Why Myanmar’s Military is Wrong: This is not a Constitutional Emergency

*This article was first published in The Age as ‘The power and ambition behind Myanmar’s coup’ on 2 February 2020

Aung San Suu Kyi is back in familiar territory, under arrest. Early Monday morning she, along with the president and many others, were arrested in a cunning move by the military.

So far, at least 30 people have been arrested, possibly more. No news on their whereabouts has emerged.

This coup was well-planned by the military. They knew all key politicians would be gathered in Naypyidaw, the capital city built by the military, for the start of the parliament and inauguration of the new government.

But from the perspective of the military, this is a constitutional emergency. Or is it? The military claims it is not only right, but that it is acting according to the Constitution.

The military claims that there was large-scale voter fraud at the 2020 elections and that parliament should have been postponed until the matter was resolved.

It says that the vice-president, retired general Myint Swe, has become the acting president. This appears to imply the president – willingly or unwillingly – has relinquished his office.

The military also  declared that a constitutional emergency is now in place. This state of emergency places the Commander in Chief squarely in charge. Parliament has ceased to exist.

Moreover, it gives the Commander in Chief all power for an entire year, including the power to limit rights. This means we could see curfews or other restrictions imposed on the people of Myanmar in the coming days.

The state of emergency only comes to an end when the Commander in Chief says so to the acting-president, General Myint Swe.

However, there are big flaws in the military’s claims.

This is a manufactured emergency. The military has provided no evidence of voter fraud. Its assertions have no basis without evidence.

What we do know is that the Commander in Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, had ambitions to be president. To do that, he needed the military backed political party, the USDP, to win at least one third of the votes. They didn’t, and his presidential ambitions lie in tatters.

He was also in a bind because he is required to retire from his post as Commander in Chief at the age of 65, this year. It is still unclear whether he will step down or whether the military will change the law to expand the age limit to allow him to stay in office longer.

Its also not clear at all that the president has willingly left office. In fact, he is under arrest and presumably had no intention of stepping down.

Another flaw in the military story is that the president, or acting president, can only declare an emergency after consulting with the National Defence and Security Council. The military claims there was a meeting of the Council, but this is impossible.

Although half of the Council are military officers, the other half are not. The Council includes the second (civilian) vice-president, and the speakers of the upper and lower house, who do not appear to have been arrested on Monday morning.

It seems that the military members of the Council, plus the retired general Myint Swe, are now its only members.

What the military did do is prove that they are above the Constitution. They are the fourth branch of government. They are a supra-constitutional entity. The rules don’t always apply to them.

The Constitution matters, except when it applies to the military.

What happens from here? The military rules by decree. No parliament. No free media. And possibly increasing restrictions on individuals and potentially more arrests.

The military could rule for a year, as it says, and then hold a fresh election. Such an election is likely to be highly orchestrated by the military. And would they really let the NLD run against them again? Its unlikely.

Another alternatively is that the Commander in Chief prolongs the state of emergency beyond the year.

What is clear is that the military was wrong to claim this is a constitutional emergency. This is a coup.

And this is not what people in Myanmar want or need right now. There have been around 140,000 cases of covid-19 and over 3,000 deaths. The economic costs of covid-19 have been just as severe.

For a younger generation who have not lived through a coup, they are angry and frustrated and scared. A coup is narrow-minded, selfish and arrogant during a global pandemic.

For the older generation who lived through the events of 1988, there is a troubling sense of dejavu. Can the military even be trusted to return to civilian rule after disregarding the 1990 election results and holding onto power until 2010?

The military has just lost any shred of respect its people had left for the institution. The military can’t both claim to act according to the Constitution and act outside of it.