Power Grab Brings Myanmar to Standstill
By Larry Jagan 3 February 2021
Myanmar’s military has seized control of the country after detaining de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint and other politicians in a pre-dawn raid Monday morning. There have been massive detentions in this military round up: all key politicians, the regional chief ministers, the top leadership of the governing National League for Democracy (NLD), most national and local members of Parliament, and hundreds of pro-democracy and human rights activists. Little is known about their whereabouts at present, though it appears that the Lady—as she is known—is under house arrest. But there are widespread fears about her continued safety and the other detainees.
The power grab by the army follows months of heightened tension between the military and the civilian government in the aftermath of last November’s election. This tension escalated significantly during the past week, with the country hurtling headlong into a serious confrontation. Since the middle of last week there have been substantial troop movements in the capital Naypyitaw and the main commercial city Yangon. Tanks and armored vehicles have been patrolling both cities. Routes out of Yangon and Naypyitaw have been blocked off at times. Both cities experienced large, rowdy demonstrations of pro-military supporters over the weekend.
Ostensibly this was a conflict over the election results which are being strenuously disputed: the NLD convincingly won, according to the body that oversees elections—the Union Election Commission (UEC)—but the military and its political partners are alleging vigorously that the vote was rigged. Two pro-military parties—the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the Democratic Party for National Politics (DPNP)—have even taken their case to the Supreme court to get redress for their complaint. On Friday, they applied to the Supreme Court for writs against the UEC on the basis of their evidence of election fraud. After hearing opening arguments, the court deferred its verdict for two weeks.
There is no doubt that the electoral process—especially the voter lists—was significantly flawed. Although local and international monitors agreed that the election was poorly run they believe the outcome was legitimate. The military is alleging that it has evidence of over 10 million cases of voter irregularities and fraud in November’s polls, and is demanding the election commission release the electoral roll for cross-checking. According to the military there are more people registered on the country’s voter lists than the total population.
The military has declared a state of emergency in reports and video messages broadcast on its own channel, Myawaddy TV. It also announced the creation of a caretaker government, led by the current vice president, former general Myint Swe—a military stalwart who was appointed by the army to the post back in 2016—who has also been named as the new president; the transfer of all executive, judicial and legislative power to the commander-in-chief for the next 12 months; fresh elections; and the handing of power by the interim government to the winner of that election.
Despite this draconian move, the army continues to insist it is acting legally and according to the Constitution. Its statement cited Article 417 of the Constitution, which permits a military takeover in the event of an emergency that threatens Myanmar’s sovereignty, or that could “disintegrate the Union” or “national solidarity”, which the army contends prompted it to act.
As a pretext, the military is using the UEC’s alleged failure to address the “huge irregularities” in the November election, which the Tatmadaw said endangered the “sovereignty of the people”. The statement also claimed that the wide-spread protests—largely in support of election fraud claims, much of which was instigated by the military—were “threatening national stability”.
But this is flawed, for while the military says the takeover is constitutional, there has been a gross sleight of hand: Section 417 is supposed to be initiated by the President in consultation with the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC). The section says, “the President may, after coordinating with the National Defense and Security Council, promulgate an ordinance and declare a state of emergency.” But even then there are ambiguities, as the Constitution vaguely suggests it only has a coordinating role in regard to states of emergency.
Officially the NDSC is made up of the President, two vice presidents (one from the military) the speakers of the two houses, the foreign minister, the army chief and his deputy and the three military-appointed ministers—border affairs, defense and home affairs—giving the military the majority in a vote. But the army’s claim that the NDSC, in a meeting Monday morning, approved the state of emergency is spurious. The meeting in fact only included the six military representatives, chaired by Vice President U Myint Swe in the President’s absence. The vice president can only deputize for the president in the event of his resignation, death, permanent disability or any other cause. Given that he has been detained, and his whereabouts are unknown, this is stretching legal niceties.
Sources close to the NLD say the party is contesting the legality of U Myint Swe’s elevation to president, suggesting he has no legal power to revoke President U Win Myint’s authority and cannot legitimately be president.
In the meantime there is public confusion, insecurity and uncertainty throughout Myanmar. So far the expected outburst of public protests has not happened—though there have been a few sporadic rallies in Yangon already. In part that is because the NLD leadership and many of the pro-democracy activists have also been detained—and originally called on supporters to desist from public demonstrations.
However, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi left a handwritten letter—prepared in anticipation of her detention—with other leaders of the NLD, according to senior party members, U Kyi Toe and U Win Htein. In it she urged her supporters not to accept the situation and protest peacefully against the coup. She suggested the military’s actions returned the country to a dictatorship. She insisted that the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) clearly contravened their own Constitution, the election results and the will of the people.
So although as yet the new military junta has not outlined its proposed plans for the next 12 months, nor appointed a cabinet, it has made clear its priorities. The Tatmadaw will govern to protect the economy, manage the COVID-19 crisis and finalize the peace process, according to its latest statement.
“The intention is to restore normality to peoples’ lives as quickly as possible: reopen factories, businesses, restaurants and schools,” said a source close to some senior military figures. “The idea is to de-dramatize the situation, and show how much more effective a government it is to the NLD.”
But many independent analysts and diplomats in Myanmar are skeptical, pointing to the NLD’s overwhelming electoral victories in the 1990, 2015 and 2020 elections—suggesting that won’t change in a year’s time, especially if the charismatic leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi remains in charge of the party.
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.
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