This coup and the transfer of power were not constitutional. Pressure must be put on the military for a face-saving compromise so it can make a graceful back-down and Myanmar’s legitimate leadership restored.
The coup in Myanmar is not about Aung San Suu Kyi, it is about the question of democracy and peace, and having a political system that can be an alternative, non-violent space for resolving differences.
But many individuals would not agree. Many see her arrest as very personal, as retribution for her handling of, and complicity in, the Rohingya genocide and for the disappointment she has been as an icon of human rights. This view has been repeated in social media commentary on news websites across the world since the military took over on February 1, 2021.
However, no matter how flawed Aung San Suu Kyi is as a political leader, it is crucial her removal is not seen as legitimate when the transfer of power has not been constitutional. Her arrest may not be personal, but it is a matter of public concern because she is the symbol of democracy in Myanmar and a legitimately elected leader.
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And although dissenting voices to the coup need to be heard, it is also crucial that her arrest does not spark the violence and loss of lives we saw in the 1988 pro-democracy protests when at least 3000 protesters died and thousands were injured. Leaders from the Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) are appealing to people not to take to the streets and to express their resistance peacefully; violent protest risks loss of lives and injuries and could legitimise the junta’s claims as the guarantor of law and order in Myanmar.
The curfew and ban on gatherings announced this week may stop people from marching in the streets, but it will not stop their resistance. Myanmar citizens have always been creative, so whether with red ribbons, or pots and pans, they will find ways to make their voices heard.
So, if the coup wasn’t personal against Aung San Suu Kyi, why did it take place?
Firstly, the military wanted to show who’s the boss. The coup took place on the day the new parliament was set to begin, after the NLD won the majority in the 2020 elections. This was NLD’s second victory since a nominally civilian government was introduced in 2011. If we include the historic but nullified 1990 election, which marked the first free multi-party general elections in Myanmar since the military coup of 1962, the 2020 elections would be NLD’s third overwhelming win against the military junta.
But the military rejected the humiliating election outcome and alleged widespread electoral fraud. At a press conference on January 26, the military suggested it would not rule out the possibility of taking power by force if its claims of voting fraud were not disproved satisfactorily. Despite calls from local political analysts and members of the local business community for the NLD government, Tatmadaw and Union Election Commission (UEC) to negotiate with the military to prevent this threat, the NLD and the UEC brushed aside such a possibility.
This meant further humiliation for the military, which could be seen as being ignored and not taken seriously. With this in mind, the coup can be viewed as a demonstration of the military’s authority over the country and a move to remind the elected civilian authorities of its presence.
It can also be seen as a last-ditch attempt to buy time to win the people over. It might seem strange to say that the military still wanted people’s support when it went against their wishes to overthrow the popularly-elected civilian government, but the military called for a one-year state of emergency and reiterated it would hold elections at the end of the period. It also justified the declaration of state of emergency as constitutional (article 417 of the 2008 constitution) and rationalised its actions by using the accusation of electoral fraud, which it felt was not sufficiently addressed by the UEC and the ruling government.
So regardless of whether their interpretation of the constitution was legitimate, the fact that the military legitimised its actions using democratic institutions such as the constitution and electoral fraud suggest that it still cared about its self-portrayed image as the guardian of the 2008 constitution and wanted to demonstrate its continued willingness to share power.
The military also seems to be trying to win the people in this one year with ‘results’. It has announced it would prioritise the pandemic, resolve the peace process and revive the economy. This suggests the military is seeking to use performance legitimacy to improve its chances at the next elections; elections it will be controlling and managing.
But regardless of these attempts at legitimacy, this coup and the transfer of power were not constitutional. Pressure must be put on the military for a face-saving compromise so it can make a graceful back-down and Myanmar’s legitimate leadership restored.