Even as the warning signs of a military putsch to overthrow the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi have multiplied in recent days, some diplomats and analysts who follow Myanmar professionally still ignored them.
Taming the Covid-19 pandemic and reviving the country’s economy were seen as priorities for both the civilian government and the military, many members of which have significant business interests.
Despite mounting tensions between the military and its five-year government, Aung San Suu Kyi was widely seen as a tacit defender – if not an ally – of the generals, who had personally defended Myanmar’s military crackdown on the Rohingya minority in 2019 during the International Court of Justice.
But Monday morning, that story was unraveled after the military arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and dozens of other central and local government figures from its National League for Democracy and seized power, claiming that last year’s election had seen “ terrible fraud ‘.
Monday’s coup took most observers by surprise and abruptly threw Aung San Suu Kyi back into the role she was known for in her opposition years before taking office in 2016: a struggling Democratic leader facing off against an all-powerful army.
“The international community has repeatedly blamed Myanmar,” said Aaron Connelly, a specialist in Southeast Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“We were wrong in the late 2000s when we thought the military had no intention of handing over authority to a civilian government; we were wrong when it came to Aung San Suu Kyi and her authoritarian tendencies and attitudes towards ethnic minorities; and it seems we are wrong here too. ”
On Monday, the Myanmar leader called on her supporters through a NLD statement to “not accept the coup” and to take to the streets in protest.
This brought back dark memories of the country’s nearly five decades of military rule and of Aung San Suu Kyi’s past as a political prisoner who spent years under house arrest before leading Myanmar’s first democratically elected government since General’s coup. Ne Win in 1962.
“The international community has been and is aware of civil-military tensions,” said Moe Thuzar, coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Program at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “But there was a common belief that the current situation – the global climate, pandemic, economic recovery – may have been limiting factors for such a move at this point.”
She added, “Unfortunately, that logic doesn’t seem to apply here.”
While the military’s crackdown on the Rohingya people – and the criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn it – dominated her first term in office and sparked much international discussions over Myanmar, unresolved conflicts with the military fueled.
The NLD took power five years ago after an election under a 2008 constitution in which the military enforced control over civil power by reserving three ministries and a quarter of parliamentary seats. Efforts by the government to push for constitutional reforms in parliament failed because the party could not gather the 75 percent majority needed for changes.
During the November election campaign, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party began accusing massive voter fraud and irregularities, refusing to acknowledge the result – a landslide victory for the NLD over those seats it was allowed to contest.
When the military refused to rule out a coup last week, some in Myanmar were alarmed and warned Western embassies and the UN against any attempt to change the outcome of the election.
But military chief Min Aung Hlaing appeared to distance himself from this threat on Saturday, saying the military would abide by the constitution.
Monday it became clear what the military meant by this. The military said his order was in line with Article 417 of the constitution, allowing the president to declare a year of emergency in circumstances that “could disintegrate the union or disintegrate national solidarity.”
The military said there would be another election and the winning party would take power.
“It has been terrible to watch this arriving train in recent days,” said Laetitia van den Assum, a former Dutch ambassador to Myanmar and member of Kofi Annan’s advisory committee on Rakhine state. “But if you look at Saturday’s statement, it was all there.”
The international community, including the new US administration of Joe Biden, was faced on Monday with a reaction to the abruptly derailed democratic transition in a country seen as a strategically important border area between India and China. The coup’s condemnations poured in from the White House, Europe, the UN and Australia.
Responses from other Asian countries were more restrained. In neighboring Thailand, whose army has close ties with the Tatmadaw, Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy prime minister, described the coup as a “domestic issue”.
India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, said it was “steadfast” in supporting Myanmar’s democratic transition and that the rule of law and democratic process must be upheld.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry described Myanmar as a “friendly neighbor” and said it hoped it would “address the situation within the framework of the constitution and the law and maintain political and social stability”.
But while the Tatmadaw had seized power, analysts said it would face a more brutal international climate for military rule than in the past crackdown.
“We are not in 1962 or 1988,” said Ms. Thuzar. “The global political and economic climate will be very unfavorable for a military junta seeking to justify its actions.”
Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in New Delhi and Eli Meixler in Hong Kong