Commentary

A Military Coup in Myanmar Is Unlikely, But….

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 27 January 2021

The Myanmar military made headlines again at a press conference on Tuesday when its spokesperson refused to rule out the possibility of a coup should the military’s claims of electoral fraud go unaddressed.

Given its current powerful role in the executive branch of government, controlling the country’s three security-related ministries—not to mention its continued involvement in the legislature, with its unelected representatives holding 25 percent of seats in the Parliament—and its history of establishing three military governments (the last ended as recently as 2011), it was impossible to ignore Major General Zaw Min Tun’s comment that:

“The military will abide by existing laws including the Constitution. But that doesn’t mean the military will take responsibility for the state or won’t take responsibility for the state.”

Little wonder it sent shockwaves through the country’s diplomatic circles, and even made waves in China, Japan and India, all of which currently have military ties with Myanmar to one degree or another. These days, it should come as no surprise that no one wants to tarnish their reputation internationally by being associated with a military regime.

Closer to home, when decoding the spokesperson’s comment and trying to determine the likelihood that Myanmar will face another coup, it’s important to take every possible factor—including the provisions of the country’s Constitution and the possible implications of a coup for the military itself—into consideration.

How likely is a coup? The answer is: “unlikely.” Why?

First of all, Myanmar’s Constitution doesn’t give the armed forces the right to stage a coup of their own volition.

Even though Article 40(c) of the Constitution grants sovereign power to the commander-in-chief during a state of emergency, let’s not forget that it is the “president only” who can declare a state of emergency, after consulting and coordinating with the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) as dictated in Chapter 11 of the charter.

For the time being, as the citizens of Myanmar busy themselves adapting to a new normal under the coronavirus guidelines, and with no source of instability strong enough to pose a threat to the country’s sovereignty in sight, any talk of a “state of emergency” now would be wishful thinking on the military’s part. Among members of the public, rushing out to register to get a COVID-19 jab is the only “state of urgency” anyone in the country is feeling right now.

Secondly, no one in Myanmar seems to cherish the “Constitution” more than the men in uniform, because it was “successfully” drafted in 2008 by the military itself under the guidance of their then supremo Senior General Than Shwe. The charter grants them the privileges they cherish, such as a leadership role in national politics, while guaranteeing they can take part in the country’s legislative process without having to lift a finger and contest seats in general elections.

Furthermore, the military is the official guardian of the Constitution. That status gives the military plenty of opportunities to intervene in the country’s affairs, ranging from thwarting efforts to amend undemocratic provisions of the charter to re-checking voters lists, on the grounds that it is preventing “unconstitutional” activities.

It’s important to note that a military coup could lead to the abolition of the existing Constitution. In Myanmar’s case, if that happened, the men in uniform would be the first to pay a price, as they would lose their constitutionally bestowed immunity and other privileges.

On Tuesday, the military spokesperson said, “The military will abide by existing laws including the Constitution.” If the military is to continue to be seen as a law- and Constitution-abiding institution, there’s no question that the existence of the charter is crucial—making the possibility that the armed forces will stage a coup unlikely for now.

However, as the saying “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” goes, there is no guarantee that the military will not disregard the charter, making another coup possible. The military spokesperson’s refusal to rule out the possibility of a military takeover is a grim reminder.

Such a “fools-rush-in” approach would run the risk of throwing Myanmar into social, economic and political disarray for years to come, and once again isolate the country internationally. For the military, it would be like signing its own death warrant, as it would lose the safe haven the Constitution has provided it since 2011. Let’s hope winter is not coming for Myanmar.

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