Coup baffles analysts | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 02, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:22 AM, February 02, 2021

Coup baffles analysts

The coup d'état staged by military in Myanmar that prevented Aung San Suu Kyi's democratically elected  party from taking power yesterday baffled many political analysts. 

The coup returns the country to full military rule after a short experiment in quasi-democracy that began in 2011, when the military, which had been in power since 1962, implemented parliamentary elections and other reforms.

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For the past five years, Suu Kyi and her once-banned National League for Democracy (NLD) party led the country after being elected in 2015 in the freest and fairest vote seen in 25 years. Yesterday morning, the party should have begun its second term in office after winning 83 percent of available seats in the 2020 election.

But behind the scenes, the military has kept a relatively tight grip on Myanmar, thanks to a constitution which guarantees it a quarter of all seats in parliament and control of the country's most powerful ministries.

Which raises the question why did it seize power now - and more to the point, what happens next?

The military yesterday took power alleging widespread fraud in the election. It claimed to have uncovered more than 10 million instances of voter fraud. It had demanded that the United Elections Commission (UEC) of Myanmar which oversees elections, or the government, or outgoing parliamentarians prove at a special session before the new parliament convenes on February 1, that the elections were free and fair. The demand had been rejected.

Tensions grew after General Min Aung Hlaing -- the head of the military and arguably Myanmar's most powerful individual -- gave a speech warning that the country's constitution could be "revoked" if it is not respected.

Despite calls to respect democracy from West and UN, the military staged the coup.

The alliance between Suu Kyi and the Myanmar military was not a match made in heaven.

But the strong Rohingya policy defense by Suu Kyi, State Counsellor and de facto head of civilian government, brought her closer to militray.

Their relationship were seen as always uneasy but workable with the ruling NDL anchoring on people's popularity and the military on stability given that the country is still rife with ethnic insurgencies more than 60 years after its independence.

But in 2020, with raging Covid-19 pandemic, the uneasy relationship cracked as NLD MPs advocated for and tried to pass legislations to amend the 2008 Constitution, a change designed to reduce the Tatmadaw's (Myanmar military) role in Myanmar politics.

It was the military that drafted the 2008 Constitution, and put it to a questionable referendum in April that year. The NLD had boycotted the referendum, as well as the 2010 elections that were held under the Constitution.

The Constitution was the military's "roadmap to democracy", which it had been forced to adopt under increasing pressure from the West, and its own realisation that opening up Myanmar to the outside world was now no longer an option but a dire economic necessity. But the military made sure to safeguard in the Constitution its own role and supremacy in national affairs.

The results of the 2020 election were being seen by the NLD as a mandate for its plan of constitutional reform, through which it aimed to do away with the military's role in politics and governance. But this was never going to be easy, given the tight constitutional restrictions for amendments.

Political analysts say, even with the huge mandate NLD received in 2020 polls, changing the constitution would have been near impossible as the military controls 25 percent of seats. Changing the charter requires the support of 75 percent of the parliament.

Aye Min Thant, a former journalist and tech educator, suggested there may be another reason for yesterday's action: embarrassment on the part of the military.

"They weren't expecting to lose," she told the BBC from Yangon referring to dismal performance of military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in the election.

The pandemic and international concerns over the Rohingya being disenfranchised in the November vote may have emboldened the military to act now, Aye Min Thant suggested.

All the same, it still took her by surprise.

Indeed, experts appear unsure of exactly why the military acted now, as there seems little to gain.

"It is worth remembering that the current system is tremendously beneficial for the army: it has complete command autonomy, sizeable international investment in its commercial interests and political cover from civilians for war crimes," Gerard McCarthy, a postdoctoral fellow at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute, told the BBC.

"Seizing power for a year as it has announced will isolate non-Chinese international partners, harm the military's commercial interests and provoke escalating resistance from millions of people who placed Suu Kyi and the NLD in power for in another term of government."

Perhaps, he said, they hope to improve the USDP's standings in future elections, but the risks of such a move "are significant".

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Asia, pointed out the move puts Myanmar in danger of becoming a "pariah state" once more, while angering the people at home.

There are still hopes that this can be resolved through negotiation, he said, but added: "If we start seeing major protests beginning, then we are into a major crisis." 

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