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. 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.
NLD chairman and Suu Kyi aide Win Htein, speaking to reporters in Naypyidaw, the capital, called on people to resist the coup in “the same nonviolent way of resistance that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been promoting her entire life,” using her honorific.
The events threaten to destabilize the region, where armed ethnic conflicts plague Myanmar’s borders with China and Bangladesh. And they pose a challenge for President Biden, whose foreign policy team includes Obama administration figures who were involved in and celebrated Myanmar’s once-hopeful democratic awakening.
Biden on Monday called the coup “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy,” and suggested the United States could reimpose sanctions on the country if it is not reversed. He called for the military to relinquish the power it has seized, release officials and activists, lift restrictions on telecommunications and refrain from violence against the people.
“The United States is taking note of those who stand with the people of Burma in this difficult hour,” Biden said in a statement, using a previous name for the country. He noted that Washington had removed sanctions on Myanmar based on its progress toward democracy.
“The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action,” he said.
The United Nations, the European Union, Britain and Japan also condemned the military takeover. China reserved judgment.
“We have noted what has happened in Myanmar and are in the process of further understanding the situation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in a news conference in Beijing.
“China is a friendly neighbor of Myanmar’s. We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability.”
Return to the dark days
Residents in Naypyidaw awoke Monday to a communications blackout, with calls failing to connect and applications that use mobile Internet down. State-run Myanmar Radio and Television said in a Facebook post that it was unable to broadcast “due to communication problems.” Websites were also down; the Internet monitoring service Netblocks said national connectivity had fallen to 75 percent of normal levels. Elected NLD lawmakers were barricaded in their guesthouses, guarded by soldiers.
When communications were restored seven hours later, photos and videos showed soldiers in camouflage fatigues and armed with automatic weapons standing in the roads, turning back cars. Some of the highways that run through the capital were blocked by military trucks and barbed-wire barricades.
In Yangon, the largest city, a sense of panic appeared to set in.
Residents rushed to buy groceries. Hundreds headed to banks to withdraw money in scenes reminiscent of the junta era, when people would stuff wads of cash in pillowcases or under floorboards. Others removed the ubiquitous red-and-yellow flags of the NLD, which reappeared in recent years after decades as a banned symbol of resistance. Military supporters, some armed with knives, roamed the streets, cheering.
A 23-year-old who works for a shipping company said he was disgusted by the military.
“When I heard this news this morning, I could not believe they did it,” said the man, who declined to give his name for safety fears. “When I woke up, I cried.”
The roundup of NLD figures, which party spokesman Myo Nyunt said happened at gunpoint, brought days of tensions to a head just hours before the newly elected parliament was scheduled to sit.
The party won November elections in a landslide, capturing 396 out of 476 seats. It was the country’s second democratic vote since the end of direct military rule. The military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won only 33 seats.
The military and its proxy have alleged voter fraud. The election commission has dismissed the claim as baseless. The military said in a broadcast that the politicians were detained “in response to alleged fraud” and it now wants to hold fresh elections after reconfiguring the current NLD-dominated election commission.
Regardless of the vote, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, was still guaranteed control of key ministries and a quarter of the seats in parliament under the junta-drafted constitution. But the army was enraged that Suu Kyi remained beloved by voters despite her government’s shortcomings, including a battered economy and the raging pandemic, Myanmar analysts said.
The military created a system that “worked so well for their nemesis, Suu Kyi,” said David Mathieson, an independent analyst. “So, when you’re unpopular and increasingly irrelevant, you scupper the apparently sweet deal you have for your institution.”
Eyes on the commander in chief
The coup has turned focus on Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the armed forces. The military on Monday declared a state of emergency for a year, transferring power to Min Aung Hlaing and installing Myint Swe, a former general, as the president of the government.
Min Aung Hlaing, who had been due to retire in July, is widely believed to harbor civilian political ambitions. Unlike his predecessors, who shunned the spotlight and relied on the dry dispatches of state media to relay their activities, he adopted a more high-profile role since taking up the position in 2011.
He was a prolific presence on Facebook before he was banned for hate speech against the Rohingya, more than a million of whom were driven from their homes by the army in 2017. He sat for interviews with outlets such as the BBC and The Washington Post — unprecedented for the military — and traveled abroad.
With his path to a civilian political role dwindling, Mathieson said, he faced “going from the most powerful man in the country to a retiree.”
Others noted that Suu Kyi’s attempts to change the constitution to curb the military’s power — a core promise of her 2015 campaign — raised personal frictions between her and the commander in chief, despite the military’s veto ability.
“With the prospects of a second five-year NLD term and increased pressure for a constitutional revision, casual — if not expected — civil-military frictions . . . have morphed into open conflict,” said Renaud Egreteau, an associate professor at City University of Hong Kong who has written books on Myanmar.
Derek Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, spoke of the “bad blood” between Min Aung Hlaing and Suu Kyi. “It is very personal between the two of them,” said Mitchell, now president of the National Democratic Institute. “A regression like this is a terrible signal.”
Biden called on the international community to “come together in one voice” on Myanmar. In Washington, calls for action were bipartisan.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Washington and its allies should “impose strict economic sanctions, as well as other measures, against the Tatmadaw and the military leadership.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn’t use the word “sanction,” but said the United States must “impose costs” on those who stand in the way of Myanmar’s “journey toward democracy.”
Mitchell, the former ambassador, said it was hard to gauge how much support the United States would get from its allies on sanctions. At one time, Myanmar was subjected to harsh sanctions that crippled its economy. Those were mostly dropped in 2016 under the Obama administration, but targeted sanctions returned against military leaders for their role in the Rohingya crackdown. One possible target for new sanctions could be military-owned enterprises, which have deep roots in the economy.
“There are all kinds of things that are possible,” Mitchell said. “But the key will be, because the country is so desperate right now, that [actions] don’t hurt the people of the country.”
Kyaw Ye Lynn and Andrew Nachemson in Yangon and Emily Rauhala in Washington contributed to this report.