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The power and ambition behind Myanmar’s coup

Aung San Suu Kyi is back in familiar territory, under arrest. Early Monday morning she, along with the President and many others, was arrested in a cunning move by the military.

So far, at least 30 people have been arrested, possibly more. No news on their whereabouts has emerged.

Aung San Suu Kyi (left) who has been detained in the coup, walks with General Min Aung Hlaing (right) in 2016.Credit:AP

This coup was well-planned by the military. They knew all key politicians would be gathered in Naypyidaw, the capital city built by the military, for the start of the Parliament and inauguration of the new government.

The military declared a constitutional emergency, claiming there was large-scale voter fraud at the 2020 elections and that parliament should be postponed until the matter was resolved. It issued statements to the effect that the Vice-President, General Myint Swe, has become the acting President. This appears to imply the president – willingly or unwillingly – has relinquished his office.

This state of emergency places the Commander in Chief in charge. Parliament has ceased to exist.

Moreover, it gives the Commander in Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, all power for an entire year, including the power to limit rights. This means we could see curfews or other restrictions imposed on the people of Myanmar in the coming days.

A Burmese protester living in Thailand holds a picture of Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing.Credit:AP

The state of emergency only comes to an end when the Commander in Chief says so to the acting President, General Myint Swe.

However, there are big flaws in the military’s claims. First, this is a manufactured emergency. The military has provided no evidence of voter fraud. What we do know is that Min Aung Hlaing had ambitions to be president. To do that, he needed the military-backed political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), to win at least one-third of the votes. They didn’t, and his presidential ambitions had been in tatters.

He was also in a bind because he was required to retire from his post as Commander in Chief at the age of 65, this year. It is still unclear whether he will step down or whether the military will change the law to allow him to stay in office longer.

Soldiers sit inside trucks parked on a road in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Credit:AP

Second, it’s not clear at all that the president has willingly left office. He is under arrest and presumably had no intention of stepping down.

Third, the president can only declare an emergency after consulting with the National Defence and Security Council. The military claims there was a meeting of the council, but this is impossible. Although half of the council are military officers, the other half are not. The council includes the president, second (civilian) vice-president, and the speakers of the upper and lower house, who do not appear to have been arrested on Monday morning.

What the military did do is prove that they are above the constitution. They are the fourth branch of government. The rules don’t always apply to them. The constitution matters, except when it applies to the military.

What happens from here? The military rules by decree. No parliament. No free media. And possibly increasing restrictions on individuals and potentially more arrests.

Posters bearing the face of Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing during a demonstration in Tokyo on Monday against the military coup in Myanmar.Credit:Getty

The military could rule for a year, as it says, and then hold a fresh election. Such an election is likely to be highly orchestrated by the military. And would they really let the National League for Democracy, which won in a landslide in November, run against them again? It’s unlikely.

Another alternative is that the Commander in Chief prolongs the state of emergency beyond the year.

Aung San Suu Kyi last week inspecting the vaccination processes of health workers at a hospital in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. Credit:AP

What is clear is that the military was wrong to claim this is a constitutional emergency. This is a coup. And this is not what people in Myanmar want or need.

There have been about 140,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 3000 deaths. The economic costs of COVID-19 have been just as severe.

For a younger generation who have not lived through a coup, they are angry and frustrated and scared. A coup is narrow-minded, selfish and arrogant during a global pandemic.

For the older generation who lived through the events of 1988, there is a troubling sense of deja vu. Can the military even be trusted to return to civilian rule after disregarding the 1990 election results and holding onto power until 2010?

The military has just lost any shred of respect from its people. It can’t claim to act according to the Constitution and then act outside of it.

Melissa Crouch is Professor at the University of New South Wales and author of the book, The Constitution of Myanmar.

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