Myanmar coup: What is happening and why?

epa08997968 Police fire water cannon at demonstrators during a protest against the military coup, in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 09 February 2021. Thousands of people continued to rally despite stern warnings from the military after days of mass protests. Orders were issued on 08 February in major cities and townships banning people from protesting or gathering in groups of more than five. A nighttime curfew was also imposed. Myanmar's military seized power and declared a state of emergency for one year after arresting State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's president and other political figures in an early morning raid on 01 February. EPA/MAUNG LONLAN

Police have fired rubber bullets at protesters in Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw, during demonstrations against the coup by the armed forces.

Over the past four days, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets, despite a ban on protests.

The country’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and members of her party, are under house arrest.

Where is Myanmar?

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is in South East Asia and neighbours Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, China and India.

It has a population of about 54 million, most of whom are Burmese speakers, although other languages are also spoken. The biggest city is Yangon (Rangoon) but the capital is Nay Pyi Taw.

The main religion is Buddhism. There are many ethnic groups in the country, including Rohingya Muslims.

The country gained independence from Britain in 1948. It was ruled by the armed forces from 1962 until 2011, when a new government began ushering in a return to civilian rule.

Map of Myanmar
Map of Myanmar

Why is Myanmar also known as Burma?

The ruling military changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. The two words mean the same thing but Myanmar is the more formal version.

Some countries, including the UK, initially refused to use the name as a way of denying the regime’s legitimacy.

But use of “Myanmar” has become increasingly common and in 2016 Ms Suu Kyi said it did not matter which name was used.

What has happened now, and why?

The military is now back in charge and has declared a year-long state of emergency.

It seized control on 1 February following a general election which Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide.

The armed forces had backed the opposition, who were demanding a rerun of the vote, claiming widespread fraud.

The election commission said there was no evidence to support these claims.

The coup was staged as a new session of parliament was set to open.

Ms Suu Kyi is under house arrest and has been charged with possessing illegally imported walkie-talkies. Many other NLD officials have also been detained.

Who is in charge now?

Power has been handed over to commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.

He has long wielded significant political influence, successfully maintaining the power of the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – even as the country transitioned towards democracy.

Min Aung Hlaing, pictured in 2018

He has received international condemnation and sanctions for his alleged role in the military’s attacks on ethnic minorities.

In his first public comments after the coup, Gen Hlaing sought to justify the takeover, saying the military was on the side of the people and would form a “true and disciplined democracy”.

The military says it will hold a “free and fair” election once the state of emergency is over.

How have people reacted?

The protests over the coup have been the largest since the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007, when thousands of the country’s monks rose up against the military regime.

Protesters include teachers, lawyers, students, bank officers and government workers.

Water cannons have been fired at protesters, and the military has imposed restrictions in some areas, including curfews and limits to gatherings.

Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?

Aung San Suu Kyi became world-famous in the 1990s for campaigning to restore democracy.

She spent nearly 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010 after organising rallies calling for democratic reform and free elections.

She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest in 1991.

In 2015, she led the NLD to victory in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years.

  • Myanmar’s democracy icon who fell from graceAung San Suu Kyi attends a meeting on September 1, 2020

    What about the crackdown on Rohingya?

    Ms Suu Kyi’s international reputation has suffered greatly as a result of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya minority.

    Myanmar considers them illegal immigrants and denies them citizenship. Over decades, many have fled the country to escape persecution.

    Thousands of Rohingya were killed and more than 700,000 fled to Bangladesh following an army crackdown in 2017.

    Ms Suu Kyi appeared before the International Court of Justice in 2019, where she denied allegations that the military had committed genocide.

    What has the international reaction been to the coup?

    The UK, EU and Australia are among those to have condemned the military takeover.

    UN Secretary-General António Guterres said it was a “serious blow to democratic reforms”.

    US President Joe Biden has threatened to reinstate sanctions.

    However, China blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the coup. The country, which has previously opposed international intervention in Myanmar, urged all sides to “resolve differences”.

    Neighbours including Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, have said it is an “internal matter”.

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