Benedict Rogers: It seems plausible that this brazen assault on democracy in Myanmar is driven by one man’s ambition

1 Feb

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is Senior Analyst for East Asia at CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, author of three books on Myanmar (Burma), including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”, and a former parliamentary candidate.

Today’s coup in Myanmar (Burma) is a devastating blow to a decade of fragile democratization, and a major setback for a beautiful but benighted country that has already suffered decades of war, poverty and repression.

Although Myanmar has a long history of military rule, this latest move comes as a surprise. Despite a transition to a civilian-led democratic government under Aung San Suu Kyi five years ago, the military has in any case retained real power.

Under the constitution which it wrote, Myanmar’s military has direct control of three key government ministries – Home Affairs, Border Affairs and Defence – as well as a quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for the armed forces. It controls its budget, and many enterprises. Aung San Suu Kyi has bent over backwards to compromise with the military, even defending them in The Hague on charges of genocide. So why would the army move against her now?

One theory is that the military is driven by power and is incapable of relinquishing it. Ever since General Ne Win’s first takeover in 1958, the military has been the dominant political force in Myanmar. His caretaker regime handed over to a democratically elected government in 1960, only to seize power in a coup in 1962.

For over 50 years the army ruled Myanmar directly, rejected Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)’s first election victory in 1990 and transitioned to a ‘civilian’ government led by former generals dressed in suits rather than military uniforms in 2010. Only after the NLD’s overwhelming win in 2015 did the military move from centre stage to the wings of politics, but even then it continued to exercise overwhelming influence. But perhaps it wasn’t satisfied with that, and wanted to play a starring role again.

Another theory, however, is more plausible, and it is that this coup is not so much driven by the military as a whole, but by the personal ambitions of one man – the Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing.

He wants to be President and was dissatisfied that the military-backed party, the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP), did not do well in last November’s election. Knowing that he has to retire from his current post in June this year, he appears to have decided that if he can’t be President using legitimate, constitutional means, he would seize power anyway.

The pretext for the coup – the army’s claim of voter fraud in last year’s election – is risible. An institution that for decades has defrauded the electorate has no right to make such an allegation. While there are concerns that some of the country’s ethnic minorities were disenfranchised in the election, there is no evidence of voter fraud at the ballot box and no legitimate reason to doubt the NLD’s victory.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the President Win Myint, government ministers, regional chief ministers and a number of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and a state of emergency imposed for a year. This is truly an outrage, and the international community must not stand for it. Britain, the United States, the European Union and others invested significantly in the reform period that began a decade ago, and so cannot allow this coup to pass without consequences.

Reaction has been swift – but so far only rhetorical. Anthony Blinken, the new US Secretary of State, called on the military to reverse their actions “immediately” and “to release all government officials and civil society leaders and respect the will of the people of Burma as expressed in democratic elections on November 8.”

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, issued a statement in which he described the developments as “a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar.”

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, condemned the coup in a tweet, calling for the military to release all those who have been detained unlawfully and for the restoration of the democratic process.

And Boris Johnson condemned the coup and the unlawful imprisonment of civilians.

Now the free world must set out what it will do if the military do not back down – and the United Kingdom should take a lead. We should impose co-ordinated, targeted sanctions – not broad-based sanctions against the country, which would hurt the people, but sanctions specifically against the military’s enterprises and assets.

In July 2020, the United Kingdom announced sanctions against two high ranking members of the Burmese military under the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime – otherwise known as “Magnitsky” sanctions – for human rights violations, but what is needed now is measures against military companies and the economic interests of the military as a whole.

The United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, the European Union, Japan and other allies must work together on this, though if a unified approach cannot be reached, those that are willing to go down the sanctions path should do so anyway, and work with allies on other measures they can agree on.

If it is the case that this coup is more about Min Aung Hlaing’s personal ambitions, then it may be possible to cause a split in the military if international pressure is perceived to hit its economic interests. If that happens, perhaps wiser, cooler heads in the military may prevail and force the Commander-in-Chief to back down.

Certainly one thing is clear: if the Myanmar army is allowed to get away with this brazen assault on a fragile democracy, not only will Myanmar’s development and progress be set back, but it will send an unwelcome green light to others in South-East Asia and beyond, that unconstitutional seizures of power will be allowed to go unchecked. And that – in a world where the cause of freedom and democracy is already on the back foot – would be devastating.