Behind the coup in Myanmar

February 5, 2021
The Burmese people have adopted the three-finger salute as a symbol of their struggle for democracy.

A military coup took place in Burma/Myanmar on February 1, reversing the ostensible shift toward elected civilian government since the 2015 general elections.

Green Left’s Peter Boyle spoke to Debbie Stothard, a veteran Burmese human rights campaigner and founder of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, based in Bangkok, Thailand.

What has brought on this coup?

We are seeing an economic crisis in Burma because of COVID-19 and how the government, including the military authorities, mismanaged it. We also see a rise in armed conflicts, where the military has been attacking civilians in different communities. We saw these attacks happening in 10 of the 14 states and regions in the country during 2020. That is a recipe for disaster.

But what really gave the military a headache was that the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, had a landslide victory in the November 2020 general elections.

Despite many barriers and with voting banned in many ethnic areas, the NLD won a second term very convincingly. That would have emboldened the NLD to take stronger action on reforms in the country and that would have been intolerable for the military.

The military commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing, the main person responsible for the Rohingya genocide, was due to retire in the middle of this and would no longer be eligible to lead the armed forces. So he would lose control and power.

He took the [Donald] Trump route, claimed there was massive voter fraud and used the army to arrest State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the president and NLD members of parliament and seize power — which they are empowered to do under the military-drafted constitution of 2008.

All the things that human rights activists have been warning about have come to pass in a terrible way. February 1 was supposed to be the first day of the new parliament, where it would choose the new president and vice-president and April would be the official start date for the new government. All of that was pushed aside.

But amidst all this, it is important to recognise that the ethnic communities such as the Rohingya, the Karen, the Chin, the Shan — all of whom have been subjected to armed attacks by the military in the past year — are now even more vulnerable.

What impact will the last five years of the NLD in government have on local and international responses to the coup? Aung San Suu Kyi’s international standing certainly has been seriously tarnished by her silence on the Rohingya genocide.

In the past five years, the NLD government didn’t rock the boat for the military. It tried to find ways to get along with the military and convince it that a civilian government led by the NLD was an important ally.

Many human rights activists feel there were a lot of wasted opportunities. We still had the problem of arbitrary detentions, land grabbing and armed conflict. The military gained a 170% increase in its budget when Burma nominally moved to civilian, democratic government in 2011. They used that money to attack more people and create more conflict.

The number of military attacks harming civilians rose by 217% during the same period.

A lot of people have enjoyed greater political space over the last period. There were opportunities for people to have meetings, workshops, etc, but there were always restrictions or conditions imposed.

So the last five years were not some glorious era of democratisation in Burma. There are still so many fundamental challenges even before we take into account the Rohingya genocide.

The expectation was that the NLD and military would find a way to get along, compromises would be made but the broader objective of stable economic development would be achieved. This is why this coup is shocking, even though we warned that the constitution enabled the commander-in-chief to grab power for any reason really.

The idea that the military chiefs and their families were too addicted to foreign investment and acceptance by the international community to take any drastic action (like a coup) was mistaken.

The coup on February 1 was a very well-planned operation. We think that up to 1064 members of parliament, who were not aligned to the military, were subjected to arbitrary detention, interrogation and house arrest. It is possible that the senior leaders of the NLD will be targeted for harsher treatment. But our major concern is that human rights defenders from all backgrounds – Burman, other ethnic groups and especially young people – are going to be targeted viciously.

We are also seeing a rise of mob rule. The military uses so-called “mass movements”, essentially people who are paid to support the military and attack critics, to give the military some measure of deniability. So they can say these are just random people who love their country and love the military who are coming after you, not us.

General Min Aung Hlaing took a page out of Trump’s book to use social media to claim that there was a “10 million [vote] election fraud” but the difference between him and Trump is that the general had an entire army at his disposal.

But he is also playing poker, taking a gamble that their promise to only have a caretaker junta for a year and then have fresh elections, to keep the NLD parliamentarians only under house arrest, will make it easy for the world to accept the return to military rule. Then they can extend it and use the time to whittle away at any reforms that were made.

This is also really dangerous because there is big pressure to start a fire sale of the country’s resources to make up for the economic losses from COVID-19. This risks increasing threats to people’s livelihoods, more forcible displacement and, because the borders are now so tightly controlled in response to the pandemic, there will be nowhere for the refugees to run.

In Australia, calls for military cooperation with Myanmar to be stopped have been met with the excuse from our government that this could risk pushing Myanmar closer to China. What do you think of this?

Everyone is using the China card to maintain the status quo. ASEAN and the international community engaged with the military regime in its earlier incarnation in the 1980s and 1990s saying if it is not us then China will get in. But China got in anyway. China corrupted the system even further, because countries like Australia kept their mouths shut, because they just wanted to engage for engagement’s sake.

It is illogical to say, OK, we’ll go along with the coup because we don’t want China to have more influence. The military had the coup because they were very confident that China would back them up.

The longer we allow the military to have its way, the more refugees will be created. The Scott Morrison government is so allergic to refugees and asylum seekers. If it doesn’t give a damn about human rights, it should be clear what will be a result of this coup.

Hlaing is hoping that his junta will be treated the same as the military in Thailand was when they had their coup: a few statements of concern or condemnation and then back to business as usual. Then he can run for president and get elected.

But what is different now from 10 years ago is that the military class have gotten used to travelling the world, to shopping, to studying overseas, etc. They need to feel some pain and be made to understand that their wealth is at stake.

Countries like Australia should raise this at the [United Nations] Security Council. China may block it now but eventually it is going to get tired of doing this because they have other fish to fry.

Has the military’s economic weight and power in Myanmar been reduced to any significant extent in the past five years?

Some of the largest corporations in the country are controlled by military or former military [figures] and are partially owned or provide profits to the families of military chiefs but the reason they have grabbed power is to regain greater control of the economy.

The UN fact-finding mission has already highlighted the number of military-owned and military-linked companies, but this was something most of the international community was reluctant to deal with. But the international community should be sanctioning the pants off these corporations.

Australians should be ensuring that Australian companies and supply chains don’t touch any of these corporations, because that would contribute directly or indirectly to genocide and war crimes happening around the country.

The Australian government and corporations have obligations under human rights treaties, the OECD guidelines for responsible business conduct and the UN guidelines for business and human rights, etc. They have to start cleaning up their act or face possible future legal action for failing to meet these obligations.

If the international community had worked harder to dismantle these military economic institutions in the first place, then perhaps the coup would not have happened.

International news coverage suggests that the streets are very calm in Burma and life seems to be returning to normal. What are you hearing about the current situation on the ground?

There is a mainstream media narrative that the people of Burma are helpless, that they are fatalistic and that they won’t do anything. But the history of this country has featured many bloody crackdowns because people refused to give in. On February 2, the night after the coup, households went out into their yards and balconies and banged pots in protest at 8pm, the time when the national news comes on. This is reminiscent of other popular movements around the world.

There are huge numbers of really courageous activists who are out there documenting what is happening and finding ways and means to get it out to the outside world.

There are no flights going in and out of Burma so international media can’t get in. So it is the local activists who have to get the news of the protests out.

They have started a civil disobedience movement. This is a very interesting intergenerational process: we see a lot of young people getting very outraged and using social media to express this, even though they have been warned by the authorities.

We can’t expect people to go out in the streets immediately, because this is a brutal military regime. The streets of Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw had been bristling with military checkpoints for days before the actual coup. So people are not going to go out and have a confrontation in which they are likely to be killed on the spot.

Groups have mobilised and are working discreetly to do whatever is necessary and we will see the resistance come out in the weeks ahead. The resistance has already started, not just with our hardcore activists but also with ordinary people who are really angry at what is happening.

[The full-length interview is available at]

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