Explained: Why are there fears of an impending coup in Myanmar?

Fears of a military coup are roiling Myanmar three days ahead of the scheduled opening of its newly elected Lower House of Parliament.

The reason: the military says the November 2020 general election was full of “irregularities”, and has maintained that the results are therefore not valid.

It is questioning the authenticity of some 9 million votes cast in the election. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in the election.

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The military has demanded that the United Elections Commission (UEC) of Myanmar which oversees elections, or the government, or outgoing parliamentarians prove at a special session before the new parliament convenes on February1, that the elections were free and fair.

Speech of the army chief

According to ‘The Irrawaddy’ news website, Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said the Tatmadaw, or the Myanamr military, “needs to abide by the Constitution”, which is the “mother of the law”.

The military, he told officers at the National Defence College via video conference, would respect all existing laws that are “not beyond the 2008 Constitution”, but “if one does not follow the law, such a law must be revoked. I mean if it is the Constitution, it is necessary to revoke the Constitution. If one does not follow the law, the Constitution must be revoked”.

The military’s Constitution

It was the military that drafted the 2008 Constitution, and put it to a questionable referendum in April that year. The NLD had boycotted the referendum, as well as the 2010 elections that were held under the Constitution.

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The Constitution was the military’s “roadmap to democracy”, which it had been forced to adopt under increasing pressure from the west, and its own realisation that opening up Myanmar to the outside world was now no longer an option but a dire economic necessity. But the military made sure to safeguard in the Constitution its own role and supremacy in national affairs.

Under its provisions, the military reserves for itself 25 per cent of seats in both Houses of Parliament, to which it appoints serving military officials. Also, a political party which is a proxy for the military contests elections. Its share of seats fell further this time because of the NLD’s sweep.

The army’s allegation

A military spokesman said earlier in the week that the Tatmadaw had found 8.6 million irregularities in 314 areas across all states and regions, and that this indicated the possibility that people had voted “more than once”, or had engaged in some other “voting malpractice”.

The UEC has said it had found no evidence of any voting malpractice or fraud. It has said that each vote was “counted transparently and witnessed by election candidates, election staff, the media, observers and other civil society organizations”.

The army chief called the 2008 Constitution “effective”. Each section of the law has a purpose and meaning, he said, and no one should take it upon themselves to interpret it as they pleased. “Applying the law based on one’s own ideas may cause harm rather than being effective,” he was quoted as saying by ‘The Irrawaddy’.

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He also spoke about how the military had revoked two previous constitutions in Myanmar.

Fears of a coup

The speech and the army’s assertion has prompted the United States embassy and diplomatic missions of 15 other countries and the European Union in Yangon to issue a joint statement “oppos[ing] any attempt to alter the outcome of the elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition”.

Myanmar’s democratic transition is a work in progress. The results of the 2020 election, held during the pandemic, are being seen by the NLD as a mandate for its plan of constitutional reform, through which it aims to do away with the military’s role in politics and governance. This will not be easy given the tight constitutional restrictions for amendments.

But the hybrid system that exists now is a huge shift away from what it was until 2011, the year the military decided to release Suu Kyi from her nearly two-decade-long house arrest, thus inaugurating its “road map to democracy” on which there has been slow progress.

Suu Kyi has been more reconciliatory towards the Army than was expected even by her own supporters, to the extent of defending the Tatmadaw at the International Court of Justice against accusations of atrocities on the Rohingya. The stand-off over the elections is the first serious face-off she has had with the military since her release.

The world will be watching the military to see if it sends its representatives for the Assembly on Monday.

Text of the statement by diplomatic missions

Following is the text of the statement jointly issued by the diplomatic missions of Australia; Canada; the Delegation of the EU and European Union Member States with presence in Myanmar: Denmark, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden; as well as Switzerland; the United Kingdom; the United States; Norway; and New Zealand.

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India and China are not among the signatories.

“We affirm our support for Myanmar’s democratic transition and efforts to promote peace, human rights, and development in the country. We look forward to the peaceful convening of the Parliament on February 1 and the election of the President and speakers. Once again, we congratulate the people of Myanmar on their historic participation in the country’s recent general election. We urge the military, and all other parties in the country, to adhere to democratic norms, and we oppose any attempt to alter the outcome of the elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition. We support all those who work toward greater democratic freedoms, lasting peace, and inclusive prosperity for the people of Myanmar.”

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