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Myanmar's Military Coup: How We Got Here

NOEL KING, HOST:

Myanmar's military says the country's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, will remain in custody for another two days. The military staged a coup on February 1, and people have been protesting it. But the big questions right now are why did the coup happen when it did, and what happens next? Here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: By the hundreds of thousands, citizens armed only with indignation march daily against the military takeover.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Burmese).

MCCARTHY: Despite the escalating dangers, teachers, engineers and doctors in their scrubs demand that civilian rule be reinstated. The country's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested February 1, thwarting the decisive reelection of her National League for Democracy. The U.N. Human Rights Office is tracking more than 350 political and state officials, along with activists, journalists, monks and students who have been detained. Yangon-based commentator Khin Zaw Win says the atmosphere feels like the upheaval of 1988.

KHIN ZAW WIN: When the whole country went out to protest on the streets of Yangon, just by comparison, that time it ended badly - lots of people shot and killed, and the army taking over again.

MCCARTHY: Win says it is a once-in-a-generation event, especially inflaming the young voters who came of age under Myanmar's fitful transition to democracy.

WIN: They don't want to even hear the name of that - seizure of power, takeover of power.

MCCARTHY: Historian Thant Myint-U, author of "The Hidden History Of Burma," says over the past decade, the army had relinquished day-to-day governing to an elected Parliament, a hybrid arrangement that left the generals in charge of security and believing that after surviving years of Western sanctions, they were in a position of strength. But chief parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi sought to change that governing model.

THANT MYINT-U: And the constitutional change she wanted was to have the army under the control of an elected government and under the control of her. And this had led to tension.

MCCARTHY: Myint-U says Suu Kyi was alert to the possibility the army would probe for an opportunity to overthrow her. November's election set the stage. Suu Kyi refused to discuss any alleged irregularities at the polls, which the army claimed had reduced its share of votes. The generals took the refusal as an affront.

MYINT-U: And that feeling of disrespect comes after many years where they've also felt not properly consulted, where she's had the limelight, where she's seeking to undermine this kind of setup that they've had over the past 10 years.

MCCARTHY: Myint-U says, from the army's point of view, the hybrid model might have worked with lesser luminaries. The generals didn't count on the 75-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi's sustained star power or that this daughter of Burma's independence hero had a taste for power that might sideline them.

MYINT-U: But she broke the mold. And in a way, what's happened this past week has been the end of that experiment to see if that system could work with her as well in it.

MCCARTHY: Khin Zaw Win says it's entirely possible that the army never intended more than one term for Aung San Suu Kyi.

WIN: And they had to find every ruse they can think of to keep her away, and now it has succeeded.

MCCARTHY: But Myint-U says it's not clear whether the generals will only be satisfied if Suu Kyi is permanently removed. The situation, he says, is difficult to read.

(SOUNDBITE OF POTS AND PANS BANGING)

MCCARTHY: Myanmar's military rulers have seized power during a pandemic, which has made the messiness of governing even messier. People are hungry and financially hurting, and now they stand on balconies, banging pots and pans, furious over losing their Democratic experiment.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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