Shortcuts / 11 February 2021

The Coup in Myanmar

The coup in Myanmar is the latest flex of military muscle in a nation that is 70 years into a fight for democracy. In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts we cover Myanmar’s chequered democratic history, the rise of its popular de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and what led to the coup on 1 February.

Give me my bearings… Where is Myanmar again?
It’s in South East Asia and neighbours Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, China, and India.

Hang on, is it called Myanmar or Burma?
Myanmar is the country’s official name, while Burma is used by some there. And some countries like the US and UK continue to call it Burma, while others, including Australia, refer to it as Myanmar. The name Burma derives from the Bamar people – who are the country’s largest ethnic group.

Next, I’d like a brief rundown on its political history – and I don’t have all day…
OK bossyboots… A thousand years ago it was a strong Buddhist kingdom that expanded its territory and saw off invasion by the big names including the Mongols. During the 1800s, the territory was in the British empire’s sights – they wanted control because it provided a backdoor to lucrative trade with China.

In those days, what the British Empire wanted, it largely got. And so Burma – as they called it – became a province of India in 1886. Then began a period of mass migration into the country as Indians were brought in to fill civil-service jobs, and the business interests of Burma’s neighbours were encouraged. That bred resentment for many locals.

And no one likes to feel resentful…
Which is why that manifested as a Burmese armed resistance. After years of fighting – led by General Aung San – the British separated Burma Province from British India in 1937, and it became independent in 1948.

General Aung San… Why does that name sound familiar?
Ding ding ding… He’s the father of Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He didn’t live to see independence because he was assassinated in 1947. He remains a folklore hero today.

So what happened after Burma gained independence?
After 1948, it became a democratic socialist country, with an elected government. However, its struggling economy and unrest saw the military rise in influence. And in 1962, it staged a coup.

I think I know but just remind me what that technically means…
A coup – which is short for coup d’état, which is French for ‘blow of state’ – refers to the illegal seizure of power from a government.

Got it. So the 1962 coup…
That saw General Ne Win become Burma’s military dictator – a position he held from 1962 to 1988. Under his rule, the constitution was suspended, political opposition banned, the press muzzled, and the country was closed off to the rest of the world. For that, it was considered an outcast by much of the international community.

Enter Aung San Suu Kyi?
You got it. There were plenty of people within Myanmar who wanted change, and General Aung San’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi quickly became the leader of that movement.

What’s her story?
She was just 2yo when her father died. She left for India with her mother and eventually made it to the UK where she studied at Oxford. She married a British guy called Michael Aris, a scholar and expert in Himalayan culture and history. And they had 2 sons together.

So how did she get involved in Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement?
Suu Kyi didn’t return to Myanmar until she was in her forties, primarily to look after her ill mother. When she arrived, a pro-democracy push was on. Jumping on board, she made a famous speech in August 1988 when she said: “I could not as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on.”

And the Burmese people liked the cut of her jib?
They really did. She quickly captured people’s hearts with her non-violent stance and what they saw as her integrity.

But the military – not so much…
She was targeted by authorities early in that phase and was put under house arrest in mid-1989 for 6 years. In total, she went on to spend 15 years under house arrest for more than 21 years.

So at this point, she’s locked up at home, and the military is cracking down?
That’s right, the military reimposed martial law across the country in the late 1980s. So it came as quite a surprise when the military honoured a promise to hold a general election in 1990. Not so much of a surprise was that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won overwhelmingly, but the military refused to hand over power to the victors.

But Suu Kyi’s international star was rising?
It was. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her work to bring democracy to Myanmar – and that seemed to catch the military’s leaders off guard. And it prompted what turned into years of discussions to agree on a pathway to democracy as Suu Kyi went in and out of house arrest.

That must have been hard for her…
At times she was allowed visitors – and she was even given permission to travel to the UK to see her husband after he fell ill – he ultimately died from cancer in 1999. But she didn’t end up going to see him believing she would not be allowed back into Myanmar. It’s a sacrifice that her supporters continue to cite.

What was the next step in Myanmar’s move towards democracy?
2010 was a significant year. The country held its first elections in 2 decades – but Suu Kyi’s party was prevented from running. Despite that, those elections did see the military hand over power to a civilian-led government, albeit backed by the military.

And what happened to Suu Kyi?
She was released from house arrest, and in the 5 years to 2015, she travelled, held rallies, and had some pretty high profile visitors – including US President Barack Obama.

I can feel this is leading up to something…
[Drumroll…] It’s 2015, and there’s another election. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League For Democracy, were once again the overwhelming victors of that election. It was Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years.

Amazing. So she’s now the country’s president?
Nope. Under the constitution, anyone with children who are foreign citizens can’t be president. Which seems very much directed at her…

So she’s the country’s leader?
She was Myanmar’s State Counsellor, which is why she’s referred to as the de facto leader.

And the military’s stepped back?
Whatever gave you that idea? Under the constitution, the military has 25% representation in the parliament and they appoint some key ministers. It is an arrangement that didn’t make for easy times between the NLD and the military as they shared power.

But didn’t Suu Kyi defend the military on the international stage?
She did. In late 2019, she fronted the International Court of Justice in The Hague and defended the military’s crackdown on the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. In that hearing, she chided foreigners for not having a good enough understanding of Myanmar’s complex ethnic and social history.

Remind me what that was about again?
In 2017, more than 740,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar after the military launched a campaign the UN has described as ethnic cleansing and genocide. International officials have said the nation’s military generals should be tried for the gravest crimes against humanity. And that’s why there was grave disappointment that Suu Kyi didn’t speak out to condemn the atrocities. It was a big fall from grace for the human rights icon in the eyes of many.

So how did things go from Suu Kyi defending the military to a coup?
What they didn’t agree on –  her tremendous popularity and what that meant for the military’s grip on control. And that’s played out between late last year and now.

To explain: there was an election in November, and the NLD won in a landslide. Like, smashed it. Suu Kyi and her team hoovered up about 80% of the vote and the next closest party was the military-backed USDP with less than 10%.

Right. That would have been hard for the military to take.
And it led the military to claim there was voter fraud at play, despite the country’s election commission and international observers saying there is no evidence to support the claims. And when action wasn’t taken by the electoral authorities to overturn the result, a coup was launched.

Where are things at right now in Myanmar?
So the military is back in charge and has declared a year-long state of emergency. Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other senior members of the NLD party were detained in raids, and reports say they are being kept under house arrest.

And I heard that Suu Kyi was charged?
Yes – she’s facing up to 3 years in prison for the possession of walkie-talkies, which authorities claim were illegally imported. That led the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar to say the military will “ try just about any charge they think can silence them and put them in prison.”

Walkie-talkies. The kicker is a criminal conviction would see her barred from retaking a position of power. And for her part, Suu Kyi has urged her supporters to protest, which is a risky business.

So what’s the military’s long term plan then?
Good question, because the military already had a high degree of control. In fact, it seems it could take them backwards because a whole heap of commercial deals the military has with international investors could stall. And it’s galvanised millions of citizens against them.

However, some say the coup is a result of the 64yo commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing’s personal ambition. Some say he felt he was losing control and respect after last year’s election loss, which was an utter rejection of the military-backed party.

What has the international community been saying about all this?
Democracies around the world have spoken out against the coup and voiced concern for the safety of Suu Kyi, her team and foreign nationals who have been detained, including one known Australian economist Professor Sean Turnell.

And while there is an acknowledgement that Suu Kyi isn’t the human rights hero they thought she was 5 years ago, there’s a great deal of sadness for the people of Myanmar and the future of democracy in the nation.

Image: Stringer/Reuters

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