The Myanmar coup: a quick guide

2 July 2021

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Dr Angela Clare
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section



On 1 February 2021 the Myanmar military (also known as the Tatmataw) launched a coup against the civilian government, declaring the results of the November 2020 general election invalid and instating a one-year state of emergency. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior officials of the governing National League for Democracy (NLD) party were arrested on the grounds of widespread fraud in the general election—which the NLD won with a large majority— and mass communications were mostly cut.

The military takeover occurred just hours before the newly elected parliament was scheduled to convene, destroying hopes of democratic progress in the country.

Military authorities initially charged Suu Kyi with illegally importing communication devices, among other charges, and President Win Myint with violating pandemic-related protocols. Suu Kyi’s trial commenced in mid-June over what observers believe are ‘bogus’ charges of sedition—an attempt by the junta ‘to eliminate her as a political force, erase the country’s democratic gains and cement the military’s power’.

Australian Sean Turnell, who was working as an adviser to the Myanmar Government, has been detained since 6 February and will face charges of breaching the Official State Secrets Act. Turnell, Suu Kyi and a number of other defendants will face court without legal representation.

The Myanmar military ruled the country between 1962 and 2011, when the military implemented some democratic reforms that began a transition back to civilian rule. Prior to the coup Myanmar was governed by a power-sharing arrangement between the civilian government and the military, under the 2008 constitution. The arrangement ensured that the military never fell under civilian control, reserving 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, three key ministerial portfolios (defence, interior and border security) and one of the vice-president posts for the military.

The military expected this arrangement to preserve its dominance in politics, but the November 2020 elections showed that the equilibrium had shifted. The ruling civilian National League for Democracy increased its majority in the polls, while the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP)—formed in 2010 to contest the first elections under the new constitution, which it duly won—had its worst-ever showing.

In the weeks leading to the coup, army chief Min Aung Hlaing expressed growing support for the USDP’s claims of electoral fraud. The electoral commission has found no evidence to support these claims.

The military takeover sparked nationwide protests that saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets. Peaceful demonstrations over the first weeks quickly evolved into lethal clashes as the military began a brutal crackdown, arresting elected leaders, civilian officials, protest leaders and journalists, and firing live ammunition at unarmed protesters. As at June, at least 887 people are estimated to have been killed and more than 6,000 arrested since the coup.

The army’s attacks have mobilised broad civil disobedience and guerrilla-style armed resistance, while clashes between the military and newly formed civilian armed groups threaten to engulf the country in ‘a new kind of civil war’. Escalating violence has forced an estimated 230,000 people to flee their homes. Humanitarian conditions and food insecurity are worsening, the economy is deteriorating and internet access is almost non-existent. The UN has warned that half of Myanmar’s population, about 25 million people, could fall below the national poverty line by 2022.

Observers believe the extent of the protests has taken the army by surprise. While struggling to impose law and order the army is showing no signs of retreating, however, and it is feared that further crackdowns on civilian dissent will continue.[1]

The military claims the coup was legal under the constitution, which allows it to assume emergency powers at a time of national crisis. Addressing the nation on 2 February, the junta used the election commission’s failure to resolve the electoral disputes, which it argued ‘violated the Constitution and could lead to a “disintegration of national solidarity”’, as a pretext for the takeover. The military has said it will hold ‘free and fair’ elections once the state of emergency is over.

The opposition National Unity Government (NUG) was created in mid-April by former members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and representatives of some ethnic minority parties to coordinate opposition to the coup and create a point of focus for international support and recognition against the junta. The NUG has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the military government and on 22 April the junta announced that all 24 of the group’s Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers had been charged with treason and unlawful association.

The coup has drawn international condemnation and sanctions, but Myanmar’s military has historically proven ‘remarkably impervious to international influence’ and is likely to ignore this pressure.[2]

The Tatmadaw views itself as the protector of the nation, with both ‘an obligation and entitlement’ to rule. The prospect of growing democratic control and accountability as a result of the NLD’s sweeping victory in the November 2020 elections likely threatened the military’s considerable business interests as well as its political influence, convincing the army that the constitution was ‘no longer a sufficient bulwark’. General Min Aung Hlaing was due to retire in July this year, and the coup is thought to prolong his power and patronage network, which include lucrative family businesses.[3] Fresh elections are also thought to provide Min Aung Hlaing a possible route to the presidency—a long-held ambition of the army chief—if the USDP were to win a third of the seats. Min Aung Hlaing has previously attracted international condemnation for his alleged role in the military’s attacks on ethnic minorities.[4]

International responses

Myanmar occupies a geographically and politically strategic position in Southeast Asia, and its stability is of international concern.

Most Western countries have condemned the military takeover. The US, UK and the EU have imposed new sanctions on military officials, while the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the coup was a ‘serious blow to democratic reforms’.

The United Nations 15-member Security Council has adopted several statements on Myanmar, condemning the use of violence against peaceful protesters and calling on the military to restore the democratic transition, but has yet to explicitly condemn the coup or authorise an arms embargo. This is almost certainly due to veto by China, among other countries.[5] On 18 June the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (non-binding, unlike the Security Council) condemning the army’s takeover and excessive and lethal violence against protesters, and calling for an arms embargo and the release of arbitrarily detained officials and politicians. A total of 119 countries voted for the resolution and 36 abstained, reflecting broad international consensus against the coup.

The United Nations is widely seen to have a poor record of engagement in Myanmar, with a number of failed missions in the decades after the 1988 uprising, ‘largely fruitless’ human rights rapporteurs, and silence over the ‘repression of Rohingya leading up to the atrocities and mass exodus of 2017’.

While China has adopted its traditional stance of non-interference in regard to the coup, it has backed calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and called for a return to democratic norms, claiming it was not happy about the coup.[6] Myanmar shares its longest border with China, which holds considerable influence over the ethnic armed organisations along Myanmar’s borders. China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner and investor and has traditionally defended Myanmar in the face of international pressure, particularly from the United States. It is seen as playing a vital role in any resolution of the conflict.[7]

Southeast and East Asian countries have taken a softer line than some Western countries against the junta, mindful of the need to deal with China in the region. Few countries in the region have imposed sanctions, preferring to allow ASEAN’s non-confrontational diplomacy to take the lead on resolving the crisis. Japan has called for democracy to be restored in Myanmar, adopting an approach described as ‘a middle road between the “distant” Western states that prioritise human rights and democracy and the “local” Asian states that prioritise stability and development’.[8]


ASEAN countries are gravely concerned with the security, political and economic implications of Myanmar’s coup, which has heightened the risk of humanitarian crises, transnational crime and corruption, economic losses, and unstable international relations in the region.

Australia has joined a chorus of international calls for ASEAN to lead efforts to pressure the Tatmadaw into ending the violence against protesters and to put Myanmar back on a democratic track. As the primary forum for cooperation in Southeast Asia, ASEAN’s actions regarding Myanmar are seen as a key test of its leadership in the region.[9]

Indonesia and Malaysia were leading forces behind ASEAN’s 24 April summit on the Myanmar situation—the first coordinated international meeting to diffuse tensions in the country. The summit reached agreement with Min Aung Hlaing on five points, although there has been little progress on the points to date:

  • ending violence
  • fostering constructive dialogue among all parties
  • appointing a special ASEAN envoy
  • delivering humanitarian aid and
  • facilitating the ASEAN special envoy’s visit to Myanmar.

Human rights groups and protest leaders were disappointed with the outcome of the meeting, claiming that it legitimised the coup and excluded representatives of the Myanmar people. Myanmar’s National Unity Group argued that ASEAN’s principle of consensus decision-making ‘has effectively allowed Myanmar’s military junta to veto any official contact between ASEAN and opponents of the military’. Observers have also noted that the five points did not include a call for the junta to honour the outcome of the 2020 elections, nor the release of those arbitrarily detained. From ASEAN’s point of view, however, insisting on a ‘space at the table’ for the NUG would be ‘a sure way to grind all diplomatic efforts to a halt’.

ASEAN’s consensus-based approach makes any unanimous action against Myanmar difficult. The largely Muslim nations of Indonesia and Malaysia have been the most willing to speak out against the Myanmar coup, but Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have largely followed China’s lead in treating the issue as internal to Myanmar. ASEAN’s public criticism of Myanmar, mild as it is, and its call for a summit on what is primarily a domestic political crisis has therefore been viewed as unusual for the grouping.

Some commentators doubt ASEAN’s capacity to help restore democracy in Myanmar. A New York Times report noted that some ASEAN countries, including Singapore and Thailand, ‘have close business ties with Myanmar and its military,[…] which owns two of the country’s largest conglomerates’. ASEAN’s efforts to ‘gut’ a UN statement on Myanmar by demanding the General Assembly drop calls for an arms embargo against the junta and remove references to human rights abuses by the military were reportedly led by Singapore, which has argued that sanctions only hurt the Myanmar people.

The New York Times report also noted that Laos, Thailand and Vietnam sent representatives to the Tatmadaw’s Armed Forces Day celebration on 27 March—the day security forces killed at least 160 protesters in the ‘largest single-day killing spree since the coup’. Some ASEAN members may be reluctant to speak out on human rights issues because of their own violations, the report suggests, citing the Philippines’ killing of thousands in its war on drugs and Vietnam’s practice of imprisoning dissidents for long periods.

While ASEAN remains the key forum where channels of communication remain open with senior Myanmar officials, its ongoing failure to take action against the junta is eroding hopes that it can broker a solution to the crisis. Asia-Pacific analyst Greg Earl contends that the time for international intervention on Myanmar is still some way off, noting that ‘it would be difficult to implement a no-fly zone or to stage an intervention – humanitarian or otherwise – without the cooperation of neighbouring countries’.

Australia’s response

Australia suspended its defence agreement with Myanmar in March in response to the mounting violence, but has not announced any new sanctions following the 1 February coup.[10]  

Australia imposed an arms embargo and other restrictions against individuals in the ruling junta in response to the failure of the Myanmar Government to recognise the victory of the National League for Democracy in the 1990 elections. Australia lifted some sanctions in 2012 after democratic reforms were initiated by the government of President Thein Sein, but retained an arms embargo due to concerns about ongoing armed conflict, weapons proliferation and human rights. In 2018 the Australian Government imposed new targeted financial sanctions and travel bans on five members of the Myanmar military in response to the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar report which documented human rights abuses against ethnic minorities, committed primarily by Myanmar’s military.

The Government has so far rejected calls to impose tougher sanctions on the military regime in response to the February coup, despite the deteriorating situation in the country and the ongoing detention of Australian adviser Sean Turnell. Foreign Minister Marise Payne has argued that additional sanctions could limit Australia’s influence on the military leaders, preferring to support ASEAN-led solutions instead. Australia’s approach is consistent with all other countries in the region, including Japan, India, South Korea and the ASEAN countries.[11]

Human rights advocates have pointed out that the US, UK and EU have stronger sanctions than Australia on individuals and organisations in Myanmar. Australia would normally be expected to follow the lead of its friends and allies, which have ‘prohibited dealings with businesses controlled by Myanmar’s military, and targeted key junta officials and their families through asset freezes and travel bans’.

Nicholas Coppel, Australia’s Ambassador to Myanmar from 2015–2018, is one of a number of commentators who have questioned the Government’s approach, arguing that although sanctions may have little effect on the military leaders they have more than symbolic value, particularly for the Myanmar people who are looking to the international community to articulate norms of behaviour and support their struggle.

In a March statement the Government confirmed that Australia’s aid program to Myanmar would continue but would be re-directed to the ‘immediate humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable and poor including the Rohingyas and other ethnic minorities’, and delivered through non-government organisations.

On 23 June the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade tabled an interim report, Australia’s Response to the Coup in Myanmar. The report provides an overview of the diplomatic options available to Australia to ‘positively influence developments in Myanmar’. Among its recommendations are calls for Australian engagement with the legitimately-elected representatives of Myanmar (the NUG); further consideration of sanctions against senior figures in the Tatmadaw, as well as a global arms embargo; and the exploration of pathways to permanent residency for Myanmar nationals in Australia.

Conflict and ethnicity

Myanmar has endured similar crackdowns on civilian protests inflicted by the Tatmadaw in the past, including the 1988 suppression of student-led pro-democracy protests that resulted in at least three thousand killed and the birth of the NLD opposition party. But analysts fear that this time the ‘glue that has long held the fractured country together is coming unstuck’. The coup has unleashed a wave of violence across the country that the army has been unable to bring under control. In the last few months fighting has flared between the junta and ethnic minority armies as a ‘new generation of pro-democracy fighters’ attacked military positions and administrative offices across the country.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has argued that Myanmar stands at the brink of state collapse: the banking system is at a ‘virtual standstill’; supply chains are broken and markets are no longer functioning as they should; the health system has collapsed; and much of Myanmar’s natural wealth ‘is in the hands of unregulated actors’, threatening an explosion of criminal activity.[12] Save the Children has reported that 103 schools and other education facilities were attacked and many damaged by explosives in May this year, as armed forces occupied schools and university campuses. In the Irrawaddy region, reports have emerged of military-appointed administrators placing pressure on villagers to form a people’s army, or pay a tax. With the military showing no sign of backing down, observers fear that resistance throughout the country may continue indefinitely, and that Myanmar may be headed towards prolonged civil conflict.

The roots of this violence can be found in Myanmar’s troubled history of political and ethnic conflict, and what the ICG has described as the ‘militarisation of ethnicity’.

Myanmar is home to some of the longest-running armed conflicts in the world, some of which date back over 70 years. The country has more than 20 ethnic armed organisations and hundreds, if not thousands, of armed militias, both for and against the state. The conflicts are based on ‘deeply engrained’ notions of ethnicity that have come to dominate Myanmar’s political, economic and social life, driven by ‘a competitive, zero-sum dynamic among minority groups’.

Burmese historian Thant Myint-U reminds us that ‘Myanmar is a colonial creation’.[13] The legacy of British rule was a highly unequal system of governance that exploited the country’s immense ethnic diversity through divide-and-rule policies. Since its independence in 1948 Myanmar’s leaders have perpetuated these divisions, building a national identity based on the notion of a Burmese-speaking Buddhist race. The majority Burmans, who comprise around two-thirds of the population, enjoy a privileged position in society and hold the majority of government and military positions. Ethnic minorities have been subjected to systemic discrimination and exclusion from full participation in political and economic life, lack of development in their regions, and suppression at the hands of the military.[14]

The state’s failure to protect communities or address their grievances has increased the mistrust of those in power and driven a large number of ethnic groups to take up arms. These groups are ‘both for and against the state, and both allied with or acting against armed groups representing rival ethnicities’:

As a result, ethnically diverse areas of the country such as northern Shan State today have a patchwork of ethnicity-based armed groups, each fighting both for their communal rights and to protect their own economic rents. Ethno-nationalism is at the core of all these groups, a characteristic that often sets them against their neighbours.[15]

The country’s moves toward greater political liberalisation since 2011 have only reinforced the links between ethnicity, conflict and national identity, and Myanmar now has hundreds of powerful non-state armed groups around most of its periphery, creating ‘a literal arms race among minority groups’.[16]

The Tatmadaw has been the ‘self-appointed guardian of this ethno-nationalism’. Its ability to ‘blur the boundaries between civilian and military authority’ has ensured the military has widespread powers even under civilian rule. Commentators argue that the military has, moreover, successfully ‘indoctrinated or intimidated its members into believing in their own privileged status within Myanmar’s society’, and faced with widespread opposition, will ‘fall back on the only strategy it knows: the use of violence with impunity’.[17]

What comes next?

For Thant Myint-U, Myanmar is at ‘a point of no return’: the army’s coup was meant to ‘surgically shift power’ within the existing constitutional framework, but it has instead ‘unleashed a revolutionary energy that will be nearly impossible to contain’:

The junta could partially consolidate its rule over the coming year, but that would not lead to stability. Myanmar’s pressing economic and social challenges are too complex, and the depth of animosity toward the military too great, for an isolated and anachronistic institution to manage. At the same time, the revolutionaries will not be able to deal a knockout blow anytime soon.[18]

Myint-U contends that Myanmar will inevitably become a failed state, with a crumbling economy, ‘skyrocketing’ poverty, a collapsed health care system, and intensifying transnational crime and armed violence. The key task for Myanmar is to shorten this period as much as possible, protect the most vulnerable, and begin building a fairer and more prosperous society.

The military’s brutal actions appear to be uniting previously divided groups, with reports that ‘for the first time since some students took up arms after the bloody suppression of an uprising in 1988, Bamars [Burmans] are joining ethnic rebels in their war against the army’.[19] In a notable move, the NUG has extended eligibility for citizenship to the Rohingya, removing ethnicity as a requirement for citizenship in Myanmar and overturning ‘decades of consensus on the Muslim ethnic minority’. Until this point, the NUG and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi shared ‘a similar ethnonationalist worldview’ with the military, both ‘believing that the Western reaction to the Rohingya expulsions was unfair’.

The International Crisis Group’s Richard Horsey agrees that the coup has not succeeded, observing that the army’s actions ‘may be creating a situation where the country becomes ungovernable’. But he sees some hope in the Myanmar people’s response:

… in the midst of all this horror, the transformative nature of the resistance against the military has to be acknowledged and applauded. A new generation of political action has emerged that has transcended old divisions and old prejudices, and gives great hope for a future Myanmar that embraces, and is at peace with, its diversity.

In his briefing to the UN Security Council on the 1 February coup, Horsey acknowledged that there are few courses of action likely to have much impact on the junta but proposed a number of measures for the council to consider, with the aim of signalling international opposition to the coup and supporting those resisting it:

  • ‘Unequivocal Council backing’ for the role of the UN Special Envoy, ASEAN and other regional actors, to express clear opposition to the coup and subsequent state violence, and to warn ‘the military that the trajectory they are on risks catastrophic state collapse’. These channels can help identify opportunities for future diplomacy and mediation.
  • Consideration of coercive measures such as an embargo on arms and other agreed prohibited items (for example, technologies for surveillance), and the imposition of targeted economic sanctions. In the absence of a UN embargo, like-minded countries could agree on a framework for states to coordinate restrictions on Myanmar.  

Opinion is divided on whether sanctions could be effective against the junta, with some arguing that they are at best worthless and others contending that carefully applied, they can make a difference. It is unlikely that countries in the region will respond with targeted sanctions or an arms embargo. Even without the region’s support for sanctions there is much that can be done to financially isolate Myanmar’s junta, it has been argued, including putting pressure on multinational companies with links to military companies in Myanmar and suspending all payments to the regime.[20]

[1].   Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade annual report
2019–20, Myanmar
, Official Committee Hansard, 13 April 2021, p. 4.

[2].   Ibid.

[3].   R Goldman, ‘Myanmar’s coup and violence, explained’, The New York Times, 24 April 2021.

[4].   A 2019 UN report concluded that business revenues helped the Myanmar military to carry out human rights abuses with impunity.

[5].   Australian Associated Press, ‘Military returns fire over resolution’, The Canberra Times, 20 June 2021.

[6].   There is little evidence to suggest China had prior knowledge of the coup. Commentators point out that China had a good relationship with the civilian government that was overthrown in February and that ‘geopolitically, “China is the biggest loser from this coup”’, and is unlikely to welcome the return of military rule in the country due to its destabilising effects, including on major Chinese-backed projects.

[7].   Zeyar Oo, ‘Myanmar’s five Ms: misunderstanding, mistrust, misinterpretation, misconception and mistreatment’, The Strategist, 17 February 2020.

[8].   P Strefford, ‘Japan’s response to the coup in Myanmar’, East Asia Forum, 17 April 2021.

[9].   ASEAN admitted Myanmar as a member in 1997, despite international pressure not to do so. Becoming a member of ASEAN is seen by some to have contributed to the opening up of the country.

[10]. Australia’s Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) with Myanmar included dialogue on strategic priorities, assistance in aviation safety, peacekeeping, and a range of non-combat related training. In 2020–21 its budget estimate was $361,000. In comparison, the 2020–21 budget for Australia’s DCP with Indonesia was $7.1 million, and for the Philippines around $9 million.

[11]. For further background on international sanctions against Myanmar, see C Hill, ‘Burma: domestic reforms and international responses’, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 22 May 2012.

[12]. International Crisis Group, Identity crisis: ethnicity and conflict in Myanmar, report no. 312, 28 August 2020.

[13]. Thant Myint-U, ‘Myanmar’s coming revolution’, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2021.

[14]. According to the US Council for Foreign Relations, ‘Since independence, discrimination has been ingrained in Myanmar’s laws and political system. For example, citizenship is largely based on ethnicity. The 1982 Citizenship Law states that only members of ethnic groups that lived in Myanmar before 1823, when the British first occupied parts of the country, are full citizens. This has rendered hundreds of thousands of lifelong Myanmar residents and members of entire minority groups, particularly the Rohingya, effectively stateless’.

[15]. International Crisis Group, Identity crisis: ethnicity and conflict in Myanmar, op. cit.

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. D Mitchell, ‘The looming catastrophe in Myanmar’, Foreign Affairs Today, 15 April 2021.

[18]. Thant Myint-U, ‘Myanmar’s coming revolution’, op. cit.

[19]. A Hodge, ‘Civilian armies take resistance to the streets’, The Australian, 22 June 2021.

[20]. Htwe Htwe Thein and M Gillan, ‘Sanctions against Myanmar’s junta have been tried before. Can they work this time?’ The Conversation, 22 June 2021.


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