Myanmar’s military declared a one-year state of emergency to deal with voting fraud allegations, the army said on Monday after it arrested leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s president, and state ministers following rising tensions over disputed 2020 election results.
A statement issued by Myint Swe, who was named interim president of Myanmar, said the military had “declared a state of emergency in the country” under Section 417 of the 2008 Constitution. New elections would be held after the yearlong state of emergency, it said.
“In order to execute the necessary actions including the re-examination of voter’s lists … all legislative, administrative and judiciary powers have been transferred to the military commander in chief,” said the statement, carried on military-owned Myawaddy TV. The powerful military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, was placed in charge of the country for a year beginning Monday, it said.
“We have heard that the military has been arresting people from our party, and that it has detained the State Counselor and the President,” NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Picked up in detentions launched hours before the new parliament was slated to convene Feb. 1 were State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and the state ministers from the region of Yangon, the country’s largest city, and Shan, Kayin, and Mon states, he said.
“Han Thar Myint and Thein Lwin, members of the NLD CEC are detained, too. I am waiting for their arrest now,” said Myo Nyunt, referring to the party’s Central Executive Committee. The number and whereabouts of the detained politicians were not immediately clear.
International reaction to the setback in one of only a handful of democracies in Southeast Asia was swift.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres through his spokesman expressed “grave concern regarding the declaration of the transfer of all legislative, executive and judicial powers to the military. These developments represent a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar.”
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said the U.S. is “alarmed” by the arrests and “in coordination with our regional partners, urge the military and all other parties to adhere to democratic norms and the rule of law, and to release those detained today.”
“The United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed,” she said in a statement Sunday night.
Secretary Of State Antony J. Blinken expressed “grave concern and alarm” at the 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 on November 8,” he said in a written statement.
“The military must reverse these actions immediately,” added Blinken.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne voiced deep concern Monday that “the Myanmar military is once again seeking to seize control of Myanmar.” She called on the military to respect the rule of law and “immediately release all civilian leaders and others who have been detained unlawfully.” Payne further urged that the National Assembly be reconvened in accordance with the results of the Nov. 8 election.
The British government called on the military to “respect the rule of law and human rights, and release those unlawfully detained.”
In a written statement, a UK government official said: “We need to see the peaceful reconvening of the National Assembly, respecting the results of the November 2020 general election and the expressed wishes of the people of Myanmar.”
China, a key investor in Myanmar, “hopes that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
Telecoms and internet down in capital
The military, which had called on the government to postpone the convening of parliament and refused to rule out the possibility of a coup in response to allegations of election fraud, also arrested MPs, political activists and student leaders, sources told RFA.
“I am detained,” Mya Aye, a 1988 democracy movement activist and leader of the group Federal Democratic Forces, posted on his Facebook a few minutes before his account was deactivated at dawn on Monday.
State-run Myanmar Radio and Television or MRTV has announced early Monday that they were unable to broadcast.
“Due to a telecommunication issue, we would like to inform audiences respectfully that we’re not able to broadcast radio and TV programs yet,” MRTV posted on its Facebook page.
Telecommunications and internet were down in the capital Naypyidaw. Some phone lines were disabled in the main city of Yangon, and people were rushing to ATMs to withdraw money, but many of the automatic teller machines were not working, residents said.
Military troops took over the government building and mayor’s office in Myanmar’s second-largest city of Mandalay, but local markets and bazaars carried on business as normal.
Access to Facebook isn’t being restricted in Myanmar, nor have authorities requested the disabling of any user accounts in the country, a spokesperson for the company said.
“The military’s actions show utter disdain for the democratic elections held in November and the right of Myanmar’s people to choose their own government,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“We are especially concerned for the safety and security of activists and other critics of the military who may have been taken into custody,” he said in a statement.
“We urge concerned governments to speak out forcefully against the military’s actions and consider targeted sanctions against those responsible.”
Monday’s detentions followed a string of veiled threats of a coup by Myanmar’s military last week over claims of voting fraud in the Nov. 8 elections, which the NLD swept in an outcome confirmed by electoral authorities.
Long history of military coups
Aung San Suu Kyi, a 75-year-old Nobel laureate who has spent nearly two decades under house arrest, was set to launch her second five-year term in late March. The NLD won 396 parliamentary seats in November, while the army-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), took only 33 seats. The party serves as a proxy for the military, which is guaranteed 25 percent of seats under the 2008 Constitution.
The military and the USDP have contended for weeks that there was widespread voter fraud and have increased pressure on the Union Election Commission (UEC) to investigate. Neither the military nor the USDP have submitted any evidence of actual voter fraud, but they have raised questions about outdated voter lists and other problems.
In response to talk about a coup, the UEC issued a statement on Thursday insisting that elections were devoid of fraud as alleged by the military, despite some voter list errors which it said it would investigate.
Intervention by the military is troubling to many in Myanmar, which endured brutal, corrupt military rule and international pariah status from 1962 to 2011, when it began a transition to democratic rule.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, 64, has headed the military since 2011, and is under U.S. sanctions for his role in the 2017 military crackdown that drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims into neighboring Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s military campaign of mass killings, gang rapes and arson was executed with “genocidal intent,” a U.N. factfinding team found, leading to ongoing cases against the army and Min Aung Hlaing in the International Court of Justice and other courts. Washington is debating whether to designate the military campaign that expelled the Rohingya as a genocide,
“The Tatmadaw, who are guilty of genocide against the Rohingya and of a sustained campaign of violence against Burma’s ethnic minorities, must immediately free the democratic leaders of Myanmar and remove themselves from government,” said U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, incoming Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who called for international sanctions if the army doesn’t reverse course.
Writer Htin Lin Oo, an NLD member, described military men closing in on his house and waking up neighbors.
“I think they will enter my home soon. If they detain me, I will have to go with them,” he wrote on Facebook.
“Now our country is under a military coup for the third time. The democracy we arduously built has been crushed,” added Htin Lin Oo.
“I want to pass this message to our citizens: If we all are thrown into jail again, don’t give up.”
Former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell, who was Washington’s envoy when Myanmar began its transition from decades of junta rule in 2012, called for the immediate restoration of democracy.
“Democracy in Myanmar must be restored immediately without conditions for good of country. Myanmar military’s detention/arrest of civilian leadership is indefensible, whatever the pretext, and must earn global condemnation,” Mitchell, now president of the National Democratic Institute, wrote on Twitter.
“The doors just opened to a very different future,” said Thant Myint-U, a Burmese academic and author. “I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next.”
Myanmar has a long history of coups and iron-fisted military rule since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. Military ruler Ne Win seized power in a coup in 1962 and drove Myanmar, then known as Burma, into virtual international isolation. Ne Win was sidelined in 1988 amid nationwide pro-democracy protests that were crushed by the military, which installed a junta. For the ensuing two decades, Myanmar faced tough international sanctions that took a heavy toll on its economy.
The country of 54 million people the size of France only began to open up around 2011, as the military ceded direct rule and allowed a civilian government to take shape which led to the lifting of international sanctions. Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent 15 years under house arrest, was freed and her NLD took power after a sweeping victory in national elections in 2015 – a victory repeated this November.
The military, however, has retained key levers of power throughout this period, including a quarter of parliamentary seats and control of the key security ministries of border affairs, defense and the interior.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Paul Eckert.