With the end of fifty years of military rule in 2011 and the transition to a civilian government, what powers did the military maintain after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) victory in the 2015 elections? Did the military’s continued role and powers after 2015 account for its ability to swiftly mobilize on February 1st and carry out the coup?
Myanmar is a young democracy; it is still in transition and has not consolidated yet. With the way the military wrote the 2008 Constitution, it sought to ensure its entrenched role in the government and it still has the dominant role within the governance structure. The military is using the 2008 framework that gave it the authority to take power back when it felt that it is in the interest of the country’s stability. The military claimed that alleged voter and election fraud could cause instability, so it declared this the reason to take control.
Protests calling for an end to the military coup have spread across Myanmar, notably drawing thousands in Yangon. Do you think these mass protests can impose meaningful pressure on the military to end its seizure of power, particularly in the wake of internet blackouts, arrests, and curfews?
It does put a lot of pressure on the military. Essentially the younger generation, Generation Z, has been leading this effort. I do not think the military ever expected the level of success and the level of energy they have been able to mobilize within Myanmar as well as among the overseas diaspora population and the international community. The young people have been able to mobilize because of their ability to innovatively use today’s technology, which was not available to those protesting back in 1988 or in 2007. Recently I heard someone equate the Myanmar youth to the Hong Kong youth protesters. However, the Hong Kong youth were alone in leading the protests, but Myanmar youth have been able to mobilize the other generations to line up behind them. We do not know yet whether the protests will change the mind of the military, though it has been able to mobilize more of the country than ever before.
Myanmar currently faces genocide charges at the International Court of Justice for violence perpetrated by the military against the Rohingya. The minority group continues to endure hostile conditions. How might the coup impact the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar and the repatriation efforts for those displaced?
Right now the military is saying it will allow the repatriation of the Rohingya, but the way it will it is not going to be very helpful for the Rohingya. It will put the Rohingya at odds and potentially in conflict with the local Rakhine people. The civilian government had been unable to get the buy-in from the Rakhines to allow the Rohingya to come back. If the military have forced the process, rather than seeking to ensure that those who are going to be cohabiting give consent and that the proper steps are taken in advance, the situation will be dangerous for the returnees. I am worried about that. Before this, there were some repatriation efforts. It has been a slow process because it is necessary to have both communities live peacefully together, which requires a lot of work on both sides. On top of that, Myanmar is a very poor country. When it comes to repatriation, if you want there to be good conditions for people returning, the government has to invest a lot of resources and there were not enough resources before. The government also needs to work with the local Rakhine to make sure that the Rakhine people are taken care of. This issue is very complex; the government cannot give all the resources to the returning Rohingya because the Rakhine people are also very poor. They do not have running water, health care, or access to good education. If all the resources go to the returning Rohingya then the communal conflict cycle will continue.
While the international reputation of Aung San Suu Kyi has declined due to the Rohingya crisis, she remains popular within Myanmar. How might the NLD party organize a response to the coup in light of Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputations at home and abroad?
Aung San Suu Kyi does not have that much hard power per se. Her power has come from the love and support of the people and the support of the international community. When the military sees that she no longer has the support of the international community, it will see her as weaker. If the military had perceived that she still had international support, it may not have gone down this road. The NLD as an organization is very much focused on her and completely dependent on her. When she is not there, the organization has a hard time functioning. That is why the NLD is not leading the opposition’s charge right now. Young people are leading it. Aung San Suu Kyi is still very popular, so if they are able to overcome this, she will likely still emerge as a leader. However, the NLD needs to set up a pipeline of leaders that can carry on the next generation to perform the work of the party beyond Aung San Suu Kyi.
The United States, Japan, EU members, and other states have condemned the coup as an assault on democracy, while China, with its close economic and military ties to Myanmar, has refrained. How important are these international actors for the military’s decision-making?
These factors are important. The Myanmar leaders always have the option of China, though they have to be careful. I do not know if they are calculating it properly, but China’s dominance over Myanmar could eventually lead to the loss of some degree of sovereignty if Myanmar becomes a client state. Myanmar is really important in China’s geostrategic calculation because Myanmar is the only country that if China has unfettered access to it, China will have unfettered access to the Indian Ocean. Myanmar is considered by some to be a backdoor to the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it would solve many issues for China. Myanmar also has a lot of natural resources that China needs to fuel the economy and Myanmar could help relieve the issue of the Malacca Straight dilemma. Right now, China’s shipment of oil has to go through the Malacca Strait; but if it had unfettered access through Myanmar, where China already has a pipeline, then it will be less reliant on the Malacca Strait. China could just use the port at Western Rakhine state to transport their energy supplies into Yunnan Province. China also wants to build a railroad from Yunnan province all the way down to the Rakhine state to have access to the Indian Ocean.
Based on recent history, is the military expected to relinquish control after the one-year emergency period implemented on February 1st and allow for new elections, as it has vaguely suggested? Would you expect a return of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi specifically?
If the military relinquishes power within one year, I think the NLD will be back as long as Aung San Suu Kyi is still leading. While she is 75 years old, she is very strong and tough. But looking at the other coups and looking broadly at Myanmar’s history, the military never relinquished power within a short time. I am less optimistic if it depends on the military, but there are other things playing out in the equation including the pressure from the people and from the international community. I cannot predict what will happen, but if it were just up to the military, it might go the same way as other coups in Myanmar’s history.
[[File:Protesters against the military coup.jpg|Protesters against the military coup]]