Myanmar Lays Bare Challenges of Military-Led Democratization

A convoy of army vehicles patrol the streets in Mandalay, Myanmar, on Wednesday, February 3. (AP Photo)

The Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw) dealt a significant blow to the prospects of democracy in the country when it staged a coup in the early morning of February 1. Just hours before a new parliament was to begin, the military detained dozens of leaders and activists from Myanmar’s largest political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The coup follows 12 years of a form of constrained, or bounded, democracy. In these 12 years, the NLD has dominated elections, but its relationship with the military has deteriorated.

While the military’s coup dashes the hopes for further democratization in Myanmar, an examination of the history suggests full democratization was unlikely from the start. The military never intended for there to be democratic consolidation in the first place, and its actions, from the development of the 2008 constitution to yesterday’s coup, reveal that it refuses to sustain a system in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD is the dominant party. After developing the 2008 constitution, the military tried to build a party that could represent the military’s interests, but the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has failed to become a viable counterweight to the NLD.

That the Tatmadaw staged a coup to prevent the NLD from governing with a second consecutive parliamentary majority also points to the limitations of what the international community can do. It is unlikely that the military will support full democratization until there is a party that the military trusts, which can also check the NLD.

Challenges of Military-Led Democratization

To understand why the Tatmadaw would reverse a path of democratization it led itself, one should look first at the wariness of militaries towards democracy in general. My research shows that a military’s support for democracy is conditional on three factors: the degree of trust between the military and political parties; whether parties allied with the party are well-organized; and the electoral strength of these allied parties. When there are parties that the military trusts, which are well-organized and popular, the military becomes more confident that a shift towards democracy will not endanger its core interests.

Alternatively, when militaries fear the prospects of an opponent winning elections, they often engage in what I call bounded democratization. Bounded democratization is when the military uses its power to set specific conditions on how democracy can function. This is most often done by engineering formal rules through the constitution that either curb the influence of the opposition or boost the power of the military’s allies.

Using data on nearly 150 regime transitions following military rule since 1942, I coded the behavior of militaries during transitions to develop a measure of bounded democracy. With this data I found that militaries were more likely to bind democracy when parties they trusted were electorally weak or poorly organized.

We can apply this directly to the case of Myanmar. Bounded democratization helps explain the Tatmadaw’s behavior in 2008 and can be linked to the latest coup. After an extended period of authoritarian rule following the military’s 1988 coup, the military considered democracy but was not confident that its interests would be secure in a democratic system.

To protect itself, the military designed a constitution that ensured that it would maintain three critical ministries: Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs. Additionally, the military also required that 25 percent of parliamentary seats would be reserved for the military while creating a rule that the constitution could not be amended with less than 76 percent of seats voting in favor—effectively granting the military veto power over any changes to the constitution. The military not only bound the system in its favor but also established a political party, the USDP, as a vehicle for former military officers and civilian allies to contest elections and challenge the NLD.

While the military thought these protections would be sufficient, it underestimated the popularity of the NLD and the lack of support for the USDP. In the three elections since the new constitution was put in place, the NLD routed the USDP. Exacerbating the USDP’s poor performance is the military’s use of winner-take-all electoral rules, which gave the NLD 80 percent of the elected seats, despite winning only 57 percent of the vote.

The relationship between the NLD and Tatmadaw has also deteriorated to the point where the military no longer sees the system it designed as being viable for its interests. Since the NLD’s impressive 2015 electoral victory, the relationship between the military and NLD worsened noticeably. In 2017, a close advisor to Suu Kyi was assassinated, likely by the military. In March 2020, Suu Kyi’s NLD pushed for changes to the constitution which would strip the military of its political powers.

Given the poor relationship between the NLD and the Tatmadaw prior to the November 2020 elections, the latest election results which increased the NLD’s share of seats seem to have been a breaking point for the military. The military has claimed that there was significant electoral fraud and irregularities and has used these claims as pretext for the coup.

In conducting this coup, the military is likely trying to reset the system and bargain from a position of greater strength after losing much of its leverage after three consecutive embarrassing losses at the ballot box. By detaining the leadership of the NLD on the eve of the opening session of parliament, the military clearly signaled it no longer tolerates the NLD’s strength in Myanmar’s representative institutions.

What Can Be Done?

In response to the coup, the administration of US President Joseph Biden has threatened to reimpose sanctions. Sanctions and a coordinated response by the international community may have nudged the military towards greater democratic rights in the early 2010s, but ultimately these policies did little to resolve the core issue—the military’s fear of the NLD’s power. Targeted sanctions may impose some costs on senior officers, but they will fail to resolve the military’s concerns about its interests under a democratic system the NLD dominates.

Sanctions are also unlikely to work because this is not simply a coup driven by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing’s ambition. While he was set to retire this year due to legal requirements, the actions of the military and the timing of the coup reflect a more institutional role. The military successfully detained key leaders in the NLD and activists in the dead of the night in one fell swoop. It then mobilized to control the streets of the capital. Doing so requires careful planning and a high degree of cohesion in the military.

Not only was the coup well-executed, but the timing suggests that the military was acting against the NLD, rather than at the behest of its chief officer. By conducting a coup on the eve of the new parliament, the military effectively prevented the NLD from controlling key political offices and invalidated the 2020 election. Until the military’s fears of the NLD are resolved it seems unlikely that the military will support genuine democratic reforms.

While the international community’s options are limited, there are some potential strategies that may help aid Myanmar in a return to democracy which require thinking outside the box. One potential strategy focuses on supporting electoral reforms. Instead of using winner-take-all rules, proportional representation would help the military’s proxy party, the USDP, obtain more seats in parliament in line with its vote share. While this would reduce the number of seats of the NLD, it should help solve the NLD’s most immediate problem; getting the Tatmadaw back to the barracks and allowing the NLD to return to parliament.

The international community could also help the USDP and NLD invest and develop party infrastructure. Recent research has shown that incumbent authoritarians are more likely to support democratization when they have a well-developed party that can compete in elections. Even though this approach would be somewhat unorthodox, it would address the military’s concerns while also being in line with the goals of democratization.

Darin Self is a PhD Candidate at Cornell University. His research focuses on authoritarian incumbent parties, militaries, party systems, and democratization.