Myanmar’s military coup on Feb. 1 is a matter of great concern to both the country itself and to Southeast Asia as a region. Following the Nov. 8, 2020, general election, the coup appears to be an attempt to reverse the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party in both the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament..
The suspension of Myanmar’s democratic institutions could prove a serious setback for the country’s brave transition to democracy and political liberalization less than a decade ago. Political differences that may have occasioned the current State of Emergency, which is slated to last for one year, can be managed and resolved through constructive dialogue and other lawful means without the use of force. It is regrettable that so soon after the people of Myanmar had fulfilled their Constitutional obligation in an election that the democratic process has been nullified in ways that have disregarded the democratic institutions available to challenge the results of the election.
The official statement from the Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces) on Feb. 1 explaining the action it has taken refers to perceived irregularities in the vote count. However, no military coup is constitutional in a democracy and no unconstitutional means can be a legitimate part of a solution to return to constitutional rule. What took place may be seen as the Myanmar armed forces’ violation of the military-inspired 2008 charter and a betrayal of the popular will.
In an earlier statement on Jan. 31, the Tatmadaw said that the NLD government did not release the final election data from the Union Election Commission (UEC) even when requested. On its part and in taking the action that it did, the Tatmadaw is equally obliged to release any evidence of the alleged fraud if its claim is to be credible. The lack of evidence fails to support claims of widespread vote fraud.
The Tatmadaw further said it is not objecting to “the outcome itself of the elections” in which the NLD won. In that spirit, the Tatmadaw should forthwith relinquish the powers and positions it has assumed since its takeover of government and reinstate all officials in the NLD-led administration to proceed with constitutional means in addressing any outstanding grievances. The detention of civilian leaders does not bode well for the Tatmadaw’s credibility and pretext for seizing power in the first place.
Given the Tatmadaw’s control and involvement in several key government ministries and a quarter of the legislature, it was well positioned to press its case with the NLD government without having to resort to a coup. The matter of the precise count of the vote should therefore not occasion a military takeover or a State of Emergency in a nation that wishes to adhere to democratic norms and constitutional practices. Notwithstanding the reasons cited in the Tatmadaw’s statement, no legitimate interest can be served by a coup. The larger national interest of a country cannot afford to be eclipsed or hijacked, least of all during a global pandemic when international cooperation and support are critical. Above all, the people’s welfare and constitutional rights must be protected.
The Myanmar junta should also bear in mind how this affects ASEAN as a whole. Indeed, ASEAN has long helped Myanmar manage pressures from the international community. A key example in this regard was the global response to Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. In the aftermath of the devastating cyclone, Myanmar insisted that it had sufficient capacity to deal with the humanitarian situation. Some countries sought to invoke the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) so that the United Nations Security Council could allow the delivery of humanitarian aid without the permission of Myanmar’s authorities. Delays in accepting aid from international organizations led to considerable pressure on Myanmar to open the country to international relief efforts.
ASEAN provided Myanmar with a buffer of sorts. The regional grouping became the intermediary between Myanmar and the international community, providing channels of communication and facilitate joint relief efforts. Aid was delivered via ASEAN instead of being conveyed directly to Myanmar. This setup, thanks partly to the leadership of the late former ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, later became known as the “Nargis Model.” It was ASEAN’s showcase of regional cooperation in times of crisis and Myanmar’s demonstration of its willingness to partake in regional teamwork with international assistance in favor of its own people.
As Myanmar’s neighbors have proven many times before, if there is a space for them to be helpful, they will surely lend a hand to help Myanmar resolve its crisis and overcome its challenges. It is not in anyone’s interest to see Myanmar’s progress towards democracy and good governance slip and slide away after so much progress and development have been achieved, despite flaws and shortcomings. The road ahead points in the opposite direction of the coup the world has just witnessed. A return to democracy will strengthen Myanmar’s integration, not least within its Southeast Asia neighborhood where it will always be located.
Pou Sothirak is executive director of Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace in Phnom Penh. Philips J. Vermonte is executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. Herizal Hazri is chief executive of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur. Herman Joseph S. Kraft is a fellow of Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, Inc. in Manila. Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of political science in Bangkok.