Myanmar Coup: a Return to the Dark Ages?

Myanmar Coup: a Return to the Dark Ages?

Myanmar is turning its back on a decade of democratization processes whilst facing a nationwide reckoning with its historical ethnic and religious divisions. If the military junta has decided power-sharing is no longer on the table, the choices Myanmar faces are stark.

On February 1, Myanmar’s newly elected Parliament was scheduled to be sworn in following last November’s election.

Instead, after a decade of contentious power-sharing between Myanmar’s military and its elected officials, the army seized power in a coup d’état. It then detained State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s top leader, and the President, Win Myint, along with an unknown number of the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s elected lawmakers, activists, and other critics of the military.

The military has also imposed a year-long state of emergency, installing former General Myint Swe as acting President and transferring legislative, executive, and judicial power to the military’s commander in chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

The Tatmadaw, the official name of Myanmar’s armed forces, justified the putsch alleging (unsubstantiated) claims of electoral fraud during the November 8 national election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party won by a larger landslide than it had previously done in 2015 over the military’s electoral proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The coup ends a decade of limited democratic reforms that was preceded by a bloody, ethnic-based civil war and five long decades of military regime. In fact, it was only in 2011 that the Tatmadaw agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with elected officials such as Aung San Suu Kyi, whose reputation as a humanitarian who lived under house arrest for 15 years was lauded with the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize before being tarnished in 2019 over her defence of the military’s involvement in the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims.

What comes next for the future of Myanmar? Will Western sanctions pressure the military junta to release NLD detainees and return to the status quo ante? What does China’s lukewarm response to the coup mean for the future of the country and for Asia’s geopolitical stability?

The False Dawn

Myanmar’s path to democracy has been long and rocky, often described as a façade rather than a bonafide democratic transition. The country’s constitution guarantees military control over a quarter of Parliament seats, granting the army de facto veto power over any constitutional amendments —which require 75 percent of the votes in Parliament. The constitution also allows the Tatmadaw to seize power back any time it wishes to do so. It forbids Aung San Suu Kyi to serve as President, and it reserves three powerful ministries to the armed forces.

As such, the constitution and the 2011’s establishment of a quasi-civilian, power-sharing government locked the military leadership and the NLD in an uncomfortable diarchy. Evidently, though the government had made some small democratic advances and built bridges with Western democracies, the junta never fully relinquished political control. The 2015’s national election, which saw a lopsided victory for the League, exacerbated this unresolved power struggle.

Despite her best efforts to work with a growingly belligerent military, the junta grew fearful of Aung San Suu Kyi and her national popularity, which was boosted by her rejection of ethnic cleansing charge despite being tarnished abroad. Unsurprisingly, the NLD’s sweeping victory last November — in which the party outperformed its 2015 success — tilted this already delicate balance of power.



However, some believe even this overwhelming victory could not have pushed the Tatmadaw  this far. Instead, analysts are pointing to signs of unprecedented tension between the military leadership and elected officials during 2020. Last March, the NLD introduced constitutional changes aimed at limiting the military’s constitutional privileges.

Though bound to fail from the outset, this symbolic attempt underlined the League’s appetite for reforms and it animated public debate about a matter the junta considered long settled. Moreover, it rallied support from some non-NLD parliamentarians and it boosted the League’s share of Parliament seats from 79 percent to 83 percent (excluding the 25 percent held by the military).

As such, it appears the Tatmadaw — faced by the unprecedented prospect of democratic reforms — concluded power-sharing was no longer a viable option.

Only the next few months will reveal how exactly the junta plans to renegotiate its political role.

The Impact of the International Response

Western powers have threatened the junta with the prospect of severe sanctions, suspension of aid packages, and trade bans, urging the military to release all detainees. However, history suggests they are unlikely to pressure them into changing course.

First, Burmese military leaders have a long track record of enduring crippling economic sanctions, even when they seriously damage their population.  Second, the US Treasury already placed Min Aung Hlaing on its list of Specially Designated Nationals in 2019 over his involvement in the genocide of the Rohingya minority. The current Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces has little to lose from further sanctions.Third, Min Aung Hlaing is thought to be betting that the West will not impose sanctions on his government, fearing the move might push Myanmar closer into China’s embrace. This, in turn, would cost Western powers an important pawn in the current Cold War chess match they are playing against China.

Indeed, Beijing’s response to the coup was tepid at best. As Myanmar’s leading economic partner and second largest investor, China predictably claimed the putsch was a mere cabinet reshuffle; signaling to many member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to adopt the same position.

Overall, it appears a coercive and forthright response from the West (or from the ASEAN) against the Tatmadaw is unlikely.

Civil War Foretold?

However, not all is lost for Myanmar. The overwhelming majority of the population voted for the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi is still remarkably popular, and the electorate wishes to be governed by democratically elected leaders.

Additionally, after half a century of diplomatic isolation people have become used to a decade of hard-earned (relative) freedom. With a new generation that has grown up with the Internet, mobile phones, and social media, returning to a strict military regime could prove dicey for the junta. Moreover, increased media presence and the prospect of civil unrest may cause concerns from major investment partners and reduce the likelihood of military repression.

In the past, students, religious leaders, and pro-democracy activists have demonstrated impressive dexterity at mobilizing against the Tatmadaw. It is not surprising, then, that widespread civil disobedience campaigns have already begun with no record of violent military suppression so far. For now, some civilian leaders have been detained, internet and phone services have been severed across the entire country, and large security forces have been deployed in major cities to prevent gatherings and protests.

As such, for the first time in a long time Myanmar’s armed forces may not be able to act with as much impunity as they used to. Nevertheless, there is still the possibility that the more effective and widespread civilians’ dissent will be, the more oppression the armed forces may deem necessary.

However, a more dangerous scenario looms closer. Myanmar — which recognizes 135 different ethnic groups within its territory — is fraught with deep religious and ethnic divisions, which manifest themselves in a plethora of powerful, formidably organised insurgent groups that have been waging a seven decade-long guerrilla warfare against the Tatmadaw in order to reach self-determination.

It comes as no surprise that many of these rebel groups disapprove of the coup: they see it as an annulment of the peace process brokered by Aung San Suu Kyi, which set the tone for the future establishment of a Burmese federation.  Indeed, after decades of guerrilla outbreaks, one of the NLD’s greatest political achievements was its orchestration of a complex, hard-earned ceasefire signed by many of Myanmar’s insurgent groups.

It is believed the NLD alone was able of such an accomplishment because it embodied the more ‘palatable’ face of the  Burmese establishment: it is unlikely the Tatmadaw could have credibly arranged a peace deal whilst illegitimately claiming control of the nation.

Analysts now fear the coup may undermine this already precarious balance as the newly-formed illegitimate government may reignite the rebels’ long-held secessionist ambitions and revive latent ethnic and religious divisions. This, in turn, could escalate into a full-blown, ethnic-based civil war in Myanmar with far-reaching consequences for the stability of the entire South East Asian region.


Myanmar’s structural inequality, widespread poverty, conflicts involving dozens of guerrilla factions, and a severe economic downturn due to Covid-19 have collectively exacerbated latent tensions. This political crisis is the last thing the country needed.

While domestic factors — including the prospect of nationwide civil disobedience, public unrest, and guerrilla warfare — are likely to influence the junta’s next decisions, international condemnations and sanctions are unlikely to do so.

In the short-term, the country’s future may very well lie in the hands of its people and it is likely to depend on whether they can replicate the organised civil disobedience campaigns of the past. In the long-term, the key question is when — or whether — Myanmar’s military leadership can be persuaded to relinquish some of its control over the country. For now, its unwillingness to share power with democratically-elected lawmakers — even with large constitutional protection and veto privileges — can only bode ill for the country’s future.


Categories: Security, Southeast Asia

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