YANGON – On February 1, Myanmar’s powerful military seized power in a coup against the democratic government of Aung San Suu Kyi, right before newly-elected lawmakers were set to convene in the capital of Naypyidaw.
In early morning raids, soldiers detained the Nobel laureate along with Myanmar’s head of state president Win Myint and other government and National League for Democracy (NLD) party officials. Heads of regional and state governments were also locked up.
As news of the takeover emerged on social media, life remained largely normal in the commercial hub Yangon, the nation’s former capital. Alongside the shimmering waters of Yangon’s Kandawgyi Lake, cars were driving past and residents were jogging as the sun rose, while taxi drivers could be heard chatting about the political storm unfolding in Naypyidaw.
Around the same time, Naypyidaw was plunged into a mobile network blackout, followed by the rest of the country. Telenor, one of Myanmar’s four telcom operators, confirmed that the mobile network was down. Its spokesperson said Telenor Group was “greatly concerned” with the situation.
Reaction from Suu Kyi’s allies was swift. NLD grandee Win Htein, via a video posted on Facebook, said the decision by military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to stage a coup amid a pandemic showed personal ambitions rather than concern for the country.
“The country’s economy is going down. At this juncture, the fact that he conducted a coup shows that he doesn’t think about the future,” the ruling party patron said.
The seizure of power followed a landslide victory for Suu Kyi’s NLD in an election last November, a result disputed by the military on unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.
Coup leaders named army-nominated Vice President Myint Swe as Myanmar’s temporary president, who then declared a state of emergency. The declaration handed all executive, legislative and judicial to Min Aung Hlaing for a year.
Yangon’s city life appeared broadly undisturbed despite the internet blackout. Many stores and tea shops were busy and workers were seen in construction sites.
Long queues, however, formed outside bank branches across the city, with banks ordered to shut for fear of a bank run. In a supermarket outlet in southeast Yangon, fresh meat and poultry were already all sold out when Asia Times visited in late afternoon.
After internet services were restored later in the day, Myanmar citizens plugged into Facebook to vent their anger at coup leaders and show support for Suu Kyi and her detained party members.
By the evening, Myanmar’s ruling junta named 11 ministers to form the military cabinet while sacking the NLD’s appointees. The appointments covered ministers in charge of finance, investments, health, information, foreign affairs, defense, borders and interior affairs. On February 2 evening, other key posts were filled including Central Bank of Myanmar governor, attorney general, auditor general and other ministerial posts.
The ousting of Suu Kyi led to condemnations from the Joe Biden administration, which threatened possible sanctions, and other Western countries and global institutions. Beijing appeared to shy from criticizing or endorsing the move, with its state-controlled media framing the coup as “a major cabinet reshuffle.”
Retaining business confidence in the new coup environment will be an uphill battle, say corporate executives in town. It is no longer a question of competence, but now the legitimacy of the entire administration, they say.
“International investors are concerned about the uncertainty and many are expected to put their projects on hold,” commented a foreign corporate executive involved in Myanmar.
He said heightened reputational and sanctions risks would put off investments and expects multinationals to be wary of being seen as endorsing a government formed by a coup and expected to be deeply unpopular among the Myanmar public.
By Tuesday, banks in Yangon reopened but Yangon International Airport was ordered to stay closed over the next few months, according to airline sources.
Chief ministers and other pro-democracy figures were released in Naypyidaw, although key leaders including Suu Kyi remained under lock and key. Military vehicles were stationed in both cities. The NLD remained defiant, with its executive committee demanding the release of all detainees “as soon as possible.”
Businesses have apparently been taken aback by the regime change. On Tuesday, some offices were closed as were shops in Sule Square shopping mall at the center of Yangon, which notably remained open during the pandemic.
Local residents were going about their normal routines on the day after the coup, but anxious about what might happen next.
In southeast Yangon’s Thaketa area, several shops were either closing early or completely shut since the coup. The once-crowded streets were quiet by 8pm, with much fewer pedestrians.
A 46-year-old mom-and-pop shop owner who goes by the name Phyu said she would be closing early for three days in a row amid the uncertainty.
“I’m worried about what’s happening. Things are uncertain so I can’t risk anything. This is now the ‘new normal’,” she lamented.
Phyu’s sentiment was echoed by others. Tun, a motorcycle taxi driver, said despite the uncertainty he had no desire to take to the streets in protest against the coup.
“I had to rush out to buy a bag of rice on Monday. And, I have to go out every day to earn a living. That’s why I don’t have any interest in protesting. I’ve been following the developments closely online,” the 34-year-old rider added.
Tun said he is worried that pro-junta nationalists are pushing NLD supporters to spark social unrest.
Other Yangon residents have been heard banging metal pots and pans in a noisy show of disapproval, a local tradition practiced to drive away malevolent spirits. Meanwhile, a civil disobedience movement is gaining traction among civil servants.
People are apparently still waiting for clearer instructions from Suu Kyi. Many told Asia Times they are not afraid to protest, despite the nation’s history of bloody military crackdowns. Others said they have become more cautious this time and have refrained from confrontations which risk giving the military an excuse to stay in power.
The November 2020 elections gave Suu Kyi’s party 83% of the seats in the two houses of parliament under the first-past-the-post system.
The military and its humiliated proxy party – the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – alleged that the polls were fraudulent despite domestic and international observers judging the voting as free of major irregularities.
While the detained NLD leader has fallen from grace internationally as a result of her perceived as callous and out-of-touch handling of the Rohingya refugee crisis, domestically she remains enormously popular.
In a February 2 statement, the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group (IGC) warned that mass protests are a real possibility, as are military crackdowns on any anti-coup demonstrations.
Suu Kyi’s popularity combined with the greater freedom people have enjoyed since the end of direct military rule means that many will likely be more assertive in demanding their rights than they would have been a decade ago, the IGC noted.
“The military’s seizure of power will not only upend Myanmar’s difficult democratic transition but also could lead to deadly violence… Should protesters take to the streets, the Myanmar military should act peacefully and with maximum restraint,” the ICG statement said.