Myanmar Coup: Military Arrests Nobel Peace Prize Winner Accused of Genocide

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi delivers a national address in Naypyidaw on September 19, 2017. Aung San Suu Kyi said on September 19 she 'feels deeply' for the suffering of 'all people' caught up in conflict scorching through Rakhine state, her first comments on a crisis that also …
YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

The nation’s military arrested the civilian government of Myanmar (Burma), including Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in a string of raids early Monday morning.

The military claimed the elections held in November were fraudulent and overthrew the civilian government just hours before the first meeting of the newly elected parliament, which would have been dominated by Suu Kyi’s party.

Suu Kyi took office with a landslide election victory in 2015, ending decades of military rule, much of which she spent under house arrest. In November, her National League for Democracy party (NLD) won 396 out of 476 seats in parliament.

Suu Kyi’s presidency became a horrible disappointment to many of her international supporters, as she presided over the brutal oppression of the Rohingya Muslims and defended the Myanmar army against allegations of genocide. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for resisting the junta and calling for democracy, accepting the award in absentia because she was under arrest at the time. In 2018, the Nobel committee refused widespread demands to rescind her prize over the abuse of the Rohingya.

The military arrested most of the NLD leadership on Monday on charges of rigging the November election, as explained in a statement translated by Sky News:

A statement broadcast on military-owned TV on Monday claimed voter lists were “found to have huge discrepancies and the Union Election Commission failed to settle this matter”.

It continued: “Although the sovereignty of the nation must derive from the people, there was terrible fraud in the voter list during the democratic general election which runs contrary to ensuring a stable democracy.

“Unless this problem is resolved, it will obstruct the path to democracy and it must therefore be resolved according to the law.

“Therefore, the state of emergency is declared in accordance with article 417 of the 2008 constitution.”

A subsequent statement from the military promised that “free and fair” elections would be held at the earliest opportunity and the junta would relinquish power to the winner. No firm date for these promised elections was set beyond a vague commitment to hold them within one year. As cynical observers pointed out to Sky News, the last time the military temporarily seized emergency power, it lasted from 1962 to 2010.

The Burmese election commission rejected the military’s allegations of vote fraud on Thursday, ruling that irregularities in voter registration were not demonstrably widespread enough to affect the election outcome. The military claimed it found over 8.6 million irregularities that could have enabled “voting malpractice,” such as individual voters casting more than one ballot. Military officials warned they might overthrow the government if their concerns were not taken seriously.

“The constitution is the mother law for all laws. So we all need to abide by the constitution. If one does not follow the law, such law must be revoked. If it is the constitution, it is necessary to revoke the constitution,” chief officer Min Aung Hlaing ominously stated on Wednesday.

International analysts described the army’s moves as curious because they retained a great deal of power under Suu Kyi’s administration, including several important administrative posts in addition to its guaranteed representation in parliament. The military has been treated fairly well by her reforms, enjoyed her political protection against international outrage over the Rohingya, and must surely have known the international community would condemn and punish them for seizing power.

Some analysts believe the military was frustrated that it could not expand its parliamentary influence beyond its guaranteed 25 percent of seats, which is enough to block constitutional amendments, but not enough to push them through. The military and its civilian supporters are reportedly unhappy with aspects of the 2008 constitution and might have decided to nullify it by force after the November elections left them with little hope of doing so via legislation. 

Others speculated the coup is a power grab by the aging Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who was scheduled to retire in six months and might have been worried about protecting his family’s business interests after he lost power. Hlaing and several other top Burmese military officers are already under heavy Western sanctions for their role in the Rohingya massacre.

“The people of Burma are the ones who have suffered the most throughout this period and people are now incredibly afraid because they remember the days when there was direct military rule – when there were thousands of political prisoners, when you couldn’t speak your mind without being arrested. It looks like they’re facing those days again,” Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK mournfully observed to Sky News.

“It’s a country with dozens of warring armies, hundreds of militia, a $70 billion illicit-drug industry, tens of millions that have fallen into poverty because of the economic downturn this past year, and now a collapse of whatever understanding there had been between the army and the National League for Democracy, the two most important political forces in Myanmar. I think the outside world often failed to see how fragile Myanmar’s democracy transition was,” historian Thant Myint-U remarked to the Wall Street Journal on Monday.

The NLD released a statement of its own, signed by Suu Kyi, that called on the people of Myanmar to resist the coup and take to the streets.

“The actions of the military are actions to put the country back under a dictatorship. I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military,” Suu Kyi said in the statement.

“I want to tell our people not to respond rashly and I want them to act according to the law,” added NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt in a phone call with Reuters before he was apparently arrested himself. Reuters reported phone lines to the capital of Naypyitaw were down on Monday morning and state TV was off the air, citing “technical issues.”

International condemnation of the coup was swift and nearly universal, with the notable exception of China. The Biden administration expressed alarm, declared its support for “Burma’s democratic institutions,” and called on military leaders to “cease their actions and release all government officials and civil society leaders.” 

“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,” the White House said on Monday.

“I condemn the coup and unlawful imprisonment of civilians, including Aung San Suu Kyi, in Myanmar. The vote of the people must be respected and civilian leaders released,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, while other U.K. officials spoke of swiftly imposing tough sanctions against the junta.

Australia, Japan, and India were among the other nations to quickly condemn the coup and demand the release of Suu Kyi and other officials. Japanese officials hinted that Tokyo’s policy of pursuing closer diplomatic and military ties with the Burmese to counter Chinese aggression could be reversed due to the coup. Australia called for “the peaceful reconvening of the National Assembly, consistent with the results of the November 2020 general election.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “strongly condemned” the detention of Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders and expressed his “grave concern regarding the declaration of the transfer of all legislative, executive and judicial powers to the military.” He urged military leaders to “respect the will of the people of Myanmar and adhere to democratic norms.”

Reuters noted a more “muted” response from China, whose foreign ministry merely “noted what has happened in Myanmar” and said it was “in the process of further understanding the situation.”

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