Myanmar’s newly elected parliament is due to meet for the first time on Monday amid threats by the military to stage a coup over unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud in the November 2020 elections.
On Thursday, the army’s commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, plunged the country into its biggest political crisis since the start of the democratic transition in 2008 by threatening to abolish the constitution.
“The constitution is the mother law. We have to follow the constitution. If the law is not respected or followed, we must abolish it. Even if it is the constitution, we must abolish it, ”he said in a speech quoted by the army’s Facebook page.
After two days of uncertainty, the military issued an official statement on Saturday, apparently backing down.
“The Tatmadaw will defend the 2008 Constitution and will act only within the limits of existing laws,” he said, accusing the media of taking Min Aung Hlaing’s comments out of context.
The incident came after a months-long campaign to discredit the November election, despite no firm evidence of wrongdoing. The military’s electoral proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), demanded a new military-supervised election, filed nearly 200 complaints and brought the case to the Supreme Court.
Min Aung Hlaing’s comments sent shockwaves through Myanmar, which only emerged from decades of military dictatorship in 2010 and only held its second democratic election in November last year.
In 2015 and 2020, the National League of Democracy (NLD) won overwhelming victories that won it a clear majority in parliament, though the military automatically won 25% of available seats.
The 2008 constitution drafted by the military allows for democratic elections, but ensures that the military retains control of some key institutions and remains outside civil authority.
Khin Zaw Win, political analyst and director of the Tampadipa Institute in Yangon, said it was the “most serious crisis” since the NLD took power in 2015 and “possibly the last” .
He said that if the army takes control, “there will be a strong reaction from the public.”
“The military regime is still fresh in people’s minds and they hate the idea,” he said, warning that the situation could escalate into protests that would end violently.
In Yangon, many balconies are currently displaying the NLD’s red flag in solidarity with the ruling party, while banners have been erected in the streets to declare their support for the elected government.
This isn’t the first time Min Aung Hlaing has raised the specter of political chaos before suddenly stepping back.
Ahead of the 2020 election, he suggested that the military would not recognize the results, but on election day he backed down by saying, “I’m going to have to accept the people’s wish.”
The outcome of the election was a resounding victory for the NLD, which won 396 of the 498 seats available, improving its landslide five years earlier. It was a humiliating defeat for the USDP, which lost even in the old strongholds.
An NLD lawmaker, who faces an objection from the USDP candidate he defeated, insisted he was “not concerned” about a military coup.
“It is a terrible idea to organize a coup at this time. We have just walked on the right path of democratic transition… No one would benefit from a military coup at this time. It would be a terrible decision for our country, ”said the MP who requested anonymity.
He said the NLD had not received any “special instructions” from the party. “We are just preparing to attend the parliamentary hearing as scheduled,” he said, adding that whatever happens, the NLD “has a policy of non-violence.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed “great concern” at the development of the situation and called on all parties to respect “the result of the general elections of 8 November”.
A group of Western embassies, including the United States and the United Kingdom, issued a joint statement calling for a de-escalation. “We urge the military and all other parts of the country to adhere to democratic standards, and we oppose any attempt to change the outcome of the elections,” he said.
Khin Zaw Win said statements from the international community could “have a restrictive influence”, but added that the whole country, including the NLD, was “hostile to mediation” on the issues of civil war and the Rohingya crisis.
“Now the chickens have come home to roost,” he warned.
He also called on the international community not to “go too far” with sanctions if the military takes power. “Remember that most of the population is living on the edge of pandemic and economic disruption,” he said.
A coalition of local election observers released a statement on Friday admitting there were loopholes in the vote, but the result ultimately reflected the will of the people.
The statement said there were “gaps in the electoral legal framework” and “some inconsistencies in the electoral administration and weaknesses in the implementation”, but concluded that the results “were credible and reflected the will of the majority of voters ”.
Ahead of the elections, the Union Election Commission (UEC) was criticized for censoring opposition parties, excluding the Rohingya, irregularities in electoral lists and cancellation of voting in minority areas ethnic.
Yet the UEC has always denied allegations of military fraud, which are largely examples of potential fraud, rather than specific examples of malfeasance. The UEC also said the military analyzed preliminary voters lists when allegations of irregularities, rather than the final lists which had fewer errors.
Myat Nyana Soe, a lawmaker in Yangon’s upper house, said he was “speechless” by the army’s suggestion to abolish a constitution she had drafted. “We want to amend the constitution, but we must respect it,” he said.
Myat Nyana Soe said that there is only one scenario where the military can “temporarily” take power in the constitution and that this process “must be initiated by the president”.
“They really have to abolish the whole constitution to take state authority by force,” he said.
A third NLD parliamentarian, who also requested anonymity, said he had never taken the military threat seriously.
“A dog that bites never barks. So we don’t think there will be a coup. In the past throughout history, whenever the military staged a coup, it never announced it in advance, ”he said.