The article to read to understand the situation and the tensions in Burma

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Aung San Suu Kyi

The military junta returned to power on February 1. Many of the country’s top leaders have since been arrested. In particular Aung San Suu Kyi, head of government and the first cone of Burmese democracy. On Saturday, the violence exerted by the police against the demonstrators escalated.

The scene is surreal. Fitness teacher Khing Hnin Wai films her sports class. Behind it, the main avenue of Naypyidaw (Burma), which leads to the Parliament. But on February 1, the usually empty road to this “ghost capital” filled with tanks. She unknowingly films what will become a viral image, an unexpected witness of a coup.

Behind this image, it is an upheaval that strikes this country of Southeast Asia, where democracy is still fragile. But how could such a reversal have taken place? Franceinfo looks back in detail on the situation in the country.

What happened on February 1st?

The Burmese army, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, arrested the President of the Republic, Win Myint, and his special state adviser, Aung San Suu Kyi, in Naypyidaw. In addition to these leaders, between 300 and 400 people – elected officials, activists, or political figures unfavorable to the military regime – were arrested. The majority of the country’s deputies were present in the Burmese capital because the inaugural session of the new parliament was due to be held in early February.

Tanks took over the roads around the Parliament, and military forces were deployed in the country. Public television interrupted its programs, communications were disrupted for most of the day. In Rangoon, the economic capital of the country, the military seized the town hall and closed access to the international airport.

The first vice-president, Myint Swe, was appointed interim president and transferred full powers to the general in charge of the armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing. Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he now concentrates on “legislative, administrative and judicial” powers. He declared a state of emergency for one year.

What prompted this coup?

The Burmese army does not accept the result of the legislative elections of November 8, 2020, won by the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi. His party obtained an absolute majority in both houses of Parliament. But according to the army, the ballot would be marred by “enormous irregularities”. General Min Aung Hlaing lists  “8.6 million cases of fraud”. Allegations were rejected by the electoral commission. “That there was a fraud, it is possible … But not to the point of changing the result, it is obvious”, underlines Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière, a researcher at the CNRS, anthropologist at the South Asia Center. East (Case).

From the end of January, a few days before the new Parliament took office, the tone rose between the NLD and the military. “We know that for the army, being in a situation of power-sharing is unbearable”, analyzes Sophie Boisseau du Rocher, a researcher associated with the Asia Center of the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) and specialist in Burma. The large victory of the NLD in the elections, however, indicates a plebiscite of the Burmese people for more democracy and civil power. Aspirations are incompatible with the maintenance in power of the army. “The next political step, it was surely new amendments which would reduce the stranglehold of the army on certain economic sectors”, explains Sophie Boisseau du Rocher. And it was unthinkable for the junta to give up these resources, which are used to finance the functioning of the army and the pensions of the military.

Why does the military have so much power?

The army has been the central pillar of the Burmese political regime since 1962. At the time, recourse to the army was justified by strong inter-ethnic tensions: stability had to be restored in the country. The military dictatorship remained there for nearly half a century. However, following the country’s entry into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997, the regime relaxed. “The army understood that it was behind neighboring countries and that it could not continue to accumulate this delay. This, therefore, marked the beginning of an economic and political transition”, affirms Sophie Boisseau du Rocher.

After a popular movement of unprecedented scale, in 2007, nicknamed “saffron revolution” and repressed in blood, a new Constitution was born in 2008. Thanks to it, a democratic transition towards civil power has been underway since 2011. But it still leaves wide powers to the army: in the Burmese Parliament, a quarter of the seats are reserved for it, while the other three-quarters are elected by the people. In government, the interior, defense, and border ministers are appointed by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The army benefits from another major support: the Union, Solidarity, and Development Party (USDP). This party is made up of former soldiers, retired or who have left the army. The post of first vice-president always goes to a member of that party. He occupies the interim in case of a vacancy of power. That is why after the arrest of the president on February 1, the acting vice president transferred full powers to General Min Aung Hlaing.

Why is Aung San Suu Kyi at the heart of this crisis?

Overthrown from power on February 1, this 75-year-old former Nobel Peace Prize winner – in 1991 – has been the face of democratic transition in Burma since 2016. Since that date, she has been a “special state adviser” to the president, an equivalent of the head of government. A function created from scratch, which allows him to circumvent the rules decreed by the army which prevent him from gaining power. “This job creation marked the start of a showdown with the army,” said Sophie Boisseau du Rocher.

The Burmese constitution of 2008 was fashioned to prevent him from ruling the country. It provides for the impossibility for any Burmese citizen to become president if he has a foreign spouse or children, which is his case. Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 to take care of her critically ill mother. Opposed to the military regime, she was subsequently placed under house arrest for more than fifteen years.

Since her arrest on February 1, she has been under house arrest in her official accommodation in Naypyidaw. She is accused by the military junta of having bought walkie-talkies abroad, or “of having violated the law on the management of natural disasters”, according to the remarks reported by her lawyer. “The people know very well that these accusations are made to distance them from power but are not based on anything serious,” comments Sophie Boisseau du Rocher. She called for civil disobedience and urged her supporters  “not to accept” the Coup d’Etat. A call widely followed by the Burmese, especially in hospitals, where employees refuse any work, except in a medical emergency. “It has undeniable popularity adds the Ifri researcher.

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Who are the protesters opposed to the coup?

Young people are at the heart of this popular movement. They meet across the country, three fingers up in the air, a rallying symbol inspired by the Hunger Games movie. “This generation did not know the hardest hours of the military regime, until 1997. But what they were told does not make them want,” euphemistically Sophie Boisseau du Rocher. Better trained and more connected, these young Burmese do not intend to let their country go back. “They travel in the region, they see the differences, they are much more open. They are not going to buy the military discourse”, adds the researcher.

A movement that has spread oil in other categories of the population, as the independent journalist Guillaume Pajot explains to Franceinfo: “There are officials who do not go to work, students who gather in front of their university, and doctors too. ” Faced with a generation which masters social networks, capable of communicating and obtaining information, the military are “late, they cannot interfere in this sphere”, explains Sophie Boisseau du Rocher. The only solution to keep control: cut communications and internet access. Since February 1, the cuts have multiplied, mainly at night to allow the arrests of demonstrators.

How are protests repressed?

The army is at the forefront of repression. According to observers in the country, she used water hoses and rubber bullets against the demonstrators. “We now know that there were a few live bullets. And they made it possible to instill fear,” says Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière. A 20-year-old protester died on Friday, February 19 after being shot in the head. The next day, police fired at demonstrators in Mandalay, in the center of the country, killing at least two and injuring around 30. To avoid direct confrontation with the police, the Burmese “sometimes invent forms of protest”, notes the anthropologist, as the blocking of roads by dozens of trucks and cars that they say “broken down”, in Rangoon, on February 17.

But the repression worries human rights organizations. “This army has long acted with impunity in the country, and this is why the situation is alarming,” worries Franceinfo Kayleigh Long, Amnesty International researcher based in London and responsible for monitoring Burma. “What we are seeing since the coup is massive imprisonments of politicians, human rights defenders, activists. Journalists are in hiding,” she describes.

How is the international community reacting?

The coup d’etat is unanimously denounced by the international community. The President of the United States, Joe Biden, announced that his administration would reduce access to American funds, nearly a billion dollars less for the country. At the UN, its Secretary-General Antonio Guterres  “strongly condemned” the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, adding that “these developments are a blow to democratic reforms in Burma”. Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur for Burma, was also very worried: “I am terrified that […

The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, spoke on February 1: “This arrest [constitutes] an unacceptable questioning of the democratic process initiated ten years ago.” Faced with the continued house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, France renewed on February 9 “its call for the immediate and unconditional release of all those arrested since the military coup” . For his part, the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, condemned the violence exercised by the police in Burma and indicated that the European Union would “take the appropriate decisions”.

What are the prospects for the country?

At a press conference on February 8, Min Aung Hlaing announced the holding of future elections. “From the point of view of the army, it is simply a question of enforcing the Constitution. According to them, there has been a fraud, so they take power to restore the law. But the scale of the protest movement is not misleading. not on the democratic desire of the Burmese people “ , recognizes Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière. There is also the question of free elections if the majority of NLD members are prevented from running or placed under house arrest.

For Sophie Boisseau du Rocher, coming to terms with the army will be essential: “For the years to come, we will have to consider that the army is a leading political actor and start again in a constructive dialogue. The military junta is there for several years. The right question to ask yourself is ‘How can we prevent the army from repositioning itself as a monopoly?’ “

I’m too lazy to read everything, can you give me a summary?

The military junta returned to power in Burma on February 1. The head of government Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested, as the President of the Republic, Win Myint. Overthrown, the government was replaced by the army, headed by the powerful General Min Aung Hlaing. The junta did not accept the very large victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in the November 2020 elections, which announced new restrictions on military power. The military forces have several positions of responsibility in the government and in Parliament, which facilitated the organization of a coup. Since 2011, the country has been in a transition from military power to civilian power.

Faced with this overthrow, tens of thousands of Burmese demonstrate continuously to demand the release of members of the government. These demonstrations are harshly repressed by the army. To prevent the protest from being organized, the junta regularly cuts off access to the internet and social networks. The international community has unanimously condemned this seizure of power by the army, but according to Burma specialists, it is a political actor with whom we must agree to negotiate, at the risk of seeing the country close in on itself.


Also published on Medium.

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