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On the 8th of November 2020, Myanmar held its second parliamentary elections after the successful completion of 5 years of democratic rule in a country where the military has historically governed over the population for a large part of the nation’s independent history. In the 2020 election cycle, Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) won 396 out of the 476 seats in parliament, while the army’s proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won just 33 seats.
In response to this humiliating defeat, the army responded by disputing the results, claiming that the election was fraudulent with the existence of 8.6 million irregularities in voter lists across Myanmar’s 314 townships. This claim of voter fraud was however categorically rejected by the civilian-appointed Union Election Commission, citing the lack of evidence to support the army’s claims. The coup attempt had been rumored for several days, prompting statements of concern from many western democracies including the UK and US.
On the 1st of February, at the crack of dawn, the Burmese military seized control of the government and by extension the country. It did so by detaining Aung San Suu Kyi, and other party leaders in early morning raids. In addition to this, numerous communications channels including phone lines to the capital stopped working. Widespread internet disruptions were reported beginning around 3 a.m and the military disrupted cellular services throughout the country. Furthermore, the army placed around 400 elected members of parliament (MPs) under house arrest and confined them to a housing complex in Naypyidaw, the country’s capital, thus preventing them from being sworn-in.
However, on the 4th of February 70 NLD MPs took their oath of office, in clear defiance of the military. During the coup, soldiers also detained several Buddhist monks who had led the Saffron Revolution back in 2007, including many outspoken critics of the military. As of the 4th of February, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) has identified around 150 officials, lawmakers, and civil society activists in detention by the army as a result of the coup.
The military subsequently announced on the army-controlled Myawaddy TV that it had taken control of the country for a period of one year and a statement signed by the acting president declared that the responsibility for legislation, administration, and judiciary has been transferred to the Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese military, Min Aung Hlaing. The military also announced the removal of 24 ministers and deputies.
Just two days after the start of the coup, Myanmar police filed criminal charges against Aung San Suu Kyi, accusing her of breaching the Export & Import Law, for allegedly importing illegal communications devices. Meanwhile, the President of Myanmar Win Myint was charged with violating the Natural Disaster Management Law for waving at a passing NLD convoy in September 2020, thereby violating rules against election campaigning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the next few weeks, both the Burmese Ambassador to the UK and the envoy to the United Nations were sacked and recalled because they had dared to condemn the coup that was taking place back on their home soil.
Since the beginning of the coup d’etat on the 1st of February, protests have erupted across Myanmar, calling for the removal of the junta and the introduction of a democratic system. They are the largest since the 2007 Saffron Revolution, similarly against military rule. Many of the protests emerged after NLD politician, Mahn Win Khaing Than, made a speech on Facebook, urging civilians to defend themselves against the coup. However, the protests shouldn’t be pidginized as merely a reaction to the military takeover – they are also the result of years of building resentment towards military-political power which clearly hasn’t followed through on the 1988 promises to move towards democracy.
The protestors are calling for a removal of the military junta, which has been overshadowing a facade of democracy due to their power-sharing relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi since 2011. As the recent election results show, where the NLD party won a resounding 396 seats, the people of Myanmar desire democracy – this is the aim of the current protests. However, it is important for them not to slip back into the power-sharing relationship between the NLD and military which has caused falsified democracy for the country.
The protest initially started as a civil disobedience movement; protestors honked horns and banged pans in response to the coup. This quickly progressed into general strikes, halting various economic sectors, essential to military-economic power. More recently, protestors – including lawyers, doctors, students, and government officials – have taken to the streets, some armed with knives, axes, and petrol.
It was reported that a number of Chinese facilities were looted and set on fire by protestors on the 14th of March in response to fears around Chinese support of the military. The military has responded in force, imposing mass restrictions, using communication blackouts and physical force such as water cannons, rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, and live ammunition.
Numerous videos have surfaced depicting heavily armed military firing live rounds at unarmed civilians and attacking individuals at point-blank range. The military has also imposed martial law on certain areas, such as Yangen. This transfers all state power to the military and introduces military courts, allowing the trials of protesting individuals, journalists, and others at will, almost always resulting in a conviction without appeal.
The protestors have fashioned makeshift barricades and shields, and have been using social media to make the movement more cohesive and raise awareness. Doctors in the protests attempt to treat the wounded, however so far over 149 have been killed. A three-finger salute has been adopted by protestors as a symbol of resistance, taken from the ‘Hunger Games’ film and book series, marking their fears of absolute military dictatorship akin to the dystopia series, a testament to the warped reality of the situation.