Military stokes coup fears amid political crisis
published : 29 Jan 2021 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
Concerns about a possible military coup have swept across Myanmar this week amid signs of a deepening constitutional crisis. Tensions between Myanmar's military and its political allies on one hand and the country's pro-democracy politicians on the other are worsening, as a dispute over the election outcome intensifies, ahead of a landmark court case later today to decide the legitimacy of these electoral fraud claims. In the meantime, comments by the military earlier this week have fueled fears of a possible coup.
The Supreme Court is due to decide whether there are grounds to open an official hearing into these electoral fraud allegations -- claimed by the military and its proxy parties, who allege widespread voter irregularities and insist they have concrete proof of over 10,000 specific cases -- and more critically whether the Union Election Commission (UEC) -- the independent body that oversees voting -- carried out its duties competently and responsibly.
While many commentators have dismissed the recent escalation of tension and threats as posturing on the part of military's leaders, there are growing fears that the current political stand-off could still result in street protests and violence which would give the Tatmadaw the pretext to seize power -- as it has done several times in the past.
Security measures have been tightened in the capital Nay Pyi Taw. Four army units are positioned around the state guest house, where the country's MPs stay when the national parliament is in session, according to witnesses. The parliament is due to convene on Monday for the first time after the ruling National League Democracy's (NLD) landslide victory in November's election, so the MPs are in residence. In the event of a coup, the army would immediately arrest government officials, round up all the MPs and block access to the capital. Armoured vehicles are also patrolling the main streets of the commercial capital Yangon. Army units are on alert throughout the country, according to military sources.
Relations between the country's civilian government, led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and the country's powerful military head, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing are now at rock bottom, according to senior sources in both camps. Although the relations between the two leaders have been tense throughout the past five years of the first NLD government, they have been spiralling out of control since Ms Suu Kyi led the NLD to its successive overwhelming electoral victory, in what was a clear public rebuff to the military and its political partners.
Part of the issue is the personal and political ambitions of the current commander-in-chief, who is due to retire in the next few months. Some sources believe he in fact is resisting retiring and trying to extend his tenure for another few years. His future needs to be decided before the newly elected parliament -- due to reconvene next week -- starts the process of choosing the new executive: the president, two vice presidents and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament. One option mooted for him was to be a vice-president -- a post that is nominated by the commander-in-chief -- though sources close to him believe he still harbours ambitions of being president.
On the other hand, Ms Suu Kyi is extremely anxious to push ahead with her second government -- and get it into place as soon as possible -- so as to avoid some of the missteps of the first time around, according to senior NLD sources. Under the provisions of the pro-military constitution of 2008, there is a five-month transition period or interregnum in which government is essentially at a standstill.
Ms Suu Kyi understands that the longer this takes, the greater the uncertainty and insecurity it generates, which in turn could create instability, especially at this point of time when the country still has to control the pandemic, including the acquisition and distribution of Covid vaccines, and boost the economy, according to government insiders. The plan was to start the parliamentary process of selecting the new government from Monday onwards -- choosing the executive, including all the cabinet posts, and having them in place to start work on March 1, instead of mid-April when the first NLD government took office.
Of course, this would cut the ground from under the military and its political pawns in their efforts to overturn or annul the election -- the main pro-military party the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has refused to recognise the elections and are also calling for fresh elections to be held, supervised jointly by the army and the UEC.
Apparently, the strategy of both the military and their pawns is now to delay the transition process and prevent parliament opening on Monday at all costs -- casting it as illegitimate. Their hope is that the Supreme Court will issue an injunction blocking the first parliamentary session from proceeding until all the complaints of election fraud are dealt with.
In the course of the last few days, the military has been raising red flags, threatening dire consequences if the election issues were not dealt with thoroughly through due process. The army's war of words started earlier this week when the military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told reporters: "Not resolving this in line with the law means this is a political crisis."
When pressed on the possibility of a coup, the spokesman refused to be drawn, but did not rule it out: "We do not say the Tatmadaw will take power. We do not say it will not as well," said the spokesman. "What we can say is we will follow current existing laws, including the constitution."
This was a constant refrain from the military all week: This was reinforced by the commander himself on Wednesday when he addressed the National Defence College (NDC) who also stressed that security was not preserved by talking, action was needed. He also said if the constitution was not followed it should be abolished -- echoes of rationalisation during the 1962 and later the 1988 coups. Of course according to the constitution "the defence services are mainly responsible for safeguarding the constitution".
Now all eyes are on the Supreme Court's decision. Its deliberations may yet determine whether the military feel obliged to launch a coup -- though they want to avoid that if they can. The preferred game plan seems to pressure the NLD into negotiations, to establish a new power-sharing arrangement. What the military and its political allies really want is some form of national coalition government, according to former senior military officer.
A specialist on Myanmar
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.