In a sudden turn of events, the army in Myanmar mounted a coup in the early hours of Monday to seize power from the democratically elected government, whose de facto leader was Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint have been detained along with other leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Suu Kyi’s NLD had just won a landslide victory in November polls, picking up more than 80% of the popular vote and winning 396 out of the 476 seats on offer.
However, the army-backed party, the USDP, complained of election fraud. The army took these allegations seriously and even threatened to scrap its own 2008 Constitution. It decided to swoop in and take power hours before the first sitting of Parliament since the November polls. Power has now been handed over to Myanmar army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, and a state of emergency has been declared for a year.
Myanmar had been taking baby steps towards a democratic polity since 2011, and the army coup is an enormous setback. But it’s clear that the army was never fully onboard the democratic project, and had hoped for a managed democratic setup whereby it retained significant control. Two successive national elections with growing margins of victory for Suu Kyi and NLD rang alarm bells for the generals – who may have thought the country was inexorably drifting towards democracy in a manner they couldn’t manage. Meanwhile, Suu Kyi had collaborated with the army all this while – even making controversial statements about the Rohingya crisis – perhaps with the hope of reforming Myanmar from within. Clearly, those hopes have been dashed now.
For democratic powers, the tricky part is how to respond to Myanmar’s evolving situation. While international condemnation has been pouring in with US President Joe Biden threatening to reinstate sanctions on Myanmar, this could push the country back into China’s embrace. And that would be a setback for realising a free and open architecture in Southeast Asia, emboldening an assertive Beijing. Therefore, it would be best to strike a middle ground, as Delhi has done, by calling for upholding the democratic process and urging the generals to release Suu Kyi at the earliest. Myanmar’s future prosperity and independence lie in respecting its people’s will, not in becoming a Chinese vassal state.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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