The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Myanmar’s military distrusts the country’s ruling party. That’s why it staged a coup and detained leaders and activists.

The military thought it could share power. When relations broke down, it seized control.

Supporters of Myanmar’s armed forces wave national and military flags Tuesday in Yangon, Myanmar. (Thein Zaw/AP)

On Feb. 1, Myanmar’s military — the Tatmadaw — detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and dozens of key leaders of the country’s largest party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and declared a one-year state of emergency. On Tuesday, hundreds of legislators remain under house arrest. For observers of Myanmar politics, this coup dashes already dwindling hopes for the country’s democratic prospects.

Democracy faces various threats around the world. Yet the challenges facing Myanmar’s limited democracy are unique because of the role the country’s military plays in politics — with the uneasy relationship between the Tatmadaw and the NLD a key issue. In Myanmar, because Tatmadaw-NLD relations have sharply deteriorated, the military is now using its power to curtail democratization rather than risk its opponents taking full control. Here’s what you need to know.

Myanmar’s military promised multiparty elections

The Tatmadaw first took power in 1962, then responded to mass uprisings in 1988 with another coup and a promise to allow multiparty elections. But after the NLD won the 1990 elections, the military walked back promises to form a national legislature and maintained martial law. The Tatmadaw drafted the 2008 constitution, allowing multiparty elections, and formed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) as a political vehicle for former military officials to contest the 2010 elections. It wasn’t until elections in 2012 and 2015 that the NLD competed and won the majority of seats it contested.

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A key dilemma for any military facing the prospect of democratization is the possibility that parties that do not share core interests with the military will come to power. Democracy necessarily means that the military cannot control the levers of government. An opposition party in power could pursue changes that challenge the military’s core interests, such as restructuring the military or prosecuting officers for their role in authoritarian rule.

How military rule can shift toward democracy

Darin Self’s research on military-led democratization shows that militaries are more likely to cede control to civilians when there is a political party in the system they can trust. That party must also be well-organized and strong enough to compete well in free and fair elections. Under these conditions, the military may relinquish power, confident that its allied party will win elections and protect the military’s interests.

When the military’s allies are too weak to win power, we see what Self calls “bounded democratization.” In this scenario, the military uses formal rules (such as a constitution) to engineer a political system that it can trust. Here’s an example: The 1990 Chilean constitution uses electoral rules to increase the number of pro-military conservatives who get elected.

This finding helps explain why militaries set restrictions on political systems, but it doesn’t directly explain why a military will reemerge or take power via coup. Monday’s events provide some insight into this question.

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The military and NLD faced continued tension

When the Tatmadaw wrote the 2008 constitution and allowed free and fair elections in 2015, the prospect for reaching a consolidated democracy was uncertain. The military bounded democratization by crafting a constitution to retain military control over three ministries integral to governance and security: Home Affairs, Defense and Border Affairs. It also guaranteed that 25 percent of parliamentary seats would be unelected and reserved for military members, giving the Tatmadaw an effective veto over constitutional change.

But the USDP was resoundingly defeated in 2012 and 2015. The military likely viewed these developments as reasons to continue to block all NLD attempts to reduce its political power.

So why resort to a coup when blocking NLD moves in parliament was still possible? The most critical factor is likely the military’s increasing doubts about its ability to safeguard its core interests and ambitions due to deteriorating relations with the NLD. The breakdown began in 2015 when Suu Kyi’s party failed to amend the constitution. The assassination of prominent lawyer Ko Ni, her adviser, was another sign of souring relations. To the Tatmadaw, the NLD’s repeated efforts to drum up domestic political support by defending the country against genocide charges at the International Court of Justice and to amend the constitution again, just before the 2020 elections, were threatening acts.

The last straw, apparently, was the NLD’s rejection of the military’s request to delay the elections and to investigate alleged election fraud. In early November, the military began claiming election irregularities. The USDP and its supporters staged protests following the election, and disinformation alleging election irregularities and fraud spread on social media, setting the pretext for the coup.

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What happens now?

A similar scenario in neighboring Thailand might offer some clues as to what might happen next. When the Thai military concluded that the political system would repeatedly produce opposition governments, it took power in a 2014 coup and then used constitutional engineering to shore up the military’s political influence.

Following landslide 2015 and 2020 NLD electoral victories, the Tatmadaw now knows that its 2008 constitution did not include sufficiently strong buffers against the NLD’s electoral strength. One possible scenario is that the Tatmadaw might try to repeat its strategy prior to the 2008 constitution, when it slow-walked the transition to democracy over the course of two decades. We may also see the military build in more robust checks against the NLD’s strength in the constitution.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called for the release of Myanmar’s detained leaders, and other foreign officials have stated their concerns for the safety of those arrested, along with any who protest the military’s actions. The Biden administration has condemned the coup and threatened to reimpose sanctions. While a coordinated international response may pressure Myanmar’s military into some concessions, NLD-Tatmadaw relations are at the heart of the matter.

Megan Ryan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @Rymegan.

Darin Self is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @darinself.