NEWS
01/02/2021 08:47 GMT | Updated 01/02/2021 09:10 GMT

Myanmar Coup: What You Need To Know

The country's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other senior politicians were detained in an early morning raid.

Already riven by decades of civil war, military rule and more recently coronavirus, the fragile state of Myanmar is once again in turmoil.

In the early hours of Monday, the country’s military launched a coup and detained the democratically-elected leader of the nation.

The takeover is a sharp reversal of the partial yet significant progress toward democracy Myanmar has made in recent years, following five decades of military rule and international isolation that began in 1962.

This is what you need to know: 

The democratically elected leader

Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, came to power at the head of the National League for Democracy party (NLD) after a 2015 election win that followed decades of house arrest and struggle against the junta that made her an international icon.

She was praised around the world for her pivotal role in bringing democracy to her country, but just four years later would be at the Hague facing charges of genocide – but we’ll come to that a bit later.

The daughter of independence hero Aung San, who was assassinated when she was two years old, Suu Kyi spent much of her youth overseas.

At Oxford University, she met British academic Michael Aris, who would become her husband. They had two sons and settled in Oxford.

Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with supporters after giving a speech in Monywa in 2012.

In 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Yangon, then the capital, to care for her dying mother. There, she was swept up in student-led protests against the military, which had ruled since a 1962 coup.

An eloquent public speaker, Suu Kyi was a likely candidate to lead the movement but the protests were crushed, its leaders killed and jailed, and she was soon imprisoned in her lakeside family home, where she remained until 2010, despite brief releases from house arrest.

Suu Kyi made a decision to remain in Myanmar to lead a campaign for democracy. Although the military made it clear she could leave, she feared she would not be allowed to return.

She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, which her elder son Alexander collected on her behalf.

In August 2011, Suu Kyi had her first meeting with then President Thein Sein, a former general and head of the quasi-civilian administration, marking the start of a pragmatic period of engagement with the government of former soldiers.

She came to power in 2015 in a democratic election which ended 50 years of military rule.

 

The military

The military ruled directly for nearly 50 years after a 1962 coup and had long seen itself as the guardian of national unity.

As the architect of Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, the military enshrined a permanent role for itself in the political system.

STR via Getty Images
Soldiers stand guard on a street in Naypyidaw on February 1, 2021, after the military detained the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

It gets an unelected quota of 25% of parliamentary seats and its chief appoints ministers of defence, interior and border affairs, ensuring a key stake in politics, which has made for an awkward power-sharing arrangement with the NLD.

Many members of the party, including chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi, for years suffered persecution for opposing the former junta.

The coup

The country’s second democratic election was held in November of last year and Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide with 83% of the vote.

Myanmar’s new parliament was due to sit for the first time on Monday but just hours before this could happen, an announcement on military-controlled Myawaddy TV said that because national stability is in jeopardy, all government functions would be transferred to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing under a provision in the 2008 constitution that was issued under military rule.

 

A presenter on the station said that the reason for the takeover was in part due to the government’s failure to act on the military’s claims of voter fraud in last November’s election and its failure to postpone the election because of the coronavirus crisis.

Amid the bickering over the allegations, the military last Tuesday ramped up political tension when a spokesman at its weekly news conference, responding to a reporter’s question, declined to rule out the possibility of a coup.

Major General Zaw Min Tun elaborated by saying the military would “follow the laws in accordance with the constitution”.

YE AUNG THU via Getty Images
Myanmar's Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing salutes during the 73rd anniversary of the Martyrs' Day ceremony in Yangon on July 19, 2020.

On Saturday, however, the military denied it had threatened a coup, accusing unnamed organisations and media of misrepresenting its position and taking the general’s words out of context.

On Sunday, it reiterated its denial, this time blaming unspecified foreign embassies of misinterpreting the military’s position and calling on them “not to make unwarranted assumptions about the situation”.

Just hours later, the coup was launched.

The military chief 

Myanmar’s powerful military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is now in charge of the country and, according to the coup announcement, will lead for one year after which a new election will be held.

The commander-in-chief has never shown any sign he was prepared to give up the military’s 25% of seats in parliament nor of allowing any change to the clause in the constitution that bars Suu Kyi from becoming president.

Where are Suu Kyi and senior leaders?

Suu Kyi, Myanmar President Win Myint and other NLD leaders were “taken” in the early hours of the morning, NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt told Reuters by phone. Reuters was subsequently unable to contact him.

A video posted to Facebook by one MP appeared to show the arrest of another, regional lawmaker Pa Pa Han.

In the video, her husband pleads with men in military garb standing outside the gate. A young child can be seen clinging to his chest and wailing.

A pre-written statement uploaded on a NLD Facebook page quoted Suu Kyi as saying such army actions would put Myanmar ”back under a dictatorship”.

“I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military,” it quoted her as saying. Reuters was unable to reach any NLD officials to confirm the veracity of the statement.

The international reaction

The coup has been widely condemned by Western nations. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said the developments were a “serious blow to democratic reforms” and urged all leaders to refrain from violence and respect human right.

UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the “democratic wishes of the people of Myanmar must be respected”.

The White House said president Joe Biden had been briefed on the detentions.

“The United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The Rohingya

No discussion of Myanmar can exclude mention of the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority group that have existed uneasily alongside the country’s Buddhist majority ever since Myanmar’s creation in 1948 after gaining independence from Britain.

Some 600,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar under what Amnesty International has called “apartheid conditions”″ mostly confined to camps and villages and unable to travel freely or access healthcare or education.

Relations between the two groups have frequently turned violent with Rohingya separatists pitted against the largely Buddhist military. The ongoing conflict is the world’s longest-running civil war.

K M Asad via Getty Images
A Rohingya refugee woman with her son sits on a Bangladesh navy vessel will move to the Bhasan Char island in Noakhali district, Bangladesh last year.

When Suu Kyi came to power she promised to end the civil war and formed an advisory commission headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

A day after Annan’s report was released in August 2017, advising sweeping changes, Rohingya militants attacked security forces in Rakhine State.

The military responded with a campaign that included the torching of hundreds of villages and killings, and was described by the UN human rights high commissioner as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

Suu Kyi blamed “terrorists” for an “iceberg of misinformation” about the crisis and said the military was exercising the “rule of law”.

In a September 2017 address to the nation, she appeared baffled about the exodus, saying in reference to refugees: “We want to know why they are leaving.”

She went to the Hague in 2019 to face charges of genocide brought against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

She acknowledged the possibility war crimes had been committed but framed the crackdown as a legitimate military operation against terrorists.