In the world of authoritarian regimes, the longevity of autocratic leaders often hinges on the institutions they establish and control. Myanmar has been a prime example of this dynamic, how institutional arrangements play a pivotal role in sustaining the rule of the military junta led by General Min Aung Hlaing. This article delves into the mechanics of institutional design in Myanmar, revealing how these arrangements have propelled the junta’s grip on power in Myanmar, drawing insights from Jennifer Ghandi and Adam Przeworski’s seminal paper “Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats.”
The Authoritarian Typology of Myanmar
Ghandi and Przeworski’s framework, as outlined in their paper, categorizes authoritarian regimes into distinct types. With its powerful military junta, Myanmar fits squarely within the “military junta” category. The military, also known as the Tatmadaw, has long held a dominant role in the country’s political landscape, exerting control over key institutions, including the executive, legislative, and judiciary. The story of Myanmar’s military junta dates back to 1962 when General Ne Win led a coup, ushering in decades of authoritarian rule. While the country ostensibly transitioned to a quasi-civilian government in 2011, the military’s institutional influence endured (Turnell, 2011). In recent times, the 2021 coup d’état led by General Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar occurred on February 1, 2021, involving a political maneuver that led to the transfer of power from a democratically elected government to the military (McKenna, 2023).
The Military as the Dominant Institution Power and Control
One of the key institutional arrangements sustaining the junta is the military’s preeminent role in Myanmar’s governance. The Tatmadaw’s grip extends far beyond defense and security; it permeates the highest levels of government. Notably, the 2008 constitution, drafted by the military, reserves key positions for military personnel. Key positions in the government, including the presidency, are constitutionally reserved for military personnel. Foremost among these is Article 436, which grants the military a quarter of the seats in both the national parliament’s upper and lower chambers and a third of the seats in the state and regional parliaments. Furthermore, due to the requirement that constitutional amendments secure more than a 75 percent majority in the parliament, the military’s prescribed 25 percent representation provides it with substantial influence to effectively block any proposed modifications (Nehru, 2015). This arrangement gives the military a significant say in the nation’s political affairs. Moreover, the military’s grip extends to the economy, with many enterprises controlled by military-affiliated unions.
Control of Key Institutions
In Myanmar, institutional control extends well beyond the halls of government. The junta has established influence over key institutions, including the ministers of defense, home affairs, border affairs, foreign affairs, the police, intelligence services, and state-owned enterprises. Certainly, military personnel, both those currently serving and those who have retired, hold the majority of the high-ranking roles within government ministries, state-owned enterprises, and crucial public bodies, including entities like the Myanmar Investment Commission and the Union Election Commission (Nehru, 2015). This control facilitates the regime’s suppression of dissent and reinforces its authority.
As outlined in Przeworski’s paper, the institutional design profoundly influences the survival strategies employed by autocrats. In Myanmar, Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw have implemented various strategies to maintain their hold on power.
Loyalty of Elites: The military regime has maintained the loyalty of top military officials, ensuring that potential dissent or coup attempts are swiftly quashed. This tight control over the military has prevented any internal challenges to the regime’s authority. Throughout more than sixty years, Myanmar’s military has held sway, nurturing a deeply entrenched system characterized by militarization. This setting has created significant openings for individuals referred to as “cronies” who align with the military, constructing a system built on favoritism and nepotism within the military’s governing framework (ChinDwin, 2021).
Suppression of Oppositions: The regime has consistently employed harsh measures to suppress opposition, including the violent suppression of pro-democracy protests and the imprisonment of political rebels. The military’s control over law enforcement and the judiciary has facilitated these repressive tactics. Since February 1, 2021, the Myanmar junta has carried out extensive mass arrests, arbitrary detentions, and summary trials that do not adhere to international standards. Among those wrongfully convicted are a diverse group of individuals, including demonstrators, journalists, human rights activists, and members of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) party. To expedite politically sensitive cases, the junta has introduced “special courts” within prison facilities, diverting these cases away from standard criminal courts. These special courts impose significant restrictions on lawyers, including limitations on private client communications prior to hearings. Lawyers have reported that junta officials frequently obstruct or impede their professional duties, thereby depriving suspects of their right to due process and a fair trial (Maung, 2023).
Power-Sharing Arrangements: Myanmar’s constitution, drafted by the military, includes power-sharing arrangements that allow the Tatmadaw to retain substantial influence, even as Myanmar nominally transitioned to a civilian government in 2011. This has given the military significant leverage in key decisions and policies. The 2008 Constitution of Myanmar introduced a power-sharing arrangement between civilian authorities and the military, granting the military significant influence over crucial policy domains and bestowing upon them the authority to veto constitutional amendments. This constitution established a unique framework for the military, entitling them to special privileges, legal safeguards, and representation in state institutions, including the legislative and executive branches. In contrast to the customary practice in many nations, where the head of the executive typically holds the role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces, in Myanmar, the President did not assume this position. Instead, the military retained the role of Commander-in-Chief, enabling them to assume control during national crises that threatened unity. Additionally, the National Defense and Security Council, where the military held a predominant presence, played a pivotal role in shaping policy and overseeing executive functions(International Idea, 2022).
The most obvious is Myanmar’s 2021 coup which provides a real-world example of how institutional arrangements shaped the survival of Min Aung Hlaing’s regime. The coup showcased how the military’s institutional power and control enabled it to easily subvert the democratic transition. The regime’s survival has hinged on its ability to employ institutional arrangements that keep power concentrated within the military’s sphere of influence. Despite widespread domestic protests and international condemnation, the military’s institutional control has allowed Min Aung Hlaing to maintain a tenuous hold on power.
Through the lens of Jennifer Ghandi and Adam Przeworski’s paper, we can see how the institutional arrangements within authoritarian regimes, such as Myanmar’s military junta, significantly contribute to the survival of autocratic leaders like Min Aung Hlaing. The regime’s dominance over key institutions, combined with its survival strategies, has allowed it to weather domestic and international challenges, solidifying its rule. Understanding the dynamics of these institutional arrangements is vital for comprehending the junta’s resilience and the enduring influence of the Tatmadaw in Myanmar’s political arena. The end of the coup extends beyond the removal of General Min Aung Hlaing from power. The comprehensive remedy necessitates the demolition of the entire military institution, which exerts deep-seated influence throughout the fabric of our society.
ChinDwin. (2021, October 11). Unmasking a new face of Myanmar military’s crony.
International Idea. (2022, September). Constitutional profile Myanmar. Constitution https://constitutionnet.org/country/myanmar
Jennifer Ghandi and Adam Przeworski. (2007). “Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats”, Comparative Political Studies 40 (11): 1279-1301.
Maung, M. (2023, June 8). “Our numbers are dwindling.” Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/report/2023/06/08/our-numbers-are-dwindling/myanmars-post-coup-crackdown-lawyers
McKenna, A. (2023, October 10). 2021 Myanmar coup d’état. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/2021-Myanmar-coup-d-etat
Nehru, V. (2015, June 2). Myanmar’s military keeps firm grip on Democratic transition.
Turnell, S. (2011). Myanmar’s Fifty-Year Authoritarian Trap. Journal of International Affairs, 65(1), 79-92. URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24388183