The military coup in Myanmar, and the re-arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, comes as a sharp blow to this fledgling democracy which, after nearly 60 years of struggle, had just conducted its second, multi-party, democratic election.

Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi was instrumental in obtaining Myanmar’s independence from Britain and is consequently called The Father of the Nation. He was also the founder of the Myanmar Armed Forces. In 1947, he was assassinated by political rivals.

Between 1962 and 2011, Myanmar was ruled by various military dictatorships. The country is home to 135 major ethnic minority groups and seven ethnic minority states. Citing unequal treatment under the military governments, many of the ethnic minority groups sought autonomy. In 1949, the Karen National Liberation Army was formed and began fighting against the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s army. During the 1950’s and 60’s other insurgent armies took up arms against the Tatmadaw, including the Shan State Army, Kachin Independence Army, Arakan Liberation Army, Mon National Liberation Army, and Wa National Army, among others.

Until today, many of these groups are still fighting, making the civil war in Myanmar the world’s oldest, ongoing armed conflict. Beginning in 2010, there was a gradual political and economic liberalization, culminating in democratic elections in 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the 2015 election by a landslide. Suu Kyi was disqualified from serving as president, however, because her children are British citizens. Consequently, she was given the title of Counsellor of Myanmar, but was commonly regarded as the head of state.

The coup and its aftermath

On the morning of February 1, the parliament of Myanmar was planning to convene, when the military launched a coup, arresting lawmakers and supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which had been re-elected, winning a resounding 82 percent of the vote in the November elections. For the more than two months leading up to the coup, the military had been claiming that they had evidence of election fraud, pressuring the electoral authorities to launch an investigation.

Meanwhile, they never actually presented evidence. The Union Election Commission (UEC) issued a public statement saying that the election had been both fair and transparent. UEC also reminded readers that the country’s constitution grants the UEC ultimate authority over elections and that UEC is not obligated to negotiate with the military.

The military government claimed that the February 1 seizure of power was actually an anti-insurgency operation, “not taking the power or making a coup, but taking control because of an emergency situation.” Ler Wah Lobo, a former Karin insurgent living in exile, explained the situation to me over Skype. “They kidnapped our leaders and detained all of the political activists, and the human rights activists, including celebrities, singers, writers, movie actors, and directors.”

Almost immediately, protests broke out across the country, demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi who had previously spent nearly 20 years under house arrest. “During the day the people protest and call for help from the international community, but at night, they have to take care of themselves. They cannot even sleep because there is unrest at night,” Ler Wah Lobo says. At night, the government makes arrests and deploys thugs to attack pro-democracy activists.

The New York Times estimates the number of anti-coup protesters to be in the millions. The military has issued a statement that protesters will face 20 years in prison. The junta has prohibited all forms of protest “by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation.” Armored personnel carriers and gun shots have been reported on the streets of several cities.

Communication networks and internet were shut down in various places, across the country, and a curfew was installed in the capital of Naypyidaw. Laws requiring court orders for detaining suspects or searching private property have been suspended.

There has been widespread civil disobedience, with civil servants refusing to go to work. Pro-democracy activists hacked state media broadcasting the message, “We want democracy! Reject military coup! Justice for Myanmar!”

The government has released 23,000 criminals from prison. They are suspected of working as paid goons for the military, lighting fires and beating up pro-democracy protesters. This move served the dual purpose of emptying the prison and making room for NLD supporters. According to Ler Wah Lobo, prisoners were released from prison and paid by the military to make trouble. They were sent by truck, to various cities, then deployed in groups of four or five. “And they have some weapons like knives and screw drivers. Some of them are fighting with the people. Some were tasked with putting poison in the well or in the water.”

Videos of the payoffs and deployment of goons, popping up on exile media, Twitter, and Facebook, seem to corroborate these allegations. “The military claims it is protecting the people’s safety, but you cannot call them government” concluded Ler Wah Lobo.

Allegations of electoral fraud

The military claims to have evidence of as many as 8.6 million irregularities in voter lists, and that persons without a national ID card were permitted to vote. According to the Union Election Commission (UEC), however, the constitution allows anyone over the age of 18 to vote, without a national ID card. It is not uncommon for ethnic minorities to lack a national ID card or to not even be able to speak Burmese. About 2.6 million members of ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya, were unable to participate in the elections, either because they lacked an ID card or because the polling places were closed, as a result of armed conflicts with the Myammar army.

It is unclear if the army is blaming the NLD for the lack of ethnic minority participation in the election. If so, this seems odd, since it is the military that is committing ethnic cleaning and genocide, while engaging in military conflicts which prevented many of the ethnic minorities from being able to vote. Additionally, if they were able to vote, it is unlikely that they would vote for the same military which is repressing them and murdering their people. Finally, if Myanmar’s army is so concerned about having a fair election, why didn’t they allow one during the first 60 years of their rule?

The atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw have created over 500,000 internally displaced people, who fled their homes and villages and are now living in make-shift camps. This number does not include the millions who have fled the country altogether. It is unlikely that the ethnic minorities from the areas where the army is committing ethnic cleansing, mass rape, murder, and displacing people from their homes, would have voted for the army.

Even if the army’s allegations are true, and if all of the 8.6 million irregularities were votes that should have gone for the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, the NLD would still have won by a large margin. There are over 37 million voters in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won 82 percent of the vote. The army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party took most of the rest with a few votes each going to the 92 smaller political parties and independents. Mathematically, even with an additional 8.6 million votes, the army would lose.

The refusal of the Union Election Commission (UEC) to accept the military’s claims of election fraud prompted the military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to state, several weeks before the actual coup, “If this law is not followed or respected, then it shall be abolished. I mean it shall be abolished even if it is the constitution.” Not only was this a foreshadowing the coup, but it also seems to imply the military’s intent to write a new constitution.

The 2008 constitution, written by the military junta which ruled the country at that time, granted the military the right to appoint uniformed soldiers to occupy 25 percent of seats in parliament. Although 25 percent is a minority of seats, it is sufficient to have veto power, making it difficult or impossible for elected officials to pass any laws which the military does not approve of. Additionally, the head of the army gets to appoint several of the most important ministers, including defence, home affairs, and border affairs. This meant that even when she was in office, Aung San Suu Kyi’s power was severely limited. The constitution also empowered the military commander-in-chief, during times of emergency, to take control of the country. According to legal experts in Yangon, however, the details of this rule are not straightforward and the military can only take full, ongoing control if the constitution is first abolished.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s tarnished reputation

For the better part of two decades, the people of Myanmar hung their hopes on Aung San Suu Kyi. When the military junta finally allowed democratic elections in 2015, her National League for Democracy won a sweeping victory. Most Myanmar watchers and citizens believed this would be the beginning of real change, moving the country away from authoritarianism, toward greater freedom and equality. The ethnic minorities, in particular, had hoped that her election would end the ongoing civil war and ethnic cleansing.

The reality, however, was that not much changed under NLD leadership. The party claims this is because the military restricts their authority to act on behalf of the people. Some observers, however, allege that NLD could have done more, but chose not to.

Representatives of the ethnic minority groups have been invited to repeated meetings with the NLD, none of which resulted in improved conditions or expanded rights. Particularly, the brutalization of the Rohingya ethnic minority continued under the NLD. Western governments criticized Aung San Suu Kyi’s government for the ethnic cleansing, of the Rohingya, which took place during 2016-2017.

Suu Kyi, however, defended the army’s actions at the International Court of Justice. She did not actively entertain calls by the ethnic minorities for real autonomy in their states. Additionally, during her five-year term, she never once convened a meeting of the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC), a bipartisan group, composed of both military and civilian members, to discuss issues of national security.

Suu Kyi’s relationship with the army is complicated, as her father, Aung San, was its founder. It seems that she did not want to attempt to purge the army, but rather to maintain good relations, possibly in the hopes of reforming the Tatmadaw into an agent of the democratically elected government, rather than an opponent. Some of her supporters claim that this was the reason for her defence of the army at the International Court of Justice. If this was the strategy, it seems not to have worked.

The role of China

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi visited Myanmar just three weeks before the coup to praise the military for its “deserved role in the course of national transformation and development.” As Western nations condemn the coup, China defends them. On February 15, 2021, Myanmar exile media reported that there were Chinese troops in Yangon, working as security, alongside the Tatmadaw. Exiles are also reporting that people are gathering in front of the US embassy, asking the Americans to help. US President Biden has issued a statement on the coup, “We will work with our partners to support restoration of democracy and the rule of law, and impose consequences on those responsible,”

China, however, remains Myanmar’s largest trading partner and Myanmar has also joined the Belt and Road Initiative, which links the two countries economically. Additionally, China has signed an agreement to build a deep-water, dual-use port in Myanmar which could accommodate Chinese warships. China and Russia have blocked UN resolutions recommending strong action against Myanmar. The Chinese state media, Xinhua, referred to the coup as a mere “major cabinet reshuffle.”

Regional analysts believe China sees the coup as an opportunity to increase its influence in Myanmar, undercutting the US and other democratic powers. The relationship between China and the military is not so simple, however, as China backs many of the ethnic resistance armies which are fighting against the Myanmar army. The military has resisted China in a number of ways over the years. During the 1990s, when foreign sanctions were crippling the country economically, the generals chose to liberalize the economy, rather than become more dependent on handouts from China. More recently, the military cancelled the Myitsone dam project which would have destroyed a holy site, while exporting nearly all of the electricity to China.

The future of Myanmar

Aung San Suu Kyi is human and imperfect. Whether she wanted to help the ethnic minorities or not, she was powerless to do so. But the ethnic minorities and all Burmese were better off with her than without her, which is why millions of them are now defying the coup. International observers have all pointed out that there were irregularities in the election, including the exclusion of many ethnic minorities.

All seem to agree, however, that the NLD won by a tremendous margin. A fledgling democracy, with a marginally flawed election, will hopefully improve, transitioning to higher quality of democracy. The seizure of power by the military, however, has terminated any hope for improvements in democracy, human rights, or development in Myanmar for the time being.

Antonio Graceffo

Dr. Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China MBA, is a China economist, the author of Beyond the Belt and Road: China's Global Expansion and The Wrestler's Dissertation. He is based in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.