Myanmar’s military seized power on Monday in a coup against the democratically elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained along with other leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in early morning raids.
The army said it had carried out the detentions in response to “election fraud,” handing power to military chief Min Aung Hlaing and imposing a state of emergency for one year, according to a statement on a military-owned television station.
A verified Facebook page for Suu Kyi’s party published comments it said had been written in anticipation of a coup and which quoted her as saying people should protest against the military takeover.
The coup derails years of Western-backed efforts to establish democracy in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where neighbouring China also has a powerful influence.
The generals made their move hours before parliament had been due to sit for the first time since the NLD’s landslide win in a Nov. 8 election viewed as a referendum on Suu Kyi’s fledgling democratic rule.
The military’s actions were met with international condemnation.
New U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken issued a statement expressing “grave concern and alarm” over the reported detentions.
“We call on Burmese military leaders to release all government officials and civil society leaders and respect the will of the people of Burma as expressed in democratic elections,” he wrote, using Myanmar’s former name. “The United States stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace, and development.”
The office of the U.N. secretary-general was also among those to issue a statement condemning the developments as a “serious blow to democratic reforms.”
Leaders in the Asia-Pacific region also expressed concern about the military’s actions in Myanmar.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reiterated his country’s opposition to any attempt to alter the election results and urged all parties to adhere to democratic norms.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said the government had issued a safety advisory to Japanese citizens to be careful in the event of possible clashes.
The detention of the politicians and cuts in television signals and communication services on Monday were the first signs that plans to seize power were in motion. Phone and internet access to Naypyitaw was lost and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party could not be reached. Phone service in other parts of the country was also reported down, though people were still able to use the internet in many areas.
The Irrawaddy, an established online news service, reported that Suu Kyi, who as state counsellor is the nation’s top leader, and the country’s president, Win Myint, were both detained in the pre-dawn hours. The news service cited Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the NLD.
Lawmakers, cabinet members also believed detained
Its report said that the party’s Central Executive Committee members, lawmakers and regional Cabinet members had also been taken into custody.
A list of other people believed to have been detained, compiled by political activists who asked not to be named for security reasons, included filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, writer Maung Thar Cho, and prominent veterans of the country’s 1988 student protest movement, such as Ko Ko Gyi and Min Ko Naing. Their detention could not immediately be confirmed.
The military TV report said Vice-President Myint Swe would be elevated to acting president. Swe is a former general best known for leading a brutal crackdown on Buddhist monks in 2007. He is a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe.
In a later announcement, the military said an election would be held in a year and the military would hand power over to the winner.
As word of the military’s actions spread in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, there was a growing sense of unease among residents who earlier in the day had still been packed into cafes for breakfast and had been doing their morning shopping.
People were removing the bright red flags of Suu Kyi’s party that once adorned their homes and businesses. Lines formed at ATMs as people waited to take out cash, efforts that were being complicated by internet disruptions. Workers at some businesses decided to go home.
Monday’s parliamentary session was to be the first since last year’s election, as tension lingered over recent comments by the military that were widely seen as threatening a coup.
The military, however, maintains its actions are legally justified, though Suu Kyi’s party spokesman as well as many international observers have said it is in effect a coup.
The 2008 constitution, drafted and implemented during military rule, has a clause that says in case there is a national emergency, the president in coordination with the military-dominated National Defence and Security Council can issue an emergency decree to hand over the government’s executive, legislative and judicial powers to the military’s commander-in-chief.
The clause had been described by New York-based Human Rights Watch as a “coup mechanism in waiting.”
Fierce antagonist of army
It is just one of many parts of the charter that ensured the military could maintain ultimate control over the country at the expense of elected politicians. The military also was guaranteed 25 per cent of seats in Parliament and control of several key ministries, especially those involved in security and defence.
The 75-year-old Suu Kyi is by far the country’s most popular politician, and became the country’s de facto leader after her party won 2015 elections, though the constitution barred her from being president. She had been a fierce antagonist of the army during her time under house arrest.
Nevertheless, once in power Suu Kyi had to balance her relationship with the country’s generals and even went on the international stage to defend their crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the country’s west, a campaign the U.S. and others have labelled genocide. That has left her reputation internationally in tatters.
She remains wildly popular at home, where most supported the campaign against the Rohingya. Suu Kyi’s party captured 396 out of 476 seats in the combined lower and upper houses of Parliament in last November’s polls.
The military, known as the Tatmadaw, has charged that there was massive voting fraud in the election, though it has failed to provide proof. The state Union Election Commission last week rejected its allegations.
Amid the bickering over the allegations, the military last Tuesday ramped up political tension when a spokesman at its weekly news conference, responding to a reporter’s question, declined to rule out the possibility of a coup. Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun elaborated by saying the military would “follow the laws in accordance with the constitution.”
Using similar language, the military chief told senior officers in a speech Wednesday that the constitution could be revoked if the laws were not being properly enforced. Adding to the concern was the unusual deployment of armoured vehicles in the streets of several large cities.
On Saturday and Sunday, however, the military denied it had threatened a coup, accusing unnamed organizations and media of misrepresenting its position.