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Myanmar's coup shouldn’t come as a shock

As of last week, events in Myanmar have developed like a chronicle of a predicted coup. The army warned of this and indicated that a coup could take place. The army chief refused, and foreign embassies duly protested. The United Nations also warned of a coup. Then, early Monday, when the new parliament was due to meet, troops were seen in strategic locations in the capital, Naypyidaw, and in the country's largest city, Yangon. Military vehicles drove important routes; Leading parliamentarians such as State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and dozens of others were arrested one after another. Those arrested include regional prime ministers, writers, a singer and former student leaders of the so-called Generation 88 – the young people who rose against the army this year. Finally, in an official statement released today, the military declared a nationwide state of emergency for a year and confirmed that power had been transferred to the Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief, Major General Min Aung Hlaing.

Already last week the international community was alarmed by signs of the impending coup when Western diplomats in Yangon voiced their concern. The Tatmadaw, as the Burmese military is called, issued a self-righteous counter-argument that reeked of injured innocence and censured the foreign diplomats for speaking without adequate knowledge. However, the diplomats' fears proved to be justified.

At the end of last week, as the date for the first session of the newly elected parliament approached, the military supporters had become more confident. Eyewitnesses reported seeing military supporters marching in the streets and beating civilians. The military urged everyone to abide by the constitution. Photos showed some of the activists wearing flashy earbuds, suggesting they were part of the armed forces. A pro-military politician was also seen taking protesters into the streets.

The military and demonstrators opposed the convening of the new parliament, which they claimed was unrepresentative. Much like the supporters of former US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, on January 6th, they insisted that the November general election, in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) overwhelmingly returned to power, was fraudulent were because of an alleged mismatch between the electoral rolls and the votes cast. While the elections in Myanmar showed some flaws, the National Electoral Commission has rejected claims of widespread irregularities. Sources I spoke to in Yangon said pro-military politicians lost overwhelmingly even if votes were counted based on previous electoral rolls.

The results of the November vote were clear. The NLD took 138 of the 224 seats in Amyotha Hluttaw, the House of Nationalities, and 258 of 440 seats in Pyithu Hluttaw, the House of Representatives, adding six more seats to the party's 2015 record. The pro-military Party for Solidarity and Development of the Union (USDP) won only seven and 26 seats respectively in the two chambers: a total of seven seats fewer than in 2015. The USDP's performance has been miserable as the NLD is not as popular today as it was in 2015.

Still, the persistence of the NLD's popularity is remarkable. In 1990 it easily triumphed in the first truly representative elections allowed by the military, in which the party won 392 of the 492 seats in parliament. It was a result that the generals immediately annulled, arrested the legislature and put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for years. The traffic jam wasn't broken until 2012 when Myanmar held by-elections with the NLD running candidates. The mood in the country was festive at the time, and I vividly remember Aung San Suu Kyi's face on posters, billboards, and stickers on the dashboards of Yangon's rickety taxis. Unsurprisingly, her party won the polls and won 43 of the 44 seats for which by-elections were held, paving the way for democracy. It seemed like a fairytale ending.

But fairy tales are fiction while reality is much harder. While Aung San Suu Kyi was a pre-eminent advocate of democracy in Myanmar during those years and won a number of international awards, she made sure to keep the army by her side. An early sign of her thinking was her interview on the popular BBC radio show Desert Island Discs when she chose a Burmese war song from among her favorite tunes and reminded listeners that her father had formed the Burmese army. All soldiers were their relatives. Her remarks surprised many, considering how the same army had treated them. It became an icon of global democracy, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, was celebrated in a song by the band U2 and was the subject of a Luc Besson film.

But it disappointed many with its initial ambiguity – and refusal to condemn it – of the atrocities the army had committed against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, and its subsequent stern support for the military when it was accused of genocide. During my visit to the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, the many Rohingyas I met were stunned that they would not support their plight. Even as the NLD consolidated power, it looked the other way as civil liberties were undermined, journalists were arrested and a conflict escalated in Rakhine state. She vigorously defended the military before the International Court of Justice when The Gambia brought a case accusing Myanmar of genocide. By essentially becoming the face of the Myanmar military, it destroyed what remained of its credibility in the international community. She may have calculated that the favors she has done to the military will be rewarded and that one day she may establish full civilian rule in Myanmar. But for that the military would have had to give up control.

A crucial part of the democratic transition in Myanmar was the preeminent role the military continued to play, as well as a constitutional provision preventing Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because she was married to a foreigner. She is 75 now; Her husband, British academic Michael Aris, died in 1999. Under the constitution, which the military did not annul, the military retains a quarter of the seats in Parliament, making it nearly impossible to change key parts of the constitution.

But the NLD's astonishing performance in the November election meant that the balance of power was waning. At the same time, it was common knowledge that Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's new leader to this day, had sought the presidency after he ended his tenure as Commander-in-Chief that year when he turned 65 in July. To legitimately win the presidency, he would have needed the support of a majority in parliament. But after the disastrous performance of the USDP in the elections, even the 25 percent of the parliamentary seats reserved by the constitution for the army would not have been enough to ensure its elevation. And so the generals have returned to their old form: imprisoning the elected leaders; Closure of the airport; Shutdown of internet services in some parts of the country; Declare a state of emergency; and build control.

The coup should not surprise anyone. The generals have calculated they can get away with it: the new U.S. administration is busy settling in (despite warning Myanmar it will be punished), China is preoccupied with its own priorities, the European Union is on the move, Much of the world is focused on fighting the pandemic, and Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer stimulating the global imagination as she did in the 1990s for engaging in the Rohingya crisis.

The calculation of the coup plotters may be good. However, the costs are not borne by the Buddhist monks, some of whom sparked violence against the Rohingyas, nor by the army, which continues to fight battles on multiple fronts in Myanmar, nor by Aung San Suu Kyi, who is imprisoned and with them diminished international support. The real cost is borne by the suffering people of Myanmar, whose collective desire for representative democracy has again been thwarted. Because of you, the international community must do everything possible to help restore the democratic process in Myanmar.

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