Since the early hours of February 1, the world has been watching the political developments in Myanmar in shock. From removing the civilian government to filing criminal charges against State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, the Myanmar military took a series of steps that have ostensibly stalled if not reversed the country’s democratisation process.
But did Myanmar really miss its shot at becoming a true democracy? What led the military to behave this way and, perhaps most importantly, where does the country go from here?
The immediate catalyst for the February 1 coup appears to be last November’s general election. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won 83 percent of the vote and expanded its majority in the parliament despite earlier speculation that it would lose seats to other democratic and ethnic political parties. The fact that the NLD won the election with an even bigger margin than five years ago attested to Aung San Suu Kyi’s abiding popularity in the eyes of the public. Even though the state counsellor and her government were not able to achieve much in terms of their three stated goals – peace, economic development and political reform – during their first term in power, the election result demonstrated that an overwhelming majority of the public is still confident in Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to carry the country towards a better future.
The military, alarmed by the growing public support behind the NLD, declared the election fraudulent. It filed dozens of complaints with the Union Election Commission (UEC) and claimed that it uncovered more than eight million cases of voter fraud. Arguing that these irregularities undermined the integrity of the election and the legitimacy of its results, it called for a rerun. The UEC rejected the military’s allegations, saying there were no errors big enough to affect the credibility of the vote.
In response, the military pressured the government to delay the first session of the new parliament scheduled for February 1, during which the new legislators were to name presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The government ignored the demand. With backdoor negotiations failing to deliver a deal acceptable to both sides, the military staged a coup in the early hours of February 1 and declared a yearlong state of emergency.
While the disputed election was the immediate catalyst for the coup, the events of February 1 were actually a direct result of the decades-old power struggle between Myanmar’s military and civilian leaders. Myanmar had been ruled by a military government between 1962 and 2011. During this period, the military failed the country miserably in terms of economic development and governance. In 2003, seemingly giving in to growing domestic and international demands for democracy to be restored in the country, the military government announced its “Seven Step Roadmap to Democracy”. The aim of the road map was to gradually introduce a new governance system to Myanmar that gave more power to the people while also protecting the powers and privileges of the military.
The country’s current constitution, which came into effect in 2008, was drafted as part of this long-term democratisation plan. It was specifically designed to pave the way for “a flourishing and disciplined democracy”, meaning a democracy guided by the military leadership. It not only allocated 25 percent of all seats in the parliament to the military, but also gave it the power to veto any constitutional amendment as an insurance policy. During her first term in power, amending the constitution to reduce the military’s influence over the civilian government was Aung San Suu Kyi’s top priority. While the military successfully thwarted every attempt she made to achieve this goal in the last five years, when she expanded her support base in the 2020 election, they became increasingly concerned that she may try again, and perhaps succeed, in the coming years.
The allegations of election fraud were a test to assess Aung San Suu Kyi’s willingness to accommodate the military’s demands and grievances. Her adamant refusal to compromise was seen by the military leadership as a testament of her growing defiance, which they feared could pave the way for the rise of a truly independent civilian government. After the coup, a key question is whether the military wishes to rule the country directly for the foreseeable future or transfer power to a nominally civilian government that it can guide and control.
Early signals point to the latter. The military has announced that it intends to hold a new election within a year and hand over power to the winning political party. Indeed, after trying and failing to rule the country efficiently for 50 years, the military seems more interested in protecting its special status and privileges guaranteed by the constitution than dealing with the day-to-day problems of governance once again. What the military needs and wants is a civilian government that accepts the implicit agreement embedded in the 2008 Constitution – that the military is the paramount power in Myanmar and its authority cannot be challenged. With the coup, the military did not announce its desire to rule directly, but merely showed the limits of its tolerance.
This, however, does not mean the military is not going to make any changes to the existing system. It will likely launch an effort to amend the constitution to remove and adjust clauses that it believes are a threat to its authority. For example, currently there is a first-past-the-post electoral system in Myanmar. This system allowed the NLD to secure an overwhelming majority in the parliament. Had the electoral system been based on proportional representation, other political parties, including those supported by the military, would have received more seats and reduce NLD’s dominance. An electoral system based on proportional representation makes it very unlikely for a single party to dominate the parliament and can even create the need for a coalition government. After seeing the consequences of one party dominating the parliament, the Myanmar military will most likely seek to change the rules to prevent ending up in a similarly precarious situation in the future.
Aged 75 and facing multiple serious charges, Aung San Suu Kyi may not be able to return to politics after the coup. This, however, does not mean the NLD will also depart from the political arena. The party has overwhelming public support and with a new generation of young, democratically-minded leaders, it can still be a critical player in Myanmar’s quest for democracy in the coming years. All this, of course, depends on how the military will choose to structure the political arena if and when it decides to hold elections and transfer power to a civilian government.
While the fate of Myanmar’s most popular political party and its world-famous leader is indeed uncertain, there are more pressing concerns in Myanmar today. The coup is not yet over, and we do not yet know how the people of Myanmar are going to respond to the military’s power grab. The military has already shut down social media in response to rising public disobedience. If people choose to take to the streets in large numbers and the military tries to suppress the protests with violence, the situation can quickly deteriorate.
But there is still hope. Myanmar’s path towards democracy has never been straight. The country’s history is marked with periods of slow progress, periods of swift regress, unrelenting hope, and many disappointments. The coup undoubtedly erased most of the progress that was made in the last 10 years. But the fight is far from over. Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, people of Myanmar will eventually get back on their feet like they did many times before and continue their quest to build a political system that allows them to be in charge of their destiny.