Juntas in Thailand and Myanmar

Birds of a feather

By: Pithaya Pookaman

When Myanmar commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power on February 1 just as a new parliamentary session was set to open following a landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the coup leader was executing a preemptive move to avert being checkmated by Suu Kyi in the parliament. Fifteen years ago, the Thai military junta, led by Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, staged a military coup for the same reason – to topple the government headed by prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had also won a landslide in the general election.

In Myanmar’s case, the electoral setback to the military establishment had convinced Gen. Min Aung Hliang that the parliament controlled by NLD would introduce constitutional amendments to curb the power of the military and might even remove the last legal impediment for Suu Kyi to assume the long-denied office of the presidency. Although the military ad been forced to co-exist with the democratic forces by allowing Suu Kyi to form a government, the denial of the political power that the military had wielded since 1962 was tantamount to crossing the red line by Suu Kyi.

In Thailand’s case, the Thaksin government’s implementation of populist policy to improve the livelihood of the farmers and the underprivileged had taken a slice of the military budget, much to the military’s chagrin. His egalitarian administrative approach also sowed discontent among the Thai oligarchy, which consisted of the military, bureaucrats, and big business conglomerates. The crushing 2006 electoral defeat of the parties associated with the elites gave Thaksin’s party an absolute majority in the parliament and afforded him a free hand to carry out far-reaching political, economic, and social reforms that would perhaps undermine the traditional power structure of the elite establishment and diminish the military grip on power. To avoid such a predicament, the oligarchic establishment organized street protests to destabilize the government and the military delivered a coup de grace to finish off the Thaksin government and the democratic movement.

Since Thaksin’s downfall and the dissolution of his political party, his political machinery was still a potent force and was able to form successive political parties to win resounding victories at the polls and formed governments, the last one headed by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who suffered the same fate as her brother at the hands of the military in 2014 led by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Prayuth benefited from hindsight and set out to stamp out forces allied to Thaksin once and for all. He promised to give power back to the people as soon as possible but delayed holding elections until his handcrafted constitution had been promulgated and only after he had put in place political and judicial and quasi-judicial apparatus to guarantee the continuation of his authoritarian rule.

Min Aung Hliang may have taken a que from Prayuth in establishing a semblance of democracy in a totalitarian regime with real power vested in the military while he allows the holding of the elections only when he can be sure that he can return to lead the government through an undemocratic constitution and oblique political and judicial system. He will not go to the polls unless he is confident that he can coerce other political parties to join or support him in the parliament to give him the majority.

The power of the military establishment has been deeply entrenched in Thailand and Myanmar for many decades. In Thailand, the military had taken advantage of the transformation of an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one in 1932 by instituting an authoritarian regime that has continued up till today. Although Phraya Pahol, the leader of 1932 bloodless coup, was democratic at heart, his coup colleagues saw the democratic transformation as an opportunity to further their own interest. Field Marshal P. Pibunsongkhram, Phraya Pahol’s comrade-in-arms, had flirted with the romanticism of the grandeur of fascism of Mussolini. While Mussolini fantasized Pax Romana and built Esposizione Universale (EUR) as part of the Municipio IX as an embellishment of fascism, Field Marshal Pibunsongkhram fantasized a “Golden Peninsula” encompassing the Irrawaddy, Chao Phraya and Mekong river basins and built his own Ratchadamnern Avenue in Bangkok to emulate EUR or the Champs-Elysee in Paris to embellish his authoritarian rule.

Successive Thai military leaders tried to stifle democratic movements with the help of the elite establishment and big business. Constitutions were, and still are, not the highest law of the land and could be superseded by martial law or decrees issued by military dictators. Despite the intermittent appearances of elected governments, the military still called the shots. Annual appointments of high-ranking military officers are the sole prerogative of the military establishment and the elected ministers or prime ministers have no say in it. The annual military budget, although not immune to scrutiny, invariably passes parliament without much amendment.

In short, democratically elected governments are only allowed to exist when the military and the oligarchy are under pressure to co-exist with democratic forces but with the former holding the trump cards. Should the democratic forces cross the red line or become too strong, the military will step in to reset the power structure to suit itself. Such a pattern also holds true for Myanmar where the military has traditionally been a dominant political force. Gen. Min Aung Hliang can even adopt a “Prayuth Model” to stay in power for a foreseeable future.

When the Inter-Parliamentary Union strongly condemned the military coup in Myanmar, calling it “a major setback for democracy,” it didn’t comprehend the power structure of Myanmar, which is similar to Thailand’s. Just because a country has had an election which is an essential requirement of the democratic process, this does not mean that the country is democratic or has embarked on the path toward full democratic development. Myanmar and Thailand have never been democratic despite the ups and down in the democratic process. Their military establishments always maintain a firm stranglehold of power even with the installation of democratic governments which come and go at the military’s whims.

The future of democracy for Thailand and Myanmar, as well as for the sub-region, is bleak. Their military establishments are resilient and can weather the storms caused by popular uprising and international condemnation and sanctions. Although the principle of democracy and human rights is enshrined in the ASEAN Charter, the signatories adopt their own separate methods in running the country. Besides Thailand and Myanmar, other ASEAN members such as Vietnam and Laos are Communist states while Cambodia still cannot totally shake off its Marxist-Leninist past. This leaves Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines as genuine democratic countries, though not by Western standards.

The latest coup in Myanmar has delivered another blow to the unity of ASEAN and serves to confirm that coups are here to stay. In the case of Myanmar and Thailand, democracy has never been allowed to succeed by the military. Either they argue that democracy is unsuitable to their countries or advance the idea of their own style of democracy which is, in fact, a democracy within a totalitarian system. 

Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai ambassador to several countries. He lives in Bangkok and is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel

This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.