Aristotle in his account of tyranny spoke of the third kind of state that is neither based on law nor a monarchic rule over the willing person. State, that is a sort of counterpart to absolute kingship and is most particularly held to be tyranny. Burma, today’s Myanmar lies within Aristotle’s third description of ‘rule over the unwilling’.
Military build-up in South-east Asia has been a noticeable trend since the post-colonial 20th century. South-east Asia has long presented a challenging environment for democracy for a range of reasons, including the endurance of traditional non-democratic institutions and networks, the power and cohesion of the state, and elite perceptions of internal and external threats. The colonial rule marked a long-lasting impression of failed civilian rule and poor living conditions in these states that eventually paved way for anarchists, elitists, and military personnel to establish stratocracy.
1st February 2021 again marked a sad day in the history of Myanmar. The new session was set to commence, after the country’s second democratic election, since the country’s fragile transition from military rule to democracy. The general election sought landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), with 396 out of 476 seats in parliament, an even larger margin of victory than in the 2015 elections.
The Tatmadaw began a coup d'état on the morning of 1st February 2021, that proceeded them to vest power in a stratocracy. Declaring a year-long state of emergency, the military immediately hailed the Commander-in-chief of Defense Services, Min Aung Hlaing as its leaders and deposed the democratically elected members of NLD, preventing the swearing-in ceremony of members. President Win Myint, State Counsellor Suu Kyi were detained and deposed, along with members, ministers, and deputies.
As Reuters reported, communications were suspended and Flights disrupted. Curfew was imposed. Soldiers were seen in the capital Naypyidaw and the largest city, Yangon. Numerous communication channels stopped working, including the state-run MRTV. Widespread internet disruptions were reported beginning around 3 am. Apart from the leaders, soldiers also detained several Buddhist monks associated with the 2007 Saffron Revolution, including the Myawaddy Sayadaw and Shwe Nyar War Sayadaw (outspoken critics of the Tatmadaw). Up to 8888 Uprising activists were also arrested. As of 4 February, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners had identified 133 officials and lawmakers and 14 civil society activists in detention, as a result of the coup.
Myanmar has been beset with political instability since its independence from Britain in 1948. Between 1958 and 1960, the military formed a temporary caretaker government, under the leadership of U Nu. The military voluntarily restored civilian government after holding the 1960 Burmese General Election. But again seized power in 1962, claiming inefficiency of civilian rule. Myanmar has lived 42 years of Tatmadaw rule 2011, following the military’s roadmap to democracy.
The primary motives behind the February coup are still unclear. The Tatmadaw has ostensibly posited a Trumpian claim of voter fraud and had alleged 8.6 million irregularities in voter lists across Myanmar’s 314 townships. The Union Election Commission of Myanmar had categorically rejected the claim, citing the lack of evidence to support it.
But the coup may have been driven by the Tatmadaw’s goal to preserve its central role in Burmese politics, which has diminished in ten years of democracy. The November vote was a heavy embarrassment to the ‘Father of Nation’ figure of Tatmadaw and its backed political party Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which has won only a fraction of the vote. According to the controversial 2008 Constitution drawn up during the junta rule, the military still holds massive sway over the government by holding a quarter of parliamentary seats automatically. Not only that, holding three key ministers- Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs. So as long as the Constitution remains the same, the Tatmadaw retains the same control. But this time, with the absolute majority of NLD, meant 75 percent of the support of the parliament. This meant, if an amendment is brought by NLD, it could have passed easily against the military. This has been a fear factor for Hlaing and its forces.
The Defense Services Act imposes a mandatory retirement age of 65 for the Armed Forces Commander-in-chief. Hlaing, the incumbent would have been forced to retire on his 65th birthday in July 2021. Further, the Burmese Constitution empowers solely the President, in consultation with National Defense and Security Council to appoint Hlaing's successor, which could have provided an opportunity for the civilian arm of the Government to appoint a more reform-minded military officer as Commander-in-chief. Hlaing’s lack of power would have exposed him to war crimes he committed to the ethnic minorities and Rohingyas, in various international courts. Not only that Hlaing has been
Figure-1: From left Commander-in-chief Ming Aung Hlaing and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Source: Time Magazine.
accused of nepotism and his family is noted to have a great share in the financial business interests in the country. His decline from politics could have meant a severe blow to his family’s ambitions and could have exposed corruption. The activist group, Justice for Myanmar has also noted the significance of his family, as a potential factor for the coup.
Many countries including Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Singapore expressed concern in response to the developments in Myanmar and encouraged dialogue between the Government and the military. Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States on their part condemned the coup and called for the release of detained officials. Intergovernmental organizations, including United Nations and the European Union, expressed concern and called for dialogue from both sides.
The Western world, including several international media houses, have tried to establish a connection claiming Chain’s role in the coup and its negative influence over the region. But the claim is completely infeasible. China may have not criticized the coup but is certainly not happy with it. China's denial in participation in the British-led sanctions on Myanmar is because she believes international pressures would only make things worse and China in history never interfered in the domestic affairs of other countries. It has been a core principle of China’s foreign policy. There is no reason to expect China to make an exception now.
Beijing has always considered the Tatmadaw to be incompetent and corrupt. It was the junta rule that turned out to be most damaging to China’s economic and strategic interests. Cancelations and threats to renegotiate existing contracts for Chinese investments in Myanmar, as well as warming relations with the United States during the Obama administration pivot to Asia’, sidelined China. Meanwhile, the past five years of NLD rule under Suu Kyi’s leadership led Beijing to realize the potential in working with her government. Even though Beijing had previously tried to protect the country from international sanctions, but China’s investment in the country is only dependent on whether Myanmar has a stable, internationally accepted Government. The alleged claims on China’s support for the coup are again part of the ‘blame game' played by the Western Nations, since the outbreak of Coronavirus.
Figure-2: When Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) met Burmese State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (right). Source: The Washington Post.
But the real international concern that should be highlighted regarding the coup is the role of ASEAN countries. While Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia expressed concerns over the power seizure calling for restraint and peaceful resolution of the matter, the countries such as Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines have refrained from acknowledging the issue, calling it an ‘internal affair’. Vietnam, Laos, and Brunei are yet to issue formal statements. There should be a strong role of the Association in order to maintain the stability of its member-states.
The ASEAN countries throughout have been a matter of concern and the Myanmar coup is a warning bell to them. The countries of this region have always been victims of radical regime change and have ranked low on the Democracy Index. Most of the ASEAN states hold dominant-party regimes with very less powerful constitutions and Nation bodies. These countries hold a history of military interventions in their internal spheres and have prone to over-functioning administrations, since their independence.
ASEAN must learn its future workings from other intergovernmental organizations and save itself from infirmity. Countries that have been working to bring sanctions against Myanmar should rather work on strengthening ASEAN by holding joint conferences. The UN and other international communities should observe ASEAN states in these critical times of pandemic when the entire world is on the verge of statism and over-centralization. The ASEAN needs to be stricter to counter these radical developments in their region.
Soumava Basu is pursuing graduation in history from Jadavpur University, India. His areas of interest include: International History, Intellectual History, Global Affairs, US History, Chinese Studies and Political Philosophy.
See Stephen McCarthy, The Political Theory of Tyranny in Singapore and Burma: Aristotle and the rhetoric of benevolent despotism, Routledge:2006.