On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military declared a nationwide state of emergency and announced that it had taken total control of the country. It justified the coup d’etat by saying there were irregularities in the November 2020 general election — a contest that State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party won overwhelmingly. But the use of force without regard for democratic principles is an unacceptable outrage regardless of the military’s claim.
Parliament was set to convene on Feb. 1 in the capital of Naypyitaw, but by dawn the military had detained Suu Kyi and other leaders. Later, a military-owned broadcaster announced that Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing had assumed full legislative, judicial and executive powers.
In 2010, Myanmar held its first general election in 20 years, making the switch from a military-led regime to civilian government. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy defeated the military-affiliated ruling party in the 2015 general election, ending more than a half-century of military rule.
In last year’s general election, the NLD won more than 80% of the elected seats, preserving its strong majority in parliament even though 25% of representatives are appointed by the armed forces. It is easy to imagine the military believed it would lose influence if this continued.
The military has claimed that voter lists were flawed, which led to irregularities allowing 8.6 million people to vote twice. Tensions were running high with parliament about to convene to elect the president and vice president.
The military’s argument is that because electoral fraud is a problem in the very foundation of democracy, the armed forces will assume full power, conduct a thorough investigation of the issue and hold a general election once again. However, international observers said that last year’s election was fair, and the military has not provided any evidence of fraud.
The military suppressed pro-democracy movements in the past by placing Suu Kyi under house arrest for decades starting in 1989, prompting the U.S. and Europe to impose economic sanctions on the country. To spur economic development, the military itself laid out the plan for the transfer to civilian rule in the early 2010s, while aiming to retain its influence through measures such as the quota for military-appointed seats in parliament.
The military should release Suu Kyi and resolve the situation in line with true democratic principles. If it does not, the country risks another round of sanctions.
Japan has been pushing for both democratization and economic development in Myanmar through public- and private-sector efforts. The government has provided massive amounts of official development assistance to build infrastructure, and Sumitomo Corp. and other companies led the development of the Thilawa special economic zone on the outskirts of Yangon, the country’s largest city. Thilawa is now home to facilities of Suzuki Motor and Toyota Motor. If the chaos drags on, these relationships will inevitably be affected.
The Japanese government did not join the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe, but a return to military rule is unacceptable. Japan has the responsibility and the economic leverage to firmly condemn the Myanmar military’s actions and persuade it to return power to the civilian administration.