The end of Myanmar’s limited experiment with democracy
Two key questions require unpacking at this stage. First, why did the Tatmadaw undertake a coup when it commands tremendous influence in Myanmar’s politics? Second, why now?
At around 3 am on Monday, Myanmar’s dalliance with electoral democracy — never a liberal experiment — came to an end. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint of the National League of Democracy (NLD), which recently swept Myanmar’s general elections, were detained by the military (also known as the Tatmadaw) on charges of electoral fraud. So were many other journalists, activists, and artists critical of the military. The coup d’état of 2021, the third in Myanmar’s political history — the first two being in 1962 and 1990– was underway, unleashing horrific human suffering.
Apart from altering Myanmar’s political trajectory, the coup also risks destabilising the geopolitics of the South and Southeast Asian region. Historically, Myanmar has held a deeply isolationist streak in its foreign policy. But since the late 1980s, it became increasingly dependent on China in the face of intense international criticism of the Tatmadaw’s authoritarianism. This began to change in the first decade of the century, as the country adopted a seven-step roadmap to democracy, selectively removed restrictions, and slowly opened up, raising hopes of democrats the world over. Not anymore.
Two key questions require unpacking at this stage.
First, why did the Tatmadaw undertake a coup when it commands tremendous influence in Myanmar’s politics? The 2008 constitution guarantees the military 25% seat share in the parliament and does not permit constitutional amendments without a 75%-plus majority favouring such moves. This affords the Tatmadaw structural control of the country’s lawmaking processes, even if elected representatives can decide on foreign and domestic policies — as witnessed in the past few years under Suu Kyi.
Second, why now? Though the specifics of what triggered the coup will slowly come in, there are two reasons why Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing might have opted to go ahead with this risky decision.
One, despite the pro-military constitutional arrangements, and counter to intuition, the Tatmadaw had begun feeling deeply uncomfortable with Suu Kyi. Her rising popularity among the Bamar-Buddhist majority, more-nationalist-than-most populism (as witnessed during the Rohingya crisis), and persistent demand to reduce the percentage requirement for ushering in constitutional amendments, deepened the Tatmadaw’s suspicion of Suu Kyi trying to alter the civil-military balance of power.
Such a combination of the military’s insecurities and Suu Kyi’s ambitions led to open spats between the State Counsellor and the Senior-General (S-G). There was increasing concern within the Tatmadaw that it risked losing influence and autonomy over critical policy domains, including the peace process — which has made little progress in the last five years — as well as, to a limited extent, external relations. The S-G, for instance, has been critical of China in recent months and blamed Beijing for supporting the Arakan army in Rakhine state. Suu Kyi’s perceived tilt towards Beijing, as seen in her red-carpet welcome to Xi Jinping in January 2020, exacerbated these concerns. The Tatmadaw viewed it as a Machiavellian attempt to carve out more political support for herself when the West had abandoned Suu Kyi.
In this backdrop, the alleged electoral inconsistencies in recent elections, though denied by the Union Election Commission, ironically offered the military an opportunity to oust Suu Kyi in the name of safeguarding the 2008 constitution from a civilian autocrat. In comparative perspective, this situation is not dissimilar to the 1977 ouster of the popular, and equally autocratic, former Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. But this in itself is insufficient to explain the timing of the coup d’état. For that, one must focus on the power politics within the Tatmadaw.
For the purpose of analytical ease, two broad factions can be identified within the Tatmadaw.
The so-called reformists, most represented by former President Thein Sein, are those who have been relatively open to devolving power to elected civilian leaders, diversifying Myanmar’s external relations by opening up to the West, and developing an inclusive political formula that could bring an end to the country’s multiple long-running insurgencies. To be clear, the reformists don’t desire a structural shift in civil-military balance to the detriment of the Tatmadaw. But they were less threatened by the NLD when ushering in reforms after 2008 that allowed the electoral — if not actual — rise of Suu Kyi.
The so-called conservative faction, epitomised by Min Aung Hlaing, is deeply suspicious of civilian leaders, especially Suu Kyi. Castigated by the West for their actions in Rakhine state (apparent in London’s targeted sanctions against the S-G and the Deputy S-G), and equally vary of China’s overbearing influence, this faction values the Tatmadaw’s political superiority and vision of a Bamar-Buddhist dominated Myanmar above all else. The conservatives, unlike the reformists, put a premium of Myanmar’s geostrategic locale and understand that neighbours are unlikely to punish Naypyitaw because of the coup d’état, Western sanctions notwithstanding.
With the tenure of Min Aung Hlaing soon coming to an end, this was, then, a do-or-die moment in the conservative worldview of Myanmar’s military. The next S-G, even if a conservative, would not have been able to easily outmaneuver Suu Kyi. The change of guard in the military top-brass at a moment when Suu Kyi won another election handsomely risked actual democratisation (even if illiberal in nature), potentially undermining the military’s position for a long time to come.
What the Tatmadaw does with this power in the next few weeks, and how it deals with the incoming international criticism, will determine the future course of both Myanmar and the region as a whole.
Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)
The views expressed are personal