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Why Myanmar’s military overthrew the nation’s democratically elected government

The Biden administration has threatened to reimpose sanctions on Myanmar after the military there staged a coup over the weekend. Derek Mitchell, the former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar during the Obama administration who is now the president of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In Myanmar, today was supposed to be a step toward democracy, when the Parliament began a new session.

    Instead, the military launched a coup, and a Nobel laureate is now back in jail.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Myanmar's capital, the bridge to Parliament is blocked by police, and the roads are lined with military.

    In the country's largest city, Yangon, military supporters play army anthems, and the police keep a close eye on residents shut into a country where the Internet was shut off and the airport closed.

    Military TV declared a state of emergency and reported army leader Min Aung Hlaing would take control for a year. It is the end of five years of quasi-democracy.

    Earlier this morning, military officials arrested the country's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and dozens of others, including a lawmaker holding his young son as he broadcast his arrest on Facebook.

    In a statement, Suu Kyi called for peaceful resistance: "I urge people not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military. Only the people are important."

  • Tun Myint:

    There are a few of my friends who are on the list of being detained, arrested, so I do not know where they are and how they're being treated.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tun Myint is a professor at Carleton College. He says the problems began in November, when Suu Kyi's party won an election landslide. Military officials called the results fraudulent and the voter rolls inaccurate.

    Last week, Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing held last-minute talks about his future, but they are believed to have broken down, the product of a long history of distrust.

  • Tun Myint:

    When you dig deeper into the personal relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military leaders, and there are so many occasions they have been rubbing one another.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The military first arrested Suu Kyi in 1989. Democrats won the next election, but generals ignored the results.

    In 2010, Suu Kyi was released, and the country tentatively opened. In 2011, she met Hillary Clinton. And, in 2012, President Obama became the first U.S. president to visit.

    In 2015, her party, the National League of Democracy, won decisively. And, this time, the military honored the results. But the military lurked in the background. The military-written constitution reserved 25 percent of Parliament for military officers. And Suu Kyi remained silent as the military committed what the U.N. called genocide against minority Rohingya Muslims.

  • Aung San Suu Kyi:

    Surely, under the circumstances, genocidal intent cannot be the only hypothesis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. officials once celebrated Myanmar as a country where military officials willingly handed power to civilians.

    But, today, the White House released a statement, calling the coup a direct assault on the country's transition to democracy and the rule of law.

    For more on all of this, we turn Derek Mitchell, the former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar during the Obama administration, the first to serve there since the U.S. downgraded diplomatic ties with what was then called Burma in 1990. He is now the president of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

    Derek Mitchell, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Why do you think the military launched this coup on this day?

  • Derek Mitchell:

    Well, the ostensible reason, the one they're saying, is that they detected electoral fraud that was not being adjudicated properly.

    And so their strange logic is that they should then take over in order to restore and protect democracy.

    But there's a lot of people asking the question, why did they decide now? I think they thought they were going to do much better, their political party, in the latest election in November. And they didn't do very well at all, as usual. They never do as well as they expect.

    The commander in chief was expected — he had to retire in July at age 65. And he has political ambitions. So, I think he was questioning what his political future was.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And there's also questions among experts I have talked to you today about whether the commander in chief was worried personally about his own finances after he stepped down this summer.

    Do you believe that he has considered that when deciding what to do today?

  • Derek Mitchell:

    We can't rule that out.

    There's no question his family is — has lucrative interests in Myanmar, and that he himself has just had his own personal ambitions that were not being requited, not being respected, in his view.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. already has sanctions on military leaders.

    Should the U.S. impose additional sanctions? And do you believe that could change the military's behavior?

  • Derek Mitchell:

    There, we don't have a whole lot of leverage. We need to get our allies engaged.

    We need partners to also engage not just in the hammer, though that may be very important, in additional sanctions, but also see if there's some trusted interlocutors that can get to the commander in chief and explain to him why what is going on is not in the interests of Myanmar and certainly not the Myanmar military.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As we just marked, Aung San Suu Kyi in the last few years has defended the military and been widely denounced for doing so.

    She says that she was trying to balance democracy with military leaders over the last few years. Do you believe she should have been criticizing the military more?

  • Derek Mitchell:

    She was always in a very difficult spot.

    I think she was somewhat misunderstood in recent years, not entirely. And she didn't speak out as she should have about the Rohingya question and the violence, the genocide, as it were. I suppose it's being adjudicated now whether it's genocide.

    But the massive violence, she did not speak on principle about what went on. But she also recognized that she was boxed in by the military, who had control over all the levers of military power, of police power. Criticizing the military more, that wouldn't have done it.

    The fact is, she and the military behind the scenes, particularly the commander in chief, have had a very bad relationship from the very start. There's very little trust. It was exacerbated in recent months.

    But criticizing them more would not have made any kind of difference. In fact, it may have precipitated action even sooner.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's expand this out regionally.

    Some experts have told me that Chinese officials might have been visiting Myanmar recently and might have given Myanmar's military the green light to do so.

    Do you think that's what happened?

  • Derek Mitchell:

    There's no love lost between the Myanmar military and the Chinese.

    There's a lot of distrust of Chinese influence in the country. The Chinese provide weapons for a lot of the ethnic armed groups that are fighting the Myanmar military. Somehow, when they abscond, they take the weapons away from these groups, they find the Chinese markings on them.

    So, to be a Burmese or Myanmar nationalist is not to be very trusting of the Chinese. The Russians have a closer relationship, potentially, there. The commander in chief is very close to the former commander in chief in Thailand, who took over civilian leadership recently after a coup,

    I worry much more about that kind of conversation. But the Chinese no doubt feel they may have an opening .They may feel that there is a vacuum now, an opportunity to get even more influence in the country.

    And one has to wonder what is going through the minds of the Myanmar military, if they do not trust the Chinese, and they want to have balance, as they always do, in their relations with great powers, why they would do this and box the West into a corner.

    We will just see how they play this out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Derek Mitchell, thank you very much.

  • Derek Mitchell:

    Thank you, Nick.

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