Myanmar’s Military Seizes Power
February 1, 2021
In an early morning raid on February 1, the military of Burma/Myanmar1 detained State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other prominent figures in the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). The leaders of several ethnic minority political parties and activists were also rounded up. The coup took place just hours before the country’s new parliament was to convene following November elections. Troops fanned out across Yangon and Naypyidaw, the capital, establishing a visible presence. Mobile phone services and data connections were disrupted, ATMs ceased to function, and troops seized control of state-run television. Several hours later, a broadcast informed citizens that the country was under a one-year state of emergency due to “election fraud.” Myanmar’s fragile, decade-long transition to democracy has suffered a devastating setback.
Q1: How did this happen?
A1: The NLD under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership won the November general elections in a landslide. The party picked up 396 out of 476 available seats in the parliament—83 percent of the total. This result was even better than the 70 percent it took in the 2015 elections, which vaulted Suu Kyi into power as state counselor and de facto head of government. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), by contrast, won just 33 seats in the recent elections. The polls were an embarrassing rebuke for the army, and particularly Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, which seems to have been convinced that the NLD would lose some ground with the public after five years of mixed performance in government.
The USDP and military cried foul after the polls, alleging widespread irregularities. The Union Election Commission, along with local and international observers, have repeatedly rejected those accusations. There were certainly problems, most controversially the NLD government’s refusal to allow voting in areas where the risk of violence between the military and ethnic armed organizations was deemed too high. That deprived more than a million voters in Rakhine state, not counting the already disenfranchised Rohingya population, the right to cast a ballot. Voting was also canceled in parts of Shan and Kachin states. But these and other purported irregularities were not nearly enough to detract from the NLD’s overwhelming nationwide victory.
Tensions between the military and civilian leadership escalated last week as the start of the new parliamentary session loomed. Military spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun telegraphed that the military might “take action” if its demands to investigate voter fraud were not taken up. Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior government officials held an emergency meeting with military brass to try and defuse the situation. But Suu Kyi reportedly rejected all the military’s demands, which included dismissing the election commission and recounting ballots with military oversight. On January 27, Min Aung Hlaing told military personnel that the armed forces should repeal any law, even the constitution, if it was being violated. Two days later, pro-military demonstrators were being trucked into major cities and army vehicles were seen on the streets.
Q2: Why did the military launch a coup?
A2: Ultimately the decision to go ahead with the coup was Min Aung Hlaing’s, and his motivations are murky. Clearly this was not about election integrity. More plausibly, the coup seems a result of the general’s personal ambitions. He was slated for mandatory retirement in July 2021 and was widely assumed to be eyeing a transition to politics. But the NLD’s performance in the November elections dashed any hopes that he or other generals could secure election to top office under the current constitution. That realization may have been particularly jarring if, as has been alleged, the military brass fell victim to their own propaganda and believed Suu Kyi’s popularity was waning.
Min Aung Hlaing’s personal rivalry with Aung San Suu Kyi also helps explain how the country got here. The two have had a famously frosty relationship since the NLD’s rise to power in 2015. Suu Kyi and her government have tried to walk a narrow path between appeasing the military and slowly chipping away at its prerogatives. The army wrote the constitution, which was approved in a highly suspect referendum in 2008. It guarantees the military one-quarter of the seats in the parliament, amounting to a veto on charter amendments. It also grants the armed forces control over the defense, interior, and border affair ministries as well as the right to nominate one of two vice presidents. But despite these firewalls, the NLD has accumulated more power than the generals expected.
The constitution requires a party to win more than two-thirds of the national vote if it hopes to govern alone. The NLD did—twice. In 2016, the party managed to repeal the Emergency Provisions Act, which had for decades given the military broad powers to hold people without charge and allowed courts to convict on minimal evidence. Members of the NLD have repeatedly talked about the need to amend the constitution to remove the military’s guarantee of 25 percent of seats in the parliament and lift a ban on Aung San Suu Kyi serving as president. And despite defending the military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, and thereby undermining her and her government’s international standing, Suu Kyi remains distrusted by the generals. Nor has the situation been helped by her own tendency to jealously guard power and consolidate the levers of government in her own hands.
Q3: What comes next?
A3: Again, the only person who really knows what the new junta will do is its leader, Min Aung Hlaing. The military claims to have launched the coup in defense of the constitution, invoking Section 417, which allows for the declaration of a one-year state of emergency if faced with a threat that “may disintegrate the Union or disintegrate national solidarity or that may cause the loss of sovereignty.” But the power to declare that state of emergency is clearly reserved for the president. After detaining President Win Myint, the military named Myint Swe, the army-nominated vice president, as acting president and had him sign off on the declaration. As a result, Min Aung Hlaing now claims all executive, legislative, and judicial powers for one year.
How the citizens of Myanmar will react bears watching. A decade of modernization and opening has led to radical shifts in the way people within Myanmar communicate, especially the explosion in mobile internet service. That will make it much more difficult for the military to keep a lid on popular discontent than during past coups. The initial reactions from major urban centers have been characterized by disbelief and grief. Citizens rushed to markets to stock up in preparation for an uncertain next phase. As coup fears increased last week, the red flags of the NLD were seen flying from windows and all over Yangon. Most of those reportedly disappeared in the hours after the coup as residents tried to avoid becoming targets. But it signaled widespread opposition to military intervention, which may or may not become organized resistance in the days and weeks ahead. An NLD spokesperson urged citizens to resist non-violently and in accordance with the law. The party also posted to Facebook a statement allegedly signed by Aung San Suu Kyi before her arrest. It called on citizens “to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military.”
Q4: What can the United States do?
A4: The White House released a statement just hours after civilian leaders were rounded up, promising that the Biden administration “will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the release of those detained and said the United States “stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace, and development. The military must reverse these actions immediately.” He was joined by international partners including Australian foreign minister Marise Payne and UN secretary-general António Guterres.
But U.S. leverage over Burma/Myanmar has always been limited. In the short term, the coup will almost certainly result in economic sanctions against its leaders. But Min Aung Hlaing and several other generals were already slapped with sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act in 2019 for their involvement in the ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya. They are barred from entering the United States, holding assets in the country, or doing business with Americans. The U.S. government could expand the list of those targeted by Global Magnitsky sanctions to include Myint Swe and others involved in the coup. But that is unlikely to have much immediate impact on the generals, few of whom had any intention of traveling to or doing business in the United States.
And unlike its reaction to the 2014 coup in Thailand, the United States cannot pull back on military exercises, training, and sales with Myanmar, because military-to-military relations remain almost non-existent. Congress has made sure that the U.S. military engages in little more than legal and human rights trainings with its Myanmar counterparts. The United States could, and probably will, reimpose at least some sanctions under the 2003 Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act and 2008 JADE Act, which were suspended but not formally lifted over the last decade. One option would be a renewed ban on ruby and jade imports, in which the military is heavily involved. Section 5(a)(1)(B) of the JADE Act also makes officials of the Myanmar military “involved in the repression of peaceful political activity or in other gross violations of human rights in Burma or in the commission of other human rights abuses” ineligible for a visa. Sanctions will need to be targeted at military-owned enterprises and calibrated not to punish average citizens. But that only highlights the limited leverage the United States has. Despite a decade of opening, U.S. businesses remain relatively modest players in the Myanmar economy. Those that have invested are mainly geared at providing goods and services to the domestic market in Myanmar, which means their departure will mostly harm private citizens. U.S. businesses have stayed away from the natural resource extraction and commodities export sectors in which the military is heavily invested.
Of course, Washington will not be alone in its pressure campaign. Just last week, the United States along with the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and 11 European states released a joint statement opposing “any attempt to alter the outcome of the elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition.” Most or even all of those partners might level their own sanctions against Myanmar’s new junta in the weeks and months ahead. But regional responses will be critical. It will be more difficult for the United States to get major investors in Myanmar, like Japan and Singapore, to follow suit. And the largest foreign player in Myanmar’s economy, China, will be all too happy to recalibrate its engagement to recognize the new facts on the ground. That will likely soften the blow of any U.S. sanctions, which Min Aung Hlaing has doubtless already anticipated and dismissed.
On the diplomatic stage, the United States should take a leading role in condemning the coup and rallying international support for whatever popular resistance movement arises. Regional partners like Japan have emphasized democratic values as part of their strategy to respond to a more assertive China. The Biden administration will need to reiterate that this is no time to retreat from that focus. Those states with greater economic leverage in the country should be prodded to signal that widespread violence against citizens is unacceptable and would lead Myanmar back to international isolation, undoing the economic progress of the last decade.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration can begin marshaling financial resources to support democratic forces within and outside Myanmar, including journalists, humanitarian organizations, and civil society groups in ethnic minority areas and along the Thai border. The administration should try to use pressure to incentive a return to civilian rule. But it should also prepare for the frustrating possibility of sustained military control. In that case, it will be critical to help amplify voices of resistance. The United States should support those who will keep the flame alive and help rebuild institutions once the generals loosen their grip and give Myanmar another chance to breathe.
Gregory B. Poling is senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Simon Tran Hudes is a research associate for the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
1 The White House, including under President Joe Biden, refers to the country as Burma. The State Department uses both Burma and Myanmar. Most of the analytic community has coalesced around use of “Myanmar,” which is the standard in regional and international forums.