February 1, 2021


MYANMAR: A decade comes undone

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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( 5 mins)
  • The state of emergency will last one year but what the military hopes to achieve in that period is unclear.
  • The military may avoid interfering with economic policies and investments to temper the negative effects of the takeover, but it will need to establish its credibility as an economic manager still.
  • The political effects will be more damaging; the leap of faith that investors and countries gave the generals more than a decade ago has been undone.

The military mounted a coup Monday morning (1 February) and declared a one-year state of emergency in which the country will be run by military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint and other civilian political leaders have been arrested.

The military has sided with the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), which claims that the government is stonewalling any investigation into the latter’s allegations of electoral fraud in the 8 November elections. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 83% of national parliamentary seats, a seven-percentage point gain from 2015. The NLD also won a majority of the elected seats in 12 of the country’s 14 subnational legislatures. The USDP claims widespread irregularities, primarily with the voters’ lists. The military says its goal for the next year is to “scrutinize the voters’ list and take action.”

However, there is no sense in the country that USDP’s allegations are true. Although it is the political successor of the junta that ran the country for decades and is composed of former generals, the USDP has fared badly over the past five years, proving incompetent in both politics and governance — which is the more likely reason for its decline. Nonetheless, the USDP claims that the NLD and the electoral commission (UEC) are denying it a fair chance to present evidence through an emergency parliamentary session and to hear its request that new elections be held under the supervision of the UEC and the military — a complaint that escalated through January as parliament prepared to reconvene for its regular session on 1 February and one which the military seemingly adopted.

There will continue to be speculation as to why the military took this drastic action given the weakness of the USDP’s claims. One theory is that the armed forces fears that the NLD could continue to push for constitutional change that would diminish the military’s privileged political position, primarily by reducing the 25% of seats that it is guaranteed in parliament. But this would still have been difficult given that any such change requires a three-fourths majority, which the military could still block with its own bloc and the USDP’s diminished headcount. Equally possible is that the military reaction is a knee-jerk one to the USDP’s loss, closer to how the military in Bangkok saw various threats to its political future with every victory of a pro-Thaksin government. The military has attempted to cloak its action with legitimacy by citing articles 417 and 418 of the constitution as the basis for its takeover and saying that it would hold power only to act on the issue of electoral fraud.

The damage has been done

The military received praises a decade ago in moving forward with its roadmap to democracy despite the initial skepticism both domestically and abroad of its willingness to give up power. In fact, the allocation to it of 25% of seats in parliament was considered a pragmatic trade-off that would improve the long-term outlook for the transition, because the veto power reduces its incentives to act arbitrarily. There were even hopes that the military would eventually follow the route of its Indonesian counterpart, which gradually withdrew from politics. All these factors generated optimism that democratic reforms undertaken voluntarily by the military would prove to be resilient.

But today’s events will reestablish the idea that the generals are unwilling to accept adverse political outcomes that may threaten their status and clout. The new junta may relinquish power after a year but the overhang from today’s coup in terms of the future potential for arbitrary military action will resonate. And given the strong performance of the NLD in the elections, any vote next year will likely result in the same outcome, which raises the question of whether the military will attempt to change the constitution to weaken any civilian government or attempt to isolate the NLD and its leaders, as the junta did in Thailand. It may even stay beyond a year, if it believes that elections will result in an NLD return to power.

In the meantime, the new government inherits an economy that will continue to struggle because of the pandemic, which significantly limits its ability to improve its governance credentials. The generals may try to temper the economic fallout by avoiding major policy changes or any interference with existing economic programs or investments. But establishing the sense that it is only interested in political changes, not in modifying economic policy, will take time. Sanctions by the west could also cause the government in Yangon to be more open to Chinese investment, although, paradoxically, it was the fear of overdependence on China that drove the military more than a decade ago to engage in democratic reforms and discard its pariah status. There has always been a debate in the west about the extent of sanctions that should be imposed on Myanmar, especially because their governments would not like to push Yangon closer to Beijing — thus a calibrated tightening that starts with the generals might be expected.

Therefore, to build public support, the new junta could attempt to stoke public nationalism, which would further the social and political divide with ethnic groups and worsen the Rohingya crisis. Bangladesh was considering repatriating several hundred thousand Rohingya refugees sometime in June, but today’s development makes this plan more difficult.

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