HONG KONG – Myanmar’s military leaders appeared to have a plan for their coup. They cut off phones and the Internet. Convoys rolled through the capital, Naypyidaw, as soldiers rounded up representatives of the democratically elected government. A new cabinet was readied, and decrees were laid out to be published in state media Tuesday morning.
But a day after ousting the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi in their boldest power play in three decades, Myanmar’s generals have not made clear what comes next.
A central concern for the military is how far it can, or will, go to neutralize its political nemesis, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and its popular leader, Suu Kyi. The coup unfolded hours before the new parliament had been scheduled to meet following the NLD’s landslide election victory in November.
On Tuesday, Suu Kyi was still under house arrest in Naypyidaw, said a person familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. Suu Kyi’s ministers, also detained in the military takeover, were slowly being released and sent home, replaced by former generals and army loyalists.
While the military had recaptured power under Min Aung Hlaing, the 64-year-old commander in chief, it was also confronted with a vastly different Myanmar to the one it oversaw during a half-century of brutal rule that ended in 2010.
Beginning in that year, the army ushered in the country’s opening to the outside world, which brought changes such as freer speech, nascent civil society and some independent media. Quasi-democratic elections followed in 2015, bringing Suu Kyi to office in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with the generals. Yangon, the largest city, is now a relatively modern commercial center.
Undoing all of this – and a wholesale reversion to the dark days – would be almost impossible without costly full-scale repression.
“The military playbook from the early 2000s is very out of date,” said Richard Horsey, an independent Yangon-based analyst. “It doesn’t take into account social media, it doesn’t take into account Facebook, it doesn’t take into account that most of the country is online.”
Communications, he added, were forced back open Tuesday after essentials that cropped up only in recent years – ATMs, mobile payments, credit card machines – failed to function during this week’s outages.
“This is a very different world that [the military] are seeking to control, and requires a very different way of doing this,” Horsey said.
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Monday’s coup capped weeks of political tensions. The military and its proxy political party had been alleging widespread fraud in the November vote, claims the election commission dismissed as baseless.
The military has declared a state of emergency for a year, and promised to hold fresh elections after that. It has said little else besides rehashing electoral grievances and publishing a brief six-step plan that referred to quelling ethnic conflicts, tackling the coronavirus pandemic and reconstituting the election commission.
The NLD’s executive committee on Tuesday said in a statement that it had made three demands of the military, including the release of all detainees, a promise to recognize and honor the election results, and to allow the formation of a new parliament in line with the vote.
The military began releasing detained NLD ministers. Other lawmakers, though, remained trapped in their guesthouses – spartan rooms with bunk beds and limited cooking facilities. One lawmaker said a grocery truck arrived on Monday evening, joining the armed soldiers and police on guard, allowing them to purchase some supplies.
“We still can’t leave the compound,” said Ma Thandar, an NLD lawmaker, whose husband died in military custody in 2014. But, she said, they were “now able to use Facebook and their phones” and contact family and friends.
More worrying, she added, is the condition of Suu Kyi, remains detained without indications of whether the military will release her. Ma Thandar’s late husband, Ko Par Gyi, was also Suu Kyi’s bodyguard, but she noted the NLD – stuffed with former political prisoners – was prepared to deal with persecution.
“I know our people have experiences in facing this kind of situation,” she said. “So, we will act calmly.”
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The army’s actions shook Myanmar’s diplomatic partners, including the United States, which helped nurture the country’s quasi-democratic transition, and China, which had built ties with Suu Kyi and her party.
“China prefers a stable Myanmar, a normal country they can work with,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center who specializes in China-Myanmar relations. “China has learned . . . that the NLD, though democratically elected, does not equate to bad news for China.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has met Suu Kyi several times, most recently last month, when he declared his support for the “smooth administration” of her government. Beijing was working with the NLD on several projects in the country, including an economic corridor, an urban project in Yangon, and a deep sea port.
Beijing, Sun pointed out, was able to repair its reputation in Myanmar because Suu Kyi was close to China.
“Bull Piano,” a blog on WeChat that is associated with China’s official Xinhua News Agency but does not represent government positions, said that China’s reaction to Myanmar’s coup was “with more worry and concern” than the West.
“Let’s not forget that in the past few years, there have been many instances of bombs being thrown into Chinese territory from Myanmar, causing deaths and injuries to our border people,” the anonymous writer said, referencing the ethnic conflicts that rage there. “If Myanmar is not stable, it will seriously affect the tranquility of China’s southwestern border.”
Meanwhile, civil society groups angry at the military’s power grab have begun organizing acts of civil disobedience. While Suu Kyi, 75, and her party of mostly octogenarians who rose to prominence in 1988 have not worked to nurture a new generation of leaders, liberal young activists have found their own voice.
Empowered by Facebook, secure messaging apps and other social media, this group is finding ways to fight back on their terms. Many changed their Facebook profiles to black squares. Some doctors from government hospitals vowed not to work with the new military government – crippling in a time of a pandemic. Myanmar was just beginning its rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, a program led by Suu Kyi.
These acts of resistance will thwart the military’s efforts. Few believe that results of a fair election will change if a vote is indeed called after a year under military rule.
“People didn’t like the coup,” said Ma Thandar. “And as a consequence of this, the NLD will just gain more support.”
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The Washington Post’s Aung Naing Soe in Yangon and Alicia Chen in Taipei contributed to this report.