It is always difficult to know what is happening inside Myanmar, and developments relating to the country’s armed forces (known as the Tatmadaw) are even more opaque.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the 1 February military coup has resulted in a blizzard of speculation, personal views and rumours in the news media and online. Hard facts being in such short supply, these comments are not easily judged. However, some are more plausible than others.

The official reason given for the coup was the need to respond to massive electoral fraud during last November’s elections, which saw the National League for Democracy (NLD) win an even greater number of seats than in 2015, while the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was reduced to a mere handful. Yet, few foreign observers believe that was the real reason.

As many have noted, the crushing defeat of the USDP last November humiliated the generals, who rightly saw it as a rejection of the Tatmadaw and its continuing political role. However, the military leadership already knew that the vast majority of the population supported State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the idea of a genuinely democratic system of government.

Other commentators have suggested that one reason for the coup was the need to preserve the Tatmadaw’s enormous economic power in Myanmar. However, this presupposes that its many commercial interests, not to mention the personal wealth of senior military figures, were under serious threat. So far, that has not been convincingly demonstrated.

Another theory put forward was that tensions between Aung San Suu Kyi and Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing were “spiralling out of control” and had reached “rock bottom”. Yet, there is little hard evidence that these long-running tensions could not have been managed, and a new modus vivendi worked out. After all, Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly defended the Tatmadaw against charges of genocide, at considerable personal cost.

A few pundits have suggested that the coup had the blessing of Beijing. This seems most unlikely. The generals are intensely nationalistic and make decisions on the basis of their own and their country’s perceived interests. The Tatmadaw has doubtless reassured China that bilateral relations will not be harmed by recent events but China will work with whoever exercises power in Naypyidaw.

A number of key questions have been left unanswered. For example, given that the 2008 constitution already gives the Tatmadaw a powerful role in national politics, including control of three key ministries, it has to be asked why Min Aung Hlaing would want to bring down a system that the Tatmadaw itself created and which has served it well since 2011.

There is also the question of what the NLD might have been planning, perhaps with regard to the constitution, which posed such a threat to the status quo as to prompt the Tatmadaw to abandon its carefully crafted transition plan (launched in 2003) and take back direct power. Perhaps emboldened by the public support shown last November, the NLD may have been planning a move that weakened the generals’ grip on power. If so, what was it?

Amending the constitution has long been a primary aim of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, but no formal changes to the charter are possible without the agreement of more than 75% of the combined houses of parliament. As the Tatmadaw is automatically allocated 25% of the seats in both houses, it effectively holds a veto over any such moves.

However, since it formed government in 2016, the NLD has found ways of working around the letter of the constitution, such as the creation of the State Counsellor’s position for Aung San Suu Kyi, so she could act as de facto prime minister. It is possible that the NLD planned something else along these lines, which the Tatmadaw considered unacceptable.

The answers to all these questions may lie with Min Aung Hlaing. It has been suggested, for example, that the coup was in part at least a ploy to help the Commander-in-Chief preserve his personal power. He is due to retire in July at the age of 65 and, according to some insiders, fears the prospect of losing his current influence. He is also believed to be interested in becoming president of the country.

One reason why this theory is more persuasive than others is that the coup could not have taken place without Min Aung Hlaing’s endorsement. As the Commander-in-Chief, he controls not only the Tatmadaw but all security forces in Myanmar, including the national police and intelligence agencies. He is now in a position to order a new election and stage-manage its results. Before the coup, he even hinted at the introduction of a new constitution.

It is still early days. There is much to learn about the Tatmadaw’s takeover and the thinking behind it. Doubtless more will be revealed in time but, until there is more reliable data available, it would pay everyone to be cautious in their assessments and not to leap to any conclusions. Myanmar always has the ability to surprise, as we saw earlier this week.


Andrew Selth is an Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. His latest book is Interpreting Myanmar: A Decade of Analysis (Canberra: ANU Press, 2020)