Twelve burning questions about the Myanmar military coup, answered

Topics Myanmar | Suu Kyi | coup

Myanmar’s democracy is still in its infancy. There are varying opinions on whether this is the end of democracy in the country. Photo: Bloomberg
The military’s coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has knee-capped Myanmar’s democratic transition and undercut its push to attract more foreign investment, particularly from the West. What’s the army’s endgame and how will governments such as the U.S., Britain and China respond?

 
What’s happening in Myanmar? 

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Suu Kyi, and other top political leaders including President Win Myint were detained in a raid on Monday, in an apparent coup. The nation’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized control of the country.

Is this a temporary takeover or a permanent military government?

The military has said that it is using a state of emergency to take control for one year, promising that it will hold elections afterwards. It is unclear, however, if the pledge is genuine or a ploy to buy time.

What was the response from the U.S.?

President Joe Biden has said the U.S. could reinstate sanctions on Myanmar if the Southeast Asian country’s military doesn’t “immediately relinquish the power they have seized” in a coup and release activists and officials. 

What is the military trying to achieve here?

While the military had previously committed to transition Myanmar to a democracy, it had never truly relinquished power, retaining authority in the parliament with veto rights and a guaranteed number of seats. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party in the latter months of their first term moved to give more authority to the civilian government, and the military simply were not buying. By following through on a coup, the military is sending a clear signal that it has no plans to be marginalized in a government it has controlled for decades.

What are the implications of the coup to the Rohingya?

It’s not good news. The thrust of the pushback on the atrocities in Rakhine state came from strong international pressure, which is now squarely focused on the coup. It is unclear what might occur now that the military, which is alleged to have been responsible for genocide there, may do next. It is further worth noting that mobile and internet communications in Rakhine state have been heavily restricted amid accusations from rights groups that the atrocities are ongoing. The military and Suu Kyi’s former government have denied wrongdoing.

Where is Suu Kyi and is she safe?

According to an official from the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi and now-former President Win Myint are understood to be under lock and key in their respective homes. Both leaders were detained by the military on Monday.

What effects, if any, might Myanmar’s coup have on neighboring countries, such as Thailand?

That is unclear. Southeast Asian nations all seem to have a trajectory of their own while many countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia were on a path of democratic backsliding well before Myanmar’s troubles arose. There's no indication that will change or be exacerbated by the coup.

How will this coup impact global markets and the global economy?

While not a fully globalized nation, the political crisis in Myanmar does threaten to impact a number of companies around the world, ranging from rare-earth miners in China to global oil and gas majors. China’s rare-earth miners dropped on Monday following the coup while some businesses belonging to Yoma Strategic Holdings, a Singapore-based company that invests in a number of Myanmar industries including real estate and food and beverage, had been disrupted due to telecommunications outages. Under the military government, it will be very difficult for investors to know, in the short term, whether they plan to revert to protectionist policies that had worked so well for the elite, even while promising to maintain some form of democracy.

What’s China’s role in all of this?

China plays an increasingly important role in Myanmar. Chinese President Xi Jinping has a vested interest in dozens of infrastructure projects key to his regional Belt and Road ambitions. During the Rohingya crisis, China was one of the few countries that stood behind the government, and has provided the nation with free Covid vaccines. If it were to support the military government now, it could in fact help to get several stalled projects off the ground.

What does this coup mean for Myanmar’s democracy? Will there be elections again?

Myanmar’s democracy is still in its infancy. There are varying opinions on whether this is the end of democracy in the country, but that remains to be seen as the military will have to choose what to do with an NLD party that has the overwhelming support of voters. The military has promised to hold fresh polls after a one-year state of emergency.

How effective would sanctions be on Myanmar if governments or the UN decide to impose them?

It depends on the definition of effective. Global sanctions would devastate the economy and could impact the livelihoods of millions of people. But would they do harm to the military elite or dissuade them from pursuing this course of action? The former is unlikely because the military is well-documented to have vast riches across diverse segments of the local economy — from raising billions mining precious stones to millions more from brewing beer.

Other than sanctions, how else can governments pressure Myanmar?

Aside from sanctions, it will be tough to pressure the military. For example, during the Rohingya crisis, the West collectively condemned the actions of the military while U.S. sanctions had no impact. The international response proved slow and largely ineffective. It was also left with fewer cards after the private sector largely withdrew investment interest. Western soft power has also taken a hit. Under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. lost a lot of leverage for its blasé attitude on rights and democratic backsliding. That’s going to require some degree of rehabilitation before once again becoming an effective diplomatic tool.



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