Myanmar’s Military-Led Coup: A Stop Sign On The Path To Democracy

On February 1st, days after Myanmar’s military denied rumours regarding the prospect of a coup d’état and vowed to protect the state’s constitution, armed forces detained President Win Myint,  head of the National Lead for Democracy party (N.L.D.) Aung San Suu Kyi, and other democratically-elected leaders. The military has seized power and declared a one-year state of emergency.

Internet, phone service, television broadcasts, and flights were suspended early that morning, the B.B.C. reports, possibly to keep the public from opposing the coup.

Tensions between the country’s civilian government and military forces have been rising since the N.L.D. won 83% of the parliament’s seats in the November 2020 elections. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party, who only won 33 of the body’s 476 seats, quickly labelled the election results fraudulent and threatened to “take action.”

The United Nations and several major world leaders have openly condemned the coup, declaring that “any attempt to alter the outcome of the election or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition” will be opposed and urging the military to “adhere to democratic norms.” The United States announced that it will apply new sanctions to penalize Myanmar’s military. China, Myanmar’s largest investor, deemed the coup an internal affair. However, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin called for a response “under the Constitution and legal framework.”

Two days prior to the coup, military officers vowed to “follow the law without violating the [2008] Constitution” and that the threats were solely a misunderstanding from foreign media. Ironically, article 418 of the 2008 Constitution gives military forces the right to proclaim a national emergency, which they ended up invoking, reported the New York Times.

After nearly 50 years of strict military rule, only ending a decade ago, Myanmar’s democratic transition is in the early, and most fragile, stages. Despite the quasi-transition, the state’s armed forces still held a considerable amount of governing power. The 2008 constitution gives the country’s generals 25% of its parliament’s seats, control of defence and home affairs, and veto power on constitutional issues. However, conflicts between the USDP and the elected government intensified when the NLD declared a plan to attenuate the influence of the military on the country’s governance.

What were previously seen as post-election empty threats from Myanmar’s military forces have now escalated into the citizens’ worst fear. The military’s violent actions are putting Myanmar on an unstable and perilous path — especially since the pandemic has gravely weakened the state’s economy and living conditions. International actors should recognize that imposing economic sanctions could be more detrimental to the livelihood of Myanmar’s citizens than on the military state. Given the fragility of the situation and the detention of important political figures, international leaders should continue to call for the respect of democratic institutions and support peaceful public-led initiatives against the coup. Most importantly, these leaders must keep the military from securing full control of the state media. Previous coup attempts have demonstrated that nonviolence, together with popular support, effectively helps to counter illegitimate actions.

The military-lead coup in Myanmar has not only put democratic institutions in peril, but also jeopardized the future economic and social development of the state, especially at a time of deep domestic divisions. To echo the words of prominent Myanma historian and author Thant Myint-U: “The doors just opened to a very different future.”