The military coup in Myanmar on February 1st signifies a reversal of liberalization that had slowly been developing in the country since the end of the military dictatorship in 2010. However, the coup was made extremely easy due to the immense institutional power that the Tatmadaw kept under the 2008 constitution. From its roots in 1988, the military has always been an anti-democratic force in Myanmar, looking out for its own interests rather than creating real democratic change. The Tatmadaw’s decision to change the state into a competitive authoritarian model was largely due to the prospective gains economically, the pacification of internal democratic movements, and the creation of an uneven political playing field that favored the military. In 2020, the Tatmadaw’s situation was much worse, expectations that the military would win the parliamentary elections were misguided and threatened to upset the playing field .
The change to Competitive Authoritarianism, institutionalizing illiberal control mechanisms.
The violent coup and crackdown of the 1988 People Power Uprising marked the first institutional change in Myanmar since 1962. Under significant pressure from the 1988 movement, the military dictatorship under General Ne Win, promised multiparty elections. The State Law and Order Restoration Council, a military junta, sought to intervene, coup the government, and violently repress the 1988 movement. The State Law and Order Restoration Council refused to recognize the results of the 1990 election which would have seen 81% of seats going to the National League for Democracy (NLD). This major turning point, in refusing democratic transition would become a pattern in the military’s decision making.
In order to circumnavigate the sanctions imposed by the West for the 1988 repression, the Tatmadaw sought to integrate Myanmar into ASEAN and provide the illusion of democratic transition with the 1993 National Convention for drafting a new constitution. The geopolitical landscape had changed, the Cold War was at an end, and the Tatmadaw wanted to appeal to the West as a modernizing country . In 1988 the Tatmadaw dropped its socialist command economy, made strides toward economic liberalization through the ASEAN free trade area in 1997, and by 2003 officially announced a roadmap to “disciplined democracy”, a democracy ruled over by the military. The propaganda campaign of the Tatmadaw’s roadmap to disciplined democracy served two goals, internationally it provided a signal to the West to increase foreign direct investment and domestically it created a narrative that the military was an alternative to the National League for Democracy for democratization in Myanmar.
This lie would persist as the Tatmadaw moved forward with its own agenda to solidify power. Even in the face of blatant violent crackdowns in response to the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the Tatmadaw propagated that it was part of the democratic transition by ratifying the 2008 constitution. The 2008 constitution barely moved the country away from military dictatorship, it created a system of electoral voting for 75% of the parliament, but continued to restrict civil society and freedoms. According to Dahl’s necessary conditions for democracy, the Myanmar constitution meets none of the opportunities due to a failure to commit to more institutional guarantees (Dahl, 3). Put simply, gaining the ability to vote does not create democracy, the lack of personal freedoms and government’s power to skew the electoral process in favor of the incumbent presented challenges for actual democratic forces in Myanmar (Levitsky & Way, 58 ).
The more dangerous precedent that the 2008 constitution created was the legitimization and link between military hardliners and a new constitutionalist faction of the military. To support the constitution became an act of supporting military control. The military could then use “the language of the constitution…to alert the army to be prepared to take steps” if necessary (Stepan, 202). An additional benefit of creating a competitive authoritarian model, was the creation of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military’s civilian political party. Instead of worrying about the “destruction of institutional unity and a desire to purge many actors” ( Stepan, 210 ) The Myanmar structure allows military soft liners to ‘retire’ and join the USDP as a politician. This can be most accurately seen in the 2010 elections of Thein Sein, a former general who entered into the Presidency as a civilian member of the USDP.
The change back to military dictatorship, the collapse of the lie
The fundamental problem with propagating the lie that the military in Myanmar is for democracy, is when it comes into contact with political opposition in the form of real democratic movements. The National League for Democracy has been consistent in its attempt to assert civilian control of the military and to get the military out of politics in Myanmar. In early 2020, the NLD attempted to pass an amendment to phase out the military’s 25% mandated hold on legislative seats. While the amendment failed, it marked a clear signal to the military elite that their propaganda could be countered by outside forces.
The election in 2020 marked the columniation of worries for the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw was expecting the NLD to lose seats in 2020. However, their estimates were proven wrong. The 2020 election saw a victory and a gain of 3 more seats in the house of nationalities and 3 more seats in the house of representatives, the most seats gained for the NLD surpassing the 2015 election landslide. Disastrously for the Tatmadaw, the USDP lost seats in both chambers, further limiting military control. Suspicions grew that former military leaders may have voted against the USDP, due to the anonymity of the 2020 election, signaling a weakening of the military elite.
General Min Aung Hlaing and the military hardliners had a few guarantees that a coup could be conducted without elite fracture. Economic interests for the military junta were largely protected, as China and Thailand made up a majority of trade partners. The military produced another propaganda lie by claiming the election was fraudulent , and that by the powers of the constitution the military could and would intervene to correct the issue. The military sent a formal complaint to the Union Election Commission to act within the confides of the state rather than immediately conducting a coup, signaling to soft-liners the willingness to constrain its actions. When these complaints were rejected citing lack of evidence, the military moved towards seizing outright control. Much like in the 1990 election, the military did not like the outcome of the election, tried to use the 2008 framework to get the election thrown out, and used its power to destroy the illusion of free elections to call a national emergency.
The coup on February 1st 2020 in Myanmar represents a military elite threatened with actual democratic change, using its own form of ‘disciplined democracy’ to suppress reform and remain in power. The Tatmadaw still views itself as following the 2008 constitution, claiming the national emergency will last only a year. It remains to be seen when or if a civilian government will come back to Myanmar. True democratic change will come to Myanmar when a new constitution is created, current institutional power overwhelmingly supports the military.