The Asian Voice

Suu Kyi's constitutional change behind Myanmar's coup: Daily Star contributor

The writer says that strained relations worsened following a move by the NLD to change certain provisions of the constitution that empowers the military.

Protesters holding up the three finger salute with signs calling for the release of detained Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 16, 2021.
Protesters holding up the three finger salute with signs calling for the release of detained Myanmar civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 16, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

DHAKA (THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Myanmar started its democratic journey in 2011 with a quasi-civilian government headed by the retired General U Thein Sein.

Before becoming President, he worked as a member in the military junta's State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1997.

Later, he was made the Prime Minister in General Than Shwe's cabinet (2007 to 2011). Ahead of the general elections in 2010, General U Thein Sein, along with 22 other military officials, were sent on retirement from the Army to form and lead the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

USDP won the majority in a controversially contested election in 2010. General U Thein Sein was sworn in as the 8th President of Myanmar on March 30, 2011.

Myanmar has a somewhat unique system of state governance. Two governments - the elected civilian government and the standing military government, run the country.

While the civilian component of the government is elected by the people, the country's "standing military government" is conferred by the military drafted constitution in 2008. A military-run referendum passed the constitution.

The key components of the standing military government are the choice of one of the two Vice-Presidents, 25 per cent of parliamentarians to be selected from the military, and three key ministers and five out of 11 members of the National Security Council to be selected from the military.

All of these are appointments made by the Commander in Chief (CC) of the Myanmar Defence Services.

According to the constitution, 25 per cent of the members of parliament in the Upper House, Lower House and in all State Parliaments shall be from the military.

The CC appoints "military parliamentarians" who do not have any association with the common people in the country. They take directions from the office of the CC and work in close collaboration with the military-backed USDP.

The military and USDP parliamentarians are two sides of the same coin.

The military-drafted constitution has exceptional provisions, like allowing the military to seize state power whenever the CC thinks that national security is at risk, requiring more than 75 per cent of votes in the parliament to change any provisions of the existing constitution, Presidential prerequisites targeting the barring of Suu Kyi from becoming President, etc.

The constitution provides the military with de facto control over the civilian component of the government.

The CC appoints three key ministers - the Ministers for Defence, Internal Affairs and Border Security Affairs, all of whom report to the CC. The armed forces of Myanmar are not accountable to the civilian component of the government.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) participated in the second parliamentary elections held on November 8, 2015, and won 330 (out of 440) seats in the House of Representatives (Lower House) and 168 (out of 224) in the House of Nationalities (Upper House).

The tug of war between Aung Sun Suu Kyi and the CC began at the formation of the government.

Ms Suu Kyi was barred by the constitution to take the office of the President. There were long and complex negotiations behind the scenes to strike what seemed to be some sort of a "give and take" deal.

Ms Suy Kyi joined the cabinet as State Counsellor and became the de facto head of state and the government. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who was to retire in 2015, continued for another five-year term.

The strained relations between the two worsened following a move in January 2019 by the NLD to change certain provisions of the constitution that empowers the military. It was one of their election promises.

The move did not succeed. The military viewed the move as a direct threat to its authority and influence in national politics and governance. As elections were closing in, the dispute between the military and the NLD government widened on electoral issues.

For example, the military demanded not to shift polling stations which were within the cantonments/military establishments for the military personnel and their families.

This would ensure that no one from the military votes outside the military-backed USDP candidates. The Union Election Commission (UEC) ignored this demand, much to the anger of the military.

The military also demanded a delay of the vote due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The UEC also turned this down. We all know what happened next, after the election results came in.

The Commander-in-Chief addressed the people of Myanmar on February 08, 2021, justifying the ousting of the NLD government. The address was dominated by the "huge account of fraud in the November 2020 elections".

He alleged that "The UEC failed to take complaints into consideration many times. Political parties sought the assistance of the Tatmadaw, which is taking part in the leading role of national politics."

Before the military takeover on February 1, True Information News Team, the propaganda platform of the military, had been propagating allegations of election fraud since the declaration of results by the UEC.

Threats of a military takeover of the government were aired during a press briefing in Nay Pyi Taw in January 2021.

According to an online report in The Diplomat, "…the military launched the coup because it was wary and paranoid over its loosening control over the country's legislative decision-making powers."

The NLD's landslide victory in the most recent elections in 2020 is also a huge cause of concern for the military. Perhaps it was viewed a big step forward towards putting the military out of national politics by 2035, which Ms Suu Kyi envisioned.

Ahead of the elections, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing reshuffled the military's higher echelons to keep control over the army after he retires. There were media reports and commentaries about his ambition to become the President of Myanmar.

Military and USDP votes would not be enough to usher in the Senior General as the President of Myanmar. There was no good reason for the NLD to elect him either.

This was perhaps also a serious conflict of interest between the Senior General and the NLD. Fear of losing the control over state affairs seem to have led to the military coup on February 1, 2021.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing formed 16 member State Administrative Councils on February 2 to govern country, and Myanmar returned to the junta's rule.

The writer is a retired Commodore of the Bangladesh Navy. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.