6 Minutes To Read

On the Perils of Disciplined Democracy

6 Minutes To Read

Adam E. Howe reflects on the coup as an attempt to establish a Thai-style “disciplined democracy”.

We pledge to practice a genuine, discipline-flourishing multiparty democracy.

Myanmar Army Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, 2 February 2021

We will do what we promised…. we are asking for a little more time.

Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, 6 June 2014
Image courtesy of Abhisit Vejjajiva, from Flickr Creative Commons.

Is history repeating itself in Myanmar? Cynics may interpret the recent coup as politics as usual in a country plagued by decades of formal and informal military rule. Yet, the danger of any “past as prologue” argument is that it underestimates the pernicious nature of 21st century non-democratic regimes. In Myanmar, as in neighboring Thailand, “disciplined democracy” is dangerous because it obscures the real intentions of autocrats who benefit from domestic and international political capital accrued from purportedly playing by the rules of the game (i.e., abiding by international democratic norms).

The February 1 coup caught much of the international community by surprise. The audacity of the operation demonstrated that Sr. General Min Aung Hlaing was undeterred by the prospects of mass protests and/or retaliatory economic sanctions. While the individual motivations of the general and top military brass are difficult to ascertain, we can safely assume that the perceived rewards of seizing power outweighed the real risk of domestic and international blowback. While unfortunate, this is not an unreasonable calculation given that Myanmar’s military has historically faced negligible consequences for its outsized role in the country’s politics.

Domestically, the regime’s heavy-handed response to grassroots protest movements in 1988 and 2007 was messy and ultimately led to the reshuffling of core leadership. However, neither movement succeeded in forcing the military to relinquish its de facto political and economic control. Post-2011, Aung San Suu Kyi’s rhetorical support for the military was not only ineffective as an appeasement strategy, but unwittingly reinforced the widely-held notion that the latter were the real power behind the throne. Top generals faced little international pushback for their role in the 2017 Rohingya genocide. General Min Aung Hlaing surely recognized that if past instances of regime violence resulted in few punitive measures, then a military coup would stand a good chance at success.

It is curious that General Min Aung Hlaing did not rely on the COVID-19 crisis or recent troubles in the ethnic states as his rationale for grabbing power. Instead, his rhetorical justification hinged upon an appeal to democratic norms. However unpersuasive his allegations of vote-rigging, General Min Aung Hlaing’s posture is clear: the Burmese military is the only institution capable of creating a “true, and disciplined democracy” for future generations. This notion that the military is democracy’s savior is not without historical precedent. In fact, Ne Win’s 1962 coup, that ushered in nearly five decades of praetorianism, was carried out under a similar pretext, of the military as the nation’s savior.

From an outsider perspective, the most puzzling aspect of the coup is its apparent superfluousness. After all, the military had formally retained control over key economic sectors, dictated security policy, and held enough reserved seats in parliament to veto important legislation. In short, wasn’t it already presiding over a “disciplined democracy”?

While some point to a personal spat between General Min Aung Hlaing and Aung San Suu Kyi as a coup precipitator, this was likely not the only cause behind such a dramatic move. Another plausible theory is that General Min Aung Hlaing, who is one year away from forced retirement, was fearful of domestic prosecution for his role in the Rohingya genocide after he left his post. However, given Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to address this crisis in real-time, it seems unlikely that she or other NLD leaders would risk a permanent rift with the military over this issue.

The most compelling explanation is that the military – having witnessed a precipitous decline in its popularity over the past two electoral cycles – seized power as a means of recalibrating a new version of disciplined democracy that best serves their long-term interests.

Though lauded for its decision to let the NLD govern in 2011, the military underestimated the growing popularity of civilian leaders, even among members of the armed forces. As such, the military had to reimagine a political system where the NLD had just enough power to seem relevant to domestic and international observers, but not enough to undermine the junta’s political and economic agenda. The fact that the post-2011 hybrid democracy seemed to be coming apart was enough for coup leaders to step in to restore what they saw as a more favorable balance of power between military and civilian politicians.

Immediately after the coup, General Min Aung Hlaing pledged to schedule free and fair elections after a year. While he was undoubtedly looking to provide cover for a shocking assault on democracy, there is also cause to believe that he is making a sincere offer. Given the unpopularity of this coup among Myanmar’s citizens, as evidenced by massive street protests overshadowing those in 1988 and 2007, the military is now tasked with governing over a resentful population. Desperately lacking the domestic legitimacy conferred by a strong economy or unifying military victory, General Min Aung Hlaing may recognize that he will have to govern through violence, a move that could spark elite defections or even a countercoup.

For these reasons, it is not surprising that Myanmar’s military junta is looking to Thailand’s disciplined democracy for inspiration. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, himself a retired general, is attempting to retain power in the face of robust street protests. Though Prayuth initiated a coup in 2014, he has similarly encountered stiff resistance from Thai civil society in response to a series of proposed constitutional amendments that would permanently entrench the military in the Thai political system.

While Thai and Burmese politics are different in many respects, the Thai regime now serves as a model for Southeast Asia’s autocrats. Under the current arrangement, the Thai military is relieved of the burden of governance and works indirectly through formal and informal democratic institutions to advance its political agenda. While in power, Prayuth has leveraged the country’s legal system to punish rivals and critics. Prayuth’s version of authoritarianism is emblematic of the ways in which modern autocrats work within an ostensibly democratic framework as a means of consolidating power.

While General Min Aung Hlaing may not be able to replicate this system, there are good reasons to believe that he will try. After all, would not the restoration of democracy (albeit a disciplined one) partially satisfy international observers and domestic civil society opposition?The problem is that junta acted impulsively on February 1and will struggle to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Even if the military initiated the coup and the corresponding year-long state of emergency as a stop-gap measure, it has reached the point of no return. If elections are restored, how can civilian politicians and voters believe that the military will not once again use them as a pretext for seizing power?

Finally, if General Min Aung Hlaing is looking to Thailand for inspiration, he is making some poorly-informed comparisons. Historically, military rule in Thailand has frequently given way to longer periods of democracy, or at least, semi-democracy. It also features a monarchy that has historically mediated disputes between military and civilian elites. As such, political culture in Thailand differs considerably from Myanmar, where citizens of the latter have only tasted democracy once, unless one counts the unstable 1948-1962 parliamentary period, which most of the protesters in the street are not old enough to remember.

There is now little doubt that the relatively brief democratic experiment in Myanmar was deeply flawed from the start, because it was based on the naïve assumption that the military would play by institutional rules. In short, it has become evident that “disciplined democracy” is no more than a ruse.

The good news is that prospects for direct military rule in Myanmar are poor in the long term. Even if the junta wanted to govern without domestic legitimacy (as they have done in the past), the political costs of relying on violent crackdowns will accumulate over time, especially in the face of protests that are truly unprecedented in scale.

Yet, even if General Min Aung Hlaing is committed to elections, this does not imply that the international community should be content with any future iteration of “disciplined democracy”. Indeed, this is the very system that provides the most effective smokescreen for the Myanmar military’s long-term political and economic interests.

Adam E. Howe is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Politics at Fairfield University where he specializes in Comparative Politics with a regional focus on Southeast Asia. He has published research in the Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, Politics, Groups, and Identities, and The Diplomat.