The 75-year-old Suu Kyi, who had formed an uneasy alliance with Myanmar’s military since taking control of the government in 2016, was arrested Monday along with other elected ministers from her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in armed, predawn raids.
The Tatmadaw, as the military is known, has declared a year-long state of emergency, citing an article in the country’s 2008 constitution. But the coup may have dashed any remaining optimism for Myanmar’s troubled democracy after a decade of political setbacks and simmering ethnic tension.
What caused the coup?
Myanmar’s military leaders have said the arrests on Monday were “in response to alleged fraud,” referring to elections held in November when the NLD won a majority of 396 out of 476 seats and a pro-military party won only 33 seats. International observers have rejected the complaints.
Although Myanmar’s junta-drafted constitution guaranteed the military control of key ministries and a quarter of parliamentary seats, the overwhelming loss signaled how low the popularity of the military has sunk compared with the considerable national stature of Suu Kyi and the NLD.
The Tatmadaw has pledged to hold new elections, but there is little evidence of concern about democracy: The dawn raids were accompanied by a seven-hour block on electronic communications, and photographs showed soldiers setting up checkpoints once social media returned on Monday.
Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?
The Oxford-educated daughter of U Aung San, a revered pro-independence figure in the country then known as Burma, Suu Kyi became a major political figure as she returned home to Myanmar in 1988, just as pro-democracy protests erupted nationwide, drawing a deadly response from security forces.
In 1990, despite being under house arrest at the time, Suu Kyi led the NLD to a huge electoral victory, but the military refused to accept the results. Her plight drew significant international attention, and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. In 2010, after elections boycotted by the NLD, she was freed from the house arrest imposed on her for a total of 15 years.
Suu Kyi entered parliament after by-elections in 2012, and when the NLD won a majority in 2015 parliamentary elections, she became the country’s political leader. She was barred from the presidency by the military-written constitution; she instead became state counselor, a newly created position.
What was Suu Kyi’s relationship with the military?
Despite her pro-democracy credentials, Suu Kyi worked in partnership with the military after 2015. Her pro-military stance on some issues dismayed many of her international supporters. In 2019, she defended Myanmar’s generals against genocide charges for the alleged rape and murder of members of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority by Myanmar troops.
This may have been a reflection of the quasi-democratic nature of Myanmar’s reforms. In addition to the political accommodations accorded the military in Myanmar’s constitution, there was no civilian oversight of the armed forces, and military leaders saw themselves as protectors of the country. The Tatmadaw also held vast business interests across Myanmar.
However, observers have noted that Myanmar’s steps toward democracy were accompanied with a growing Buddhist nationalism, which has been openly hostile to the Rohingya and other minorities and which the NLD did not wish to offend.
Who is in charge of the country now?
After Monday’s arrests, the army-appointed vice president, Myint Swe, immediately handed over power to Myanmar’s topmilitary commander, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. According to Myanmar’s constitution, the country’s president can hand temporary political control of the country to the commander in chief in times of crisis.
Min Aung Hlaing, 64, took control of the country’s military in 2011 at the start of transition to democracy. He was placed under U.S. sanctions in 2019 after U.N. investigators said that Myanmar’s military operation against the Rohingya had “genocidal intent.”
Once a low-profile career military official, Min Aung Hlaing has taken an increasingly public role in Myanmar’s fledgling democracy. He has used Facebook and Twitter to make announcements before being banned from both services.
Min Aung Hlaing unexpectedly extended his five-year term as leader of Myanmar’s military in 2016. With the end of another five-year term looming in July, some analysts believe he may seek to become the country’s civilian leader.
What effect will this have on Myanmar’s minorities, including the Rohingya?
Given the role of Myanmar’s military in the violence against the Rohingya, there are widespread fears about what the coup could mean for the country’s minorities. Even with Suu Kyi in charge, rights groups said that around 1.5 million ethnic minority voters were excluded from the November 2020 election.
Thant Myint-U, a historian and writer, warned Monday that the country was “awash” with weapons, divided across ethnic lines and beset by the descent of millions of people into poverty amid the coronavirus pandemic. “Myanmar urgently needs vaccines and an equitable economic recovery (not a coup),” he tweeted.