What led to the coup in Myanmar?

A continued fight for democracy. A strong military presence. Ethnic cleansing of minority groups. A country rife with corruption. These are the harsh realities the people of Myanmar face. This Southeast Asian country halfway across the world is no stranger to political turmoil, which culminated in a military coup earlier this year.

Not long after Myanmar was given independence from Great Britain, its military staged the nation’s first coup in 1962. This meant that its megalomaniac military generals would rule over the country rather than its democratically elected government. Moreover, Myanmar’s military culture is quite different from that of Western countries. Military leaders have a desire to dominate the country; there is no practice of civilian oversight in order to keep the military accountable for its actions. The reality is actually the other way around, where the military keeps civilians accountable for being too outspoken or too pro-democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi, pronounced “Ong-san-soo-chee”, is the figurehead for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. Despite being born in Myanmar, which used to be called “Burma,” she ended up living most of her adult life alive away from her home country. She rose to the political scene because her dad was the founding father of an independent Burma. In 1988, she came back to Myanmar to catalyze the democratic movement against the tyranny of Myanmar’s military government. Unfortunately, the democratic movement was suppressed, as she was intermittently placed under house arrest for more than 20 years.

In 2010, not only did Aung San Suu Kyi come out of house arrest, but the military allowed for democratic elections for the first time in decades. Initially, these elections were only for positions in the parliamentary government. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, the NLD, eventually won several seats in parliament. Furthermore, the military “handed over power” to the civilian government entirely in 2016. The military-drafted constitution barred Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming President. However, one of her political party members became President, while she took on the role of State Counsellor. The State Counsellor is the head of government and is equivalent to a Prime Minister.

However, this supposed transition to democracy was a façade, as the military was still a force that wielded real power. The military’s goal was to build an image of democracy for the rest of the world to validate, while they still coerced the civilian government into enacting their preferred policies. Consequently, Aung San Suu Kyi was universally scrutinized for her inaction towards the military-led Rohingya genocide. The Rohingya people are a Muslim minority group, who are being systematically eliminated out of the country either by driving them across the border to Bangladesh or just killing them. In fact, any bad policies were mostly blamed on Aung San Suu Kyi rather than the military themselves.

Framing another leader to take responsibility for its own actions seemed like the perfect strategy for the Burmese military to employ. However, Myanmar’s 2020 election in November led the military to discover that they might have opened a can of worms. The National League for Democracy won nearly 400 seats in parliament, while military proxy parties won a mere 33 seats. This blowout indicated that the military was losing grip over the Burmese people and that democracy was too big of a threat.

After the recent elections, the military-led by General Min Aung Hlaing (“Min-ong-ly’ng) claimed the results were fraudulent. In order to stage the coup, the military first arrested the President and other NLD elected officials including Aung San Suu Kyi. The Vice President, a supporter of the military, became the Acting President and declared a one-year state of emergency. In a state of emergency, the President has the right to grant government control to the military. Consequently, General Min Aung Hlaing became the new leader of Myanmar.

Today, the new authoritarian government has severely restricted phone and internet access in Myanmar. This was done in order to prevent the world from knowing the atrocities happening in the country. Suppressing communication was intended to also prevent citizens from organizing. However, mass people-powered protests against the military are currently taking place. Aung San Suu Kyi has encouraged the people to not accept the military government and to fight for their democratic rights. The coup has also been universally condemned by other countries and the United Nations. With Myanmar’s fight for democracy continuing, will protests and international condemnation be enough to overcome the tyranny?