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A soldier stands guard in City Hall in Yangon on February 1 after Myanmar's military seized power in a bloodless coup. Photo: AFP

Myanmar coup: protests and political instability on the cards, along with a test for Joe Biden

  • Experts say the military’s move to seize power has sparked fears of human rights violations, with a return to democratic rule uncertain
  • The coup also has regional ramifications, with China keeping an eye on its investments and the new US administration expected to focus more on rights issues
The bloodless coup that ended Myanmar’s decade of civilian rule and set back its fledgling democracy has sparked fears of human rights violations and political instability that will be a test for President Joe Biden’s new administration in the United States, according to analysts.
While unease and anger at army chief Min Aung Hlaing’s move to seize power simmered in the Southeast Asian nation of 55 million on Monday night, the military’s move to detain elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi showed that it, too, had been seething since her National League for Democracy (NLD) party secured 346 seats – more than the 322 seats it needed to form the government – in November’s polls.

Explainer | Aung San Suu Kyi, her NLD party and the Myanmar military that staged the coup

The military, known locally as the Tatmadaw, in a statement said a state of emergency had been declared under Article 417 of the country’s constitution due to what it claimed were irregularities with the election.

Maitrii Aung-Thwin, associate professor of Myanmar and Southeast Asian history at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said as far as the military was concerned, the government and the country’s Union Election Commission did not respond adequately to its concerns following the polls.

“They appear to view this situation as a threat to the union,” Aung-Thwin said, adding that it was important to understand that this move was different from earlier coups in the sense that the military had not dismantled the current system.


'Worst nightmare': violence feared after Myanmar military coup

'Worst nightmare': violence feared after Myanmar military coup

Myanmar was under military rule between 1962 and 2011, and Yangon was the scene of protests in the 1980s and 2000s that ultimately led to the military agreeing to a transition to democracy. Suu Kyi in 2015 won Myanmar’s first election and became the de facto head of government, but the military still had a role to play, retaining control of three ministries.

Yun Sun, senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia programme and director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, said the military might have thought that the NLD was “getting cocky”, and while it was fine to leave the running of the country to the civilian government, it wanted to preserve its authority and privileges.

“The military feels that the NLD does not think that it needs to cater to the military’s demands any more because of how popular it is, as shown by the results of the elections last year,” Sun said.

Controlling and distributing vaccines will give the Tatmadaw more credit in the post-pandemic age


Nehginpao Kipgen, associate professor and executive director at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at the Jindal School of International Affairs in India, said he believed there could be a surge in human rights violations and an escalation of armed clashes in the country that harked back to times when it was previously under military rule.

He added that the military might not continue peace talks with ethnic armed groups that had been going on since 2011, and might even resort to unilateral actions against them, especially on issues where mutual agreement could not be reached.

If the peace process continued, it would be without the involvement of the civilian government and those frustrated by the coup might join forces with others fighting the military, Kipgen said.

Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained by the military. Photo: AFP

There was also the possibility of public protests if people believed the military would not keep their promise to restore power to a democratically elected government after the year-long state of emergency. “Nobody can guarantee that the military will hold the election in accordance with the timeline it promises,” he said. “The military is unpredictable.”

Public reaction will also depend on what Suu Kyi calls on her supporters to do. “But history shows us that the military is unlikely to tolerate such a mass movement and will not hesitate to react violently, including the use of deadly force,” Kipgen added.

However, Annie Lei Tong, a doctoral student at the Northern Illinois University’s department of public administration and political science, said the military had secured at least partial access to Covid-19 vaccines and would likely use this to “oppress protests even without using much violence”.

Tong, whose dissertation is on the resilience and fragility of Myanmar’s ethnic insurgency, said: “Controlling and distributing vaccines will give the Tatmadaw more credit in the post-pandemic age.”

Myanmar’s military says elections will be held after year-long state of emergency

The military could also use the next year to repeal or amend parts of the constitution, Kipgen said, particularly those related to elections – including the authority of the president to appoint members of the Union Election Commission and its powers.

“The military may use this as an excuse to prolong their emergency rule,” he said. “The military coup also means that its commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, is unlikely to retire in July when his tenure ends.”

Other possibilities included the military and the NLD reaching an agreement for the election committee to investigate the electoral fraud claims put forth by the Tatmadaw and its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Kipgen said.

Lee Morgenbesser, a senior lecturer at the School of Government and International Relations in Australia’s Griffith University, said the coup had returned the country to 1962, in reference to the beginning of one-party rule in Myanmar and the army’s dominance.

Vehicles carrying police officers park at Sule Pagoda Road in Yangon, Myanmar, after the coup. Photo: EPA

Morgenbesser said it was possible the military would revise the constitution or electoral laws in order to ban or disband the NLD, and prosecute key opposition leaders, adding that it could also schedule a fresh election “characterised by manipulation and misconduct” and ensure that a military-friendly party took power.

“Some variation of that process seems likely … but the Tatmadaw is not known for its strategic foresight and competence,” Morgenbesser said.

Tong from Northern Illinois University said the one-year state of emergency was likely to drown out alternative voices, adding that as Western countries were still grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, there might not be substantial foreign assistance for Myanmar to transition back to an elected government.

Choosing a confrontational approach such as a military coup will … inflict harm on all parties in the conflict


Unlike the Trump administration, which had little reaction to democratic backsliding in Malaysia and Thailand in recent years, the Biden government is expected to focus more on issues of human rights and democracy. But with Myanmar’s top military officials already sanctioned, it was not clear what the US could do in terms of concrete measures, said Southeast Asia expert Murray Hiebert of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

As for China, Dereck Aw, senior analyst at Control Risks consultancy in Singapore, said Beijing would be watching for any possibility of large-scale protests, with Tokyo doing the same, as prolonged unrest would have a negative impact on Myanmar’s risk profile.

Aw said China in particular had a huge stake in Myanmar’s economy and might see a civilian government as “a more predictable partner”.
Myanmar’s Acting President Myint Swe (centre), Military Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, (third from left), and other military members of the National Defence and Security Council at a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw on February 1. Photo: EPA

China has been one of the biggest foreign investors in Myanmar, contributing 26 per cent of its foreign direct investment from 1988 to 2018, according to the country’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration.

In January last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the capital, Naypyidaw, saw 33 agreements signed and billions committed to infrastructure projects. These included the accelerated development of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which is part of Beijing’s ambitious trade and connectivity strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative.

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar last month, he met Suu Kyi and they spoke about cooperating on investment projects connecting the mainland with the Indian Ocean.

Peng Nian, deputy director and associate fellow with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, said in the short term, the coup was unlikely to have serious consequences for the belt and road plan as many of the projects had been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Even if the military takes over and establishes a new government, I think they will continue these belt and road projects as they would need the Chinese economic assistance, as well as the political and diplomatic support,” Peng said.

Long Xingchun, president of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs, a think tank based in Sichuan, said after the most recent general election, many people felt that Myanmar had – like Indonesia – completed its political transformation, and the resulting stability would allow the country to focus on economic development.

Long said the country could have settled its differences through “less harmful ways”, such as through legal means or political consultations. “Choosing a confrontational approach such as a military coup will not only inflict harm on all parties in the conflict, but also the people of Myanmar and the country,” he said.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg and Reuters

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Coup raises rights abuse worries