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A perilous path

In Naypidaw, the electoral outcome and the change in the constitutional narrative may turn out to be shambolic yet again. Under the shadow of the soldier’s gun, time has stood still in Myanmar for the past 30 years. The elections have only punctuated the narrative

ARINDAM GHOSH-DASTIDAR | New Delhi |

The military in Myanmar has turned the clock back by at least three decades, reminiscent of the rulers in Mughal India. Monday’s coup and the detention of the onetime lodestar of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, are concordant with the GHQ’s paradigm that guides operations ~ not to recognise an electoral verdict and then arrest the leader of the movement for democracy.

Also behind bars are other senior members of her governing party. So blatant a travesty of the certitudes of democracy will be hard to beat. It bears recall that in the early 1990s, she was incarcerated for a considerable period despite her famous victory. In the net, she was denied the opportunity to assume power as the army arrogated to itself the authority to rule the country. And so it was till 2015 when the spirited champion of democracy won the election, but was made to helm an effete administration.

Suu Kyi won the election last November as well, but the pronounced tendency of the GHQ in Naypidaw to reign supreme remains almost intact. Indeed, its legislative clout has been reinforced with 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament now reserved for the omnipotent army. And yet there is a groundswell of support and empathy for Suu Kyi and in almost measure an aversion towards the army.

This dichotomy can be contextualised with her appeal to the populace of Myanmar to oppose the coup. The changeover from the uniform to the longyi has turned out to be wholly cosmetic, yielding little or nothing that is tangible on the ground. The emphasis is on sartorial style rather than substance. Thirty years after Suu Kyi was denied power, all authority has now been accorded to the top army commander and a one-year state of emergency has been declared, if the statement advanced by the military TV is any indication. It is a cruel irony that the coup follows a landslide election victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). She has urged her supporters “not to accept this” and “protest against the coup”. In a letter written in preparation for her impending detention, she said the military’s actions put the country back under dictatorship. That dictatorship has been put in place despite Suu Kyi’s rather intriguing silence on the predicament and privation of the Rohingyas. Myanmar is on a perilous path. The armed forces have confirmed that they have carried out a coup d’etat, their first against a civilian government since 1962, and in apparent violation of the Constitution which the military promised to honour as recently as last Saturday, when the commander-in-chief, Senior General, Min Aung Hlaing, said: “Some organisations wrote without foundation when they said that the military had threatened to revoke the Constitution.” Forty-eight hours later, he spearheaded a coup. Visually, Myanmar bears witness to the embroidery of military rule, chiefly the unusual deployment of armoured vehicles on the streets of several large cities. The shadow of the soldier’s gun has extended beyond Yangon, the former capital, and Naypidaw, the present. The psephological fallout makes it plain that the military-backed party, the USDP, performed poorly in last November’s general election, whereas the NLD did even better than in 2015. The timing of Monday’s coup was well calibrated.

The first session of the newly elected Parliament was scheduled to start this week. If the military had approved the next government, it would have acknowledged and enshrined the election result. The military coup has militated against that democratic happenstance. Democracy in Myanmar has met its eclipse for now. The enormity of the tragedy deepens when one reflects that 70 per cent of voters defied the Covid-19 pandemic to vote so overwhemingly for Suu Kyi’s party. It was yet another famous victory, but nothing good has come of it.On either side of the choppy Atlantic, the coup has been greeted with stout condemnation. The United States has condemned the ugly development, saying Washington “opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition”. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has called for the release of all government officials and civil society leaders and said the US “stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace, and development.

The military must reverse these actions immediately”. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has condemned the coup and Suu Kyi’s “unlawful imprisonment”. In India, the response of the government has been muted, the silence embedded in the fear of China stirring the murky waters of the North- East, most particularly Arunachal Pradesh.

Famously stubborn, Suu Kyi is unlikely to cooperate with a gun held to her head. Her ally, President Win Myint, is the only person authorised under the Constitution to enact a state of emergency.

He too has been detained with her. For the moment, the military’s action appears reckless, and puts Myanmar on a perilous path. Within the subcontinent, even the armies in Pakistan and Bangladesh aren’t so reckless. Nor for that matter have the victims of a coup, notably Zulfiqar Ai Bhutto and Begum Hasina (when in the opposition’s Awami League) attempted to reach out to the people.

It would be petinent to recall that the omnipotent military in Myanmar had thrown a spanner in the works just a couple of days before the new Parliament convenes, post the election in November 2020. Indeed, there were worries about a coup in the context of the GHQ’s threat to take drastic action against the alleged fraud in the election, won by Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy.

The army’s aversion to civilian rule remains ever so pronounced. The military’s allegation of voter-list irregularities have been accompanied by cryptic comments about abolishing the Constitution. The army’s threat did raise the spectre of a coup in a country ruled by the soldier for half a century, specifically ever since the 1962 military takeover. Suu Kyi’s NLD won 83 per cent of available seats in the election held on 8 November. The vote was generally regarded as a referendum on her nominally and fledgling democratic government.

Though the military’s involvement in civilian governance has been part of Myanmar’s furniture for the past three decades, this time it has alleged discrepancies such as duplicated names in voters’ lists in several constituencies. The cantonment also feels slighted with the Election Commission’s response to its complaints. As the architect of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, perceives itself as the guardian of national unity and the Constitution. In the event, both are scarce quantities.

Over time, the soldier has enshrined a permanent role for himself in the political system, thus positioning the army as a quasi-political entity. In Naypidaw, the electoral outcome and the change in the constitutional narrative may turn out to be shambolic yet again. Under the shadow of the soldier’s gun, time has stood still in Myanmar for the past 30 years. The elections have only punctuated the narrative.