Aung San Suu Kyi at the headquarter of her National League for Democracy in Yangon, Myanmar, April 2012
Minzayar Oo / Panos Pictures / Red​ux

On February 1, Myanmar’s newly elected parliament was slated to be sworn in for its coming five-year term. But in the predawn hours before the ceremony, the country’s military seized power in a coup d’état. The army swiftly detained State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s top leader, and the president, Win Myint, along with an unknown number of lawmakers from the ruling National League for Democracy party and other critics of the military. The army also rounded up NLD officials and activists across the country and temporarily severed cellphone and Internet connections.

Into this communication vacuum the military broadcast an announcement that it had imposed a year-long state of emergency and installed former General Myint Swe, the vice president and former head of the Yangon military command, as acting president. The army also announced that Myint Swe had transferred legislative, executive, and judicial power to the army’s commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, for the duration of the emergency.

The putsch, the first in Myanmar since 1988, came after days of swirling rumors and reports of an impending military action. And like previous coups in the country, it was justified in the name of democracy: Myanmar’s constitution allows the army to take power in order to prevent any situation that “may disintegrate the Union or disintegrate national solidarity or that may cause the loss of sovereignty.” In this case, the army claimed that it needed to investigate allegations of fraud in the country’s November 8 election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won a sweeping victory over the military’s electoral proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

In a post-coup statement that bore more than a passing resemblance to U.S. President Donald Trump’s claims of electoral malfeasance in the November 3 U.S. presidential election, Myanmar’s military asserted that “there was terrible fraud in the voter list during the democratic general election which runs contrary to ensuring a stable democracy.” Moreover, the army added, “unless this problem is resolved, it will obstruct the path to democracy.” Appearing to presuppose the findings of the “investigation” it promised, the army declared that a new election will be held a year from now and that it will relinquish power to the winning party.

But electoral fraud was not what obstructed Myanmar’s path to democracy. Rather, a partial—and stalled—process of political reform had left long-standing civil-military tensions to fester. The country’s military rulers had initiated the reforms themselves after national elections in late 2010, which brought to power a quasi-civilian government that opened up the country’s political space and built bridges to the United States and other Western governments. But the generals sought to preserve their own privileges by retaining veto power over constitutional matters. The NLD’s lopsided victory in the November election threatened that delicate balance of power. Rather than see its authority erode further, the military brass appears to have placed the democratic experiment on hold and reverted to military rule.

A FALSE DAWN

This week’s coup highlights the shortcomings of the reform drive—at first euphorically swift and then halting and partial—that Myanmar’s long-ruling generals had begun after the 2010 election. In a matter of months, starting in mid-2011, the government released hundreds of dissidents, lifted press censorship, allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to reenter politics after years of house arrest, and opened peace talks with more than a dozen rebel groups. This reform process reached a dizzying crescendo when Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD won a landslide election victory in November 2015 and took over leadership of the government in early 2016.

But the narrative of democratization in Myanmar never quite matched the reality on the ground. Whereas many Western observers saw a nation that had finally jumped onto the right side of history, Myanmar’s leaders still grappled with the consequences of more than a century of British colonial rule and six subsequent decades of civil war and military dictatorship. Among these were the country’s long-standing racial and religious divides, which have found their most tragic expression in the military’s fierce assault on the country’s Rohingya Muslims, and an unresolved power struggle between the NLD and the military. The latter conflict dates back to mass demonstrations in 1988, which the military put down with brutal force. Aung San Suu Kyi first emerged as a prominent political figure during those demonstrations, and her enduring popularity stems in large part from the fact that she has staunchly opposed military rule ever since.

The reforms initiated in 2011 deliberately sidestepped these long-standing tensions between the NLD and the military. The parameters of Myanmar’s “democratic transition” (as many Western observers quickly dubbed it) were set by the country’s 2008 constitution, a document designed explicitly to safeguard the military’s power and prerogatives. Drafted by the military junta and approved in a flawed national referendum in May of that year, the constitution guaranteed the military control of three powerful ministries and a quarter of the seats in parliament—a de facto veto of any amendments to the charter. The constitution also contained a provision barring Aung San Suu Kyi from serving as president on the basis that she was once married to a foreign citizen. These constitutional provisions essentially locked the long-standing struggle between the NLD and the military into the country’s constitutional architecture.

The narrative of democratization in Myanmar never quite matched the reality on the ground.

Unsurprisingly, the NLD sought to advance an agenda of constitutional reform after its historic election victory in 2015. Its efforts came to a head early last year, when the NLD-led government proposed a raft of constitutional amendments designed to limit or revoke the military’s special powers and privileges. Parliament summarily rejected all the proposed amendments—after the military invoked the very veto power that the NLD had sought to rescind.

Then, in November, the NLD won a resounding victory in the general election, apparently shaking the military’s confidence in its ability to stave off constitutional reform. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD swept 83 percent of contested parliamentary seats. By contrast, the military-backed USDP managed a paltry seven percent. Across the country, senior members of the USDP—many of them former military commanders—lost their parliamentary seats; the NLD even made inroads into regions previously seen as USDP strongholds.

Still, given the prevailing constitutional safeguards, it is unclear whether or to what extent the NLD would have been able to threaten the military’s prerogatives. Military chief Min Aung Hlaing, now the country’s de facto ruler, has long harbored presidential ambitions, and he was slated for mandatory retirement in July, when he will turn 65. It is possible that he would have sought an extralegal path to power regardless of the outcome of the November election. As one foreign diplomat told Reuters on the condition of anonymity, “There was no path for him to assume a leadership role in this government through the means that the constitution provided.” It is also conceivable that the army had invested so heavily in its claims of electoral fraud that it felt it could not back down without a significant loss of face. Whatever the case, the NLD’s landslide victory and the USDP’s electoral drubbing seem to have brought long-standing tensions between the NLD and military to a sudden head.

“NO ONE CAN CONTROL WHAT COMES NEXT”

The military takeover in Myanmar presents a dilemma for U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration. One the one hand, the generals’ assault on the country’s democratic process warrants a strong response from Washington. (White House spokesperson Jen Psaki has already issued a statement urging “the military and all other parties to adhere to democratic norms and the rule of law, and to release those detained today” and threatening to “take action” against those who impede Myanmar’s democratic transition.) On the other hand, the Chinese government will seek to capitalize on any friction between Myanmar and the democratic West, advancing its customary line that what happened this week in Yangon is an “internal affair.” (Many of the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have already taken the same line.)

Moreover, history suggests that additional Western sanctions against the coup leaders are unlikely to persuade them to change course. The U.S. Treasury already placed Min Aung Hlaing on its list of Specially Designated Nationals in 2019 for his role in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims. He has little to lose from additional punishments and is probably betting that Western powers will refrain from reimposing more sweeping sanctions out of fear that doing so will push his country closer to China. In any event, Myanmar’s military leaders have a long track record of patiently weathering economic sanctions and trade bans, even as such measures impoverish their country’s people.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, Myanmar’s problems seem set to compound. As the Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U commented after the coup, the country already faces a severe economic downturn due to COVID-19, widespread poverty, and conflicts involving dozens of armed groups. A new political crisis was the last thing it needed. “The doors just opened to a very different future,” he wrote on Twitter. “I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next.”

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  • SEBASTIAN STRANGIO is Southeast Asia Editor at The Diplomat, and the author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century.
  • More By Sebastian Strangio