Wearing masks, gloves and face shields, voters across Myanmar braved an increase in coronavirus infections on November 8 as they flocked to vote in the country’s second democratic vote since the end of the military regime in 2011.
At the polling stations in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, the enthusiasm was palpable.
“People are happy to vote because they would like to escape political struggles,” a pollster said at the time. “They want real democracy.”
The problem, however, was already brewing.
Just days before the election, Myanmar’s powerful military leader Min Aung Hlaing raised the possibility that he would not accept the election result. Accusing the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of “unacceptable mistakes”, he told local media that “we are in a situation where we have to be careful” on the poll results.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory, securing over 80% of the vote and increasing support from the 2015 vote onwards. But the result sparked immediate allegations of fraud and calls for a resumption of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), supported by the military. The Tatmadaw, as the military is known, backed the USDP’s claims, claiming without evidence that its own investigation found 10 million suspicious votes.
Then, on Wednesday, Min Aung Hlaing threatened to repeal the constitution.
The apparent threat of a coup drew widespread international condemnation and the military backed down on its warning, saying the media had misinterpreted the general’s comments.
But on Monday morning, the threat had become a reality.
Barely 10 years after beginning a transition to civilian rule, the Tatmadaw regained control in Myanmar, with key civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, detained, soldiers in the streets and services telephone and Internet shutdown in large parts of the country.
Hours after the coup, the military declared a one-year state of emergency, using as a pretext the NLD government’s alleged failure to act on its allegations of “terrible fraud”. He also promised new elections, but did not provide a timetable, and announced the transfer of power to Ming Aung Hlaing.
The general, who is legally bound to step down from his military post at the age of 65 in July, has long harbored presidential ambitions, according to Melissa Crouch, a professor at the University of New South Wales law school in Sydney, Australia. It was the USDP’s humiliating display in the November elections that thwarted its goal.
The Tatmadaw – under a constitution it drafted in 2008 – already nominates 166 or 25 percent of seats in parliament, and the USDP should have secured 167 more seats to nominate Min Aung Hlaing as the country’s president.
The party won only 33 of the 498 seats available, while the NLD won 396.
Monday’s coup – just hours before the new parliament convened for the first time – was fueled by the military’s realization that it had no other option to take over the presidency, Crouch said.
“To regain the post of president in their hands, they had to act outside the law… And in a year, they will allow a new election. If the USDP succeeds in securing a third of the seats, then there is a possibility that Min Aung Hlaing will become president.
Min Aung Hlaing was appointed Commander-in-Chief in 2011, just as Myanmar began its transition to civilian rule after 49 years of military rule.
When the NLD won the 2015 multiparty elections, the general began to position himself as a presidential candidate. He did not retire as planned in 2016, transforming himself – using social media – from a distant soldier to a public figure. Facebook pages dedicated to the general public publicized its activities, including visits to monasteries in the predominantly Buddhist country and meetings with dignitaries.
One of the pages had 1.3 million followers and served as the army’s main media outlet, especially during Tatmadaw’s brutal crackdown on the Rohingya minority in 2017. The operation – which included massacres , gang rapes and widespread arson – drove some 730,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh. The following year, Facebook deleted both pages.
The United States and the United Kingdom have since imposed sanctions on Min Aung Hlaing for the campaign, which, according to United Nations investigators, were executed with “genocidal intent.”
On Monday, the United States threatened new sanctions against Myanmar for “the military’s direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law,” while the United Kingdom said he would work diplomatically with his allies to “ensure a peaceful return to democracy”. World leaders also condemned the coup, but neighboring China – one of Myanmar’s most influential economic partners – said it had “taken note” of what had happened and urged all the parties to “resolve disputes” to maintain stability.
Meanwhile, Justice for Myanmar, a campaign group, said Monday’s coup was not only aimed at preserving Min Aung Hlaing’s position, but also his wealth. The general “exploited his position as commander-in-chief for his personal gain, and today’s coup extends that power and privilege,” the group said in a statement.
Activists said that businesses owned by Min Aung Hlaing’s children had taken advantage of their access to state resources during his tenure and noted that as commander-in-chief, Ming Aung Hlaing had ultimate authority over them. two main military conglomerates – Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) – which hold investments in a variety of sectors including gemstones, copper, telecommunications and clothing.
UN investigators have previously called on world leaders to impose targeted financial sanctions on the two companies, saying the revenues generated by these companies strengthen the military’s autonomy from civilian control and provide financial support to their companies. operations.
“If democratization progresses and there is responsibility for his criminal conduct, he and his family risk losing their sources of income,” Justice for Myanmar said.
Other activists accepted.
“This is a coup by Min Aung Hlaing, not just a military coup,” said Mark Farmaner, UK-based Burma campaign manager. “It’s about his position and his wealth.”
This is a coup by Min Aung Hlaing, not just a military coup. It is about his position and his wealth. https://t.co/FsjOGPKyVc
– Mark Farmaner (@MarkFarmaner) February 1, 2021
Key to Myanmar’s coup is Army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who was close to forced retirement, had “no clear way to maintain his current level of” power and profit, and is “one of the most wanted men on the planet” for leading atrocities against the Rohingya. https://t.co/esVgraaTtI pic.twitter.com/ffgDYlIjFI
– Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) February 1, 2021
‘Life and death decisions’
Other analysts said the institutional interests of the military were also at stake.
The NLD’s election victory put the military in a “weaker negotiating position,” said Bridget Welsh, honorary research associate at the Asian Research Institute at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia.
The military’s unelected parliamentary quota gives it a veto over constitutional amendments, but “their position would have been weakened when there was a much larger majority on questions of law,” she said.
Min Aung Hlaing may have succeeded in executing a coup, but questions remain about his ability and that of the military to retain power.
The NLD, in a statement attributed to Aung San Suu Kyi, urged the people of Myanmar to “unreservedly protest” against Monday’s coup, and analysts say the younger generation, who have lived in a more open, is likely to react.
“Most people in Myanmar probably don’t support the coup,” said Jay Harriman, analyst at BowerGroupAsia.
“They are probably wondering what to do, as we speak. These are life and death decisions. When they resisted the military takeover in 1988, thousands were reportedly killed. And these events are probably going through the minds of a lot of people thinking about what an appropriate response is.