On the morning of February 1st, the democratically elected government of Myanmar was overthrown in a military coup citing the November election as fraudulent, despite international confirmations to the contrary, and declared a yearlong state of emergency. As the event is developing the motives for the coup are presently unknown, and the health and safety of government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, that have been detained are also unknown.
On the 7th Australian economist Sean Turnell was detained after abruptly hanging up during an interview with the BBC. Turnell is the first foreign national to be detained in this coup. The implications of the return to the military regime in Myanmar have many troubling outcomes for the quality of life for the people of Myanmar and the tense geopolitical conditions that surround Southeast Asia.
Sebastian Strangio, the Diplomat’s Southeast Asia editor, theorizes that the coup was orchestrated to facilitate constitutional change. The current constitution of Myanmar was crafted in 2008 with provisions that granted the military 25 per cent of the seats in parliament and the ministries of home, border affairs, and defence must be headed by a military officer. Despite how connected the military is to the government, the Burmese general Min Aung Hlaing has political aspirations for the highest office.
The sweeping victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) underscored how unpopular the military is as a political entity, as such, for Hlaing to crossover into political office he saw it fit to orchestrate a coup to change the rules. Speculation aside, this coup defers ongoing plans for the repatriation of Rohingyas that had fled to Bangladesh, and solutions to the ethnic conflict are unlikely to be reached under a military government at the helm. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, countrywide internet blockages have been implemented to prevent people from communicating and organising against them. So far, this has failed as people in Myanmar and the diaspora abroad have begun to protest the takeover.
International onlookers have condemned the coup. In his recent foreign policy address, U.S. President Biden has urged the military to step down, and both Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and the Foreign Ministers of the G7 countries have issued statements that describe events as “deeply concerning.” Malaysia and Indonesia have called for ASEAN to meet to discuss the coup, a significant move because ASEAN members rarely discuss domestic issues with each other. The next question is how should countries respond to the coup? Punitive sanctions risk harming the lives and livelihoods of innocent people and more target sanctions might freeze relations with Myanmar, preventing cooperation in the future when outcomes of the coup become more apparent. For example, when Australia imposed sanctions on Fiji after the 2006 coup relations between the two countries did not normalise until 2016.
Myanmar faces an uncertain future as a military government takes power. Previous military regimes have not been kind to the people of Myanmar, and with repressive tactics being employed merely days after seizing power, this regime is set to follow in that trend. As the situation develops it will become easier for the international community to devise an appropriate way to handle this unexpected disruption in Southeast Asia.