In a catastrophic blow to Myanmar’s gradual move towards democratization, the military knocked-down the civilian government in a coup d’état in early February 2021, only a few days after it had pledged to honor the Constitution. The civilian government, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the country’s veteran independence hero General Aung San, had been the de facto civilian leader since her election in 2015.
The coup has largely been the military’s attempt to prevent the Parliament’s endorsement of the country’s November elections results, in which the National League for Democracy, the country’s leading civilian party, won 83 percent of the seats. Signs of a coup were incipient when the military had tried to convince the Supreme Court that the election results were fraudulent, surrounding the houses of Parliament with soldiers. Finally, they detained Suu Kyi and her ally President U Win Myint, the only person constitutionally empowered to act in an emergency. Other cabinet ministers, the chief ministers of many regions, opposition politicians, writers, and activists also faced detention as the military handed over power to its chief – General Min Aung Hlaing.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, was ruled by the armed forces from 1962 till 2011, when a new government ushered in a return to civilian rule. Suu Kyi became an international figure, championing the cause of democracy. But her reputation received a setback with Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya refugees, for which she faced trials at the International Court of Justice. Despite her international fame, which suffered, she continued to enjoy widespread popularity among her countrymen, many of whom have little sympathy for the Rohingya Muslims.
With the military overthrow, the electorate has staged demonstrations in support of Suu Kyi. The military attempted to constitutionalize the usurpation. At the military-owned Myawaddy TV station, a news presenter cited the 2008 constitution, by which the military could declare a state of national emergency. Once in power, the military swiftly took over the infrastructure, disrupting communication channels and cutting off electricity, all in a bid to prevent mass mobilization.
The military’s actions have been met with worldwide criticism. The Biden administration, which envisions human rights as a foreign policy priority, speculated on penalizing Myanmar’s military hierarchy sanctions. António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, considered the coup to be a serious blow to Myanmar’s democratization. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom said that the vote of the people must be respected, and civilian leaders should be immediately released. China’s response to the coup, however, has been cautious and diplomatic. China has cultivated cordial relations with both Aung San Suu Kyi and the military hierarchy which detained her and therefore has been careful not to antagonize either. At a conference in Beijing, a spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry wished that the parties handle their differences in a mature way, within the constitutional and legal framework.
Beyond doubt, such a military overthrow of a civilian rule is a major disappointment in a country’s pathway towards a democracy. A closer look at Myanmar’s politics under Suu Kyi reveals that the origins of a military take-over was ingrained in her civilian rule. Even under the civilian government, the military yielded much power. Suu Kyi’s open defense of the military’s gross violation of human rights, regarding the treatment of Rohingya refugees, showed the civilian-military nexus, where the military’s involvement in a genocide was supported by the civilian regime. In a democracy, by definition, the military should be subordinated to the civilian government. Leaving the military with a lot of power can be risky. As an institution, it has a monopoly over violence. In Myanmar, the situation was particularly volatile since the military has historically enjoyed power and defying the civilian rule was only a matter of opportunity.
How the future unfolds in Myanmar is yet to be seen. Give the globalized world, Myanmar cannot exist in isolation. It is imperative for the countries of the world to jointly challenge the military rule in Myanmar. However, domestic politics also needs to shoulder a responsibility to prevent such occurrences. The military should be kept under control. In major democracies of the world, the military is deliberately provided with less political power than the civilian government. For example, Myanmar’s neighbor, India provides a classic example of being under a civilian rule ever since independence. Nearly all her neighbors have faced military coups. But the Indian military has shown considerable maturity. The reason for this can be traced to the devising of a statecraft where the military has been subordinated to the civilian political authority. Otherwise, the country runs the risk, as historical facts show, of being overrun by a military dictatorship.