Why the tanks keep rolling

Militaries are getting better at overthrowing elected governments
Rob Dobi for the Washington Post

Early this month, Myanmar’s armed forces took control of the country. Moving overnight, they detained most leading politicians and many civil-society activists, barricaded roads, cut off Internet access, arrested people in the darkness and made an announcement of the coup on state television. In the weeks since, the generals have declared a curfew, blocked foreign social media platforms, banned large gatherings, put civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on trial in secret and declared a one-year state of emergency, after which they will supposedly oversee new elections. (The last army putsch, in 1988, endured for two decades.)

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Military dictatorships are nowhere near as common as they were during the Cold War, and leaders trying to roll back democracy today usually do so in creeping ways, by altering legal systems, voting rules and other institutions to give themselves greater power. This has been the path of illiberal bosses like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. They have whittled away at norms and institutions to centralize their authority — and Orban and Erdogan have become outright autocrats. They had the patience to undermine democracy by slowly suffocating it.

And yet coups have not only lingered; they’ve become more effective in the past decade. Egypt’s military overthrew its government in 2013, Thailand’s in 2014, Zimbabwe’s in 2017, Sudan’s and Algeria’s in 2019, and Mali’s in 2020. In some countries that seemed to have moved beyond putsches, military meddling has returned — such as in Bolivia, even if the generals didn’t complete an outright takeover in that country’s 2019 political crisis. Successful coups have increased from lows in the early 2000s to higher numbers in the 2010s. Now, in 2021, Myanmar’s military also has staged a successful coup. Although there were 47 coups and attempted coups in the 2010s compared with 76 in the 2000s, according to a database created by the Cline Center for Advanced Social Research at the University of Illinois, “coups over the last decade or so have a far higher success rate than in previous periods,” according to an analysis by Clayton Thyne and Jonathan Powell, two leading scholars. Their calculations did not include 2020 and 2021, but there have already been two takeovers in that period.

There is no one reason coups persist, because there are many reasons. In some nations, militaries that claimed to be strengthening civilian control never really did; they continued to interfere in politics and to believe they were the most important institutions. Meanwhile, democracy has regressed worldwide in the past decade and a half. Major democratic powers, such as the United States, have done little to stop coups. Their inaction encourages other schemers, who are learning how to stage coups and then present them to be accepted by the world. And even when leading democracies try to intervene, their own democratic failures have tarnished their image and sapped their authority to talk about rights and freedoms.

It is now easy to see that militaries in many countries never gave up as much power as they seemed to have done. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Thai military, embarrassed by the bloody denouement of an early 1990s coup, appeared ready to swear off putsches and become more professional. (Thailand has had 22 coups and coup attempts since the end of its absolute monarchy in 1932.) But despite soothing words from some top generals, the Thai military never fully gave up aspirations to power, and younger generations of officers came up believing that the military should still step in, especially against populist and progressive parties — many of the leaders Thai voters selected.

Still, the generals didn’t have the political skills of the populists they battled, such as former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, or the patience to try to chip away at democracy through initially legal means, as Thaksin and other elected autocrats did. So they launched coups — in 2006, and again in 2014, after which they ruled directly for five years. Even now, they retain extensive influence over the Thai civilian government.

In Myanmar the story was similar. The notoriously brutal military supposedly midwifed a transition to civilian rule in the early 2010s, but the constitution awarded it significant powers. Senior generals remained convinced that they were the best stewards, and they brooked no real challenge. They didn’t have the charisma or appeal of civilian leaders like Suu Kyi. The armed forces created their own political party, but it performed miserably in elections, most recently last November. So the army announced that the election was fraudulent (it wasn’t) and took over this month, imposing draconian restrictions on the population.

Although the United States and some other democracies have condemned the Myanmar coup, many have said less about other putsches in recent years. Distracted by their own problems at home, focused on global influence battles with China and Russia, and with democracy faltering worldwide — the monitoring organization Freedom House notes that this political system has regressed 14 years in a row — leading democracies have often done little about coups.

When they rally, larger powers can have an impact. In the late 1980s, when the Philippine democracy movement had just ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos and autocrats were falling worldwide, the Philippine armed forces tried several times to seize power from the government led by Corazon Aquino. The United States provided air power to reinforce the Aquino administration in one episode, helped anticipate several others and offered strong rhetorical support for the president. And after a coup in Burkina Faso in 2015, the African Union took a tough stance against the coup-makers (as did other regional organizations). That coup ultimately failed.

The pandemic has made it even harder to focus on foreign problems, as the voters to whom democracies are accountable are dying in large numbers and even elected leaders are curtailing freedoms for public health reasons — imposing lockdowns, barring travel, and canceling sports and concerts. In another study, Freedom House found that rights and freedoms had regressed in 80 countries since the beginning of the pandemic.

After the Egyptian coup, which the army launched against a government led by Muslim Brotherhood politicians, the United States quickly restored business as usual with Cairo — and did not even label the takeover a coup. After the 2014 Thai coup, the generals created elections that were essentially rigged to keep a pro-military party in power. Yet countries and groups that had initially cut back links to Thailand, including the United States, Australia and the European Union, restored all ties and have proceeded as if Thailand is fully democratic again. Neighboring nations that might pressure Myanmar today — the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand — are all led by illiberal leaders with little interest in badgering the junta in Naypyidaw. Philippine leaders used to speak out for democracy in Asia, but a representative for the current strongman, Duterte, declared the coup in Myanmar “an internal matter.” This was nearly the exact phrase uttered by Thai leaders. The Indonesian government, which is less illiberal than those in Thailand and the Philippines, reportedly said it wanted a pathway to new elections in Myanmar, then repudiated those reports.

Seeing that coups may be accepted if militaries camouflage them with some veneer of a transition to democracy, armed forces seem to be learning from each other how to make the post-coup periods more palatable to the world. In Mali, for instance, military officers last year promised a shift to civilian rule and then elections. Major external powers like France seemed to buy this, but the army has since consolidated its power and taken over the transitional process. Similarly, in Algeria, where there were massive street protests in 2019 and 2020 against the security forces’ decades-long influence over politics, the military-dominated government promised reforms but did little to extricate the men in green from their position of control.

Myanmar’s military does not need advice about how to stage a coup — it has done so several times — but it does appear to be taking lessons from the neighboring Thai military about how to manage public relations and retain control while offering a supposed pathway to elections. It has requested from its anti-democratic neighbor what Reuters called “help to support democracy.” Most likely, this means the Myanmar generals will create a new electoral system that will decimate civilian power and ensure that pro-military politicians rule the country, even if there is an eventual vote, similar to how the Thai army managed the period after the 2014 coup and then the 2019 election.

Even when democracies do take a stand now, they have less credibility in condemning outright putsches. The Biden administration, for instance, has frozen the Myanmar generals’ assets in the United States and announced targeted sanctions on some top military leaders linked to the coup. But the United States is now ranked as a “flawed democracy” in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual index of democracies, and authoritarian powers like Russia are mocking our downfall. Democratic and Republican senators have jointly denounced the Myanmar coup and proposed responses, but overall dysfunction in Washington has hampered bipartisan policymaking.

Of course, a powerful military in another country is hard to stop. Yet history suggests that it is sometimes stoppable. When Aquino ran the Philippines just after democratization, at a time when there were many military takeovers, political leaders used intelligence to detect coming coups and — with help from outside powers like the United States — repelled multiple attempts to overthrow the government. Unfortunately, Myanmar, Algeria, Egypt and many other places are well past that point.

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