The democracy-killing day everybody anticipated finally arrived on July 26.
That day, Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC), formed by the country’s military junta after staging a democracy-suspending coup on February 1, announced the official annulment of the 2020 general election result overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy (NLD).
The annulment marked the second time the military, known as the Tatmadaw, has blatantly disregarded the will of the people to impose its authoritarian rule. since it fatally annulled the 1990 election result – likewise resoundingly won by the NLD. The military maintained power in different illegitimate guises until new genuine polls were held in 2015, which the NLD won in another romp.
Then as now, the military is deceiving the nation by denying the NLD power and grabbing it for itself. The UEC said in its July 26 annulment announcement that its investigations found more than 11.3 million voter list irregularities and that the result was not in compliance with the 2008 constitution or election laws. Based on this guided judgment, the military deemed the polls as neither free nor fair.
In fact, the UEC’s claims merely reiterated the military’s accusations of fraud made before and after the coup. The Tatmadaw has repeatedly alleged widespread irregularities in the election’s conduct, in stark contrast to the findings of domestic and international observers. Independent electoral watchdogs unanimously agreed that, despite some inevitable minor flaws, the elections were largely free of fraud.
The military has trotted out familiar tropes to justify its takeover, claiming that it was the Tatmadaw’s “duty” to resolve the electoral fraud if the NLD-led government and previous UEC failed to do so. That coup justifying narrative has been met with fierce popular resistance, arguably unlike any the country has seen, and strong and widespread international condemnation.
But what’s really behind the military’s power grab? For those who were paying close attention, the coup was foretold in a series of military complaints and statements before and after the election.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader and now self-appointed “prime minister” of a recently declared “caretaker government”, hinted ominously at a possible military intervention well before the November 8, 2020 polls.
In a meeting with 34 pro-military parties in August, Min Aung Hlaing reportedly said that “there is nothing I dare not do” when asked by certain of the parties’ leaders for a military intervention in the event of electoral fraud that benefitted the NLD.
Just days before the polls, the military issued statements critical of the former UEC’s alleged malfeasance and warned that “the government has the complete responsibility for all the intentional and unintentional mistakes of the commission at its different levels.” The military chief also echoed those warnings in an interview with a local newsgroup five days before the election.
Those warnings came amid rising complaints from military circles that it would not be possible to work with another NLD-led government for five more years. The military maintained an outsized, unelected political role in the previous NLD government through control of the powerful, defense, home and border affairs ministries and a 25% allotment in parliament for its appointees.
The top brass clearly feared that the NLD, emboldened by another landslide election win, would seek to rein in the military’s political powers, privileges and economic holdings, including through possible amendment of or abrogation of the military-drafted 2008 constitution.
Those fears – more so than allegations of electoral fraud – were central to the motivation behind the coup.
But there was a lesser understood intra-military component to the coup as well. Many active top-ranking officers are reportedly resentful of how former military dictator Senior General Than Shwe and other top generals have profited personally from the 2008 constitution and the political order it created.
A younger generation of officers has not shared in those spoils while at the same time have been subject to what they perceived as persistent elected politicians’ bullying in parliament.
Just days before the coup, Min Aung Hlaing surprised many when he called for the 2008 constitution’s repeal. According to informed sources, that call was the outgrowth of heated debates between ex-top generals and active officers on whether to maintain the controversial charter.
Min Aung Hlaing eventually agreed to stage the coup within the framework of the constitution in order to win the support of the ex-generals who had designed the post-2008 system. That could explain why there have been no signs yet of top brass dissent over the chaos and destruction the coup has unleashed.
In hindsight, it was clear that the military had already decided to take power and drive the NLD and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi out of politics well before their repeat landslide win. The accusations of electoral irregularities were thus likely manufactured well before the polls were even held.
In another sign of putsch pre-planning, the State Administration Council (SAC) released a five-point roadmap hours after the coup. Notably, the first point was to reconstitute the UEC and scrutinize voter lists.
The SAC has since backed away from its vow to hold new multi-party elections within a year of the coup, saying now it will hold power until at least 2023. Few expect the NLD or Suu Kyi will be allowed to run in what will inevitably be new military rigged polls, if and whenever they are held.
The precise contours of the junta’s longer game plan are harder to predict. What is crystal clear is that the post-2010 political opening that eventuated in the 2015 polls and move to quasi-democracy – or as the military dubbed it “discipline-flourishing democracy” – is now irretrievably closed.
Some political parties and international observers had unrealistically expected that the junta would seek to prove particular electoral irregularities in certain constituencies, especially those won by the NLD, and organize new elections for those seats without repealing the entire electoral result.
But if the long-term plan, as many expect, is to permanently eradicate the NLD and Suu Kyi, then a partial result where the NLD still held seats could not be allowed to stand. Both are now expendable after what the top brass will by now no doubt deem as a failed democratic experiment.
From the military’s perspective, the NLD and Suu Kyi failed both to maintain and regain Western support after the Rohingya refugee crisis, of which top generals stand accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, and forge national reconciliation with ethnic armed groups in a failed peace process that had topped her government’s agenda.
To be sure, the coup has not gone as the top brass planned. Military leaders have been shocked by the scale and intensity of the public’s resistance and the international community’s punitive response through well-targeted sanctions that have hit individual generals and the military’s broad economic interests.
But, as Wilson Center analyst Lucas Meyers recently wrote, the military “has already crossed the Rubicon, it is likely to do everything to stay in power.”
Six months since the coup, the junta is bidding to institutionalize its rule in the form of a “caretaker government” with Min Aung Hlaing at its head that will hold power until at least August 2023. When the military first staged its coup, it said it would oversee a one-year period of emergency rule.
Myanmar’s people have seen this movie before, namely after the 1990 coup when the military held authoritarian power for over two decades before allowing for only the beginnings of political openness.
But this time is arguably different. With armed violence escalating, the economy collapsing, poverty skyrocketing, Covid-19 exploding and despair spreading far and wide, Myanmar is fast sliding towards failed state status and the military is chiefly to blame.
With only coercive power and no moral authority, the military has put the country on a path of no return headed in only dire directions.
Ye Myo Hein@ Ko Ye is executive director of the Tagung Institute of Political Studies (TIPS) based in Yangon.