The Myanmar military’s illegitimate seizure of power on 1 February, 2021 marks an extremely dark day in Myanmar’s history and harks back to a time of military dictatorship which many in Myanmar had strived tirelessly to end. In a feckless power-grab, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing ordered tanks into the streets and for the unlawful and arbitrary detention of the State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint and other political figures, civil society activists and military critics, in the early morning raid hours before parliament was to convene, in a historical parallel to the Ne Win led coup d’état on the eve of the opening of the Federal Seminar on 2 March,1962.
The path to the coup has been signposted with many red flags, such as before the 8 November 2020 elections when the Myanmar military called into question the Union Election Commission (UEC)’s handling of voter lists, early voting procedures and weaknesses in observing political party campaigning. In two statements, Min Aung Hlaing accused the UEC of incompetence and placed the blame for its alleged deficiencies squarely with the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government. The NLD government was elected in a landslide victory, securing 83% of the vote, 315 of the 440 seats in the lower house and 161 of the 224 seats in the upper house of the Hluttaw. However, the military and its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), have made unsubstantiated claims of 8.6 million irregularities in voter lists, including people voting twice, underage voting and voters not having identification. There has been no evidence made publicly available to substantiate these allegations. The UEC has denied these claims, urging those with concerns to go through the correct legal channels. A joint statement made by domestic election observer organizations on 29 January, 2021, found “the results of the elections were credible and reflected the will of the majority of voters”, through their observations of voter list display, campaigning, advanced voting, election day and tabulation of votes. While these groups readily admit electoral reform is needed, they reject the military’s assertions and call for post-election stability and the peaceful transition of power.
Yet, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, sought under the pretense of articles 417 and 418 of the flawed military-drafted Constitution to transfer control of the executive, legislative and judiciary power to himself, forcibly removing the President from office through the military appointment of Vice-President and former lieutenant-general Myint Swe (now Acting President), who called a state of emergency and triggered the above articles. Concerningly, Article 420 provides the Commander-in-Chief may restrict or suspend the fundamental rights of citizens during the state of emergency, with no redress from the courts. Furthermore, Article 432 confers wide discretionary power for the Commander-in-Chief to act and to do so without any legal redress.
The coup took place under the cover of a telecommunications and internet shutdown, orchestrated to coincide with the arrests of government ministers and pro-democracy activists in order to sow fear, hide wrongdoing and stop the spread of information. Many people felt trapped in this situation, unable to take refuge outside their homes due to the restrictions in place under COVID-19. A recent report by Progressive Voice shows how these restrictions have been weaponized by the Myanmar military to suppress human rights activists and defenders, contributing to a further shrinking of civil society space. Heightened vigilance and strong support from international actors to call for the protection of these human rights defenders, journalists and activists is urgently needed. One anonymous activist from Myitkyina describes human rights defenders in an interview with Time stating “We are like birds in a cage; anyone can be arrested….anything can happen under this military regime.” On Monday, ultranationalists and pro-military protesters have been inciting violence in the streets, including the beating of a photojournalist documenting the day’s events. Meanwhile, the military, the military-backed USDP and ultranationalists continue to use social media platforms without repercussions, particularly on Facebook, to incite violence and stoke fear.
Despite attempts by the government for a transition towards democracy, the NLD was unable to keep the influential force of the military out of politics, while simultaneously being unwilling and unable to stop the Myanmar military from inflicting grave human rights violations against civilians. While the world’s attention is squarely focused on the coup, artillery shells were being dropped by the Myanmar military on villages in Hpapun and Nyaunglebin districts, Karen State. In early December 2020, the military – in breach of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement – began increasing their military presence, entered designated Karen National Union territory, and targeted civilians with artillery shelling and burning of villages. This is the latest fighting undertaken by Myanmar military’s unrelenting war machine, which moves cyclically from ethnic area to ethnic area. Between 2018-2020, Rakhine State saw some of the worst fighting in Myanmar in decades, a state which saw the genocide of the Rohingya and countless human rights violations. The same military which stands accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity undertook the coup.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) have been staunch in their opposition against the coup and ongoing violence, coming together to call out and resist the actions of the military. In a joint statement by 123 local, regional and international CSOs denouncing the coup, the groups were unified in stating “How the military has acted has proven it has never been committed to any democratic change. It has always been interested in preserving power”. Echoing these sentiments and in response to the coup, Progressive Voice’s Executive Director, Nang Zun Moe states, “The Myanmar military have made their intentions very clear, they are unwilling to make strides towards federal democracy but instead they suppress opposition, human rights defenders and activists, as well as persecuting ethnic and religious minorities. Swift and decisive steps are needed to be taken by the international community to support existing civil society actions on the ground, as well as instituting targeted sanctions against the military, military enterprises and their crony partners.” In addition to these actions, a sporadic civil disobedience campaign has begun in opposition to the military coup, including hundreds of doctors and medical staff in Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw and other cities pledging to stop work. Additionally, people are coordinating to boycott military-linked business, services and products, such as Mytel and Myanmar beer. Small businesses are taking down Mytel signs from storefronts, business owners are burning Mytel sim cards and customers are refusing to buy military-linked products.
The time for soft diplomacy has long run its course, and global condemnation for the military’s actions must be turned into action. Thus, the UN Security Council must unequivocally hold the Myanmar military to account, by establishing a global arms embargo, targeted sanctions on the military and refer the situation of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court – to address decades of impunity for human rights abuses, including genocide, crimes against humanity (including sexual and gender-based violence) and war crimes. The international community must take collective and concerted action against the Myanmar military by placing strategic and targeted sanctions on Min Aung Hlaing and other senior military figures, military enterprises and military associated crony businesses, with the least impact on civilians.
Furthermore, the international community needs to facilitate and ensure the protection of civilians, human rights defenders, civil society, democracy activists and those working for vulnerable populations in ethnic regions. Social media companies have a vital role to play – particularly Facebook – and must immediately shut down military, ultranationalists and USDP accounts to end misinformation and the use of social media to incite violence. Finally, ASEAN countries must unequivocally denounce the actions of the Myanmar military and co-ordinate a joint response to call for a return to civilian-led government, without delay. The coup represents the failure of the international governments, which have allowed the Myanmar military to continue to act with blanket impunity and without consequences, despite persistent and repeated calls by principled human rights groups in Myanmar and from their regional and international partners to act. The international community must now show resolve through actions, protections, and standing together with the people of Myanmar and civil society groups to uphold democracy and human rights.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”