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  • Jude Wilkinson

Explaining Myanmar's Coup d'Etat


The Burmese aphorism that Orwell wrote a trilogy on the post-colonial dictatorship of Myanmar - Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and 1984 - bespeaks a pessimism which many felt irrelevant to the liberated country of the 2010s. After elections widely praised by the international community, Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD) rode a wave of democratic optimism to a landslide victory in 2015.

Now the country finds itself in turmoil. Hamstrung by an internal and international crisis as the military imprisons the elected Prime Minister, the coup d’etat in Myanmar threatens a Sino-American face-off and the permanent ascendancy of military dictatorship.

Recent events have raised questions not just about the ethnic and religious divides which have blighted the country, but also the question of whether the US is in decline as a global superpower. What will the ascendance of the military mean for Myanmar’s relations with the US, China, and India? What will become of the Rohingya population who have endured mass displacement and ethnic cleansing?

The army’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, has promised elections once the ‘state of emergency’ is over, but what counts as such a state implicitly falls upon the army to decide. What has emerged, therefore, is a Catch-22 situation. Military rule will end once the army decides the state of emergency has finished, but the definitive feature of military rule is precisely the unending presence of permanent war, constant agitation against internal threats.

The struggle between the army and democratic politics has been a permanent feature of Burmese politics since the 1800s; few, therefore, were in doubt about the challenges Suu Kyi faced when she took office in 2011. As the daughter of Aung San, the so-called ‘father of Burma’ who liberated the country from British rule, she has been forced to walk a thin line between facing down the military and avoiding open confrontation or violent deposition. Suu Kyi knows from bitter experience the precariousness of this double act. Originally elected in 1990, the incumbent State Counsellor was placed under house arrest for fifteen years, during which time the authority of the army was cemented through constitutional reforms and unscrupulous embezzlement.

Historically, the army’s role in Myanmar’s politics has been complicated by two factors: first, British imperial rule systematically pitted ethnic and religious groups against one another. Thus, the challenge for post-independence Burma was piecing disparate cultural and religious identities into a unified nation. Second, this internal tension is writ large in the increasingly strained relations between the Burmese government, semi-autonomous provinces, and the presence of various militia groups. For instance, the Arakan Army which operates in Rakhine province has engaged in a policy of guerrilla insurrection against the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military).

It is perhaps evident that the operation of such groups is both symptomatic of - and causally related to - religious tension between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority. In this way, the inter-cultural violence between rival religious groups represents not just an intransigent feature of Burmese politics: it is arguably a crucial factor in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority.

These tensions have been exacerbated by the changing strategic role of China, as well as the inadequacy of post-independence attempts by Aung San and his successor U Nu to reconcile disparate cultural identities. Following the assassination of Aung San, U Nu did not fully deliver on his promise to grant partial autonomy to the provinces. The resulting political instability contributed to a vacuum which the military seized upon in 1958. The coup, orchestrated by General Ne Win, was initially short-lived as U Nu was subsequently reinstated, but Ne Win again seized power - this time for good - in 1962. What followed was thirty years of military dictatorship: a regime which pursued repressive economic and political policies, stymying Myanmar's development.

On one level, the conflict between the USDP and the NLD resembles a factional struggle between political movements. On another level, it represents a broader conflict over identity and religion. The recent resurgence of the military has confounded those who believed in the triumph of the democratic process. The power of the military was latent, superficially subdued but writ large in Myanmar’s norms and constitutional rules.

The roadblocks to a democratic Myanmar were never underestimated by international observers. Even the most ardent Hegelian idealist would surely have noted that transparent democracy is, though perhaps more than the exception, certainly not the rule among the Asian-Pacific nations. Moreover, the legacy of Aung San Suu Kyi, marred by the Rohingya crisis and an ‘indifference’ to economic reform, hangs in the balance as Joe Biden’s presidency faces its first diplomatic test. Will the Tatmadaw acquiesce to China as the regime burns their bridges with the West, or will they pursue a policy of pure isolationism? Is this the start of another long period of military rule, or will the army agree to hold November elections and respect the result?

The world is watching.

Image: Unsplash (Cheng Q)



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