The entire world woke up on 1st February 2021, with the news of the Myanmar Military (Tatmadaw) usurping the democratically elected government of the National League for Democracy and imposing military rule across the country. All the important political leaders and activists, including State Counsellor Aung San Su Kyi, have been put under house arrest. The country where democracy returned after almost 50 years in 2010 has been witnessing a leaderless protest against the return of military rule and demanding the release of Suu Kyi. The military has been cracking down on protestors with a heavy hand, leaving hundreds of people dead on the streets of the country, leading to massive protests across the globe on human rights violations by the military regime.
Into the Military Regime
Myanmar, earlier known as Burma, has a history of military rule. Ever since the country got its independence from Britain in 1948, the Burmese army has always been looking for the slightest opportunity to grab political power. In the years following independence, the emerging social disorder and economic degradation paved the way for the army to seize control in their hands. The 1962 coup resulted in the formation of a revolutionary council of senior military officials with General Ne Win as the chairman. Tatmadaw’s rule was marked by the abolition of the 1947 constitution, whereby major state institutions were abolished and the power got concentrated in the hands of the revolutionary council. It was an autocratic regime with the authorities shutting down all doors of foreign investment and cash inflow, turning Burma into a closed economy. This eventually led to the extensive nationalisation of the Burmese economy.
Arrival of Aung San Su Ki
Aung San Su Kyi, the youngest daughter of Aung San, the father of the nation, returned to Burma in 1988. It was in the same year that General Ne Win stepped down. Mass demonstrations followed it in favour of democracy in the nation. Suu Kyi took over the leadership of the newly formed Nation League for Democracy and spearheaded the movement to bring back democracy in the country. She was greatly influenced by the Buddhist principles and the path of non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi. Although NLD was formed with the sole aim of bringing back democracy in the country yet the military was not ready to transfer power in the hands of a democratic government. Soon Suu Kyi was put under house arrest, and control of the entire state machinery was taken over by the army.
1990 General Elections
In 1990, the general elections were called, and Suu Kyi’s party received 59% votes guaranteeing them at least 80 per cent of the seat in the Burmese parliament. It was widely perfected that Aung San Suu Kyi would become the Prime Minister. However, the army was unwilling to hand over the power. The election results were nullified on the grounds of massive rigging. Suu Kyi was again put under house arrest. This led to an international outcry against the military junta. It was during this period of house arrest when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
By 2008, the pressure was mounting from domestic and international quarters on the military to step down and pave the way for the return of democracy in the country. The Western powers, along with Myanmar’s neighbours like Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines were advocating for her release. Finally, it was in 2010 that elections were called and she was released from detention. However, Suu Kyi’s party NLD boycotted the elections due to unfair election laws. It was a one-sided affair. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party swept the elections with almost 80 seats in both the houses of the parliament. Twenty-five per cent of the seats were reserved for the representatives of the Tatmadaw, known as Army representatives.
Although democracy returned to the country after almost 50 years, it was for name only. The real control remained with the Army, which had backed the USDP in the elections. Aung San Su Ki and her party contested the 2012 by-elections and won 43 out of the 45 seats. Aung San Suu Kyi too won her seat in the House of Representatives from Kawhmu township.
In the 2015 elections, her party had a clear majority winning at least 255 seats in the House of Representatives and 135 in the House of Nationalities. However, she could not become the President of Myanmar due to the new constitutional provisions, which came into effect in 2008. The new constitution stated that any person whose spouse or children were foreign nationals could not become the President. It is widely believed that the new constitution was clearly drafted to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming the President. The NLD needed a two-thirds majority in both the houses in order to change the provisions of the constitution. Hence, she was made The State Counsellor (Equivalent to Prime Minister) by President Hitting Kyaw.
2020 Elections and the coup
Amidst the ongoing pandemic, the elections were held in November 2020 for the second time in Myanmar. NLD had a sweeping victory in the elections, winning 396 out of 476 seats in the Parliament. Though she now had a clear two-thirds majority, the army again challenged the results, calling it rigged and fraudulent. Nevertheless, these claims were refuted by the Election Commission.
On 1st February 2021, days before the new government could take the oath, the Myanmar military again usurped power from the civilian administration. All the top NLD leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have been put under house arrest. Power was bestowed on General Min Aung Hlaing, the chief of the armed forces.
Events of the Ongoing Coup
In the early morning of the 1st February, the military conducted a raid and several top party leaders were put under House arrest. The telephone lines were disrupted and the state-owned television channel was unable to broadcast due to technical reasons. Even cellular services were also disrupted throughout the country. 400 MPs have been put under house arrest. General Min Aung Hlaing formed a State Administrative Council with 11 members to run the country. This was followed by the police filing several criminal charges against Aung San Suu Kyi under the export and import laws.
She was charged with keeping several unlicensed communication devices in her house. In due course, curfew was also imposed throughout the country. A new cyber law has been drafted to prevent the use of the internet from protests against the new regime.
The people of Myanmar have taken the streets against the return of the military to power. The protestors have demanded the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Soon, the government prohibited gathering of more than four people in the streets of Myanmar. Several celebrities and activists were also arrested for opposing the military on the grounds that they have violated the peace process of the country. Even the protestors who defied the new norms were also fired. Several lost their lives in the government’s desperate attack to crack down on the protestors.
The Motive Behind the Coup
The military enjoys a high hand in the state administration of Myanmar. Twenty-five per cent of the seats in the parliament are reserved for the representatives of the army. In 2008, a new constitution was drafted with the sole aim to prevent Suu Kyi from attaining the position of President in case her party wins the elections. These provisions of the constitution can be changed with only a two-thirds majority. In the 2015 elections, although Aung San Suu Kyi had a majority government yet she was far away from achieving the two-thirds majority. In the 2020 elections, she achieved her target of the two-thirds majority in parliament. She now would have been able to make the required amendments to the constitution, had she not been put under house arrest, which would have reduced the Army’s influence in the government significantly.
The Army had conducted several oppressions on the Myanmar citizen during its entire regime. The most prominent among them was the ethnic cleansing undertaken by the military on the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhaine Province. The top officials of the army fear that if their power is reduced, several army officials responsible for ordering such crimes on humanity and the oppressions conducted on the common people would be persecuted.
Moreover, there have been several allegations of corruption against several senior army officials including General Hlaing and some of his family members. If the provisions of the constitution changes, they can be put behind bars over these charges. Recently, the Myanmar government received $350 million in aid from the IMF as an emergency aid package for fighting the Covid-19 pandemic with no conditions.
Both India and Myanmar had been under colonial rule before gaining independence. Myanmar gained its independence from British rule in 1948, one year after India. Since then, both countries have been cooperating among themselves on various issues. During the military regime in Myanmar and suppression of democracy by the government, the relations between the two nations were strain at one point of time. However, after 1993, the bilateral relations between the two countries improved considerably. Myanmar has been a strategic ally for India keeping in mind the growing Chinese influence in South East Asia. The Myanmar Army has supported India’s actions against terrorists using Myanmar for launching attacks on Indian soil. In 2015, Operation Hot Pursuit was conducted and the Indian Army hunted down several north-eastern militants taking refuge in Myanmar with support from the Myanmar Army.
Both the countries are going through several strategic infrastructural partnerships with each other. On 13 February 2001, the 250 km long Tasmu-Kalewa-Kalemyo highway, popularly known as the India-Myanmar Friendship road, was inaugurated to be built by the Border Roads Organisation of the Indian Army. It aimed to provide a major strategic and commercial transport route from northeast India to South Asia.
The Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project connects Kolkata with Sittwe port in Myanmar, which will be further linked to Lashio through the Kaladan riverboat route and then from Lashio to Mizoram via road transport. This project will reduce the time and expenditure of sending supplies to the north-eastern states.
In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would offer no-cost visas to all Myanmar citizens visiting India during his visit to Myanmar. Recently, in October 2020, India gifted the Myanmar army with a Diesel-electric submarine. The submarine was gifted to cut out Chinese influence in southeast Asia, where it was trying to push its military hardware to its neighbouring countries. It was required to keep a strict watch in the Indian Ocean region, where China is constantly trying to increase its influence.
Myanmar and China have a lot in common. It was the first non-communist country to recognise the People’s Republic of China. Since then, both countries have had a warm and cold relationship over the years. China has been one of the major exporters of arms to Myanmar, but relations turned cold with China’s lack of willingness to back the Myanmar Government. Thus, in recent times, Myanmar has shown its fondness towards India to check the growing Chinese influence in the state. Moreover, the military equipment supplied by China were of low quality which has made Myanmar turn towards India as a strategic support partner. Following the 2021 coup, there have been demonstrations outside the Chinese Embassy in Yangon blaming China for the coup.
Advantage India at present
The relation between India and Myanmar has improved significantly in recent times. Currently, India and Myanmar have been cooperating on several important issues. The military government of Myanmar has been maintaining good relations with India in strategic fields. Even though several south Asian nations are putting pressure on the military to hand back power to the civilian government, India is largely silent on the matter. The Tatmadaw has supported India in neutralising the northeast insurgents who have been utilising the Arakan region to conduct attacks on the Indian Army.
The Tatmadaw has been taking action against these forces and has been a strong supporter of India. In contrast, Aung San Suu Kyi has always tried to maintain a favourable relationship with India and China. Hence, any stand against the Myanmar Army might draw inaction against these militants. Moreover, there has been a growing Chinese influence in the South Asian region. India needs Myanmar as a strategic partner to counter the Chinese influence in the region. It does not matter for China as Beijing is ready to do business with whoever is in power in Myanmar. However, in the case of India, any stand by New Delhi against Myanmar might disrupt the strategic partnership between both the countries.