Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent, and Guardian staff in Yangon
Myanmar’s army has taken control of the country in an apparent coup and declared a state of emergency, hours after it detained Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior figures from the ruling party.
Phone and mobile internet services in Yangon were down on Monday morning and military trucks, one carrying barbed-wire barriers, were parked outside City Hall. State-run MRTV television said it had been unable to broadcast.
Military television later reported that the army had taken control of the country for one year, with power handed to commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing. It said the army had detained senior government leaders in response to fraud during last year’s general election.
The military’s actions brought swift condemnation from leaders and human rights experts around the world.
US president Joe Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said in a statement: “The United States opposes any attempt to alter the outcome of recent elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition, and will take action against those responsible if these steps are not reversed.”
US secretary of state Antony Blinken called for the release Aung San Suu Kyi and other detainees, and said the US expressed “grave concern and alarm” over reports of the detention of government officials and civil society leaders.
“The United States stands with the people of Burma in their aspirations for democracy, freedom, peace, and development. The military must reverse these actions immediately.”
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said the developments represented “a serious blow to democratic reforms in Myanmar”.
Over the past week, there has been mounting concern that the military, which ran Myanmar – known as Burma – until 2011, was preparing to retake power. The army has alleged widespread irregularities in November’s election, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide victory. It said last week that a coup could not be ruled out, prompting the United Nations and several foreign missions in the country to express alarm.
The military later backtracked, claiming comments by its commander-in-chief had been misunderstood. Over the weekend, however, armed police patrolled the housing where lawmakers were quarantining ahead of the opening of parliament this week.
On Monday morning, spokesman Myo Nyunt told Reutersthat Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other leaders had been “taken” by the military. “I want to tell our people not to respond rashly and I want them to act according to the law,” he said, adding he also expected to be detained.
“We have to assume that the military is staging a coup,” a party spokesman said.
An NLD lawmaker, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said another of those detained was Han Thar Myint, a member of the party’s central executive committee. Civil society figures, including a student union leader, were also reportedly rounded up.
“The doors just opened to a very different future,” Author and historian Thant Myint-U wrote on on Twitter. “I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next. And remember Myanmar’s a country awash in weapons, with deep divisions across ethnic & religious lines, where millions can barely feed themselves.”
The streets of Yangon were as busy as usual on Monday morning, with residents traveling to work, monks walking up the streets, collecting alms, and construction workers busy digging into the roads. But there were signs things were amiss, crowds huddled at an ATM to try to withdraw cash, only to find machines were down. Two Muslim men said it was safer to stay home and shelter.
Tom Andrews, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, said the situation was “very disturbing”. “What many have feared is indeed unfolding in Myanmar,” he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in November’s elections, securing 396 out of 476 seats, which granted it another five years in government. The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won just 33 seats.
The military-aligned opposition has challenged the results, while the army has claimed to have found 8.6m cases of fraud. The election commission has denied fraud, though it has conceded there were “flaws” in voter lists.
Last week, a military spokesman refused to rule out the possibility of a coup, while, a day later, army chief General Min Aung Hlaing said that revoking the constitution could be “necessary” under certain circumstances.
Aung San Suu Kyi spent nearly 15 years in detention as part of a decades-long struggle against military rule, before leading the National League for Democracy (NLD) to a sweeping victory in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 2015. Though her international reputation has been severely undermined by her treatment of the Rohingya, and her decision defend Myanmar against allegations of genocide, she is revered by many in the Bamar majority as the mother of the nation.
The army, however, remains hugely powerful due to a junta-backed constitution that gives it control over key ministries and guarantees it a quarter of parliamentary seats.
“The military junta that ruled Myanmar for decades never really stepped away from power in the first place,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch said on Monday. “They never really submitted to civilian authority in the first place, so today’s events in some sense are merely revealing a political reality that already existed.”
Governments around the world have expressed alarm over the developments. Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and chairperson of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said the military should “send their tanks back to the barracks, and restore communication services.”
“The people of Myanmar had their say in November’s vote, and overwhelmingly sent the message that they reject army rule. The military must respect the will of the people and allow parliament to proceed.”
Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bob Rae, added that there was “no justification for the military detention of Aung Sang Suu Kyi”.
“The Burmese military – the Tatmadaw – must be held to account,” he said.
Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said the Australian government was “deeply concerned” by the developments. “We call on the military to respect the rule of law, to resolve disputes through lawful mechanisms and to release immediately all civilian leaders and others who have been detained unlawfully,” she said in a statement.