Myanmar's Security Perceptions and the February 1 Coup d'Etat

Yoshihiro Nakanishi
Associate Professor, Kyoto University

On February 1, 2021, a military coup took place in Myanmar. It was a political upheaval that caught many people unaware, including experts on Myanmar. At the dawn of that day, military troops raided the homes of top officials in the administration and detained State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's supreme leader, and President Win Min. A few hours later, the Myanmar military declared a state of emergency under Article 417 of the Myanmar constitution; Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the top military commander, assumed the full power of the state.

In Myanmar, a civilian administration was inaugurated in March 2011 after a long and stagnant military rule. As democratization and economic development progressed, free and fair elections took place in November 2015 for the first time in about 55 years. The following year, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, came to power. In diplomacy, the long-standing hostile relations between Myanmar and the West improved, which led to increased support and investment from Japan. 1 Why did a coup d'état occur in a country that seemed to be getting along well? This paper is intended to examine the relationship between the recent coup and the Myanmar military's perceptions of security.

1. Causes of the February 1 Coup and Current Situation

The direct cause of the February 1 coup was a domestic power struggle. The Aung San Suu Kyi administration had been working on the amendment of the current constitution (the 2008 Constitution). But the military self-identifies itself as its defender. Article 6 stipulates their political guidance. Specifically, active military personnel hold three ministerial posts: Minister of Defense, Minister of Interior, and Minister of Border Affairs, and a quarter of the seats in the Myanmar parliament are occupied by military personnel. Myanmar's commander-in-chief of the armed forces is the supreme commander, not the president. Military representatives in the parliament can choose an occupant for one of the three posts of the president and two vice presidents. The military calls this system a "discipline flourishing democracy," arguing that it is a political system suitable for the current situation in Myanmar. In addition, the military has effective veto power over constitutional amendments, as more than three-fourths of lawmakers must vote in favor of the amendments. No matter how many elections civilian parties win, the constitution will remain unchanged.

Aung San Suu Kyi attempted to break down this barrier. However, the military is not willing to hand over its power. The administration run jointly by the antagonistic parties lasted for nearly five years from 2016. Tensions between the two sides mounted over time and reached a decisive stage over the management and outcome of the 2021 elections. The consequence was the recent coup d'état. Conflicts due to differences in the views of the state and ideologies are unlikely to lead to a compromise. The military possesses physical force and has been in power for many years. There are no state institutions or domestic factions (the judiciary or economic technocrats, for example) to curb the behavior of the military. Myanmar is a country where the military has grown out of balance in the state apparatus and has become the overriding political force.

In Myanmar, during the ten years since the shift to civilian rule in 2011, democratization progressed, and economic growth became a reality. During the 2011-2015 Thein Sein administration era, Myanmar's annual average growth rate was 6.4%; the same rate value for 2016-2018 was 5.6% --- which was not bad. 2 During those years, Myanmar society enjoyed incomparably more freedom and economic opportunities than under the military regime. Undoubtedly, many voters voted for the NLD in the 2020 general elections. It is no wonder, then, that Myanmar citizens' resistance is spreading at this moment.

The resistance, which began a few days after the coup, developed in mid-February into massive street demonstrations and the civil disobedience movement (CDM), or work place walk-outs. Street demonstrations took place in many places every day, and the CDM brought government offices and banks to a temporary suspension of operations. These moves represented Myanmar's civil society that had matured in the past ten years. However, after the military adopted a hardline stance from February 26, the resistance forces were obliged to go on the defensive. Reportedly, the military fired live ammunition at the demonstrators and in some places used rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), mortars, and machine guns. In the four months since the demonstrations began, more than 800 people have perished in the crackdown. 3 In the face of violence, large-scale street demonstrations and rallies have ceased to occur in large cities such as Yangon and Mandalay. The focus of the clashes has shifted to non-metropolitan areas: Magway Region, Sagaing Region, Chin State in the north, and Kayah State in the east. Participants in the CDM are gradually returning to work under pressure from the military in the form of job suspension, dismissal, and legal action.

The military is planning to hold elections after the state of emergency that will last for one to two years and then hand over the government to a party that will win the elections. Unsurprisingly, that party will be one favorable to the military, or, to be specific, the former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). If this alone is the military's design, it seems to aim at a temporary rule to control the elections. But Supreme Commander Min Aung Hlaing seems to entertain another plan in mind --- his presidency. If this plan proceeds as envisioned, it will be increasingly difficult for him to obtain approval at home and abroad.

2. Security Perceptions and Challenges

The fundamental cause of the coup are differences in the views of the state between the Myanmar military and the pro-democracy forces led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The source of these differences lies in the peculiar security perceptions held by the former. This section will look into the characteristics of their security perceptions from three perspectives: internal security, external security, and political threats.

(1) Internal Security

From independence on January 4, 1948, to the present, the Myanmar military has been fighting civil wars. Understandably, the overriding security challenge for the Myanmar military has consistently been the suppression of armed groups in the country.

The first armed uprising after independence was one by the Burma Communist Party (BCP), followed by the spread of armed struggle among some ethnic minorities such as the Karen National Union (NKU). 4 In the mid-1970s, the military suppressed the BCP's stronghold in the Bago Yoma in central Myanmar and pushed back other armed groups to the mountainous border areas. After stabilizing the central plain after nearly 40 years of post-independence, the military dismantled the BCP in 1989 and then signed ceasefire agreements with some ethnic minority armed groups distinct from the BCP. Meanwhile, the military expanded its area of rule by launching a fierce offensive against the KNU. Nonetheless, about 20 ethnic minority armed groups are still active chiefly in the border areas. No single Myanmar government has ever ruled the entire country.

To name some of these armed groups, the largest one is the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which governs the Wa Self-Administered Division in the Myanmar-China border region of Shan State, and embraces 30,000 soldiers. Although the UWSA is active in Myanmar, it is economically taken in by China, enjoying considerable autonomy. The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in Kachin State in the north has 10,000 men. It maintains bases in the southeastern Kayin State and Tanintharyi Region near the Myanmar-Thai border. The KNU mentioned above is one of the world's longest-fighting ethnic minority armed groups, with an estimated 5,000 soldiers. In addition, in the late 2010s, the Arakan Armed Forces (AA) became active in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh, and its strength has reportedly increased from about 1,000 men in the early 2010s to over 10,000 at present. 5

Some attempts were made in the past to negotiate a peace deal to address the endless civil war. But the vital turning point came with the shifting to civilian rule in 2011. In 2012, President Thein Sein, who had a military background but was reform-oriented, began negotiations with the armed forces to reach a nationwide ceasefire agreement following a three-step roadmap: (1) agree on a ceasefire, (2) convert to a political party by accepting the Myanmar constitution, and (3) sign a permanent peace agreement. After some twists and turns, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was finally signed by eight armed groups 6 --- significant progress compared to previous peace attempts. However, the KNU alone, out of the major armed groups mentioned above, signed the NCA. The results were not as successful as initially anticipated. The Aung San Suu Kyi administration took over this peace process, dubbed it the "21st Century Panglong Conference," and endeavored to advance the negotiations. But the armed groups' distrust of the Myanmar government and the military was so inveterate that the conference stalled, and in the end, only two organizations newly signed the NCA. 7

(2) External Security

In 2015, the Myanmar military released its first defense white paper. The document lists six key objectives of Myanmar's national defense policy: (1) prevent all actions that could undermine the country's so-called three primary national causes ("non-disintegration of the Union; non-disintegration of national solidarity; and the perpetuation of sovereignty"); (2) "national defense with the people's war" mainly undertaken by the national army utilizing the people and domestic resources; (3) "prevent any foreign aggression and various ways and means of interference in the internal affairs of the Union"; (4) friendly external relations in accordance with the "five principles of peaceful coexistence"; (5) opposition to forming and participating in any military alliance with any other nations, and avoiding the deployment of any foreign troops on Myanmar's soil; and (6) cooperation with the international community on "nontraditional security issues and anti-terrorism matters." 8

Of these, (2) through (5) are related to external security; (2) is the view that inherits traditions of the periods of the struggles for independence and the socialist regime (1962-1988); (3) and (4) follow the principle of non-alignment neutrality that has been held since independence; and (6) was added after General Min Aung Hlaing took the office of Supreme Commander in 2011. Until then, the inward-looking Myanmar military lacked the idea of international cooperation. "Cooperation with the international community" suggests a new stance of the Myanmar military that will pay attention to global trends such as nontraditional security and anti-terrorism.

The overriding external security threat to Myanmar is, unquestionably, China. However, since there is a huge disparity in national power between the two countries, Myanmar maintains the fundamental stance of maintaining friendly relations with China. Myanmar was the first non-Communist country to recognize the regime of the Communist Party of China, which came into power in 1949. The borders between the two neighbors became fixed in 1960. They have maintained a friendly relationship, calling each other "baobo," which means brother in Burmese. This has not changed under the Aung San Suu Kyi administration, but rather China's influence has steadily increased over Myanmar, which occupies a strategic position between China and the Indian Ocean. 9

However, the bilateral relations should not be perceived as a relationship of domination and subordination, because behind the ostensible friendship there has always been tension. The Myanmar military is very wary of China. In the late 2000s, both countries reached an agreement on the construction of pipelines, railways, and roads from Kyaukpyu in central Rakhine State to Yunnan Province in China. The building of pipelines and transportation of oil and natural gas proceeded smoothly. But the project to build railways and roads has stalled since the shifting to civilian rule due to the military's opposition. 10 The military has been trying to lessen dependence on China by raising the ratio of the procurement from Russia of fighter jets and other equipment through strengthening relations with Russia; the Myanmar navy promoted cooperation with India through joint drills with the Indian navy and the purchase of a submarine from India. 11 At this moment, the anti-Chinese sentiment of the Myanmar public is deep-rooted. Past Chinese support for the Myanmar juntas exacerbated it. Although China did not comment on the recent coup, many Myanmar citizens believe that China controls the Myanmar junta from behind. As a result, the anti-Chinese sentiment of the Myanmar public has further heightened.

The post-coup future of China-Myanmar relations is unforeseeable. Although China never welcomed the coup, it has no intention to join the US-led pressure diplomacy to resolve the Myanmar problem. Therefore, China is highly unlikely to agree to sanctions against Myanmar at a UN Security Council meeting. China expresses support for ASEAN's approach to Myanmar while keeping a vigilant eye on the situation. 12 On the other hand, Myanmar's efforts to improve relations with Europe and the United States since 2011 have almost resulted in failure. If Myanmar's isolation in the international community continues, China's influence on Myanmar may increase in the medium to long term.

(3) Political Threats

In Myanmar, plagued by civil war and tormented by the rule of juntas for many years, domestic security issues closely interact with national security issues. It is not surprising because the BCP engaged in an armed struggle for a violent revolution while ethnic minority militants ran rampant, threatening the Union regime. From 1988 onwards, the awareness of such security threats made the military more vigilant of Myanmar citizens. In particular, the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi came under criticism because it was considered a threat to security by attempting to divide the nation, even though the NLD abided by the principle of non-violence.

This mindset of the military reflects the views of democracy that they have firmly held since independence. The military has divided politics into two concepts: "national politics" and "party politics." It was the Myanmar juntas that advocated these concepts during their reign from 1988. National politics, according to the military's definition, is politics for the interests of the whole people; the military argues that they alone who have been fighting for the country for a long time can implement it. Party politics, on the other hand, refers to somewhat negative politics that involves partisan conflicts for personal gains. The "discipline flourishing democracy" that the military advocates is a regime based on national politics within a framework where party politics alone is allowed. It is not democracy as we understand it at all. The Myanmar constitution provides that the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court judges shall not come under the influence of party politics (Article 300, Section 1). But it does not stipulate that they shall not come under the influence of national politics.

From 2011 until the outbreak of the coup d'état in 2021 was an exceptional period when political conflicts were not considered a security problem. However, the recent coup seems to have ushered in an era in which the military's awareness of threats will permeate politics. The key concept in this context is counterterrorism.

After the February 1 coup, the NLD party members took the lead to create the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), which in due course evolved into the opposition government, the National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG). To counter this move, the military has designated the NUG as a terrorist organization and issued warrants to arrest its leaders for treason. The military is using the discourse of terrorism to turn its political enemies into security threats. 13


As mentioned earlier, the fundamental cause of the February 1 coup was differences in the perceptions of the state between the military and the pro-democracy forces. The military's views of the state are based on the indisputable premise of their political leadership, and their perceptions of security are noticeable in every sphere of their governance. Mechanisms to check their behavior are absent. The changes that followed the shifting to civilian rule in 2011 were, as it were, an experiment to see if democratically elected civilian forces could exercise control over the military. The coup d'état attests to the failure of this experiment. The military is endeavoring to normalize the country again, but even if the government restores its functions, it will never return to the way it was before the coup. Even if the current Myanmar constitution remains intact, a new political system will emerge in which the military's perception of security will be discernible everywhere in their governance.

(This paper was translated into English by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate)

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