Myanmar's Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing (Ye Aung Thu//AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The theft of a nation

The Burma Coup: why and what next?

Some military coups can be seen coming months in advance. Others retain the element of surprise. For most of January, there was little alarm in Myanmar (Burma) about the possible repercussions from allegations of ballot irregularities in last November’s general election. Complaints were dismissed as the predictable bad loser gripes of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the political wing of the armed forces, which had won a derisory 6 percent of the seats in the new Hluttaw (parliament).

It is a fantasy to imagine that discrepancies were so great as to overturn the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). The country’s Union Election Commission overseeing the process confirmed that much. To anyone who has spent time in Myanmar, the NLD’s popularity in town and country is so evident that the notion that it would dream of rigging the poll is ridiculous.

It was not until last Tuesday that the possibility was first taken seriously that the armed forces (known in Burmese as the Tatmadaw) might use the “stolen” election pretext to mount a coup. That was the moment when General Zaw Min Tun, a Tatmadaw spokesman, failed to rule it out. But by Sunday it looked as if the military had blinked. My Burmese wife and I read Sunday’s Burmese newspapers with relief – their tone was calm. Equally insouciant, the leaders of the government and all the newly elected MPs had gathered in the capital, Naypyitaw, to be sworn-in to office the next day (Monday). Like sheep herded into a pen, they were congregating in one place when the Tatmadaw rounded them up in the early hours of the morning.

The coup’s organiser, senior general Min Aung Hlaing, has cited Articles 417 to 419 of the constitution which permits him, as commander-in-chief, to assume executive, legislative and judicial functions in a state of emergency caused by “attempts to take over the sovereignty of the Union by insurgency, violence and wrongful forcible means.” There is no point seeking a judicial opinion on this because the general and his appointees now are the judiciary.

But Article 417 makes clear that it is the prerogative of the country’s president to declare such a state of emergency. That president, Win Myint, has made no such declaration. Instead he is being detained by the armed forces, who have illegally upgraded from the vice-presidency their own man, Myint Swe, in his place. This new puppet president has, in turn, stood aside to let General Min Aung Hlaing assume the role of dictator. There is no shred of legal process in this theft of a nation.

The 64 year-old Min Aung Hlaing was within a year of retirement. By orchestrating a coup, he has found a way of extending his profile in the troubled annals of Myanmar history. But it is not all about him. It is far more about the army that he has served with absolute obedience since 1974.

That military, the Tatmadaw, originated with the (initially) Japanese collaborating force founded by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San. It has fought insurgency operations against ethnic groups and political dissidents since its post-war leader, Ne Win, seized power in the coup of 1962 – dispensing with the fragile democratic institutions with which Burma had commenced independence in 1948. The Tatmadaw was the brutal power behind Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party and, after his fall in 1988, provided the ruling military junta. It has been the only continually, semi-efficiently functioning, state institution throughout Burma’s life as an independent nation. That is the context in which it sees itself as the guardian of the nation’s true interests.

General Min Aung Hlaing has issued a statement indicating that the state of emergency will last a year. There is no reason to assume that this one year period will not be renewed, year upon year. Is it likely that he has arrested all the leading civilian figures in the government – including in Aung San Suu Kyi – merely to let them resume office next February, all smiles and handshakes?

It seems incredible that the generals sincerely imagine that in November’s election their USDP front organisation was the victim rather than the perpetrator of a giant deceit. So, why has the army chosen this bogus pretext to undo the country’s pathway to democracy – a path instigated by the former general, USDP leader and president, Thein Sein in 2011?

why has the army chosen this bogus pretext to undo the country’s pathway to democracy?

The constitution is the Tatmadaw’s own creation. Enacted in 2008 (following a referendum which almost certainly was ballot-stuffed by the military), it established the means for Burmese democracy to develop whilst ensuring it was rigged in the Tatmadaw’s favour. It reserved for the Tatmadaw the right to appoint military nominees to a quarter of the seats in the Hluttaw (enough to block revision of the constitution). On the pretext that her British-born sons were foreign nationals, it debarred Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency (although she got around this by exercising de facto executive authority as state counsellor) and reserved the government departments that mattered most to soldiers (home affairs, border security, defence) to the Tatmadaw.

The historic victory in 2015 of Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD did nothing to interfere with the Tatmadaw’s direct and indirect control over a vast swathe of the economy (in particular through its secretive investment arms and pension funds, Myanma Economic Holdings Ltd and Myanmar Economic Corporation). Aung San Suu Kyi was even prepared to take the international rap for the Tatmadaw’s brutal activities in Rakhine State, going to The Hague in December 2019 to defend it in the International Court of Justice. As she now languishes, once again, under the Tatmadaw’s detention, she must wonder why she bothered. She sacrificed her international reputation to try and save that of the military. There is no gratitude in politics.

Given its retained privileges, why has the Tatmadaw wrecked the status quo? One theory is essentially psychological. The Tatmadaw does not like to be made a fool of, and the USDP’s humiliatingly poor showing in November’s general election was an insult too far. The peoples’ rejection of the USDP implied they did not put the military at the heart of their hopes for Myanmar’s future. This coup reminds the people not to get above themselves.

Yet, whatever the collective institutional psychopathy of the Tatmadaw, this surely cannot be the entire explanation. The coup has been executed with cool-headed cunning, not reflex anger. Apparently the relationship between Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi had broken down, indeed supposedly they had not spoken for months. With 58 percent of the Hluttaw’s seats, the new NLD government could not have overcome the military’s 25 percent blocking veto to diminish the Tatmadaw’s constitutional privileges. But the NLD’s winning a resounding second term was enough to make the generals conclude they needed to re-engineer political science or forever suffer the indignity of marching a few steps behind a bunch of shuffling civilians.

For the moment, Aung San Suu Kyi has been silenced. The authenticity of an appeal she has made for the people to protest is currently disputed. In Myanmar, protest is no casual act of virtue signalling – the last time military rule was threatened on the streets, the military gunned down the protestors, even although they included Buddhist monks.

the USDP’s humiliatingly poor showing in November’s general election was an insult too far

There is not much that leading western countries can do – Britain and the United States have already personally sanctioned Min Aung Hlaing and other leading generals for their role in overseeing the 2017 atrocities in Rakhine State, from which three quarters of a million Muslims fled across the border to Bangladesh. Wider sanctions may now follow, but British and American investment in Myanmar is far too small for its curtailment to worry the military.

The big economic influence is China. It has called for a peaceful resolution of the coup without taking sides, nor will it do so whilst Myanmar continues to offer Beijing strategic assets and infrastructure opportunities (something that the coup is unlikely to change).

Myanmar is an ASEAN country, but fellow southeast Asian member governments have already been at pains to describe the coup as an “internal matter,” not fit for polite discussion. Whatever was to be expected – that Thailand’s government abhors coups, or Cambodia’s leader, Hun Sen (the former Khmer Rouge battalion commander) is worried about possible human rights infringements, or that the politburo in Hanoi decries the collapse of a democracy?

Not the least of Myanmar’s tragedies is that the faraway nations that want to help the Burmese people determine their own destiny cannot meaningfully do much, whilst those, close-by, that could make a difference, do nothing.

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