Opinion

Myanmar: Coup & Constitution


It’s been a violent seven weeks in Myanmar, where the military regime is still failing in its ruthless attempts to quell a popular uprising following a coup that caught most observers by surprise.

Instead of a submissive and cowed public, the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) face a desperate fight on multiple fronts, from the “keyboard warriors” spreading social media footage, to the young people risking their lives on a daily basis as they face increasingly violent tactics on the streets of Myanmar’s towns and cities.

The coup, on February 1, followed a decade of the army's so-called “disciplined democracy” in Myanmar, after a period of some 50 years under various forms of military regime.

The generals made their move in the early hours of the very day the new Parliament was set to be sworn in, denying leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) a second term in office.

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Deposed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and General Min Aung Hlaing, de-facto leader of Myanmar/ photo Wikipedia

Of course, the Tatmadaw have always made sure they held a winning hand in Myanmar, writing a constitution in 2008 that protects their place in Parliament and allows a military seizure of power under a "national emergency". Their fear of an open democracy is driven largely by concerns that ethnic minorities, which make up around 30 percent of the population, could gain too much power.  

But the November 2020 election result was a political whitewash, with the NLD taking 86 percent of the seats, giving them a “supermajority” in Parliament.      

It was an outcome that somewhat predictably drew accusations of electoral fraud from the military-aligned parties, although no major irregularities were found by international observers.

Watching the result from Wellington was New Zealand Ambassador Steve Marshall.       

“The NLD were extraordinarily successful, increased their majority, and became even more of a threat to the army than before – not in terms of direct power but in terms of influence,” he says.  

“The big issue is the constitution – the 2008 version was drafted by the Tatmadaw, and a key part of the NLD mission has been to change that constitution to remove the guaranteed army presence in Parliament. I think in fact the NLD had a go, but they failed over the last five years – the election win would have meant they were going to have another crack at it, and that really threatened the army”.

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Steve Marshall, NZ Ambassador to Myanmar/ photo GActon

The generals have described their power grab as a small blip in the road to political and social reform in Myanmar, instigating a national state of emergency with the prospect of new elections in a year.

With the death toll reportedly now over 300 and rising, it seems unlikely the country will be ready for anything like a legitimate poll in a year’s time. Instead, we could see the emergence of a Myanmar style MMP, designed to cripple the NLD and boost the smaller political parties supporting the army.

The coup may fail, and the army may go back to the barracks.

On the other hand, a grim return to oppressive military dictatorship remains a possibility.         

“This really isn’t about the NLD versus the army now”, says Marshall.

“It's about the people versus the army.  If you look at Myanmar, it’s been the subject of military divide and rule tactics for decades, but now it’s one of the more united countries you see in the region, with various disparate groups, politicians, public servants, private sector employers and workers, students, civil society organisations and ethnic minorities all coming together,” he says.

“All of the usual discrimination so evident in Myanmar seems to have disappeared for the time being as the people face a common enemy.”

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Democracy protestors face off with the Tatmadaw on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city / photo Wikimedia

Most commentators agree anything could happen next in Myanmar.

The banking system is closed, borders are closed,  imports and exports are blocked, and basic commodity prices have increased dramatically.

Dr Stan Jagger is a New Zealand-based researcher and consultant working with education organisations in Myanmar.

He’s predicting a possible “Thai -style” government will emerge from the current chaos, similar to that which held sway in the 2011-15 period.

“They could work to ban the NLD, convict Aung San Suu Kyi on corruption charges, and bring in a new party headed by a former general," he says.

“A change to a proportional representation system rather than first past the post would bring more votes to a military proxy party and some ethnic minority parties who may want to join it,” he says.  

“The junta appears to be using the idea of an MMP-style system to win over ethnic parties, but for a truly democratic system to be established, I believe the army has to leave politics, and that would require a new constitution, and a more de-centralised federal system. This is the struggle that is playing out now."

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Dr Stan Jagger/ photo supplied

Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997, and the regional organisation was praised when democratic reforms began in 2011.

Despite its usual reluctance to criticise the internal policies of a member state, ASEAN is now stepping into the fray and demanding a halt to the killing.  

Marshall agrees ASEAN is likely to have a future role to play.   

“Many people see ASEAN as part of the solution here, and of course dialogue is going to be part of any solution, but at the present time inside Myanmar, neither side see dialogue as required,” he says.

“When the time comes, ASEAN could act as an effective forum to thrash out a way forward for the country, and perhaps it can be the place the new Myanmar is formulated.”

Marshall is among those suggesting a new model for the country can be found by looking to its long history, where ethnic groups ruled over their own small kingdoms.

“There’s a support now, and has been for a while, for a federal model to take hold in Myanmar, a multi-state entity we see in other parts of the world, controlled at a federal level from the capital, but where all states have a degree of autonomy and freedom to do their own thing”.

”There is currently among these groups a real desire for peace – they’ve been fighting each other, and the Tatmadaw, for 70 years,” he says.

“Autonomous states within a federal structure, that’s generally being seen as logical next step. But what they need to come to grips with is that you can’t be talking about states solely based on ethnicity.”

“It all depends on a new constitution, that’s the key to moving forward.’

Dr Stan Jagger agrees. “The Tatmadaw may return to its claims it will withdraw when the country is “ready for democracy”, but the possibility of a military backdown, an anti-coup faction developing within the military, or a united alliance of ethnic armies forcing the military from power remains low – but not impossible”.

Bamar ethnic group demanding federalism. Yangon Feb 2020/ photo Khin Zaw Win

As the violence continues on the streets of Myanmar, it's very clear the population will seek every opportunity available to avoid heading back into a military future. 

The interim body representing the toppled government - the "Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw" is now looking to regional ASEAN partners to intervene in any way possible.

Nations across the region - ASEAN members and others - have made it clear Myanmar faces becoming once again a pariah state, sweeping away the gains made in the last decade.

The Tatmadaw may have wished for "disciplined democracy", but what they have now is far from being either. 

 - Asia Media Centre