Interpreting what's behind the 'veto' coup d'etat
Military "veto" coups have been prominent in countries where armed forces have played leading roles in society like Myanmar and Thailand -- the two countries which have experienced their fair share of coups. The latest putsch occurred on Feb 1, in Myanmar. With Myanmar's military having had a long and close relationship with Thailand's armed forces, and both countries' militaries prone to staging coups, one wonders to what extent Myanmar's putsch can be explained in the context of the history of coups in mainland Southeast Asia. Does Myanmar follow the Thai model?
The timing of the Feb 1 putsch was calculated through numerology: decided at 3am on Feb 1, 2021, equalling Myanmar's lucky number nine (0300 on 2/1/21, adds up to nine). And it seemed so well-meaning: General Min Aung Hlaing, the military commander-in-chief declaring that he simply needed to place the country under a national state of emergency for one year before a new election. But nothing at all was rosy. Following a series of raids, soldiers detained state and local governmental leaders as well as personnel from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), including Aung San Suu Kyi. Though a civilian-led government had existed since 2016, the country's pseudo-democracy was now eviscerated. Given that Myanmar's last coup in 1962 led to decades of direct military rule, naysayers could not be blamed for insinuating that Myanmar's Tatmadaw were once again long-term rulers. Why did the 2021 coup happen? How did the motives for Myanmar's 1962 putsch compare to the causes of the 2021 coup? Moreover, there have long been close ties between the military of Myanmar and Thailand. In fact, Myanmar's military has for many years been inspired by the way in which the military has maintained a dominating presence in Thailand. The Tatmadaw's fascination with the Thai armed forces makes it plausible to also look at Thai coups in order to understand those in Myanmar.
Myanmar's 1962 coup
Ever since the 1947 assassination of independence leader Aung San, the Tatmadaw has almost always lorded over the country because of its monopoly on violence and perceived privilege to dominate society. 1962 coup leader Gen Ne Win stated that a main reason for his putsch was to staunch the disintegration of Burma (the Tatmadaw changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989) economically, administratively and politically. Tatmadaw leaders also felt that Burma's parliamentary system was extremely wobbly and dominated by corrupt politicians while soldiers had had to shed blood to keep the country intact. They perceived that that they were more able leaders, having delivered the country from colonial rule and fought to stabilise it since independence. By 1962, the state had become much more state-centric in nature and the Tatmadaw saw it necessary to defend its bureaucratic interests.
Thailand's 2006 coup
The coup occurred primarily as a means to oust prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was extremely popular with the rural poor (and thus dangerous to vested elite interests), as a means of retrenching Thailand back to an arch-royalist path more dominated by monarchy and military. Thaksin who won the 2001 polls in a landslide, was re-elected in 2005 to a supermajority in parliament. He dominated the police and a rising faction within the military. Even the judiciary and state monitoring agencies were packed with his appointees. However, arch-royalists had begun to turn against Thaksin in early 2006 and as the country plunged into deep divide, the coup happened on Sept 19. Indeed, the appointment of Privy Councillor Gen Surayud Chulanond as Prime Minister gave the impression of royal endorsement.
Thailand's 2014 coup
This was a rerun of 2006 in the sense that it was hatched to again oust a Thaksin-controlled ruling coalition which was led by Thaksin's sister Yingluck (who was elected in a 2011 landslide). Her government began unravelling constitutional changes that sparked a major street protest. Chaos intensified as anti-Yingluck demonstrators occupied parts of Bangkok, thus providing a pretext for coup-leaders to act. Thais were again divided following the putsch.
The coup led to a five-year junta under which a military-endorsed constitution was enacted. Under that charter, a junta-appointed Senate was formed and a new electoral formula for Lower House elections was implemented which ensured that no political party could gain a majority of seats. With the junta-appointed judiciary and monitoring agencies overseeing the 2019 election, the junta party "Palang Pracharat" won at the polls (benefiting from the skewed electoral formula). Thereupon, coup leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha took office. Such is Thailand's model of guided democracy which the Tatmadaw would assuredly like to adopt.
Myanmar's 2021 coup
In Myanmar, military rule had lasted from 1962 until 2011, when a hybrid pseudo-democracy, approved by the Tatmadaw, was allowed to assume power. But the 2011–2021 "democracy" was itself a delusion because the Tatmadaw maintained autonomous control over the use of force. In seizing power, the military contended, without proof, that the Nov 8 election had been fraudulent and ambiguously promised to hold a new election in one year. A more likely reason was because the Tatmadaw felt as though its anticipated post-2015 continuing political dominance behind-the-scenes had slipped in the face of two super-landslide electoral victories by Suu Kyi's NLD. In fact, the Tatmadaw could only protect its enshrined powers because the 2008 constitution (which the Tatmadaw had created) allowed the military to occupy 25% of the Lower and Upper Houses. Moreover, armed forces chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing saw that time was not on his side. He is required to retire in July 2021, and his successor would've been appointed by the civilian president, after consulting the National Defence and Security Council. In fact, the general had been scheming to set himself up as elected president in 2021, but the Tatmadaw's proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), won only 33 of 476 seats. Following Tatmadaw threats to not accept the election results, the coup finally occurred on the day that the new legislature was to begin its session. So why the coup?
First, the politically ambitious Gen Min Aung Hlaing had been deprived of his political ambition of becoming president through an election. Unelected, the general and his military associates would lack immunity from prosecution for previous war crimes allegedly committed against Burmese people. At the same time, an NLD victory might harm Myanmar generals' business interests. Gen Min Aung Hlaing himself possessed supreme control over two military conglomerates. His family also direct their own businesses. Other generals, both retired and active, possess similar interests.
What all four coups have in common was that they all could be classified under what Samuel Huntington as well as Stephen David R define as a "veto coup". Veto coups are putsches aimed at destroying mass participation and social mobilisation which might threaten property rights. Such coups could easily happen in both Myanmar and Thailand because they are praetorian states where "the military tends to intervene and could potentially dominate the political system". Where Myanmar and Thailand differ is that the officer corps within the Tatmadaw has become a privileged economic class in and of itself -- the most powerful in the country. Except for Ms Suu Kyi, civilian politicians lack sufficient united popularity to challenge the Tatmadaw's power. When the top leaders of this class (Than Shwe, Min Aung Hlaing) find it necessary to overthrow a frail civilian government, they can and will do so. In Thailand, on the other hand, the military does have a monopoly on violence, but its power also derives from the legitimacy it has obtained as guardian of the monarchy.
What the 2014–2019 Thai junta accomplished in terms of cementing military clout across the country is something which the Tatmadaw would clearly like to achieve in Myanmar. But the Thai military's success in building a political party combined with constitutional rules and the stacking of judicial bodies all designed to sustain the arch-royalist military's political dominance will be a feat difficult to mimic in Myanmar. That is because, to build Palang Pracharat, the Thai junta cajoled or bought up the factions (and vote-canvassing networks) of political bosses who had competed across several elections. But in Myanmar there is no sufficient history of elections from which a Tatmadaw proxy party can draw factions to build a political party. As a result, though Myanmar's generals would like to borrow a page from Thailand by buying up electoral factions to help restore a "disciplined democracy" for Myanmar, that might prove to be a tall order. But as if to reaffirm the Tatmadaw's desire to emulate Thailand's military dominated democracy, Thai Prime Minister Prayut recently received a letter from junta leader Min Aung Hlaing asking him for help in Myanmar's own "democratic process". If a Myanmar pseudo-democracy led by a Tatmadaw proxy party cannot be established, the country might revert back to years of life under military control. Such is the dark autocratic tunnel in which Myanmar's past could once again be its future.
Paul Chambers, lecturer and special adviser on International Affairs, Center of Asean Community Studies, Naresuan University. More about this issue, go to https://blog.prif.org/2021/02/11/interpreting-myanmars-2021-veto-coup-detat/