What’s Behind The Military Coup In Myanmar?

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

This video was taken by a fitness instructor in Myanmar, who accidentally captured the start of a military coup that’s sent the country into political chaos.

Myanmar’s military kicked out a democratically-elected government and enforced authoritarian rule overnight.

The country has been left in complete turmoil and protests against the military continue to escalate.

So, what led to this moment and why are people now calling on Australia to re-think the relationship we’ve maintained with Myanmar?

History Of Leadership In Myanmar

Let’s start with a little bit of background here.

Between the early 60s and 2011 Myanmar was under strict military rule, but since 2015 the country has been led by this woman, Aung San Suu Kyi.

She heads a party called the National League for Democracy, or NLD.

It was in a fragile transitional state, but Aung San Suu Kyi has been held up by western countries as this symbol of democratic success.

Manny Muang: “Myanmar basically had a civilian government power sharing with a military government and, you know, you’ve seen this culminate to a clash now because there’s been fundamental differences in what they want to achieve.”

Aung San Suu Kyi is now under house arrest and for the past week tens of thousands of people have been protesting against the coup.

The Recent Protests

It’s a really scary and precarious time for the country. The military has already started arbitrarily arresting people, they’ve outlawed gatherings of more than five people and they’ve been cracking down on protestors with force.

One protestor was even shot in the head.

MM: “I’m really concerned for the safety of protestors who are out on the streets demanding that this coup be overturned and the military relinquish power. They’re very brave, they know that the military does not accept peaceful dissent very well. I’m really worried for frontline defenders and democracy activists who have become more vocal over the years and therefore are sitting ducks that can be picked off.

You can just imagine the fear and threat of what it must be like to be a Myanmar person thinking that it’s possible that it might enter another five decades of military dictatorship.”

The Australia And Myanmar Relationship

So, what does Australia have to do with any of this?

Well, Australia has a pretty friendly relationship with Myanmar’s military.

There’s been this enduring idea that Australia could support Myanmar’s transition to democracy and kind of mitigate the influence of its next-door neighbour, China.

Australia’s relationship with Myanmar even persisted while other countries cut ties.

After the military led an ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide against the Rohingya ethnic minority in 2017, the EU, the UK, the US, France and Canada all backed away from that relationship – but Australia stuck in there.

New Zealand cut their relationship this week after the coup, putting a travel ban on its military leaders and suspending all contact with the country.

Labor, The Greens and Human Rights Watch have all called on Australia to do the same.

MM: “It is something that we have constantly asked them to do; cut the military ties and apply really targeted and strategic sanctions on the senior military officers. If there’s ever a time for Australia to be cutting ties, it’s now.”

That being said, there is an argument that by withdrawing from that relationship, Australia could leave Myanmar to be dominated by China’s influence.

Manny told me that it might be the case, but by withdrawing Australia can also put a huge amount of pressure on the top military leaders to back down.

MM: “It goes beyond military-to-military ties between countries, we’re asking for that to be cut. But what we’re also asking is that military ties with businesses becomes the focus, and hopefully that starts to squeeze these people at the top.”

The Takeaway

The idea that Myanmar could enter another military dictatorship is a terrifying thought for a country that’s emerged from five decades of it.

A lot of lives are now hanging in the balance as the military that Australia continues to support, tries to stamp out the country’s progress towards democracy.