This article is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” See More …

In the November 8, 2020 national elections in Myanmar, voters returned 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to power. The party actually improved on its impressive 2015 showing at the polls, gaining well over four-fifths of the seats it ran for allowing it to form a government on its own. (The Burmese Constitution, written in 2008 by the generals, reserves a quarter of the seats in each assembly to the armed forces.) The NLD won 920 (or 82%) of the 1,117 seats it contested, adding a total of 61 seats. The main opposition party, the military-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), won only 71 seats, 46 fewer than in 2015. 

In the 1990 elections the NLD’s 59% showing prompted the military (known as the Tatmadaw) to cancel results and reimpose its armed dictatorship. Many observers feared that the generals would not accept the election outcome in 2015 and refuse to allow Suu Kyi’s government to take office. Still, millions around the world and especially in Myanmar were shocked when, on February 1, 2021, just as the new legislature was set to begin its work, the Tatmadaw staged another coup d’état, arresting President Win Myint, State Counsellor and de facto government leader Suu Kyi, and many more NLD politicians. This article discusses the key reasons why the NLD was so successful at the polls and then explains the coup and its timing.

“The Lady’s” Enduring Appeal

Perhaps the chief explanation for the NLD’s landslide win is the increasing public appeal of its founder and leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, often referred to in Myanmar as “the Lady.” In the West, she has lost her democracy idol status owing to her defense of the military’s anti-Rohingya campaign, her authoritarian style, and her government’s occasional assaults on civil liberties.  What many of her foreign critics seemed not to grasp was that the army’s actions against the Rohingya — widely considered by the regime and Burmese society alike as dangerous interlopers from Bangladesh not an indigenous minority — were extremely popular at home.  A recent study found that in Burmese society’s “widespread tolerance of official ethnic minorities contrasts with extreme intolerance of the Rohingya.”[1] 

In December 2019 she appeared in front of the International Court of Justice in The Hague to defend her country from accusations of genocide against and the horrors visited on its Rohingya minority.  Although her spirited defense of the army did not sit well with her audience and the global media, it earned her tremendous accolades at home.[2] People understood that the 75-year old Suu Kyi did not need to travel to Holland as she was not personally a defendant at the court and could have easily sent a subordinate. That she did go was viewed as a supreme patriotic act of self-sacrifice.  Suu Kyi is widely trusted and revered; ordinary people strongly believe in her leadership and see no one in Burma who could come close to her in terms of personal charisma, historical gravitas, and selfless service to her homeland. In sum, Suu Kyi’s personal role in the NLD’s victory is paramount. 

A Highly Professional Electoral Campaign

Another important reason for the NLD’s victory was its superbly coordinated electoral campaign. The party formulated a strategic plan to reach voters and utilized social media to great effect. Already in 2017, the party began to establish information committees at the state, regional, district, and township levels. Experts were brought in to train party workers and community activists about practical campaign strategies, how to reach and persuade voters, and the ways in which social media might be utilized.[3] Thus, the NLD was well-prepared when COVID-related stay-at-home orders in many regions amplified the role social media was to play in the electoral campaign. 

The NLD also benefited from its oversight of the state television channel, MRTV, which was accused by rival political parties of censoring their speeches and campaign ads.[4] Though the NLD has remained popular in rural areas, after its mediocre showings in 2017 by-elections spurred its leadership to prioritize rural infrastructure improvement programs. Although the non-citizen Rohingya remain disenfranchised, Muslim citizens who tend to live in urban areas and comprise a little over 4% of the population do participate in the elections. In 2015 the NLD virtually ignored this segment of the electorate, not fielding a single Muslim candidate. Five years later, the party paid more attention to the Muslim community, choosing several to run as its candidates two of whom won seats in the national legislature.[5]  

The Limitations of Challenger Parties

If asked what they considered the most surprising outcome of the 2020 elections, many Burma watchers would probably point to the modest success of ethnic parties. Although some ethnic parties managed to unite or form alliances, they were unable to boost their support mainly owing to their underfunded campaigns, failures in voter outreach activities, and limited access to state-controlled media.[6] In contrast to the NLD’s professionally run campaigns, the efforts of ethnic parties were less well organized and often left voters confused about their leadership and programs.  A number of new parties also participated in the elections. Some of these were formed by breakaway NLD groups, while others were established by independent politicians or well-known former political prisoners. These parties did not win a single seat as voters apparently  did not view them as feasible alternatives to the NLD.

The NLD’s effective and media-savvy campaign sharply contrasted with the uninspired efforts of its main challenger, the USDP. Not only did the USDP lack a message that could create enthusiasm and attract new voters but its humdrum campaign drive led by discredited leaders and bland candidates reawakened memories of its widely despised past. The USDP’s electoral bottom line was also negatively impacted by the Tatmadaw’s leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. In an interview a few days before the elections the general urged the Union Election Commission (UEC) to be “careful” to safeguard the fairness of the vote.[7] Many voters interpreted his remark as interference with and intimidation of election officials.

Regime Successes

In the past five years foreign observers often offered concise analyses of the NLD government’s flaws — delayed policy initiatives, inability to handle ethnic conflict, lackluster economic growth, decelerating foreign investment, etc. — but failed to take note or made light of the real improvements in people’s lives. In fact, the vast majority of the 27 million voters who voted for the NLD recognized that life in Myanmar has gotten better in many respects.  

Economic growth had continued even if not at the pace many economists had anticipated.[8]  Market reform expanded and investments in infrastructure, both physical and cyber, have grown quickly (internet speed, for instance, is now second only to Singapore in Southeast Asia).  Certain economic sectors (e.g., the garment industry, rice production) defied expectations, rapidly developing both manufacturing capacity and production.  For ordinary people, especially in rural areas where more than two-thirds of the country’s population live, daily lives improved as a result of government investment in projects targeting better access to healthcare (especially for the elderly and pregnant women), schools, electricity, and transportation, all grossly neglected under decades of military rule.

The NLD government also managed to bring about the December 2018 transfer of the General Administrative Department (GAD) from the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs to the Ministry of the Office of the Union (more or less equivalent to a Cabinet Office). The GAD’s importance would be difficult to exaggerate: as a civil service it is the country’s administrative backbone, a bureaucracy of over 36,000 officials responsible for managing every regional and state-level government and running thousands of districts, townships, and villages. The GAD had been the bailiwick of retired Tatmadaw cadres and appointees. The NLD’s key objective is to give the state and regional chief ministers greater discretion and responsibility.[9]

Although during the five years of the NLD government’s reign political liberalization — let alone democratization — had not advanced as far as many in Burma and abroad would have liked that is not to say that progress has not occurred. Most importantly, perhaps, civil society has become remarkably vibrant and dynamic, they have multiplied, entered a number of new fields, and many of them have become adept at creating and taking opportunities to influence policy. NGOs now work to safeguard media freedoms, protect the environment, speak out for women’s rights, lobby for LGBT issues, advocate for land and labor rights, and so on.[10] People in most countries take the freedom to travel for granted but most adult Burmese, who were virtually locked up and isolated from the rest of the world until a decade ago, do not. For most people tangible, meaningful improvements in their daily lives are more important than constitutional reform or resolving ethnic conflict. An extensive 2019 survey conducted by the International Republican Institute found that 77% of the respondents thought Burma was heading in the right direction.[11] 

The Tatmadaw’s Coup: The Unilateral End of a Contentious Marriage

The greatest failure of Suu Kyi and her government was their inability to engage the generals in substantive discussions leading to constitutional reform. Without reaching some compromise allowing at least partial civilian control over the military, there could be no movement toward democratic consolidation.  For the armed forces, however, accepting constitutional reform would have been tantamount to giving up power and privileges. The generals remained united and would not discuss amending the 2008 constitution.

Throughout the electoral campaign the military hinted — without any evidence whatsoever — at large-scale fraud. The top brass announced on January 26 that it could confirm 8.6 million cases of irregularities on voting lists and demanded the postponement of the new legislative session. The NLD leadership refused to entertain the army’s demands. The military responded by arresting, on February 1, President Win Myint, Suu Kyi, along with a number of top NLD politicians, and democracy activists across the country. The new Acting President (and retired general) Myint Swe announced a one-year State of Emergency under which electoral improprieties would be investigated and at the end of which free and fair elections were to be held.  Min Aung Hlaing became the country’s de facto leader as the chairman of the newly-created State Administration Council. The secret trial against Win Myint and Suu Kyi — on the surrealistic charges of importing walkie-talkies improperly and meeting with supporters during the electoral campaign breaching coronavirus regulations — began on February 16 without the knowledge of their lawyers.

The coup has been extremely unpopular and heavily contested by the population. Although the authorities introduced an overnight curfew and detained thousands of protesters, large-scale demonstrations have continued in many urban centers. In the wake of the coup, a genuine civil disobedience movement took shape with teachers, healthcare workers, garbage collectors, and even policemen refusing to do their jobs. It is unclear whether the junta’s threats of long prison terms for those preventing the security forces from carrying out their duties would clear protesters off the streets.

Explaining the Military Takeover and Its Timing

There are numerous reasons that help to understand the February military coup; let me mention five. First of all, like so many dictatorships before them, the Burmese generals miscalculated just how much the people detested them. Not in 2020 but in 2008. After half-a-century of ruthless tyranny that reduced their ability to sense the public mood, they thought that if the constitution they wrote would give them a quarter of legislative seats, prohibit Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, and leave the power ministries in military hands, no opposition party would ever be able to rule on its own. They were shocked by the results in 2015. And they were shocked again five years later when the same party beat them by an even wider margin. The Tatmadaw could take one landslide defeat but the second one was one too many.

Second, the military agreed — much to some political realists’ surprise — to “play ball” and share some power with the NLD in 2015, but this was clearly as uneasy a cohabitation for them as it was for their civilian counterparts. Having interviewed several retired and active-duty generals after 2015, I think I can appreciate how the new situation looked to them: “for fifty years, we called all the shots and after we voluntarily agreed to a devolve a lot of our power to not terribly competent civilians, instead of thanking us, they are relentlessly harassing us to give up our control over the country.” The military leadership was constantly pushed to compromise and agree to constitutional reform which, even though they stood firm, must have irked them.  Giving up the authority over the General Administrative Department to the NLD was an appreciable loss for the generals’ hold on Burma and it is likely that there were disagreements regarding its wisdom within the top brass. The point is that, seeing the results of the November 8 elections come in, the Tatmadaw leadership understood that they were up against the same — quite possibly further emboldened — political forces and they did not like what they saw.

Third, the timing is also explained by the well-known presidential ambitions of Senior General and SAC Chairman Min Aung Hlaing. His already extended military career was coming to an end in July 2021 when he will turn 65, he must have seen his chance of becoming the head of state vanishing especially as the voters confirmed, again, that his political vehicle to the top, the USDP, was a desperately inept at maintaining let alone gaining support. If Min Aung Hlaing wanted to make a move, it was now.

Fourth, the generals also calculated that, given the Suu Kyi government’s insensitive majoritarian rule, they might actually have some civilian collaborators — ethnic groups and emerging parties the NLD marginalized, alienated, and mistreated — that might ease their return to governing and bolster their credibility. There are already indications that representatives of these groups have reached out to the junta.[12]

Finally, they did it because they could and because — as they had clearly demonstrated throughout their long rule and, more recently, by their murderous campaign against the Rohingya — they do not terribly care about what the rest of the world think of them. The West is far and away and its influence over Burmese politics has only diminished in the past five years. As for the neighborhood: not a single country responded to the coup with strong condemnation, not ASEAN, not India, and, needless to say, not China, which labeled the military takeover “a major cabinet reshuffle.”[13] 

[1] Roman David and Ian Holliday, Liberalism and Democracy in Myanmar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 196.

[2] See, for instance, Marlise Simons and Hannah Beech, “Aung San Suu Kyi Defends Myanmar Against Rohingya Genocide Accusations,” New York Times, December 11, 2019.

[3] Ei Ei Toe Lwin, “Image, Strategy, and Friends with Money: How the NLD Did It Again,” Frontier, November 21, 2020.

[4] Thompson Chau and John Liu, “Will COVID-19 Delay Myanmar’s Elections?  Four Things to Know,” Myanmar Times, October 1, 2020.

[5] “Two Muslim MPs Win in Myanmar Election,” Strait Times (Singapore), November 10, 2020.

[6] Min Zin, “Myanmar Still Loves Aung San Suu Kyi, but Not Why You Think,” New York Times, November 23, 2020.

[7] See, for instance, Nyan Hlaing Lin and Min Min, “Min Aung Hlaing’s Election Remarks Violate Law, Says President’s Office,” Myanmar Now, November 5, 2020.

[8] For a useful overview, see Silke-Susann Otto, et al., Sustaining Economic Momentum in Myanmar (Yangon: McKinsey & Co., October 2018).

[9] “Govt Announces Transfer of Military-Controlled Dept to Civilian Ministry,” Irrawaddy, December 21, 2018.

[10] See, for instance, Lynette Chua, The Politics of Love in Myanmar (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018); and Makiko Takeda, Women, Children, and Social Transformation in Myanmar (Singapore: Palgrave, 2020).

[11] International Republican Institute, Public Opinion Survey Myanmar (June-July 2019): 7, 20.

[12] See Min Zin, “Is Democracy in Myanmar Dead?” New York Times, February 15, 2021.

[13] Mathew Davies, “Myanmar Exposes ASEAN’s Cheap Talk on Democracy,” East Asia Forum, February 4, 2021; and Luke Hunt, “China Gifts Myanmar’s Military a Rose by Any Other Name,” The Diplomat, February 5, 2021.


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