Myanmar’s military seized power on Monday in a coup against the democratically elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained along with other leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party in early morning raids.
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.
Suu Kyi’s party published comments on Facebook that it said had been written in anticipation of a coup, quoting her as saying people should protest against the military takeover.
The coup derails years of Western-backed efforts to establish democracy in Myanmar, also known as Burma, where neighbouring China also has a powerful influence.
The generals made their move hours before parliament had been due to sit for the first time since the NLD’s landslide win in a 8 November general election viewed as a referendum on Suu Kyi’s fledgling democratic rule.
Phone and internet connections in the capital, Naypyitaw, and the main commercial centre of Yangon were disrupted and state television went off air after the NLD leaders were detained.
Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other NLD leaders were “taken” in the early hours of the morning, NLD spokesman Myo Nyunt told Reuters by phone. Reuters was subsequently unable to contact him.
A video posted to Facebook by one MP appeared to show the arrest of another, regional lawmaker Pa Pa Han.
In the video, her husband pleads with men in military garb standing outside the gate. A young child can be seen clinging to his chest and wailing.
Troops and riot police stood by in Yangon where residents rushed to markets to stock up on supplies and others lined up at ATMs to withdraw cash. Banks subsequently suspended services due to poor internet connections.
The detentions came after days of escalating tension between the civilian government and the military in the aftermath of the election.
Suu Kyi’s party won 83% of the vote in only the second election since the military agreed to share power in 2011.
The pre-written statement uploaded on an NLD Facebook page quoted Suu Kyi as saying such army actions would put Myanmar “back under a dictatorship”.
“I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military,” it quoted her as saying. Reuters was unable to reach any NLD officials to confirm the veracity of the statement.
Supporters of the military celebrated the coup, parading through Yangon in pickup trucks and waving national flags.
“Today is the day that people are happy,” one nationalist monk told a crowd in a video published on Facebook.
But democracy activists and NLD voters were horrified and angry.
“Our country was a bird that was just learning to fly. Now the army broke our wings,” student activist Si Thu Tun said.
“The NLD is the government we voted for. If they’re unhappy with the result, they can call another election. A coup isn’t acceptable,” said a woman, who declined to be identified, whose husband works for the military.
Senior NLD leader Win Htein said in a Facebook post the army chief’s takeover demonstrated his ambition rather than concern for the country.
Health Minister Myint Htwe referred in a post to the “evolving situation” and said he was stepping down. He urged colleagues to serve the people, especially with regard to the coronavirus and vaccinations.
In the capital, security forces confined members of parliament to residential compounds on the day they had expected to take up their seats, representative Sai Lynn Myat said.
‘Potential for unrest’
The military, summarising a meeting of the new junta, said Min Aung Hlaing had pledged to practice a “genuine discipline-flourishing multiparty democratic system” and promised a free and fair election and a handover of power to the winning party.
It gave no timeframe for an election but the military had already said the state of emergency would last a year.
The United Nations led condemnation of the coup and calls for the release of detainees and restoration of democracy in comments largely mirrored by Australia, Britain, the European Union, India, Japan and the United States.
“The military must reverse these actions immediately,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, while the US embassy in Yangon issued an alert warning US citizens of the “potential for civil and political unrest”.
In Japan, a major aid donor with scores of businesses in Myanmar, a ruling party source said the government may have to rethink the strengthening of defence relations with the country undergone as part of regional efforts to counterbalance China.
China called on all sides in Myanmar to respect the constitution and uphold stability in a statement which “noted” events in the country rather than expressly condemning them.
Bangladesh, which is sheltering around one million Rohingya who fled violence in Myanmar, called for “peace and stability” and said it hoped a process to repatriate the refugees could move forward.
The Association of South East Asian Nations, of which Myanmar is a member, called for “dialogue, reconciliation and the return to normalcy” while in Bangkok, police clashed with a group of pro-democracy demonstrators outside Myanmar’s embassy.
“It’s their internal affair,” a Thai government official said of events in Myanmar – a handsoff approach also taken by Malaysia and the Philippines.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, 75, came to power after a 2015 election win that followed decades of house arrest and struggle against the military, which seized power in a 1962 coup and stamped out all dissent for decades.
While still hugely popular at home, her international reputation was damaged after she failed to stop the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in 2017.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh also condemned the takeover.
The November vote faced some criticism in the West for disenfranchising many Rohingya but the election commission rejected military complaints of fraud.
In its statement declaring the emergency, the military cited the failure of the commission to address complaints over voter lists, its refusal to postpone new parliamentary sessions and protests by groups unhappy with the vote.
“Unless this problem is resolved, it will obstruct the path to democracy and it must therefore be resolved according to the law,” the military said, citing an emergency provision in the constitution in the event sovereignty is threatened.