100 days of the Myanmar coup: Why the military seized control and what happens next

100 days of the Myanmar coup: Why the military seized control and what happens next

Protesters at Hledan, Yangon on Feb 17, 2021 (6)
A protester is seen holding up the three-fingered salute at Hledan, Yangon in Myanmar on Feb 17, 2021. (Photo: Naung Kham)

SINGAPORE: In the early hours of Feb 1, just hours before the first sitting of a newly elected parliament in one of Southeast Asia's most strife-ridden countries, a decade-long experiment in democracy juddered to a halt.

More than three months after Myanmar's military seized power – mass protests, military crackdowns and diplomatic efforts to restore stability continue. The way ahead for the country of 54 million people remains unclear.

Exactly 100 days into the coup, CNA looks at how Myanmar got to this point, and where it could be headed.

WHAT HAPPENED ON FEB 1?

Before dawn, Myanmar's military – known as the Tatmadaw – detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other officials from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

An Internet and communications blackout started at about 3am. The military also sealed off roads around the capital Naypyidaw and shut the international airport.

Taking to the air on a military-run TV channel, the Tatmadaw declared a year-long state of emergency. It said power had been handed over to General Min Aung Hlaing and pledged to hold elections in a year's time.

Simultaneous moves were made in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, where troops seized City Hall just ahead of the military's announcement.

As the country woke up to this seismic moment, there were some who were initially oblivious to what was playing out in the corridors of power.

In Naypyidaw, a fluorescent yellow-clad Khing Hnin Wai performed an aerobics routine set to electronic music in front of the Royal Lotus roundabout. Behind her, a convoy of black armoured vehicles and SUVs swept by near the country's parliament.

Myanmar 100 days aerobics instructor Khing Hnin Wai
Aerobics instructor Khing Hnin Wai performs a routine while a convoy assembles behind her, Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Feb 1, 2021. (Photo: Screengrab from Facebook/Khing Hnin Wai)

The surreal moment captured history in the making, and the bizarre juxtaposition of a power grab with a fitness video went viral. The veneer of normalcy quickly shattered once it became apparent what had just happened to Myanmar.

People rushed out to petrol stations and queued at grocery stores to stock up on rice, oil and instant noodles. Trucks of army supporters trundled through the streets of Yangon, waving flags and blasting nationalist songs.

Elsewhere, it was fear – and anger. "Our country was a bird that was just learning to fly. Now the army broke our wings," said student activist Si Thu Tun.

HOW DID WE GET TO THIS POINT?

The Tatmadaw has justified the coup as a response to what it says was voter fraud in the November 2020 general election. The military alleges there were millions of discrepancies in voter lists, a claim Myanmar's election commission has denied.

The NLD won the November election by a landslide, taking 83 per cent of available parliament seats. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won just 33 of 476 seats and demanded a re-run of the polls, but was denied.

Myanmar election COVID-19
National League of Democracy supporters gather on election day in Yangon, Myanmar on Nov 8, 2020. (Photo: Naung Kham)

Days before Feb 1, Myanmar watchers were already expecting a coup following cryptic comments by the Tatmadaw.

On Jan 26, the military warned it would "take action" if its calls to investigate the voter lists were not heeded. "We do not say the Tatmadaw will take power. We do not say it will not as well ... What we can say is we will follow current existing laws, including the Constitution," said a military spokesman.

On Jan 28, General Min Aung Hlaing called the Constitution the "mother law for all laws" and said it should be respected. But he also warned that in certain circumstances, it could be "necessary to revoke the Constitution".

Addressing the nation on the day of the coup, the junta blamed the country's election commission for failing to resolve the alleged voter fraud dispute.

It said this violated the Constitution and could lead to a "disintegration of national solidarity", citing this as the reason for the transfer of power to the military.

COMMENTARY: Solution to Myanmar's political crisis lies beyond Aung San Suu Kyi or the military

HOW ARE PEOPLE PROTESTING AND HOW HAS THE MILITARY RESPONDED?

As of May 9, more than 700 people have been killed in clashes with security forces and another 3,800 arrested, charged or sentenced, according to the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Not since the 2007 Saffron Revolution – named after the coloured robes of the Buddhist monks that led the movement – have protests grown this large. Casualty figures so far remain below that of the 1988 anti-government protests, in which more than 3,000 people were killed.

Across Myanmar, people have chanted and drummed pots and pans in a night chorus of dissent against
Across Myanmar, people have chanted and drummed pots and pans in a night chorus of dissent against military rule. (Photo: AFP)

The first signs of popular opposition in Myanmar came the day after the coup. Residents of Yangon gathered outside their homes to strike pots and pans, and honk car horns in protest.

"We used to do it to drive evil out of the village or out of the house," said activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi. "People are using this tactic to drive the military junta out of the country."

Activists quickly organised into a civil disobedience movement, coordinating strikes and boycotts of military-linked businesses. Large-scale street protests started on the first weekend after the coup, in Yangon and Mandalay.

Myanmar coup Yangon protests Feb 25 (9)
Protesters in Yangon, Myanmar on Feb 25, 2021. (Photo: Naung Kham)

COMMENTARY: Can Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement overturn the coup?

The situation took a turn for the worse on Feb 9, when a young woman, Mya Thwe Thwe Khine, was shot in the head by what doctors said was a live round during a protest in Naypyidaw.

The 20-year-old died on Feb 19, marking the first death among opponents of the coup. Many more civilians, including children, have died since.

Memorial for Mya Thwe Thwe Khine, a protester who died after she was shot in the head (5)
A memorial in Yangon, Myanmar, for Mya Thwe Thwe Khine, a protester who died after she was shot in the head. (Photo: Naung Kham)

Public servants have played an important role from the early days of the protest movement – doctors and teachers were among the first groups to demonstrate just days after the coup.

COMMENTARY: As Myanmar coup persists, ethnic armed groups come under greater pressure to act

Myanmar diplomats assigned overseas by the civilian government also became bastions of support for the anti-coup movement from abroad.

Myanmar's envoy to the United Nations, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun dramatically broke with the junta when he addressed the General Assembly in New York on Feb 26. Holding up the three-finger salute used by pro-democracy protesters, the ambassador appealed to the international community to use any means necessary to end the coup.

UN Myanmar Ambassador Feb 26
Myanmar's Ambassador to the United Nations Kyaw Moe Tun addressing the General Assembly on Feb 26, 2021. (Photo: Screengrab from YouTube/United Nations)

Although he was fired by the junta after this, the show of defiance inspired other Myanmar diplomats such as Chaw Kalyar, based in Berlin.

The 49-year-old took part in mass protests as a student in 1988, when many of her friends lost their lives. "I kept strong feelings inside me throughout my life," she said of her decision to join the current civil disobedience movement.

READ: Myanmar diplomat in Berlin takes stand against junta

Seeking political alternatives, a group of ousted NLD lawmakers known as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) – the name of Myanmar's legislature – has become a rallying point for many protesters.

Formed a few days after the coup, its objectives are to ensure the unconditional release of detainees and conduct the "regular functions" of parliament.

Myanmar
Buddhist monks, supporters of anti-coup protesters, display placards during a march through the streets of Mandalay, Myanmar, Mar 10, 2021. (Photo: AP)

In April, the CRPH formed a parallel Cabinet, called the National Unity Government. Many anti-coup protesters see this as the country's legitimate government and have called for its inclusion in international talks to resolve the crisis.

The junta has since designated the National Unity Government and CRPH as "terrorist organisations", meaning anyone speaking to them – including journalists – can be charged under counterterrorism laws.

WHO'S IN CHARGE NOW?

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar under the NLD government, has been under house arrest since her detention on Feb 1.

In recent years, the Nobel laureate has been criticised internationally for defending the brutal treatment of Myanmar's Rohingya minority by the military.

But she remains hugely popular among the Burman majority at home, where she is lovingly called "Mother Suu". Protesters and other countries alike are calling for her release as part of a way out of the crisis in Myanmar.

Thousands protest Myanmar's coup on Feb 14, 2021 (6)
A man carrying a poster of Aung San Suu Kyi is seen during a protest in Myanmar on Feb 14, 2021. (Photo: Naung Kham)

The 75-year-old faces charges in six cases, the most serious of which involves the official secrets act. Her supporters and some Western powers have dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from becoming president due to her marriage to a foreigner but sidestepped this with the creation of her State Counsellor post in 2016. However, a conviction would preclude her from political office for life.

The reins of government are now held by General Min Aung Hlaing, who heads the State Administration Council.

Myanmar's military junta leader Min Aung Hlaing speaks in media broadcast in Naypyitaw
Myanmar's military junta leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, speaks in a media broadcast in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Feb 8, 2021 in this still image taken from video. (Photo: MRTV/Reuters TV via REUTERS)

COMMENTARY: To be president? What Myanmar military leader's endgame may be

The 64-year-old has been commander-in-chief of the armed forces since 2011, the start of Myanmar's democratic transition.

The general surprised observers who were expecting him to step down in a leadership reshuffle in 2016, instead extending his term at the helm of the military for another five years.

Min Aung Hlaing was already under sanctions imposed by the United States in 2019 for alleged human rights abuses against the Rohingya and other minorities. Since the coup, he, his two adult children and the companies they control have been slapped with additional sanctions.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE ROLE OF THE MILITARY IN MYANMAR?

While Myanmar has a Burman and Buddhist majority, the country is also home to more than 100 ethnic groups, some of which have been engaged in the world's longest civil war against the central government for the last 70 years.

Against this backdrop of unrest, the military has cast itself in the role of guardian of national unity.

The Tatmadaw first took power in Myanmar in 1962, under a coup launched by General Ne Win. Military rule would go on to last for nearly 50 years, until a democratic transition starting in 2011.

Myanmar armoured vehicle Sule pagoda
An armoured vehicle drives next to the Sule Pagoda, following days of mass protests against the military coup, in Yangon on Feb 14, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Thet Htoo)

The military has quashed opposition to its rule in the past, including in widespread anti-government protests in 1988 that resulted in Ne Win's resignation, and the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

Throughout its rule, it has discarded and instituted different versions of the Constitution. As the architect of Myanmar's current Constitution, introduced in 2008, the Tatmadaw enshrined for itself a permanent role in the political system.

An unelected quota of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats is currently reserved for the military, effectively giving it veto power over any changes to the Constitution. It also controls the key ministries of defence, interior and borders.

COMMENTARY: Myanmar military’s leverage is actually waning, despite appearances

These provisions stayed in place even after 2011, when the military relinquished power to a quasi-civilian government led by former general Thein Sein, who pursued some democratic reforms.

An uneasy alliance was drawn when the NLD won the 2015 general election. However, the party's landslide win in last year's elections appeared to upset the balance.

"The thundering NLD victory at November's election seems to have brought simmering civilian-military tensions to a head and convinced Min Aung Hlaing and the (army) high command that the Constitution is no longer a sufficient bulwark," said Sebastian Strangio, an editor and expert on Southeast Asia's politics.

HOW HAS THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY RESPONDED?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has in the past faced criticism for inaction on other issues such as the Rohingya crisis. But this time round, the bloc and its member states appear to be taking a stronger position.

Brunei, as ASEAN chair, swiftly issued a chairman's statement calling for dialogue, reconciliation and a "return to normalcy". Indonesia and Thailand both held talks with the junta weeks after the coup, while Malaysia and Singapore have used noticeably sterner language in calling for stability.

COMMENTARY: Has Myanmar coup sparked rethinking on non-interference among ASEAN countries?

However, analysts say that behind-the-scenes shuttle diplomacy and the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs continue to inform ASEAN's response.

An emergency leaders' summit in Jakarta on Apr 24 managed to secure General Min Aung Hlaing's agreement that he is not opposed to a visit by an ASEAN delegation to help resolve the crisis in Myanmar.

Myanmar 100 days ASEAN summit Jakarta
ASEAN leaders discuss the situation in Myanmar in a summit in Jakarta, Indonesia on Apr 24, 2021. (Photo: MCI)

An immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue, mediation and humanitarian assistance coordinated by ASEAN were the other four pieces in a five-point consensus reached by the bloc's leaders. A sixth – the release of political detainees – was not accepted, though it was reflected in the summit statement.

The junta has said it will give "careful consideration to constructive suggestions" from ASEAN on ways to resolve the turmoil. Whatever happens, Myanmar remains the most critical test of ASEAN centrality and unity, analysts say.

COMMENTARY: Just what did the ASEAN summit achieve for Myanmar?

China, a key ally of Myanmar's military, has not condemned the military takeover, saying only that it hopes for stability and a "democratic transition".

As Myanmar's largest neighbour, a dominant trading partner and a major investor, China is seen as wielding influence in the Southeast Asian country. Many protesters suspect Beijing of supporting the coup and have expressed anti-Chinese sentiments.

Chinese factories in Myanmar were torched in March amid a broad public backlash, highlighting the effects of continued instability on Chinese assets in the country.

Myanmar protests, China embassy Yangon - Naung Kham
Protesters in front of the Chinese embassy in Yangon on Thursday, Feb 11, 2021. (Photo: Naung Kham)

COMMENTARY: Is China using Myanmar coup to ramp up influence in Southeast Asia?

Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi last month called on the international community "to take an objective and fair attitude and do more to help ease the tension in Myanmar, rather than the opposite".

"China will maintain close communication with ASEAN, and continue to handle any work related to Myanmar in its own way," he said.

Western powers have condemned the military's actions from the outset. The US formally designated the military takeover as a coup the day after it happened – in marked contrast to China, which has yet to label the move as such.

COMMENTARY: Myanmar coup poses first foreign policy test for Biden on Southeast Asia

The US, the European Union and other Western countries like Britain have also imposed sanctions on individuals and businesses linked to the junta.

These include the Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, which dominate many sectors of the economy including trading, alcohol, cigarettes and consumer goods.

WHAT LIES AHEAD?

The state of emergency will last for one year, as provided for under Myanmar's Constitution. The junta has pledged to hold fresh elections "upon completion of the tasks" it set itself.

Yet after ousting the civilian government, it appointed a new Cabinet of ministers, none of whom were identified as acting or interim appointments.

Activists have already voiced strong doubts that the military will step down after only a year.

There is some precedent for this. The military ignored the NLD's win in a 1990 general election – the country's first multi-party election since the 1962 coup – and took nearly two decades to implement its promised transition to democracy.

But with different domestic and geopolitical circumstances today, the outcome for Myanmar remains to be seen.

"On the one hand, given history, we can well expect the reaction to come," Myanmar author and historian Thant Myint-U wrote on Twitter.

"On the other, Myanmar society today is entirely different from 1988 and even 2007. Anything's possible."

Source: CNA/dv(ac)

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