Opinion: The military coup in Myanmar is an outrage

Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi wears a face mask.
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, center, speaks as she inspects the vaccination process to health workers at a hospital on Jan. 27, 2021, in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.
(Aung Shine Oo / Associated Press)

Sunday night in the U.S. brought sudden news that there had been a military coup in Myanmar, the South Asian country that for five years has been celebrated as a military dictatorship turned fledgling democracy. Early Monday morning in Myanmar the democratic leaders of the country had been “detained.”

Most notably, the military detained Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning icon of democracy, who spent 15 years under house arrest for advocating for democracy when a military junta was in place.

Suu Kyi has proved to be dismal and disappointing at advocating for human rights in her own country, but the last thing anyone should want to see is the military unilaterally running this country again.

It was the military and its supporters and paramilitary henchmen who went on a savage campaign of murder, rape and destruction against the Rohingya Muslims, a minority population in the largely Buddhist country and one of the most oppressed groups of people in the world, in 2016 and 2017. About 700,000 were forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh and its refugee camps. The government faced a formal accusation of genocide at the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Bizarrely, Suu Kyi defended the military, testifying that it was responding to attacks on its outposts by Rohingya rebel groups. The court continues to investigate and the U.S. is considering declaring Myanmar’s actions genocide.


Her defenders say Suu Kyi may not have felt she could push the military on human rights without destabilizing this fragile power sharing between civilians and the military. So she didn’t push—and yet she still got detained and toppled.

What we had hoped was that Suu Kyi would be emboldened to become a defender of human rights, not the military, as time went on. Her National League of Democracy party again won a landslide victory in November. Unfortunately, that landslide was one of the things that appears to have unsettled the military (at one point, they declared the election a fraud — sound familiar?) and pushed it into declaring it was taking over the country in a “12-month state of emergency.”

Matthew Smith, the chief executive of Fortify Rights, a human rights group, wrote in an email to me that he was told that all the civilian members of parliament who were in the capital of Naypyidaw were detained. He saw a list of 26 arrests — and expects more.

All this is tragic. And it’s unclear what the U.S. can do. The army general who has taken power, Min Aung Hlaing, is already under economic sanctions by the U.S. for his involvement in human rights abuses.

Nonetheless, world leaders should denounce this and work to put Myanmar back on a democratic course. Monday was to have been the opening day of parliament.