Aung San Suu Kyi has called for public protests against a military coup in Myanmar, hours after she and other figures from the ruling party were detained by the army.
The leader, who was seized in a morning raid, said the military was trying re-impose dictatorship. “I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military,” a statement released in her name said.
Military television announced on Monday morning that the army had taken control of the country for one year, with power handed to commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing. It said the army had declared a state of emergency, and had detained senior government leaders in response to “fraud” during last year’s general election.
Phone and mobile internet services in Yangon were down on Monday morning and military trucks, one carrying barbed-wire barriers, were parked outside City Hall. State-run MRTV television said it had been unable to broadcast. Banks were closed across the nation.
The military’s actions brought swift condemnation from leaders and human rights experts around the world.
US president Joe Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said the US opposed “any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed.”
US secretary of state Antony Blinken also called for the release Aung San Suu Kyi and other detainees. UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said the developments represented “a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar”.
Over the past week, there has been mounting concern that the military, which ran Myanmar – also known as Burma – for some 50 years until 2011, was preparing to retake power. The army has alleged widespread irregularities in November’s election, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide victory. It said last week that a coup could not be ruled out, prompting the United Nations and several foreign missions in the country to express alarm.
The military later backtracked, claiming comments by its commander-in-chief had been misunderstood. Over the weekend, however, armed police patrolled the housing where lawmakers were quarantining ahead of the opening of parliament this week.
On Monday morning, spokesman Myo Nyunt told Reutersthat Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders had been “taken” by the military. “I want to tell our people not to respond rashly and I want them to act according to the law,” he said, adding he also expected to be detained.
An NLD lawmaker, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said another of those detained was Han Thar Myint, a member of the party’s central executive committee. A student union leader was also reportedly held by the military.
David Mathieson, an independent Myanmar analyst, said it was likely many would heed the calls for protests from Aung San Suu Kyi, who is adored by many in the country. “You don’t get to lock up, again, a national idol,” he said. “The moment Suu Kyi comes out and gives the order to do something, people will probably comply. People don’t want to go back [to full military rule],” he said
Author and historian Thant Myint-U wrote on on Twitter: “The doors just opened to a very different future.
“I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next. And remember Myanmar’s a country awash in weapons, with deep divisions across ethnic & religious lines, where millions can barely feed themselves.”
On the streets of Yangon, long queues formed outside supermarkets as people rushed to stock up on supplies. Crowds huddled at an ATM to try to withdraw cash, only to find the machines were down. Two Muslim men said it was safer to stay home and take shelter.
A 25-year-old woman, who works in public relations, said she feared her country was once again “back in the dark age”. “My mum shook me awake with the news that Aung San Suu Kyi had been detained. I was shocked and didn’t know how to respond. I rushed to my brother’s house to pick him up and buy groceries. On the way back I was in tears. I feel so angry and so anxious.”
Tom Andrews, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said the situation was “very disturbing”. “What many have feared is indeed unfolding in Myanmar,” he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in November’s elections, securing 396 out of 476 seats, which granted it another five years in government. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won just 33 seats.
The military-aligned opposition has challenged the results, while the army has claimed to have found 8.6m cases of fraud. The election commission has denied fraud, though it has conceded there were “flaws” in voter lists.
Last week, a military spokesman refused to rule out the possibility of a coup, while, a day later, army chief General Min Aung Hlaing said that revoking the constitution could be “necessary” under certain circumstances.
Aung San Suu Kyi spent nearly 15 years in detention as part of a decades-long struggle against military rule, before leading the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a sweeping victory in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 2015. Though her international reputation has been severely undermined by her treatment of the Rohingya, and her decision defend Myanmar against allegations of genocide, she is revered by many in the Bamar majority as the mother of the nation.
The army, however, remains hugely powerful due to a junta-backed constitution that gives it control over key ministries and guarantees it a quarter of parliamentary seats.
“The military junta that ruled Myanmar for decades never really stepped away from power in the first place,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch said on Monday. “They never really submitted to civilian authority in the first place, so today’s events in some sense are merely revealing a political reality that already existed.”
Governments around the world have expressed alarm over the developments. Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and chairperson of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said the military should “send their tanks back to the barracks, and restore communication services.”
“The people of Myanmar had their say in November’s vote, and overwhelmingly sent the message that they reject army rule. The military must respect the will of the people and allow parliament to proceed.”
Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, added that there was “no justification for the military detention of Aung Sang Suu Kyi”.
“The Burmese military – the Tatmadaw – must be held to account,” he said.
Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said the Australian government was “deeply concerned” by the developments. “We call on the military to respect the rule of law, to resolve disputes through lawful mechanisms and to release immediately all civilian leaders and others who have been detained unlawfully,” she said in a statement.