The military carried out the predawn raid just hours before Myanmar’s new parliament, dominated by Suu Kyi’s NLD, was scheduled to sit. The generals and their proxy political party, which suffered badly in November elections, claimed voter irregularities, though Myanmar’s electoral commission last week rejected allegations that fraud played a significant role in the NLD’s landslide win. (My colleague Adam Taylor wrote a helpful primer on the current state of play.)
From Beijing to Washington, governments issued statements of concern and condemnation. Sanctions may be issued by a host of western capitals. But the country’s military establishment is accustomed to foreign censure and appears intent on halting Myanmar’s democratic experiment, which had seen Suu Kyi occupy a central position of authority and influence.
“The coup underscored the fragility of Myanmar’s decade-old, quasi-democratic transition. Many assumed that despite its imperfections, Myanmar’s political evolution would continue with Suu Kyi as de facto head of the civilian government and with entrenched powers for the military, led by Min Aung Hlaing,” wrote my colleagues Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin. “But the military was never comfortable with its enduring unpopularity and Suu Kyi’s godlike status among ordinary Myanmar people, analysts said, after it had helped open the country after half a century of isolationist rule.”
Though powerful and popular at home, Suu Kyi, 75, is no longer the flower-haired champion of democracy once glorified in the West. Three decades ago, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent struggle against the military junta. The daughter of Aung San, a leading Myanmar nationalist, she spent 15 years over a 21-year period under house arrest before her release in 2010. She then toured the world as a transcendent global icon — receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington in 2012, delivering lectures on freedom and spirituality in Britain and getting feted by rock band U2 and the Riverdance troupe in Ireland.
Her fall from grace coincided with her rise to power. For the past half decade, she and her party entered a tenuous power-sharing political structure alongside the country’s military. She ran interference for the generals in the wake of their violent repression of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority; a bloody 2017 campaign of rape, looting and violence forced some three-quarters of a million Rohingya refugees to flee to squalid camps in Bangladesh, where they mostly remain. International organizations and human rights groups cast the government’s actions as ethnic cleansing and tantamount to genocide.
But Suu Kyi rejected the opprobrium of the international community and defended the military’s counterinsurgency against supposed Islamist extremists. In 2019, she became one of the first national leaders to appear at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, rebuffing allegations of genocide leveled at Myanmar’s military. She even refused to utter the word “Rohingya” — an implicit reflection of the widespread (and prejudiced) view within Myanmar that the community comprises Muslim “interlopers” from Bangladesh and doesn’t have an indigenous claim to the country.
Some suggested she was playing a delicate game, striving to consolidate democracy while appeasing a military establishment that could interrupt that work at any moment. “Suu Kyi’s supporters say that her refusal to speak up on behalf of Myanmar’s vulnerable communities is not innate chauvinism but rather a political pragmatism that comes from wanting to deny the military an opportunity to once again seize full power,” wrote Hannah Beech of the New York Times last November. But she added that Suu Kyi’s apparent “unwillingness to defend the rights of ethnic minorities” was a reflection of a deeper nationalist mood among the majority ethnic Bamar population.
Critics within Myanmar venture that Suu Kyi has not actually strengthened democracy. Though Myanmar’s civilian political class comprise many former political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, hundreds more languish in prison under her government’s watch. Political leaders from the country’s tapestry of ethnic minority groups accuse Suu Kyi of chauvinism and embracing a political dispensation that sidelined minority voices in a country beset by decades of ethnic insurgencies.
“Change in Myanmar is dependent only on the ruling party and the government, and how much they would like to build peace,” said Tu Ja, chairman of the Kachin State People’s Party, to my colleagues last year. “We don’t have a fair chance, or a shot at federalism.”
Now that Suu Kyi is once more beholden to her military jailers, observers abroad may be more likely to see her as the loser in a ruthless game of thrones than the apostle of “democracy and human rights” once hailed by the Nobel committee. And the tangled geopolitics of the moment may mean that her most useful backers sit in Beijing, not the capitals of the West.
“China will not welcome news of the coup,” Champa Patel of the Chatham House think tank told the Guardian. “The Chinese have warm relations with [Suu Kyi] that have deepened as western countries criticized her civilian government’s response to the Rohingya crisis. The military, on the other hand, is perceived as having a more independent streak that sought to balance against Chinese influence.”
Meanwhile, analysts warn against aggressive sanctions that would punish ordinary people in Myanmar rather than its military leadership. “While everyone’s thinking about Myanmar politics please also think about Myanmar’s poor,” tweeted historian and author Thant Myint-U, adding that the “lives of tens of millions have been descending into disaster” with surging poverty rates. “Myanmar urgently needs vaccines and an equitable economic recovery (not a coup).”