Can cops make a coup

Myanmar's “veto coup” in 2021: an attempt at interpretation

In the past, military “veto coups” occurred frequently in those states in which the armed forces play a leading role in society. In Southeast Asia, the military plays this prominent role in Myanmar and Thailand - both countries have experienced coups. On February 1, 2021, the military staged another coup in Myanmar. Since the country's army has close and long-standing ties to the Thai army and both armies have a tendency to coups, the question arises to what extent the coup of February 2021 can be explained from the history of the coup (attempts) on the Southeast Asian mainland. Is Myanmar following the Thai example?

The coup took place so unexpectedly that it took many observers of the situation in Myanmar by surprise. The time was determined by numerology: set at 3 a.m. on February 1, 2021, these numbers resulted in Myanmar's lucky number nine (0300 on February 1, 21 results in 9). And everything seemed so well-meaning: General Min Aung Hlaing, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, declared that he just had to put the country in a one-year state of emergency until another election. However, there was nothing rosy about it. In the course of a series of searches, soldiers arrested government officials and local politicians as well as staff of the ruling party “National League for Democracy” (NLD) including Aung Suu Kyi, Myanmar's eternal icon of freedom. She could be captured again for years. Many of the country's residents went into hiding. Although a civilian government had been in power since 2016, the country's pseudo-democracy is now history in one fell swoop. Against the background that Myanmar's last coup in 1962 led to decades of direct military rule, the black painters cannot be held responsible for suggesting Myanmar Tatmadaw (the armed forces) would now be long-term rulers again. Why the coup of 2021? How do the reasons for the 1962 coup relate to those for the 2021 coup?

The military of Myanmar and Thailand have had close ties for a long time. The Myanmar military has for many years been impressed by the way the Thai military maintains power in Thailand. The fascination of Tatmadaw of the Thai armed forces, it suggests looking at coups in Thailand to better understand those in Myanmar.

The 1962 coup

Ever since independence leader Aung San was executed in 1947, they have been Tatmadaw almost always the ruling power in the country, due to its monopoly on violence and the privilege derived from it to dominate society. The leader of the 1962 coup, General Ne Win, stated at the time that one of the main reasons for the coup was to try to halt the economic, administrative and political collapse of Burma (among the Tatmadaw the name of the state was changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989). Leadership figures of the Tatmadaw also found Burma's parliamentary system to be extremely fragile and riddled with corrupt politicians, while soldiers had to shed blood to hold the country together. They felt they were the more capable leaders after leading the country out of colonial rule and fighting for stabilization since independence. In 1962 the state had become much more state-centered and the Tatmadaw wanted to secure their bureaucratic interests.[1] Tumults in parliament and ongoing rebellions across the country provided further excuses for the coup.

The 2006 Thai coup

Since 1980 the conditions in Thailand have been characterized by an autocratic arrangement between the monarchy and the military (the latter as a junior partner in this relationship). Attempts to establish a democracy have always turned out to be sideline. The main reason for the 2006 coup was likely to drive Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra out of office, who was hugely popular with the rural poor (and thus dangerous for the established interests of the elite), and put Thailand back on the path of dominance by To lead the monarchy and the military. Thaksin, elected prime minister in a landslide victory in 2001, was re-elected in 2005, with an absolute majority in parliament. He had great influence on the police and a growing faction within the military. Even the judiciary and many state organs were interspersed with people he had named. However, the king had turned his back on Thaksin in early 2006, and a group of former senior military officials began planning the coup, led by the Chairman of the Royal Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda [2]. When the coup began on September 19, 2006, many Thais were torn in their reaction to the action - as the widely respected king supported the action.

The 2014 coup in Thailand

The 2014 coup was a re-enactment of the 2006 coup: concocted to overthrow a ruling coalition led by Thaksin - formally under that of his sister Yingluck (who took office in 2011 after a landslide victory). Right from the start, your government set about reversing the 2006 constitutional amendments made by the putschists. The reason for the coup was ostensibly to protect the monarchy, but actually to secure the power of the military after 2006 - especially the power of its most important faction, “Buraphapayak”. The impending death of the ailing old king reinforced the military leaders and some aristocrats in their belief that no pro-Thaksin government should be in office during this unstable period. The chaos intensified when Yingluck's opponents occupied some parts of Bangkok and thus provided even more reasons for the putschists to intervene. The Thais were again divided on the question of whether they should approve of the coup.

This coup led to the five-year reign of a junta that introduced a constitution that was balanced with it. This constitution established a junta-appointed Senate and a new electoral formula for House of Commons elections that made an absolute majority of any political party impossible. In the 2019 elections, which were carried out by a judiciary and authorities appointed by the junta, the junta's party "Palang Pracharat" also won the polls (by benefiting from the new vote counting formula). The leader of the 2014 coup, Prayuth Chan-ocha, then took office and is expected to rule until at least the next general election in 2023.

This is how Thailand's model of managed democracy presents itself Tatmadaw surely would like to take over.

The 2021 coup in Myanmar

The military rule in Myanmar lasted from 1962 to 2011 when one of the Tatmadaw tolerated hybrid pseudo-democracy was used. This “democracy” from 2011 to 2021 was in itself a deception, since the Tatmadaw retained autonomous control over the monopoly of force. Upon seizure of power, the military claimed without evidence that the November 2020 elections were flawed, with a vague prospect of holding new elections within a year. More likely, however, was the insight on the part of the coup Tatmadawthat political dominance was slowly but surely threatening to slip away; after two clear super landslide victories by Aung San Suu Kyi's “National League for Democracy”. In fact, they could Tatmadaw to maintain their powers only if, under the 2008 Constitution (which the Tatmadaw self-created) were still entitled to 25 percent of the seats in the lower and upper houses.

In addition, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces Min Aung Hlaing (who had succeeded his long-time sponsor Than Shwe in 2011) understood that time was not on his side. He would have been forced to resign in July 2021, and his successor would have been appointed by the civilian president after consulting the National Security and Defense Council. The general had already tried to position himself as president in 2021, but the "Union Solidarity and Development Party" (USDP), the parliamentary arm of the Tatmadaw, won only 33 out of a possible 476 seats in the elections. after the Tatmadaw threatened not to recognize the election results, the coup took place on the day of the opening session of the new parliament. So why this coup?

First of all, the politically ambitious General Min Aung Hlaing lost the presidential election. Without an electoral office, however, the general and his military allies faced the loss of their immunity for alleged war crimes against Burmese ethnic groups. At the same time, an NLD election victory would have threatened the generals' economic interests. General Min Aung Hlaing himself controls two military conglomerates: Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). His son, daughter and wife also each run their own businesses. Other generals have very similar interests, whether they are retired or on active service. The family of retired General Than Shwe, the former leader of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) junta, allegedly controls the entire jade industry in Myanmar. Rumor has it that Than Shwe, who is still hugely influential in the Tatmadaw, green light for the coup on February 1st.

In contrast to the coups in Thailand in 2006 and 2014, citizens of Myanmar are together on the streets against the coup. Given that the Burmese military used violence in the past to stifle protests, it is feared that the Tatmadaw this time too, we will rely on a strategy of violence.


All four coups have in common that they can be described as “veto coups” - according to the definitions of Huntington (1957) and David (1987). “Veto coups” are coups designed to destroy mass participation and social mobilization that could threaten property rights.[3] Such coups can happen relatively easily in both Thailand and Myanmar, as both states can be classified as “Praetorian” as “the military tends to intervene and the political system could dominate”.[4] Both states differ in that the officer corps is in the Tatmadaw as a privileged economic class in and for itself - and the most powerful in the country. [5] With the exception of Aung San Suu Kyi, civilian politicians do not have enough popularity to exercise this power of Tatmadaw to be able to question. If the top leaders of this class (Than Shwe, Min Aung Hlaing) deem it necessary to overthrow a weak civilian government, they can and will do so.

In Thailand, on the other hand, the military is the bearer of the monopoly of violence and draws part of its strength from the legitimacy it has gained as guardian of the monarchy - especially under the former King Rama IX, who is loved by many Thais and father of the current king. The last two coups were also facilitated by the fact that Thais are divided over support for Thaksin.

The Tatmadaw would like to see the successes of the Thai junta between 2014-2019 in cementing military influence across the country in Myanmar as well. However, it will be much more difficult to establish a political party in Myanmar similar to the successes of the Thai military, with appropriate constitutional rules and a judicial apparatus that is tailored to ensure the dominance of the military loyal to the king. After all, the Thai junta had persuaded or bought various groups (and networks for voting) from political giants who had competed against each other in several elections to set up “Palang Pracharat”. In Myanmar, on the other hand, there is absolutely no recent history of electoral processes involving a political arm of the Tatmadaw could even bring elements together to build a political party. In this respect, this could prove to be a difficult task, as much as the Myanmar generals would like to learn from Thailand in buying support to secure a “disciplined democracy”. But how about the desire of the Tatmadaw After imitating Thai conditions to affirm a militarily dominated democracy, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth received a letter from junta leader Min Aung Hlaing in mid-February 2021, asking the former head of the Thai junta for help with Myanmar's own "democratic process".

Should be the political arm of the Tatmadaw unable to establish such a pseudo-democracy, it is to be feared that the country will return to military rule for several years. This is the dark tunnel of autocracy where Myanmar's past could become its future.


[1] Callahan, M. (2004): Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, p. 205. [2] See Chambers, P. (2013): A Short History of Military influence in Thailand. In: Chambers, P. (Ed.): Knights of the Realm: Thailand's Military and Police, Then and Now, Bangkok: White Lotus Press, Chapter 2. [3] Huntington, S. (1957): The Soldier and the State . The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; David, S. R. (1987): Third World Coups d'Etat, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. [4] Perlmutter, A. (1969): The Praetorian State and the Praetorian Army: Toward a Taxonomy of Civil-Military Relations in Developing Polities. Comparative Politics 1 (3), p. 383. [5] See Crouch, M. (2019): The Constitution of Burma: A Contextual Analysis, Oxford: Hart Publishing, Chapter 3.

The article has already appeared in English on the PRIF blog.

The translation was done by David Scheuing.

Paul Chambers is Lecturer and Special Advisor at the Center of ASEAN Community Studies, the Faculty of Social Sciences, Naresuan University, Thailand. As an affiliate with PRIF, he contributed to PRIF's research as part of the project "Cultural Effects of Global Norm Transmission for SSR". / Paul Chambers is a senior lecturer and special advisor at the Center of ASEAN Community Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Naresuan University, Thailand. At PRIF he did research as part of the project "Cultural Effects of Global Norm Transmission for SSR".

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