Myanmar leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is detained amid fears of a military coup

This file photo of Aung San Suu Kyi was taken during a meeting with then-President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, Sept. 14, 2016. Myanmar's civilian leader and other government leaders were detained in early-morning raids Monday, Jan. 31, 2021, the government said as the country ran rife with rumors of an impending coup. (Al Drago/The New York Times)

BANGKOK — Myanmar’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other government leaders were detained in early morning raids Monday, the country’s government said as the country ran rife with rumors of an impending coup.

The Reuters news agency quoted Myo Nyunt, the spokesperson for the governing National League for Democracy, as confirming the detentions. The internet appeared to be down in two major cities in Myanmar.

Myanmar had been celebrated as a rare case in which generals willingly handed over some power to civilians, honoring election results in 2015 that ushered into office the National League for Democracy, whose stalwarts had spent years in jail for their political opposition to the military.

But the army, led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, has maintained important levers of power in the country, and the detention of top government leaders appeared to prove the lie in its commitment to democracy.

“The doors just opened to a very different future,” said Thant Myint-U, a historian of Myanmar. “I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next.”

“Remember, Myanmar is a country awash in weapons, with deep divisions across ethnic and religious lines, where millions can barely feed themselves,” he added.

The turmoil was ostensibly provoked by concerns about fraud in the November elections that delivered an even bigger landslide to the National League for Democracy than it enjoyed five years earlier. The governing party secured 396 out of 476 seats in Parliament, while the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, managed just 33.


The Union Solidarity and Development Party cried foul, as did political parties representing hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities who were disenfranchised shortly before the vote because the areas where they lived were supposedly too gripped by strife for elections to take place. Members of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, who have been victims of what international prosecutors call a genocidal campaign by the military, were also unable to cast their ballots.

“They should have resolved it from the beginning,” said U Sai Nyunt Lwin, vice president of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, which represents the Shan ethnic group, referring to the bickering between Suu Kyi’s forces and the military, which grew after the November election.

The detentions came just two days after António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, warned against any provocations. Guterres called on “all actors to desist from any form of incitement or provocation, demonstrate leadership, and to adhere to democratic norms and respecting the outcome of the 8 November general election.”

In recent years, Suu Kyi, once celebrated as an international champion of human rights for her campaign of conscience against the junta while under 15 years of house arrest, emerged as one of the military’s biggest public defenders. Despite a mountain of evidence against the military, she has publicly rejected accusations that the security forces waged a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya.

But with her national popularity enduring, and her party receiving another electoral mandate, the generals began visibly losing patience with the facade of civilian rule that they had designed.


Last week, an army spokesperson refused to rule out the possibility of a coup, and Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said that the constitution could be scrapped if the law was broken. Armored vehicles appeared on the streets of two cities, spooking residents unused to seeing such firepower cruising through urban centers.

But on Saturday, the military appeared to step back, releasing a statement saying that as an armed organization, it was bound by the law, including the constitution. Another statement Sunday said that it “was the one adhering to democratic norms.”

The detention of the senior civilian government leaders occurred just hours before Parliament was supposed to begin its opening session after the November election.

The country had buzzed with coup rumors for days, prompting a number of diplomatic missions, including that of the United States, on Friday, to “urge the military and all other parties in the country to adhere to democratic norms.”

“We oppose any attempt to alter the outcome of the elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition,” the joint diplomatic statement said.

The military fired back with its own statement Sunday, urging the diplomatic missions in the country “not to make unwarranted assumptions about the situation.”

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