The coup d’état in Myanmar will have a wider impact on a region beset by constant tensions in the civilian-military leadership balance, but it also shows how the US and China will play their respective regional roles in the future.
After a landslide victory by National League for Democracy (NLD) in the November 2020 election, the military of Myanmar – the Tatmadaw – has staged a coup in response to the results. Under the auspices of Article 417 of the Myanmar Constitution, which allows for the military to take control in times of emergency, the military claimed “irregularities” in the election that saw 80 per cent of the vote being cast in favour of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD. The coup is not, however, an isolated incident; ever since her victory in the 2015 election, Suu Kyi has been at odds with the leader of the Tatmadaw, General Min Aung Hlaing. For instance, in 2016, the NLD passed the State Counsellor Law, which allowed Suu Kyi to become a de facto leader of the government, reducing the power of the military. In 2019, her government tried but failed to further limit the power of the military by barring officers from taking parliamentarian positions. Consequently, during the latest round of peace talks in 2020, Hlaing accused the NLD of placing its interest ahead of the country.
Despite seemingly being a domestic power struggle, the coup not only shows the fragility of democracy in South-East Asian countries, but also highlights a potential impact at the international level, especially with respect to China’s sphere of influence.
Time and again Beijing has referred to Naypyidaw as its “little brother” and it has invested a colossal amount in infrastructure projects, particularly in the Kyaukphyu Special Economic Zone and China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Over the years, China has also forged a close relationship with Myanmar’s would-be-leader, General Min Aung Hlaing. Before the coup, Hlaing visited Beijing at least five times; his last visit to Beijing in April 2019 was emblematic in that he was greeted by China’s Chief of Joint Staff, General Li Zuocheng and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe. Hlaing also met with General Secretary Xi Jinping, who regarded Myanmar as an ‘eternal friend and a strategic partner country’.
Two scenarios likely incentivised Hlaing to seize power. First, given the close relationship between Hlaing and the Chinese Communist Party, one can assume that Hlaing has Beijing’s indirect backing. Suu Kyi is an advocate for democratic reforms despite its flaws and, while politically shunned and economically isolated for its treatment of the ethnic Rohingya minority, Naypyidaw remains a political battleground between Washington and Beijing. Thus, Suu Kyi has, more or less, the backing of the US, which jeopardises China’s position as the regional hegemon. Further, after years of constant condemnation and sanctions, Washington realises that its carrot and stick approach has pushed Naypyidaw closer towards Beijing and that China continues to exploit the US’s liberal tactics by the assertion of a states’ sovereignty narrative, i.e. that a country should be able to decide on domestic policies without outside interference.
The second scenario assumes that that Beijing was not informed of the coup in advance. If that is the case, it could create a dilemma for Beijing, which is trying to rebrand its image as a benevolent international peacekeeper. Should Beijing condone the Tatmadaw’s action, it would send the wrong message to other ASEAN countries and perhaps even confirm the narrative that Beijing is actively exporting its authoritarianism. China’s spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, stated that ‘China has hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability’. The muted response from Beijing shows that despite China’s influence over Myanmar, it cannot allow Naypyidaw to adopt Western liberal policies, in large part due to its investments in Myanmar that come without strings attached. The coup showed, however, that Myanmar can also exert its influence by putting China in an ethically questionable position.
Finally, the coup has been met with condemnation. Interestingly, both Thailand and Cambodia have not only refused to comment on it but have been blasé about it, primarily because both countries have experienced similar situations themselves. Thailand’s Yingluck Shinawatra government was overthrown in a 2014 coup by then-General of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, Prayut Chan-o-Cha. Cambodia, while having not undergone any recent coup attempts, did have a short civil war in 1997, which resulted in Hun Sen taking complete control of the party coalition with Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The three countries have shown the fragility of democracy in a region constantly threatened by authoritarian tendencies that are supported by China’s desire to spread its authoritarian ideology. Although an international reprisal in the form of sanctions is yet to be seen, Beijing is likely thrilled as Naypyidaw gravitates closer to its authoritarian ideology.