Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 325, 11 February 2021

Myanmar: The anti-coup protests begin, but the military stands undeterred
Aparupa Bhattacherjee

In the news
On 9 February, General Min Aung Hlaing, issued a long public statement for the first time since coming to power. He justified the necessity of the coup as the 2020 November election was “unfair.”

On 8 February, the NLD lawmakers formed a committee called the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) as an alternative Parliament body, denouncing the coup as illegitimate.

On 6 February, the street protests started and continue to gain momentum. However, beginning from 9 February the Tatmadaw started taking action against the protestors on the grounds of violation of the martial law and the ban on the assimilation of more than five people.

On 9 February, New Zealand declared to sever all ties with Myanmar. On the same day, the coup and the other developments in the country were discussed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the US President Joe Biden over a telephonic conversation.

Issues at large
First, the flawed rationale and the real reasons behind the military in staging the coup. General Hlaing’s speech and his reiteration that the 2020 election was fraudulent are not enough to justify the coup. The military's statement of fraud is without any evidence; the Union election commission and international observers disagreed on this blame. The military, that came to power under General Ne Win's leadership, was never keen to give up its power. The 2010 shift to democracy was because of international pressures through sanctions, crippling economy and widespread anger from the people. 

Second, the military's control despite the two elections in 2010 and 2015 and the new danger post-2020 elections. In 2010, the USDP, a military proxy came to power as NLD boycotted it. The 2015 elections, though brought the NLD to form the government, the military had sufficient leverage. The 2008 Constitution enabled the military to have 25 per cent reservation in both the Houses; along with the USDP, the military to continue the façade of democracy through these two options. The 2020 election threatened this arrangement, as the USDP was unable to get minimum votes required. Hence the coup.

Third, the history of protests in Myanmar and what is new in February 2021. Myanmar has witnessed massive and organised protests against the military governments in 1988 and 2007. The 1988 protests were started by the students with demonetisation triggering it. The 2007 protests (referred to as the Saffron revolution due to the participation of the monks), was also instigated due to economic reasons. However, in 2021 protests are different; the desperation for democracy is evident in the zeal to fight against the Tatmadaw.

In perspective
Internally, the military is consolidating, as could be seen from Gen Hlaing's speech. On the other side, the protests against the coup have also started. The next few weeks, there would be instability in the streets.

Externally, countries like New Zealand, that do not have major investments in Myanmar, cutting ties will not affect the military. Unless countries like Japan, South Korea, and the immediate neighbourhood makes a stand, the coup leaders would face less pressure. The silence to the coup from the region and ASEAN is shocking. There have been several strong condemnations across the globe, but none from the region. It appears Southeast Asia decided to keep it low. This could be due to the Chinese influence; Beijing considers the coup as an internal matter. China is an old ally of the military and also one of the largest foreign investors in Myanmar along with the rest of Southeast Asia. 

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