TIMING, so the saying goes, is everything. This explains why even after two full days following the coup in Myanmar – formerly Burma – observers are still mulling over the question, why now?

It’s not as if the warning signs hadn’t existed. In the weeks leading up to Monday’s military takeover, the army under its commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, were already issuing a series of vague threats undermining the credibility of last November’s national elections.

Yet, despite these early warning signs, the coup still caught many seasoned regional watchers by surprise, rolling back the clock to a time when Aung San Suu Kyi was the darling of the West for her opposition to the junta and before she took office in 2016.

And so more than a decade after Myanmar’s generals voluntarily relinquished control of the country, they have once again imposed their will.

On the face of it the army, or Tatmadaw as it is known, claimed electoral irregularities were afoot as justification for their actions. In echoes of recent events in America during the presidential election there, it then requested a recount of the vote and a postponement to the new session of parliament, which was scheduled to start last Monday. With the government refusing to budge on the request the tanks were soon on the streets and Ms Suu Kyi along with other officials and supporters under arrest.

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Now, the answers to three questions lie at the heart of gaining any understanding as to where Myanmar goes from here. The first of these questions concerns this issue of timing.

The second, which may well be linked, is what might China’s role have been in facilitating an atmosphere conducive to Myanmar’s army thinking the time was now right to take power?

And thirdly, what influence will Washington now have on the crisis and what would the implications of that be for US-China relations?


To take timing first, beyond the Tatmadaw’s claims of election fraud, its motivations are murky. Why the need for a coup in a country where the constitution protects the army’s interests so well? Already, under those constitutional terms a quarter of the seats in the Myanmar parliament are reserved for serving military officers. Control over the police, intelligence services and armed forces is a given as is the army’s privilege of being able to veto any constitutional changes it disagrees with.

In short, it’s hard to imagine the need for more power than the Tatmadaw already has. Some analysts have suggested that perhaps the answer to that question lies in the fact that Army chief Min Aung Hlaing is up against a mandatory retirement age this year and harbours political ambitions of his own.

His meeting too just three weeks ago with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi might also indicate that Chinese support would be forthcoming should Aung Hlaing make his power grab alongside the prospect of renewed Western sanctions being brought to bear. In other words, the timing of that meeting could have set the wheels in motion for Monday’s putsch.

Which brings us to the second question concerning China’s wider role in Myanmar. Arguably, the best way to understand this is through the prism of sharp economics, for as of the end of last year, China stood as Myanmar’s second biggest investor behind Singapore with $21.5 billion in approved foreign capital. Beijing also accounts for about a third of all Myanmar’s trade, something like ten times more than the US.

With massive oil and gas interests and initiatives like the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor aimed at further connecting the two countries, it’s hardly surprising that Beijing has a stake in the political future of a country where its influence has been felt time and again in the past.

Perhaps then Myanmar’s commander in chief, with or without China’s coaxing, made a simple decision to throw his lot in with those who have his back in Beijing. There is form between the two nations in this regard.

Repeatedly, a quid pro quo arrangement has been in place whereby Beijing has helped protect Myanmar against allegations of persecution and ethnic cleansing of its Muslim minority Rohingya population. In return, Myanmar has been a vocal supporter of China when it comes under scrutiny at the UN over its own treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority and Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong.

As many analysts point out, China rarely misses an opportunity to expand its influence in Asia and Myanmar, even though facing a punitive sanctions-based response to the coup from the West, provides just such an opportunity. Likewise, Myanmar’s generals might just have seen it as gamble worth taking.

“While the coup will no doubt come with costs, the army clearly views them as affordable,” said Sebastian Strangio, Southeast Asia editor at The Diplomat magazine.

"Recent events in Southeast Asia have shown that with China’s growing power, and democratic backsliding in the West, the US and other Western countries no longer have the moral authority or economic and political means to set the normative agenda in the region,” Strangio told Bloomberg news in the wake of Monday’s coup.

Which brings us to that third question that will in part determine where Myanmar’s crisis goes from here – America’s response.

Describing the coup as a “direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy” US President Joe Biden has already warned Myanmar’s military that his administration was preparing to take action to respond to their illegal seizure of power.

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The US was “taking note of those who stand with the people of Burma in this difficult hour,” said Mr Biden somewhat cryptically. Asked by journalists if he was referring to China, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, equally ambiguously replied that it was “a message to all countries in the region”.

For Mr Biden this of course is his first major foreign-policy test since coming into office and things could not be trickier given the already strained relations left in the wake of the Trump administration. While wanting to lay down a marker and rail against what Washington sees as China’s authoritarian model in Asia, Mr Biden must also consider the consequences of any action such as sanctions against Myanmar and their impact on its citizens.

Yes, the timing of Monday’s coup most certainly caught many by surprise. For those with a vested in bringing it about the power grab might prove fortuitous in the short term. For the vast majority of Myanmar’s people however, it bodes ill for a country that thought it had finally turned the corner from dictatorship to democracy.

David Pratt is The Herald's Contributing Foreign Editor

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