ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

The Thai Playbook for Myanmar’s Coup Leaders

Myanmar’s generals could look to their eastern neighbor for tips on how to preserve their hold on power.

By Zachary Abuza for
The Thai Playbook for Myanmar’s Coup Leaders

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha speaking at the 2017 World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit in Bangkok.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On February 1, the Myanmar military seized power in a bloodless (so far) coup d’etat.  The army, known as the Tatmadaw, had held power from 1962 to 2010, when it began to loosen its stranglehold on politics. At nation elections in 2015, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) scored a clear and decisive victory, but had to enter into a power sharing agreement with the military, which had 25 per cent of the seats in parliament, controlled three key ministries, and had no civilian oversight of its budget, promotions, or personnel. The coup follows the absolute drubbing that the NLD inflicted on the Tatmadaw’s political vehicle, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), at the November 2020 elections.

The defeat was not just a humiliation, but an existential threat. The NLD won 83 percent of all contested seats in the two chambers of parliament. The USDP won just 7 percent. Even with the military’s constitutionally allocated 25 percent of parliamentary seats, Aung San Suu Kyi was getting perilously close to having the three-quarters of total seats needed to seek a referendum to amend the constitution and strip it of provisions that enshrine the military’s political role: including its block representation, its control of ministries, the lack of civilian oversight, or even the provision that bans Aung San Suu Kyi from being the president.

It’s important to note that this is not the first time that the Tatmadaw has annulled the results of an election. Following elections in 1990, which the NLD also won in a landslide, the results were overturned, and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for 15 years, while top NLD leaders and activists were imprisoned.

In launching the coup, the military announced that it would hold onto power for a year before relinquishing it to a civilian government. That seems unlikely. So what can we expect from Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing?

The best guess is to look next door to Thailand, where there have been two coup d’etats since 2006 because the military’s political foes have won every election that they have contested since 2000. The Thai junta has largely written the playbook for their Burmese counterparts.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Following his 2014 coup, General Prayut Chan-o-cha suspended parliament and the constitution. He established an appointed legislature that was dominated by military, police, and trusted ultra royalist civilians.

A new constitution was drafted, which was designed to weaken large political parties (such as the Pheu Thai). The constitution allowed for a 250-person upper House of Parliament that was appointed by the military. That body – in a highly unusual process in a parliamentary system – votes for the prime minister, who is normally elected from only the lower house.

The junta-drafted constitution enshrined an inordinate amount of power in the hands of appointed “independent” bodies.

The most important of these was the Election Commission, which has constantly had its thumb on the scale. The Election Commission, in working with the very pro-military judicial system, routinely disqualified opposition figures from holding office, banning them on technicalities, and always ignoring the same breaches of pro-military politicians.  The Election Commission and courts routinely banned entire political parties and disqualified their senior executives from political activities for 5-10 year periods.

The courts have continued to harass opposition politicians. The leading opposition figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, whose Future Forward party emerged out of nowhere and garnered the third largest number of seats by capturing the youth vote in the 2019 election, has faced over 30 different legal cases against him and his party, which was dissolved in February 2020, while Thanathorn was also removed from parliament and disqualified from politics.

Although Prayut promised to hold democratic elections within two years, they were delayed for almost five years.

When elections were held, they were largely rigged, though in legal ways. There was extreme gerrymandering to lessen the vote in opposition strongholds. There was widespread malapportionment of the vote, especially in the allocation of the party list seats. The largest party, the opposition Pheu Thai was awarded none (having won 136 in the first past the post system), but the military’s party, Palang Pracharat (PPRP), which won the second largest number of seats (97), was awarded 19. Having won a plurality of the votes, the Pheu Thai should have been allowed to form a government. The military prevented that from happening.

And finally, the military and its civilian backed government led by General Prayut, though now out of uniform, has used a host of coercive, subjective, and arbitrary laws to quell dissent and harass the opposition.

This is the playbook for Min Aung Hlaing as he angles for the presidency in a distinctly minority government.

He has detained the key opposition figures, including the leadership of the NLD. And as Aung San Suu Kyi herself is 75 and the average age of the top four detained NLD leaders is 73, simply stalling for time is a key strategy. One year could easily turn into three years, or five. No one should take him at his word that democracy will be restored in a year.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Min Aung Hlaing has already announced the formation of a new Union Election Commission to investigate alleged voter fraud, the cassus belli for the coup.  The new and appointed body will then get to work at figuring out how to rig the system.

For one thing, they will likely eliminate the first past the post voting system. Although the USDP got clobbered at the polls, their share of the vote proportionally was far higher. They will likely create a party list system, which will allow them to allocate seats.

They will then use the coercive powers of the state to weaken the opposition. Political leaders and dissidents will be arrested and harassed; many will be disqualified on technical grounds, including through new laws applied retroactively. Social media and the internet, when they are not shut down, will be closely monitored.

In his first televised address, Min Aung Hlaing, promised that the country would become a “true and disciplined democracy.” Emphasis on disciplined.

Since 2012, the NLD has not only won every election or by-election they have contested, its has dominated the elections.

The Tatmadaw simply cannot believe its degree of unpopularity. The generals live isolated in Naypyidaw, the rest of the military and their family in cantonments, watching military-run TV and listening to military-controlled radio, isolated from the rest of society. They believe they are the truest patriots for their role in fighting off secessionist movements. But they lack any self awareness that it is their 73-year history of scorched earth campaigns, their failure to ever address core grievances and seek a negotiated settlement, that has fueled the insurgencies and caused such suffering.

The Thai military, for all its faults and despite its long history of political interference, has not been as brutal as the Tatmadaw. Its interventions in politics are legitimized by the king who has, with rare exceptions, signed off on its coups. And the military’s party, the PPRP, has shown an ability to go out and compete in the democratic space; it after all, did win the second largest share of the vote in 2019. Though there have been mass protests against the government since mid-2020, the Thai government and its security forces have been relatively restrained.

The Tatmadaw has a long history of brutality and egregious human rights abuses, including genocide. It remains enormously unpopular. And it has crushed the dreams and aspirations of a generation that has experienced democracy, openness to the outside world, relative freedom of the press, and social media for the past ten years. It is in their DNA to crack down, but this is a very different Myanmar than what took to the streets in 1988, or even 2007.

Zachary Abuza specializes in Southeast Asian politics and security at the National War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the opinions of NWC or the Department of Defense.