Lessons from the Myanmar coup

The Myanmar military is known for its ruthlessness that shows its ugly face fairly frequently

Talat Masood February 09, 2021
The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

The recent military coup in Myanmar raised an international uproar, with the United States and Western countries in the lead, rallying for the re-instatement of the civilian government and demanding the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader who led the freedom movement, and all others detained along with her. They have clamped strict sanctions and are trying to make governance difficult for the Junta. As expected, China and Russia have however issued mild statements implying that the country’s leadership finds a peaceful way out of the present political crisis. The Security Council met informally to assess what role it could play in dissuading the generals to revert to civilian rule but issued no formal statement. It is understandable that there would be serious differences with China and Russia again opposed to any public condemnation or sanctions and the US and Western countries taking a harder position.

There has been a strong reaction within the country and people have come out on the streets in support for a return to democracy and freedom of political leaders especially Aung San. What probably was not anticipated by the military Junta was that there would be such a strong opposition within the country and abroad.

It is somewhat premature to assess whether the Junta would be able to hold out amidst this fierce opposition. It would largely depend on how long and with what fervour the broad masses are able to sustain the opposition and on the support Aung San and her party would receive from the international community.

The Myanmar military is known for its ruthlessness that shows its ugly face fairly frequently. The way it has handled the Rohingya community, denying them citizenship and pushing nearly 800,000 into Bangladesh and out of the country callously. Regrettably, in this shameful act, Aung San was an equal accomplice and the world generally looked the other way. And more shameful was that the nationalists rejoiced giving a boost to General Min Aung Hlaing’s popularity and a strong hold on the party.

This was not the first time that the army has seized power. Myanmar has been under military rule for nearly 50 years and even while not directly ruling the country, the army has been pulling strings from behind — a familiar pattern of controlling fake democracies. But even that façade was not maintained for long and the army is now directly in control with the entire cabinet filled with retired and serving generals. The military has spread its tentacles in every major sphere of national activity. They run schools, hospitals, industrial units, banks, television and radio networks and keep expanding their areas of interest in the civilian field.

In many ways, what is happening in Myanmar should be of no surprise to us or to other similar faltering new democracies. But are there any lessons that we could draw from here and take a hard look at the hybrid model of power sharing that has been with us since 2012?

Although this model gives some semblance of democracy and there is a continuity of civilian rule with limited freedom of action, it has serious shortcomings. The major weakness lies in reconciling institutional and national interest. If the military continues to exercise power beyond its constitutional boundaries and receives a larger share of national budget on a long-term basis due to internal and external security challenges, then its size and power keep growing. For the political parties, moving away from the hybrid system becomes difficult. But the irony is that a hybrid system is not sustainable for too long as was recently witnessed in Myanmar and with us in the past when there were frequent military coups.

Myanmar and other countries like Thailand where the military dominates, are ethnically homogeneous. Whereas, Pakistan is not, and Punjab being much larger than the other three provinces gives rise to insecurities among smaller ones, especially in Balochistan and Sindh. Ensuring that power genuinely devolves to these provinces is essential for national solidarity and countering separatists’ tendencies

One of the important factors for Pakistan being unable to attract foreign and local investment is the uncertainty about its political future and lack of consistency in economic policies. Moreover, doubts on the legitimacy of the elected governments, whether justified or not, has become a routine and part of our political culture. The entire Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has been based on this assumption. These misgivings are undermining democracy and can be removed by holding elections under supervision of an independent body as is the norm in many countries including India.

Dynastic politics, and absence of democratic values and culture within Pakistan’s political parties will have to change if democracy has to be strengthened. Mere slogans and demonising opponents without a better alternative would be a repeat of the inglorious past.

Bringing about this transformation would not be easy as past history reminds us. Looking at the experiences of other countries would, however, be instructive. In Turkey the change from years of military domination to civilian rule was, unfortunately, very traumatic. Its after effects still continue to reverberate. Tunisia, the only country that opted for democracy after the Arab Spring, is facing serious economic and security challenges. Indonesia has made a relatively smooth transition after having suffered years of dictatorship. Japan became a democracy in 1947 and is the third leading economic power and has enjoyed for the last six years political stability and moderate economic expansion. And South Korea has gradually stabilised into a liberal democracy with a strong economy. This demonstrates that countries with a greater literacy rate, higher education standards and strong institutions are in a better position to assimilate the essence and spirit of democracy.

Pakistani leadership should draw lessons from the experience of other countries to strengthen democratic institutions and to place the economy on a sound footing. This would require a fundamental change in the power structure of the political parties and adherence to the Constitution by state institutions. Whether this happens through an evolutionary process or the nation would have to go through many jolts for that transformation to occur remains to be seen.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 10th, 2021.

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