On Feb.1, Myanmar (formerly Burma) experienced a shock as State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was detained along with other members of her party — the National League for Democracy — in an apparent coup d’état. Internet connectivity to the nation was disrupted as Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the military, imposed a one-year state of emergency. This deposition comes with allegations from the military of 8.6 million instances of election fraud during their November 8 election, in which the NLD obtained a landslide victory against the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). They claimed 138 (61.6%) of the 224 seats in the House of Nationalities whereas the USDP only obtained seven (3.1%), and 258 (58.6%) of those in their House of Representatives versus the USDP’s 26 (5.9%).
Thus far, the election commission has denied claims of fraud, and the detainment of Suu Kyi has drawn condemnation from various international actors. The United States, under the new Biden administration, recognizes the NLD’s victory, with National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne bluntly stating this “has all the hallmarks of a coup.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres described these recent events as “a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar,” with the Special Envoy on Myanmar urging the organization “to collectively send a clear signal in support of democracy in Myanmar.” Britain has proposed to the UN security council a statement condemning the takeover and requesting the Tatmadaw, the official name of Myanmar’s military, to respect democratic norms. However, it has yet to pass due to the hesitance of fellow council members China — Myanmar’s most prolific supporter in the UN — and Russia.
Ranking as 135 on the EIU Democracy Index, Myanmar is no stranger to military coups, having experienced them twice before in 1962 and 1988. This would appear to be a recurring theme in Burmese politics, as growing democratic norms are puppeteered or outright stifled by the Tatmadaw, bringing years of military control and interference by proxy parties during brief windows of democracy. If the past is any indicator of what is to come now, it can be presumed that the pro-democracy reforms of Suu Kyi will be discarded and that the USDP, the leading military-backed Burmese party, will become the dominant political force in the country, just like the State Peace and Development Council before it and the Burma Socialist Party before that.
The possible domestic impacts vary. Suu Kyi, once widely celebrated as a champion of democracy and the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, has become increasingly scrutinized for her apparent complicity in the Rohingya genocide, during which more than a million members of the ethnic minority have fled the nation starting October 2016, creating the largest human exodus in Asia since the Vietnam War. Unfortunately for the Rohingya, it is questionable if Suu Kyi’s removal will improve their situation, as, despite her defense of these atrocities, the direct perpetrators appear to be embedded within military leadership. Their oppression within the nation traces back generations, being denied citizenship as far back as 1982 under Tatmadaw rule.
Other historical characteristics of military rule in Myanmar include brutal crackdowns on political dissent, with rampant imprisonment of opposition and harsh suppression of protests. The military infamously killed 184 protestors and tortured many more during the three-month Saffron Revolution of 2007. The military regime was also estimated by the International Labor Organization to be subjecting 800,000 people to forced labor, allegedly including children and the elderly.
Beyond domestic policy, there are also serious geopolitical implications. Myanmar boasts the second-largest active military in Southeast Asia after Vietnam, with an estimated force of over 500,000 personnel. Nearly a quarter of their national budget is allocated to defense, and they see high levels of activity given their regularly occurring counter-insurgency operations.
Additionally, the hesitancy of China, a powerful neighbor and longtime supporter of Myanmar, to condemn this coup, with state media characterizing the overthrow as a “cabinet reshuffle,” could indicate an intention to support this new government. In recent years, China has escalated attempts to expand its sphere of influence, with growing trade competition with the U.S. and EU, boiling tensions along the massive Sino-Indian border over territory disputes, and President Xinping’s goal of making China a “Polar Power” by expanding activities in the Arctic. Its eyes have been locked on Taiwan — with whom Myanmar shares a 1,501-mile border — with increased aggression immediately following the change of leadership in the United States. China, having long claimed Taiwan to be a rightful part of their territory, warned the nation that “independence means war” and has conducted military flyovers over the country. Myanmar could easily become a means to bolster Chinese influence over their mutual neighbor.
Furthermore, Russia, who also refrained from condemning the coup, has been a major vendor of arms to Myanmar, providing fighter jets, unmanned drones, surface-to-air missiles, missile defense systems and more with growing regularity. Aung Hlaing has described Russian weapons as “very advanced and much more useful to the Tatmadaw.” With Moscow’s close relationship to the Tatmadaw, who now dominates Myanmar’s government, this offers them a reliable consumer of weapons exports and a solid foothold in Southeast Asia.
The Tatmadaw’s takeover brings with it much uncertainty for Myanmar’s future. In crushing the nations’ slowly developing democratic norms, the military has set the country to become, yet again, a dictatorship in all things but name, and furthermore condemned it to be a front for the encroachment of emerging superpowers into southeast Asia.