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Myanmar Crisis: A Historical Overview of Military Coup

In one of the bloodiest days of protests since the coup d’état that began in early February, Myanmar security forces gunned down more than 114 protesters and civilians (including children & bystanders) on March 27, 2021.

Earlier that day, Chit Bo Bo Nyein, a young man with an immense passion for football, had abandoned the game and joined the protests against the military regime. He was the first to take bullets on the junta’s “day of shame.” On the same day, a military parade was shamelessly organized in Naypyidaw to honour the army.

According to the rights group Save the Children, about 43 children have been killed by security forces since February. Another human rights group Association of Political Prisoners estimates the overall death toll to edge up to 550.

In a week of carnage, Myanmar security forces killed protesters in more than 40 cities and towns. Videos (shot on mobile phones) posted on social media show security forces firing mercilessly at protesters. Meanwhile, some 2,751 people have been detained or sentenced.

Several warrants are issued for business celebrities, social media influencers, and journalists under a law against material intended to cause disregard for armed forces. 

Days into the military junta in Myanmar, the generals issued their first warning to journalists: stop using words such as “coup,” “regime” and “junta” to describe the military takeover of the civilian leadership.

A classic Orwellian directive. Since February, the military regime has arrested at least 56 journalists, banned several online news outlets, and curtailed communications by shutting down the internet.

Historical Background of the Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar, formerly Burma, has suffered decades of repressive military regimes, civil war, ethnic conflicts and widespread poverty. In 2011, the military junta dissolved, giving way to a military-installed civilian leadership, spurring the hope of democratic reforms.

But, Myanmar was never completely rid of its junta legacy and military control over the government. A classic example of seeming control over the civilian government can be captured in the 2015 ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.

In 2015, the Muslim nationals (known as Rohingya) from the Rakhine state of Myanmar were forcibly displaced to neighbouring Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

In November 2020, Myanmar held its second national elections under civilian leadership, where the National League for Democracy (NLD) party won an overwhelming majority. The military suffered a major blow in elections: Out of 476 available seats, NLD had won 396, while USDP managed to secure just 33 seats.

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Photo Credits: European Union 2018 (photo by Pierre Prakash), Flickr

The military leadership alleged voter fraud and the election commission rejected the military claims. 

In the early hours of February 1, the Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw, as it is called) staged a coup and officially retook control of political power. Several democratically elected members of the country’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were deposed, arrested, and prosecuted.

The Tatmadaw declared a year-long state of emergency and transferred power to its commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing. In the aftermath of the coup, Myanmar saw its largest protest. Tens of thousands of people marched on the streets for democracy and the release of political leaders.

The Tatmadaw used the constitution to justify its actions, which allowed the military to take control of any situation that could cause the “disintegration of the Union”, among other things. 

Inside Tatmadaw: The Role of Military in Myanmar

Burma, once a colony of the British Empire, gained its independence in 1948. The democratic experiment in Burma was short-lived. In 1962, General U Ne Win led a military coup that lasted for twenty-six years, adopting the Burmese Way of Socialism – isolationism and a Burmese superiority at its centrepiece.

The new military regime changed the country’s name to the Union of Myanmar in 1989. In 2007, the so-called Saffron Revolution – a series of protests & demonstrations against the fuel price hike, led by thousands of saffron-clad Buddhist monks – drew international attention towards Myanmar.

The military junta pushed forward a new constitution in 2008, giving enormous powers to the Tatmadaw even under civilian rule. The military junta officially dissolved in 2011 and established a civilian parliament for a transitional period. However, with the 2021 coup, the military could retain power indefinitely. 

2021 Myanmar Armed Forces Day 09, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Tatmadaw is often portrayed as a robotic rank of warriors bred to kill. The New York Times report, “From the moment they (soldiers) enter boot camp, Tatmadaw troops are taught that they are guardians of a country – and a religion – that will crumble without them.”

This legitimacy, the military derives from its symbol of Burmese nationalism – an army that won them independence and then against Japanese occupation during World War Two.

The military occupies a privileged state within a state, where soldiers live, work and socialize among their peers, further imbibing an ideology that seeks to uplift their superiority from that of the civilian population.

The soldiers are under the constant watch of their superiors, in barracks and social media. Everyone that speaks the language of dissent is treated as an enemy of the state – thereby persecuted.

Since 1948, the Tatmadaw has been at war with communist guerrillas, ethnic insurgencies, pro-democracy flag bearers, and civilian protesters. In her 2003 book Making Enemies, Mary Callahan identified that the leaders of Tatmadaw differed from any of the military juntas elsewhere in the world, for they were not politicians in uniforms but warfighters.

Callahan writes, “Postwar Burmese regimes have been made up of warfighters who never mastered the art of politics enough to win a single election.”

Therefore, Tatmadaw has always remained an organization that resembled religious extremists and Nazi-style paramilitary militias.

It has created an image of an enemy within – anyone that opposes their legitimacy. 

International Response to the Crisis in Myanmar

Since the February coup in Myanmar, the international community has struggled to agree on a coherent action plan against the Tatmadaw. China and Russia have blocked the United Nations Security Council from condemning the military coup, citing the Myanmar crisis as an internal affair.

In line with the ASEAN Charter, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have called for an immediate cessation of violence, the release of political prisoners, and the restoration of democratic governance. But other member states – particularly Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – have no explicitly condemned the military actions. 

Protest in Myanmar against Military Coup 14 Feb 2021 20
MgHla (aka) Htin Linn Aye, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Following the 2021 coup, Joe Biden, the President of the United States, has stated his willingness to work with US partners to “support democracy and the rule of law” in Myanmar.

On 11 February, the Biden administration imposed initial sanctions and announced the redirection of $42 million of bilateral assistance from the government to civil society. Several others – including the United Kingdom, and European Union – have begun rolling out sanctions against military leaders in Myanmar.

Targeted sanctions by the country’s trading partners can serve as a signal to the Tatmadaw, and the generals. Countries should come together in support of the global arms embargo, barring the direct or indirect supply of weapons & other military equipment to the junta.

Even though China, the largest arms supplier to Myanmar, has blocked a UNSC resolution against the Myanmar crisis, other countries must come together to block the supply of arms on their part. 

There are, however, limitations to suggest that external actors of today could exert leverage on Myanmar’s generals. The total leverage that international actors could summon after the brutal violence against the Rohingya had little impact on civilian government back in 2015.

Keeping this in mind, Asian and Western democracies should pressure the Tatmadaw to transition power to a democratically-elected government peacefully. Another safe bet would be to impose sanctions targeting individuals as it would not have any negative impact on the population as such.

Cover Photo: VOA Burmese, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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