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EFSAS Commentary

Coup in Myanmar exposes how toothless and dysfunctional the rusty international order is


In a major blow to electoral democracy that was just starting to find its feet in Myanmar after half a century of strict military law and international isolation that began in 1962, the country was plunged yet again into military-led rule on 1 February when the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, staged a bloodless coup d’état. The pretext for the coup was alleged electoral fraud during the federal elections of November 2020, which was not dissimilar from the claim that Donald Trump had famously and notoriously made only recently in the United States (US). By all respectable accounts, the Tatmadaw’s accusations were as lacking in merit as Trump’s were. Despite that, efforts of the democratically inclined section of the international community to even issue a joint statement condemning the Myanmar’s military’s actions and calling for the restoration of democracy were stymied by China, yet again.

Indications that a coup was in the offing had come from the Tatmadaw’s hardening position on the election results and other related issues in recent weeks, with Army Chief General Min Aung Hlaing warning last week that it may be necessary to revoke the country’s constitution if the laws contained in it were not being followed. He had said, “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”. It did not, therefore, come as a complete surprise when in the wee hours of 1 February, the day when the opening session of the country’s newly-elected parliament was scheduled to get underway, General Min Aung Hlaing ordered the detention of President Win Myint, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, regional politicians, and prominent pro-democracy activists. Yangon airport was taken over by the military. Telephone communications, except the military-controlled Mytel and government-run Myanmar Post and Telecommunications, were severed, the internet was blocked, and private banks were ordered closed until further notice. All TV channels, foreign as well as local with the exception of the military-run Myawady TV, fell silent.

In an announcement on Myawady TV, the military claimed that it had intervened because there had been widespread fraud in the November 2020 election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, had scored a landslide by winning 396 out of the total of 476 seats. One of two Vice Presidents, the military-aligned Myint Swe, was appointed as the acting President for a year. Myanmar's military subsequently announced the creation of a 11-member State Administrative Council (SAC) headed by General Min Aung Hlaing which will take on government functions during the one-year state of emergency. The military has said that it was committed to the democratic system and vowed to hold new and fair elections when the state of emergency ends at the end of a year. Fears, however, abound in Myanmar that the emergency and its accompanying military rule will drag on for years, as it has done before.

The Myanmar-based veteran journalist and author Bertil Lintner pointed out that no credible evidence of electoral fraud has actually been produced, and the military’s claim that the action was in accordance with the constitution was equally dubious. Lintner wrote, “In the official announcement over Myawady TV, reference was made to articles 417 and 418 of Myanmar’s constitution, which gives the president the power to declare a state of emergency ‘after coordinating with the National Defense and Security Council’. Under the provisions, he may then ‘transfer legislative, executive and judicial power’ to the Commander-in-Chief of the defense services, in this case General Min Aung Hlaing. But President Win Myint, sources say, never made any such request. He was detained by the military and it was the military-appointed Vice President Myint Swe who had unconstitutionally asked for emergency measures to be imposed. The constitution states further that it can be done in a situation that may lead to the disintegration of the Union and ‘national solidarity’ that may ‘cause the loss of sovereignty’. No such conditions existed before the coup as there were only a few relatively small but rowdy demonstrations organized by the military”.

Within 2 days of seizing power, the Tatmadaw charged Myanmar’s undisputed civilian leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, in a court of law alleging that she had illegally imported 10 walkie-talkies. The frivolousness of the charge aside, Suu Kyi could be sentenced for up to three years in prison for it. Ousted president Win Myint also faces jail time for allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions.

The going for Aung San Suu Kyi, ever since she was elected as Myanmar’s State Counselor in 2015, has been tough. She has always known that the power of the military had not waned despite it agreeing to humour a highly truncated form of democracy when compelled to do so by the weight of strong international pressure. Suu Kyi, therefore, opted to balance her relationship with the generals with the aim of buying the country’s hard-earned democracy more time, thus giving it more chance of success. As brought out in the EFSAS Commentary of 13-12-2019 titled ‘Myanmar and terror-supporting countries must both be held accountable at the International Court of Justice’, Suu Kyi went to the unexpected extent of venturing onto the international stage to defend the Myanmar military’s genocide against the Rohingyas, an act that seems to have earned her little extra favour from the military. However, that single ill-considered and inadvisable action of Suu Kyi cost the Nobel laureate much of her international reputation. Her credential as a paragon of democratic leadership was shattered. In the end, the impression that got across was articulated very well by none other than UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who when asked earlier this week about the indictment of Aung San Suu Kyi said, “if we can accuse her of something, (it) is that she was too close to the military, is that she protected too much the military”.

If Suu Kyi was indeed working hands in glove with the Tatmadaw, the question of why the coup was nevertheless staged does arise. There are several plausible reasons. As per the present Constitution of Myanmar, the military is allotted one fourth of the Members of Parliament (MPs) in Myanmar, and its representatives are to hold the three most important ministries, defense, home affairs and border affairs. This has curtailed the freedom of the elected civilian leaders in governing the country, and the large proportion of military MPs has blocked any prospect of amending the Constitution. The military top brass had grown suspicious of civilian politicians who repeatedly tried to amend the constitution to reduce the power of the military.

The military, which drafted the 2008 Constitution in a manner that preserved the generals’ grip on power even after elections, also had not anticipated that the NLD would win by landslides in 2015 as well as in 2020. These results threatened the supremacy of the military, which felt that with a renewed and convincing mandate would translate in Suu Kyi’s second term into a more forceful civilian pushback against the inordinate powers enjoyed by the increasingly unpopular military. Despite her fall from grace in the international arena, Suu Kyi remains widely revered and loved in Myanmar. Some reports have suggested that the pushback had already started taking place. After her triumphant re-election in November 2020, when her NLD party won 80% of the seats and the military failed to make any parliamentary gains, Aung San Suu Kyi had reportedly stopped meeting with the military.

Some analysts have also argued that the coup was initiated by General Min Aung Hlaing more as a means to protect his own personal power and position, rather than because the military had lost patience with not being solely in charge. They point out that General Hlaing would be attaining the mandatory retirement age in July this year, at which time his tenure as Army Chief would be up. The general, who oversaw the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas, has shown no desire to step down from power.

The initial reaction to the coup within Myanmar was muted. However, within a couple of days the blowing of car horns and the banging of cooking pots in signs of protest had already begun in places like Yangon. Activist groups have now begun calling for civil disobedience campaigns. A group of youth activists known as the Yangon Youth Network released a statement announcing the launch of a civil disobedience campaign in Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar’s two largest cities. Staff at 70 hospitals and medical departments across the country have reportedly stepped away from all non-emergency work. Meanwhile, in a statement posted on its Facebook page the NLD called on people in Myanmar to resist the military coup. According to Agence-France Presse, Suu Kyi issued the statement pre-emptively before she was detained. Warning of a return to “military dictatorship”, the message called the actions of the military unjustified, and said they went against both the Constitution and the will of the voters.

International reactions to the coup have been strong, but efforts to call out the Myanmar military at the UN have come up against a great Chinese wall. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on 3 February said, “We will do everything we can to mobilize all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails. After elections that I believe took place normally and after a large period of transition, it's absolutely unacceptable to reverse the results of the elections and the will of the people. I hope that democracy will be able to make progress again in Myanmar but for that all the prisoners must be released, the constitutional order must be reestablished”. The UN chief also lamented that the UN Security Council (UNSC) had been unable to agree on a common statement about Myanmar's coup, after an emergency meeting initiated by Britain. A draft text in which the Security Council condemned the coup and demanded that the military “immediately release those unlawfully detained” and repeal the one-year state of emergency was not agreed to by China, with Russia also asking for more time to consider it. The message that China has sought to send out to Myanmar is that the former is the only true friend that latter has. To the other members of the Security Council, China has bluntly said that democracy, rule of law and other such ideas hold little meaning for it.

US President Joe Biden termed the Myanmar military’s actions a “direct assault” on the country’s transition to democracy and rule of law, and said that the US would work with its partners to hold to account those responsible for overturning the country’s democratic transition. “For almost a decade, the people of Burma have been steadily working to establish elections, civilian governance, and the peaceful transfer of power. That progress should be respected”, he said in a statement. Biden’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also issued a statement expressing “grave concern and alarm” over the reported detentions.

Other countries also reacted strongly. The Group of Seven (G7) major economic powers comprising Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom (UK) and the US called for the return of democracy while saying that it was “deeply concerned”. A statement released by the G7 added, “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”. Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne issued a statement calling on “the military to respect the rule of law, to resolve disputes through lawful mechanisms and to release immediately all civilian leaders and others who have been detained unlawfully”. In a group diplomatic statement, the Embassies of Australia, 12 European countries, the European Union diplomatic mission to Myanmar, New Zealand, and the United States said, “We urge the military, and all other parties in the country to adhere to democratic norms, and we oppose any attempt to alter the outcome of the elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition”.

Human rights groups have also condemned the coup and the failure of the UN Security Council to take swift action. Brad Adams, Asia director at the Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, “The military’s actions show utter disdain for the democratic elections held in November and the right of Myanmar’s people to choose their own government. We are especially concerned for the safety and security of activists and other critics of the military who may have been taken into custody”. Highlighting the decay that is increasingly becoming apparent in the international architecture, Akila Radhakrishnan, the president of the Global Justice Center, said that “No one should be surprised that the world’s body (the UNSC) for maintaining international peace and security failed to issue a statement condemning a brazen military coup”.

Others, such as David Scott Mathieson, an independent analyst working on conflict, peace and human rights issues in Myanmar, believes that the West totally misread the Tatmadaw as an institution, thereby contributing to the current state of affairs. He wrote, “It’s worth reflecting on a pathology of ingratiation that defined the West’s total misread of the Tatmadaw as an institution, and its homegrown Napoleon, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. This doesn’t include repressive states such as China, Russia, Israel, Pakistan and Vietnam who have been long-term partners and arms suppliers, or Japan who has long had a special relationship with the Tatmadaw and generations of its leaders. The basic methodology of understanding the Tatmadaw should have been a combination of words and deeds, and certainly the army’s history of coups, brutal violence, repression, clumsy propaganda and incompetence at all things governance, should have guided perceptions”.

Predictably, because of their adherence to “non-interference”, Myanmar’s partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been cautious in their statements. Brunei, which currently holds ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship, called for “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy” in Myanmar, citing the democracy principles in ASEAN’s Charter. Singapore and Indonesia have urged all parties to exercise restraint, Cambodia has said that the coup is “an internal affair” of Myanmar, and Malaysia has called on the “Myanmar military and all relevant parties” to give utmost priority to the maintenance of peace and security.

China’s reactions to the coup were revealing. Illustrating how China viewed the development, its State-owned mouthpiece Xinhua referred to the coup as a “major Cabinet reshuffle”. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, meanwhile, said, “We have noted what happened in Myanmar, and we are learning more information on the situation. China is a friendly neighbor of Myanmar. We hope that all parties in Myanmar will properly handle their differences under the constitutional and legal framework and maintain political and social stability”. Through this statement China conveyed that it viewed the coup as Myanmar’s business, and that China was happy to do business with whoever was leading the country in a “friendly” way. China’s wide interests in Myanmar range from the economic to the strategic. Myanmar is a rich source of natural resources, and it also offers China access to the seas on its southwestern flank, something Beijing has sought to develop through the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor that will link the Yunnan province of China to the Bay of Bengal. China, which was the sole international backer of the Burmese Junta from the 1980s and reaped immense benefits from Myanmar because of that role, appears to be keen to reprise it now.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Azeem Ibrahim, a director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington DC, opined that the meeting last month between China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and General Min Aung Hlaing “may have been the pivotal point in determining the coup”. Following the meeting, China’s Foreign Ministry had said that “China appreciates that the Myanmar military takes national revitalization as its mission”. Myanmar’s readout on the meeting noted that the Tawmadaw chief had made complaints to Wang about Myanmar’s 8 November 2020 elections, saying that it was marred by fraud. The readout added that General Hlaing had also told his Chinese interlocutor what the Myanmar army was doing about it, without giving specifics. This would suggest that China had been made aware of at least some aspects of the coup plan well in advance.

South Asia, on whose eastern fringe Myanmar lies, would not be unaffected by the coup. Even as the UN raised fears that the coup will only worsen the plight of some 600,000 Rohingyas who still live in Myanmar, Bangladesh, which hosts about 800,000 Rohingya refugees, said on 3 February that it had stepped up security along its border with Myanmar to prevent a fresh influx of Rohingyas amid speculation that the coup in the neighbouring nation could push more refugees into Bangladesh. Bangladeshi officials in Cox's Bazar, which borders Myanmar's Rakhine state, said that the paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) has intensified patrols and vigils along the border. Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh have, meanwhile, said that after the coup the return to power of those responsible for the atrocities inflicted upon them makes them more fearful of returning to Myanmar.

Further west, the Pakistani Army would be observing the coup and its effects with great interest, while the political class of the country would be doing so with greater trepidation than interest. How the international community reacts to the military takeover in Myanmar will inform and influence the Pakistani Army for the next inevitable time that it seizes power again.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement that “We have noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern. India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely”. India had shown commitment to build a robust relationship with Myanmar over the past two decades, which only intensified after the democratic process began in 2011. The coup, however, has complicated matters for it. Despite being democratically driven, India is aware that if Myanmar is subjected to heavy sanctions and pressure, the country may be left with little choice but to fall deeper into China’s arms. A harsh reaction to the coup by India, therefore, would have only benefitted China.

As Constantino Xavier, an analyst of India’s neighbourhood policy at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress put it, “India does care about democracy in Myanmar, but that’s a luxury it knows it will not be able to afford for the time being. The only option will be to engage, building on its outreach in recent years via the security and defence establishment”. India’s security relationship with the Myanmar military has actually become close in recent years, and it would be difficult for India to burn the bridges given the Myanmar military’s assistance in securing India’s North East borders from insurgent groups. Moreover, Myanmar continues to serve as a cornerstone in India’s Act East Policy because of its strategic location.

In the international order of today, China’s backing of autocrats and terrorists at the United Nations (UN) seems to be emerging as a constant and inevitable problem for the organization’s democratic members. It is driving the widening schism in the international order towards a perilous cracking point. The dysfunctional nature of this creaky, rusty international order is, meanwhile, grossly failing the people of Myanmar, whom the return to civilian rule in 2015 had enabled to engage with people across the globe and enjoy an enhanced degree of human rights and access to democratic institutions. Worst affected will be Myanmar’s marginalized and hounded communities such as the Rohingyas, as also the various ethnic groups with their own range of grievances.

The coup in Myanmar has presented the international community with a tricky set of challenges, but care needs to be taken to ensure that human rights and democracy are not ignored in the justified quest to prevent China from once again gaining a free hand in the country.