Military coup in Myanmar and what can Pakistan learn about ‘Hybrid Democracy’ from it?
Early morning on Monday, February 01, Myanmar’s military moved in, took control of government installations, severed communication links across the country, arrested several political leaders – not least of whom is the tarnished Nobel Laureate and a world-renowned pro-democracy activist, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi – and declared a year-long state of emergency. Quickly then, the Commander-in-Chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, a controversial general called Mi Aung Hlaing, took over reins of power and appointed a dozen or so of his men as federal ministers, thus effectively completing his coup d’etat.
Myanmar’s armed forces – locally known as Tatmadaw – have said that their move was in response to alleged election fraud Ms Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), undertook to steal the nation’s November 2020 election. Interestingly, their action was in-line with the country’s constitution!
You see, quite like Pakistan, Myanmar has been ruled by its military for most of its history since its independence in 1948. In fact, the Tatmadaw has ruled the country directly between 1962, the year of its first coup, and 2011. The country began a complicated transition toward democracy in the latter half of the 2000s decade. During this period, in 2008, the military wrote the country’s constitution. In doing this, it made sure to formally build its own role in national politics into the constitution. The constitution mandates the appointment of a Vice-President by the Tatmadaw; reserves portfolios of the interior, defence and border affairs for serving officers; reserves 25% seats in the nation’s bi-cameral parliament (or, 166 seats amongst a total of 664 seats in the two houses) for the military; and, most notably, under its Article 417, allows the military to seize power in the name of national security. Of these, the last provision, i.e. Article 417, has been invoked to justify the power grab and it is this article that may mean that the coup is deemed constitutional.
However, let us pause here and address the white elephant in the room – i.e. the quintessential question that why should I – a Pakistani – care about any of this. The answer to this question is that in myriad ways the events in Myanmar can provide instruction to a Pakistani at multiple levels. Firstly, Myanmar resembles Pakistan. The two countries share experiences of being ruled by their militaries. However, unlike Pakistan, Myanmar represents a rather ‘advanced’ form of a ‘hybrid regime’.
Here, the Tatmadaw has formalized its role in national politics in ways listed above. It, then, shows one the next step up in the ‘hybrid democracy’ model. Pro-democracy circles in Pakistan may look upon Myanmar as an example of what would happen if our own military seeks to expand its influence and formalize it. More importantly, proponents of a hybrid model may look upon the Myanmar model as a new way forward, and one that may help iron out the tension that political observers believe exists between the Pakistan military and national political leadership. Simply put, by offering the military a direct role in governance and politics along Myanmar’s lines, we may be able to forge a ‘national unity’ political process that breaks free of the traditionally tense working relationship between civilians and the military. In doing so, a new dispensation may emerge where both can work together and reorient Pakistan’s governance challenge into one centred on development, foreign policy, et al.
Next, going off of the same tangent, Myanmar also offers a valuable lesson in trying out something along the above lines. The Tatmadaw has enjoyed both a direct stake in governance as well as very considerable indirect influence over the nation’s politics. Yet, neither of the two could prevent a coup d’etat. This tells us that there is no real roof over Bonapartist political ambition. Whereas an indirect role of any nation’s military can graduate into a direct, constitutional and institutionalized one, a directly involved/partnering military can still stage a full-blown coup if it feels its interests are not being served adequately.
In the case of Myanmar, Ms Aung San Suu Kyi is disliked by the Tatmadaw and her second back-to-back election victory did not settle well with the military. This is so primarily because of decades of adversarial pro-democracy and anti-military activism by Ms Kyi and her avowed intention to roll back the role as well as the influence of the military. The general who led the military through the coup, General Mi Aung Hlaing, has been the chief of the army since 2011. He enabled his own nine-year-long stint by seeking an extension in his years of service – which was granted in 2016 in the shape of change in retirement age of generals from 60 to 65 years. He was set to retire in July of this year. However, Ms Kyi’s electoral victory in November 2020 meant that he could not hope to renew his position and that his options to join politics as a retired officer-turned-politician would also not go anywhere, given the overwhelming popular support for Ms Kyi. So instead, he decided to seize power and appoint himself ruler of his country. By doing so, he hopes to undo the threat that Ms Kyi poses, scuttle once and for all her efforts to roll back the military’s power and, of course, secure his own political and personal fortunes.
So clearly, we can see that ‘hybrid democracy’ models are inherently unstable and, over the long run, thoroughly untenable. In case of Myanmar, presence of a disliked but popular political leader on the scene, competing interests of the military and civilians and then finally, the personal ambition of one general, brought down the entire democratic dispensation. Again, to re-emphasize, this happened in a context where the military has had an institutionalized direct role in governance. This is the most important takeaway for proponents of ‘hybrid democracy’ in Pakistan: Whether the military’s role is indirect and behind-the-scenes or direct and institutionalized, the ‘hybrid model’ itself is by its nature unstable and may eventually collapse. Proponents may take note of this and allow such to inform their thinking and efforts.
Having said that, the one final thing that we may watch in the Myanmar context is an international response to the coup. What the international community does will set the tone for the future of democracy and democratic dispensations around the world. This is so because right now a new president has entered the White House in the US. The new president, Mr Joe Biden, is an avowed pro-democracy proponent who has stated that he wants to convene a ‘Summit of Democracy’ soon. Here, Mr Biden views democratic dispensations as America’s allies and a check on China, the presumed rival to American power. Myanmar is Mr Biden’s first major foreign policy challenge and it is likely that he will attempt to put a shine on his pro-democracy credentials in the country.
Yet, Mr Biden is faced with a context where several regional powers have arisen and now enjoy considerable say in international affairs. This includes China, India, Japan, South Korea, and a number of other countries. These countries have their own interests and not all are convinced that the new military dispensation in Myanmar should be met with strong, proactive international action. In addition, around Myanmar, there are powerful regional dynamics in play, such as Bangladesh’s interest in the resolution of Myanmar’s Rohingya situation which is behind hundreds of thousands of refugees the country has to host; Japan’s publicly stated concern about international action pushing Myanmar further under China’s already considerable influence; and, neighboring Thailand and India’s willingness to work with Myanmar’s military for their own politico-economic reasons.
Thus, the complex dynamics surrounding the events in Myanmar will determine the international response to the coup. If nothing else, the response is likely to be fractured and indecisive. Irrespective, whatever the response is, will be watched closely by other militaries and non-political actors that seek power. In watching Myanmar, they will seek cues on what they might end up against should they move to take power. In a similar vein, pro-democracy elements in societies across the globe will be watching to see what form of support – and effectiveness of that support – they are likely to obtain for their own efforts for democracy.
And finally, assuming that some shape and form of international response manages to reverse the situation in Myanmar, what we will ultimately get will still likely be a ‘hybrid democracy’. A political dispensation may take the stage but the Tatmadaw is unlikely to simply cede total power. Therefore, through Myanmar, we may yet learn how the international community views and deals with ‘hybrid’ models. Are ‘hybrid’ models totally acceptable – Do they qualify as full members of the ‘democracy club’ – How far may these be accepted and what components of theirs are palatable to the world at large – These and many more such questions that tie into the debate on ‘hybridization’ of democracies globally may become fully open for discussion, going forward, and should be looked at with interest in Pakistan.