Myanmar’s newly elected parliament is scheduled to meet for the first time on Monday against the backdrop of a threat by the military to stage a coup over unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud in the November 2020 election.
On Thursday, the military’s commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing plunged the country into its greatest political crisis since the transition to democracy began in 2008 by threatening to abolish the constitution.
“The constitution is the Mother Law. We have to follow the constitution. If the law is not respected or followed, we must abolish it. Even if it is the constitution, we must abolish it,” he said in a speech quoted by the military’s Facebook page.
After two days of uncertainty, the military released an official statement on Saturday, apparently backtracking.
“The Tatmadaw will defend the 2008 Constitution and only act within the boundary of existing laws,” it said, accusing the media of taking Min Aung Hlaing’s comments out of context.
The incident came after a months-long campaign to discredit the November election, despite no firm evidence of wrongdoing. The military’s electoral proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), has demanded a new election supervised by the military, filed nearly 200 complaints, and took the issue to the Supreme Court.
Min Aung Hlaing’s comments sent shockwaves through Myanmar, which emerged only from decades of military dictatorship in 2010 and held just its second democratic election in November last year.
In both 2015 and 2020, the National League of Democracy (NLD) won landslide victories that delivered it a clear majority in parliament, despite the military automatically receiving 25 percent of the available seats.
The military-drafted 2008 constitution allows for democratic elections, but ensures the military retains control over certain key institutions and remains outside of civilian authority.
Khin Zaw Win, a political analyst and director of Yangon’s Tampadipa Institute, said this was the “severest crisis” since the NLD took power in 2015 and “possibly the last”.
He said should the military take control there “will be a strong public reaction”.
“Military rule is still fresh in people’s minds and they hate the thought,” he said, warning the situation could escalate into protests that would be ended violently.
In Yangon, many balconies are currently flying the NLD’s red flag in solidarity with the governing party, while banners have been erected in the streets declaring support for the elected government.
This is not the first time Min Aung Hlaing raised the spectre of political chaos before suddenly backing down.
Prior to the 2020 election, he suggested the military would not recognise the results, but on election day he backtracked saying, “I’ll have to accept the people’s wish.”
The result of the election was a resounding victory for the NLD, which won 396 of the 498 available seats, improving on its landslide five years earlier. It was a humiliating defeat for the USDP, which lost even in former strongholds.
One NLD lawmaker, who is facing an objection from the USDP candidate he defeated, insisted he was “not concerned” about a military coup.
“It is a terrible idea to stage a coup at this time. We have just stepped on the right path of a democratic transition … Nobody would get any advantage from a military coup at this time. It would be a terrible decision for our country,” said the MP who requested anonymity.
He said the NLD was not given any “special instructions” from the party. “We are just preparing to attend the parliamentary hearing as scheduled,” he said, adding no matter what happens the NLD “has a policy of non-violence”.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed “great concern” over the developments and called on all parties to respect “the outcome of the 8 November general election”.
A group of Western embassies, including the United States and the United Kingdom, released a joint statement calling for a de-escalation. “We urge the military and all other parties in the country to adhere to democratic norms, and we oppose any attempt to alter the outcome of the elections,” it said.
Khin Zaw Win said statements from the international community might “have a restraining influence”, but added the entire country, including the NLD, has been “hostile to mediation” on issues of the civil war and the Rohingya crisis.
“Now the chickens have come home to roost,” he warned.
He also asked the international community not to “go overboard” with sanctions if the military does take power. “Remember most of the population is living on the edge with the pandemic and economic disruption,” he said.
A coalition of local election monitors released a statement on Friday admitting there were some flaws in the vote, but the result ultimately reflected the will of the people.
The statement said there were “shortcomings in the electoral legal framework” and “some inconsistencies in election administration and weakness in implementation”, but found the results “were credible and reflected the will of the majority of voters”.
Prior to the election, the Union Election Commission (UEC) was criticised for censoring opposition parties, excluding the Rohingya, irregularities in the voters’ lists, and cancelling voting in ethnic minority areas.
Still, the UEC has consistently denied the military’s allegations of fraud, which largely constitute examples of potential fraud, rather than specific examples of malfeasance. The UEC has also said the military analysed preliminary voter lists when making allegations of irregularities, rather than the final lists that had fewer errors.
Myat Nyana Soe, an upper house lawmaker from Yangon, said he is “speechless” by the military’s suggestion to abolish a constitution it drafted. “We want to amend the constitution, but we have to follow it,” he said.
Myat Nyana Soe said there is only one scenario where the military can “temporarily” take power in the constitution, and that process “must be initiated by the president”.
“They really have to scrap the whole constitution in order to take the state authority by force,” he said.
A third NLD parliamentarian, who also requested anonymity, said he never took the military’s threat seriously.
“A dog that will bite never barks. So we do not believe that there will be a coup. In the past throughout history, whenever the military staged a coup, they never announced in advance,” he said.