In 2011, a nearly 50-year rule under the Myanmar army came to a close. The West celebrated open elections and San Suu Kyi, a political prisoner, took control of government as a civilian leader. However, this period of peace came to a close in the early hours of February 1st, when the military under the command of Min Aung Hlaing overcame the government and detained top civil ministers, as well as Suu Kyi herself. In a live television broadcast, the military declared a year long state of emergency and the current government’s disbandment.
Analysts found the prospect of a military coup unlikely and are still surprised by the military’s aggressive action. In 2008, the Tatmadaw military created a constitution that granted itself a series of unremovable privileges. The military was guaranteed a quarter of parliamentary seats at all times and was to control the defence, interior, boarder-control, police, and intelligence. This system created a quasi-civilian government that promised a ‘disciplined flourishing democracy’. One would have thought it would be unlikely for the military to sacrifice such a uniquely powerful position. The catalyst to this intervention, however, was the apparently ‘unacceptable’ results of the recent election that gave Suu Kui a staggering 83% majority. The military initially spoke out in frustration but then backed down, claiming their previous promise of military intervention was a ‘misinterpretation’ and that the UN had overreacted. Unfortunately, this appears to have been a malicious ploy to buy time.
The wider setting of this coup is complex. Suu Kyi government’s international reputation has taken a battering over the last few years. Allegations of genocide against the Rohingya was an international embarrassment and brought near military intervention from the UN. Suu Kyi’s personal reputation as a democratic icon to the West vaporised when she rushed to the Court of Justice in the Hague in 2019 to defend her own General, who ironically has just overthrown and arrested her. The administration, though popular domestically, was in a frail political position. The military was growing angry and chauvinistic at repeated international condemnation and consistently denied any recognition of wrongdoing, labelling genocide allegations as ‘misinformation’. Suu Kyi, having lost her seat as the West’s golden child, seemed prime for removal and her landslide election result was too much for Min Hlaing to handle.
Whilst this may seem like a domestic issue, this is likely to have international consequences. The UK, America, France, and Germany were quick to condemn the military coup, with Boris Johnson declaring the arrests’ unlawful’. However, China has seemingly been quietly in support of the military commander and refusing to acknowledge it was a coup. The China Daily summarised the event as a ‘major cabinet reshuffle’, a very tame phrasing of the circumstances. The collapse of a pro-western democratic government so close to their border will no doubt be positive news to Beijing, and the destabilisation of the country’s institutions leaves space for Chinese insurgency and espionage control. The United States has vowed military intervention if the coup is not immediately ‘reversed’. While it is unlikely to spill into a proxy war headed by the United State one must stay wary of the consequences of a seemingly bloodless military coup, especially with a fairly pro-interventionist Biden cabinet.