MS Risk Blog

Myanmar Coup

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On February the first the ruling democratic government in Myanmar was overthrown by the country’s military. The National League for Democracy (NLD) had governed Myanmar since 2015 and were re-elected in November of 2020 with a landslide victory. This victory was so comprehensive, the military felt their political future was in threat and that the NLD may use their large parliamentary majority to ban the military’s involvement in politics. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD party, and a number of other NLD politicians have been imprisoned as the coup began, military rule has been imposed and there have been widespread internet outages and press censorship.

Myanmar’s military ruled the country between 1962 and 2011. After many years of sanctions and internal unrest they began to move towards democracy with a series of reforms that culminated in the 2015 election of the NLD party. Since 2015 the military have retained an important role in political affairs by holding a minority number of seats in parliament as part of the initial agreement to hold democratic elections. Local analysts have cited that fears that this agreement would be changed were a major motivation behind the coup.

The public reaction to the coup has been one of shock and anger. Protests against the military regime are widespread and ongoing. The protest movement started slowly, with a “noise making” campaign that involved people banging on pots and pans at a certain time of day. But it has evolved over the month to include a general strike of civil servants and many other key workers. As the protests have increased in size the military’s response has increased in violence. Several protesters have been killed by government forces, some accidentally with rubber bullets, but others have been shot with live ammunition. At the time of writing, this increase in violence has not deterred those protesting and it seems highly likely protests will continue in March unless the military make concessions.

Local international reaction has been mixed. Given the authoritarian nature of many of the countries in ASEAN, and those bordering Myanmar, it is unlikely that any serious sanctions will be levied at the new regime locally. Thailand in particular are highly unlikely to want to be seen promoting the democratic process overseas while repressing their own pro-democracy protests. The same can be said of Cambodia, who have recently convicted in absentia the leader of their banned opposition party the CNRP. China referred to the coup as a “cabinet reshuffle”, and Malaysia took the opportunity to return 1,000 Myanmar refugees on boats arranged by the military. So, it is highly likely that if the military can suppress internal opposition without violence spilling over international borders, the status quo will be accepted by countries in the region.

International condemnation of the coup has been much stronger than local statements, but again it seems unlikely that any real pressure will be put on the military to step down beyond sanctions. As is often the case in Southeast Asia, China is a major consideration. China have developed relationships with Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Indonesia by turning a blind eye to how these countries are internally governed. This has allowed China to build good diplomatic and economic relationship with several ASEAN countries. While Biden’s presidency has yet to establish a clear policy for the region it seems unlikely that regime change in Myanmar will be seriously pushed by the international community because doing so may make a number of US allies (particularly Thailand and the Philippines) feel uncomfortable. But again, this is dependent on how quickly the military can suppress internal resistance. Since the recent protests have taken a more violent turn, the US have promised increased pressure on the military junta, but it is as yet unclear what shape that will take. Throughout the 1980s and 90s Myanmar was heavily sanctioned by the West, and while living standards fell considerably in the country for ordinary Myanmar citizens, there was little effect seen on the ruling elite.