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Soldiers sit in trucks in Yangon on February 28, 2021, as security forces continue to crackdown on demonstrations by protesters against the military coup. Picture: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

On ‘comparative coups’: opinion

The 1 February 2021 military takeover in Myanmar (Burma) stated as a ‘declaration of emergency’ is being described as ‘a major cabinet reshuffle’ by the Chinese government official media.

That ‘major government reshuffle’ has generated a lot of articles. This article will not rehash or comment on the many legalistic analyses or political commentaries. It will take a glimpse of comparisons of what can be described as military takeovers in Burma (as the country then was officially named) of the past juxtaposed with the current situation. 

Glimpse of transfer of authorities (takeover, coups, quasi-coups) in Burma

Transfer of power to the ‘Caretaker government’ (27 October 1958 – 3 April 1960) 

On 27 October 1958 General Ne Win (6 July 1910 – 5 December 2002) Commander in Chief of then Burmese Armed Forces became Caretaker Prime Minister when the then Burmese Parliament by majority vote approved the ‘transfer’. Before the transfer of power correspondence between then Prime Minister U Nu (25 May 1907 – 14 February 1995) and General Ne Wn was published in newspapers. U Nu requested Ne Win, due to the political instability in the country, take over as a ‘care taker’ government pending elections in six months’ time.

Referring to his ‘political inexperience’ Ne Win apparently ‘reluctantly’ decided to ‘take the responsibility’. U Nu at that time adamantly stated publicly that it was not a ‘coup’. Ne Win’s caretaker government held elections in February 1960 for both Houses of Parliament and he transferred power to U Nu on 4 April 1960, only to come back in a ‘straight coup’ on 2 March 1962.

In his memoirs Saturday’s Son (translated by U Law Yone, edited by U Kyaw Win, first published in 1974) U Nu claimed that high ranking military officers in September 1958 came and saw him and (at least) cajoled U Nu to transfer power or else there would be a ‘straight coup’. The ‘transfer of power’ (or ‘aping’ the official Chinese media of February 2021) ‘major cabinet reshuffle’ (of October 1958 not February 2021) was done by following the procedures of the now long defunct (since March 1962) 1947 Burmese Constitution. Arguably it is not a ‘full coup’ or at best (at worst?) can be described as a ‘quasi-coup’. 

The 1962 ‘straight coup’ and its consequences (March 1962 to September 1988)

On 2 March 1962 then Burmese Army Chief of Staff General Ne Win launched a lightning and secretive coup with simultaneous arrests of then President the late Mahn Win Maung, Chief Justice the late U Myint Thein, Prime Minister the late U Nu and many other officials. Within days the Parliament elected under the 1947 Constitution was abolished by decree. 

The 1947 Constitution was not formally, officially abolished or suspended by a decree of the then junta: the Revolutionary Council. Still, with the abolition of the Parliament on or about 8 March 1962 and the abolition of the apex Supreme and High Courts of Burma (major institutions under the 1947 Constitution) on 31 March 1962 by decree signed by Ne Win the 1947 Charter died an ‘unnatural death’ or fell into desuetude (‘the condition of being not in use’).

On the 4th anniversary of takeover on 2 March 1966 Ne Win in a hypocritical, contrived, deceptive statement during a speech said that the army reluctantly (and against cherished beliefs!) had to ‘intervene’ and would hand over ‘State power’ back to the ‘original owners’, the people. In light of subsequent developments of September 1988 (see below) and February 2021 aspects of  Burmese history seem to be both outrageously and sadly repeating themselves.

Intense propaganda followed from 1971 to late 1973  in the drafting of ‘new State Constitution’ and in December 1973  a so-called ‘national referendum’ was held to adopt what was to come to be known as the 1974 (one-Party) Constitution. 

The fake referendum of 15 to 31 December 1973 was a non-choice referendum. If the people said ‘no’ the usurping Revolutionary Council would continue to rule by decree and if the people said yes then the Revolutionary Council would transfer power to the Burma Socialist Programme Party BSPP, which since March 1964 by Revolutionary Council decree was the sole legal political party.

Article 11 of the 1974 Constitution stated ‘The State shall adopt a single-party system. The Burma Socialist Programme Party is the sole political party and it shall lead the State’. (A similar non-choice referendum was conducted in May 2008 to adopt what was to become the 2008 Constitution. To repeat, history repeats itself both as tragedy as well as farce.) 

Hence on 2 March 1974 the Revolutionary Council Chairman Ne Win ‘transferred power’ to Burma Socialist Programme Party Chairman Ne Win fulfilling his so-called ‘promise’ to ‘transfer power back to the original owners the people’ he made back on 2 March 1966. On an external comparative basis apparently none of the ‘coup’ regimes of the past several decades from Thailand to Nigeria, from Pakistan to Paraguay, from Bangladesh to Fiji, from Indonesia to Chile, transmogrified multiparty systems in those countries into a one-party State. 

From August to September 1988 more than a million people in many townships were in the streets of Burma protesting against the one-Party regime. 

On 18 September 1988 a new group of Army officers (at least initially) under the tutelage of the old, ‘retired’ dictator Ne Win took over again and formed the Orwellian sounding State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Although like in 1962 the SLORC abolished ‘all organs of State power’ formed under the 1974 one-Party constitution, in contrast to the 1962 coup, none of the BSPP regime leaders were arrested. 

Indeed it is rather like an internal arrangement where the task of crushing the four eights (8888) uprising was transferred to a more ‘efficient’ and ruthless Army corps. And also in stark contrast to the March 1962 takeover where there was perhaps only one casualty, at least several dozen people were killed in the immediate aftermath of the 1988 SLORC takeover.

The long oppressive interlude and a brief ultimately illusory 4 years of relative lack of oppression (September 1988 to at least March 2011) 

The 1988 coup leader General Saw Maung in an address to the nation soon after the coup stated that the fact that they formed the SLORC with ‘very few people’ ‘proved’ their ‘good faith’, and they would hold multiparty elections and handover ‘power to the winning party’ – a statement he made a few times in his public speeches. 

The rest, as they say, is history. After the 1962 coup it took 12 years for a new oppressive 1974 Constitution to be adopted and to transfer ‘power’ from U Ne Win to U Ne Win (the same person). 

It took 22 years and six months after the 1988 ‘coup’ for the new praetorian 2008 Constitution to be adopted and power was transfer from Prime Minister (former General) U Thein Sein to President U Thein Sein. (Ne Win in March 1974 before he became the first ‘President of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma’ was also Chairman of the Revolutionary Council and ‘Prime Minister of the Revolutionary government of the Union of Burma’).

In April 2016 the military and National League for Democracy (NLD) power sharing government commenced under the provisions of the 2008 Constitution. (It took over 17 years from the January 1993 ‘drafting stage’ to March 2011 to adopt the 2008 Constitution when it came into force.)

Persons interested in Myanmar affairs would know about the 25 per cent Army appointees in the Union Legislature as well as the State and Divisional Legislatures and of the Ministers of Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs have to be military men (so far they are all males).

Perhaps less well-known is that when the so-called reforms started in March 2011 the Supreme Court ‘Chief Justice’ was a former military man who had served at least 15 years in the military. Before 1 February 2021 takeover at least 3 out of the 10 Supreme Court judges were ex (full fledged) military men. Most of the permanent Secretaries, Director-Generals, and at least a significant minority if not majority of Burmese Ambassadors are ex military. Almost all of the economic conglomerates within the country are also owned by the military. 

Even in this praetorian condition and notwithstanding such dominance the military bosses were still not satisfied. As the Burmese saying goes ‘the more the ghost or the evil spirits get the more they want ’. Hence the non-coup which is a coup, or the coup which is presented as a ‘non-coup’ of February 2021.

The 1 February 2021 ‘take over’: brief comparisons  

The 2021 ‘emergency’ has, in a sense, a few similarities with the 1962 coup. In the early hours of 2 March 1962 Commander-in-Chief Ne Win and his Army corps ‘struck’. The then Burmese Parliament was scheduled to choose a new President nine days later on 11 March 1962 but the President-designate was denied that role. It was Ne Win who formally assumed the title of President on 4 March 1974 after being Chairman of the Revolutionary Council for 12 years.

On the early morning hours (around 3 am) of 1 February 2021 Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and his Army corps took over a mere seven hours before the new Legislature was scheduled to start where the military appointees already had 25 per cent of the seats. 

Just like in 1962 the top leaders of the toppled government as well as writers and activists not formally affiliated with the NLD government were arrested. 

In March 1962 Ne Win and his Revolutionary Council did not formally claim that their takeover was in accordance with the 1947 Constitution. Again, in September 1988 the SLORC also did not state that their takeover was in accordance with the one-Party 1974 Constitution. 

In contrast in February 2021 the new regime under the name of the ‘State Administration Council’ at the very least  anomalously and questionably claims that their ‘temporary’ (recall their predecessors' takeover of March 1962 and September 1988) ‘declaration of emergency’ was in accordance with the 2008 Constitution. 

Unlike in 1962 when the usurping Revolutionary Council regime abolished the top judiciary and arrested the Chief Justice (detaining him without charge or trial for six years), in 2021 ‘Union Supreme Court’ was almost fully in the military’s hands. Hence there was no need to abolish it. Within days though the Commander in Chief, Chairman of the State Administration Council terminated the services of the four judges of the Supreme Court (three of them appointed by the toppled military-NLD power-shared government) and appointed some new judges.

Additionally, the services of eight of the nine members of the Constitutional Tribunal (a new  institution under the 2008 Constitution) were terminated. A new nine member Constitutional Tribunal (where only one member of the previous tribunal is reappointed also by fiat or announcement) was formed by decree. The already pliant judiciary has now been fully stacked. 

Like the 1962 to 1974 Revolutionary Council (RC) regime, 1988 to 2011 SLORC and State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regimes the SAC also issued ‘orders having the effect of law’ and amended the laws to make it more oppressive. Unlike the RC, SLORC and SPDC regimes which did not pretend or announce that they were acting in accordance with the previous 1947 and 1974 Constitutions, the current SAC in most of its orders abolishing and amending laws issued by decrees referred to certain Sections of the 2008 Constitution. 

Reaction to the takeovers internally and externally 

Resistance (even verbal mentions of protests) to the March 1962 coup was, if not absent, then minimal at least in the first few months. On 7 July 1962 about 100 students from Rangoon University were mown down with sub-machine guns by Ne Win’s troops and on 8 July 1962 the historic Rangoon University Student Union building was dynamited. Thereafter albeit sporadic a student-led (at least initially) resistance to the regime was carried almost inter-generationally eventually leading to the nation-wide (initially student-led) but essentially failed uprising of August to September  1988. 

In comparison to 1962 there was more resistance to the SLORC crushing of the 1988 uprising but due to the unprecedented savagery of the troops’ brutal suppression of the demonstrations it ended around 21 September 1988, three days after the SLORC takeover. 

The February 2021 takeover angered a significant portion of the Myanmar populace. A few days after the shock of the takeover roughly an estimated 1.4 million people in at least 30 cities and towns throughout the country came out in the streets to oppose the new overlords.

The March 1962 coup raised no ‘international concern’ at all. On the contrary within days of the 1962 takeover many other governments including the United States, United Kingdom, the former Soviet Union, China, India and others ‘rushed’ to recognise Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council regime. In the immediate aftermath of the crushing of the 1988 Burmese uprising the UN Security Council did not meet or issue statements.

Within a week or so of the 2021 ‘declaration of emergency’ by the Myanmar State Administration Council the United Nations Security Council issued a 'press statement' which among others expressed ‘extreme concern’ and urged the authorities to release all those detained by the SAC and to recognise the results of the 2020 elections. 

It needs to be mentioned that a UN Security Council press statement is a notch or two below a Security Council Resolution. It still does not have the same degree of moral persuasiveness and far less legal binding force of a formal (UN Security Council) presidential statement, not to say a Resolution. 

Expressions of concern: ‘swinging’ between the audacity and futility of hope 

Would the expressions of concerns not only by the UN Security Council but also by the UN Human Rights Council (which were absent in the aftermath of the 1962 and 1988 coups in Burma) help? Would the international expressions of concern be of any substantive assistance to those hundreds of thousands of Burmese who with boldness and determination have demonstrated and (as of mid-February 2021) are still demonstrating on the streets? Would such expressions of concern be of any assistance to peaceful a civil resistance movement being conducted  by a significant portion of the civil servants – or not? 

Would it help the tech-savvy ‘Generation Z’ youths who have tasted the partial freedoms of the past several years and who apparently are determined not to forfeit their futures to be relegated back to the ‘dark ages’? 

In order to detract themselves during a time of great anxiety, at times despair and only rarely daring to hope, the writer(s) has/have tried to read Barack Obama’s memoirs A Promised Land

In the case of the long-suffering but also, in the words of United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, ‘very resilient’ Burmese people the pendulum between the ‘audacity of hope’ and ‘futility of hope’ must, needs be, and for now, not aim to reach for the ‘(un)promised land’ but to avoid or obviate a return to the ‘dark ages’.  

As far as the events are concerned this article has a ‘cut-off’ date of 15 February 2021. 

Htaw Mi Ta is (are) a pseudonym of a researcher/researchers interested in the politics of Burma/Myanmar.

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