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The Coup In Myanmar

By Katie Dominy

On the morning of 1st February 2021, the world woke to news of an unfolding political crisis in Myanmar. After formally transitioning to democratic rule in 2011, the military (or Tatmadaw) had launched a coup, seizing control from the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

The Tatmadaw attempted to justify the coup by claiming that widespread electoral fraud occurred during the November 2020 national elections (which delivered a resounding victory for the NLD). Although independent observers accept that considerable errors in voter rolls were likely, no concrete proof of systematic electoral fraud has been provided. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi is believed to be under Tatmadaw-imposed house arrest in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s capital. Along with NLD colleague President Win Myint, Aung San Suu Kyi has been charged with proxy offences in a move to justify her detention. The leader of the country is now General Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Civilian protests have erupted across the country, with demonstrators calling for an end to Tatmadaw rule and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. 

What has happened over the past month?

As February has progressed, it would appear that the intensity of protests (as well as the severity of the regime’s response) has escalated. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets across the country, from major cities to provincial towns. Protestors have called for a mass strike, and have utilised resistance tactics ranging from street demonstrations, revolutionary songs, and performance art to voice their dissent. Groups of protestors have even restricted the Tatmadaw’s movement by tying shoelaces and repairing bikes en masse on major roads to block traffic. 

Creative and symbolic resistance has become commonplace in recent weeks. Many protestors have adopted the anti-authoritarianism ‘three finger salute’ from The Hunger Games franchise, the same symbol used by pro-democracy counterparts in neighbouring Thailand. (For more information on recent unrest in Thailand, see Colin McGinness’ November 2020 article in The International). 

On Monday 22nd February, pro-democracy demonstrators called for a ‘five twos revolution’ across the country – a reference to the date (22/02/2021), and a revocation of the historic, anti-military 8888 protests (held on 08/08/1988). Indeed, the current protests also hold significant weight in Myanmar’s modern history: they are the largest pro-democracy demonstrations since the 2007 Saffron Revolution (named after the colour of the robes worn by the Buddhist monks leading the movement). 

However, in the face of such civilian dissent, the Tatmadaw has not been a passive witness. In an attempt to restrict access to information and curb resistance, the military launched internet shutdowns and blocked access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Virtual Private Network (VPN) platforms. Roadblocks, curfews, raids, and arrests are prevalent. On top of that, security forces have deployed water cannons, rubber bullets, and live ammunition to disperse crowds of protestors. At the time of writing, at least three people have been killed in the protests, including two teenagers who were shot in the head. 

Was the coup unforeseen?

Such a sequence of events would be tumultuous in any setting. Nevertheless, in the case of Myanmar, political instability on this scale is not unprecedented. 

Indeed, the country’s political landscape has been coloured by conflict and contestation for decades. Since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1948, Myanmar (also known as Burma) has weathered several regime changes. The country initially operated under a parliamentary democracy for the first fourteen years of independence. However, a military coup in 1962 overhauled this system, with the Tatmadaw imposing authoritarian rule under the banner of a ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. After 1988’s  pro-democracy movement, the military reinstated its control, and Myanmar remained a totalitarian state until well into the twenty-first century. Despite the imposition of Western sanctions, the Tatmadaw maintained its place as the head of state, until elections were held in November 2010, and power was formally transferred to President Thein Sein on 30th March 2011. The subsequent shifts in Myanmar’s political landscape were considerable; political prisoners were pardoned, censorship of the press was relaxed, peace negotiations with minority ethnic groups took place, and Aung San Suu Kyi was released from Tatmadaw-imposed house arrest. 

Despite these changes and NLD landslide victories in the 2015 and 2020 elections, onlookers viewed Myanmar’s transition to democracy with some caution. The military both instigated and carried out this democratisation programme under its ‘Seven Step Roadmap to Democracy’, and tailored the country’s Constitution so as to maintain a deciding vote in the Parliament. Additionally, even after the transition to democracy, the Tatmadaw retained executive powers over the government during periods of emergency, and senior governmental roles were earmarked for individuals with a military background – including the role of President. 

As such, rather than viewing Myanmar as a fully-fledged democracy, the country was often characterised as a quasi-democracy or hybrid regime. Although the Tatmadaw preserved sizable constitutional and political control, domestic and international pro-democracy groups were hopeful that a steady democratic shift was in motion. 

How has the international community responded to the coup?

The loudest voices on the international stage have been those condemning the coup. The UN Special Rapporteur to Myanmar, Tom Andrews, described the coup as “outrageous” and “an assault on an entire people”. The Biden administration echoed these sentiments, and (alongside states such as Canada and the UK) imposed sanctions on the Tatmadaw

However, the international response was not unanimous. Chinese and Russian delegates vetoed a UN Security Council statement condemning the coup in early February, and “disassociated” themselves from a UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and an end to violence against protestors. Southeast Asian neighbours have been lukewarm in their response, with Thailand, the Philippines, and Cambodia branding the events an “internal matter” within Myanmar. On Wednesday 24th February, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister flew to Bangkok as part of ongoing efforts to coordinate a regional diplomatic response to the coup.

Why has this happened, and what does the coup mean for Myanmar’s future?

To answer these questions, The International contacted Southeast Asia expert Professor John T. Sidel from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

“In my view, the recent coup in Myanmar raises complex questions about the interests – and internal politics – of the military as an institution in the context of political change in the direction of democracy over the past decade in the country,” says Professor Sidel. 

“After all, from a distance it appears that the pre-scripted and stage-managed transition to a limited form of democracy in Myanmar has unfolded without intruding upon or otherwise undermining the institutional powers and prerogatives of the military establishment.”

Here, Professor Sidel notes a similar pattern in another Southeast Asian state:

“Viewed from this perspective, it is easy to envisage an Indonesia-style scenario in which both the military as an institution and senior military officers as political actors can identify – and pursue – their interests with(in) parliamentary democracy for years to come.

“Insofar as this is the case, the original impetus for the coup and its ultimate aims remain mysterious. But if the real political interest and purpose of the coup lies in the prolongation and preservation of the personal power of long-time Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, then hopefully the broader institutional interests of the Burmese military in an accommodation with parliamentary democracy will triumph in the end, as they have at times elsewhere in Southeast Asia, albeit with ambiguous and unsatisfying consequences. The ongoing protests in Myanmar should be supported with this provisional end-game in prospect.”

As the situation currently stands, the Tatmadaw has declared a state of emergency military rule for the next twelve months, with the prospect of subsequent elections. In the meantime, pro-democracy groups long for a return to a more stable balance between domestic political actors. Going forwards, human rights activists will carefully examine what this coup means for the country’s minority groups – UN representatives wish to prosecute General Min Aung Hlaing for the military’s war crimes against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya. In short: the domestic and international impact of the Myanmar coup is far from over.  

Professor John T. Sidel is the Sir Patrick Gillam Chair of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His research focuses on the politics of Southeast Asia, with a particular interest in Indonesia and the Philippines. More information on Professor Sidel’s work can be found at

Katie Dominy is The International’s Middle East correspondent.

The International extends its thanks to Professor Sidel for sharing his analysis on the current situation in Myanmar.