Two weeks after the military seized power in Myanmar, protests grow, but the military shows no sign of losing its grip on power.
This Insight explores why they launched the coup, who has influence on the military’s behaviour and what tools the international community can use.
Political influence of Myanmar’s military
Myanmar’s military first seized power in a coup in 1962. A transition to democracy began in 2008 under a new constitution drafted by the military, and nationwide parliamentary elections were held in 2015.
The 2008 constitution still granted wide powers to the military. They retain 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, meaning they can block changes to the constitution. The military also holds one of two vice-president positions, and permanent control of three key ministries: Defence, Border and Home Affairs. In addition to this formal political power, the military maintained its influence by controlling parts of the economy, including lucrative sectors such as mining.
Trigger for the coup
In the November 2020 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party gained 258 seats (out of 440) and achieved a landslide victory in the Pyithu Hluttaw (People’s Assembly). The military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), only gained 26.
The new Parliament was due to take its seats on 1 February, when the coup took place.
It seems the military were unsettled in the short term by the poor election results, but also that Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence of the military operations in Rakhine state, targeting the Rohingya people, appeared to bolster her nationalist credentials among the Bamar-Buddhist majority. This weakened the military’s claim to be the sole guardians of national unity.
Military justifies actions
The military’s leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, sought to justify their actions in a televised address, claiming that the November elections were unfair, and that the electoral commission had failed to investigate irregularities. The commission has rejected these claims.
Electoral observers from the US-based Carter Centre, and the Thailand-based Asian Network for Free Elections, did not report major irregularities, although both expressed reservations on the postponement of elections in several areas, including the Rohingya-majority Rakhine state.
In his address the General promised new elections within a year, under a “reformed” electoral commission, and claimed the military were not seeking long-term rule. Commentators have suggested they might look to the “Thai model” of a military-dominated political system.
Protests and the military response build
Small protests started a few days after the coup, and have grown with tens of thousands of people on the streets, and many public sector employees such as teachers and railway workers on strike.
The military has imposed curfews and banned meetings of more than five people in Myanmar’s two biggest cities, as well as attempting to restrict access to the internet and certain social media sites. So far these restrictions don’t seem to have curbed the protest movement. Violence appears to be rising.
These protests are the largest since the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” against military rule. Some commentators believe these uprisings might have contributed to the military eventually embracing democratic reforms. It is possible that mass protests this time could put pressure on the military, however it’s unlikely they could be sustained in the face of a violent clampdown.
Who has influence in Myanmar?
China perhaps has the most influence on Myanmar. It is the country’s largest trade partner, accounting for around 32 percent of Myanmar’s exports and nearly 35 percent of imports. China has strategic economic interests in the country, including major oil and gas pipelines.
China’s influence grew after many Western countries imposed economic sanctions and criticised Myanmar in response to military operations in Rakhine state primarily against the Rohingya Muslims. Alongside its historic links with Myanmar’s military, China also cultivated relations with Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership.
While China has influence, it is unlikely to directly intervene. At the centre of decades of Chinese foreign policy is the view that states should not interfere in other countries’ “internal affairs”.
China did support a United Nations Security Council resolution that expressed “deep concern” for the military’s actions and called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders. However, the language was reported to have been watered down from the original draft composed by the UK, with the word “coup” removed. A statement by the G7 Foreign Ministers used the word to describe the takeover.
India and other regional partners
India’s military has worked closely with its Myanmar counterparts, with the latter supporting the former with action against insurgent groups. While the Indian Government has expressed its “deep concern” over the coup, it is unlikely to do much more than engage in quiet diplomacy.
Other democratic countries with significant investments in Myanmar include Japan and South Korea. All three countries will likely be cautious in alienating the military authorities for fear of pushing them closer to China, and jeopardising their economic ties.
The EU has maintained an arms embargo on Myanmar since 1991, and the United States also continues to block arms sales.
According to a 2019 UN report, since 2016 companies from seven countries have supplied arms to Myanmar: China, North Korea, India, Israel, the Philippines, Russia and Ukraine.
A global arms embargo could be imposed by the United Nations. This would require consensus in the Security Council, where China holds a veto. Human rights organisations have called for such a motion to be tabled, even if it is vetoed by China, to help build pressure.
What can the UK do?
The UK has kept the arms embargo it had in place as an EU member. The UK currently has sanctions on 14 current and retired members of Myanmar’s military and police involved in the crackdown against the Rohingya.
The Government has said it will consider putting sanctions on other individuals, but wouldn’t speculate on whom. Myanmar, along with other developing countries, has preferential trade access to the UK. Myanmar’s exports to the UK are relatively small (just three percent) and broad trade restrictions might hurt the people of Myanmar. The UK could look to restrict certain items, for example the United States currently blocks the import of rubies and jade from Myanmar, trades that the country’s military is heavily involved in.
- ‘Myanmar: 2020 parliamentary election’, House of Commons Library, February 2020.
- ‘Myanmar’s Military Should Reverse Its Coup’, International Crisis Group, February 2020.
About the author: John Curtis is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs and development.
Image: VOA Burmese, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons