Myanmar military coup: What it means for Aung San Suu Kyi, Joe Biden and democracy

Myanmar’s military seized control in a coup Monday, detaining the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her top deputies during early-morning raids. Army-run TV said a state of emergency in the Southeast Asian nation was declared for one year. 

Power has been transferred to Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander of Myanmar's armed forces. 

The military said Suu Kyi was detained for alleged voting irregularities in November's election. Cabinet ministers, lawmakers and some prominent writers and activists have been reported missing by their friends and family. Myanmar President U Win Myint – who has a largely ceremonial role – also was detained. 

Why now? Claims of election fraud

The coup follows a disputed election in November that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won by a landslide. The main opposition party, the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, claimed the vote was marred by fraud. Myanmar's election commission rejected the allegations, but tensions between the two sides had been rising for weeks. The military made its move hours before Myanmar's parliament had been due to sit for the first time since the National League for Democracy's win in the Nov. 8 general election. The vote was just the second democratic election in Myanmar, also known as Burma, since military rule ended in 2011.

What's it like on the ground?

The country woke up to widespread communications blackouts, and people were uncertain whether they should go to work, said Thomas Kean, editor of Frontier Myanmar, a news and business magazine based in Yangon, the country's largest city and former capital. Soldiers were patrolling the streets. Banks have halted all services.

What will Biden do?

The White House said President Joe Biden has been briefed on the situation. In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed "grave concern and alarm" over the coup and called on authorities to release government and civil society leaders.

"The United States stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace and development," Blinken said. He called on the military to "reverse these actions immediately." Rights group said the coup is a major blow to Myanmar's transition from military rule to democracy, which began about a decade ago. 

Biden in a statement called the coup a "direct assault on the country's transition to democracy and rule of law" and warned Myanmar it would "necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action."

World leaders condemned the move. The office of the U.N. secretary-general issued a statement saying the developments were a "serious blow to democratic reforms."

Aung San Suu Kyi, right, is accompanied Win Myint, Myanmar's president, in March 14, 2016.

Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?

Suu Kyi, 75, spent nearly 15 years under house arrest by Myanmar's military rulers until her release in 2010. She was widely hailed as democracy hero. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent struggle for human rights. In 2015, Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy party to victory in Myanmar's first openly contested election in 25 years.

What about the Rohingya?

Suu Kyi's international reputation has been severely tarnished in recent years because of her staunch defense of Myanmar's treatment of its Rohingya population, a Muslim minority group. Rights groups say Myanmar's military has committed genocide against the Rohingya. Myanmar denies the allegations and has long claimed to have been targeting terrorists. 

Suu Kyi remains popular inside Myanmar with the country's Buddhist majority. She is often described as Myanmar's "de facto" leader because the nation's constitution forbade her from becoming president because she has children who are foreign nationals.  

What happens next?

Suu Kyi has told her supporters to resist the coup, and Myanmar's military has said it would hold a new election on some unspecified date. But Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said the "coup is the Burmese people's worst political nightmare, plunging them back into the bad old days of military dictatorships that dominated the country for 48 years."

Referring to former President Donald Trump's persistent claims about U.S. electoral fraud, Robertson said the allegations about irregularities in Myanmar are "positively Trumpian, made without clear evidence and based on an alternative narrative that no one outside the military believes for a second."

Robertson said that the military's claim it would support a new election "is a ruse that should not be believed" and that the last time the Myanmar military conducted a coup, in 1990, "there were similar promises made" and elections didn't materialize for 20 years. 

"What happens next will depend on the degree to which Myanmar's citizens respond to the coup," said Champa Patel, director of the Asia Pacific program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.