Political Ghosts Come Back to Haunt Myanmar

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 29 January 2021

A familiar political specter is haunting Myanmar—the possibility of a coup d’etat. A military coup is never the right solution to a political problem, but the country’s powerful military leader has been thinking aloud lately, and the possibility appears to be on his mind.

Fear, anger and tension have intruded into all walks of life here since the armed forces’ spokesperson refused to rule out a coup after the military’s allegations of electoral fraud were ignored. Remarks made by military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing during a speech the next day intensified the public’s fears and further inflamed tensions between the government and the military.

“The Constitution is the mother law. We have to follow the Constitution. If the law is not obeyed, we must abolish it. Even if it is the Constitution, we must abolish it,” the military chief told trainee officers on Wednesday. He also referred to the revocation of two previous constitutions following military coups in 1962 and 1988. His point was clear enough: The current Constitution could be abolished after a coup.

Endorsing the possibility of doing away with the Constitution represents a U-turn for the military chief and his armed forces. It also comes as a shock to the public. For the Tatmadaw, it means sinking one’s own ship.

The military chief is reversing the military’s role as guardian of the Constitution, which until now has provided the primary justification for the armed forces’ continued political role. Drafted by the previous military regime led by Senior General Than Shwe—the mentor of the current military chief—the Constitution enshrined the military’s grand design for continued political supremacy, granting the commander-in-chief exclusive authority to appoint a vice president, three key ministerial positions and 25 percent of lawmakers in Parliament.

Why the about-face? The military’s official reason is that the government ignored its claim that November’s general election—which the ruling National League for Democracy won by a landslide—was unfair and marred by mass fraud. Its ally the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and a handful of other parties are in line with the military on the issue. But the vast majority of the public do not believe that mass electoral fraud occurred. On Friday morning, diplomatic missions in the country, including those of the US, EU and UK, issued a joint statement opposing any attempt to alter the outcome of the election or impede the country’s democratic transition. The embassies also said they look forward to the peaceful convening of the new Parliament on Feb. 1 and the election of the president and speakers as scheduled.

So… will Myanmar face another military coup? On this Earth, there is only one person who surely knows the answer: Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who will call the shots on whether to strike or not.

Also on Thursday, the political tension prompted a rare meeting between representatives of the government and the military in Naypyitaw. It turned out to be fruitless, and the situation remains in a stalemate. Reportedly, the military demanded that the government abolish the election body, the Union Election Commission; that it recount all votes cast in the Nov. 8 election with the military’s assistance; and that it postpone the opening of the new Parliament. To many, the military is making demands in areas that are “none of its business”. De facto national leader State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reportedly rejected all of the demands.

Critics say the military has overstepped its bounds. Simply, its duties do not include investigating election results—that is a widespread view here.

But the tension shows no sign of easing. And it could easily escalate in the coming days. Many people are wondering now what will happen tonight, over the weekend, and especially on Feb. 1, when the new Parliament is schedule to meet for the first time—something the military has demanded be postponed.

Anything can happen. How can the situation be resolved? Very few solutions present themselves.

Many observers have openly urged government and military leaders to hold talks in order to de-escalate tensions and avoid a military coup. The question is: on what grounds?

The main reason for the military’s objections to the election seems purely political—together with their USDP allies, they can’t accept the result. Then, what? The situation bears a striking resemblance to the scenario Donald Trump created in the US.

So what is the best way to resolve such a problem here in Myanmar? What will the military do if the government continues to reject its demands?

A military coup is no solution. It will only bring about another dark age for the country.

Quite simply, it is possible they might step up with one of the following three options: to boycott the Parliament session on Feb. 1; to join Parliament but refuse to nominate the ministers of Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs (the three ministries are under military control and the Constitution requires that the military chief name them) for the union cabinet; or the worst-case scenario—to stage a military coup.

All of these options defy the people’s will and democratic norms. All would be aimed at thwarting the outcome of the November election, in which 27 million voters cast ballots.

So… will Myanmar face another military coup? On this Earth, there is only one person who surely knows the answer: Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, who will call the shots on whether to strike or not.

Unfortunately, if he decides, as the previous coup leaders did, that it is a reasonable course of action, the country will see its fourth military takeover. History will repeat itself as we enter another period of military rule, following the previous three, which lasted for a combined 51 years—two periods under General Ne Win, from 1958 to 1960 (2 years) and 1962 to 1988 (26 years), and the period under the leaders of the most recent coup, Generals Saw Maung, Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt, which lasted from 1988 to 2011 (23 years). How long will it be this time?

Whatever the answers to the above questions, what we can say is that the current process of democratization will fall into a black hole. All hope for Myanmar, among its citizens and internationally, will be gone. A military coup is no solution. It will only bring about another dark age for the country.

Again, it depends on the military chief. But one can’t help but wonder why the country’s military leaders—even if it’s not all of them—remain stuck in the same mindset that brought about the country’s first military coup 63 years ago.

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