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Military coup in Myanmar: Full circle for Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar’s military coup recalls events from 1990. Then youth leader Aung San Suu Kyi went on to rise to political power, but because of the Rohingya crisis, she may not enjoy the same global support this time.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai |
Updated: February 4, 2021 11:02:48 am
In this Oct. 29, 2020, file photo, Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi makes an early voting for upcoming Nov. 8 general election at Union Election Commission office in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Aung Shine Oo, File)

A day after seizing power in a coup, disrupting what was to be a democratic transition from one elected government to the next, the Myanmar military appeared to be settling into its old familiar role as a junta.

The Commander in Chief of the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military), General Min Aung Hliang, has appointed himself the head of government. There have been no open protests by people or political parties against the coup yet. With military personnel on guard everywhere, people have not fully resumed their daily lives. But the panic has receded – the queues at petrol pumps and ATMs have thinned out.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s whereabouts are not known, although it is believed she is under house arrest. In a statement attributed to her hours before her arrest, and posted on Facebook, she said: “I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military. Only the people are important.”

Total recall

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For Suu Kyi, the wheel has turned full circle from 1990. That year, as the young founder of the National League for Democracy — it was formed in 1988 during the 8888 movement — she claimed the legacy of her father General Aung, known as the founding father of modern Burma, and swept the elections the junta had agreed to hold as a way of defusing the protests.

The junta, which called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council at the time — it renamed itself in 1997 as State Peace and Development Council – nullified the election results as it has done now, and jailed Suu Kyi. She would spend the better part of the next two decades in detention, mostly house imprisonment. The international community, led by the West, was unstinted in its support for her, constantly exerting pressure on the junta for her release, and imposing sanctions on Mynamar.

Explained: Full circle for Aung San Suu Kyi

But the insular Myanmar military defied these pressures well into the first decade of the 21st century. It began opening up gradually only after Cyclone Nargis devastated most of the country, when the military’s handling of relief led to discontent within Myanmar.

After her release in 2010, Suu Kyi, who had declared a boycott of the elections held the same year, decided to participate in by-elections in 2012, thus legitimising the 2008 Constitution the military had imposed on the country, complete with provisions to secure its own role in politics and governance.

The 2015 elections were a sweep for the NLD, just like the 2020 elections five years later. Though its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, fared even worse than it had in 2015, the military has 25% of the seats reserved for its nominees from ranks of serving military officials.

Police vehicles are parked on Sule Pagoda Road in Yangon, Myanmar (@benjaminsmall via AP)

Underneath its allegations of “irregularities” in the 2020 election, it appears that the Tatmadaw felt threatened by Suu Kyi’s undiminished, even increasing popularity despite five years of incumbency. Also, despite the iron-clad clauses in the Constitution protecting the military’s role, the generals seemed to have sensed that Suu Kyi would use her fresh mandate to restore civilian supremacy in national affairs. One provision in the Constitution ensured Suu Kyi could not become the President, as the office was barred to anyone married to a foreign national. Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, as are her two sons.

Suu Kyi had gone easy on the military in the first term. At one point, she referred to the generals as reminding her of “sweet uncles”. She appeared to back the Army in its brutal crackdown against the Rohingya, which forced nearly a million to escape to Bangladesh. Suu Kyi later appeared at the International Court of Justice to defend the Army in a case against Myanmar for war crimes against the Rohingya.

From 2015 until last year, Suu Kyi was focused on her other project — building peace with more than two dozen minority militias that were at war with the Myanmar state, so that all minorities could come together. It was called the “21st century Panglong Conference”, after a similar effort by her father in the 1940s. But a ceasefire agreement in 2015 was only partially successful, and a series of meetings yielded no positive outcome, giving rise to the conviction that peace would return when the military was pushed back.

Supporters onboard a car wave national and military flags Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)

The head of govt

Some commentators have pointed to imminent changes in the military leadership as one of the reasons why Gen Min Aung Hliang decided to abort the democratic transition, and turn the clock back at least 10 years. He was due to retire in June when he turned 65, but the coup has ensured that he will remain in charge for the foreseeable future. Facebook had taken off his page along with those of several other Myanmar military officials after the UN Human Rights Council accused them of carrying out genocide against the Rohingya.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International said an investigation had shown that the Myanmar military receives massive revenues from shares in Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), “a secretive conglomerate whose activities include the mining, beer, tobacco, garment manufacturing and banking sectors”, and partnerships “with a range of local and foreign businesses” including a Japanese beer multinational and a South Korean steel giant.

General Min Augh Hliang owned 5,000 shares in MEHL in 2011, Amnesty said. MEHL was founded by the military in 1990, and its board members are all retired military officials.

Fall from grace

Suu Kyi is no longer the global icon she was through the 1990s. Her tacit anti-Rohingya stance may have earned her popularity among the majority Barmars in Myanmar, but she has lost many allies in the West. There were even calls for revoking her Nobel Peace Prize.

So while history has repeated itself, this time around there may be none of the ardour that Western governments showed as they campaigned for her release through the 1990s and 2000s. The US has threatened sanctions but this may no longer be seen as the best way forward, as they tend to hurt ordinary people more than they do the leaders they are aimed at. Engagement is now seen as key to such situations. For the people of Myanmar, sanctions would mean a return to the dark days of the 1990s, when the military made money and the others struggled with shortages and poverty. It is also unlikely that multinationals in western countries including the US, and in East Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, which have invested heavily in Myanmar, would want to pull out at this time, especially if it means ceding more ground to China in the region.

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Myanmar’s military stand guard at a checkpoint manned with an armored vehicle in a road leading to the parliament building Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. (AP Photo)

Ironically, it could be China that may end up exerting most pressure on the Myanmar military to release Suu Kyi and step back. In recent years, as she was shunned by the West, Suu Kyi had increasingly turned to Beijing, and President Xi Jinping had rolled out the red carpet for her. Although Myanmar’s generals resent China’s outsize influence in their country, they would still fall in line for Beijing.

India & Myanmar

After joining the campaign for Suu Kyi’s release in the 1990s, New Delhi recalibrated its position to begin a full engagement with the junta although this upset Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement and the NLD in particular. In return, the Myanmar military cracked down on the ULFA and other militant groups of India’s Northeast in safe havens in Myanmar. Senior generals visited India regularly, stopping in Bodh Gaya on the way to or back from Delhi.

Since 2015, India’s supportive stand on the Army crackdown on Rohingya has ensured the friendship continued, although Suu Kyi herself did not particularly warm to the NDA government. India is unlikely to draw back from its engagement with the military, although it has expressed concern at the sudden developments in Myanmar. The competition with China for influence in the region extends to Myanmar, vital to India’s strategic and economic interests from West Bengal and the Northeast to Southeast Asia.

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