Myanmar coup: Aung San Suu Kyi detained as military declares state of emergency

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David Millward
·6 min read
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Aung San Suu Kyi was detained and military chief Min Aung Hlaing was put in charge as the army took over
Aung San Suu Kyi was detained and military chief Min Aung Hlaing was put in charge as the army took over

A military coup took place in Myanmar early on Monday as the country's leader Aung San Suu Kyi was detained in an early morning raid.

The army said it had carried out the detentions in response to "election fraud", handing power to military chief Min Aung Hlaing and imposing a state of emergency for one year, according to a statement on a military-owned television station.

The announcement on military-owned Myawaddy TV followed days of concern about the threat of a military coup and comes as the country's new Parliament session was to begin.

Myo Nyunt, spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, told Reuters by phone that Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders had been "taken" in the early hours of the morning.

Adding that he also expected to be detained, he said: "I want to tell our people not to respond rashly and I want them to act according to the law.”

He told AFP that he was extremely worried about the pair. "With the situation we see happening now, we have to assume that the military is staging a coup," he said.

 Myanmar president Win Myint (C) greets his supporters after voting at a polling station of Tarmwe township during by-elections in Yangon - EPA
Myanmar president Win Myint (C) greets his supporters after voting at a polling station of Tarmwe township during by-elections in Yangon - EPA

The Irrawaddy, an established online news service, said that the party's Central Executive Committee members, lawmakers and regional Cabinet members had also been taken into custody.

Soldiers took up positions at city hall in Yangon and mobile internet data and phone services in the NLD stronghold were disrupted, residents said. Internet connectivity also had fallen dramatically, monitoring service NetBlocks said.

State-run MRTV television said in a Facebook post that it was unable to broadcast due to technical issues.

The NLD said Suu Kyi was calling on the public not to accept the coup by the military and urged them to protest.

"The actions of the military are actions to put the country back under a dictatorship," the NLD said in a statement which carried leader Suu Kyi's name.

"I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military."

US leads calls for Suu Kyi's release

The US, Australia and others were concerned by the reports and urged Myanmar's military to respect the rule of law.

"The United States is alarmed by reports that the Burmese military has taken steps to undermine the country's democratic transition, including the arrest of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian officials in Burma," White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement from Washington.

She said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the reported developments.

"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," the statement said. Burma is the former name of Myanmar.

Military trucks are seen inside Yangon City Hall, which is now under the control of the Myanmar military - EPA
Military trucks are seen inside Yangon City Hall, which is now under the control of the Myanmar military - EPA

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne called for the release of Suu Kyi and others reported to be detained. "We strongly support the peaceful reconvening of the National Assembly, consistent with the results of the November 2020 general election," she said.

Japan said it was watching the situation and currently had no plans to repatriate Japanese nationals from Myanmar.

Tensions over elections

Tension had been rising between the civilian government and the military in Myanmar, with the army describing the recent election as fraudulent.

In November Ms Suu Kyi ‘s party offered to form a government of national unity after winning an overall majority in the election.

She had approached 39 ethnic minority parties to work with the NLD, which had trounced the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was backed by the military.

According to international observers the vote had gone smoothly without any major irregularities, although this was disputed by the opposition.

But polls in some parts of the country were cancelled for “security reasons”, leaving an estimated 1.5 million voters disenfranchised – including hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims.

Tension had also been reported in Rakhine state in the west of the country, where clashes between the Rakhine militant group, the Arakan Army and the military is estimated to have displaced around 200,000 people

The party’s win represented a vindication for Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Laureate, who had endured a turbulent first term having restored democracy in a country which had been under military rule for nearly five decades.

The party’s spokesman at the time described the win as a “landslide” which had shown the Myanmar people still had faith in Ms Suu Kyi’s leadership.

After years under house arrest, Ms Suu Kyi’s release and electoral victory was hailed by human rights groups as bringing an end the military’s grip on the country.

She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, while still under house arrest.

Ma Suu Kyi was hailed as "an outstanding example of the power of the powerless".

However her international reputation was severely dented by the country’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslims.

It saw the country accused of genocide, an accusation which has been strongly denied by Myanmar.

'This is a huge setback'

Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for East Asia under President Barack Obama, who fostered close ties with Suu Kyi, said another military takeover in Myanmar would be a severe blow to democracy in the region.

"If true, this is a huge setback - not only for democracy in Myanmar, but for U.S. interests. It’s yet another reminder that the extended absence of credible and steady U.S. engagement in the region has emboldened anti-democratic forces," he said.

Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the situation was a challenge for the new US administration.

"The US as recently as Friday had joined other nations in urging the military not to move forward on its coup threats. China will stand by Myanmar like it did when the military kicked out the Rohingya,” he said.

John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said Myanmar's military had never submitted to civilian rule and called on the United States and other countries to impose "strict and directed economic sanctions" on the military leadership and its economic interests.

As the news broke, Avinash Paliwal, associate professor in International Relations at SOAS tweeted: “One step side-ways, two steps back.

“These last 48-hrs have altered Myanmar’s political trajectory —it was never liberal democratic, even if elections took place— again. And I think this might the be end of Suu Kyi’s pol. journey (hopefully not life).”​