Written by Rahul Mishra
After eight years of democracy, Myanmar is back to square one. On February 1, Tatmadaw, the Myanmar armed forces, declared their decision to impose national emergency in the country for a year. Apparently, the rationale for toppling the democratically elected government is to “protect the constitution” and undo the electoral wrongdoings it had accused Aung San Suu Kyi and her party National League for Democracy (NLD) of. While the Tatmadaw has promised to hold fresh elections and restore democracy after one year, such a possibility seems bleak at best.
Rumours of Tatmadaw staging a political coup had been doing the rounds for the past few weeks. On January 30, the Tatmadaw threw a clear hint by disclosing its commitment to “save” the Myanmar constitution. Still, it all seemed surreal when State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, outgoing President Win Myint, and several chief ministers and NLD leaders were arrested in the wee hours of February 1. The newly elected members of the parliament were supposed to attend the inaugural session of the parliament the same day.
In the November 2020 general elections, Suu Kyi’s NLD managed a landslide victory, securing around 83 per cent of the total votes polled. For the NLD, these votes translated into 315 of 440 seats to the House of Representatives, and 161 out of 224 seats to the House of Nationalities (Upper House). The Tatmadaw-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), founded by former President General Thein Sein, fared poorly but came second in the elections that are modelled on a first-past-the-post system.
Ever since the election results were announced, the Tatmadaw officials have been accusing the NLD of electoral fraud and malpractices, which, according to them, led to NLD’s win. They even appealed to the Union Election Commission (UEC) claiming that they had spotted around 9 million electoral irregularities witnessed across seven Dyinè (states) and seven Taing (regions) in Myanmar. However, the UEC did not pay heed to these appeals. The Tatmadaw also approached the Supreme Court, and the case is still sub judice. In hindsight, the NLD was gullible in not paying enough attention to these developments. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s personal interest in politics, his hatred for the NLD, and the fact that Tatmadaw would go beyond democratic processes to sort its concerns and grab power should have guided the NLD to take stronger preemptive measures.
Arguably, losing the election was a secondary concern for the military. It has been more apprehensive about the possibility of a constitutional reform NLD and Suu Kyi were mulling over. Under the current constitutional provisions, Tatmadaw holds an indispensable position in the legislative processes, commanding 25 per cent seats constitutionally reserved for the military officers. Since no constitutional change is possible without a three-fourth majority in the houses, their roles become critical. Tatmadaw has used this provision to tether the NLD in general and Suu Kyi in particular, depriving her of any substantial and direct control of the government. The USDP, comprising Tatmadaw’s retired personnel, also undercuts the role NLD could play in a multiparty democracy.
That the Tatmadaw would not tolerate any tweaks with the constitution was evident in Hlaing’s address to the National Defence College officers last week. Evidently, the coup is not an outcome of an impulsive decision. It is a well-thought-through and cleverly timed move. Tatmadaw skillfully created an illusion of following procedures by crying foul over votes and appealing to the UEC and the court before they could impose the emergency to grab power. It is worth noting that under section 417 of the constitution, Tatmadaw has the power to impose emergency to safeguard the nation (and the constitution). The hurried appointment of Myint Swe, the right-hand man of Thein Sein, as the acting president cleared the route to emergency allowing General Min Aung Hlaing to take the reins.
The imposition of the emergency has exposed the rather naïve political understanding of Suu Kyi who tried hard to make peace with the Tatmadaw. Suu Kyi even defended them in the Rohingya genocide case at the International Court of Justice. To be fair, such a move was also meant to placate the radical Buddhists priests and majority Bamar community, which is largely oblivious to the ongoing genocide against Rohingya minorities in the country. Her strategy did seem workable at times. In her attempts to reach out to the Tatmadaw, Suu Kyi could not sufficiently factor in the point that her interests are fundamentally opposed to that of the military. Tatmadaw’s move should not seem surprising considering that Suu Kyi and her party have been mulling over the possibility of constitutional reforms that would eventually minimise the role of Tatmadaw in politics if not completely eliminate it. However, that would demand tectonic upheavals in Myanmar’s politics, for which neither side was sufficiently prepared.
The international community has been swift in sensing the possible political upheaval in Myanmar. The US, European Union and several democratic countries have already expressed their concerns and opposed any such moves by the Tatmadaw. The coup throws open a challenge to the Joe Biden administration’s resolve to promote democracy and take sufficient interest in the Southeast Asian region. So far, India’s response has been carefully measured and calculated, clearly showcasing that while it would support Myanmar’s transition back to democracy, New Delhi would not try to impose democracy as a foreign policy agenda. Clearly, a long-drawn battle to bring Myanmar back on track seems on the cards, which would get more complicated with contrasting interests of major stakeholders in the region.
(The writer is Senior Lecturer, Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur)