Aung San Suu Kyi toppled in military coup

‘Serious blow to democracy’: World condemns dramatic Myanmar army takeover. © Getty

Is Xi Jinping behind the Myanmar coup? As ruthless generals squash the country’s young democracy, some see the hand of China’s autocratic leader steering events from across the border.

On Monday, the people of Myanmar woke to the news that the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been detained by the army. Other arrests followed. Internet access and phone lines were cut. In just a few hours, the army had seized control of the state.

The new regime immediately declared a state of emergency and announced that it would govern Myanmar for a year.

For Myanmar, this is all too crushingly familiar. The army first took power in a coup in 1962, and for decades, a military junta brutally repressed pro-democracy movements.

The army was forced to give up power after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide in a general election in 2015. But it remained a vital political force. Under the constitution, the military controls several key ministries and 25% of seats in parliament.

So, many see this week’s coup as the return of “business as usual” for a military that never really gave up control. But some think the truth is murkier, suggesting that the coup was secretly ordered by China.

China’s interests in Myanmar run deep. Myanmar sits on China’s southern border, and the Chinese often refer to the smaller country as their “younger brother”. China has long dreamed of turning the Irrawaddy River, a major waterway that runs through Myanmar, into a shipping route. It has put pressure on Myanmar to allow Chinese companies to build on the river.

Aung San Suu Kyi tried to stay in favour with Beijing, even agreeing to the construction of the Myitsone Dam, a huge development in the north of the country that is extremely unpopular with local residents.

However, after winning a new set of elections in November 2020, she shifted course, turning away from China and towards its biggest rival, India.

Some think that China hoped to prevent this by cutting a deal with Myanmar’s military to get rid of Aung San Suu Kyi. Notably, China has not condemned the coup and simply called for “stability” to be restored.

But others say it is far-fetched to blame China for the coup. They point out that the army in Myanmar has never welcomed democracy, and needed no encouragement to restore military rule.

Once an icon of human rights activism and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi had the support of the international community in 2015, and the army had no choice but to give way after she won the election.

Since then, she has stained her international image by making herself complicit in the army’s genocide of Rohingya Muslims, even defending the military at the International Criminal Court. The army may simply have calculated that the international community was unlikely to defend Myanmar’s leader if they toppled her and restored military rule.

Some claim the coup is a rash move. Aung San Suu Kyi remains very popular in Myanmar and it is not clear that the army will be able to keep power. If they fail, and China is suspected of supporting them, she will return to power doubly determined to shift her country to India’s camp.

Is Xi Jinping behind the Myanmar coup?

Empire-building

Yes, say some. Myanmar is at the very heart of China’s sphere of influence. It is unthinkable that the military would have launched a coup without at least Xi Jinping’s tacit consent. Xi has been frustrated by the slow progress of Chinese development projects in Myanmar and is worried about its recent turn towards India. He has every reason to support a coup against Aung San Suu Kyi.

Not at all, say others. The coup is an extremely risky move: Aung San Suu Kyi has already called for protests, and the army will struggle to keep control of a country that still backs her. Some argue it is unlikely that Xi would have taken such a huge risk that could alienate a close economic partner. They claim the coup is really just a fit of panic by the military.

You Decide

  1. Do events like this prove that democracy is inherently fragile?
  2. Do western countries have a responsibility to restore democracy to Myanmar? What action should they take?

Activities

  1. Write a short story about waking up to find there has been a military coup in your country.
  2. Write a speech calling for democracy to be restored in Myanmar.

Some People Say...

“There is a frustration that at moments when there's not a coup, when there are not people in the streets, the country disappears from people's consciousness.”

Edwidge Danticat (1969 - ), Haitian-American novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that China is trying to establish tighter control over neighbouring states. By funding huge development projects like dams, which can bring electrification and industry to poor countries, it hopes to gain leverage over governments. Some regard this as a kind of empire-building, although China points out that most Western governments also use infrastructure projects abroad for the same purpose.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over the future of relations between China and India. In both countries, nationalist sentiment is running high. Some think that China’s decision to ramp up tensions with its huge southern neighbour is really an attempt to put pressure on the USA, with which India is allied. But others think China is looking to spark a conflict with India that it could use to showcase its military strength. There is still a risk of war between the two superpowers.

Word Watch

De facto
Latin for “in fact”. It refers to a situation that is true in practice but not not in law.
State of emergency
A declaration that can be used to suspend all civil liberties to protect the state from attack. They are often used by dictators to justify political repression.
Coup
An unlawful seizing of power, usually by the military. It is short for “coup d’etat”, French for “rebellion”.
Military junta
A government run by a committee of army leaders. “Junta” is a Spanish word meaning “meeting” or “committee”.
Irrawaddy River
A large river that flows from the north of Myanmar into the Indian Ocean. It is a rich ecosystem containing several unique species, like the Irrawaddy dolphin.
Myitsone Dam
A dam project at the source of the Irrawaddy. It was suspended in 2011 following protests by residents worried that the dam would result in the flooding of 47 villages.
India
The two countries have increased their military presence at their shared border: by December there were 100,000 soldiers here.
Nobel Peace Prize
A prestigious award given annually to an individual considered to have done the most to promote peace between nations.
Rohingya Muslims
An ethnic group from the western state of Rakhine in Myanmar. In 2017, the army launched a crackdown that rapidly turned into a genocide.
International Criminal Court
An international tribunal that investigates crimes against humanity.
Tacit
Understood or implied without being stated.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.