Erik Martinez Kuhonta is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.
The news of the Myanmar military’s arrest of its elected civilian government on Feb. 1 generated overwhelming concern about the fate of the country’s democracy. Demonstrations in the country’s biggest cities – as well as crackdowns by the military, known as the Tatmadaw – have raged since then. But what has been less noticed was that the coup came with a promise: the return of elections, after a one-year emergency period.
Myanmar’s putsch appears to fit the bill of a “promissory coup.” The term itself was coined by University of Oxford professor Nancy Bermeo to distinguish seizures of power in which the incoming junta sets out a timeline for a return to democratic elections. This type of coup is different from most seizures of power that occurred throughout the developing world during the Cold War era. Coups then were often open-ended affairs, in which generals would hold onto power for countless years.
The Tatmadaw’s principal justification for taking power was the allegation that the November, 2020, elections were marred by fraud. The military now wants to reshuffle the election commission and hold a new vote. The junta claims that the eventual elections will be fairer than the most recent ones.
What severely frustrated the Myanmar generals is the inability of their proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, to compete successfully in elections. In both 2015 and 2020, the USDP was thoroughly trounced by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. The most recent election was especially illustrative of the depths of the military’s electoral weakness: Despite five years of dismal governance, Ms. Suu Kyi’s party was re-elected in an even larger landslide. Finding a way to reorder electoral outcomes is thus the paramount concern for the military.
Although we do not know the exact plans that the Myanmar junta have in store, the generals may have learned the art of the promissory coup from Thailand. There, Royal Thai Armed Forces officials leading the 2006 putsch made clear that they would eventually restore democratic elections, and did so within a year. But in subsequent elections, the party opposed to the military easily won again. In 2014, when the military took over again, they were more deliberate. They initially made vague allusions to the return of civilian politics in the future and subsequently continued to delay elections. They purposely dilly-dallied because, just as in Myanmar, the Thai military remained deeply unsatisfied with recent electoral outcomes, where their favoured party could never win.
By the time elections were finally restored in 2019, the Thai military junta had drafted a new constitution and new rules that heavily tilted electoral competition in its favour. It had also harassed opposition politicians, detained and arrested numerous activists, academics and journalists, and reshaped independent institutions to suit its agenda. Exactly as planned, the military’s proxy party then received the largest share of votes in the elections, although not by a significant margin. Institutions, such as the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court, also did their part in undermining opposition parties that had gained more seats than the military was willing to countenance.
Myanmar’s military finds itself in a position that is analogous to Thailand’s. It desperately needs to find a way to win elections. Despite the fact that the armed forces have control over the ministries of defense, home affairs and border affairs, as well as a guaranteed one-fourth of parliamentary seats, the electoral browbeating they have received through their proxy party has been hard to stomach.
This promissory coup provides the necessary façade for the Myanmar generals to achieve their primary goal of extending their power. Superficially, the promise of an eventual return to an electoral democracy that is rebooted and reformed gives one the impression that there will be a formal time limit to the military’s supremacy. The experience of Thailand suggests otherwise. Thailand’s promissory coup cemented in power the coup-maker himself, Prayuth Chan-ocha, this time as a nominally civilian Prime Minister. Myanmar’s promissory coup is likely to lead to a similar end point.
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