Burma’s Coup Shows How Little Power the Military Ever Gave Up

The military coup against Aung San Suu Kyi marks the end of Burma's ten-year experiment with democracy. Her government spoke of national reconciliation while denying the military's atrocities and doing nothing to stop its war on ethnic minorities — an explicit refusal to "take sides" which ensured the armed forces would continue to dominate the country's politics.

Aung San Suu Kyi on October 22, 2013. (Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons)

On February 1, Burma’s military put an end to the country’s ten-year experiment with democracy with a coup that can best be described as a partial “self-coup.” Tatmadaw (as the armed forces are known locally) already held considerable power and virtually total autonomy from civilian oversight, according to a power arrangement designed by the junta that ruled the country between 1988 and 2011.

The takeover is puzzling for its apparent irrationality: Why would the generals now take the risk of dismantling the system they have so painstakingly built, which has served them well so far, and does not seem to be immediately threatened? After all, the coup removed a civilian government, led by the Nobel laureate and former dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, that after its first five-year term had given ample proof that it did not pose any threat to the military’s interests. Instead, it had proven to share a virtually identical worldview.

It had been a decade since the establishment of a so-called discipline-flourishing democracy carefully managed by the generals. This arrangement was initially praised by investors and the very same Western countries that had hitherto isolated Burma for the human rights violations committed by a military that had ruled the country in different iterations for almost fifty years. But this Monday, the commander in chief of the Tatmadaw, senior general Min Aung Hlaing, took power a few hours before the first session in parliament since November’s elections.

That vote had given Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) a resounding victory. But the coup followed weeks of unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud, first from the losing Tatmadaw’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and then from the military itself. Aung San Suu Kyi was put immediately under arrest, along with some members of her government and a few dozen activists and critics of the military. She is now charged with illegally importing communications equipment.

Min Aung Hlaing now leads a military government under a state of emergency. He has promised that he will rule for just one year and will devolve power after organizing fresh and clean elections, but few trust he will keep his word, and, given historic precedents, there are more than reasonable fears of a bloodbath when the military crushes the movements of popular resistance that are already emerging.

A Legal Military Coup?

The allegations of electoral fraud used to justify the coup are obviously a mere facade, all the more flimsy coming from the military that organized in 2008 a sham referendum to approve an undemocratic constitution and, two years later, a highly controlled election, boycotted by the NLD, in which the highly unpopular USDP obtained a dubious victory that marked the beginning of the transition. While some irregularities may have taken place in the last election, they would have done little to alter the final result in a country where Suu Kyi and her party remain wildly popular.

There has been some speculation that the commander in chief, approaching his retirement later this year, wanted to protect himself and his assets. But, again, if there is something that Suu Kyi has made clear since she took power in 2016, it is that she won’t go against the generals.

With scant information available at the moment, any attempt to make sense of the coup can only be tentative — looking for a rational explanation may well prove pointless. The military has claimed the move is legal, and there is much discussion about whether the takeover has followed proper procedures or whether the controversy around the election amounted to a “state of emergency” that could “disintegrate the Union or disintegrate national solidarity,” according to the article in the constitution invoked by the putschists. But debates about the “legality” of the move are largely beside the point. The generals wrote the law and interpret it — and law in contemporary Burma is a very flexible excuse that mostly serves to give a veneer of legitimacy to the use of power.

A look at the very particular system created by the old junta only makes things more puzzling. The constitution gives the military control over the three key security ministries — Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs — reserves 25 percent of seats in parliament to soldiers handpicked by the commander in chief, and grants the Tatmadaw total power over its own affairs, as well as blanket immunity against any prosecution for the crimes routinely committed in the several wars against ethnic armed groups in the periphery of the country.

Suu Kyi has repeatedly pledged to change the constitution to reduce the power of the military, but ever since she became an MP after a by-election held in 2012, she has accepted the rules of the game laid out by the generals, and changing the constitution is virtually impossible, as it requires the votes of more than 75 percent of the parliament and a referendum in which more than half of eligible voters have to approve the proposed amendments.

In this way, the Tatmadaw has managed to protect its interests, which include vast business conglomerates, but also fulfill what it has always seen as its historic mission: to preserve the unity of a country besieged by armed conflicts ever since its independence from the British in 1948.

Failed “Reconciliation”

In the first five years of the transition, when the ex-general Thein Sein was the president after the USDP victory in the sham 2010 election, Aung San Suu Kyi contributed to give legitimacy to that system, both domestically and internationally. When she and some members of her party became MPs in 2012, they did little to challenge the government. Her strategy at the time consisted mainly in gaining the trust of the military in the name of “national reconciliation” and discouraging any kind of mass movement that could jeopardize her rapprochement with the generals.

Thein Sein. (Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, as the Thein Sein administration was engaging in a peace process with several ethnic armed groups, an old war was reignited in mid-2011 between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) after a fragile cease-fire that had lasted for seventeen years. Tens of thousands were displaced from their homes in the rugged mountains of Kachin State, in the north of the country, where the Burmese army committed atrocities against the civilian population. But Suu Kyi refused to commit herself on the issue — alleging that the issue was “up to the government.”

Then, in mid-2012, a succession of waves of sectarian violence shook the western state of Arakan, pitting the Rakhine, the mostly Buddhist ethnic group dominant there, and the Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim minority that had suffered persecution for decades on the false grounds that they are “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. There was ample evidence that high officials in government had stoked anti-Rohingya sentiment and that the security forces took sides with Rakhine mobs in the violence, but Suu Kyi again refused to “take sides” and posed the problem as one of lack of “rule of law,” while others in her party and the old pro-democracy camp were more vocal in publicly attacking the Rohingya.

Around that time, there emerged a nationwide ultranationalist movement led by Buddhist monks that portrayed Burmese Muslims as the vanguard of an international jihad to Islamize the country, provoking new waves of anti-Muslim violence in several towns in central Burma. Suu Kyi was mostly muted, but when the election came in November 2015, her party decided not to field a single Muslim candidate, for fear of alienating its Buddhist base.

Back then, it was easy to believe that Suu Kyi was bidding her time and, keeping her cards close to her chest, she was trying to avoid alienating the Tatmadaw in order to be able to gain power and then introduce a reformist agenda.

But her first term in office after winning the elections in 2015 frustrated those expectations. Imbued by a strong sense of destiny, first because she is daughter of the “father of modern Burma” — the national hero Aung San, assassinated months before independence — and then because of her popularity both at home and abroad, she patiently waited for more than a quarter of a century to rule her country. In power, she has proved to have little idea of what to do with it, her lack of a clear political vision oddly mixed with a seemingly boundless self-confidence and a penchant for authoritarianism and micromanagement.

Barred from the presidency by a clause in the constitution that prevents those with close foreign relatives from reaching the highest position — her two sons are British citizens — she created the position of “state counselor” and reserved for herself the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, effectively putting herself “above the president.” The military grudgingly accepted an arrangement that arguably stretched the letter and the spirit of the constitution, and she was allowed at last to lead the government. Otherwise, she would adhere scrupulously to the constitution, without trying to find loopholes that could help her to implement new policies.

Instead of focusing on issues that were under the purview of the ministries she controlled, like introducing reforms in the neglected education and health care systems, she made the main priority of her government to solve a problem over which she had no control: the wars between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic armed groups fighting for autonomy. She dismissed the team that had worked on the peace process during the previous administration, only to stand behind the very same National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) designed by the Thein Sein government and endorsed by the Tatmadaw. In this case, as in many others, Suu Kyi showed a perplexing tendency to assume as much control as possible, only to basically follow the same approach as her predecessors. In these conditions, the peace process during her term was an abject failure, with only a few insignificant armed groups signing the NCA.

In fact, the new cabinet was a mixture of Suu Kyi’s loyalists, apolitical technocrats, and stalwarts of the old regime, apparently confirming that, if the transition meant anything, it was a merger of two elites — the higher echelons of the military and the historic pro-democracy leaders — again in the guise of “national reconciliation.”

Crony Neoliberalism

The economic elites — the infamous “cronies” that had made their fortunes plundering the country’s natural resources through their contacts with the junta — kept their place in the new order, too, with the state counselor limiting herself to admonishing them to “work for others in the future.” She has also adhered to the neoliberal programs that the generals had tried unsuccessfully in the 1990s, when international sanctions, corruption, and cronyism crushed the economy, and only started to take off during the transition, without doing anything to tackle the huge inequalities prevalent in the country.

In parliament, her party left untouched most oppressive laws passed during the military dictatorship, despite having the majority, and the government used them profusely to jail journalists and activists critical of both the government and the military.

Then came a new crisis in Arakan, where a new militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) emerged in October 2016 attacking the headquarters of Border Guard Police in Northern Arakan, eliciting a brutal response by the Tatmadaw. One year later, ARSA attacked again, and the military unleashed its full fury against the Rohingya population in Northern Arakan, killing thousands of civilians, torching entire villages, gang-raping scores of women, and sending more than seven hundred thousand traumatized refugees, around three-quarters of the total Rohingya population, to Bangladesh, where they still languish in the biggest refugee camp in the world, with no prospects of returning home.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the civilian administration were not in control of the military operations, but her government fully supported them, denying well-documented reports of atrocities and putting the state media at the service of a propaganda campaign defending the Tatmadaw and portraying the Rohingya as an existential threat, often with chillingly dehumanizing connotations.

Burma was accused of genocide at the International Court of Justice, and Suu Kyi led the defense in 2019, arguing that the military operations were a legitimate response against terrorism and defending the role of the rotten system of justice in Burma in persecuting any possible excess committed during the onslaught. That marked the point when she definitely went from human rights icon to despised accomplice of a genocide in the eyes of many abroad, but it boosted her popularity at home, where the Rohingya have few friends, and her intervention was disingenuously portrayed by the official propaganda as an almost heroic defense of the Burmese nation as a whole, rather than the state.

Broken Ties

Given this story, the recent coup seems to make little sense, especially considering the unpopularity of the Tatmadaw and the role of Suu Kyi in legitimizing its “democratic” system. But tensions between the military and the civilian government have been brewing for some time and have rapidly deteriorated since the election, as a result of the former’s complaints of fraud and the latter’s refusal to take them seriously.

Apart from the complaints of fraud by the military and the refusal of the civilian government to take them seriously, there is another issue that has strained relations between them: recent developments in the war in Arakan between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA), a Rakhine ethnonationalist guerrilla armed group (not to be mistaken for the Rohingya militants of ARSA). Founded in 2009, two years ago the AA ramped up its attacks on the military in the state, where it counts on wide popular support among a population that sees the central government, dominated by the Bamar majority, as invaders. The war in Arakan has turned into the most violent conflict in the country, while the government excluded the AA from the peace talks and declared it a terrorist organization in March 2020.

Some weeks before the elections, the AA kidnapped three NLD candidates, and shortly after the Union Election Commission decided to cancel the polls in most of the state alleging security reasons. But shortly after, conversations between the Tatmadaw and the AA resulted in an informal cease-fire. The AA issued a statement calling for elections in the whole of the state, where the NLD is likely to lose, and the military supported the proposal, but Suu Kyi’s government refused to organize them, even after her three candidates were released on January 1.

In a situation in which both the NLD and the Tatmadaw feel entitled to wield ultimate power, the perceived slights of an increasingly assertive Suu Kyi and her unwillingness to cooperate with them on Arakan seem to have been too much to swallow for the generals, and in a pique that has escalated in the last months, they may have decided that it was necessary “to put her in her place” and reassert their dominance.

The coup has already elicited wide condemnation among leaders in the West, which is again threatening the same kind of sanctions that failed to make any dent in the Tatmadaw during the military dictatorship. There is an assumption that the generals, who had taken Western leaders for fools at the beginning of the transition, care about how they are perceived abroad — but that is just a myth that has proven false time and again. This is no less true with this putsch, which has also shown how little the men in uniform care about how they are perceived within their own country.

Thus seems to have come to an end, for the moment at least, the inglorious political career of Aung San Suu Kyi — the woman destined to rule her country but who didn’t know what to do with her power once she obtained it, and used it to defend the most atrocious crimes. The paradox of Suu Kyi is that she has governed with a strange mix of caution — not implementing any policy that could harm the interests of the Tatmadaw — and arrogance—not consulting or listening to the soldiers with whom she was supposed to share power. If this first approach made her civilian government powerless to effect any meaningful change, the latter has ultimately led to her downfall. There is little reason to express sympathy for her. Our solidarity should go to the millions of ordinary Burmese who have suffered under military rule — and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.