark friction between the civilian and military leaderships, with the latter boycotting parliamentary debates and issuing slant warnings against any reckless changes. The military certainly felt that they were losing control and might soon have to retract from political life for good. In other words, democracy was catching up with the all-powerful men in uniform who are used to ruling over the people with an iron fist.

The COVID-19 situation and the November 2020 election gave the military a platform to discredit the NLD-led government and make a case for a full takeover. While it never explicitly threatened a coup (just like in past coups in Myanmar), the signs and attitudes were ominously clear for those who cared to read between the lines.

There is little doubt that the coup has pulled the plug on Myanmar’s democratic transition. The governing bureaucracy, which emerged from a new parliamentary executive run by elected leaders, is effectively pushed into a comatose state now. The ever-growing pool of independent media outlets that sprung up in the past decade now faces closure. The elaborate ethnic peace process, led by the civilian government, too has been pushed into an awkward limbo. Armed groups which hadn’t signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) yet will now be even less likely to do so, and those that had, would be wary of a military-led dialogue process.

The coup also pushes the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State, which faced ‘genocidal’ violence at the hands of the military just four years ago, into a zone of greater vulnerability,. It was the military, after all, that had rendered them stateless in the first place through the 1982 citizenship law. Further, the takeover also threatens to stall plans to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, which were already held hostage by a lack of trust between both countries.

Myanmar is not unfamiliar with military coups, but this one hit at a particularly critical moment in the country’s history when democracy looked like a sustainable reality for the first time in more than six decades. Unfortunately, this collective belief - a fantasy, perhaps, in retrospect - has now been ruthlessly pushed into cold storage once again.

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