On 1 February, the Myanmar military, also known as the Tatmadaw, in a coup (the third such instance after the country’s independence in 1948) took over power from the elected civilian government and handed it over to the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
The military also removed all civilian ministers and their deputies and installed a new, 11-member administrative body known as the “State Administrative Council (SAC).” The coup comes just a few months after Myanmar’s largest political party headed by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won the general election held on 8 November 2020.
The military arrested Suu Kyi, who was State Counsellor in the former government, President Win Myint, Chief Ministers of all States and Regions, other senior NLD leaders of the party, and some other civil society activists just before military-owned channel Myawaddy TV announced the takeover. Three days later, cases were filed against Suu Kyi for illegally importing six unregistered walkie-talkie radios and using them without consent.
Why the coup?
The reason cited by the military for the coup were the alleged electoral frauds committed in the recently held election. Fissures between the military and the civilian administration, which were already present, aggravated after the declaration of poll results, which gave NLD a landslide mandate.
Suu Kyi’s NLD won 396 seats out of the 498 it contested. In doing so, the NLD bettered its performance of 2015 by nine seats. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) fared very poorly, securing a paltry 33 seats.
The military and USDP had been complaining that there were numerous electoral irregularities, arguing that there were 8.6 million such instances of supposed fraud. Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC), along with independent election monitors, had dismissed these claims.
Many commentators and observers had been anticipating a coup after the UEC’s decision. Min Aung Hlaing, during a speech given to trainees at a military college on 28 January, stated:
“The constitution is the mother law for all laws. So we all need to abide by the constitution. If one does not follow the law, such law must be revoked. If it is the constitution, it is necessary to revoke the constitution.”
Renowned Burmese historian, commentator, and author of numerous books on Myanmar, Thant Myint U, had on the eve of the coup commented:
In fact, Myanmar’s parliament session had originally been scheduled for 1 February, but was delayed due to rumors of a possible coup.
While the election became the immediate trigger for the takeover, the military already had significant political authority in Myanmar’s hybrid democratic structure by virtue of the 2008 constitution (drafted by the military itself).
Reactions from the West
While reacting to the military coup, United States Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, said:
“The United States expresses grave concern and alarm regarding reports that the Burmese military has detained multiple civilian government leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and civil society leaders.”
US President Joe Biden warned of sanctions against Myanmar if democracy was not restored. Here, it is crucial to note that Myanmar’s transition to democracy began during the presidency of Barack Obama, who had also visited Myanmar in 2012 with an aim towards strengthening the democratic process.
During his address to the US State Department, Biden referred to the steps being taken for the release of political leaders and other activists. His National Security Advisor (NSA), Jack Sullivan, referred to the possibility of sanctions.
“We believe we have plenty of space to be able to find the types of sanctions targets necessary to sharpen the choice for the Burmese military.”
The United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) also criticized the coup, and expressed their apprehensions with regard to its implications. Foreign ministers of G7 countries, in a statement, said:
“We are deeply concerned by the detention of political leaders and civil society activists, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, and targeting of the media. We call upon the military to immediately end the state of emergency, restore power to the democratically-elected government, to release all those unjustly detained and to respect human rights and the rule of law. The November election results must be respected and Parliament should be convened at the earliest opportunity.”
China, which has been traditionally closer to the military, was cautious in its response to the coup.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, emphatically dismissed the claim that it had in anyway lent support to the coup. He also expressed hope that all stakeholders would resolve their differences in a constitutional and legal manner and restore stability.
On 2 February, China also blocked a statement by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which sought to condemn the military coup in Myanmar. But, on 5 February, it endorsed another statement on Myanmar that did not mention the word “coup” and instead called out the “state of emergency.”
Notably, Beijing has been vetoing all UNSC resolutions that condemn the human rights situation in Myanmar (particularly the Rohingya crisis) over the last decade.
Myanmar and China’s BRI
Myanmar, due to its unique geographical location, is important for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As a result, current Chinese President, Xi Jinping, had established strong rapport with Suu Kyi.
Thant Myint-U had best summed up Myanmar’s strategic location in the title of one of his books – Where China meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia. Notably, Beijing has emerged as the second biggest foreign investor in Myanmar after Singapore.
During Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar in January 2020 (the first after Jiang Zemin’s in 2001), a number of important agreements (total of 33) were signed to advance the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), an important component of the BRI.
The most significant agreements included the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and Deep Sea Port in the conflict-ridden Rakhine State. The Kyaukphyu project had to be renegotiated because of domestic pressure, and the cost was reduced from 7.2 billion to 1.3 billion USD. Another important project, the Myitsone Dam, estimated at 3.6 billion USD, has been put on hold due to increasing opposition.
A 21 August 2020 opinion piece in the The Irrawaddy sums up Myanmar’s strategic and economic relevance for China:
“By setting up the KDSP, the Chinese are hoping to lower their dependence on the Straits of Malacca, which is China’s main trade artery, linking the Indian and the Pacific oceans. With a new cold war with the United States on the horizon, the Chinese are desperate to reduce their over-reliance on the straits, which are militarily dominated by the US.”
Currently, a whopping 80 percent of China’s oil imports pass through the Malacca strait.
In recent years, there has been a growing apprehension in Myanmar that it could also fall into a ‘Debt Trap’. But, many argue that the ASEAN nation was left with no other option but to accept Chinese projects.
India has also been cautious in its response to the coup, expressing its stand in favor of democracy and rule of law. In a statement, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) expressed ‘deep concern’ over the events.
Yet, New Delhi will have to work with whoever is in power in Naypyidaw. India has both strategic and economic interests in Myanmar, which it views as a “land bridge to Southeast Asia.” It has, over the past decade, invested in a slew of infrastructural ventures in Myanmar and it would certainly want to carry them forward even under a military government.
Some of India’s important infrastructural projects include the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit and Transport Project (KMMTTP), as part of which it is building a Special Economic Zone and deep-water port in the Rakhine capital of Sittwe.
India would also like to work with Bangladesh and Myanmar in resolving the Rohingya issue, which it hasn’t really achieved much success in so far.
The Rohingya issue
Myanmar has veered towards China after being criticised for its handling of the Rohingya issue by the West. Suu Kyi, who had been dubbed as a ‘beacon of hope’ by President Obama disappointed many with her handling of the Rohingya crisis.
She even defended flagrant human rights violation by the military, including charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Following the Tatmadaw’s violent ‘clearance operations’ in Northern Rakhine State in August 2017, around 800,000 Rohingya were compelled to flee to southeastern Bangladesh.
A UN fact-finding mission had called for the prosecution of top army officers, including Min Aung Hlaing. In a report, it also stated:
“Myanmar continues to harbour genocidal intent and the Rohingya remain under serious risk of genocide.”
Vice President of the European Parliament, Heidi Hautala, while criticizing the coup, also referred to the tarnishing of Suu Kyi’s image :
“We won’t forget what she said about the Rohingya people in the International Court of Justice. She has spoiled her international reputation as a human rights defender with her very open support of the military in the genocide issue.”
The erstwhile Donald Trump administration in the US, which was otherwise not considered vocal on human rights issues, had imposed sanctions on Min Aung Hlaing along with other senior military officers, including Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win, Brigadier General Than Oo and Brigadier General Aung Aung for violations not just in the Rakhine State, “but also in Kachin and Shan states over the past decade.” The four officers and their families were barred from visiting the United States.
It remains to be seen if the Biden administration expands the scope of those sanctions and imposes new ones.
Myanmar had received foreign investment commitments of 5.5 billion USD till September 2020 (real estate and manufacturing accounted for 20% each of that figure). Notably, the ASEAN nation grew less than 2% in 2020 and 6% in 2021.
While there have been mixed reactions to the coup, it has been argued that a lot will depend upon the scope of Western sanctions. Also, in terms of FDI, Myanmar receives a bulk of the investment from Asia.
In the infratructure sector, the top investors are China (29%), India (14%) and Japan (11%). It is for this reason that Asian countries are likely to be cautious in their reaction to the coup, while Western countries are likely to take a stronger stand. One could argue that China may benefit further from such a situation.
Sanctions vs. engagement
While the US and other western nations are likely to favor economic sanctions, many analysts believe that such a step will push Myanmar moving even closer to China. Even US allies in Asia like India, Japan and South Korea, which have economic interests in Myanmar, may not be on the same page as the US with regard to slamming sanctions.
In a media interview, Japan’s state minister of defense, Yasuhide Nakayama had stated:
“If we do not approach this well, Myanmar could grow further away from politically free democratic nations and join the league of China.”
The coup in Myanmar is, thus, important not just for Asia, where countries opposed to China’s increasing dominance in the region need to work together to come up with a joint strategy, but also for the Biden administration which will have to strike a balance on its firm commitment to democracy and ‘realpolitik’ on the other.
While President Biden has referred to the need for working with allies, it is likely that US allies may not be on the same page as far as reacting to the coup is concerned.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Delhi-based political and policy commentator, currently affiliated with the OP Jindal Global University.