Crowds of people queued for rice, vegetables and cash across Myanmar after a military coup cut communications and seized the country’s civilian leadership, plunging the country into uncertainty five years after Aung San Suu Kyi took power.

In early-morning raids hours before the first sitting of a newly-elected legislature, the military swept up the heads of Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, including president U Win Myint as well as top ministers in central and state governments, at least one of whom posted to Facebook a video showing the arrival of soldiers.

The military said it was acting under its constitutional authority to defend against a threat to national sovereignty, citing voter fraud and other irregularities in an election that delivered a sweeping win for Ms. Suu Kyi. Her NLD party won 83 per cent of the vote in November elections, taking all but 79 of 476 parliamentary seats on the ballot in November. On Monday, the military declared a state of emergency for a year.

In what appeared to be a pre-written statement posted to Facebook, the NLD quoted Ms. Suu Kyi as saying a coup would return Myanmar to “dictatorship.” Her comments, translated by Reuters, urged people “not to accept this, to respond and wholeheartedly to protest against the coup by the military.”

The arrest was accompanied by widespread interruption to communications across the country that fuelled fears of further crackdowns. The Irrawaddy, a news outlet, said it “has been unable to contact its bureau chief in Naypyidaw, where communications have been shut down.” Naypyidaw is the capital, where video posted to Twitter showed soldiers, troop carriers and armoured vehicles assembled outside the parliamentary complex.

In Yangon, large lines formed in front of shops selling rice, vegetables and other goods. Similar lines formed at ATMs, before most went out of service because of Internet outages. People are worried about instability and their ability to continue life as normal, a local journalist told The Globe and Mail. “It’s chaos,” he said. The journalist spoke on condition of anonymity, because he feared retribution for his comments. Shortly after speaking with the Globe, he left his house to go into hiding, in the expectation that the military will seek to imprison independent voices in the country.

“The military is trying to destroy democracy in Burma,” said Aung Marm Oo, the chief editor of Development Media Group who has been in hiding for more than a year after police under the military-controlled Home Ministry sought his arrest. Myanmar was formerly called Burma.

He called for the international community to act. “The democracy struggle is not just for Burma but for the whole world,” he said.

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “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.”

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, “China is a friendly neighbour of Myanmar, and we hope that all parties in Myanmar will properly handle their differences under the constitutional and legal framework, while maintaining political and social stability.”

Ms. Suu Kyi is a Nobel laureate renowned for her perseverance in the cause of democracy, including 15 years spent under house arrest in Myanmar. But her reputation has been tarnished by the mass evictions of Rohingya people during her time as leader of the civilian government. Although she does not control the military, she has not loudly decried the actions of armed forces, who have been widely accused of brutalizing the Rohingya through rapes, mass killings and the widespread razing of homes. More than 715,000 Rohingya people have fled to Bangladesh since the outbreak of violence on Aug. 25, 2017.

Ms. Suu Kyi has denied accusations that the treatment of the Rohingya amounts to genocide.

But she has not been the country’s paramount power. The country’s constitution guarantees the military leadership of key ministries as well as 25 per cent of the seats in parliament.

Myanmar has been “under two governments, one military and one civilian,” said Tin Soe, the editor of a Rohingya news service. “And everyone knows the most powerful is the military. So they say it’s a democracy, but this civilian government is like a puppet.”

For that reason, he said, the coup is unlikely to bring much change, although he fears a repeat of history. Myanmar has fallen in and out of military rule since gaining independence in 1948, with the army in control for decades at a time.

The easing of military control that surrounded Ms. Suu Kyi’s rise to power has provided tangible benefits to the country. Myanmar formally instituted an “opening up” policy in 2011. In the six years that followed it posted the world’s fifth-fastest rate of growth. Ms. Suu Kyi won power in 2015.

Poverty fell in half between 2005 and 2017. In 2005, half of the country used candles for lighting. By 2017, that had fallen to 7 per cent, following the expansion of electricity service and the growing availability of solar power.

Some observers held out hope that military control will prove temporary.

“Democracy doesn’t die. Democracy has to confront obstacles,” said Christopher Lamb, a former Australian ambassador to Myanmar who is now chair of the Australia Myanmar Institute.

“We just have to press on,” he said. “People in this country have been working for democratic evolution for a very long time. And they’re not going to stop because of this.”

The Globe and Mail, February 1, 2021