Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi urged her country to “to protest against the coup by the military” in a message released Monday after the army arrested her and dozens of ruling party officials and declared a one-year state of emergency to deal with unproven voting fraud allegations from 2020 elections.
The note, written before the army’s coup Monday, came as denunciations poured in from the United Nations, the United States and other countries, with U.S. President Joe Biden calling for an allied effort to restore democracy in the Southeast Asian nation that emerged from military dictatorship in 2011.
“I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military,” according to a statement issued in Aung San Suu Kyi’s name on the Facebook page of the National League for Democracy (NLD) chairperson’s office.
A note scrawled on the message said it was written before Monday in anticipation of the army’s bloodless coup, a putsch that followed weeks of tensions between the NLD and the powerful military and recent veiled warnings from the military chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who has taken charge for a year.
“By the time you read this statement, the military has already abandoned the 2008 Constitution that they themselves drafted and approved, and terminated our elected government and parliament that the people have overwhelmingly voted for,” wrote Aung San Suu Kyi. She noted that although the NLD does not accept the military-written 2008 Constitution, the party has complied with the charter and won under voting laws in general elections in 1990, 2015 and 2020.
“The military’s decision is, far from considering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the country, an attempt to re-install the military regime in the country,” wrote Aung San Suu Kyi.
A statement issued early Monday by Myint Swe, a former vice president 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 military information committee said that Min Aung Hlaing convened a meeting with the National Defense and Security Council Monday morning at the president’s home where he explained that the military coup is in line with the law and that after the emergency period, free and fair elections will be held and the military will transfer power to the winning political party.
Picked up just hours before the new parliament was slated to convene Monday 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, NLD officials said.
From the White House, Biden called the coup “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law” that disrespects Myanmar’s decade-long effort to establish elections, civilian governance, and the peaceful transfer of power.
“In a democracy, force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election,” said Biden.
“The international community should come together in one voice to press the Burmese military to immediately relinquish the power they have seized, release the activists and officials they have detained, lift all telecommunications restrictions, and refrain from violence against civilians,” he added.
From Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said 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.”
“I am alarmed by reports suggesting that at least 45 people have been detained – including elected parliamentarians under confinement – and I call for their immediate release,” she added in a statement.
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.”
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne 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.
‘We are ready to face anything’
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.
Videos seen by RFA show five light military trucks carrying armed soldiers guarding guesthouses in Naypyidaw where lawmakers stay when parliament is in session. Parliament was also blocked by troops and the new term slated to begin Monday has been canceled.
NLD members of parliament hunkered down as their leaders were detained.
“We all MPs are calmly waiting for the instruction from our party leaders. We are ready to face anything,” said NLD’ MP Kyaw Swar Oo.
“Things are calm and stable in the compound,” said another NLD lawmaker, Ye Myint Swe said. “Our party also requested that we stay calm. We cannot go out.”
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 largely restored after going down early Monday in the capital Naypyidaw. In Naypyidaw, Yangon and Mandalay, crowds of people gathered at ATMs to withdraw cash or thronged at markets in an effort to stockpile food supplies and essential commodities.
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.
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. Sen. Bob Menendez, incoming Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who called for international sanctions if the army doesn’t reverse course.
“The same military leaders who have committed Genocide against the Rohingya, often using and encouraging sexual violence and rape as a form of ethnic cleansing, cannot be allowed to hijack Burma’s democratic progress nor be able to repeat their atrocities again,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey of the East Asia Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
NLD backer Win Htain, who confirmed to RFA that Aung San Suu Kyi’s letter was given to him on January 29, said “this crisis is the result of Min Aung Hlaing’s obsession with becoming president.”
“It’s foolish to think the international community will accept his action,” he told RFA.
“The fate of the country is now back to square one.”
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.