Myanmar’s military-run television network announced on Monday that the military had taken control of the country for one year, confirming that days of mounting concern over a looming coup were well founded. Many of the country’s senior politicians, including Aung San Suu Kyi, were detained.
The takeover was quickly condemned and labelled a coup by European leaders, while the newly sworn-in administration of President Joe Biden in Washington expressed “grave concern” and called on the military to restore the democratically elected leaders “immediately.”
CBS News Asia correspondent Ramy Inocencio managed to get in touch with a friend in the country’s biggest city of Yangon despite most lines of communication being cut by the military. The friend told Inocencio that people were panic buying food and rushing to ATMs to try to get their money out as the military rulers halted all flights in the country and closed banks.
A presenter on Myanmar’s military-owned Myawaddy TV announced the takeover and cited a section of the military-drafted constitution that allows the military to take control in times of national emergency. He said the takeover was in part due to the government’s failure to act on the military’s claims of voter fraud in last November’s election and its failure to postpone the election because of the coronavirus crisis.
The military said it would hold a new election at the end of the state of emergency and hand power to the winner. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory in last November’s general election, humiliating the military-backed opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party.
The military TV report said Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing would be in charge of the country, while Vice President Myint Swe would be elevated to acting president. Myint Swe is a former general best known for leading a brutal crackdown on Buddhist monks in 2007. He is a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe.
Later Monday the military-run TV network said the generals in charge of the country had removed a total of 24 government ministers and deputy ministers and replaced them with 11 hand-picked replacements. The new appointees included ministers for finance, health, information, foreign affairs, defense, border control and internal affairs.
The announcements and declaration of the state of emergency followed days of concern about the threat of a military coup — and military denials that it would stage one — and came on the morning the country’s new Parliament session was to begin.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy urged Myanmar’s people to oppose Monday’s “coup” and any return to “military dictatorship.” The statement posted to Suu Kyi’s Facebook page said the military’s actions were unjustified and went against the constitution and the will of voters.
The takeover was a sharp reversal of the partial yet significant progress toward democracy Myanmar made in recent years following five decades of military rule and international isolation that began in 1962. It would also be shocking fall from power for Suu Kyi, who led the democracy struggle despite years under house arrest and won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.
“Grave concern and alarm”
The military’s actions brought rapid and widespread international condemnation.
New U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken issued a statement expressing “grave concern and alarm” over the reported detentions.
“We call on Burmese military leaders to release all government officials and civil society leaders and respect the will of the people of Burma as expressed in democratic elections,” he wrote, using Myanmar’s former name. “The United States stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace, and development. The military must reverse these actions immediately.”
The office of the U.N. Secretary-General was among those to issue a statement condemning the developments as a “serious blow to democratic reforms.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement saying she was “gravely concerned about the situation in Myanmar following the removal of the civilian Government and the arbitrary detention of dozens of political leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, activists and others by the military today,” and echoing the U.N. chief’s call for the military commanders to respect the outcome of the elections.
In Brussels, the President of the European Union’s European Council, Charles Michel, issued a statement strongly condemning “the coup in Myanmar,” and calling on the military to “release all who have been unlawfully detained in raids across the country.”
“The outcome of the elections has to be respected and democratic process needs to be restored,” he said.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen echoed the condemnation and insisted on Twitter that “the legitimate civilian government must be restored.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also condemned “the coup and unlawful imprisonment of civilians, including Aung San Suu Kyi,” by Myanmar’s military.
The detention of the politicians and cuts in television signals and communication services on Monday were the first signs that plans to seize power were in motion. Phone and internet access to Naypyitaw were lost. Phone service in other parts of the country was also reported down, though people were still able to use the internet in many areas.
The Irrawaddy, an established online news service, reported that Suu Kyi, who as state counsellor is the nation’s top leader, and the country’s president, Win Myint, were both detained in the pre-dawn hours. The news service cited Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the NLD.
Its report said that the party’s Central Executive Committee members, lawmakers and regional Cabinet members had also been taken into custody.
A list of other people believed to have been detained, compiled by political activists who asked not to be named for security reasons, included filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, writer Maung Thar Cho, and prominent veterans of the country’s 1988 student protest movement such as Ko Ko Gyi and Min Ko Naing. Their detention could not immediately be confirmed.
As word of the military’s actions spread in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, there was a growing sense of unease among residents who earlier in the day had still been packed into cafes for breakfast and had been doing their morning shopping.
People were removing the bright red flags of Suu Kyi’s party that once adorned their homes and businesses. Lines formed at ATMs as people waited to take out cash, efforts that were being complicated by internet disruptions. Workers at some businesses decided to go home.
Monday’s parliamentary session was to be the first since last year’s election, as tension lingered over recent comments by the military that were widely seen as threatening a coup.
The 2008 constitution, drafted and implemented during military rule, has a clause that says in case there is a national emergency, the president in coordination with the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council can issue an emergency decree to hand over the government’s executive, legislative and judicial powers to the military’s commander-in-chief.
The clause had been described by New York-based Human Rights Watch as a “coup mechanism in waiting.”
It is just one of many parts of the charter that ensured the military could maintain ultimate control over the country at the expense of elected politicians. The military also was guaranteed 25% of seats in Parliament and control of several key ministries, especially those involved in security and defense.
The 75-year-old Suu Kyi is by far the country’s most popular politician, and became the country’s de facto leader after her party won 2015 elections, though the constitution barred her from being president. She had been a fierce antagonist of the army during her time under house arrest.
Nevertheless, once in power, Suu Kyi had to balance her relationship with the country’s generals and even went on the international stage to defend their crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the country’s west, a campaign the U.S. and others have labeled genocide. That has left her international reputation in tatters.
She remains wildly popular at home, where most supported the campaign against the Rohingya. Suu Kyi’s party captured 396 out of 476 seats in the combined lower and upper houses of Parliament in last November’s polls.
The military, known as the Tatmadaw, has charged that there was massive voting fraud in the election, though it has failed to provide proof. The state Union Election Commission last week rejected its allegations.