A strangely familiar sight dominated the front pages of Myanmar’s state-owned newspaper this week: photos of men in green military uniforms sitting in seats of power.
It was as if time had rewound a decade. “The Global New Light of Myanmar” has long been considered the mouthpiece for whoever is running the country, its pages dedicated to government propaganda and stiff images of officials on mundane visits to agricultural or development projects.
From 1962 until 2011, successive military regimes ruled Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, with an iron fist – asserting their absolute power over the people through fear and brutality.
But six years ago, there was hope of change when Aung San Suu Kyi – a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former political prisoner – formed the first civilian government with her National League for Democracy Party (NLD) after winning a landslide in elections.
That all changed Monday, when the military seized power in a coup, arrested 75-year-old Suu Kyi, cut internet services and took news channels off the air. A presenter on the military-owned news channel announced that the 64-year-old commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing was now running the country.
“Senior General makes speech at government meeting” was Wednesday’s “New Light” headline, a sign that Myanmar is now back under military rule, at least for the next 12 months.
Devastated residents in the country’s biggest city, Yangon, said history was repeating itself. With many still bearing the mental and physical scars of the past, they expressed fears that the intervening years were all for nothing.
Myanmar has changed markedly in the years since the military last ruled, with more social freedoms, foreign investment and a growing middle class. For example, SIM cards that used to cost $1,000 a decade ago are now cheap and ubiquitous, and the population has quickly moved online with social media sites like Facebook synonymous with the internet.
While deep economic and inequality issues, conflict, and ethnic strife remain, Myanmar is a different place today than it was 10 or 20 years ago, especially in the major cities.
But the imperfect transition was not working for everyone.
The military justified their takeover by alleging widespread voter fraud during the November 2020 general election, which gave Suu Kyi’s party another overwhelming victory and dashed hopes for some military figures that an opposition party they had backed might take power democratically.
But according to analysts a simpler explanation is that the coup, as most usually are, was driven by power and the personal ambition of an army chief who felt he was losing control and respect.
“This was a standoff between two people who were not allowed the presidency and both wanted it: Aung San Suu Kyi and the commander in chief. And he put his personal ambition ahead of the good of the military and the good of the country,” said Yangon-based analyst Richard Horsey.
CNN was unable to reach Myanmar’s military for comment.
What is the Tatmadaw and who is Min Aung Hlaing?
The first thing to know about Myanmar’s military – officially known as the Tatmadaw – is that it never really gave up political power.
Just over a decade ago, the military chiefs put in place a plan that would permit the country to hold elections, liberalize the economy, and transition into a semi-democracy while still maintaining their authority.
The 2008 constitution allocated the military a quarter of seats in parliament, giving it effective veto power over constitutional amendments, and the generals kept control of three key ministries – defense, border and home affairs.
For 50 years, the military was the most powerful institution in the country. The army had control of the government, economy and every facet of life. Its sustained conflict with ethnic minorities has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and rights groups have long linked soldiers to atrocities and human rights abuses, such as rape, torture and other war crimes.
A string of ruthless military dictators turned Myanmar into a pariah state. Gen. Ne Win, who seized power in a 1962 coup, plunged the country into poverty with his disastrous economic and socialist policies.
The general was alleged to have made policy decisions based on the advice of astrologers and demonetized several large denominations of Myanmar’s currency, replacing them with bank notes that added up to nine. Citizens’ savings were wiped out overnight.
His successor was labeled the “Butcher of Rangoon” (the former name of Yangon) for his brutal suppression of mass pro-democracy demonstrations in the then-capital during the late 1980s.
Political persecution, harassment and violence against opponents, journalists, and minority groups has continued into recent years under the guidance of military chiefs and the government.
Min Aung Hlaing, who was picked as commander in chief as Myanmar’s transition began in 2011, oversaw the campaign of violence waged against the Rohingya ethnic minority population in the country’s west. Some 720,000 people fled into neighboring Bangladesh following the crackdowns in 2016 and 2017.
United Nations investigators said the offensive was carried out with “genocidal intent,” accusing the military of horrific crimes such as gang rape, torture, arson and extrajudicial killings. The military and government deny the claims, saying they were targeting terrorists.
In 2019, the United States sanctioned Min Aung Hlaing for serious human rights abuses related to the atrocities committed against the Rohingya. A genocide case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is ongoing.
The military is also reported to be extremely wealthy, controlling a vast web of companies with links to industries such as jade and ruby mining, tobacco, beer, manufacturing, tourism, banking and transport to name a few. Last year, an Amnesty International investigation found that almost every military unit had shares in the military-founded conglomerate, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), which runs a huge business empire that includes global partners.
A 2019 UN report found that the military used its businesses and arms deals to support brutal operations against ethnic groups that include forced labor and sexual violence.
“This is a completely unreformed and unreconstructed, authoritarian, brutish institution that has violence and cruelty in its DNA,” said David Mathieson, an independent analyst based in Yangon.
The commander sees his chance as relationship breaks down
The continuing power and influence of the military placed civilian leader Suu Kyi in a delicate position, as the NLD tried to move forward with its reform agenda while avoiding pushing too hard and potentially kindling a coup.
Analysts say Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing’s relationship was bad from the moment she took office in 2015, but had recently deteriorated, leading to what is believed to be a breakdown in communication between the two power-sharing bodies.
When she entered office, Suu Kyi was wildly popular because of her decades-long struggle against military rule. However, unlike her standing in the West, her popularity sustained at home over her first term.
Suu Kyi’s failure to condemn the Rohingya crisis led to her fall from grace internationally, but her appearance defending the country – and the military – from accusations of genocide at the ICJ may have actually increased support domestically ahead of the elections.
Analysts say the generals may have underestimated her continued popularity and were wary of what they saw as her outsized role in the country’s governance.
The military drafted constitution was originally designed to constrain her power. A clause bans anyone with foreign family members from becoming President, and because Suu Kyi was married to a British man, she was barred from the top job.
To get around this clause, the NLD created the position of State Counsellor, making Suu Kyi de facto leader of the country and more powerful than the generals had ever intended for her to become.
Referring to the NLD’s apparent circumvention of the rules, analyst Horsey said: “There was a feeling that the government and Aung San Suu Kyi violated the constitution and weaponized the military’s own constitution against them.” A feeling likely made worse by recent attempts by the government for constitutional reform seeking to curb the military’s power.
Though Suu Kyi was criticized for not doing more to stand up to the military in parliament, analysts say she was not keen to work with them either.
“Negotiations, talks, discussion and deals are not in Aung San Suu Kyi’s DNA,” said Khin Zaw Win, director of Yangon think tank the Tampadipa Institute. “She stonewalled everything that came from the military.”
With Min Aung Hlaing set to retire when he turns 65 in June, experts say he had his sights set on the presidency. To do that, the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) would need do well in the November elections. But Suu Kyi’s NLD won 83% of the vote, giving her a mandate and signaling a strong rejection of the military – putting those presidential ambitions out of reach.
The USDP claimed widespread voter fraud and the military demanded the election commission investigate, but the body said any voting irregularities were not enough to impact the result of the ballot. Min Aung Hlaing asked the NLD to hold a special session of parliament to discuss the claims, which was denied.
“I think a feeling in the officer corps is that the NLD and Suu Kyi had disrespected them, and they were not paying any attention to their views and concerns,” Horsey, the Yangon-based analyst said. “The military commander justified his coup via a manufactured crisis. But it tapped into genuine grievances among the top brass.”
Intense meetings between Min Aung Hlaing and Suu Kyi’s envoys didn’t go well in the days before the coup, according to Horsey. The opening of the new parliament on Monday in the capital was the opportune moment for the army chief to reassert his power.
“It’s very convenient that all members of parliament just happened to be in Naypyidaw right now, because you can put all of them under house arrest at the one time,” said Melissa Crouch, law professor at University of New South Wales, Australia and author of “The Constitution of Myanmar.” “This is more than simply election fraud, this is about the military perhaps feeling as though it’s lost a bit of control or perhaps needs to reassert its power and its dominance in the political system.”
Other analysts have called the move a “preemptive strike” as the generals didn’t like how powerful Suu Kyi had become.
“This is a coup to protect their interests,” Mathieson said. “(They thought) she has a mandate now to dilute our economic power and our constitutional power, and our immunity from prosecution. There is no way that we’re going to allow ourselves to be that vulnerable.”
What happens next
The military’s coup, coming as it did during a period of crisis owing to the coronavirus pandemic and disregarding the overwhelming will of millions, is a leaf out of the playbook of the Burmese militaries of old, and suggests the new generation of generals are not so different from their forebears. The threat of further international sanctions, experts have said, would likely not have bothered them.
“Min Aung Hlaing is a dictator. He was a dictator all along,” Mathieson said. “This is a coup against democracy in Myanmar because it’s not as if this was a close election – it was overwhelming, with a high turnout during a pandemic.”
What happens next, and what kind of regime Min Aung Hlaing will run, is uncertain.
Fears of a wider clampdown targeting critics, activists, and journalists are rampant. Myanmar human rights organization, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) has documented at least 133 government officials and legislators, and 14 activists detained since Monday. Suu Kyi is under house arrest, charged with breaching the Import Export Law, while ousted President Win Myint is accused of violating the Natural Disaster Management law – charges that have been described as “trumped up.”
On Sunday, thousands of people took to the streets of Yangon for a second consecutive day of major organized protests against the military’s seizure of power.
The crowd, many of whom could be seen waving flags and holding banners, called for the military to release Suu Kyi, and other democratically-elected lawmakers.
But Khin Zaw Win, the director of the Yangon think tank, said this coup differs from those of 1962 and 1988, which were brutally enforced and imposed a new order over the country.
“This time it’s been, lets say, very restrained and the language they use and the statements … appears they are trying to placate the population,” he said. “In the past, the existing constitutions were ditched, this time they are being meticulous about it.”
At this stage, there is little to suggest the military wants to unwind the progress of the past 10 years or drastically change citizens’ way of life. Investigating election fraud and fighting the pandemic are priorities, according to the new regime.
Myanmar will be under the whims of the military – and a state of emergency – for at least a year and Min Aung Hlaing has said elections will be held once the fraud probe has been completed, though analysts say they will want to ensure Suu Kyi cannot contest.
But dictators have a nasty tendency of promising one thing and doing another. And if street protests do gain momentum in the weeks to come, the full force of the military’s might could be unleashed.