The Coup in Myanmar Explained: Who, Why, What Now?

By Charlotte Paule, MSc Politics of Asia

In the early hours of 1 February 2021, the Burmese military arrested the civilian leadership of Myanmar and took power. This came after the pro-democracy party National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide in the November elections. 

The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, had backed the opposition who demanded a rerun of the votes, claiming that widespread fraud took place. The election commission ruled against this claim, and the military launched the coup right as a new session of Parliament was about to open. They have declared a one-year state of emergency in Myanmar, and have said that once the year is over they will open democratic institutions again.

The country had been a semi-democracy since 2011, when the military initially opened the system to civilian representation after being in power since 1962. For the past decade, the country has been run with a hybrid system in which civilian and military authorities shared power. On 1 February, the Tatmadaw detained leaders of the NLD and the civilian authority, as well as ministers, writers, opposition politicians and activists. They also banned access to social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and implemented an internet shutdown. Connectivity dropped to 16% of ordinary levels on 6 February. 

Large-scale protests have been ongoing in Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon, its capital Naypyidaw, and other cities across the country. Healthcare workers and civil servants launched a civil disobedience movement on 2 February, as well as a general strike starting 3 February, which quickly spread to other sectors such as education and banking. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the streets demanding a return to democracy and the liberation of NLD leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, wearing the red colours of the NLD logo and using the three-finger salute from Hunger Games as a show of solidarity. 

“As of 25 February, 748 people have been arrested in relation to the coup, and 8 people have died in what should have been peaceful protests, including a 16-year old who was shot in the head during the 20 February protests.”

As of 25 February, 748 people have been arrested in relation to the coup. 8 people have died in what should have been peaceful protests, including a 16-year old who was shot in the head during the 20 February protests. Some businesses, including many bank branches, have remained closed since the strike started, which is straining the already weak Burmese economy and risks endangering the poorer sections of the population. 

Protesters organized their biggest day of action yet on 22 February, nicknaming the movement the ‘2222 uprising’ in reference to the 8888 uprising, the pro-democracy protests which took place in Myanmar in 1988. 

Some in the international community, such as the US, the UK, or the EU, have spoken out against this coup and strongly condemned the military’s actions. Other actors, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have expressed concern over the disruption of the coup, but have not condemned it per se, owing to their policy of non-interference in the national affairs of their member states. 

As of 27 February, the US, the UK and Canada all imposed sanctions on the leaders of the coup, while the EU has said it ‘stands ready to adopt restrictive measures.’ These are unlikely to have real effects however, as the Burmese military has learned to adapt to sanctions imposed on them, and such actions have lost most of their power.

The Burmese military has accused the UN and foreign governments of ‘flagrant interference’ in their internal affairs and have not moved from their positions since taking power. The growing fragility of the economy could endanger them as they may not be able to make good on their promise to keep doing ‘business as usual.’ 

On top of this, Covid-19 testing has collapsed in Myanmar since the coup, as healthcare workers are on the frontline of the strike and protests against the military junta. The new Health Ministry has said that vaccinations would continue amidst the protests and the country maintained the support of India in this area.

This coup is sure to have an impact on domestic and regional political affairs, as observers have little hope that the military will step down before their one-year deadline. Even then, it is likely they will only implement reforms if they can maintain their role in government and quash the NLD. The hopes of full democratisation in Myanmar, which had been emboldened by the victory of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi in November, seem as remote as they could be.

Photo caption: Protesters gather against the military coup on 9 February 2021 in Hpa-An, Kayin State, with red banners to symbolize their support for the NLD. (Credit: Ninjastrikers, via Wikimedia Commons)

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