Myanmar’s experiment with democracy lasted less than a decade. It ended abruptly on Monday morning with a round of pre-dawn arrests before a new parliamentary session, the stroke of a pen and — for many in the country — a queasy sense of déjà vu.
After the military detained Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and scores of other ruling officials, the country’s new acting president Myint Swe presided over a meeting at which he handed all powers over to senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s commander-in-chief.
The military justified seizing power by alleging “terrible fraud” in November’s election, the second in five years in which its political proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development party, was trounced by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
The ceremony at the president’s residence in the capital Naypyidaw permitted the military to give a veneer of legality to its putsch, as the constitution allows the head of state to declare a one-year state of emergency “if the office of the president falls vacant”. The generals promised to step down in a year, after a new poll.
However, in Washington, the state department said that the takeover met its definition of a coup, which carries consequences for foreign assistance, heralding a return of sanctions for Myanmar.
“There can be no doubt in a democracy that force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or to erase the outcome of a credible election,” President Joe Biden said on Thursday.
Aung San Suu Kyi now faces seemingly risible charges of petty crime — the illegal import of walkie-talkies found in her official residence — that nonetheless could bar the popular 75-year-old leader from holding office again, assuming the junta honours its promise to hold a new election.
With the generals in charge once more, the “Lady”, as Aung San Suu Kyi is known, under arrest and protesters taking to the streets, Myanmar appeared to be reverting to type in scenes reminiscent of its almost five decades of military rule.
“The coup will be another long-term disaster and nightmare for people in Myanmar,” said Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya activist and former political prisoner. “They already control the press, the broadcasting channels and are giving all the signals of repression.”
Myanmar’s citizens made their anger clear within hours of the coup, banging on pots and blaring car horns. By Tuesday, a Civil Disobedience Group had set up a Facebook page. The new regime responded by temporarily blocking access to the social media platform in Myanmar.
Some in the country compared the febrile atmosphere this week in Yangon, the commercial centre, and other cities to 1988, when an uprising against the dictatorship and a failing economy was followed by a military crackdown, mass arrests and years of unrest.
As gruelling as that period was, Myanmar now faces challenges that may make it even more combustible. These include the Covid-19 pandemic, which has pushed millions further into poverty, and festering anti-Muslim animus that was increasingly tolerated in politics and public discourse during Aung San Suu Kyi’s five-year term.
“It was a total tinderbox in 1988,” said Gerard McCarthy, a postdoctoral fellow at NUS Asia Research Institute in Singapore. “Now you have a socio-economic reality that’s bad if not worse.”
Analysts have voiced concerns of the risks of renewed unrest or violent conflict following the coup, both in the country’s ethnic Burmese heartland and the minority states that encircle it. Many ethnic groups have suffered abuse at the hands of the military in long-running conflicts.
The military’s violent expulsion in 2017 of Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state to Bangladesh dominated most international discussion of Myanmar during Aung San Suu Kyi’s sole term in office. It also prompted the UN and human rights groups to accuse Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who was due to retire this year, of war crimes.
Separate from the Rohingya, the country has a significant Burmese-speaking Muslim minority in Yangon and other big cities. Myanmar witnessed pogroms of Muslims in the run-up to the NLD’s ascension to power in 2016, and some fear violence could again be stirred up by a military seeking to divide or distract the public.
“It’s not just that they will be targeting opponents that dissent. They will also be publicly promoting Buddhist extremism or Buddhist nationalism,” said Wai Wai Nu.
Myanmar’s international partners now must decide how to engage with the new junta. While the US and EU condemned the coup, Myanmar’s neighbours in Asia were mostly reserved in their reaction.
China, which has a complicated relationship with Myanmar’s military, opposed an initial UN Security Council resolution condemning the coup, but then late on Thursday endorsed a statement calling for those held to be freed and to “uphold democratic institutions and processes”.
“China has been pretty happy with the NLD government, and its friendly and positive stance toward Beijing,” said Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst in Yangon. “They know the military is much more suspicious of China and less inclined to a warm relationship, so this can’t have thrilled them.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington