Even as warning signs of a military putsch to topple Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government multiplied in recent days, some of the diplomats and analysts who follow Myanmar professionally were still discounting them.
Taming the Covid-19 pandemic and reviving the country’s economy were seen as priorities both for the civilian government and the military, many of whose members have significant business interests.
Despite growing tensions between the military and her five-year-old government, Aung San Suu Kyi was widely seen as a tacit defender — if not an ally — of the generals, having personally defended Myanmar’s military crackdown on the minority Rohingya in 2019 at the International Court of Justice.
But by Monday morning that narrative had unravelled after the army arrested Aung San Suu Kyi and scores of other central and local government figures from her National League for Democracy and seized power, alleging “terrible fraud” in last year’s election.
Monday’s coup caught most observers by surprise and abruptly cast Aung San Suu Kyi back into the role she was known for in her years in opposition, before she took office in 2016: a struggling democratic leader facing off against an omnipotent military.
“The international community has repeatedly gotten Myanmar wrong,” said Aaron Connelly, a south-east Asia specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“We got it wrong in the late 2000s when we thought the military had no intention to transfer authority to a civilian government; we got it wrong when it came to Aung San Suu Kyi and her authoritarian tendencies and attitudes toward ethnic minorities; and it seems we got it wrong when it came to this, too.”
On Monday, the Myanmar leader urged her supporters, via an NLD statement, “not to 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 own past as a political prisoner who spent years under house arrest before leading Myanmar’s first democratically elected government since General Ne Win’s coup in 1962.
“The international community was and is aware of civil-military tensions,” said Moe Thuzar, co-co-ordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “But there was a general thinking that the current situation — the global climate, pandemic, economic recovery needs — might have been limiting factors for such a move at this time.”
She added: “Sadly, that logic does not seem to apply here.”
While the military’s crackdown on the Rohingya people — and criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn it — dominated her first term in office and framed much international discussion about Myanmar, unresolved conflicts with the military festered.
The NLD took power five years ago after an election held under a 2008 constitution in which the military ensured a check on civilian power by reserving three government ministries and a quarter of parliamentary seats for itself. Efforts by the government to push for constitutional reforms in parliament foundered because the party could not muster the 75 per cent majority needed for amendments.
During November’s election campaign, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party began alleging massive voter fraud and irregularities, and refused to recognise the result — a landslide victory for the NLD in those seats it was allowed to contest.
When the military last week refused to rule out a coup, some in Myanmar were alarmed, and western embassies and the UN warned against any attempt to alter the election’s outcome.
But military chief Min Aung Hlaing appeared to step back from this threat on Saturday, saying the military would abide by the constitution.
On Monday it became clear what the military meant by this. The army said that its order was in line with article 417 of the constitution, which allowed for a state of emergency to be declared by the president for a year in circumstances that might “disintegrate the union or disintegrate national solidarity”.
The military said there would be another election, and the winning party would be transferred power.
“It was terrible to watch this oncoming train over the past couple of days,” said Laetitia van den Assum, a former Dutch ambassador to Myanmar and member of Kofi Annan’s advisory commission on Rakhine state. “But if you look at Saturday’s statement, it was all there.”
The international community, including Joe Biden’s new US administration, were faced on Monday with responding to the abruptly derailed democratic transition in a country that is seen as a strategically important borderland between India and China. Condemnations of the coup poured in from the White House, Europe, the UN and Australia.
Reactions from other Asian countries were more reserved. In neighbouring Thailand, whose military 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.
China’s foreign ministry described Myanmar as a “friendly neighbour” and said it hoped it would “handle the situation under the framework of the constitution and the law, and maintain political and social stability”.
But while the Tatmadaw had grabbed power, analysts said it would face a more unforgiving international climate for military rule than in past crackdowns.
“We are not in 1962 or 1988,” said Ms Thuzar. “The global political and economic climate will be very unfavourable for a military junta seeking to justify its actions.”
Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in New Delhi and Eli Meixler in Hong Kong