On 1 February in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, elected members of the national parliament were prepared to take their seats for the first time since the November 2020 election. On that morning an ‘interim president’ invited the head of the military to take all power in the country- judicial, legislative and executive.
This was not a spur of the moment action, but one for which the military had well planned. Within the coming hours you could practically keep beat with the passing minutes as notice after notice was issued by the military Commander in Chief dismissed national and local government officials, and judges. These in turn were followed by notice after notice of new appointments to those positions, appointed solely by the Commander in Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces.
In the following days, the military formed a council which was half civilian, including members of some ethnic groups as the core of government. The military seizure of power was endorsed by 23 existing political parties (most of whom had not captured seats in the November elections). Before even a week had gone by, the military appointed government’s Foreign Minister had held his first briefing with the diplomatic corps within the country to explain the legal nature of the transfer of power.
The events of 1 February reveal a well prepared and thought out action by the military to seize total control, again, of Myanmar. They have taken pains to avoid international censure by cloaking the power grab in legal clauses in the 2008 Constitution. Clauses the military wrote, which allowed it transfer to itself all state powers when vague, undefined circumstances were met.
All the actions of the military reveal that they need one thing that all their military power cannot seize for them. Legitimacy. International solidarity actions must make sure they never obtain it.
The seizure of state institutions by the military has not been welcomed by the majority of the citizenry who have for the past days gathered in the tens of thousands to say one thing to the military- it isn’t you who we elected.
A campaign of civil disobedience was launched on 3rd February, when hundreds of doctors and nurses from the government hospitals launched a civil disobedience movement calling for the release of those arrested since the coup, and called for parliament to convene with the parliamentarians democratically elected in the Nov. 8 general election.
Civil servants walked off the job or wore a red-ribbon campaign to show their defiance against the coup while continuing to work.
More broadly, citizens have banged pots and pans at 8pm every night since Tuesday to oppose military rule. By 5th February thousands of government staff, doctors, nurses, students, professors and teachers at 91 government hospitals, 18 universities and colleges and 12 government departments in 79 townships across the country were on strike.
The citizenry have urged police in Myanmar’s major cities to disobey any orders to repress them and to join the citizens in rejecting military rule.
Myanmar’s veteran activists from 1988 uprising, the 88 Generation for Peace and Open Society, called for people to take multiple approaches, including a boycott of military-run businesses, to oppose military rule. People must find other ways to reduce military revenue, they said in a statement. The military is involved in areas like banking, breweries, buses, telecoms, tobacco and TV channels. “People should stop using their services and boycott shops where their products are sold,”
Officially recognize the non-military government
Some parliamentarians did not obey the military order to ‘go home’, and remained in the capital of Naypyitaw. Three days after the military seized power they held a ceremony to swear themselves into the parliament, despite the military order to leave. They are now acting on their own as elected people’s representatives. 70 lawmakers from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) took parliamentary oaths of office at an improvised swearing-in ceremony on 4th February at the government housing, where lawmakers normally stay during parliamentary sessions. One elected representative stated that they were “convening of the Parliament”, saying the venue didn’t matter as long as there were lawmakers in attendance. “No one can take away the legitimacy of the MP status granted to us by the people. That’s why we took oaths as parliamentarians-for the people,” Other MPs who had obeyed military orders to leave were to take their oaths online.
All governments who care about democratic values should immediately state that they officially recognize the parliamentarians who were elected by the people, not the military government. They should ask any diplomatic staff of a Myanmar embassy in their country which group they will represent. If they say they represent the elected officials support them. If they say they represent the military regime, expel them. This is the sole way by which nations can withhold legitimacy from the military formed government.
Financial Pressure and sanctions
Telenor is a Norwegian telecoms company in which the Government of Norway is the major share holderª. It is one of 4 major telecoms providers in Myanmar (the other 3 are Myanmar Post and Telecommunications, a joint venture between the Vietnames and Myanmar Army, and Qatari based telecom company.
Telenor has blocked social media (Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Instagram) on its mobile internet at the request of the Myanmar military. It notes on its website that this request is ‘legal under Myanmar law’, but states that it said to the authorities that the order contravenes international human rights law.
Telenor’s actions demonstrate that it is willing to accept that the military government is a legitimate by stating that its laws are legitimate. Telnor agreement to act against human rights norms legitimizes the military regime, despite a 5 February UN Security Council statement which urged “respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law” in Myanmar.
Telenor is not the only company engaged with the military in Myanmar, but it is the one whose actions allow repression of dissent at this critical time, which the United Nations Security Council stated must be protected. The U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFM) identified at least 120 businesses involved in everything from construction to pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, insurance, tourism and banking being owned by two military owned business conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). The FFM called for imposition of an arms embargo, citing at least 14 foreign firms from seven nations that have supplied fighter jets, armored combat vehicles, warships, missiles and missile launchers to Myanmar since 2016.
Illegitimate laws must never be obeyed. The military regime has kept colonial laws, or written new ones with which it controls, oppresses or punishes the population. Like Burma’s former colonial rulers, it rules by law. There is no rule of law.
Without legitimacy, the military government will not be able to normalize its rule. This will undercut the main power of the military regime, as they need the international community to treat the situation as normal and themselves as legitimate. To stand in solidarity with the struggle in Myanmar, international citizens should persuade or pressure their governments to withhold that legitimacy.
ªCaisse de Depot et Placement du Quebec is Telenor’s third largest institutional investor.
Nonviolence in Asia Series Number 2,
Nonviolence International, 2005