Crowds of people queued for rice, vegetables and cash across Myanmar Monday after a military coup cut most communications and seized the country’s civilian leaders, plunging it into uncertainty five years after Aung San Suu Kyi took power.
In early morning raids before the first sitting of a newly elected legislature, the military swept up the heads of Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, including president U Win Myint and top ministers in central and state governments, one of whom posted a video to Facebook showing the arrival of soldiers.
The military said it was acting under its constitutional authority to defend against a threat to national sovereignty, citing voter fraud and other irregularities in the November election that delivered a sweeping win for Ms. Suu Kyi. Her NLD party won 83 per cent of the vote, taking all but 79 of the 476 parliamentary seats on the ballot. On Monday, the military declared a one-year state of emergency.
In what appeared to be a prewritten statement posted to Facebook, the NLD quoted Ms. Suu Kyi as saying a coup would return Myanmar to “dictatorship.” Her comments, translated by Reuters, urged people “not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military.”
The arrests were accompanied by interruptions to communications across the country, which fuelled fears of further crackdowns. The Irrawaddy, a news outlet, said it “has been unable to contact its bureau chief in Naypyidaw [the capital], where communications have been shut down.” Video posted to Twitter showed soldiers, troop carriers and armoured vehicles assembled outside the parliamentary complex there.
In Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and a former capital – when the country was known as Burma, a name still used in some circles – large lines formed at shops selling rice, vegetables and other goods. Similar scenes took place at ATMs, before most went out of service because of internet outages.
People are worried about instability and being able to continue with life as usual – it’s chaos, a local journalist told The Globe and Mail, which is not identifying him because he feared retribution. Shortly after speaking with The Globe, he left his house and went into hiding in the expectation that the military will seek to imprison independent voices in the country.
“The military is trying to destroy democracy in Burma,” said Aung Marm Oo, the chief editor of Development Media Group, who has been in hiding for more than a year after the military-controlled Home Ministry sought his arrest.
He called for the international community to act. “The democracy struggle is not just for Burma but for the whole world,” he said.
Ottawa quickly decried the coup in a statement Monday. “Canada calls on the Myanmar military to release all individuals who have been detained as part of this operation and immediately halt all obstructions to the democratic process,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said. “Canada will continue to follow this situation closely.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said “the military’s seizure of power in Burma, the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian officials, and the declaration of a national state of emergency are a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law. In a democracy, force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election. ...
“The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action.”
In Beijing, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, “China is a friendly neighbour of Myanmar, and we hope that all parties in Myanmar will properly handle their differences under the constitutional and legal framework, while maintaining political and social stability.”
Ms. Suu Kyi is a Nobel laureate renowned for her perseverance in the cause of democracy, including 15 years spent under house arrest. But her reputation has been tarnished by the persecution of Rohingya people, a mainly Muslim minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, during her time as leader of the civilian government. Although she does not control the military, she has not decried the actions of the armed forces, who have been widely accused of brutalizing the Rohingya through rape, mass killings and the widespread razing of homes. More than 715,000 Rohingya people have fled to Bangladesh since the outbreak of violence on Aug. 25, 2017.
Ms. Suu Kyi has denied accusations that the treatment of the Rohingya amounts to genocide.
But she has not been the country’s paramount power. The country’s constitution guarantees the military 25 per cent of the seats in parliament and leadership of key ministries.
Myanmar has been “under two governments, one military and one civilian,” said Tin Soe, the editor of a Rohingya news service. “And everyone knows the most powerful is the military. So they say it’s a democracy, but this civilian government is like a puppet.”
For that reason, he said, the coup is unlikely to bring much change, although he fears a repeat of history. Myanmar has fallen in and out of military rule since gaining independence in 1948, with the army in control for decades at a time.
The easing of military control that accompanied Ms. Suu Kyi’s rise to power has provided tangible benefits for the country. Myanmar formally instituted an “opening up” policy in 2011; in the six years that followed, it posted the world’s fifth-fastest rate of growth. In 2005, half the country used candles for lighting. By 2017, that had fallen to 7 per cent, after the expansion of electricity services and the growing availability of solar power.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.