February 23, 2024

The Myanmar Coup and the Struggle for Democratic Space

In Myanmar’s history, military rule has occurred since 1962. At that time, the U Nu faction was overthrown in a military coup led by General Ne Win which abolished the federal system and made Burma (changed to Myanmar in 2010) into a socialist state by nationalizing the economy, forming a state with a single party (Socialist Program Party) and banned independent newspapers.

In 1974, a new constitution was enacted and transferred power from the military to a People’s Assembly headed by Ne Win and other former military leaders. In 1988 the people of Myanmar protested against the military rule so that the government declared martial law. Thousands of people have been arrested, including supporters of democracy and human rights. National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.

On 27 May 1990, the first lower house elections were held under the new military government. Even though the NLD won a landslide victory in these elections, the results were ignored by the military.

In 2007, public protests took place again. This attitude was triggered by the increase in the price of fuel oil. Dozens of activists were arrested and Buddhist monks staged a series of anti-government protests (Saffron Revolution).

In 2008, the Government proposed the allocation of military seats in the Myanmar parliament. Through a constitutional amendment, the Government wants the military to have a quarter of the seats in parliament. This proposal goes hand in hand with the ban on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding office in the Myanmar government.

In 2010, elections were held but the NLD was canceled to participate in the elections by the UEC in accordance with the Election Law. The military-backed USDP party claimed a glorious victory in its first election in 20 years even though opposition parties accused it of fraud and the election was seen as a hoax. After the election, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.

In the 2012 By-election, the regional election monitoring agency Asian for Free Election (ANFREL) reported on the dynamics of the Myanmar elections. In the “International Election Observation Mission Republic of the Union of Myanmar By-Elections of November 3” (2018, 36-40), to fill the vacant 48 seats in parliament, the NLD won 43 seats and Aung San Suu Kyi was elected.

Then in 2015, Myanmar held elections. The NLD’s victory was followed by the appointment of Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor of Myanmar.

In 2017 and 2018, Myanmar held by-elections. From the implementation of this transitional government, parliamentary seats are filled after being vacant because members of parliament who resigned, died, or were dismissed.

Even though the 2015 elections resulted in a civilian government in Myanmar, the military’s influence is still very strong. This is because, based on the 2008 Constitution, 25% of the seats in parliament are filled by the military.

There are two chambers in Myanmar’s national parliament, namely the Upper House (Amoytha Hluttaw) which consists of 224 seats (168 elected by election, 56 are filled by the military) and the Lower House (Pyithu Hluttaw) consisting of 440 seats (330 elected by election, 110 are filled by military). Likewise for State and Regional parliaments, 1/3 of the seats will be filled by the military. In addition, members of the Myanmar military still have the right to vote.

2021 Military Coup

Based on this democratic trend, the military coup in Myanmar remains a surprise in early 2021. The Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) arrested de facto leader Aung San Suu Ki, president U Win Myint, chairman of the Union Election Commission (UEC) U Hla Thein, politicians, members parliaments and pro-democracy activists in Naypiydaw and Yangon. The coup against civilian rule was followed by the announcement: a one-year takeover of government by the military and the appointment of an interim president with full powers given to General Min Aung Hlaing (Supreme Commander of the Tatmadaw). In addition, Tatmadaw also appointed General U Myint Swe as acting president.

The Tatmadaw staged a coup because they considered the Myanmar elections on 8 November 2020 had a lot of fraud and announced that new elections would be held under the new general election commission. The NLD won convincingly in the Parliamentary elections according to the General Elections Commission (UEC) – but the military and its political partners have vehemently accused the voting was rigged.

Myanmar Times reported (28/1), two pro-military parties of the United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the Democratic Party for National Politics (DPNP) have brought their cases to the Supreme Court to get compensation for their complaints. USDP submitted 174 cases to the Supreme Court regarding election malpractice committed by the UEC based on evidence of their election fraud.

Based on the Pace Myanmar report (29/1), the Supreme Court postponed the verdict for two weeks after hearing the opening arguments. However, prior to the verdict from the Supreme Court, the military had carried out a coup. Even though the military alleges fraud in the 2020 elections, twelve domestic election monitoring groups have deployed their observers to observe various processes such as voter list announcements, campaign activities, further voting during the pre-election period, the voting process on election day, and the tabulation process, considered election results to be credible and reflecting the will of the majority of voters, despite deficiencies in the legal framework for elections and some inconsistencies in election administration as well as implementation weaknesses during the COVID-19 pandemic situation.

Referring to the report of The Irrawaddy (3/2), the Myanmar military regime has appointed a new version of the country’s UEC to oversee post-coup voting. The newly appointed Tatmadaw electoral body consists of six members led by chairman U Thein Soe, a former military judge who oversaw the 2010 general elections, which are widely seen as fraudulent.

The situation that occurred in Myanmar immediately attracted international attention. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand at the ASEAN Human Rights Commission (AICHR) urged Myanmar to respect the principles in the ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. The ASEAN Charter, among other things, states “adherence to the rule of law, good governance, democratic principles, protection of human rights, and respect for fundamental freedoms”.

The four countries support the continuation of the democratization and peace process in Myanmar and urge all parties to resolve disputes through existing legal mechanisms. In addition, peaceful dialogue and hoping for a democratic and peaceful outcome in accordance with the wishes and interests of the Myanmar people must take precedence (BBC 2/5).

The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its press release (1/2) expressed concern over the latest political developments in Myanmar, calling for the use of democratic principles and constitutional governance. Indonesia also underlined that disputes related to the results of the general election could be resolved by the available legal mechanisms and urged all parties in Myanmar to exercise restraint and put forward a dialogue approach in finding a way out of the various challenges and problems that exist so that the situation does not worsen.

The United Nations Security Council has issued a press statement (4/2) expressing deep concern over the declared state of emergency imposed in Myanmar. The Security Council has called for the immediate release of all those detained, including de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Security Council members stressed the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, and fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.

On February 5, 2021, the newly elected President of the United States, Joe Biden took a stand. He said the Myanmar military must relinquish power it has seized on, release activists and supporters and officials they have arrested, lift telecommunications restrictions and refrain from violence. In his remarks on foreign policy, Biden said his government would work with our partners to support the restoration of democracy and rule of law and have consequences for those responsible.

The regional election monitoring agency, Asian for Free Election (ANFREL) also urged Tatmadaw to release the detainees and that all election fraud be resolved through the electoral court. This pressure is the concern of various international civil society organizations. Through ANFREL organizing, at least 46 cross-country civil society organizations joined as of 3 February 2021, including the Komite Independent Committee for Election Monitoring (KIPP), Jaringan Pendidikan Pemilih untuk Rakyat (JPPR), and the Association for Elections and Democracy (Perludem).

Following this, International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) also called for the Myanmar military to fully respect the results of the recent national elections, release all detained political and civil society leaders, refrain from committing violence, and allow the state to institute the real democratic reforms. Through the statement “Defend Democracy in Myanmar”, this intergovernmental organization based in Sweden has garnered joint support for cross-country democratic organizations. A total of 34 organizations and 136 individuals joined, Perludem from Indonesia was one of them.

Civil Disobedience Movement

The military coup has also been challenged by the people of Myanmar itself through the Civil Disobedience Movement which was first launched on February 2, 2021 by medical staff from more than 110 government hospitals and health departments in about 50 cities across Myanmar in protest against the takeover of power by the military and the imposition of a state of emergency by the military.

The Straits Times reported (2/4), red ribbons were pinned to clothes and a three-finger gesture was raised to show support for the civilian government and resistance to the military coup government. This three-finger gesture pointing upwards with the palms away from the body is from the movie “Hunger Games” based on the dystopian novel Suzanne Collins. This movement became a symbol of revolution and rebellion against totalitarian rule in the fictional country of Panem.

In recent years, the three-finger symbol has been adopted by protesters against authoritarian rule in Asia. Prior to Myanmar, the protesters in Thailand used the symbol as a tactic to oppose the ban on public gatherings imposed after a coup in May 2014. Later, young pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong also used the three-finger symbol in a campaign for a fully democratic election.

In a report by The Irrawaddy (2/3), a surgeon named Lynn Latyar from the 500-bed Lashio Government General Hospital in northern Shan State, stated that 38 out of 40 doctors and 50 of 70 nurses had joined the movement and would not go to the hospital. Government doctors plan to provide free treatment to patients with medical records issued by government hospitals in private clinics. This movement immediately received public support and was followed by many other institutions.

The protest was also carried out by the crew of the Myanmar National Airlines flight. Based on the Myanmar Times (2/5), their objections to the takeover of power by the military were shown by wearing red ribbons while working. About 50 crew members carried out this campaign without work.

The civil disobedience movement was also attended by academics, teachers and students. Based on the news (2/5), around 200 lecturers and students from Dagon University held a demonstration by showing the three finger gesture used by Thai protesters last year. Lecturers from Yangon University also took to the streets in Yangon wearing the colors of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party.

Time reported (2/3), the protests by civilians were wider. In Yangon City, there was an action of sounding kitchen utensils and horns from residents’ houses continuously throughout the day to night. It is a tradition in Myanmar to ward off evil or bad karma by hitting a tin or metal bucket.

With regard to the civil disobedience of Myanmar citizens that quickly spread through social media, the Myanmar military government through the Ministry of Transportation and Communications has banned social media Facebook from February 4, 2021 to February 7, 2021, Twitter and Instagram have also been blocked since February 5, 2021, residents are also in trouble using WhatsApp.

On February 6, 2021, the anti-military coup demonstration in Myanmar grew bigger. Kompas reported that tens of thousands of protesters, the majority of whom were young people, took to the streets of Yangon and Mandalay, which were attended by around 2,000 people. These two actions were the biggest rallies since the military coup in early February 2021. The military is trying to quell the popular protest movement by blocking the internet nationally.

Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement shows that a military coup is unwanted by the majority of Myanmar’s people. Civil government based on the results of the 2020 General Election is the absolute desire of the people in a democratic country.


Catherine Natalia

Researcher at Perludem