Soldiers stand guard on a street in Naypyidaw on February 1, 2021, after the military detained the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country's president in a coup. Photo: AFP / STR

Myanmar’s tentative movement toward democracy that started in 2010 seems to have come to a halt. The military (Tatmadaw) has taken over the reins, and the country reverted to authoritarianism from a semi-democratic form of governance. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and a host of other senior members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) have been detained.

Article 417 of the Myanmar constitution states that in case of severe threats such as the disintegration of national solidarity or loss of sovereignty due to insurgency or acts of violence, the president after due coordination with the National Defense and Security Council may declare a state of emergency.

However, in this instance, the president is under arrest, and the state of emergency was declared by a vice-president. Constitutional propriety has rarely been a concern for military takeovers and not surprisingly, Suu Kyi reportedly called on people to “protest against the coup.”

These developments come after Suu Kyi’s NLD performed spectacularly in the November 2020 elections and the first session of parliament was scheduled to commence on Monday morning. In the past few weeks, Myanmar’s military leadership has expressed disappointment with the electoral process and has accused the Union Election Commission of deploying fraudulent voter lists, which allegedly favored the ruling NLD.

On the other hand, many domestic and international observers have termed the recent elections free and fair. Many opined that there may have been a few errors (say in the electoral rolls), but they were not serious enough to undermine the national verdict.

In fact, no reputed civil-society or media organizations have validated large-scale fraud allegations in the electoral process. Given the Tatmadaw’s track record with elections, its allegations of electoral irregularities are being viewed with considerable skepticism.

It is still unclear what triggered the Tatmadaw’s response. Suu Kyi has indeed been actively campaigning to amend the constitutional provision that mandates 25% of the seats should be reserved for the Tatmadaw.

However, despite a massive majority in the elections, Suu Kyi will require the support of other ethnic parties and some military members to cross the two-thirds majority mark to pass the necessary constitutional amendment, which would be followed by a referendum. Even if such legislation were enacted, it would not come into effect until 2025. 

As well, there was no significant national-security threat on the horizon. While there has been prolonged ethnic conflict in different parts of the country, the NLD leadership did not articulate radical plan such as granting substantial autonomy to ethnic groups living in the border regions.

On the contrary, ethnic organizations were deeply disappointed with the lack of progress toward genuine federalism even under Suu Kyi’s leadership. However, a complete shutdown of democratic space may not be in the interest of various ethnic groups. Centralization of power in the military, the closure of legislatures and lack of media freedom will constrain space for articulating ethnic interests. 

There has been no serious contention between the Tatmadaw and the ruling NLD that the latter’s economic policies are undermining the business interests of leading military families. Compared with the 1980s and 1990s, Myanmar is relatively plugged in to the international economy with greater intensity.

Countries such as Singapore and Japan have made massive investments in the anticipation that Myanmar will slowly but surely move toward a more participatory political system. Such external economic engagement was beneficial to many Myanmar businesspeople as well. Hence the military coup and prospects of renewed sanctions undermine many economic interests.  

Further, Suu Kyi has not indulged in a witch-hunt of the military leaders over their human-rights record. On the contrary, on various international platforms, she has defended the Tatmadaw against accusations of genocide.

Not surprisingly, during the recent elections, Suu Kyi performed well even in military cantonment areas. It is unclear how the rank and file of the Tatmadaw will respond to Suu Kyi’s arrest. However, there was no major instance of a deep split within the Tatmadaw, while there have been some purges. 

An argument is being made that Suu Kyi was moving very close to China, and the Tatmadaw was seeking to restore the balance in foreign policy. However, irrespective of that allegation’s validity, by overthrowing a democratically elected government, the Tatmadaw is now more dependent on China to fend off criticism on various international platforms.

Within a few hours of the coup, some social-media handles reportedly affiliated to China’s state media noted that the military has never left Myanmar’s politics, as the 2008 constitution granted the army the right to declare a state of emergency and take over state power.

Further, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin stated: “Myanmar can properly handle differences under the constitutional and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability.”

Given that the Tatmadaw will depend on China for its survival, Beijing will have one more regime that is favorably disposed toward it in continental Southeast Asia. 

As for the US, the news administration of President Joe Biden will not hobnob with a military dictatorship and will be critical of the military leadership. In fact, Biden termed the coup a “direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy” and pledged to work with “partners throughout the region and the world to support the restoration of democracy.”

With the existence of armed groups on both sides of a porous border, India will have a tough call to make. Nonetheless, the Indian government has expressed “deep concern” at the developments and has stated “that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld.”

Some of the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which were already disappointed with Myanmar’s handling of sectarian crises, will find this week’s political developments very inconvenient.  

The military coup has generated sympathy for Suu Kyi, and free and fair elections in the future would likely bring her back to power with an even bigger majority. Therefore, another round of fair elections is perhaps not on the horizon, as the Tatmadaw will make every effort to hold on to power.

Given Myanmar’s porous borders, the presence of a large number of armed groups, a fluid geopolitical landscape, and spread of social media in the region, the coup in Myanmar will not go uncontested.

The views expressed here are personal.

Sanjay Pulipaka

Sanjay Pulipaka is a senior fellow at the Delhi Policy Group, India. He was a Pavate Fellow at the University of Cambridge and a former Fulbright Fellow in the US.