• Khush Jaju

One Nation, Two Coups

On the morning of February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s all-powerful Tatmadaw (armed forces) detained the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other senior figures from the governing party-National League for Democracy (NLD). Thus seizing power in a coup less than 10 years after it handed over power to a civilian government. Unrest has gripped Myanmar. Peaceful pro-democracy street demonstrations and work stoppages have given way to paramilitary operations in opposition to the country’s ruthless military, which seized power in a coup d’état. Hours after the detention of Suu Kyi, Myanmar's army declared a yearlong state of Emergency and said power had been handed to the Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces, Min Aung Hlaing. This is spelling doom to the prospect of democracy for the time being and throwing the country into a long spell of instability and uncertainty.

Where is Myanmar and what is its history?

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is located in South-East Asia. It has a population of roughly 54 million, most of whom are Burmese speakers, although a lot of rural languages are also spoken. The biggest city is Yangon (Rangoon), but the capital is Naypyidaw. The country gained independence from Britain in 1948. It was ruled by the armed forces from 1962 until 2011 when a new government began ushering a return to civilian rule.

The 1988 uprising remains one of the defining moments of Myanmar's modern history. A regime that had used extreme levels of violence to hold onto power, suddenly found itself facing massive protests over its mishandling of the economy. By 1988 Burma, as the Southeast Asian nation was then known, had been ruled for 26 years by the secretive and superstitious General Ne Win, who seized power in a coup in 1962. He was Commander of the Armed Forces - known as the Tatmadaw - which had been fighting insurgencies in several parts of Burma since independence in 1948. They viewed civilians as incapable of holding the country together.

General Ne Win cut Burma off from the outside world, refusing to take sides in the Cold War divisions then afflicting Asia. Instead, he implemented an eccentric one-party system under his Burma Socialist Programme Party, in which the army played a dominant role, and led to Burma becoming one of the world's poorest countries.

"While everyone agrees on the enemy - the military - they are also increasingly aware that things cannot return to the status quo: merely respect the vote and so forth, putting Aung San Suu Kyi back in that uneasy power-sharing relationship with the military," says Elliot Prasse-Freeman, Assistant Professor in Sociology/Anthropology at the National University of Singapore, who has written extensively on Myanmar. ”And so, ironically, the military has forced this reckoning, in which mainstream liberals are now forced to confront the reality that the so-called democracy of the last 10 years was merely that: so-called."

The experience of military rule after the 1988 uprising, when the Generals enriched themselves through corrupt business deals, has robbed the Armed Forces of the grudging respect they once had in the wider population as guarantors of the country's unity.

Now they have also broken the pledge they made, back in 1988, to allow a move towards democracy, albeit on their own chosen timescale and conditions. And they have forced a realisation on the people of Myanmar that, whatever they say, they will never willingly give up the grip they have had on the country for most of its 73 years of existence. This helps explain why unlike during previous coups, so many are now risking their lives to try to stop it from succeeding. "The generals could always say, with a certain if strained plausibility, that they eventually fulfilled their promise, post-1988, for a democratic transition," says Elliot Prasse-Freeman. They can no longer say that, and the entire apparatus has now become, in the eyes of most people, nothing more than a terrorist organisation - this is the term used on social media in both English and Burmese [akyan-pet thama]. In the daytime the police and other security officials beat and kill peaceful protesters; at night, videos are circulating in which they smash cars, destroy trishaws, and randomly shoot at civilians. "The military has long seen civilians as enemies. But these actions, so desperate and inhumane, demonstrate how vast the gap between them has become."

What led to the military coup in Myanmar?

The Parliament was scheduled to hold its first session since the country’s November 8th elections, in which the National League for Democracy, Myanmar’s leading civilian party, won 83 percent of the body’s available seats. The military refused to accept the results of the vote, which was widely seen as a referendum on the popularity of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. As head of the National League for Democracy, she had been the de facto civilian leader since her election in 2015. The new Parliament was expected to endorse the election results and approve the next Government. The possibility of the coup emerged after the military, which had tried in the country’s Supreme Court to argue that the election results were fraudulent, threatened to “take action” and surrounded the houses of Parliament with soldiers.

India's Reaction

India’s response to the coup in Myanmar has been balanced and carefully calibrated. “Noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern,” was a statement by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. It further said, “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 has learnt from its earlier mistakes of democratic activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s and has become more pragmatic in its approach to Myanmar, keeping in mind its national and security interests. Myanmar is too important to New Delhi to ignore as it sits at the intersection of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East Policy Policies', being the land bridge to connect South Asia and Southeast Asia, and thus demands a special place in India’s diplomacy in the broader region of the Indo-Pacific region.

Global reaction

The killing of more than 100 anti-coup protesters in Myanmar has drawn global outrage, with Defence Ministers of 12 nations condemning the military. The US accused the security forces of a "reign of terror". Coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and his generals still threw a lavish party for Armed Forces Day. The next day, funerals were held, with some reports that the military had tried to intervene in the mourning.

More than 400 people have now been killed in the suppression of protests in Myanmar since the 1st February coup. The military seized control of the South East Asian country after an election which Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide.

The Defence Chiefs of a dozen nations, including the United Kingdom, issued a rare joint statement condemning the military's violent actions. The United States, Japan, and Australia were also among the signatories of a statement that said, "A professional military follows international standards for conduct and is responsible for protecting - not harming - the people it serves." The UK government has also urged all British nationals in Myanmar to "leave the country as soon as possible".

Security forces opened fire in more than 40 locations. The commercial centre, Yangon, saw dozens of deaths, but killings were recorded from Kachin in the north to Taninthartharyi in the far south.

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