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Lessons from Coup-Making in Southeast Asia

12 Feb 2021
Myanmar military takes power for one year as Aung San Suu Kyi is detained. Source: sadi richards

In May 2014, Thailand’s generals decided, yet again, that their country’s elected government was too much trouble. Dusting off their well-worn coup-making playbooks, they rolled the tanks into central Bangkok, secured the key installations required to claim authority, and implemented their familiar style of military rule.

It would be five years before the Thai people could have their say through the ballot box, under a new constitution with rules tilted heavily in favour of the entrenched military, royalist, and bureaucratic elites. General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who led the coup, is still in charge and content to manage national affairs on narrow authoritarian terms.

Yet General Prayuth and the system of power he represents face more pressure right now than anyone can remember. A new generation of activists is targeting the further consolidation of power in the palaces and barracks. These activists are generally young, often still in their teens, and so they have little personal experience of Thailand’s previous democratic flirtations. For instance, Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in the September 2006 coup, was first elected to the prime ministership in January 2001. Many of these protestors were not yet born.

Such is the stranglehold of Thailand’s generals and the royal family they protect that until recently, it was only in the quietest of whispers that Thais would indicate their frustration. But with the now-familiar three-fingered Hunger Games salute and a repertoire of irreverent signs, chants, and memes, today’s Thai reformists have shown a willingness to defy decades of elite dominance.

A similarly spirited opposition has emerged quickly in Myanmar since last week’s military coup. By coincidence, six years ago, I watched Thailand’s May 2014 coup from Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s capital, where I was doing long-term field research on political culture. At the time, Naypyitaw was finding its feet as the central hub for a grand experiment in legislative and executive institution-building. Its wide boulevards, cavernous official buildings, and colour-coded officialdom made for a remarkable contrast with events across the border in Bangkok. For the umpteenth time, the Thai people resigned themselves to a period of military rule.

As often as I could manage during this field research, I would visit the Defense Services Historical Museum on the outskirts of Naypyitaw. The museum pavilions – packed with the Myanmar military’s fear-inducing interpretation of the national story – served as an important reminder that the top generals were the ones who fundamentally set the pace of democratic change.

On one occasion, I was at the museum when the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his heavily guarded 25-vehicle convoy arrived for a visit. Accompanying a senior ASEAN dignitary, he was whisked deep into the compound and away from prying eyes.

Around that same time, there was a very different foreign relations moment designed for the cameras. In July 2014, soon after the Thai coup, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing travelled to Bangkok where he wrapped his arms around the then-Supreme Commander, General Tanasak Patimapragorn, in a red-carpet embrace.

During this period, Myanmar’s top general also reportedly cultivated ties with the long-serving president of Thailand’s Privy Council, General Prem Tinsulanonda. Prem lived to almost 100; his final decades giving ample time to acquire a reputation for statesmanship and morality. It is easy to see why he would be an inspiring template for other Southeast Asian strongmen.

The frustrating challenge for all of these towering military figures is that they rarely, if ever, maintain the loyalty of the civilian masses. Generations of middling electoral performances by military figures indicate that most people would prefer not to be ruled by men with guns.

The conundrum for General Prayuth and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is therefore almost identical. The most talented young people in their countries tend to despise them – and will devote their best years to undermining their claims to national leadership. In a fair and free electoral contest – one held on a relatively level playing field – the generals, whether in Thailand or Myanmar, will almost always lose.

So, what can we learn from what they do instead?

First, in both countries, the armed forces reserve the permanent right to launch a coup. When teaching Thai politics over the years, I have often sought to remind students that promises to “stay in the barracks” rarely last more than a decade.

Last week’s coup in Myanmar was made possible by a military enamoured of its central position in national life, unwilling to surrender the high ground to the people’s representatives. The parlous showing of the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party at the November 2020 general election did not help. With a pathetically Trumpian flourish, the coup-makers have claimed industrial-scale electoral fraud – independent observers judge these allegations are utterly without merit.

Second, the top generals seek ways to blur the boundaries between civilian and military authority. Myanmar’s 2008 constitution is a good example, with myriad interactions between the armed forces hierarchy and what they would usually consider subordinate political interests. The rules of the game tend to flex in the military’s favour.

Third, even when an elected government is well-placed to share power, the military reminds the people-at-large of its premier position, usually through its claims to safeguard “national security.” In Thailand, the lese majeste law is a perfect weapon: ambiguous, frightening, and effective as a hard counterpunch against perceived threats to military or royal prestige. Nobody wants to suffer through a secretive trial followed by years of dismal incarceration. And the coup-makers are never the ones who go to gaol.

Indeed, the top Myanmar brass will have paid close attention to the fate of Thailand’s 2014 coup-makers. They have prospered outrageously – General Prayuth Chan-ocha pushed through a new military-friendly constitution. He also took five years to hold elections. And throughout this period, he managed to avoid severe international condemnation. Careful management in 2016-19 of the succession from King Bhumibol Adulyadej to King Vajiralongkorn certainly helped to smooth his rehabilitation as a reputable political figure.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will have confidence in his own fancy footwork. But is that confidence misplaced? The grim reality is that he launched the February 2021 coup at a time of economic and medical crisis, with a geopolitical landscape that would test even the most legitimate rulers.

Since the coup, millions of Myanmar people have voiced their outrage, marching in huge numbers, calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from detention and for the military to abandon its claim to power. It does not help the Senior General’s chances that Myanmar’s talented young people have also learned the three-finger salute from Hunger Games, drawing direct inspiration from Thailand’s youthful uprising. The top military men are not the only ones who take lessons from their neighbours.

Nicholas Farrelly is Professor and Head of Social Science at the University of Tasmania. He was previously Associate Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University where, from 2015-2018, he was founding Director of the ANU Myanmar Research Centre. In 2013 he co-edited a special issue of the Australian Journal of International Affairs on military coups in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License, and may be republished with attribution.