A Report of Discussion on ‘Myanmar Military Coup: The Way Forward’
By CSEAS Staff
February 23, 2021

On February 20, 2021, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University organized a discussion on ‘Myanmar Military Coup: The Way Forward’. The speakers for the discussion included Mr. Larry Jagan, Commentator on Myanmar and former BBC World Service News Editor; Dr. John G. Dale, Associate Professor at George Mason University; Dr. Marco Bunte, Professor at University of Erlangen-Nuremberg; and Dr. Bridget Welsh, Honorary Research Associate at University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia. Sanjana Dhar, Research Analyst at CSEAS, introduced and welcomed all the eminent speakers. She briefly discussed the theme of the panel discussion. The discussion was chaired by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen, the Executive Director of CSEAS.

The November 8 Election Outcome and Fraud Allegations

Mr. Larry Jagan elaborated on the ‘clash of cultures’ – with differing views of democracy – taking place in the political spectrum of Myanmar. The election was in the broadest sense Red vs Green. He referred to his journalistic experience and elaborated on the interviews done on the ground in the three weeks before the election: these were around 100 across the whole country and across generations and genders. While 75 percent of those wanted the National League of Democracy (NLD) to win, for the fear of a return to military rule, the nations’ students were overwhelmingly in support of the NLD.     

Mr. Jagan contextualized his argument that most citizens, especially the youths, want a constitutional, federal democracy, and the fear of the military has led to the protests that are being witnessed. Military being against the NLD has been characteristic since 1990. The pattern of military takeover has been seen in the past. This pattern was repeated in 2021 because the military was convinced that Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was going to fail – and were shocked at the overwhelming mandate the NLD received in November. The seizing of power was not about General Min Aung Hlaing’s political ambitions but what form of democracy best suits the nation.

The military envisages a ‘pluralist democracy’ where competing factions and interests are balanced with the military playing an integral permanent role in the political structure – not just a ‘veto role’. In this vision, there is no dominant political force, or at least one that can rival or threaten the military’s long-term power.  For that reason, the military has always been suspicious of the NLD’s popularity and potential political dominance. The coup is the military’s attempt to put the ‘genie back in the bottle’ and restrict and restrain Aung San Suu Kyi’s power. The generals’ moved to acquire central administrative power after their expectations of a ‘hung parliament’ or an election result which allowed the military to continue to take a dominant role, were frustrated by the strength of the popular vote for the NLD.     

During the Questions & Answers session, Mr. Jagan elaborated how the international and regional roles were crucial in the outcome of the coup. He said that the Chinese want a peaceful northern Myanmar. Most importantly, he added rather than the role of the larger international community, the role of the regional community is crucial in this situation. This is an opportunity for Thailand and Japan to cooperate in order to mediate the situation.      

Mr. Jagan emphasized that the current political spectrum is dominated by the fear and interference of the military. The way forward should be defined by mediation, and part of the mediation should be an International Independent Commission – which looks into the military’s allegations of voter fraud and election manipulation – as part of a broader political ‘settlement’ that must center on the future of the NLD and more importantly the future of Myanmar’s democratization.
The Military Coup and the State of Emergency
Dr. John G. Dale observed that the military took a play out of Trump’s playbook in which they attempted to delegitimize the election by calling it fraudulent and then using it as a pretext to seize power. He said President Win Myint never gave consent for emergency provisions which is a constitutional requirement enshrined in sections 417 and 418 of the 2008 constitution. These provisions centralize power in the hands of the military, especially the office of commander-in-chief of the defense services. The constitution sets an expiry date on the emergency rule as one year, following which fresh election is to be conducted. A promise the military chief made will be tough to fulfil for any centralized military state. 

Aung San Suu Kyi herself has little more to lose in terms of her international reputation as a human rights advocate at this point, but she still had much to gain in terms of domestic politics. Her decision as Foreign Minister to engage the International Court of Justice (ICJ) last year suddenly created political space for her to differentiate herself (as a leader of the NLD party) from the military’s competing political party (the Union Solidarity and Development Party) prior to the 2020 general election.  Aung San Suu Kyi, as State Counselor, and the NLD have consistently pressed the military to agree to amending the constitution (without success), arguing that it is essential to building a democratic country, and ending the military’s involvement in politics. Framing her civilian government’s willingness to engage (even if short of embracing) the ICJ’s perspective on Myanmar’s human rights practices, allowed her to contrast the military as relatively isolationist. Thus, she used her appearance before the ICJ to portray herself domestically as fighting for greater democracy at least, despite the short political leash with which the military is constitutionally able to constrain her. Whether this move actually translated into significantly greater support at the election is hard to say. But it showed the military that Aung San Suu Kyi could not be trusted to do their unbridled bidding, particularly after the election result that could enable her to claim a nationwide mandate for constitutional reform.

Still, the military thought they would be elected in the recent democratic election and be able to seat their own party’s president. But that strategy failed.

Myanmar is characterized by two competing forms of authoritarian control – Aung San Suu Kyi’s populist-fueled personalist authoritarianism and the military’s authoritarianism which began with the coup in 1962 and is institutionalized within the 2008 constitution. However, there is a third form of authoritarianism emerging in Myanmar: digital authoritarianism. The military has ordered various internet shutdowns and is reported to be installing a censoring firewall with China’s assistance to restrict and monitor information on the internet. The government used section 77 of the telecommunications law, which provides for the suspension of telecom service. The military also suspended the privacy law that prevents house arrest and tapping of cell phone conversations. There is also a new cyber censorship law that aims to aid the prosecution of detractors of the regime or anyone using banned sites like Facebook and Twitter. A new age of technocratic authoritarianism is emerging. 

During the Questions & Answers session, Dr. Dale spoke about how the coup could be a temporary one – nonetheless a coup. Even the rule of law could not stop them from exercising their power. On the question of whether the military was violating its own constitution – for example article 417 – Dr. Dale spoke about how it looks like a contradiction as various processes in article 417 was not followed. He agreed there is a legalistic invocation of the power and not a legal one. He focused on the implications of the coup for the general public, such as state repression and violence and the effect on the democratic aspirations of the people of Myanmar. He further stressed the draconian nature of the cybersecurity law that abuses the democratic balance of individual rights versus state security apparatus. 

On what the way forward should be, Dr. Dale stressed the importance of building international and regional actions, such as global arms ban at the level of the United Nations, and other major stakeholders which could pressure the military. Big tech companies hold big stakes in making revelations of how they are under pressure from the government to restrict and monitor contents. These companies can create pressure on the government and possibly bring cooperation. He expressed optimism in the long-term but was wary of short-term violence.

Has Democratic Transition Stalled?
Dr. Marco Bunte said the military coup has pushed the country and its future into uncharted waters and how it is going to play out will largely depend on the protesters and how the military junta will respond in the coming weeks and months. But one thing is already clear, that is, the coup is a big step backwards for young democracies like Myanmar and its nascent institutions. The coup came at a critical moment when the democratic forces led by the NLD are increasingly gaining ground, and the military is under increased pressure from societal forces to accept the supremacy of civilian administration in military affairs.   

The disappointing performance by the military junta allied parties in the 2020 general election and the appointment of the next army chief in the coming months acted as a catalyst for the coup. The appointment of the next army chief by a civilian government had been seen by the military leadership as a death knell for their primus inter pares status. That way, the military junta had not accepted the 2020 general election result, despite largely being called “free and fair” by local and international observers. The military junta has promised to conduct fresh election within one year period, and till now, has not suspended the 2008 constitution.  

In the coming months, the NLD or key politicians from opposition parties might be blocked from participating in future elections. The disbandment of NLD will seriously undermine the democratic gains made by Myanmar in recent years and will solidify authoritarian forces in the country. But the protests against the usurpers of a democratically elected government is increasing and may spread around the country in the coming weeks. The swift backlash against the military coup has surprised the military leadership, and it is increasingly using force to quell protests around the country. 

But the violent crackdown like 1988 is also a strong possibility, but nobody is quite sure because the military leadership’s decision process is opaque. The new military junta wants to move on, but the protesters are not allowing it to do this. The military junta will also try to woo ethnic parties in future elections to counter the NLD supporting forces. But the future course of action is not clear. In recent weeks, some low-level officers have defected from the military, but to overthrow the military junta requires a large-scale defection, chances of which are very low. In future, the military junta may also adopt a new policy toward the Rakhine state to develop closer ties with the Western countries and to avoid harsh sanctions. But to avoid harsh sanctions from Western countries is increasingly becoming difficult for the military junta, especially under the Biden administration.  

On the question of whether the country still has a chance to move toward a vibrant and pluralist democracy, Dr. Bunte said it is too early to answer this question. Particularly, the younger population is strongly protesting against the restriction imposed on their basic rights and freedoms by the military junta. Maybe in the future, the junta follows the Thailand model and prop up political parties which are closer to military.   

On the question of ‘guided democracy’, ‘incomplete democracy’ or ‘defective democracy’ and or whether it is better than military rule, he said half democracy is better than military rule or no democracy at all. Military is the most powerful actor in the domestic political scene and everything is dependent on its intention to share power with the civilian forces. Also, ASEAN can play an important role of a mediator, given the lack of trust for Western nations in the military leadership.   

International mediation can be a way forward but expressed doubts about its success. There may be an extended period of protests and chances of brutal crackdown by the military are also high. The junta needs to build trust and new institutions to create a more sustainable society for the future.

How Should the International Community Respond?
Dr. Bridget Welsh explained the absence of action by the international community. The international community needs to understand the limitations. Solutions to the situation in Myanmar have to happen in Myanmar itself. There are international actions that can help facilitate solutions. So far targeted sanctions on the part of the US and its allies and a statement from ASEAN show that the international community is watching. Middle parties are trying to moderate and promote dialogue, which is necessary moving forward. From the past lessons, Dr. Welsh explained that protests are not enough to address the underlying issues. Developments in Myanmar require broad engagement with stakeholders. The international community needs to understand that sanctions, and responses to Myanmar, should not become part of Great Power contestation between the US and China. The world shares a common goal of bringing a sustainable, inclusive peaceful solution to recent developments in Myanmar.

There needs to be better solutions from the superpowers. Targeted sanctions need to come from all key players so that they are focused on pressurizing Myanmar’s military leaders and companies. It should be recognized that the military in Myanmar is not united, and they have to be part of any viable solution. The international community needs to engage all sides. She suggested international engagement should not be confined to political elites. Support from the business and efforts to empower ordinary citizens in the form of aid and access to technology is useful. The costs of inaction are serious – extending beyond protests, to livelihoods, conflict and a potential economic crisis.

On the question of whether the powerful nations should do more to convince like-minded countries to promote democracy in Myanmar, Dr. Welsh said that there is coordination between countries, but it will take time for the Biden administration to collaborate with its allies. This is a legacy of the Trump administration. The task about building democracy in Myanmar is not just about Aung San Suu Kyi; the issues are much broader. Within the system, problems cannot be solved without inclusive dialogue, including with ethnic minorities. The meaning of democracy and problems within the system needs to be analyzed. 

On the way forward, Dr. Welsh said that the protests in Myanmar are significant and speak to their aspirations among the Myanmar people for more inclusive and democratic governance. The protesters need to be supported financially and technologically. At the same time, there needs to be an exit option for the military. The military needs to be aware that there will be consequences for the use of force against protesters, and to recognize that it is not in the interests of Myanmar if they remain in the helm. 

Vote of Thanks
At the end of a lively Questions & Answers session, Jyot Shikhar Singh, Research Assistant at CSEAS, thanked all the speakers and Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen for their insightful analyses and comments. He also thanked the university administration for extending all the necessary support to successfully organize the event. 

The report is prepared by CSEAS staff members – Shubh Sahai, Ishita Dutta, Shivangi Dikshit, Sanjana Dhar, Vikas Nagal, Jyot Shikhar Singh, Rhea Rayidi and Harsh Mahaseth – and edited by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen in consultation with the speakers.