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European leaders condemn Myanmar coup after military takes control, detaining Aung San Suu Kyi

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In this Dec. 11, 2019, file photo, Aung San Suu Kyi waits to address judges of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.
In this Dec. 11, 2019, file photo, Aung San Suu Kyi waits to address judges of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.   -   Copyright  Peter Dejong/AP
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Myanmar's military has taken control of the country for one year amid reports de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and many of the country’s senior politicians had been detained.

A presenter on the country's military-owned television station, Myawaddy, announced the takeover on Monday and cited a section of the military-drafted constitution that allows the armed forces to take control in times of national emergency.

He said the reason for takeover was in part due to the government’s failure to act on the military’s claims of voter fraud in last November’s election and because it did not postpone the election because of the coronavirus crisis.

“With the situation we see happening now, we have to assume that the military is staging a coup,” Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for Myanmar's governing National League for Democracy party (NLD), told AFP news agency.

The televised announcement and the declaration of a state of emergency follow days of concern about the threat of a military coup — as well as denials one would be staged — and came on the morning the country’s new Parliament session was to begin.

The takeover is a sharp reversal of the partial yet significant progress toward democracy Myanmar made in recent years following five decades of military rule and international isolation that began in 1962.

It would also be shocking fall from power for Suu Kyi, who led the democracy despite years under house arrest.

In a letter published on a Facebook profile for the Chairperson of the NLD and attributed to Suu Kyi, she was cited as urging the population "not to accept" the military coup.

Win Htein, the chairman of the NLD, said on Facebook that the de facto head of the civilian government "left this message to the people", but some on social media questioned the validity of the letter.

The military's actions have already received widespread international condemnation.

Monday's parliamentary session was to be the first since last year’s election, as tension lingered over recent comments by the military that were widely seen as threatening a coup.

The military, however, maintains its actions are legally justified, though Suu Kyi's party spokesman, as well as many international observers, have said it is in effect a coup.

European and world leaders condemn the move

A spokesperson for the French government said Paris called for "the vote of the Myanmar people to be respected", on Monday morning.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter that he condemns "the coup and unlawful imprisonment of civilians, including Aung San Suu Kyi, in Myanmar."

"The vote of the people must be respected and civilian leaders released," he added.

The office of the UN secretary-general was among those to issue a statement condemning the developments as a “serious blow to democratic reforms.”

New US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also issued a statement expressing “grave concern and alarm” over the reported detentions.

"We call on Burmese military leaders to release all government officials and civil society leaders and respect the will of the people of Burma as expressed in democratic elections,” he wrote, using Myanmar's former name.

“The United States stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace, and development.”

China called on military and political actors in Myanmar to "settle their differences within the framework of the constitution and laws".

"China is a friendly neighbour of Myanmar," Wang Wenbin, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on Monday at a press conference.

"We hope that all stakeholders will settle their differences within the framework of the constitution and laws in order to maintain political and social stability," he added.

How did events unfold?

The detention of the politicians and cuts in television signals and communication services on Monday were the first signs that plans to seize power were in motion.

Phone and internet access to Naypyitaw, the modern capital of Myanmar, was lost and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party could not be reached.

Phone service in other parts of the country was also reported to be down, though people were still able to use the internet in many areas.

The Irrawaddy, an established online news service, cited Myo Nyunt in reporting that Suu Kyi, who as state counsellor is the nation’s top leader, and the country’s president, Win Myint, were both detained in the pre-dawn hours.

Its report said that the party’s Central Executive Committee members, lawmakers and regional Cabinet members had also been taken into custody.

A list of other people believed to have been detained, compiled by political activists who asked not to be named for security reasons, included filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, writer Maung Thar Cho, and prominent veterans of the country's 1988 student protest movement, such as Ko Ko Gyi and Min Ko Naing. Their detention could not immediately be confirmed.

The military TV report said Commander-in-Chief Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing would be in charge of the country, while Vice President Myint Swe would be elevated to acting president.

Myint Swe is a former general best known for leading a brutal crackdown on Buddhist monks in 2007. He is a close ally of former junta leader Than Shwe.

As word of the military’s actions spread in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, there was a growing sense of unease among residents who earlier in the day had still been packed into cafes for breakfast and had been doing their morning shopping.

People were removing the bright red flags of Suu Kyi’s party that once adorned their homes and businesses.

Lines formed at ATMs as people waited to take out cash, efforts that were being complicated by internet disruptions. Workers at some businesses decided to go home.

What clause is the military citing?

The 2008 constitution, drafted and implemented during military rule, has a clause that says in case there is a national emergency, the president in coordination with the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council can issue an emergency decree to hand over the government’s executive, legislative and judicial powers to the military’s commander-in-chief.

The clause had been described by New York-based Human Rights Watch as a “coup mechanism in waiting.”

It is just one of many parts of the charter that ensured the military could maintain ultimate control over the country at the expense elected politicians.

The military also was guaranteed 25% of seats in Parliament and control of several key ministries, especially those involved in security and defence.

Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?

The 75-year-old Suu Kyi is by far the country’s most popular politician and became the country’s de-facto leader after her party won 2015 elections, though the constitution barred her from being president.

She had been a fierce antagonist of the army during her time under house arrest.

Nevertheless, once in power Suu Kyi had to balance her relationship with the country's generals and even went on the international stage to defend their crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the country's west, a campaign the US and others have labelled genocide.

This has left her reputation internationally in tatters.

She remains wildly popular at home, where most supported the campaign against the Rohingya. Suu Kyi’s party captured 396 out of 476 seats in the combined lower and upper houses of Parliament in last November’s polls.

What is the background to the coup?

The military, known as the Tatmadaw, has charged that there was massive voter fraud in the election, though it has failed to provide proof. The state Union Election Commission last week rejected its allegations.

Amid the bickering over the allegations, the military last Tuesday ramped up political tension when a spokesman at its weekly news conference, responding to a reporter’s question, declined to rule out the possibility of a coup. Maj. Gen Zaw Min Tun elaborated by saying the military would “follow the laws in accordance with the constitution.”

Using similar language, the military chief told senior officers in a speech Wednesday that the constitution could be revoked if the laws were not being properly enforced.

Adding to the concern was the unusual deployment of armoured vehicles in the streets of several large cities.

On Saturday and Sunday, however, the military denied it had threatened a coup, accusing unnamed organisations and media of misrepresenting its position.