Myanmar coup: why military felt threatened by ‘stubborn’ Suu Kyi
- The Tatmadaw claims its coup was a response to a fraudulent election in 2020, but it has been struggling to dominate the democracy icon for decades
- Her NLD party’s growing clout at the ballot box and plans to amend a constitution rigged in the military’s favour seem to have set the clock black
While the 2015 vote resulted in Suu Kyi becoming Myanmar’s state counsellor – and de facto leader in the eyes of the world – she remained barred from the presidency and hobbled by a constitution that had been drafted by the military years before to ensure it retained control over key ministries.
The military, or Tatmadaw, has claimed that it was widespread fraud in the election of 2020, in which the NLD won an even greater share of the vote, that prompted Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to seize power in a coup on February 1 and declare a year-long state of emergency.
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But many observers believe that the 2020 election was merely the last straw; that the military was motivated by tensions that stretch back to the previous election and beyond, and more specifically to the NLD’s plans to amend the constitution and dilute the military’s political power.
Sun said that since the end of military rule in 2011, the Tatmadaw’s goal had been to “carve out a part of national politics in the national economy, to preserve its privilege and leave the running of the country to the civilian government”. The scale of Suu Kyi’s victories, first in 2015 and then in 2020, had compromised this goal.
Michael Vatikiotis, the Asia Regional Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss-based foundation that facilitates dialogue to resolve armed conflicts, said one of the “main reasons” for the coup – and one of the “great tragedies of the past six years” – was that civil-military relations had been neglected and allowed to deteriorate.
“Much of the posturing on both sides and inability to compromise was the product of two strong and stubborn personalities who saw compromise as a mark of weakness or defeat,” said Vatikiotis, referring to Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing.
These relations had been strained by the NLD’s win in 2015, as this had forced the military to jealously guard its role as the senior partner in government, said Gregory Poling, senior Southeast Asia fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. The 2020 vote then tipped Min Aung Hlaing “over the edge”.
“Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing have a famously frosty relationship,” Poling added. “To a large degree, what has happened comes down to clashing ambitions, especially between Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing, neither of whom are known to be compromising.”
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ISOLATIONIST TENDENCIES, PERSONAL AMBITIONS
But others point out the military, which ruled Myanmar from 1962 to 2011, has a long record of isolationist tendencies, ignoring criticism and shrugging off sanctions.
The Tatmadaw was unmoved when the United States imposed sanctions in 1998 following the military’s violent suppression of a protest, and stuck to its guns even as Washington tightened its measures – restricting access to financial aid and blocking investment – over the following years due to human rights abuses.
It was similarly unmoved by the years of international condemnation that followed its detention of Suu Kyi after she first emerged as a democracy icon in the 8888 Uprising of August 8, 1988. Indeed, so unmoved was it that it kept her under house arrest for the majority of the following two decades. While Suu Kyi’s eventual release in 2010 did lead to the US easing the measures – with former US president Barack Obama lifting them completely in 2016 – new sanctions were imposed under Donald Trump in 2019, in response to the extrajudicial killings of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state.
Observers with knowledge of Myanmar’s secretive military suspect that, in addition to feeling immune to international censure, Min Aung Hlaing was likely to have been motivated by personal ambitions. At 64, the general is approaching retirement age and is seen by many as having his eyes on the presidency. Some observers have speculated that the NLD refused to grant him the presidency over the weekend and that it was this that triggered the coup.
The army may also have felt threatened by recent moves by the NLD to amend the 2008 constitution, which the Tatmadaw drafted to ensure it enjoyed sweeping powers. The constitution allocates a quarter of seats in parliament to the Tatmadaw, effectively granting it a veto over legislative decisions as these must be backed by three quarters of lawmakers.
Last March 63 per cent of lawmakers voted with the NLD to amend the constitution, but this fell short of the required 75 per cent – perhaps predictably enough given the Tatmadaw’s anxieties about losing political clout.
“In the minds of the military, this was not about constitutional revision, rather it was about taking away the military’s authority and privileges”, Sun said.
One of the amendments the NLD had planned concerned a clause that prevents the parents or spouses of foreign citizens from being president. It is this clause that has until now prevented Suu Kyi, whose deceased husband and two sons are British, from assuming the top position.
Under the 2008 charter the army commander-in-chief is the most powerful figure in the country and has the ability to appoint key ministers.
It also grants the army chief the ability to assume power in times of emergency – and it was this power Min Aung Hlaing invoked on February 1.
Poling said it was impossible to know if things might had gone differently had Suu Kyi stepped aside and allowed others to lead and not sought the constitutional amendment to be president.
“But then again, the bottom line seems to be that the NLD’s success in the November  elections is what pushed Min Aung Hlaing over the edge, when he realised that he had no future in civilian politics. That would have been the same no matter what,” Poling said.
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A HISTORY OF TENSIONS
Tensions between Suu Kyi and the military stretch much further back than her election victories of the past decade.
Suu Kyi emerged as the NLD’s leader after pro-democracy demonstrations in August and September 1988 that culminated in widespread strikes and massive demonstrations demanding an end to military rule.
The army reacted by killing thousands of protesters and imprisoning and forcing into exile many others. In July 1989 it put Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she was to remain for 15 of the following 20 years.
Led by General Saw Maung, the army then set up the State Law and Order Restoration Council and held an election in 1990 confident that it would win.
But when the NLD won a huge victory with 80 per cent of seats contested, the military refused to back down and arrested thousands of NLD members.
“The military junta, in the seat of power, and the NLD, as the main face of the democracy movement, had more tense moments than meeting of minds,” said Moe Thuzar, coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Thuzar said these tensions had continued, with the military issuing increasingly interventionist statements in the run-up to the 2020 election.
These included concerns over whether the election would be free and fair and questions over the competence of the government-appointed Union Election Commission. It also demanded to replace the election commission’s chairperson and members, according to Cchavi Vasisht, an research associate with the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think tank in New Delhi.
Vasisht said the concerns were raised during a meeting in Naypyidaw between Min Aung Hlaing and 34 political parties, which had “drawn widespread criticism as a move aimed at increasing the military’s involvement in politics”.
In the 2020 election, the military was not even “dreaming that the USDP would become a majority party”, said Sun.
Rather it was hoping for just enough seats to ensure it continued to hold political power.
It then raised its claim of electoral fraud, alleging that up to 10 million votes out of a population of around 60 million were affected.
“Based on these accusations, the military was hoping that the election commission would do a recount or hold a new election so that the military’s supported political party would gain an advantage,” Sun said.
However, the election commission declined to do so and this “pushed the military into a corner”, Sun said.
Monday, the day of the coup, was the first day of the new parliament. It had been expected not only to affirm the election results but also to pick the president and the two vice-presidents for the next five years.
Vatikiotis said that while it is possible there were some irregularities with the election, Suu Kyi’s “intransigence and silence in the face of army concerns” had also not helped matters.
He said the NLD had failed to give enough credit to the army for negotiating a ceasefire in Rakhine State. The International Crisis Group said last December that the informal ceasefire the military had agreed with the Arakan Army had enabled the resumption of dialogue between the rebels and the government for the first time in two years.
The situation in Rakhine was also central to the Tatmadaw’s claims of electoral fraud. In the 2020 election voting in several conflict-affected areas where the Arakan Army operates had been cancelled. The Arakan Army had requested a by-election in the state and the Tatmadaw supported this request but the NLD government refused it, Vatikiotis said.
As Dereck Aw, senior analyst at Control Risks consultancy in Singapore, put it: the generals “progressively saw the democratic transition process as a road of diminishing returns”.
The military under Min Aung Hlaing has promised to hold elections after the one-year state of emergency.
But Thuzar said it planned to set “the rules of the game”.
After the 1988 crackdown, the Tatmadaw had made a similar promise to transfer power after holding multiparty elections. Sceptics suggest it has merely reverted to its old game plan, noting that Suu Kyi is once more under arrest, this time accused of importing radios illegally.
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Sun said it was likely the military would manipulate the new elections to favour its proxy party, the USDP.
Vatikiotis said the military would probably amend the constitution to better safeguard its power, possibly through a proportional representation system, or by adopting a Thai-style appointed Upper House.
“Elections could then be held, but the question will be what leeway will the NLD have to contest them freely?” he said. “If key leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi are barred from running, how legitimate will the elections be considered?”
Other uncertainties lie ahead too, like whether civilian leaders will agree to the army’s plan for fresh elections and whether the army even genuinely intends to follow through on the promise.
“The military will not feel bound by any promises it makes,” said Poling. “One year could easily become two or three or more; however long the generals need to feel secure that they’ve rigged the system better this time.”