Myanmar's generals take firm control after coup despite global outcry

So much for world leaders’ threats: Myanmar’s generals take firm control after coup, with soldiers patrolling the streets despite international outcry – while China dismisses ‘cabinet reshuffle’

  • Myanmar’s military is in firm control of the country today after staging a surgical coup early on Monday
  • Armoured vehicles and soldiers are patrolling the capital Naypyidaw, where Aung San Suu Kyi is being held
  • Generals consolidated control despite threats from world leaders, including Biden who called for sanctions
  • China was one of the few countries to dismiss the coup, with state media referring to it as a ‘cabinet reshuffle’

Myanmar’s generals consolidated their control of the country today after staging a surgical coup that saw defacto leader Aung San Suu Kyi placed under house arrest and all powers transferred to the army.

Armoured personnel carriers and soldiers were seen patrolling the streets of capital Naypyidaw, where Ms Suu Kyi is being held under house arrest along with president Win Myint. 

Military leaders assumed full control despite threats from world leaders – led by President Joe Biden – who threatened to impose sanctions and take ‘appropriate action’.

While most countries and international organisations spoke out to condemn the coup, China pointedly dismissed it – with state media calling it a ‘cabinet reshuffle’.

Myanmar’s military was in full control today as armoured vehicles patrolled the streets of the capital Naypyidaw (pictured), where roadblocks were also being enforced

A soldier stands guard at a gate near the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw, where it is thought president Win Myint is being held under house arrest

It also emerged that politicians not rounded up at their houses on Monday are being held at a parliamentary dormitory in Naypyidaw, which has been placed under armed guard (pictured)

Soldiers keep watch along a blockaded road near Myanmar’s Parliament in Naypyidaw as the military consolidates control

A car is seen leaving the Yangon home of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is believed to be inside and being held under house arrest

Ms Suu Kyi (right) was forced from power on Monday in a coup, with all of her powers transferred to the country’s commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (left)

Why has the military staged a coup?

Myanmar’s military is central to the country’s political life – it led the fight for independence in 1948, formed the country’s first government, and then ruled as a junta for five decades after abandoning democracy in 1962.

That all appeared to change in 2010 with a return to democracy that saw an elected government sworn in – though in reality the military was guaranteed control of key ministries and 25 per cent of seats in parliament.

Free elections held in 2015 saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party win a large majority with the military hammered, amid the belief that she would reform the constitution and remove the military from power altogether.

More elections held last year handed an even larger share of power to Suu Kyi, prompting fears among military top-brass that their powers were about to be removed.

On Monday, just hours before the new government was due to be sworn in, the military struck – arresting Suu Kyi, president Win Myint, and many of the country’s most-influential MPs – officially for ‘voter fraud’.

With border closures already in place and international governments distracted by domestic issues and the coronavirus pandemic, they have faced few obstacles. 

A year-long state of emergency has now been declared, Vice President Myint Swe – a former general – declared leader, and banks shut until further notice.

‘Free’ elections will take place after the state of emergency ends, the military has claimed. 

In a sign of how complete the coup was, it emerged today that politicians not rounded up at their homes on Monday are being held inside a parliamentary dormitory in Naypyidaw, which has been placed under guard.  

One MP for Suu Kyi’s NLD party described the compound as ‘an open-air detention centre’.

‘We are not allowed to go outside,’ she told AFP by telephone, requesting anonymity for fear of the military. ‘We are very worried.’

Suu Kyi and President Win Myint remained under house arrest, the lawmaker told AFP, although it was not immediately clear where they were being held.

‘We were told not to worry. However we are worrying. It would be a relief if we could see photos of them at home,’ she said.

Despite the intimidation, a statement was posted on the NLD’s verified Facebook page calling for the release of Suu Kyi and all detained party members.

‘We see this as a stain on the history of the State and the Tatmadaw,’ it added, referring to the military by its Burmese name.

It also demanded the military ‘recognise the confirmed result of the 2020 general election’.

The military justified its seizure of power by alleging widespread fraud in elections held three months ago that the NLD won in a landslide.

The military announced on Monday that it would hold power under a state of emergency for 12 months, claiming it would then hold fresh elections.

Biden led the chorus of global outrage, calling for a quick restoration of democracy and warning that Washington could reimpose sanctions.

‘The international community should come together in one voice to press the Burmese military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized,’ Biden said.

The President pointedly chose to refer to Myanmar by its former name – Burma – which the US has never officially recognised because it was changed by the military in 1989 in an undemocratic process.

In recent years, US diplomats have referred to the country as Myanmar as a ‘courtesy’ due to democratic reforms – signalling the time for courtesy is over.

‘The United States is taking note of those who stand with the people of Burma in this difficult hour,’ Biden added.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the European Union and Australia were among others to condemn the coup. Britain summoned Myanmar’s envoy in formal protest.

But China declined to criticise anyone, instead calling for all sides to ‘resolve differences’. 

China’s official Xinhua news agency’ described the coup as a ‘cabinet reshuffle’.

The United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting on the situation for Tuesday.

Myanmar’s November polls were only the second democratic elections the country had seen since it emerged from the 49-year grip of military rule in 2011.

The NLD won more than 80 percent of the vote in November – increasing its support from the 2015 elections.

But the military claimed to have uncovered more than 10 million instances of voter fraud.

Although the military had flagged last week it was considering a coup, Monday’s events seemed to stun the country and power was seized extremely quickly.

The military severely disrupted the internet as the coup was unfolding, but then eased restrictions later in the day.

On Tuesday there were few signs of extra security in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and commercial capital, indicating the generals’ comfort levels that, for now, they faced no mass protests.

‘We want to go out to show our dissatisfaction,’ a taxi driver told AFP early Tuesday morning.

‘But Mother Suu is in their hands. We cannot do much but stay quiet at this moment.’

General’s daughter-turned freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi 

Aung San Suu Kyi was born under British rule in what was then Burma to General Aung San, one of the heroes of the country’s fight for independence.

General San was assassinated in 1948, while Ms Suu Kyi was just two years old and shortly before the country gained independence.

In 1960 – two years before the country entered full dictatorship – she left her home country for India, where her mother had been appointed ambassador in Delhi.

Four years later Ms Suu Kyi went to study philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University where she met her future husband, British academic Michael Aris.

Suu Kyi and her British husband Michael Aris are pictured with son Alexander in London in 1973

An historian who lectured on Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan culture and history, Ms Suu Kyi married Aris in a Buddhist ceremony in 1972. 

Ms Suu Kyi spent some time after the wedding living and working in Japan and Bhutan, where Aris was private tutor to the monarch’s children, before the couple settled in the UK to raise their own children – Alexander and Kim.

In 1988, Ms Suu Kyi returned to her home country – at first to tend to her critically-ill mother, but soon became embroiled in pro-democracy protests after the country’s military ruler General Ne Win stepped down.

Placed under house arrest in 1989, the military held elections the following year which Ms Suu Kyi won – though they decided to ignore the result.

She was kept under house arrest for the next six years, during which time she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, before being freed in 1995 – though kept under strict travel restrictions and bans on speaking to media.

Ms Suu Kyi last saw her husband that same year, before he died from prostate cancer in Oxford in 1999. 

Over the next decade she continued to press for democratic reform of Myanmar while spending time in and out of house arrest – and was locked up during the country’s first elections in 2010.

In 2012 she won a seat as an MP and was sworn in as leader of the opposition. Her party won power in 2015, and while she became defacto leader of the country she was banned from the official role because her children are British. 

Myanmar’s commander-in-chief and new leader, General Min Aung Hlaing 

General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s military, is now the country’s leader after being handed control of the government using powers embedded in the constitution.

Born in 1956 in then-Burma as the son of a civil engineer, Hlaing studied law at the Rangoon Arts and Science University – where classmates remembered him as a reserved student with little interest in politics. 

While fellow students joined demonstrations, Hlaing made annual applications to join the premier military university, the Defence Services Academy (DSA), succeeding on his third attempt in 1974.

General Min Aung Hlaing, who is now the country’s ruler after a coup against the government

According to a member of his DSA class he was an average cadet.

‘He was promoted regularly and slowly,’ said the classmate, adding that he had been surprised to see Hlaing rise beyond the officer corps’ middle ranks.

In fact, Hlaing took over the running of the military in 2011 as Myanmar’s transition to democracy began. 

By the onset of Suu Kyi’s first term in 2016, he had transformed himself from a soldier into a politician – using a popular Facebook page to promote his activities and meetings with dignitaries. 

Hlaing studied other political transitions, diplomats and observers said, and has made much of the need to avoid the chaos seen in Libya and other Middle Eastern countries after regime change in 2011. 

Hlaing extended his term at the helm of the military for another five years in February 2016, a step that surprised observers who expected him to step aside that year during a regular army leadership reshuffle.

He has been opposed to reforming the country’s constitution which handed the military a 25 per cent share of seats and bars Suu Kyi from holding power directly.

He was also one of the military leaders sanctioned in 2019 for a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims that was widely condemned as genocide.

Hlaing was facing forced retirement from the military this year and had been eyeing up a career in politics as a way to remain in power, analysts said, and may have now concluded that a coup is his only chance to hang on. 

Myanmar soldiers stand inside Yangon City Hall after they occupied the building

Soldiers patrol the grounds of Yangon’s city hall building after the military seized control in a coup on Monday

Myanmar soldiers stand guard on a road in the capital of Naypyitaw while checking vehicles that pass through

Members of the military stand guard outside a dormitory building that is used to house members of the country’s parliament, but which has been turned into an open-air prison

Soldiers keep watch at a checkpoint at the royal palace in Mandalay on Tuesday, following a coup 24 hours earlier

People line up outside a bank branch in Yangon after the military severely restricted access to money as part of the coup

Military chief and coup leader Min Aung Hlaing is now in charge of the country, although former general Myint Swe is acting president.

Min Aung Hlaing is an international pariah, having been banned on Facebook and under US sanctions for a military campaign against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohinyga community that the United States has described as ethnic cleansing.

Suu Kyi, 75, is an immensely popular figure in Myanmar for her opposition to the military – which earned her the Nobel Peace Prize – having spent the best part of two decades under house arrest during the previous dictatorship.

But her international image was shredded during her time in power as she defended the military-backed crackdown in 2017 against the Rohingya.

About 750,000 Rohingya were forced to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh during the campaign, which UN investigators said amounted to genocide.

Derek Mitchell, the first US ambassador to Myanmar after military rule, said the international community still needed to respect Suu Kyi’s overwhelming victory in November.

The West ‘may have considered her this global icon of democracy and that luster is off. But if you care about democracy in the world, then you must respect the democratic choice and she is clearly that’.

‘It’s not about the person; it’s about the process,’ he said.

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