THE TATMADAW IS BACK
The recent military coup has shattered a fledgling democracy – Saro Thiruppathy explains
On 1 February, much of the world woke up to the news that a military coup had taken place in Myanmar in the early hours of the morning. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and leading members of her NLD party including ministers, their deputies and members of parliament had been arrested and detained by the military.
The following day was to be when the new MPs who were elected in the 2020 polls were to sworn in. The Tatmadaw, which is Myanmar’s military, has imposed a yearlong state of emergency under a stratocracy and power has been vested in the Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Min Aung Hlaing.
VICTORY OF THE NLD Elections in November resulted in the National League for Democracy (NLD) winning 83 percent of the votes polled. This put a lid on plans of the opposition party – the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is backed by the military.
This phenomenal defeat for the Tatmadaw was unexpected and placed the military in an extremely uncomfortable situation with an uncertain future. In addition, Min Aung Hlaing, who will retire in a year at the age of 65, is also keen to be the president of Myanmar before his retirement.
As a result of the electoral win by the NLD, there was also the likelihood of constitutional reforms being enacted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and a possible clipping of the unbridled military power that pervades Myanmar.
When the USDP fared dismally in the election, it cried foul and called for a recount. However, the Union Election Commission has maintained that the election was free and fair, and couldn’t have been more transparent. But neither the USDP nor its patrons were comforted by that declaration and decided that the NLD hierarchy needed to be removed before parliament reopened.
CHARGES AND CONTROL Soon after the arrests, the Tatmadaw disabled the internet and phone lines in a bid to keep news reporting to a minimum.
Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi had been charged with breaching import and export laws to obtain unlawful communication devices (walkie-talkies) and violating the natural disaster law. A second set of charges include the use of illegal communication equipment, and causing fear and alarm.
It appears that the Tatmadaw’s aim is to contain the NLD rather than worrying about the legality of arresting a democratically elected government.
While the international community issues its usual textbook responses, it’s been the people of Myanmar who have expressed extreme anger at the injustice meted out to their political heroes.
They have taken to the streets in great numbers and several have died as a result of excessive force by the military. But there doesn’t seem to be any dampening of their spirits in protesting the Tatmadaw’s unjust, undemocratic and illegal actions.
Myanmar is facing not only international condemnation but also a possible hit to its economy as many Western manufacturers and investors are contemplating exiting the country.
The 2011 move towards a democratic form of governance saw a surge of Western investment in the country. However, the ‘Made in Myanmar’ tag is now at risk of being set aside. In a nutshell, the economy is taking a hit with exports likely to keep dropping and the depreciating Myanmar Kyat driving prices up.
PUNITIVE ACTION The EU and the US are already imposing targeted sanctions against Tatmadaw leaders – such as bans on visas and freezing of assets. These will pile on to existing sanctions that had been imposed due to the persecution of the Rohingya people under Aung San Suu Kyi’s regime.
The international community isn’t keen to impose broad economic sanctions on the country – particularly the apparel industry. This is because it’s a major contributor to GDP and employs more than 500,000 workers of whom most are women. The West is conscious that the people will face immense hardship if the GSP facility and exports under the EBA (Everything But Arms) scheme are impacted by sanctions.
Nevertheless, all is not lost since China continues to support Myanmar both at home and abroad. However, the military doesn’t seem too keen to be overdependent on their giant neighbour.
JUNTA HISTORY Myanmar has been enduring direct military rule since 1962 when General Ne Win took power through a coup. From 1962 to 1974, there was direct military rule; and from 1974 until 1988, a period of constitutional dictatorship was in place.
The military junta was officially dissolved in 2011 following the 2010 general elections and a mostly civilian government was installed under a new constitution that was established in 2008. The military continued to hold 25 percent of the seats in parliament with veto power over any constitutional reforms etc.
Aung San Suu Kyi had been under house arrest for a total of 15 years over a 21 year period. After a landslide victory in the 2015 elections, the NLD won 86 percent of the seats in parliament and formed a government. Since a key component of the 2008 Constitution precluded Aung San Suu Kyi from being the head of state, the NLD appointed Win Myint as the President and Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor.
As Myanmar hurtles back to governance under a military junta, the Tatmadaw claims fresh elections will be held once the state of emergency is over.
No one is holding their breath until then.