Myanmar coup timeline: How did we get here?

Myanmar saw decades of military rule before Aung San Suu Kyi became the head of the government in 2015

Stuti Mishra
Monday 01 February 2021 14:35 GMT
Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest once again, as the military stages a coup
Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest once again, as the military stages a coup (AP)

Myanmar’s military seized power from the democratically elected government yesterday, declaring a state of emergency and detaining leader Aung San Suu Kyi and several of her allies.  

The coup comes after allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 elections as the ruling NLD secured a landslide victory. The country is now back under military rule after a decade, tanks and soldiers are positioned in major cities, and leaders have urged the people to reject the coup.

The southeast Asian nation is no stranger to military rule which previously lasted for over four decades. The military’s involvement in politics also remained high even after it began ceding power a little over a decade ago.

Here’s a timeline of the key events in Myanmar’s power tussle:


The nation then known as Burma gained independence from British rule on 4 January and became an independent republic. A constitutional government was formed and politician U Nu was nominated as the first prime minister of independent Myanmar. However, a year before, Aung San, who led the movement of independence, was assassinated. Aung San Suu Kyi is his only daughter and youngest child.


Democracy was first suspended in the country following a coup in 1962, marking the beginning of the four decade long direct military rule. Military leader Ne Win, who staged the coup, ruled the country for the coming years. Pro-democracy protests against the junta, also known as “8888 Uprising”, peaked following years of economic stagnation and were met with a bloody military crackdown which led to thousands of deaths, according to rights groups. However, the official figures only attribute a figure of 350 deaths.


Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar during the pro-democracy protests and emerged as a national icon.  

Myanmar protestors shout anti-military slogans as they display a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy revolution
Myanmar protestors shout anti-military slogans as they display a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy revolution (AFP/Getty)


Ms Suu Kyi, who established herself as an outspoken critic of the junta, was put under house arrest for the first time as elections approached. She founded her party, the National League for Democracy, in 1988.


The military government called for elections in which Ms Suu Kyi’s party contested and won a landslide victory. Ms Suu Kyi was being pitched as a prime ministerial candidate by some as her party secured 80 per cent of the seats, but the government could never be formed as the military government nullified the results and refused to concede, resulting in a global outcry.

Ms Suu Kyi was again placed under house arrest at her home in capital Rangoon, now known as Yangon. She won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990, and the Nobel Peace Prize one year later in 1991.


Ms Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 1995. A year later, her convoy was attacked by 200 men, who attacked her car with metal batons, chains, stones and other weapons, breaking the rear window and doors. The NLD filed a complaint with the police, forcing the government to launch an investigation. However, according to reports, no action was taken.


Ms Suu Kyi was again lodged in house arrest, which the government claimed was for her own safety. 


After several protests, the military framed a constitution and carried out a referendum; soon after, Cyclone Nargis wreaked havoc in the country, leaving thousands dead.

That same year, the constitution was approved by the people with 92 per cent voting in its favour. This was the first time the people of Myanmar had voted since 1990, marking the beginning of the process of democratisation.

Survivors stand on houses destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in Haing Gyi island in 2008
Survivors stand on houses destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in Haing Gyi island in 2008 (AFP/Getty)


The election was held but Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD, which wasn’t allowed to take power in 1990, did not participate. Over 40 parties contested the elections and the pro-junta USDP declared victory. The elections were called fraudulent by the United Nations and many western countries.

Ms Suu Kyi was released from house arrest six days after the elections in November. Until that time, she had spent a long part of a 21 year period in detention. 


For the first time, Ms Suu Kyi held a public office after winning a by-election seat. She officially became the leader of the opposition party as her party secured 43 of the 45 contested seats.

She also began campaigning for reforms in the constitution to include basic rights of the citizens and demanded an independent judiciary.


Myanmar’s first openly held general elections took place in November 2015 where Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD won by a landslide victory, securing a majority in both houses. The party formed the government for the first time, however, Ms Suu Kyi was constitutionally barred from becoming the prime minister because her husband and both sons were British.  

However, she took over as the head of the state with a newly formed role of state councillor, a position with the similar powers of a prime minister. The military also retained significant power in the government.


A brutal military crackdown followed in Rakhine after an insurgent attack left several dead. Violent clashes had been ongoing in the area for over a year. Sectarian violence erupted against the Rohingya Muslim population in the area which was termed  “ethnic cleansing” by UN high commissioner for human rights.

The situation worsened in August 2017, when over five million Rohingyas fled Myanmar to reach neighbouring countries like Bangladesh. The ethnic minority community had been facing persecution for years.

According to the UN, the campaign of mass killing, rape, and arson was carried out with “genocidal intent”, which Myanmar denied. Ms Suu Kyi later defended Myanmar against genocide charges brought at the Hague.

Rohingya refugees gather in 'no man's land’ behind Myanmar's border
Rohingya refugees gather in 'no man's land’ behind Myanmar's border (AFP/Getty)


Elections took place after five years when Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD again secured an outright majority with more votes than before, giving Ms Suu Kyi a second term as state councillor. However, the military-backed USDP alleged irregularities in the vote, demanding the military to intervene.


On 26 January, army military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun warned the army will “take action” their concerns were not addressed, hinting at staging a coup.

However, the claims of voter fraud were rejected by the election commission which said there was no proof of fraud or rigging.  

Soon after its statement of protecting the constitution, Myanmar’s military staged a coup and took control of the country once again. They also declared an emergency for one year, citing the government’s failure to act against its claims of voter fraud.

Now, Ms Suu Kyi has been put under house arrest once again, along with other senior government officials detained during the series of early morning raids.

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