CHIANG MAI – With tanks in the streets of Yangon, rising political tensions in the capital Naypyitaw and top brass rumblings over alleged irregularities at November’s elections, speculation is swirling that Myanmar may be on the brink of a democracy-suspending military coup.
Indeed, military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has recently said that a coup can not be ruled out. It would not be difficult for the military to manufacture a crisis that allowed it to legally take power under a national security provision in the constitution.
It’s not clear what is driving the military’s latest rumblings, though some speculate they could be rooted in top brass concerns Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) may soon seek to trim the military’s powers after November’s resounding election win.
What is clear is that Yangon’s speculative rumor mill, always churning with conspiracy theories, is now running wild ahead of the new NLD-led administration taking its formal oath of office. One theory is that the military would move before the first sitting of the new parliament scheduled for February 1.
Parallels are being drawn with early March 1962, when the military first seized power setting in motion decades of uninterrupted military rule. Then, tanks entered Yangon and surrounded important buildings while soldiers detained then-prime minister U Nu, ministers and ethnic leaders who had convened to discuss constitutional issues.
There was no immediate outward opposition to that coup because most believed the military had only temporarily seized power. That turned out not to be the case and when students finally demonstrated later that year, then-dictator General Ne Win sent troops to gun them down and blow up the historic student union’s building.
It’s not clear yet, however, that history is repeating itself.
In 1962, tanks rolled into Yangon unseen by most people in the middle of the night and only a few hours before the military had announced that it had seized power. Nor was the military then the country’s most powerful institution as it is today under the terms of a constitution drafted and passed under military supervision.
That charter gives Myanmar’s top brass the right to veto any attempt to alter the country’s constitution-guaranteed power structure, where the generals are at the apex with de facto veto power-wielding appointees in parliament and control of the three most important ministries, namely defense, home affairs and border affairs.
While Suu Kyi, fresh off a second resounding election win, is often referred to as the country’s “de facto leader” as state counselor, a notch below the rank of president, it would be more correct to refer to her as Myanmar’s “nominal leader.” The nation’s real de facto leader is the powerful military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
As the country’s most powerful institution, it wouldn’t make rational sense for the military, known as the Tatmadaw, to stage a coup that would risk international condemnation and potentially spark riots in the streets. Unlike in 1962, Myanmar’s citizens would not likely wait months to demonstrate against a suspension of democracy.
According to one well-placed source in Yangon: “The vast majority of civilians are expressing a willingness and desire to come out to the streets if there is a coup.”
Nor is it clear the top brass has an appetite for sending in armored vehicles and soldiers to gun down demonstrators, as it did when people rose up against the then-ruling military dictatorship in August and September 1988, a bloodbath that still weighs heavily on the national psyche.
The military versus democracy symbolism is arguably as stark now as it was in 1988. Despite accusations of electoral fraud, no one can credibly deny that the NLD scored a landslide victory in November, capturing 396 of the 498 contested seats in both chambers of the union parliament.
The military has 56 appointees in the upper house and 110 in the lower, enough to block any motion for charter change. But their democratic legitimacy is lacking: the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) scored an abysmal seven seats in the upper house and 26 in the lower, for a lackluster total of 33 MPs.
According to a statement issued by the Union Election Commission on January 28, “neither individuals nor organizations can change the voters’ will beyond the laws, and there is no electoral fraud due to the weakness of voter lists.” The military has reportedly called on Suu Kyi to dissolve the UEC, which she has refused.
After such a clear electoral outcome, there is no doubt more than meets the eye to the latest coup rumors. It’s impossible to know what’s brewing in the minds of the country’s powerful generals and any prediction of what may happen in the coming weeks would at this point be pure speculation.
However, it is possible that top generals have grown weary of civilian politicians and their persistent criticism of the military’s residual power after managing a transition to what some refer to as “quasi-democracy” and want them removed by a coup.
But it is equally possible that the military has grown tired of supporting USDP losers in consecutive elections. In 1990, the military supported the National Unity Party (NUP), a new name for the Burma Socialist Program Party and previously Myanmar’s only legally permitted political party until the 1988 uprising. That led to the introduction of a multi-party political system without undermining the military’s power.
The NLD scored a landslide victory at 1990 polls, presented as for filling parliament, but the then-ruling military junta shifted the goalposts. The parliament was never convened while only a fraction of elected MPs were enlisted in a constitution-drafting process led by military appointees that dragged on for years under junta rule.
New elections were held 20 years later in 2010, but the NLD boycotted them and the USDP ran virtually uncontested, which allowed it to form a new government led by former general Thein Sein. When the NLD contested the 2015 election, it routed the USDP just like it did the NUP. The NLD’s election victory in 2020 was even more massive, giving it an absolute majority in both chambers.
Against this political backdrop, it would make sense for the military to try to intimidate the NLD and the general public to demonstrate who is still really in charge. After a period of coup threats, the military could then seek to reach a compromise of sorts that shows its willingness to work together with a more timid and less democratically emboldened NLD.
That, of course, would require Suu Kyi’s willingness to compromise, which history shows is not exactly her strong suit. What is certain, however, is that political developments in Myanmar are entering a crucial new period, one in which even the country’s famous fortune-tellers are not daring to predict what will happen next.