Myanmar military takes power after detaining Aung San Suu Kyi

Buddhist monks take part in a protest to demand an inquiry to investigate the Union Election Commission (UEC) in Yangon on January 30, 2021, as fears swirled about a possible coup by the military over electoral fraud concerns.

Myanmar’s military has taken power for a year after declaring a state of emergency in response to its claims of election fraud, news reports said, after Aung San Suu Kyi and other top leaders were detained in an early-morning raid.

Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders were detained by Myanmar’s army, Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy, said by phone. TV channels, phone and internet communications were all spotty, making it difficult to get information from the country. The military has yet to release a statement.

The U.S. and Australia urged Myanmar’s military to release all those detained and to respect the results of the election. “The United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Ever since Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory in the second general election after decades of army rule, the military and its political factions have demanded authorities investigate its allegations of mass voting fraud. Myanmar’s election commission last week had labeled the vote transparent and fair, and the U.S., United Nations and the European Union urged the military to respect the results.

Top military leaders had hinted at seizing power, even while saying they pledged to work in accordance with the law. In a statement on Sunday, Myanmar’s military—known as the Tatmadaw—denied objecting to the outcome of the election and said it “finds the process of the 2020 election unacceptable.” The constitution allows the military to take power during a state of emergency that could cause disintegration of the union or “national solidarity.”

“It’s a really cynical take on their justification to power, but I would anticipate that they will say this is in line with the military’s duty and obligation to uphold the Constitution as we wrote it,” said Hunter Marston, a Canberra-based political analyst who has written about Myanmar for several publications. “We could see pretty widespread protests in major cities and even around the country in smaller towns, especially in Yangon.”

Myanmar’s military had retained wide powers under the constitution even after a shift to democracy a decade ago, which prompted the U.S. and European Union to lift sanctions on the Southeast Asian country. But initial optimism that sparked a wave of interest from foreign investors quickly dissipated due to a violent crackdown against Muslim Rohingyas that prompted accusations of “genocide” against Suu Kyi’s government.

The military’s action will present an early foreign-policy test for U.S. President Joe Biden. The U.S. has become increasingly critical of Myanmar in the past few years under U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, imposing targeting visa restrictions and financial sanctions in 2017. A National Security Council spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Biden Test

“It’s very clear the Biden administration represents a start break from the previous government on human rights,” said Graeme Smith, a fellow at the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs. “Whatever government is in power—Aung San Suu Kyi or the military—they will face more pressure on human rights than Trump, who probably wouldn’t have cared either way.”

China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner, accounting for about a third of total commerce in 2019—about 10 times more than the U.S. The treatment of the Rohingyas has tainted the international image of Suu Kyi, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest during a military regime that effectively cut Myanmar off from the world.

In November’s election, Suu Kyi’s NLD won 396 seats in the national assembly, more than the 322 needed to form a government. Turnout was an estimated 70% of the nation’s 37.3 million people eligible to vote. The ruling party has also won 524 seats in elections held to state and regional parliaments, official data showed.

The Yangon Stock Exchange only has six listed companies. Foreigners own 261 million kyat ($200,000) of stocks as of Oct. 8, with First Myanmar Investment Co. and Myanmar Thilawa SEZ Holdings making up bulk of the holdings.

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