Myanmar Coup: how, when and why

On the first day of February of this year, the army of Myanmar (also known as Burma) seized power in a coup. They arrested all key leaders of the majority party, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of government.

At that moment, the army declared a year-long state of emergency, cut phone lines in both the capital city of Naypyidaw and the city of Yangon, and suspended state television broadcasts. 

The coup was orchestrated by the head of the Burmese armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, who then assumed the role of head of government. The new president is former vice president General Myint Swe.

The coup took place on the day the new parliament was supposed to convene for the first time since last November’s elections, which were won decisively by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. After losing the election, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party contested the results, accusing the NLD of fraud. In recent days, the climate became particularly tense.

The climax of disagreement reached a new apex on the 27th of January, when General Min Aung Hlaing gave a speech by videoconference to the Military Academy, in which he supported the possibility that the Constitution would be abolished. Many feared that those words were a warning of a possible coup d’état, but the army later released a statement claiming that the general’s speech had been misinterpreted.

But the concern provoked by the general’s speech was legitimate. On the first of February, the military blocked access to the main road leading to Parliament and arrested NLD parliamentarians. After becoming the new head of government, General Min Aung Hlaing said the military junta would ensure a democratic transition and a government founded on discipline. Until new elections are scheduled, he appointed 11 army officers as ministers in his new government, and removed the existing 24 ministries. This move led the public to mistrust the claim of any democratic transition.

Nevertheless, the coup also affected hundreds of Burmese parliamentarians who were kept locked up for nearly two days in a government building in Naypyitaw. On Wednesday, the parliamentarians were safely released.

On the other end, the disappearance of the former head of government was initially a mystery. It was not possible to understand where the army had taken Aung San Suu Kyi. According to sources coming from Kyi’s party, it is now acknowledged that she is staying in her home in the capital, under military surveillance, charged with an infraction on the import legislation. Searching her residence, police officers found four walkie-talkie radios that were allegedly imported illegally. She will remain under house arrest until at least February 15, as new developments may occur in court proceedings.

There is much debate about the political inadequacy of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who gave cover to the generals for ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims. Her tactics have brought her once again to a place she knew well: a prisoner once again, but this time with no world prestige. 

Political scientists say that Aung San Suu Kyi is now out of the game and that instead of recriminations as to the lost opportunity, it is more useful to try to understand what drove the military to their new gamble. Why did they destroy the castle of coexistence with Aung San Suu Kyi that they themselves had built in November 2010, freeing her after fifteen years of detention? That pact seemed advantageous: in exchange for sharing the government in which they maintained key ministries and veto power, the generals obtained international recognition and investment from American, Japanese and South Korean multinationals, as well as many billions from Beijing spent on Silk Road infrastructure. The new strongman will take advantage of this: General Min owns shares worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Myanmar politics have hit the reset button — but with the new military leader economically stronger now.