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Myanmar’s Military Coup d’état, Aung San Suu Kyi & the Political Crisis

by Aakash Sharma
Myanmar’s Military Coup d’état, Aung San Suu Kyi & the Political Crisis

February 4, 2021

Myanmar saw the downfall of its hard-earned, fragile quasi-democracy on Monday as the military orchestrated a coup d’état by seizing the nation's power from democratically elected leaders.

The face of Myanmar's democracy and leader of the erstwhile ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi was detained by the military on February 1, 2021. She was also removed from the position of the state counsellor.

The coup returns the country to complete military rule after a short extent of quasi-democracy. Here is what we know.

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Aung San Suu Kyi was detained by military.

Lead-up to the Military Coup in Myanmar

Myanmar’s Parliament was scheduled this week to hold its first session since the general elections in November 2020. The National League for Democracy (N.L.D.), the country’s leading civilian party, won 83 per cent of the parliament’s available seats.

The military refused to affirm the vote results, which was popularly seen as a referendum on Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity. Suu Kyi, the leader of the N.L.D., has been the nation’s de facto civilian leader since taking the position in 2015. The new Parliament was set to endorse the election results and approve the next government.

The military, which had to overturn the election results in the country’s Supreme Court, threatened to “take action” and gheraoed the houses of Parliament with soldiers.

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Myanmar's military checkpoint is seen on the way to the congress compound in Naypyitaw.

On Monday, the military promptly took control of the country’s infrastructure, curbing most television broadcasts and dropping all domestic and international flights. Telephone and internet services were also suspended in major cities. The stock market and commercial banks were shut down. In Yangon, the country’s biggest city and former capital, residents ran to markets to stock up on food and other supplies.

But let’s go back a bit to understand how this coup against a partially democratically elected government became successful.

Aung San Suu Kyi - A Political Leader Born in Protest

Aung San Suu Kyi was born shortly before World War II on June 19, 1945, as the daughter of Aung San, a celebrated hero of Burmese independence from the British. Due to the virtue of being born in Burmese patriots’ family, Suu Kyi considered it her duty to serve Myanmar and its people. However, she didn’t step in politics until 1988 at the age of 43. She was working as an academic in Britain until 1988.

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Aung San Suu Kyi in her childhood.

Harbinger of Democracy

Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar in the late 1980s after a substantial period in England. She assumed a crucial role in the 1988 uprisings in opposition to the country’s military dictatorship. Her party – National League for Democracy (N.L.D.) – was victorious in 1990 elections, but the military’s stooge government refused to honour the vote.

Following these events, a student-led mass movement against the country’s dictatorial one-party regime perturbed Myanmar. However, the movement lacked stringent leadership and a face that could unite all of the country’s opposition forces against the government. Suu Kyi had arrived at just the right time in Myanmar as the students and opposition leaders appealed to her becoming the movement’s face- she accepted.

The Speech That Cemented Suu Kyi's Stature

In August 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi began her political uprise with a speech at the Shwedagon Pagoda, a remarkable golden Buddhist temple in Yangon. She built on her father’s legacy in the address and called upon everyone to join her in a “second struggle for national independence.”

The speech turned Suu Kyi into the country’s most popular political figure. However, the spirit of optimism didn’t last long.  The following month after her address, Myanmar’s military cracked down the protesters and took over the faux-government, with the promises of a new election and a multiparty system.

15 Years Under House Arrest

Shortly after the coup, Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy political party, National League for Democracy (N.L.D.), decided to participate in the election “promised” by the military. And the election was indeed undertaken in 1990. NLD candidates, to many’s surprise, won more than four-fifths of all parliamentary seats. For many of Myanmar’s people, Suu Kyi embodied a moral and spiritual leader’s Buddhist ideal, which helped the NLD win at the polls.

However, the election results never materialised. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest starting from July 1989. The house arrest lasted till November 2010. She was confined to her home in Yangon’s central city. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990- her two sons accepted the honour on her behalf. She donated the $1.3 million in prize money to health and education programs in Myanmar.

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Suu-Kyi was under house arrest from 1989 to 2010.

Fragile Democracy of Myanmar

For many years, Suu Kyi, the NLD and the military-leadership were at a standstill. She couldn’t bank on her popularity and moral capital to use it for political purposes, and the military couldn’t shed its image of a power-hungry dictatorship.

But after the elections in 2010, the former General Thein Sein became president of Myanmar, and he put forth some plans for a comprehensive reform program for the country. As part of these reforms, Suu Kyi was finally released from the house arrest. 

She now faced the ultimate conundrum- whether to refuse from participating in politics under the military’s strict limitations or make her return according to their rules. She chose the latter option.

I am always astonished when people say I have just recently become a politician. I set out to be indulged in politics, and not as a defender of human rights or as a human rights activist.

- Aung San Suu Kyi

The change in her tone was unsettling for some.

The NLD won a notable victory in Myanmar’s 2015 general election. The military and opposition constitutionally prevented Suu Kyi from becoming the president citing her husband’s British nationality. She assumed the title of “state counsellor,” a role equivalent to that of a Prime Minister’s, specially created for her.

Media worldwide reported rather unanimously that democracy had ultimately triumphed in Myanmar.

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Democracy triumphed in Myanmar in 2015.

Rohingya Genocide and Downfall From Grace

Suu Kyi’s new role in politics became marred with even severe challenges than establishing a democratic government. Myanmar became a hotbed for deep entrenched ethnic tensions and human rights violation in years following her assumption of power.

In October 2016 and August 2017, Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine became involved in a skirmish. An Islamic militant group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked Tatmadaw forces (the official name of the armed forces of Myanmar) posted in the region.

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Rohingya genocide is persecution of Rohingya people in Myanmar.

The army responded with excessive force against the Rohingya, a Muslim-minority group of the province. More than 700,000 Rohingya were displaced and fled to the neighbouring country Bangladesh. Reports of burned villages and massacres carried out by Myanmar’s military started emerging. The United Nations called the events a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”

In the aftermath, Aung San Suu Kyi was stripped of many honours and prizes, including a human rights prize from Amnesty International. In December 2019, Suu Kyi shocked the world when she represented Myanmar before the International Court of Justice (I.C.J.)- this time to defend the military on carrying out a genocide.

Current Events in Myanmar

In November 2020, the N.L.D. and Suu Kyi won another landslide victory in Myanmar’s general election. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) objected to the results. It demanded a new vote as soon as possible “to have an election that is free, fair, unbiased and free from unfair campaigning.”

Nearly three months later, as of February 2, 2021, Suu Kyi’s government stands collapsed in a military coup, and the armed forces have put a Gen. Min Aung Hlaing at the country’s helm. Suu Kyi and other N.L.D leaders are detained by the army and jailed without any information of their whereabouts.

International Reaction to the Coup

Many world leaders have condemned the coup d’état. They have demanded that Myanmar’s military immediately free Ms Aung San Suu Kyi and the other detained government officials and honour the November election results.

The Biden administration, which has solicited to support human rights as a foreign-policy priority since taking office less than two weeks ago, hinted that it would castigate Myanmar’s military dictatorship with substantive sanctions.

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Biden threatens sanction on Myanmar after Coup de'tat.

The United States vehemently opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar's democratic transformation, and will take strong action against those in charge if these steps are not averted.

- White House Statement

António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, said the coup “represents serious harm to democratic undertakings in Myanmar.”

It has been a bloodless overthrow so far, but the impact could be cruel at a time of economic downturn amid the COVID pandemic. With possible worldwide penalties and foreign investment now uncertain, and Aung San Suu Kyi virtually missing, the political turbulence has left people frustrated , angry and distraught.

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