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Explained: Myanmar’s Military History & What Led To Recent Coup

How has the political history of Myanmar shaped the country’s current politics?

Updated
World
6 min read
Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi was detained, along with her ally President Win Myint, and other senior leaders early on Monday, 1 February, following a military coup in the country.
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Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi was detained, along with her ally President Win Myint, and other senior leaders early on Monday, 1 February, following a military coup in the country.

Ever since the coup, the death toll in Myanmar has been on the rise, as security forces grow increasingly violent in suppressing those protesting the coup.

Over 100 anti-coup protesters were reportedly killed in the country by its security forces, on Myanmar’s Armed Forced Day (27 March) alone.

India’s Union Home Ministry too has written to the governments of the border states of Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as the Assam Rifles, seeking the identification and deportation of Myanmar nationals trying to escape the military coup. This comes even as Mizoram government attempts to provide refuge to those fleeing the country.

Myanmar's Ambassador to the United Nations had earlier, reportedly, appealed to India and the various governments of its states bordering the country to provide shelter to refugees, given the humanitarian crisis unfolding there.

Explained: Myanmar’s Military History & What Led To Recent Coup

  1. 1. History of Military Junta: 'The Burmese Way to Socialism'

    Burma became an independent nation in 1948 with U Nu heading the government and the ruling Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) which had resisted the Japanese occupation with help from the British Empire.

    The entry of the military into state politics for the first time was in 1958, when following a split in the AFPFL, Chief of Staff General Ne Win was asked to serve as the interim prime minister.

    When Ne Win was appointed Chief of Staff in 1949, he was given total control of the Army, which he went onto restructure along Socialist lines. And this was going to come back to haunt Burma’s democratic politics in 1962.

    In 1960’s election as U Nu emerged victorious, Ne Win handed him back the government. However, two years later in 1962, he snatched it back in what was said to be a “bloodless coup”.

    Ne Win steered the state to the “Burmese Way to Socialism” with a mixture of Buddhism and Socialism, as he dismantled the federal structure and installed the Socialist Programme Party (SPP) as the only legal party in the state.

    Expand
  2. 2. Anti-Government Protests

    Ne Win embarked on an isolationist policy for Burma for the next two decades. He brought a slew of changes when he came to power such as nationalising the economy, banning free media, free healthcare for all, expelling foreigners, and jailing political adversaries.

    With a sluggish economy, uncontrolled inflation, and repeated demonetisations to curb the black market, Burma soon paid the price of Ne Win’s disastrous policies.

    As the demonetisation of 1987 wiped off people’s savings, massive anti-government riots broke out as students, monks, and workers rose in rebellion. While thousands of people were killed in the riots, the increasing resentment against the military rule’s economic mismanagement and heavy-handedness became evident amongst pro-democracy groups.

    But by the time Ne Win stepped down as the Chairman of SPP in 1988, Burma’s economic status had fallen so low that the UN declared it as one of the “Least Developed Nations”, according to The Guardian.

    General General Saw Maung, who replaced Ne Win, then established The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to win back people’s trust. And it was around the same time that Aung San Suu Kyi co-founded the NLD with an aim to bring back democratic processes without any military intervention.

    Expand
  3. 3. Junta Rejects Election Results

    In 1989, Burma is renamed Myanmar, while its capital Rangoon is renamed Yangon. And Aung San Suu Kyi – daughter of Aung San (a leader of AFPFL who was assassinated by political opponents soon after Burma’s liberation) – is put under house arrest in a bid to thwart political organisations.

    In 1990, the NLD wins the majority of the legislative seats in the Myanmar’s free election in nearly three decades with the support of ethnic minority groups who had been victimised under the military rule. This was not an election to form a new government, rather the election was to form a constitutional committee to draft a new constitution.

    But the junta rejects the result and refuses to hand over the power to the people and thus begins a two-decade-long struggle for democracy as support for Suu Kyi increases internationally.

    While the junta made attempts to correct its international image, Suu Kyi was released from her house arrest in 1995, only to arrest hundreds of NLD leaders a year later.

    Expand
  4. 4. Junta Attempts Image Makeover With a Nudge From International Organisations

    Since the beginning of the 2000s, Myanmar witnessed a rather impetuous relationship between the State and the NLD.

    With the country’s rights abuses in international limelight, the military government was prompted to take progressive steps such as releasing pro-democracy leaders from jail and working to implement democratic systems.

    The UN, the European Union, the International Labour Organisation and even the International Committee of the Red Cross criticised Myanmar government’s military regime for human rights abuses, as per a report on BBC.

    Expand
  5. 5. An Attempt Towards Democratic Elections

    As dissent continued to grow and fuel prices continued to rise, there came another bout of massive anti-government protests in 2007 led by Buddhist monks that came to be known as the “Saffron Revolution”.

    In 2009, while Suu Kyi is arrested and charged with government subversion for breaching house arrest rules, a year later the junta proposes a new constitution with a quarter of seats being allocated to the military but bans Suu Kyi from participating in the elections.

    Several military leaders in the government resign from their posts to participate in the democratic elections but the NLD boycotted the election and officially dissolved.

    The first democratic election in 20 years to form a government is held in 2010, where the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) wins the majority and former General Thein Sein assumes power, although the Opposition groups to alleged an election fraud.

    Expand
  6. 6. Myanmar Gets First Democratically Elected Govt in 50 Years

    Soon after the elections, in 2010, Suu Kyi is released from detention after 14 years, along with other political leaders. As she rejoins the political processes, the NLD re-registers as a political party for the next elections in 2015.

    Led by Suu Kyi, the NLD wins enough seats. And after almost 50 years of a military government, Myanmar forms a democratically elected government.

    Expand
  7. 7. Trouble Continues Under NLD Govt

    The NLD government’s reign has been anything but smooth, especially with Suu Kyi turning the other way as Myanmar’s military leaders have been accused of carrying out genocide and war crimes against Rohingya Muslims.

    Endless persecution from the military on one side, and Rohingya insurgents launching attacks across Rakhine on the other, led to one of the largest exodus witnessed in Asia in recent times.

    Expand
  8. 8. Myanmar Military Accuses Civilian Govt of Violating Election Laws

    Ahead of the election, the Myanmar election commission also cancelled voting in a number of areas across the Rakhine State, claiming that they “are not in a position to hold a free and fair election.”

    In the run upto the second democratic election since 2015, Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing said the civilian government is making “unacceptable mistakes”.

    He reportedly told Popular News Journal, a local news outlet, that as the “guardian” of the country, the military forces was watching preparations closely, as he went onto accusing the election commission of “widespread violation of the laws and procedures of the pre-voting process”.

    Expand
  9. 9. Military-Backed Party Demands Re-Election

    As Suu Kyi’s party inched closer towards a resounding victory in the country’s election in November 2020, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party demanded a re-election.

    The NLD’s main Opposition party alleged irregularities like poor-quality ballot boxes and envelopes and government bribes and urged for a re-election “in order to have an election that is free, fair, unbiased and free from unfair campaigning”.

    Even though the military denied planning any coup, even going onto vowing to protect the Constitution, in January 2021, Military Spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun warns it will “take action” if the election dispute is not settled.

    Even though the election commission rejected allegations of voter fraud, the Army asked them to look into discrepancies. Days after, Suu Kyi and other leaders were detained, as the military declared emergency via a TV broadcast.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand
A crisis has been brewing in the country between the military and the democratically-elected government ever since Suu Kyi’s party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – claimed a resounding victory in the country’s elections on 9 November 2020.

However, even as Myanmar’s military vowed to honour and protect the state’s Constitution only two days back, on 30 January, it went ahead and declared a one-year emergency just hours before the Parliament was to resume for the first time since the elections. The military has, on their part, also been alleging “election fraud”

The Suu Kyi-led NLD had formed the first democratically elected government in 2015 after a 50-year-long military junta rule in the country.

But what are the events that led to the recent coup? How has the political history of Myanmar shaped the country’s current politics? Let’s go to the very beginning when Myanmar (then Burma) became an independent state.

History of Military Junta: 'The Burmese Way to Socialism'

Burma became an independent nation in 1948 with U Nu heading the government and the ruling Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) which had resisted the Japanese occupation with help from the British Empire.

The entry of the military into state politics for the first time was in 1958, when following a split in the AFPFL, Chief of Staff General Ne Win was asked to serve as the interim prime minister.

When Ne Win was appointed Chief of Staff in 1949, he was given total control of the Army, which he went onto restructure along Socialist lines. And this was going to come back to haunt Burma’s democratic politics in 1962.

In 1960’s election as U Nu emerged victorious, Ne Win handed him back the government. However, two years later in 1962, he snatched it back in what was said to be a “bloodless coup”.

Ne Win steered the state to the “Burmese Way to Socialism” with a mixture of Buddhism and Socialism, as he dismantled the federal structure and installed the Socialist Programme Party (SPP) as the only legal party in the state.

ADVERTISEMENT

Anti-Government Protests

Ne Win embarked on an isolationist policy for Burma for the next two decades. He brought a slew of changes when he came to power such as nationalising the economy, banning free media, free healthcare for all, expelling foreigners, and jailing political adversaries.

With a sluggish economy, uncontrolled inflation, and repeated demonetisations to curb the black market, Burma soon paid the price of Ne Win’s disastrous policies.

As the demonetisation of 1987 wiped off people’s savings, massive anti-government riots broke out as students, monks, and workers rose in rebellion. While thousands of people were killed in the riots, the increasing resentment against the military rule’s economic mismanagement and heavy-handedness became evident amongst pro-democracy groups.

But by the time Ne Win stepped down as the Chairman of SPP in 1988, Burma’s economic status had fallen so low that the UN declared it as one of the “Least Developed Nations”, according to The Guardian.

General General Saw Maung, who replaced Ne Win, then established The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to win back people’s trust. And it was around the same time that Aung San Suu Kyi co-founded the NLD with an aim to bring back democratic processes without any military intervention.

ADVERTISEMENT

Junta Rejects Election Results

In 1989, Burma is renamed Myanmar, while its capital Rangoon is renamed Yangon. And Aung San Suu Kyi – daughter of Aung San (a leader of AFPFL who was assassinated by political opponents soon after Burma’s liberation) – is put under house arrest in a bid to thwart political organisations.

In 1990, the NLD wins the majority of the legislative seats in the Myanmar’s free election in nearly three decades with the support of ethnic minority groups who had been victimised under the military rule. This was not an election to form a new government, rather the election was to form a constitutional committee to draft a new constitution.

But the junta rejects the result and refuses to hand over the power to the people and thus begins a two-decade-long struggle for democracy as support for Suu Kyi increases internationally.

While the junta made attempts to correct its international image, Suu Kyi was released from her house arrest in 1995, only to arrest hundreds of NLD leaders a year later.

ADVERTISEMENT

Junta Attempts Image Makeover With a Nudge From International Organisations

Since the beginning of the 2000s, Myanmar witnessed a rather impetuous relationship between the State and the NLD.

With the country’s rights abuses in international limelight, the military government was prompted to take progressive steps such as releasing pro-democracy leaders from jail and working to implement democratic systems.

The UN, the European Union, the International Labour Organisation and even the International Committee of the Red Cross criticised Myanmar government’s military regime for human rights abuses, as per a report on BBC.

ADVERTISEMENT

An Attempt Towards Democratic Elections

As dissent continued to grow and fuel prices continued to rise, there came another bout of massive anti-government protests in 2007 led by Buddhist monks that came to be known as the “Saffron Revolution”.

In 2009, while Suu Kyi is arrested and charged with government subversion for breaching house arrest rules, a year later the junta proposes a new constitution with a quarter of seats being allocated to the military but bans Suu Kyi from participating in the elections.

Several military leaders in the government resign from their posts to participate in the democratic elections but the NLD boycotted the election and officially dissolved.

The first democratic election in 20 years to form a government is held in 2010, where the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) wins the majority and former General Thein Sein assumes power, although the Opposition groups to alleged an election fraud.

ADVERTISEMENT

Myanmar Gets First Democratically Elected Govt in 50 Years

Soon after the elections, in 2010, Suu Kyi is released from detention after 14 years, along with other political leaders. As she rejoins the political processes, the NLD re-registers as a political party for the next elections in 2015.

Led by Suu Kyi, the NLD wins enough seats. And after almost 50 years of a military government, Myanmar forms a democratically elected government.

ADVERTISEMENT

Trouble Continues Under NLD Govt

The NLD government’s reign has been anything but smooth, especially with Suu Kyi turning the other way as Myanmar’s military leaders have been accused of carrying out genocide and war crimes against Rohingya Muslims.

Endless persecution from the military on one side, and Rohingya insurgents launching attacks across Rakhine on the other, led to one of the largest exodus witnessed in Asia in recent times.

ADVERTISEMENT

Myanmar Military Accuses Civilian Govt of Violating Election Laws

Ahead of the election, the Myanmar election commission also cancelled voting in a number of areas across the Rakhine State, claiming that they “are not in a position to hold a free and fair election.”

In the run upto the second democratic election since 2015, Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing said the civilian government is making “unacceptable mistakes”.

He reportedly told Popular News Journal, a local news outlet, that as the “guardian” of the country, the military forces was watching preparations closely, as he went onto accusing the election commission of “widespread violation of the laws and procedures of the pre-voting process”.

ADVERTISEMENT

Military-Backed Party Demands Re-Election

As Suu Kyi’s party inched closer towards a resounding victory in the country’s election in November 2020, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party demanded a re-election.

The NLD’s main Opposition party alleged irregularities like poor-quality ballot boxes and envelopes and government bribes and urged for a re-election “in order to have an election that is free, fair, unbiased and free from unfair campaigning”.

Even though the military denied planning any coup, even going onto vowing to protect the Constitution, in January 2021, Military Spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun warns it will “take action” if the election dispute is not settled.

Even though the election commission rejected allegations of voter fraud, the Army asked them to look into discrepancies. Days after, Suu Kyi and other leaders were detained, as the military declared emergency via a TV broadcast.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

ADVERTISEMENT
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