The Myanmar military (also called Tatmadaw) announced a State of Emergency on 1st February 2021 for a one-year period. The announcement by the military is a setback to the democratisation process initiated in 2015 through the country’s first multiparty elections. In 2015, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won the elections with a comfortable majority. The military, as well as the, military backed Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) had then accepted the results. However, the NLD’s victory in the second multiparty elections held amidst the global pandemic on 8th November 2020 was questioned by the military. The military accused the NLD government of allowing irregularities in voter lists to win the election. In a statement, the National Defence and Security Council (NDSC), stated that in the official list issued by the Union Election Commission (UEC), there were discrepancies in more than 10.4 million votes (non-existent votes), which may have caused voter rigging (total eligible voters in 2020 elections were 38 million). In the 2020 general elections the USDP managed to get only 33 seats, whereas the NLD secured 396 seats. In 2015 general elections, the NLD secured 360 seats and the USDP 41 seats.
The military alleged that the election officials as well as the NLD government failed to respond to the concerns and refused to call a special session of parliament to resolve the problem. Under these circumstances, the NLD’s attempt to form the government by summoning parliament was portrayed as an act or an attempt to “take over the sovereignty of the Union by wrongful forcible means”. Therefore, citing Section 40 (c) and Section 417 of the 2008 Constitution, military took over state power. Section 40 (c) provides the right to “Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services to take over and exercise State sovereign power if there arises a state of emergency that could cause disintegration of the Union, disintegration of national solidarity and loss of sovereign power due to insurgency, violence or by wrongful forcible means”.
The military thereafter took a slew of measures to consolidate the situation. It detained all important leaders of the NLD, including the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the President of Myanmar, U Win Myint. Police have charged Suu Kyi for using and importing radio and communication devices illegally and charged President U Min Myint of breaching campaign and COVID-19 guidelines. All flights from and to Myanmar have been suspended till further notice. Henceforth, U Myint Swe has been designated as the acting President and the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services. General Min Aung Hlaing will carry out all state duties. New ministers were appointed for defence, border affairs, home affairs, finance and industry and investment and foreign economic relations. Internet has been suspended along with social media platforms. The military also urged the international community ‘not to issue statements without considering facts and implications of statements.
What caused the military takeover?
Despite the possible negative economic, security and political ramifications at the domestic and international level due to military action, various factors have influenced the unprecedented move by the military to take over the civilian government. Myanmar faced decades of isolation under military rule since independence impacting its economic and social development. This socio-economic impact could not be ignored forever by the military. Economic crisis, popular students’ movements in the 1980s, sanctions by the West and pressure from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to initiate economic and political reforms led to a slow opening up of the economy, recognition of political parties and freeing of political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010. The need to address problems of ethnic insurgency at the borders, and to minimise perpetual violence and instability through political means also influenced the military’s decision to take steps towards democratisation. However, such steps taken were controlled by the 2008 constitution that guaranteed the military’s influence on defence and internal security matters of the country. Any constitutional amendment to change the military’s status quo, also require the military’s approval as twenty-five percent of the seats in the upper and lower house of parliament are reserved for military personnel.
The constitutional guarantee of military influence ensured that the transition to democracy under the civilian government in Myanmar remained guided and influenced by the military. Since 2015, the NLD government’s efforts at national reconciliation through the Panglong Conference were interrupted by continuous clashes at the border between Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) and the Myanmar military. The much-needed consensus on security sector reforms could not be achieved through Panglong, despite the significant participation from all the stakeholders of the peace process including the EAOs, government representatives and the military. Aung San Suu Kyi’s support at the United Nations (UN), on the Rohingya community displacement, endorsed the military actions in Rakhine State. Her stand at the UN to defend Myanmar against accusations of genocide also increased her popularity among the majority Burmans. This has threatened the military’s projection of itself as the only defender of national unity. For the military, ‘internal security has always been directed towards domestic politics’, therefore the lack of support extended by people to the military backed USDP in the 2020 elections was seen as an imminent threat to its control over security matters of the country.
On the other hand, the military’s involvement in politics of the country was being threatened by popular support for democratic transition, displayed through the electoral process of the country. A growing acceptance of the consolidation of a multiparty domestic polity was a concern for the military. The military also fears that this proven might lead to the drafting of a new Constitution by the civilian government and its adoption by using Parliament or by a national referendum. The current 2008 Constitution was adopted through referendum conducted by the military, notwithstanding the international criticism of the process of a referendum itself.
The announcement by the military was widely condemned by the international community. India, the United States (U.S), European Union (E.U), ASEAN, Japan, China and others responded to the developments in Myanmar. India was cautious in its response to the developments in Myanmar and emphasised upholding rule of law and democratic process. At United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC’s) Special Session on Myanmar on 12th February 2020, India asked Myanmar to release political detainees and opined that internal developments are a blow to people’s aspirations.The EU called for ‘immediate restoration of the civilian government in Myanmar’. The U.S President Joe Biden in a statement termed the events a ‘direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and rule of lawand termed the military takeover as a ‘coup’.
On 11 February 2020, the U.S Government imposed sanctions on ten individuals and three entities connected to the Myanmar military and insisted that the sanctions are not directed towards the people of Myanmar. Some of these individuals include, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win, first Vice President and retired Lieutenant General MyintSwe, Lieutenant General Sein Win and others. The three entities are Myanmar Ruby Enterprise, Myanmar Imperial Jade Co., LTDandCancri (Gems and Jewellery) Co., LTD. All property and interests in property in the US of the individuals and entities sanctioned are frozen. This implies that the US has prohibited all transactions by US persons within the US involving any property or interests in property of the sanctioned individuals and entities of Myanmar. Export ‘restrictions are also imposed on sensitive items to Myanmar and steps are taken to prevent the Myanmar military generals to use more than the US $ 1 billion’ in Myanmar Government funds that are held in the US.
The new government in the US has taken a pro-active role since the military takeover of the government in Myanmar by actively mobilising Security Council members in support of the elected government in Myanmar. The US president, according to the statement from the White House spoke with the President of China and Prime Minister of India regarding developments in Myanmar. China’s statement on the other hand, said that “Myanmar handle differences through dialogue within the constitutional and legal framework’. But at the same time, it asked the external actors not to complicate the ‘situation by exacerbating tensions’ - possibly also a message to the West not to interfere in internal matters of Myanmar. The ASEAN issued a statement emphasizing ‘political stability in ASEAN Member States which is essential to achieving a peaceful, stable and prosperous ASEAN Community’.
What next for Myanmar?
It is too early to say how internal developments would unfold in the near future. The NLD leader Suu Kyi has called for a protest against the military action that might put pressure on the military if there is a popular response to this call. Healthcare workers in nearly eighty hospitals in Myanmar have started a ‘civil disobedience’ campaign against military action and protests have spread among students, police and civil servants. There is a possibility that the resistance against military action will spread across Myanmar, as reported in Myanmar media.Alternatively, the military might have to conduct elections as promised to quell international and domestic pressure. Either way, it seems that the military has lost credibility at the national level as is also indicated by the 2020 November election results. Probably, the military is looking to China for support in steering through economic sanctions.But the consensus press statement on Myanmar at the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 4th February 2021 supported by China as well as Russia suggests some minimal consensus amongst major players. The statement called on the military to release detained political leaders and ‘uphold the democratic institutions and processes.Most importantly, the UNSC reiterated the need to address the ‘root causes of the crisis in Rakhine State’ and create conditions for the dignified return of displaced persons. The Myanmar military’s role in the Rakhine crisis was separately described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing “by a UNHCR report.
The overall response of the international community on Myanmar at present seems to be in support of respecting the election verdict of 2020. International opinion might influence the military to take some steps in restoring democratic order, how long will this take is a key question? The military will also try to use the time to gain domestic legitimacy for its actions. So far twenty-three political parties along with the USDP have agreed to cooperate with the military . The military also freed nearly twenty thousand prisoners, including two Rakhine nationalists Dr. Aye Maung and Wai Hin Aung, who ‘advocated armed resistance to regain Rakhine sovereignty’.As far as India-Myanmar relations are concerned, India would want political stability in Myanmar in pursuance of its ‘Act East Policy’ and for stable North-East borders. India has maintained a working relationship with Myanmar under military rule in the past and had also welcomed the democratic transition in 2015. Therefore, it might choose to observe developments and respond accordingly.
*Dr. Samatha Mallempati, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
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Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Ministry of Information, Ibid 1.
Constitution of the Republic of Myanmar 2008, Page 11, https://www.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/mm/mm009en.pdf. Accessed 1 February 2021.
 Min Wathan and MyatThura, “Myanmar State Counsellor and President Charged, Detained for Two Weeks”, 4 February 2021, https://www.mmtimes.com/news/myanmar-state-counsellor-and-president-charged-detained-2-more-weeks.html. Accessed on 6 February 2021.
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US Department of Treasury, Press Release, “United States Targets Leaders of Burma’s Military Coup Under New Executive Order”, 11 February 2021, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0024. Accessed on 14 February 2021.
 Ibid 13
The White House, FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration Actions in Response to the Coup in Burma, 11 February 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/02/11/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-actions-in-response-to-the-coup-in-burma/. Accessed on 4 February 2021.
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 “ASEAN Chairman’s Statement on The Developments in The Republic of The Union of Myanmar”, 1 February 2021, https://asean.org/asean-chairmans-statement-developments-republic-union-myanmar/. Accessed on 4 February 2021.
Hmue Angel, “Civil Disobedience Campaign Intensifies Across Myanmar”, 3 February 2021, https://www.mmtimes.com/news/civil-disobedience-campaign-intensifies-across-myanmar.htmlAccessed on? Accessed on 4 February 2021.
 The Irrawaddy, “Tens of Thousands Take to Streets in Myanmar to Protest Military Regime’, 7th February 2021, https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/tens-thousands-take-streets-myanmar-protest-military-regime.html. Accessed on 8 February 2021.
UNHRC, “Darker and more dangerous: High Commissioner updates the Human Rights Council on human rights issues in 40 countries”, Human Rights Council 36th session Opening Statement by ZeidRa'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22041&LangID=E.
 Hein Myat Soe, 23 Political Parties, including the USDP agreed to cooperate with Tatmadaw, 5 February 2021, https://www.mmtimes.com/news/23-parties-including-usdp-agree-cooperate-tatmadaw.html. Accessed on 8 February 2021.
Myanmar Now, “Prominent Rakhine nationalists among prisoners released in amnesty”, 13 February 2021, https://www.myanmar-now.org/en/news/prominent-rakhine-nationalists-among-prisoners-released-in-amnesty. Accessed on 14 February 2021.