Suu Kyi detention marks return to the Myanmar of old

1 February 2021

Evidently, Tatmadaw Commander in Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, simply couldn't stand to see Aung San Suu Kyi usurp his power.

The detention of Aung San Suu Kyi appears to mark the inevitable end of a trajectory that has seen the military in Myanmar revert to type, according to an international security expert at The Australian National University (ANU).

John Blaxland, Professor of the International Security and Intelligence Studies at ANU, said the National League for Democracy's (NLD) convincing election win had left the country's military, the Tatmadaw, deeply unsettled.

"Today was the day the Hluttaw, Myanmar's Assembly of the Union, was due to reconvene - a move that would have seen the NLD dominate," Professor Blaxland said.

"Evidently, Tatmadaw Commander in Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, simply couldn't stand to see Aung San Suu Kyi usurp his power."

Other factors in the evolving situation in Myanmar have been the rise of China's influence and a declining reliance on Western support, Professor Blaxland said.

"China has been doubling down on its infrastructure investments in Myanmar - notably the oil and gas pipeline from the port of Kyaupyu in the Bay of Bengal through the Myanmar hinterland and up to Chinas' bordering region, Yunnan.

"Not surprisingly, they have expressed little concern about democratisation and the fate of Aung San Suu Kyi or the NLD, let alone the welfare of the Rohingya refugees."

Professor Blaxland said the military appears to be less concerned with maintaining the façade of democratic reform and reasserting the latent but still powerful influence on domestic politics in order to protect their position and their partisan interests.

"Where to from here? UN sanctions may be obstructed by an obliging China so further sanctions likely will be piecemeal," Professor Blaxland said.

"The best bet, it would seem, is for neighbouring ASEAN states to appeal for the Tatmadaw to look beyond their immediate interests to see the benefits that would accrue from stability based on political legitimacy.

"After all, the centrality of ASEAN matters to Myanmar and it's put at risk by this malevolent action.

"With the centrality for democratic precepts under a cloud in the ASEAN context, we may be in for another long period of overt military rule in Myanmar, with growing support from and engagement with China."

Today has been a shock to many people, but there have been tensions building between the civilian government and the military since Myanmar's landmark elections in 2015, Dr Justine Chambers, Associate Director of the Myanmar Research Centre, said.

"With the NLD's strong election result and Aung San Suu Kyi's growing popularity during the pandemic, it's possible that the military was afraid of losing power," Dr Chambers said.

"But it's unclear what they have to gain from detaining Suu Kyi, the President and other political leaders.

"It's too early to draw any definitive conclusions on the military's motives at this stage, but we might have more answers in the coming days."