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  • Geoff Donald

A Coup in Myanmar

Agency Francais - Getty Images

What happened?

As most people know by now on the morning of February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military launched a takeover of Myanmar’s civilian government. Following the usual playbook for these sorts of affairs, governing officials across the country such as President Win Mynt and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi were taken into custody, phone lines and the internet were cut or slowed to prevent communications and military personnel were positioned at key sites. As expected, the Tatmadaw (as the Myanmar Military is known) which claims to be acting in the interest of protecting the country, was quick to declare a national emergency for a one-year period after which they would return power to an elected government.

Why Now?

Whether it was because the Commander in Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces Min Aung Hlaing was due to retire in July, the inability of the Tatmadaw to choose his successor without input from the civilian government, a feeling of the lack of relevancy of the Tatmadaw in future political life, distrust of the growing Chinese influence on the Myanmar government, or the fear of future constitutional change, the actual reason for this action by the Tatmadaw is not particularly important.

The level of coordination by the military in arresting specific individuals across the country and the rapid deployment of troops clearly show that these actions were being planned well in advanced. February 1, 2021 was chosen as the date for seizing power as on this day individuals who were elected in November 2020 national election were due to be sworn in. If they had been sworn in, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party would have had an overwhelming majority in both levels of the Assembly of Union.

While the NLD would not have had the numbers required to change the Constitution that grants the military so much power, they would have likely used their majority to gain concessions from the military, concessions the military was clearly not willing to make.

What are other key players saying?

While countries such as the US and the UK have come out strongly condemning Tatmadaw’s actions and demanding that the coup be reversed, Western countries have limited leverage in Myanmar due to pre-existing sanctions on Myanmar, a lack of security ties and smaller economic footprint such as foreign direct investment or imports and exports in Myanmar. For the countries that are more important Myanmar such as China, Thailand, India, Japan, Korea and ASEAN, the response to February 1 events is much more muted.

Thailand, Myanmar’s neighbor, and another country with an active military in government, has stated that it is an “internal matter” for Myanmar to manage while China for all parties in Myanmar to "resolve their differences". ASEAN, the regional bloc that Myanmar is a member of, has asked for “dialogue, reconciliation and return to normalcy” with India expressing “deep concern”. For those of you who do not speak diplomatese, this is a way of saying “not our problem”.

How does this matter in a geopolitical context?

Like most countries in Southeast Asia, the impact of geopolitics is never far away from Myanmar. It is notable that countries with direct strategic interests in Myanmar have take a more muted approach to the actions on February 1 while those with limited strategic interests are significantly more vocal.

The key outside actor, of course, is China.

Beijing sees Myanmar as strategic depth and as a land bridge to the India Ocean. A friendly Myanmar that is in China’s orbit would provide an alternative to the narrow Malacca Strait through which so much of its trade and energy needs flow through. The fact that Beijing might also be able to get access to a naval base on the Indian Ocean to project its maritime power would be an extra bonus. Which those strategic implications in mind, China has worked for years cultivate ties with Aung San Suu Kyi while the Tatmadaw has been wary of China due to China’s of past support (and still current) to non-State that are part of Myanmar’s border regions. China is willing to work with whomever forms the next government in Myanmar to reach it strategic goals.

For the United States and its new President, the challenge is a little more difficult. With their own recently disputed election (well from one side anyways) and storming of the Capitol buildings, the United States is not in a strong position to lecture others about the importance of democracy and the rule of law. While the US will no doubt increase the number of economic sanctions on key military leaders it is unclear how effective a strategy this will be for enacting change. Nor is it clear that the US will have the ability to unite the other key countries who are more influential in Myanmar to a common position aggressively opposing the Tatmadaw’s actions. Furthermore, any moves by the US to further isolate Myanmar economically and internationally will only result in Myanmar moving closer to China out of necessity rather than choice.

Taking a strong stance in a country with limited strategic importance to the US while send a strong message about human rights but in doing so driving a country further into China’s orbit. This broad choice will likely not be the last time President Biden and his team face this dilemma. How President Biden manages this issue will provide observers and countries with somewhat of an understanding of how the United States will act to foreign challenges under his presidency.

What next?

For the Tatmadaw, it is clearly hoping to follow the same game plan that the Thai military used in 2014 to seize and retain power. The Tatmadaw has seized power, promised to return the government to the people in a short timeline and will no doubt re-write the Constitution to its further benefit. The major difference between Thailand and Myanmar is that the Thai military could claim to rally behind the Thai monarchy while the Tatmadaw lacks that option.

While the Tatmadaw can expect a certain amount of external pressure from Western based countries and organizations, the success of this coup will lie in the Tatmadaw’s ability to manage internal pressures. If it can avoid attacks on the local population, minimize the number and size of public protests without the use of violence, and appears to be providing stable and clean government, then the next time Myanmar makes news in the world will be for the next election.

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