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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar's anger simmers, six months after military takeover

Fate of promised shift to civil government remains uncertain

Myanmar's military government says it is looking to hold an election within two years, but many citizens, who faced violent crackdowns on protests against the takeover, may boycott a vote. (File photos by Reuters) 

BANGKOK/YANGON -- Sunday marks six months since the armed forces seized power in Myanmar, and the military has yet to quell public anger as the country backslides on democracy and struggles to cope with a coronavirus wave.

The military regime led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has said it aims to hold a general election within two years. Though street protests against the Feb. 1 takeover have decreased since the regime employed a violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, there is little sign that opponents of military rule have given up the fight.

Video of inmates chanting "Down with dictatorship! Release Suu Kyi!" at Insein Prison in Yangon went viral on social media July 23.

The military alleges the ousted government of the National League for Democracy, led by pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, engaged in widespread fraud to win the November 2020 general election. After the NLD rejected a demand for an investigation, the military declared a state of emergency, took control of the country and detained Suu Kyi and other government figures.

The Southeast Asian country had emerged from military rule only a decade ago.

Much attention surrounds whether Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders now on trial will be found guilty, potentially drawing new U.S. sanctions. Suu Kyi is charged with 10 counts, including alleged violation of Myanmar's anticorruption law. Rulings are expected in late September or October, according to experts.

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, the leftmost of the three seated, and other ousted leaders from the National League for Democracy face trials. Guilty verdicts could prompt new sanctions against the country from Washington. (Photo by Myawaddy TV/AP)

The military-appointed election commission said that on July 26 it annulled the results of the general election. It alleged that "the NLD party misused administrative power and the COVID-19 rules and regulations in electoral activities."

A diplomatic source based in Yangon said that "it is a matter of time [until] the commission disbands the NLD," though the regime might pay attention to the schedule for international diplomatic activities -- in particular the United Nations General Assembly in September, when doing so in order to limit any fallout.

Analysts say Washington is almost certain to slap additional sanctions on Myanmar's military and its economic interests. How far any new penalties go matters greatly to the multinational companies that have invested over the past decade in a country called one of Asia's last great frontier economies.

If such sanctions are as strong as those that isolated the prior military regime before the country's 2011 transition to democracy, foreign companies likely will begin withdrawing from Myanmar in order to protect their U.S. business.

But that outcome is far from certain. U.S. President Joe Biden's administration "will not impose severe sanctions all at once" because doing so may result in the unwanted scenario of pushing Myanmar closer to China, a Western diplomatic source said.

Facing such uncertainty, as well as growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in the country, many foreign companies in Myanmar have suspended operations to see how events play out.

Min Aung Hlaing, interviewed by a Russian news agency while he visited the country in June, said he wanted to hold a general election "within two years."

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, leader of Myanmar's military government, attends a security conference in Russia on June 23.   © Reuters

According to Myanmar's constitution, which was drafted by the military, a state of emergency can last two years at the longest. After that, a general election must be called within six months while the National Defense and Security Council, a body that is composed for the most part of military-appointed officials, rules the country on a provisional basis.

This timeline suggests an election would be held by August 2023, though some observers think the military plans an election between November 2022 and January 2023. "The military insists that the fiscal year should begin in April, as it did before. If it wants the new government to commence in April, the election must take place in that [November to January] period," said a Yangon-based business consultant.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says 936 people have died as of July 29 due to the military crackdown. Tens of thousands took to the streets on a regular basis early on after the takeover, in defiance of military regime orders to stay home. But protests that directly criticize the military have become muted as the months have gone by.

Because pro-democracy NLD members are certain to be blocked from a running in a general election, widespread boycotts could mar the outcome. Some pro-democracy activists have grown radical in their resistance to the military regime, with some people cooperating with the military having been assassinated.

International investors expect that the investment momentum will not recover anytime soon. "Even if the election takes place, we have to bear in mind that a military takeover could happen again," said a Japanese business executive based in Yangon. The efforts to address challenges such as a lack of infrastructure or modern business-related legal frameworks will be seriously set back in the absence of international support.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus has spread rapidly since June, and some people have struggled to find medical care for infected family members and friends. Many overburdened hospitals are restricting admissions of new patients.

The authorities have told oxygen suppliers not to sell to the general public so that patients with severe COVID-19 cases can be prioritized. Many people are dying at home without proper treatment, health care workers and rights groups say.

Volunteers treat a COVID-19 patient in the Sagaing Region of Myanmar on July 6. Many overburdened hospitals have restricted new admissions.   © Reuters

The military has responded slowly to the coronavirus outbreak. Restrictions on going out in Yangon were introduced only in July. Authorities have begun hiring medical volunteers, but the military continues to hold many health care workers who were detained while participating in resistance activities. Many citizens think the military has put smothering opposition forces ahead of fighting the pandemic.

For most, the quality of life has deteriorated since the military takeover. People face restrictions on withdrawing money from banks, creating a prolonged cash shortage. The kyat, Myanmar's currency, has lost about 20% of its value over the six months. Even the price of daily necessities, such as gasoline, rice and cooking oil, has increased, adding to public frustration.

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