Military Coup in Myanmar: 38 Days Later


One month after the coup in Myanmar, a peaceful protest movement, including many civil servants, has grown and continues to resist the military. It is seeking to build alternative legitimate power structures, while the regime is clamping down on the protests in increasingly violent ways. What is the background of the coup, and how are the chances for a peaceful return to democracy in Myanmar?

Protest Hledan Centre, Yangon, Myanmar, 21.02.2021
Teaser Image Caption
Protest outside Hledan Centre, Yangon, Myanmar, 21 February 2021.

On the morning of Monday, 1 February 2021, the Myanmar army (also known as “Tatmadaw”) staged a coup against the government of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which had been re-elected by an overwhelming majority in November 2020. The military arrested the State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint, declared a state of emergency and announced it would hold new elections under its own control within a year. A few days later, a protest movement began, which now covers virtually the entire country. It amounts to a large-scale non-violent rebellion against the military regime, has disabled parts of the state machinery and of the economy and is striving to build up an alternative and legitimate centre of power. However, the protest movement is increasingly repressed by violent means. What is the background of the coup, and what are the chances for a peaceful return to democracy in Myanmar?

Background of the coup

The coup took almost everybody in the country by surprise. There had been little, if any, indications that the military saw its political or economic situation challenged at this point in time. In 2008, the then military regime had adopted a constitution that secured special rights for itself in a future parliamentary system. This included 25% of seats in parliament to be filled directly by the military, and its control of three major ministries. In theory, this constitution continues to remain in force, as both the military and the NLD refer to it, even though calls for its abolition are growing now. The political and economic liberalisation after 2011 took place under the presidency of former general Thein Sein. The military probably did not expect the decisive election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD in 2015, but since then, it appeared to have been able to live with a de facto power sharing arrangement in what may be called a bipolar political system. This arrangement neither threatened the military’s economic interests nor did it carry the risk that senior military officials would be brought to justice, nationally or internationally, for the massive human rights abuses they committed against the Rohingya. Indeed, as State Councillor, Aung San Suu Kyi essentially defended the military actions of August/September 2017 against international criticism and accusations of genocide, which cost her dearly in terms of her reputation in the West. All attempts by the NLD to amend the constitution were bound to fail against the military’s blocking minority. So why did the military feel the need for a coup?

It would appear that the elections of 4 November 2020, which the NLD won with an even larger majority than in 2015, finally brought it home to the military that they could never win against Aung San Suu Kyi, even under the 2008 constitution especially designed to serve their own interests. Before the November elections, many observers had expected the NLD, while winning an overall majority of votes once again, would experience losses particularly in the ethnic minority areas. However, this did not happen, and the NLD won by a landslide in large parts of the country.

Free and fair election process

Well in advance of the election, the Union Election Commission (UEC) had announced the cancellation of elections in a number of districts affected by armed conflict, for reasons of security. This announcement affected around 1.2 million voters, particularly in ethnic minority regions, and was broadly criticised. Despite this and many other problems, the elections themselves were largely judged to be free and fair by teams of national and international observer teams.

Soon afterwards, however, the “Union Solidarity and Development Party” (USDP), closely aligned to the Myanmar military, started to allege irregularities and manipulations in the election process and took legal action. Some cases were thrown out; others were to be heard in February. The army itself also came forward with public allegations of wide-ranging errors in the voter lists.

The military’s criticism was unfounded

No substantial arguments have yet been put forward and verified for any of these allegations of irregularities. The army claimed that the UEC and the NLD did not investigate its allegations adequately; it was also unhappy that the NLD government did not convene the National Security Council. In the final days of January, the army began openly bringing massive pressure to bear on senior NLD officials; this is reported to have been about a substantial power-share and postponing the opening of the new parliament, scheduled for 1 February 2021, which Aung San Suu Kyi flatly rejected. The coup began hours before the new parliament was scheduled to open.

After the coup, the military claimed that the civilian government did not treat its criticism of the elections and demands with the appropriate degree of respect; in order to uphold the integrity of the constitution, it was therefore the miltary’s duty to declare a state of emergency. This assertion has little or no legal foundation, but the military’s narrative continues to be that the coup was a constitutional act.

Many people in Myanmar believe that the actual reason for the coup lies in the individual power interests of the senior military leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who was due to retire in a few months’ time. Others interpret the sequence of events as evidence of a breakdown of all communication between the two power centres in the country, for which Aung San Suu Kyi also bears a share of responsibility.

What are the coup-makers doing and what are their objectives?

According to their own statements, the military intends to call new elections within one year. To this end, it appointed a new election commission and held a meeting on 26 February with more than 50 parties who support this plan. In the meantime, the military also officially cancelled the election results of 4 November 2020.

The coup-makers have set up a State Administration Council (SAC) under Min Aung Hlaing, with members including former senior officials of the Thein Sein administration of the 2011-2015 period, some ethnic politicians and even a few former NLD politicians who have previously fallen out with Aung San Suu Kyi. The SAC represents the civilian “face” of the coup and brings together forces opposed to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Since the coup, the military has held the two most senior NLD leadership figures– Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint – detained and under lock and key. Until today, there have not been any statements or public appearances of them. The military started criminal proceedings against them on absurd grounds (such as possession of unregistered walkie-talkies or breaking coronavirus regulations). This strategy is presumably aimed at keeping the NLD leadership out of circulation for the foreseeable future, or possibly even banning the party altogether, to force them out of any future military-controlled election process.

The stated aim of re-holding elections in a limited time period in a process controlled and managed by the military and establishing a new government without, or against, Aung San Suu Kyi has, however, been challenged by a massive protest movement. In all likelihood, the military leadership appears to have grossly underestimated the expected scale of resistance. For decades, every single election that has been at all free and fair has been won by the NLD and the coup itself will likely only strengthen this trend. It is currently unimaginable that any legitimate, generally accepted political solution could arise from the military’s declared strategy.

Who are the protesters, what do they want and how much support do they have?

After a few days in a state of shock, a protest movement developed against the coup across the whole country. Its scale and speed seems to have taken the military by surprise and it constitutes a serious challenge to the political script of the military. The protest movement did achieve such a spread that observers started to speak of a “Burmese spring”, even of a “Burmese revolution”.

The movement has a number of spokespersons – including the noted activist of the democracy movement of 1988, Min Ko Naing, who has appeared publicly in Yangon’s central Sule Square several times – but is characterised by a high degree of decentralisation, a lack of leadership and, at least at the moment, no clear overarching strategy. The movement is mobilising via existing networks, neighbourhoods and social media; it has borrowed forms of action seen in protests in places such as Hong Kong and other countries of the “Milk Tea Alliance” of Asian democracy movements. The military regime has been trying to strangle this mobilisation by intermittently cutting off Internet access (currently, from 1:00 at night to the morning hours) and by blocking access to Facebook and Twitter in general; the latter at least is easily circumvented by people using Virtual Private Network (VPN) software.

A panorama of protest

Several constituencies and forms of action have come together to form the protest movement. First of all, a broad protest movement became established on the streets, where large numbers of people (including very many young people) come together every day at central points of Yangon and other places in the country. Monday 22 February was the largest single day of protest of this kind so far, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Yangon alone and many more across the whole country. Singing, chanting, mopeds convoys, car blockades, banners and graffiti – the actions take many forms. The memes of “Generation Z” – “don’t fuck my country, fuck my ex” for instance – are everywhere and have attracted major international attention, in testament to the modernity of the movement. However, there are many other, far more traditional forms of protest with serious placards, disciplined marches and the like. The street protests are in the tradition of the non-violent movement and, in most cases, took pains to avoid direct confrontation with security bodies, either by circumventing them or other creative forms of action. The street protests made many demands, but most placards on 22 February called unequivocally for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior NLD figures and the re-establishment of a legitimate democratic situation on the basis of the elections of November 2020. The aim is a reversal of the coup.

For about three weeks, the streets and hubs of Yangon continuously saw this form of protest. However, since about Friday, 26 February 2021, police and military increasingly used force to disperse these protests, openly using firearms, severe intimidation and arrest to this end. Increasinly, violent clashes and deaths were reported from Yangon and in many other places as well. On Sunday evening, 28 February, the Myanmar office of the UN reported a total of 18 deaths during a single day’s protests – a dramatic escalation compared to the first weeks after the coup. Three days later, protesters were again killed in similar numbers. By 9 March, the overall death toll exceeded 60, and the number of documented arrests approached 2,000. The military occupied central locations in Yangon and effectively suppressed large-scale gatherings. Substantial numbers of people continue to protest in their urban neighbourhoods, trying to protect themselves by building barricades and resisting arrest, but they appear to be in the defensive now.

CDM movement: civil disobedience in the public service

The street protests garnered a lot of attention and thus represented a great symbolic challenge to the regime. The greatest challenge, however, appears to be the broad strike movement under the banner of the “Civil Disobedience Movement” (CDM). By now this has brought substantial sections of the public and even parts of the private sectors (including especially banking) to a virtual standstill. CDM started with a walkout by doctors from public hospitals, but soon came to include civil servants in many other institutions, entire professional associations (e.g. engineers). It included staff of ministries in Naypyitaw, a city that the military had created in 2005 as a putatively “protest-proof” new capital. Even some security personnel has joined. The CDM is having major impact on the functioning of the transport infrastructure (railway, river transport), the Ministry of Health (Covid-19 testing has all but ceased) etc. The military has secured certain central infrastructures (energy, aviation) or even set its own staff to work to keep them running. The local administrative structure (General Administration Department – GAD) has in some places been dissolved and, in others, it is being replaced by alternative structures created by the protest movement.

Strike in the banking sector: shortage of cash and unpaid wages

The CDM non-cooperation campaign is a direct challenge to military rule, as it directly attacks state functions; it has also taken action in the private sector, leading to the closure of almost all bank branches and a shortage of cash, with the consequent difficulties of making wage and pension payments, having increasingly severe consequences for many people. The military has since cracked down correspondingly hard on the CDM, by intimidating those involved in their private sphere as well (many civil servants live in homes provided by the state) and also, in a number of cases, with violent police interventions.

Politically, the CDM is opposed to military rule and is calling for democracy to be re-established; a more radical variety of the movement in the form of a “General Strike Committee (of Nationalities)”, made up of left-wing and ethnic minority political forces, calls for the 2008 constitution to be entirely scrapped and be replaced by a true federal structure. By the second week of March, the CDM appears to be spreading further, but it remains at particular risk of severe punitive action by the military. It is funded by donations that aim to help strikers to make ends meet during this critical phase, but this naturally begs the question as to how long a strike movement of this kind, in which those involved risk not only their careers, but also their pensions and homes, can hold out.

Underground Parliament

The third hub of protest and resistance is the “Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw” (CRPH; “Pyidaungsu Hluttaw” being a combination of both chambers of the national parliament) and similar structures at the level of some of the federal states and regions. It is basically an “underground parliament” made up of a number of MPs voted into power in November 2020; these are mostly from the NLD and have some, though apparently limited outreach to and legitimacy among the ethnic political parties. With increasing success, the CRPH claims to represent a legitimate countervailing power to the military junta; it now has various traits of a counter-government, with regular published decisions and increasing national and international visibility. Its underground existence often makes communication difficult. The CRPH enjoys substantial support as the heart of a legitimate anti-coup force, particularly in the civil society circles of Myanmar. It scored its most visible international success to date with the official statement of Myanmar’s UN envoy, Kyaw Moe Tun, who took position against the coup and called upon the international community to support the CRPH in his official capacity before the UN in New York on 26 February. Other members of Myanmar’s diplomatic service followed his example by declaring support for CDM and CRPH. The military clearly views CRPH as a serious challenge to its legitimacy, declaring it to be “treason” and threatening draconic punitive action, including death sentences, on CRPH actors and supports.

Election results showed enormous gains for NLD

It is clear that the protest movement enjoys enormous support in the country among the people of Myanmar. Furthermore, a mere glance at the results of the elections of November 2020 makes it obvious how great the resistance to military rule was always likely to be. Unlike data about the parliamentary seats won, the “popular vote” figure (number of votes received by parties) was never published officially, but media and civil society sources collated the relevant data during the days following the election and published them on the Internet. These figures gave the NLD a majority of 69% of votes cast (a considerable improvement on its 58% share in 2015); the USDP, the party with close links to the military, won around 21%, all other parties taken together received just 10% of the vote. From these data, one may conclude that at least three quarters of the population are against military rule in Myanmar, with perhaps a fifth (but perhaps even less) in favour.

It is also worth noting that, while ethnic minorities, who make up perhaps 30% of the population, ethnic parties gained less than 10% of the vote in November 2020. This means, in effect, that the majority of people from ethnic minorities did not cast a vote for “their” ethnic parties in November 2020, but (in most cases) for the NLD. This at least is the big picture of the country-wide average; of course, some ethnic parties did achieve local majorities and gain seats in certain constituencies. Some ethnic regions, predominantly in Rakhine and Shan States and, to an extent, Mon and Kayin, there appeared to be a certain degree of approval for the coup at the beginning, as ethnic political parties – as has frequently been the case since the 1990s – may aspire to make deals with the military. The situation has yet to settle, but many relevant ethnic political players have since taken a clear stand against the coup, providing sometimes armed protection to demonstrators in their areas, while there have been reports of some EAOs attacking Tatmadaw units (or other EAOs working with the military). For now, EAOs do not appear to have channelled arms into major population centres, even though talk and rumours about armed resistance against the Tatmadaw appears to be on the rise.

A wave of arrests and attacks on media

Since the coup, the military and security forces have arrested increasingly large numbers of people. These include members of parliament, CDM leaders and, in particular, members of the old UEC (presumably because they are expected to provide information that will uphold the narrative of November’s elections riddled with irregularities). Civil society and media workers have also been arrested or have reason to fear that they will be, and are therefore staying with friends or in safe houses. By the second week of March, a number of independent media houses had their production licences revoked by the military, while some of their were raided. Some independent media production had already moved underground in anticipation of such measures, and more is to expect. The impact of media suppression on reporting especially from areas outside of the major population centres is likely to be severe.

What is the role of other countries?

The immediate (South)-East Asian neighbourhood is particularly relevant for the course of events in Myanmar. Most controversial – not least in Myanmar itself – is the role of China. The coup has unleashed a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment; many in the protest movement believe that China is taking advantage of the coup and supporting the military; over the last weeks of February, major demonstrations were held in front of the Chinese Embassy in Yangon almost every day. The idea that China is responsible for the coup – a common thread of thinking both in Myanmar and internationally – is untenable. There is no evidence for such involvement, and the assumption makes no sense because China and the NLD government have worked well together in recent years, signing up for numerous projects in the framework of the “China Myanmar Economic Corridor” (CMEC) that is of high strategic relevance for China. The lack of certainty caused by the coup is certainly not in China’s interests, as the Chinese ambassador stressed in an interview on 15 February. Presumably, of course, China would be able to pursue its strategic and investment interests in Myanmar through cooperation with the military government as well, once it has properly settled into the role. It is unclear at the moment whether China would be able to exert a decisive influence over the military or would support it by deliveries technologies of repression.

Reticence of ASEAN states

In the beginning, the states of the regional ASEAN association declined to take position, but also avoided openly recognising the military regime. But over the weeks since the coups, the situation has become so serious that ASEAN begins to move away from its traditional position of holding to the principle of non-interference. Some states such as Indonesia and Singapore have made strong statements calling on the military to refrain from using violence against the protesters and releasing the NLD leadership. Especially Singapore, being a major source of investment in Myanmar, has been identified by protesters as a potential target of calls for boycott. Thus, the region can build up pressure on the military regime that hopefully will help to restrict violence (though given the history of the Tatmadaw there is no guarantee for that). Whether ASEAN, or Japan or Korea, can act as mediator (as hoped by some observers) is questionable, since any legitimate “mediation” between the military and the protest movement and the NLD is hard to imagine, at least during the current situation of confrontation.

Clear condemnation from UN secretary general

Within the UN system, the Secretary General has taken an unequivocal stance against the coup; the fact that Myanmar’s envoy distanced himself from the regime and called for international support for the CRPH could raise interesting questions for the status of Myanmar’s official representation to the UN in the very near future. China, in particular, has so far blocked any direct condemnation of the coup by UN institutions, but has allowed more watered-down criticism.

Toothless criticism from the West

Western states have unanimously condemned the military coup, called for the release of arrested NLD leaders for a return to democracy. They warn that the military will be “held accountable” for human rights violations. There is currently a strategy of non-recognition, minimising relations with state institutions under the control of the military regime. Some stances taken in the West have given rise to unrealistic hopes among the protest movement, some of whom are even calling for military intervention on the part of the US or the United Nations. But the fact is that Western political and economic influence in Myanmar is rather limited compared to that of its Asian neighbours. Germany already spent most of its potential ammunition when, about a year ago, the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation announced the end of bilateral development cooperation with Myanmar as a unilateral sanction one year ago, in order to put pressure for a return of the Rohingya refugees. The Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit (giz) and the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW), the German development bank, already started to withdraw from the country even before the coup.

Possibilities of sanctions – and their limits

Calls for sanctions arose right after the coup, particularly in Western countries. Direct sanctions against senior military figures and their families (freezing of assets, travel bans) bare already in place in the West since some years and remains undisputed, as are bans on exports of weapons or technologies to Myanmar used for purposes of repression. However, a comprehensive arms embargo advocated for by international NGOs is unlikely to find consensus in the U.N. The difficult question remains what further “targeted” sanctions are possible and could be really useful.

The military as an institution, as well as retired senior officers and their families own a broad portfolio of economic interests in Myanmar. Most of these companies focus on the domestic market (e.g. construction, consumer goods, energy and infrastructure) or the export of raw materials, primarily to the country’s Asian neighbours (China, Thailand, etc.) and would therefore be largely unaffected by any sanctions brought to bear by the West. There are only a handful of joint ventures with companies from democratic states: one prominent example is the cooperation between the Japanese Kirin Brewery and the military-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings (MEHL), which has come in for criticism since 2018; Kirin announced its withdrawal from the joint venture a few days after the coup. In the meantime, pressure is also mounting on companies and investors from Singapore to withdraw from business cooperations involving companies with links to the military.

No broad sanctions

No relevant international players have thus far spoken out in favour of general, comprehensive sanctions; this is due to the very negative experiences with Burma/Myanmar sanctions ever since the 1990s that, while having minimal (if any) political effectiveness, caused severe socio-economic collateral damage, as the International Crisis Group has recently pointed out once more. All sides talk of “targeted” sanctions, but this can mean many different things. The advocacy organisation Justice for Myanmar, for example, has identified specific companies and groups directly propping up the military which may make relevant targets for such sanctions. But when Justice for Myanmar campaigns to end payments for gas and oil revenues to the military government, this has to be viewed with scepticism as it may result in a long-term undermining Myanmar state financing in general, with possibly dramatic impact on the living conditions of the general population. If “targeted” sanctions are put in place against companies with links to the military, effects and collateral effects must be weighed very carefully against each other in order to avoid measures that amount to economic warfare against the entire country. At any rate, rather than extended debates about sanctions at this point in time, it may be more useful to think about measures that restrict the immediate capacity of the military regime; the reported attempt by the military to withdraw 1 bn USD from US accounts, which was blocked by the new U.S. administration, is a case in point.

Even now, without formal sanctions, there is a significant risk of substantial economic damage arising out of political reactions to the post-coup situation. Western companies active in Myanmar are concerned about the reputational risk that my arise from producing goods for European consumption in the current situation in Myanmar. This is particularly true of the clothing industry, the only major sector where Myanmar exports to Europe which employs hundreds of thousands of workers, mostly women.

What is the outlook?

More than five weeks after the coup, the conflict in Myanmar is moving towards a critical point. A very broad protest movement has grown up in recent weeks and has achieved enormous mobilisation and visibility, both nationally and internationally. While coming under increasing violence exerted by the military and security forces, the protest movement has effectively relieved the military of its control of at least certain sections of the state apparatus and is threatening its legitimacy internationally, in the forum of the United Nations in New York and elsewhere. At the same time, the spectre of mass violence against the country’s own population – the national trauma here is the experience of 1988, leaving thousands dead – has been ever-present over the last few weeks; the events of the last two weeks clearly show that there is a very real risk that the military will escalate violence even further. Against this backdrop, the international community must urgently and unequivocally build pressure on the military in order to avoid a violent response to the protest movement. It is to be hoped that the root-and-branch changes in Myanmar of the last decade may also have had some effect on its military; however, this is clearly no guarantee for a non-violent process in the coming weeks and months.

So far, the protest movement has had barely any visible leadership figures and no common strategy. In the current situation, this is probably a strength, but it also carries the risk of fragmentation, particularly between the NLD on the one hand and more radical political forces and ethnic political groups on the other. The standing of the structures created by CPRH has grown. It is hard to say how long the street protests and CDM can hold out after weeks of energy-sapping clashes and the increasing use of violence by the military regime. But even if the protesters were to be silenced in the near future, this does not mean that society can be expected simply to go back to collaborating with a regime that the vast majority of people in Myanmar consider to be profoundly illegitimate. All the signs point to a long development phase of conflict and crisis.

The perhaps obvious idea of “mediation” looks unrealistic. The coup has burnt all bridges between the military and the NLD. In view of her popularity and legitimacy, no credible mediation could possibly take place without Aung San Suu Kyi – and the current military leadership is highly unlikely to accept this any time soon. Currently, therefore, particularly under conditions of escalating violence, there is little room for a mediation process, while such an option should naturally be possible in the longer term.

Armed forces – the great unknown

The army continues to be the great unknown. As yet, no fractures have become visible within the military. It is a “black box”, isolated from the rest of society. It is an army of professionals and volunteers, has its own infrastructure and an ideology shaped over decades culminating in the belief that the army itself stands at the heart of the Burmese nation. The contrast with reality as is being played out in protests on the streets and in the institutions could not be greater.

One may hope that the liberalisation and modernisation of the last decade has had some impact within the military as well, toning down its readiness to resort to violence. One may speculate that individuals in the Tatmadaw may be wondering how those responsible for the coup could misinterpret the mood of the country so badly, picking a fight that the army cannot possibly win except by brutal repression, and which is likely to lead to a long-lasting crisis, with potentially dramatic negative consequences for the army itself. Basically, one may hope that there are a sensible individuals in the army; but there is currently no clear evidence of this and certainly no guarantees.

What international actors should do

In the current situation, therefore, international actors should concentrate on bringing pressure to bear on the military – by making offers and issuing stern warnings, and certainly also by using smart diplomacy – to halt the use of violence against the protest movement. They should also expressly call for the release of all political prisoners and for court proceedings against senior NLD figures to stop, in order to de-escalate the situation and thus create preconditions for a process of communication that could lead to ways out of the crisis. And at the same time, international actors must do all in their power to support the protest movement, civil society, the media and other independent forces, both in the country itself – as far as is currently possible – and at the level of international politics.


This article was first published in German on