A little more than eight years ago, then President Barack Obama planted a famous kiss on the cheek of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi during a visit following her release from years of house arrest. It was a moment that captured the promise of a new Myanmar, and a thaw with America. Now Suu Kyi is back under detention after a military coup, and U.S.-Myanmar relations are rockier than they’ve been in a decade. Today’s Daily Dose takes you behind the scenes of 2021’s biggest global crisis so far, decoding why it matters, introducing you to key characters, tracking democracy’s slide in other nations and offering you a rich slice of Myanmar culture you won’t find elsewhere.
Nick Fouriezos, Isabelle Lee and Charu Sudan Kasturi
On Monday morning, Myanmar's military seized control of the country, arresting de facto civilian ruler Suu Kyi and other senior leaders — and bringing the nation’s fledgling experiment with democracy to a grinding halt. The military, which was in power for nearly half a century, from 1962 until 2011, declared a state of emergency for a year. It has accused Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) of winning November’s election through fraud (the pro-military party came in a distant second), borrowing on a theme deployed by former President Donald Trump to discredit America’s own vote the same month. Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who has faced international opprobrium for his role in the persecution of Rohingya Muslim minorities, is now running the show.
2. Quick Moves
The army — known as the Tatmadaw — has rapidly replaced elected ministers and deputies with its favorites and instituted curfews and mass communication blackouts. According to an NLD official, Suu Kyi is under house arrest, allowed outside to walk in her courtyard. It’s a routine she’s familiar with, having endured years of similar home-detention stints. Suu Kyi released a statement on Facebook urging citizens to protest the military takeover, accusing the army of trying to “put the country back under a dictatorship.” Some people are rallying on social media behind the #SaveMyanmar hashtag, with troops crowding the streets and Yangon citizens expressing their displeasure today in a cacophony of car horns and banging cooking pots.
3. World Wakes Up
The West appeared to have been caught off guard — even though Min Aung Hlaing had publicly threatened to intervene amid growing tensions between Suu Kyi’s government and the military over the November election results. Once it was clear that the threat had become reality, the United Nations called the power grab a blow to democracy. The U.S., Britain, India, the European Union, Australia and others have also condemned the coup. But two major nations have been muted in their response and have refused to show their hand: China and Russia. Myanmar’s military is likely banking on that divide in the global community.
4. Sanctions on the Horizon?
President Joe Biden has threatened to reimpose economic sanctions that were lifted when Myanmar embraced democracy. Today his State Department formally declared the military takeover a coup and moved to cut off America’s limited funding to the Myanmar government. Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council is meeting today to discuss a statement condemning the coup, though China appears reluctant to sign on.
5. Dancing in the Dark
Like the West, the people of Myanmar were taken aback by the military’s action. So much so that an exercise instructor inadvertently ended up capturing the start of the coup on camera as she recorded an outdoor aerobics routine to high-tempo music. Her smooth moves made a stark contrast to the crowded ATMs and grocery stores, as panicked civilians rushed to buy food and withdraw their savings. For them, the world turned upside down overnight.
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Myanmar, or Burma, is a land of many names, given the numerous times its various colonial and military rulers have changed the titles of cities, towns and regions to suit their aims. What has never changed is its status as a gateway connecting South and Southeast Asia. Today it’s a critical corridor both for India’s regional transit routes to the East and China’s Belt and Road Initiative to the West. Touching Laos and Thailand as well, with its southern border eclipsing the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal, it is also a cultural crossroads comprising more than 100 ethnic groups.
2. Rich in Minerals … and Guns and Drugs
Gas, rubies, jade and timber abound, but like many resource-rich nations, that natural wealth has fueled conflict instead of an economic boom. The Rohingya crisis grabbed the world’s attention, but Myanmar’s landscape is littered with a million rebellions that continue to simmer despite brutal military crackdowns. Meanwhile, those uprisings and the sanctions that the country’s military has faced mean Myanmar is flooded with illicit weapons from China, Russia, India, Israel, North Korea and others. The country’s geography and political schisms also make it a perfect transit route for narcotics, as a part of the so-called Golden Triangle that also includes Thailand and Laos. Myanmar authorities seized Asia’s largest haul of fentanyl during raids last year.
3. A Hostage World Leader?
What should one make of Suu Kyi? The Nobel laureate went from rock band U2 penning a pro-democracy anthem in her honor to being summoned by the International Court of Justice on human rights abuse charges over the military-led genocide against the country’s Rohingya Muslim minorities. Could the coup help wash away the stains on Suu Kyi’s legacy and explain how she was working with her hands tied by the military-dominated state all along?
4. Exposing Democracy’s Weaknesses
The military’s excuse for the takeover — election fraud — points to broader cracks in the armor of democracy as a form of governance. Trump attempted to undermine the U.S. election. Authoritarian leaders in Belarus, Tanzania, Ivory Coast and Uganda have used the power of their office to reclaim control through blatantly unfair means in the past six months, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has effectively won himself office until 2036 through a questionable referendum. These are countries with very different contexts, but they’re bound by a common thread: the growing distrust in democracy.
key players to watch
1. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing
Once a bully, always a bully. The general (above left) used to humiliate his classmates in school — now he’s using the power of the Tatmadaw to show Myanmar who’s boss. A protégé of former military ruler Than Shwe, he was appointed army chief in 2011 and worked with Suu Kyi on the transition to democracy. Min Aung Hlaing, 64, was supposed to retire from the army this summer, but he is believed to have long harbored presidential ambitions. When Suu Kyi’s NLD garnered more than 80 percent of the vote in the November election, trouncing the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, those dreams appeared to be slipping away. The general did what a bully does: take what isn’t his.
2. Xi Jinping
Who does a bully listen to? A bigger bully. China has long been the Myanmar military’s biggest backer, including through the supply of sophisticated weapons. And though Suu Kyi worked closely with Xi, 67 (above center), after she came to power, relations have frayed in recent months, as Myanmar grew wary of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative investments, worried it might fall into a debt trap just as Sri Lanka did. Min Aung Hlaing knows he can’t alienate both the U.S. and China. The biggest global influence on his decisions will come from Beijing.
3. Antony Blinken
The longtime foreign policy hand was a central pillar of the Obama administration when it worked with Myanmar on its transition to democracy, slowly lifting sanctions. The Obama White House pitched that shift in Myanmar as a major foreign policy success. Now, as those gains unravel, Secretary of State Blinken, 58 (above right), will need to draw on decades of experience and close ties with key nations such as India and Japan to try to collectively pressure the generals to return to their barracks. Having been in his post for only a week, this is his first major test.
4. Aung San Suu Kyi
At 75, age isn’t on her side — but the dogged spirit to fight remains intact. It’s an attribute she inherited from her father, postcolonial Myanmar’s founding leader, Aung San. Diplomats and leaders who meet her return with a common impression: Her body appears frail, but her eyes have a steely determination. Sure, the world will be less charitable to her today than it was when she was a prisoner fighting for democracy, given her role in enabling the Rohingya massacres. But where she has lost global support, she has gained mass popularity with the country’s Buddhist majority. Silencing her won’t be easy for the military.
5. Prayuth Chan-ocha
If there’s one world leader other than Xi that Min Aung Hlaing can count on for support, it’s Thailand’s general turned president Prayuth Chan-ocha, 66. It would be payback. In 2014, when Prayuth faced global criticism after grabbing power, Min Aung Hlaing visited him and backed the coup. Since then, the Myanmar general has been a Thai favorite, even receiving a royal honor when he visited Bangkok in 2018. Prayuth has successfully rebuilt bridges with the West. Will he teach Min Aung Hlaing how to do the same?
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If Myanmar’s military was running the show from behind the scenes, what was the incentive to risk sanctions by carrying out a coup? To answer that question, look at Pakistan. The military has been the country’s strongest institution since Pakistan’s first coup in 1958, in control of the nation’s economy and able even to hang popular, elected prime ministers it doesn’t like. But every now and then, there comes a general who isn’t satisfied with pulling the strings from the shadows: He wants the full pomp and ceremony that comes with the presidency. That’s why Pakistan has suffered three coups, interspersed with periods of democracy (overseen by the same military) when the international pressure becomes too intense.
But there’s another reason military coups can be self-perpetuating, each one planting the seeds for the next. When democratically elected governments know that the true power lies with the military, the men and women in uniform become the de facto referees in domestic political squabbles — stepping in when political disputes become too heated. Little surprise then that Thailand, like Pakistan, has had serial coups separated by brief stints of democracy.
It’s when true democracy is starting to take root that a coup can serve as a real gut punch, setting a nation’s political journey back. In 2013, Egypt experienced what Myanmar is going through now, when the country’s first democratically elected government after decades under dictator Hosni Mubarak was ejected in a military takeover by Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who has been in control ever since.
No other major democracy stands as close to the precipice of a military power grab as the South American giant. President Jair Bolsonaro has long admired the U.S.-backed military rule in the country from 1964 to 1985. His vice president — a former general — hasn’t hesitated to use his background to issue threats to opponents, proudly describing the army as “violence professionals.” And independent experts fear that Bolsonaro might draw inspiration from the insurgent attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters. “Have no doubts,” Brazilian political scientist Ilona Szabó de Carvalho wrote on Twitter after the Capitol attack. “That is the plan.”
Once in a while, military dictators give up power on their own. Army major–turned–socialist leader Mathieu Kérékou had ruled this tiny West African nation for 17 years when, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he decided to transition the country to a multiparty democracy. In the 1991 elections held after nationwide consultations, Kérékou contested, lost and calmly relinquished power. The first democratic transfer of power in postcolonial West Africa set an example that the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Togo, Burundi, Rwanda and Niger would all follow in the 1990s.
The Southeast Asian nation is an ethnically diverse bouquet of fascinating cultural mores. Consider the traditions of the Chin community, whose members wear face tattoos to denote their clan, or the musical prowess of the Magaan tribe, whose elders played the nose flute, although the tradition is now at risk of extinction.
Maybe it’s naive to expect much progress with so many obstacles still left ahead for a united Myanmar. Yet an exploding street dance scene has in recent years helped the country’s youth bridge ethnic, religious and class divisions through a shared love of hip-hop. A pandemic and military coup later, there may not seem much to dance about. But then again, an art form that transcends fissures might be exactly what’s needed.
Most travel to Myanmar’s famed Inle Lake to admire its scenic beauty, and the acrobatic rowing prowess of the native Intha fishermen. But at Inle Heritage, a rural eco-conservation hotel, visitors find another attraction — a Burmese feline reintroduction program that has led to an island colonized by cats so rare they are virtually unseen in broader Myanmar today.