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Explainer: Why has the Myanmar military staged a coup and what happens next?

The military today declared it had taken control of the country for one year under a state of emergency.

myanmars-military-stages-coup-detat-in-yangon-myanmar-01-feb-2021 Military supporters drive-by police trucks parked aside the Streets in Yangon, Myanmar Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

EARLIER TODAY, MYANMAR’S military staged a coup, detaining democratically-elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The military declared it had taken control of the country for one year under a state of emergency.

The intervention follows weeks of rising tensions between the military, which ruled the country for nearly five decades, and the civilian government over elections in November last year that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won easily.

Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were detained in the capital, Naypyidaw, before dawn, party spokesman Myo Nyunt told AFP, just hours before parliament was meant to reconvene for the first time since the elections.

The chief minister of Karen state and several other regional ministers have also been held, party sources told AFP.

So, how did this crisis begin and what happened next? Here’s what we know so far:

How did this begin? 

Suu Kyi remains an immensely popular figure in Myanmar despite her international reputation being deeply tarnished over a crackdown on the country’s stateless Rohingya minority in 2017.

Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept November’s poll in a landslide, winning by an even greater margin than the 2015 vote that brought the former Nobel laureate to power.

Nonetheless, the country’s military, which has ruled Myanmar for most of the last 60 years, says the vote was plagued by irregularities.

It claims to have uncovered more than 10 million instances of voter fraud and has demanded the government-run election commission release voter lists for cross-checking – which the commission did not do.

Tensions grew after General Min Aung Hlaing – the head of the military and arguably Myanmar’s most powerful individual – gave a speech warning that the country’s constitution could be “revoked” if it is not respected.

Last week, army tanks were also briefly deployed on the streets of commercial hub Yangon, the capital Naypyidaw and elsewhere, along with protests against the election result by pro-military supporters.

aung-san-suu-kyi-detained-by-military File photo - Aung San Suu Kyi Source: Loviny Christophe/ABACA via PA Images

What’s the current state of play?

The army has declared a state of emergency and says it will take power for 12 months.

Myint Swe, a former general who ran the powerful Yangon military command and the current vice president of Myanmar, will become acting president for the next year.

But it appears he will not be the one running the show.

In a statement read out on military-run Myawaddy TV and signed by Myint Swe, he said control of “legislation, administration and judiciary” had been handed over to Min Aung Hlaing – effectively returning Myanmar to military rule.

The army later pledged to hold fresh elections after the year-long state of emergency.

“We will perform real multi-party democracy… with complete balance and fairness,” a statement on the army’s official Facebook page said.

All Myanmar banks nationwide were closed following the coup.

The military has also moved quickly to stifle dissent, severely restricting the internet and mobile phone communications across the country.

In Yangon, the former capital that remains Myanmar’s commercial hub, troops seized the city hall just ahead of the announcement, according to an AFP journalist.

myanmar Myanmar soldiers stand guard on a road in Naypyitaw Source: Aung-Shine via PA Images

Has this happened before?

Myanmar has been ruled by military regimes for most of its history since independence from former colonial power Britain in 1948 and the country has seen two coups since then. 

General Ne Win ousted a civilian administration in 1962, saying it was not competent enough to govern.

He ran the country for the next 26 years but stepped down in 1988 after huge nationwide protests against economic stagnation and authoritarian rule.

A new generation of military leaders took command a few weeks later, citing the need to restore law and order in the country.

Junta leader General Than Shwe stepped down in 2011, handing over power to a government of retired generals after adopting the country’s current constitution.

Will the constitution stand?

The 2008 constitution, which was drafted by the military, carved out a powerful ongoing political role for the military, giving them control of the key interior, border and defence ministries.

Any changes need the support of military lawmakers, who control a quarter of seats in the country’s parliament.

Its guarantee of military power makes the constitution a “deeply unpopular” document, according to Yangon-based political analyst Khin Zaw Win.

Suu Kyi and her government have been trying to amend the charter since winning the 2015 election, with little success.

During the last term she circumvented a rule that prevented her from assuming the presidency by taking the de facto leadership role of “state counsellor”.

This loophole is one of several the military did not foresee, political analyst Soe Myint Aung said.

“From their perspective, it has lost significant control over the political process,” he told AFP.

thailand-myanmar Myanmar living in Thailand hold picture of leader Aung San Suu Kyi during protest in front of the Myanmar Embassy Source: Sakchai Lalit via PA Images

How has the rest of the world reacted?

In a statement this afternoon, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he “strongly” condemns the coup. 

“The elections of November 2020 were an important step in the democratic transition of Myanmar and clear expression of the desire of the Myanmar people for a democratic future,” Coveney said. 

“The actions last night move in the opposite direction and do nothing to tackle the public health, security or economic issues facing the people of Myanmar,” he said. 

Coveney called for “the wishes of the people of Myanmar to be respected by accepting the results of the November 2020 general election”. 

“I further condemn the detention of political leaders, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, and call for their immediate release. 

“It is important that the response within Myanmar to yesterday’s actions remain peaceful,” Coveney said. 

The Minister confirmed the Embassy of Ireland in Bangkok has reached out to registered Irish citizens in Myanmar. 

“I would advise Irish citizens in Myanmar to stay safe and avoid crowds or demonstrations,” he said. 

Irish citizens in Myanmar with concerns can contact the Embassy on +66 2 016 1360. 

The United States, the United Nations and Australia were also among those to quickly condemn the coup, calling for a restoration of democracy.

“The United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Australia said the military was “once again seeking to seize control” of the country.

“We call on the military to respect the rule of law, to resolve disputes through lawful mechanisms and to release immediately all civilian leaders and others who have been detained unlawfully,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said.

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China, which regularly opposes UN intervention in Myanmar, called for all sides to “resolve differences”.

“China is a friendly neighbour of Myanmar and hopes the various parties in Myanmar will appropriately resolve their differences under the constitutional and legal framework to protect political and social stability,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press briefing.

In a statement this morning, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns Ming Yu Hah said condemned the arrests, calling the situation “very alarming”. 

“This is an ominous moment for people in Myanmar and threatens a severe worsening of military repression and impunity,” Ming Yu Hah said. 

In Thailand, Scores of Myanmar migrant workers have protested in front of their embassy, waving posters of leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

What happens next?

The constitution says a state of emergency can be declared for up to a year – a timeline the military appeared to be in agreement with today.

But given the institution’s near-total control of the country, that timeframe remains up in the air.

No matter what happens next, the general will try “to stack the game in his favour”, said Herve Lemahieu of Australia’s Lowy Institute.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi had issued a pre-emptive call for people to reject any military takeover before she was detained today, her party said.

According to a post on the official Facebook page of the chair of the National League for Democracy, she had called on people “not to accept a coup”.

Includes reporting by - © AFP 2021

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