Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

The Return of Military Rule in South and Southeast Asia

Coups and military interventions are on the rise, with disastrous implications for good governance and accountability.

The Return of Military Rule in South and Southeast Asia

A Thai soldier mans his machine gun atop a military vehicle outside the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO) after soldiers were sent in to seize the center Tuesday, May 20, 2014 in Bangkok, Thailand.

Credit: AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn

In the 2000s and early 2010s, South and Southeast Asia made significant democratic progress. Countries including Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Timor-Leste became solid democracies or made transitions in that direction. But in the past decade, South and Southeast Asia have suffered some of the sharpest democratic regressions of any regions.

No one factor has caused South and Southeast Asia’s democratic regression. Yet the revival (or in some places the continuance) of military interference in civilian governance has become an important factor in democracy’s retreat. This regional trend was capped in February 2021, when the Myanmar armed forces seized power. Yet that coup was only the most visible sign of the revival of military political power in the region.

This military revival, like the broader global democratic regression, is part of an international trend. Around the world, more coups were attempted in 2021 than in the prior five years combined, according to a database compiled by the University of Central Florida and the University of Kentucky. Yet the resurgence of military political power is particularly notable in Southeast Asia, given that many of the states of the region had previously advanced toward becoming consolidated democracies.

The effects of renewed military meddling on democracies, societies, and economies are almost uniformly negative. They halt democratization, spark significant bloodshed, and create governments that are terrible at ruling. They also potentially prompt coups in neighboring states and hurt democratization within an entire region. Overall, the return of military involvement in governing in the region will set back democracy by years, foster violence, and likely impede economic development.

The Military’s Retreat

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

During the Cold War, military rule often was the norm in South and Southeast Asia – and other parts of the world. Countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Thailand endured long periods of army rule, in some cases with the explicit backing of major powers. In many of these countries, the armed forces viewed themselves as the central institution in society. As the journalist David Hutt has noted, armies in Southeast Asia saw themselves as “guardians of the nation” and “the people’s arm[ies].” Even as the world changed and the region democratized, this self-image would prove difficult to dislodge.

Yet in the late Cold War and post-Cold War eras, the number of coups began to decrease. In the 2000s, for instance, only 10 coups succeeded around the world. Many militaries in South and Southeast Asia seemed to have withdrawn or been pushed out of civilian politics. In Thailand, protests in Bangkok against the coup government in 1992 drew large numbers of middle-class Thais. After members of the armed forces murdered protestors, the Thai king intervened and shamed the top army leader, which seemed to discredit the Royal Thai Army. Indeed, Thailand enjoyed an unbroken string of civilian governments between 1992 and 2006, the longest in its modern history. It built a relatively strong democracy and in 1997 passed a progressive new constitution.

In Myanmar, the military had seized power in 1962, but by the late 1980s, the army’s disastrous policies had so ruined the economy that massive protests erupted in 1988 and brought Aung San Suu Kyi to public prominence. The army crushed those protests, but their spirit kindled the next three decades of pro-democracy actions. Similarly, in Indonesia, massive rights abuses by the military in the 1990s and the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998 cast the armed forces in a horrendous light and revealed the extent of the graft within the regime and the army. And in Pakistan in the early 2010s, the two main civilian parties (whose leaders had been removed in prior coups) openly critiqued the military and diminished the army’s domestic political powers.

Meanwhile, the powerful patrons that had often backed military client states during the Cold War shifted away from these policies. The Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia would not play a significant role supporting military regimes outside its own neighborhood until the early 2020s. U.S. presidents began devoting fresh rhetorical attention to the promotion of democracy. The U.S. Congress already had passed a law requiring the suspension of military aid to any country if the U.S. government formally declares that a coup has taken place.

The Return of the Coup

In recent years, however, militaries have reclaimed power from civilian rulers, either in obvious ways or by regaining influence behind the scenes as the sizable number of coups in 2021 demonstrates. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who grew up under military rule in Portugal, is increasingly worried about the growing number of military takeovers and has publicly expressed fear of a new “epidemic of coups.”

Although militaries have reclaimed power in multiple regions, the trend has been particularly prominent in South and Southeast Asia. The Myanmar armed forces openly seized power last year, but  Myanmar is far from unique in the region. The Thai armed forces staged a coup in 2006 and allowed elections the next year, won by essentially the same party they had deposed the year before. But in 2014, the Royal Thai Army staged another, much harsher coup; it did not hold elections for five years. In the intervening period, the army quashed opposition and ratified a new constitution that weakened civilian politicians and all but guaranteed continued military control over domestic politics. In addition, as Thai scholar Puangthong Pawakapan has noted, the Thai armed forces have expanded their power over civilian state functions, filling government posts with soldiers from the Internal Security Operations Command. Finally, in 2019, the army transferred power to what is essentially a military-installed government.

The armed forces have gained prominence in Cambodia as well, albeit in a different way. They have increasingly strengthened ties to the country’s leader Hun Sen, who has been prime minister or co–prime minister since 1985. Hun Sen’s son and presumed successor, Hun Manet, has been groomed by rising through the military to the top position in the army.

In Indonesia, the armed forces, which dominated domestic politics during the Suharto era, have again become a driving force in political affairs. Military officers have not directly seized power, but with the acceptance of President Joko Widodo have regained control of critical ministries dealing with domestic issues and again become omnipresent in civilian politics.     In South Asia, militaries have reasserted themselves as well. A coup in the Maldives in 2012 deposed elected leader Mohamed Nasheed, and the military continues to wield outsize power there, occupying parliament in 2017. In Sri Lanka, meanwhile, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has filled government posts with military men, creating a civilian-military nexus that has given the armed forces much greater power over many domestic issues.

In Pakistan, a country with a long history of military putsches, no textbook coup has occurred since the one in 1999 that overthrew Nawaz Sharif, but the Pakistani military has gained increasing control over civilian politics since the late 2010s. It now operates behind the scenes to control security issues and, to a significant extent, domestic politics. In current Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, the armed forces seem to have found their ideal front man. Khan has extended the terms and thus boosted the powers of army leaders and has been compliant as the army expands its influence over domestic affairs.

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

Wealth, Power, and the Barrel of a Gun

Why have militaries in South and Southeast Asia revived their power over civilian politics? For one thing, despite militaries’ full or partial retreats from politics after the Cold War, most civilian leaders, in places like Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, or Thailand, never sustained efforts to establish real civilian command over armed forces, or to permanently reduce militaries’ political influence. And most states failed to institute formal structures to keep armies from returning to major roles in domestic politics or to remove military control over state companies. With generals or admirals still in charge of these firms, militaries have incentives to overthrow civilian governments if they think political leaders might liberalize state firms that often serve as a source of army sinecures.

Civilian leaders in these states also generally did not address past military human rights abuses, fostering a climate of impunity. In Thailand, almost no one was held accountable for the killing of protestors in Bangkok in 1992. In Pakistan, despite efforts by civilian governments to try Gen. Pervez Musharraf for treason for leading the 1999 coup, higher courts prevented a trial from occurring at first. Although Musharraf ultimately was found guilty of high treason, he is unlikely to face any punishment. He was allowed to leave Pakistan and reportedly lives in Dubai in a luxury tower.

Partly because there were no real efforts to punish them for past actions, armies in places such as Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Thailand – and to some extent Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka – continued to see themselves as playing special roles as guardians of the state’s interests.

Civilian politicians in the 2000s and early 2010s also failed to downsize armed forces. One study released in 2015 found that Thailand still had more than 300,000 active military personnel, despite having no clear enemies. By contrast, the U.S. Army has roughly 480,000 active-duty members. Such large militaries not only continued to view themselves as major political players but simply had the manpower to continue to dominate many aspects of society and threaten civilian politicians.

Civilian leaders also did not take serious steps to retrain militaries from accepting civilian control. This was never going to be an easy task, but few democratic leaders made the effort to specifically promote officers committed to civilian control or staff military academies with outsiders who would teach courses about issues like civilian command. The few politicians who understood the need to curtail army power and promote new types of officers, such as former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, tried to do so in non-transparent ways that ultimately backfired. Thaksin made efforts to limit the power of older officers, but he did so while also trying to appoint his relatives to military positions.

Major global powers also are to blame for the return of the men in green. By vacillating in their approach to coups, they signal to potential coup stagers – especially those who can claim some strategic value to Washington or other powers – that there will be little or no punishment for their actions. As Bloomberg’s Bobby Ghosh has noted, this then emboldens other military leaders. The U.S., increasingly distracted by its own domestic problems, has had no clear policy in recent years, and its inaction emboldens potential coup-makers. Although the U.S. at least initially condemned the 2014 coup in Thailand and froze a minimal amount of security assistance to Thailand, it and other democratic powers moved to normalize relations with the kingdom, a U.S. treaty ally and a critical regional partner.

Washington’s ability to limit coups is further undermined because trust in the U.S. version of democracy has significantly declined. A recent Pew Research Center study found that only 17 percent of respondents believed that the United States today sets a good example of democracy for other countries to follow.

Regional organizations in Southeast Asia have not helped when confronted with modern-day coups either. Although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) excluded Myanmar’s junta leader from its annual summit in 2021, many ASEAN leaders are autocrats themselves and seem eager to welcome Myanmar fully back into the group, whether or not the Myanmar military relinquishes power. Cambodia’s Hun Sen – Cambodia is the 2022 ASEAN chair – has said that Myanmar should be invited back to regional meetings.

Even if the U.S. and other major powers condemn coups, militaries have more of a counterweight today than they did at any time since the Cold War. China and Russia have become more powerful actors on the global stage, and militaries have learned that connections to Beijing and Moscow can fend off pressure from democracies. Facing broad sanctions from democracies, the Myanmar junta has rapidly expanded its relationship with Russia; junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing has visited Moscow, and the regime has taken new deliveries of Russian weapons.

China also has stepped in after coups to counterbalance pressure from democracies, though it acts more subtly than Russia and does not always appear so favorable toward coups. The Thai military quickly looked to bolster ties with China following its 2014 coup. In 2021, China has continued to support the coup government in Myanmar, though it has appointed a special envoy to Myanmar and appears more concerned about the effects of the coup and the regional ramifications than Russia.

The Costs of the Coup

The return of military rule is destructive to democracy and development in recipient countries in multiple ways.  Coups not only provide little stability but almost always slow any transition to democracy, sometimes indefinitely. “Coups increase the chance of a new dictatorship but do not exert a noticeable effect on the chance of democratization,” notes a statistical analysis of recent coups by scholars Joseph Wright and Barbara Geddes. According to a study by Freedom House, “Democratic conditions usually remain worse long after the troops have returned to their barracks. . . . The damage done by an initial coup can leave a [political] system weakened and vulnerable to further disruptions.”

Coups also often spark brutal violence and crackdowns. These human rights abuses are antithetical to democratic restoration – and also make military rulers less likely to step back out of fear of being held accountable. In an era in which coup opponents can use social media to coordinate and fight back, coups are often followed by large-scale street protests and then bloody crackdowns or even guerrilla wars, such as in Myanmar currently. Wright and Geddes’s studies have shown not only that coups usually foster new autocracies, but that they also spark high levels of state violence and human rights abuses.

Coups also can lead to a self-perpetuating “coup culture” among armed forces. Multiple studies have shown that countries that experience coups have a higher likelihood of suffering future coups. This “coup culture,” in which senior military officers teach younger officers that coups are a viable political option, has clearly developed in places such as Pakistan and Thailand, which has had 22 coups and coup attempts since the end of its absolute monarchy in 1932.

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

In many ways, military rulers encourage regional autocratization, since militaries often support other regional armies that are meddling in politics. In parts of Southeast Asia and South Asia, for instance, armed forces help keep armies in control in neighboring states. Leaders of the current Thai military enjoy close relations with Myanmar coup leaders, for instance, and appear to have guided some of the early actions of Myanmar’s junta. Thailand has reportedly been one of the countries within ASEAN most focused on allowing Myanmar to return as a full member.

In addition, for democratic opponents, it is more difficult to get rid of military governments than it is to remove illiberal populists or other types of elected strongmen. Although illiberal populist leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban do degrade democracy in office, they still face elections that are somewhat free and fair. In an environment where even semi-free elections are still held, it is possible, though difficult, to oust such leaders. In the Czech Republic, populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis was defeated in elections in October 2021. But men in green cannot be voted out of office, and if they do agree to hold elections, such as the Thai generals in 2019, they create stilted electoral systems to ensure the armed forces stay in charge.

Military rulers are also usually incompetent at governance, and create major humanitarian problems that impede development and spill over into neighboring countries. While the governing experiences of illiberal populists vary, with some strongmen such as Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro destroying their countries’ economies and societies, others have merged antidemocratic political strategies with economic policies that promote growth and social welfare gains. They have done so, most likely, because they still have to face voters, even in elections that are not totally free and fair, and effective economic policies help at the ballot box.

But military rulers, with few exceptions, have produced disastrous governance. They do not need to please at the ballot box and instead center their governance around ensuring that the armed forces remain powerful and that senior leaders retain important sources of revenue. Military rulers often pursue policies that foster corruption, with funds flowing to the armed forces, and which often exacerbate inequality, opaqueness, and consolidation in industries, with contracts and deals going to businesspeople with army links. The Thai coup government of 2014–19, for instance, boosted military spending and presided over a widening of inequality in what was already one of the most unequal countries in the world, as allies of the military gained contracts and deals, and corruption reigned.

In other countries, too, military governments manage the economy and other important areas incompetently. The Myanmar armed forces have enriched themselves, fostered corruption by favoring a small number of tycoons close to the armed forces, and ensured that the army retains control of the biggest state companies. The Myanmar military appears to have no coherent plan to address the country’s COVID-19 crisis and economy. Because of graft, the favoring of certain tycoons, weak social spending, civil strife, and this failed pandemic response, Myanmar’s economy is collapsing. Indeed, estimates suggest half the country could fall into poverty this year.

Coups and other types of military interventions also often implement policies that cause humanitarian problems that extend into neighboring states. They can cause intrastate violence that often spills over borders as both militaries and anti-coup fighters cross into and out of neighboring states. In Myanmar anti-military fighters are moving in and out of India and Thailand, and the Myanmar military has launched air strikes along the Thai border and possibly within Thailand itself.

Coups also can spread disease. Since the February 2021 Myanmar putsch, the junta’s misgovernment has helped spread strains of COVID-19 out of the country, causing Myanmar to be labeled a “super-spreader state.” In addition, the military takeover and the civil strife that has erupted has led to the forcible displacement of over 200,000 people. Many have fled into Bangladesh, India, and Thailand, further straining existing refugee camps. Ultimately, if South and Southeast Asia continue to fall prey to growing military involvement in civilian politics, both democracy and development may be imperiled in the long-term.

This article is adapted from a new Council on Foreign Relations Discussion Paper, “The Revival of Military Rule in Southeast Asia: Dangers to the Region’s Democratic Future,” which can be accessed here.