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Why the coup in Myanmar doesn't make sense

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

At this moment in time, we know a lot about the recent coup that occurred in Myanmar. We know when it happened - it happened early in the morning on the 1st February 2021 as senior politicians, writers and activists were detained around the country. We know who is now in charge: experienced military commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing, who has set himself up with the catchy title of, “Chairman of the State Administration Council of Myanmar”. We can understand much of the precarious situation the 54 million Burmese citizens find themselves in. For the first time in 10 years, they are subject to an illegitimate military dictatorship with much of the rights and freedoms they have come to enjoy vanishing overnight. What really remains a mystery still in all this is the why.

Recent pro-democracy protest in Taunggyi, Myanmar

Why would the military seek to overthrow the government when they had such a good deal under the old regime?

To begin with, the image of so-called Burmese “democracy” that we have to be familiar with since the dissolution of the military junta in 2011 and the democratic elections of 2012 and 2015, is actually a somewhat deceptive notion. Myanmar has never been a whole democracy: the military-drafted constitution ensured that unelected military representatives take up 25% of seats in the Hluttaw (Burmese parliament) and have a complete veto over any change to the constitution. In practical terms this means that the military continued to have a strong presence in the day-to-day running of the country. As well as having a dominant presence in any major changes to the country’s constitution as the government found itself perpetually at the mercy of the military’s veto power – having to constantly cater any constitutional changes to the military’s wants.

Secondly, the UN and other organisations raised concerns over potential voter intimidation towards minority groups like the Rohingya, and the possibility of results tampering by the party with the strongest connections to the old military Junta – Union Solidarity and Development Party. Despite this the BBC still reported that at the time of the 2015 election that observers had accepted that the process was credible enough and that the result, on the whole, reflected the will of the people. Thus, while the Burmese people certainly gained access to more freedoms and voting rights, and the government was able to make some reforms, the country still remained largely in the thrall of the old military establishment.

That wasn’t the only beneficial part of the old regime for the military. After the 1962 coup where the military took control under the Burma Socialist Programme Party there followed a process of consolidation and centralisation of all Burmese industry – under the military’s control. This served to enrich those in power and ensure the continuation of the regime as its control over its citizens life become so absolute.

Rohingya refugees pictured as they crossed into Bangladesh in September 2017

Fast forward to the present day and the military ties to industry remain strong. Currently there are two major conglomerates with strong ties to old regime: Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). In the period after the democratic reforms of the late 2000s the previously isolated country enjoyed a period of international free trade. The EU lifted its sanctions in April 2012 and the US followed suit that July. Thereafter followed much foreign investment. A major example of such investment was the South Korean Inno Group which invested in a joint venture with the MEHL to develop three 30-storey and two 29-storey serviced apartment buildings, and a 13-floor business hotel, convention centre, and bus terminal in Yangon. In the wake of the Rohingya genocide some companies did choose to pull their investments which did have a negative effect on the economy, but not a devastating one. It didn’t deter further investment like with the Japanese beverage giant Kirin which invested in a joint venture with a military owned firm to produce beer in 2015. This all meant that despite the ending of an absolute military dictatorship the old militants still held great parliamentary power and were actually being enriched, considerably, by the introduction of a limited democracy.

Thus, we return to the aforementioned question: Why would the military seek to overthrow the government when they had such a good deal under the old regime?

Some ideas

The main theory being purported is that the military carried out this coup as they felt their political power was under threat. In the recent elections held on November 8th Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy won in a landslide vote – winning 83% the Hluttaw’s available seats. This infuriated the military who claimed the election was fraudulent, built a legal case, which they took to the country’s high court and lost. Despite their election loss there never was any real threat to the military’s hold on parliamentary power because of the aforementioned guaranteed 25% of seats and the veto vote on any changes to the constitution. There was no talk of revoking either of those privileges.

Aung San Suu Kyi pictured here in 2014

Another possible threat to military power could have been the threat of punishment from the international community over the Rohingya genocide. There are currently two cases underway at the International Court of Justice over the treatment of the Rohingya, at least one accusing genocide. Nevertheless, it seems an odd choice for the military to go after Aung San Suu Kyi over this considering how she stood up in the Hague in late 2019 to defend the military’s actions: accepting that perhaps “disproportionate force” had been used against Rohingya but that it in no way amounted to genocide. In 2018 she went as far to call the military generals in her cabinet responsible for the genocide: “rather sweet”. These cases were also in their infancy – cases can take decades to work their way through the International Court of Justice, so they posed no imminent threat to the military’s position.

It remains puzzling as to why the military would want to go ahead with this coup now: when their political position remained strong and they themselves were being enriched on a scale never before known as foreign investments poured in. International backlash against the 2021 coup has been swift and devastating to Myanmar’s economic prospects. The military establishment’s interests are currently being heavily targeted by sanctions from the west including by the US and EU. In addition to major corporations pulling out of many of the joint ventures they had entered into with the military: for instance the previously cited Kirin holdings, announced it would end its joint venture with the MEHL, a deal that in 2015 was valued at K500 billion (£256 million), a major boost to Myanmar’s economy. In the coming years perhaps another revealing dimension to the military’s decision may come to light, but until then journalists and observers will continue to ask: why?

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