February 3, 2021

IntelBrief: Military Coup in Myanmar has Wide-ranging Implications

Myanmar's military stand guard at a checkpoint manned with an armored vehicle in a road leading to the parliament building Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 (AP Photo)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup this week, shutting down access to the internet and canceling flights into and out of the country.
  • The coup follows on losses by the military’s party, Union Solidarity and Development Party, in November 2020 parliamentary elections.
  • The arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, has elicited widespread calls for her release.
  • The United States and other Western countries have limited influence in Myanmar, and China is unlikely to criticize the coup leaders publicly.

Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power earlier this week, shutting down access to telephones and the internet, canceling flights into and out of the country, and taking control of television stations. The coup involved the arrest of controversial democracy activist and former Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the most prominent civilian politician in Myanmar. Suu Kyi had been a political prisoner under house arrest for 15 years by the same military system that has now arrested her again. Also arrested was President U Wyin Mint, in addition to a number of ministers, politicians, and well-known activists. International actors and NGOs have been scrambling to react and ensure the safety of staff and their work. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has a long history with dictatorship, with the military holding power from 1962 until 2011, when the military junta transitioned toward civilian rule. This five decade long stretch entrenched military generals and other members of the ruling elite in lucrative patronage networks that have leveraged decades of internal strife among different groups.

Never content with the tentative power sharing agreement in force since quasi-democratic elections in 2015, the military moved to contest the result of recent elections, labeling them fraudulent. When that failed to work, civilian leaders were rounded up and arrested as convoys of military vehicles rolled through the streets of Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. General Min Aung Hlaing has assumed power following the coup, announced on Myawaddy television, after the declaration of a state of emergency scheduled to last for one year. The coup was set in motion mere hours before the winners of the November 2020 parliamentary election were scheduled to meet for the first time. In that election, the military’s party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), fared poorly, capturing just 33 out of 476 elected seats. Suu Kyi’s NLD secured 83% of the contested parliamentary seats in the election. Even with recent reforms, the military in Myanmar has retained significant power. It amended the constitution to ensure that the military will always possess at least 25% of the seats in Parliament, and it holds veto power over any future attempts to amend the constitution. 

Suu Kyi herself, once the darling of the international media following her lengthy house arrest, has fallen from grace for her refusal to denounce Myanmar’s atrocities against its Rohingya Muslim population. In 2017, Myanmar’s military conducted an operation in Rakhine state that resulted in the displacement of nearly 750,000 members of the Rohingya minority. Many have labeled it a genocide. The case has gone to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where Suu Kyi dismissed the atrocities, instead parroting the military’s line that there have been no abuses despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Suu Kyi has come under criticism for failing to speak out against the military. This was widely perceived as an effort to placate the military and secure civilian power – despite the cost – as her position as civilian head of the country was always tenuous. The government of Myanmar portrayed the violence against the Rohingya in some quarters as a response to the threat of terrorism, and there was some effort on their part to stress the potential risks of radicalization and terrorist recruitment among the Rohingya, though these have not largely materialized. Moreover, as some Western states reminded the government, counterterrorism operations cannot be a “blank check” to commit widespread human rights violations, a point that UN counterterrorism officials have reaffirmed in many instances. Nonetheless, the failure to hold the perpetrators accountable, and the prolonged conditions in Rohingya camps, as well as the pressures placed on the government of Bangladesh and the communities around the camps, may provide fertile ground for grievances and support that terrorist groups have exploited elsewhere.

The coup shows that the military will not tolerate any dissent nor any actual reform. The military has heavily restricted internet usage in Myanmar, and it is difficult to know details of what is going on other than what the military releases. The junta has announced that new elections will only take place once it has had the opportunity to review the voter rolls. Leaders from around the world condemned the coup, demanding the release of Suu Kyi and the restoration of the civilian government. Yet, the United States, the European Union, and other Western nations have limited influence in Myanmar, having previously followed an approach based on isolating and penalizing the junta. China and its Asian partners have, on the other hand, pursued quiet engagement while publicly asserting their traditional unwillingness to interfere in the internal affairs of the country. China remains incredibly sensitive to any criticism over its own repressive government and atrocities against its Uighur Muslim population; thus, it will argue strongly to respect countries’ sovereignty, even as the governments of these countries perpetrate rampant human rights abuses, even to the point of genocide. China has significant influence, but it is unlikely to put public pressure on Myanmar’s military junta, even as it prefers stability in a country with which it shares a 1,300-mile southwestern border. At the United Nations. Myanmar has been able to rely on China and its allies to limit international reactions at the Security Council, where only closed-door discussions have been conducted by Council members, including the Permanent Five (China, France, Russia, UK, USA), rather than substantive open debates. The Biden-Harris administration nonetheless released the following statement: “The United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed.” The unfounded allegations of fraud, vote rigging, and ‘illegal voters’ were familiar tropes used during the recent election in the United States – albeit with a different scale and result – when former President Donald Trump and his allies spread lies of vote rigging and fraud, culminating in the storming of the U.S. Capitol by insurrectionists on January 6th.