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Military coup in Myanmar: 'Garrison State' back to dismantle democracy?, Global South Colloquy, 1 Feb.2021



The Global South Colloquy papers analyses the context and implications of the military takeover in Myanmar on 1 February 2021.
Military coup in Myanmar:
Garrison State back to dismantle democracy?
Military coup in Myanmar: Garrison
State back to dismantle democracy?
Fears of a military takeover in Myanmar came true in the early
hours of 1 February when the powerful army resorted to a series
of measures which included detention of the State Counsellor
Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other senior
government leaders, followed by the declaration of a state of
emergency in the country. The commander-in-chief of the
armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, took over power in Myanmar
which has long been beleaguered by the interventions and
powerplay of the Garrison State’—a “developmental construct”
enunciated by Harold Lasswell way back in 1941 which refers
to “the specialist on violence” (the soldier) being in charge, and
the socio-economic life getting subordinated to the military
(Lasswell 1941: 455-468).
The Tatmadaw (military) has taken the draconian measures only
hours before the opening session of the countrys new
Parliament on 1 February. The developments came as a
culmination of mounting tensions between the government and
the military following the general elections held in November
2020. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung
San Suu Kyi was declared to have won in the polls, securing over
80 per cent of the seats. However, this was contested by the
military and its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development
Party (USDP), besides others like Democratic Party of National
Politics, another proxy of the military, alleging that the elections
were manipulated by fraud and irregularities. Apparently, the
USDP and hence the military, had expected a victory in the
elections. Deep frustrations eventually resulted in the
Trumpian style of accusations and finally the very reversal of
the electoral verdict by scuttling the democratic process.
The Supreme Court and the Union Election Commission (UEC)
did not yet consider whether they were to accept a writ
submitted by USDP and its allies regarding irregularities.
Moreover, the UEC said that it did not have any evidence yet of
the alleged irregularities. The elections held in November last
were the second democratic polls in Myanmar since the end of
nearly five decades of military rule. The NLD had won the first
elections in 2015.
In a television broadcast, the military announced that fresh
general elections would be held and the winning party would
assume power. The state of emergency was declared after
installing Myint Swe as acting President. Myint Swe, a former
general, was serving as Vice President. Following this, Myint Swe
transferred power to military chief Min Aung Hlaing. The newly
elected members of Myanmars legislature who belonged to NLD
were detained in their residential places under heavy security.
Reports said that the military also detained the chief ministers of
14 states and regions.
In a statement issued by the NLD, Suu Kyi called on the people to
fully oppose the military coup and resoundingly resist against
it. She said that the Tatmadaw showed no consideration
whatsoever for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic (
The state of emergency was declared under Article 417 of the
2008 Constitution of Myanmar which was drafted by the
military under heavy international pressure. As per Article 417,
If there arises or if there is sufficient reason for a state of
emergency to arise that may disintegrate the Union or
disintegrate national solidarity or that may cause the loss of
sovereignty, due to acts or attempts to take over the
sovereignty of the Union by insurgency, violence and
wrongful forcible means, the President may, after co-
ordinating with the National Defence and Security Council,
promulgate an ordinance and declare a state of emergency
(Myanmar, Ministry of Information 2008).
The country’s legislative, administrative and judicial powers are
also transferred to the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence
Services, under Article 418 of the Constitution, until the actions
are taken against (alleged irregularities in) voter list checking
and (approval), the notification said.
According to the Constitution, only the President can declare
a state of emergency and hand over power to the military.
Article 419 says:
The Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services to whom
the sovereign power has been transferred shall have the
right to exercise the powers of legislature, executive and
judiciary. The Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services
may exercise the legislative power either by himself or by a
body including him. The executive power and the judicial
power may be transferred to and exercised by an
appropriate body that has been formed or a suitable person
It may not seem strange that the Constitution itself conforms to
the logic of the Garrison State when the Tatmadaw made
specific provisions for itself in the document. Under Article 74 of
the military-made Constitution, the Union legislature of
Myanmar, known as Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (The Assembly of the
Union) consists of Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities), a
224-seat upper house and Pyithu Hluttaw (House of
Representatives), a 440-seat lower house. Of the total 664 seats,
75 per cent members (498) are elected directly by voters and 25
per cent (166 members) are Defence Services Personnel
nominated by the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Services.
This Garrison model was akin to Suhartos New Order regime
in Indonesia which came to power in the wake of the removal of
President Sukarno.
The Garrison State of Myanmar has its history going back to the
early 1960s when the country fell prey to military rule in 1962.
In fact, Myanmar (erstwhile Burma) emerged as a democratic
country after gaining independence from the British colonial
office in 1948. The fact that the Burmese Independence Army
had played an important role in gaining independence would
have emboldened its stature. U Nu, the first prime minister of
Myanmar, himself had sought the help of military in 1958 to
form a caretaker government with some internal crisis brewing.
However, the direct military rule began in 1962 when General
Ne Win captured power through a coup d'état. Myanmar
transformed itself into a military dictatorship under the Burma
Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) that continued for decades
(under the pretext of saving the country from disintegration).
Under General Ne Win, Myanmar witnessed various forms of
military rule. Ne Win and his Revolutionary Council managed
the affairs of the government directly for more than a decade
until when Myanmar was transformed into a military-propped
up, socialist one-party state under the guardianship of his own
BSPP with the slogan Burmese Way to Socialism. However, this
eventually resulted in a severe economic crisis that persisted in
the 1980s. Myanmar then witnessed massive pro-democracy
protests which forced Ne Win to step down in July 1988. But the
military was able to reconsolidate its power, after unleashing
violence on the pro-democracy demonstrations which led to
massive killing. The military regime was reinstated in a coup in
August 1988 by the State Law and Order Restoration Council
(SLORC), which continued for another 24 years.
In fact, the military had assured that it would transfer power to
an elected government; but it did not even approve the results of
the elections held in May 1990, which led to a landslide victory
for the National League for Democracy (NLD). The justification
of the military for not conceding the mandate was that the
country did not have a constitution. This caused long years of
conflict between the military, ethnic groups and political parties.
The western powers continued to support the opposition parties
struggle to restore democracy. Opposition party members,
including NLD chief and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San
Suu Kyi and other leaders of the party had to live under house
arrest for long and many had to flee the country following the
military persecution. Meanwhile political prisoners swelled their
numbers over the two decades.
However, in September 2003, the military regime declared its
intention to bring in a disciplined democracy’—giving a hint
that the transfer power to an elected government would take
place soon. Yet, it took another five years for the military to draft
a new constitution, and when the Constitution came into being
in 2008, it turned out to be an instrument for reserving a
specific role for the military. The Constitution was placed for
referendum, but it was boycotted by the opposition parties. It
was a blessing in disguise for the junta as it declared that there
was massive mandate for the new Constitution.
The military finally agreed to hold the general election in
2010the first after two decadesbut the NLD was declared
ineligible to participate as per the election laws. Consequently,
the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party
won majority, securing 259 of the 330 contested seats. There
was widespread condemnation of the elections held under the
façade of disciplined democracy.
However, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010, and
later she was allowed to contest in a by-election in 2012 and a
won a seat in the Pyithu Hluttaw. Significantly, the NLD won an
absolute majority of seats in the 2015 general elections, taking
86 per cent of the seats in the Assembly of the Union well more
than the 67 per cent majority required to ensure that its own
candidates would be elected president and first vice president.
But it was a challenging time for Suu Kyi to work with military
generals who drafted the Constitution with clear intentions.
Already the military retained 25 per cent of seats in both houses
giving it a veto over any move to change the constitution.
Obviously, Suu Kyi cannot become president without such
constitutional change. As per Article 59(f) of the Constitution,
the president must be someone who "he himself, one of the
parents, the spouse, one of the legitimate children or their
spouses not owe allegiance to a foreign power." "(They shall) not
be subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country ...
(or) be persons entitled to enjoy the rights and privileges of a
subject of a foreign government or citizen of a foreign country."
As Aung San Suu Kyis two sons are British citizens, she could
not become president. Hence she had to reconcile to the position
as the State Counsellor having the rank of
de facto
head of the
The general election held in 2020 was quite decisive as it gave a
clear mandate for the present government to continue for
another term. The setbacks for the military-proxy parties
obviously alarmed the generals as the new government would be
in a position to amend the 2008 Constitution which will erode
the powers of the military. This could plausibly be the immediate
reason for all charges of irregularities. The military even went
to the extent of accusing the Union Election Commission of
failing to address voter list irregularities and said it was
compelled to step in because the government had turned down
the military’s demands, including the postponement of the new
Many believed that the coup was the result of Min Aung
Hlaing’s personal political greed. He had already earned
notoriety for the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya
minorities in the Rakhine State, which led to more than 7 lakh
people fleeing the country. There was widespread international
condemnation of the military atrocities against the Rohingyas
and there was even a travel restriction imposed on Min Aung
Hlaing by countries like the United States for his direct
involvement in the ethnic cleansing (
The Washington Post
2019). A United Nations Independent Fact-Finding Mission
(UNFFM) on Myanmar found adequate proof to call for the
investigation of senior military officials for crimes and genocide
against ethnic Rohingya Muslims. The Chairperson of UNFFM
The Council, and its individual members, should also impose
targeted individual sanctions against those most responsible
for serious crimes under international law. In our report, we
identified six of the Tatmadaw’s most senior generals with
command responsibility for the “clearance operations” in
Rakhine State, starting with the Commander-in-Chief,
Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing. They must cease to
benefit from all international support, both institutionally
and personally. This includes an arms embargo on
Myanmar and a prohibition of all transactions with
Tatmadaw affiliated enterprises (UN Human Rights Council
It may seem strange that in December 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi
had defended Myanmar’s military against genocide allegations
at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in the midst of
widespread accusations of mass killings, rape and expulsion of
the Rohingya minority. In her opening statement before the ICJ
in The Hague, Suu Kyi rejected the case filed by the Gambia. In
fact, Suu Kyis image got discredited in the international media
for the defence of the military.
It is these top Tatmadaw echelons who are now at the helm of
affairs in Myanmar. Consequently, the Rohingyas in the Rakhine
State are the most distressed minority in the country who were
among the 2.6 million ethnic-minorities having been excluded
from voting in the last November elections.
Min Aung Hlaing and his family members also got into
controversies for the wealth they have amassed from business
under the state patronage. For instance, Min Aung Hlaing was
reported to have major shares in Myanma Economic Holdings
Public Company Limited (MEHL)one of two major firms run
by the military (Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) is the
other business conglomerate). MEHL, which has a monopoly on
Myanmar’s gems sector, as well as having stakes in various
industries including metals, banking, tourism, real estate,
transportation etc, generated huge profits and that ostensibly
reinforced military's independent operations.
Human rights agencies like Amnesty International (AI) reported
about such dubious connections the MEHL maintains. According
to Mark Dummett, Head of Business, Security and Human Rights
at AI, the perpetrators of some of the worst human rights
violations in Myanmar’s recent history are among those who
benefit from MEHL’s business activities for example, military
chief Min Aung Hlaing owned 5,000 shares in MEHL in 2011.
He said: This is not a case of MEHL unwittingly financing
human rights violations its entire board is composed of high-
level military figures. According to different sources, MEHL also
has exclusive privileges in securing contracts with foreign
companies and most of the foreign direct investments are
carried out through joint ventures with MEHL (Amnesty
International 2020).
The UN Human Rights Council (2019) through its Independent
International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar had already
recorded ample evidences of the economic interests of the
Myanmar military and its dubious role in the ethnic cleansing.
The Mission report says that the Tatmadaw insulates itself from
accountability and oversight. Through controlling its own
business empire, the Tatmadaw can evade the accountability and
oversight that normally arise from civilian oversight of military
budgets. In the concluding part, the Report says:
At least 45 companies and organizations provided the
Tatmadaw with USD 6.15 million in financial donations that
were solicited in September 2017 by senior Tatmadaw
leadership in support of the “clearance operations” that began
in August 2017 against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine.
The Mission also found that private companies with enduring
links to the Tatmadaw are financing development projects in
northern Rakhine in furtherance of the Tatmadaw’s objective
of re-engineering the region in a way that erases evidence of
Rohingya belonging in Myanmar, and preventing their return
to access their homeland and communities (UN Human
Rights Council 2019).
The ruling military junta has such a dubious history of
manipulating both the ethnic and economic climate of the
country to its own advantages. However, it knows that both the
domestic and international situations are not very smooth today.
While the pandemic continues to affect the lives and livelihoods
of the people, the economy is now slowing down. The
uncertainty in these sectors is likely to persist, even get
worsened, in the coming months when the United States
threatens to impose sanctions if electoral verdict is not accepted.
The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, also voiced “grave
concern” over the military takeover of all legislative, executive
and judicial powers. He said, “These developments represent a
serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar” (United
Nations 2021). The European Union and many other countries
have already warned that the military cannot set aside the
electoral verdict and take the country back to dictatorial days.
While the global pressure and condemnation keep on mounting,
China said that military's actions can be seen as an adjustment
to the country's dysfunctional power structure, citing experts
opinion. It said: China has maintained good relations with both
the current government and the military, and it hopes that the
two sides can reach a compromise through negotiations to
maintain peace and stability. China also noted the country
should be wary of possible external interference (
Global Times
2021). Obviously, China has multiple stakes in Myanmar which
included strategic and economic ties that go beyond the
conventional parameters of trade and commerce.
For India, the relations with Myanmar will remain important
given the geopolitics of Indias Act East Policy. However, in a
cautious statement, the foreign ministry said that India has
always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic
transition in Myanmar. We believe that the rule of law and the
democratic process must be upheld (India, Ministry of External
Affairs 2021). It may be noted that notwithstanding its support
to the democratic movement in Myanmar, New Delhi always
sought to sustain a balanced relationship with both the military
and democratic dispensations.
The state of emergency is declared for a year in Myanmar, but
given the militarys absolute control over the system, it remains
to be seen if such a period is enough for the junta to ensure a
disciplined democracy in the country. The detention of a large
number of leaders and officials is surely not a method of
disciplining democracy. And, more profoundly, specialists on
violence wont be able to hold on to power for long in the
twenty-first century as this is a critical phase in human history
with multitude of issues having human rights implications.
Amnesty International (2020): Myanmar: Leaked documents reveal global
business ties to military crimes 20 September,
Global Times
(2021): China hopes for a stable, peaceful Myanmar through
domestic negotiations, not external interference, 1 February,
Lasswell, Harold D. (1941): The Garrison State,
American Journal of
, Vol. 46, No. 4 (January): 455-468.
India, Ministry of External Affairs (2021): Statement on developments in
Myanmar, February01,2021,
/33434/Press+Statement+on+developments+in+ Myanmar
Myanmar Times
(2021): Myanmar announces state of emergency, 1
February, https://www.
Myanmar Now
(2021): Suu Kyi calls for public resistance against coup, 1
Myanmar, Ministry of Information (2008): Constitution of the Republic of the
Union of Myanmar 2008, https:// www.
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(2019): U.S. imposes travel restrictions on Myanmar
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UN Secretary-General António Guterres, 1 February,
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Chairperson of the United Nations Independent International Fact-
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?News ID = 23778&Lang ID=E
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Myanmar: Leaked documents reveal global business ties to military crimes
Amnesty International (2020): "Myanmar: Leaked documents reveal global business ties to military crimes" 20
China hopes for a stable, peaceful Myanmar through domestic negotiations, not external interference
Global Times (2021): "China hopes for a stable, peaceful Myanmar through domestic negotiations, not external interference," 1 February,
Statement on developments in Myanmar
  • India
India, Ministry of External Affairs (2021): "Statement on developments in Myanmar, February01,2021," /33434/Press+Statement+on+developments+in+ Myanmar Myanmar Times (2021): "Myanmar announces state of emergency," 1
Suu Kyi calls for public resistance against coup
  • Myanmar Now
Myanmar Now (2021): "Suu Kyi calls for public resistance against coup," 1
Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
  • Myanmar
Myanmar, Ministry of Information (2008): Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2008, https://
U.S. imposes travel restrictions on Myanmar military leaders over 'atrocities
The Washington Post (2019): "U.S. imposes travel restrictions on Myanmar military leaders over 'atrocities'" 17 July, https://
The statement was issued today by the Spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres
United Nations (2021): "The statement was issued today by the Spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres," 1 February,
The economic interests of the Myanmar military: Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, Forty-second session
UN Human Rights Council (2019): "The economic interests of the Myanmar military: Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, Forty-second session, 9-27 September 2019,
Statement by Mr. Marzuki Darusman, Chairperson of the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, at the Security Council
UN Human Rights Council (2018): "Statement by Mr. Marzuki Darusman, Chairperson of the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, at the Security Council," 24 October, Detail.aspx ?News ID = 23778&Lang ID=E DOI: