Myanmar’s coup is a reminder of democracy’s fragility

In 2014, the Thai military launched a coup and democracy was suspended. In 2015, Myanmar held an election that was convincingly won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. 

It seemed like a stunning role reversal. Thailand’s democracy had always been unstable, but the country had always seemed more free and further in its democratic progression than its western neighbor. But after 2015, for a while, political scientists could plausibly claim that Myanmar now had a more democratic government than Thailand’s. 

Fast forward to 2021, and the roles have now been reversed once again. Thailand, while not exactly a democracy, now has a semblance of a parliamentary system. Myanmar, on the other hand, has now reverted back to rule by a military junta.

But do not be fooled. The two countries haven’t taken divergent paths.

In the end, Thailand and Myanmar are still stuck on the same track: generals, frustrated by popular parties they cannot control and allied parties that cannot win elections, still retain all the power. And both constitutions, drafted by the military without popular consensus, can be discarded whenever convenient.

Different characters but a plot that sometimes rhymes. This shared experience means that there are mutual takeaways that Thais can heed from Monday’s coup in Myanmar.

First, it is a reminder that norms matter just as much as actual institutions. 

Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt once argued, a little surprisingly, that the success of a democracy depends on whether or not conservative parties are able to thrive in the electoral arena. The success of these parties — those “historical defenders of power, wealth and privilege” as he calls them — are key to making sure that incumbent elites feel secure and can buy into democracy. 

In other words, to make sure that they won’t try to topple democracy.

Ziblatt focused his work on Europe, but those of us in mainland Southeast Asia would find it a familiar enough story.

In Thailand, the constant electoral failure of the Democrat Party led eventually led to elite impatience with democracy itself, while the trouncing of the Burmese military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party by the NLD has culminated in yesterday’s coup. 

Without the ability to compete effectively, and their stranglehold on power threatened time and time again by the popular voice, there is little to restrain the interventionist leanings of militaries in South East Asia. 

The only thing that can force establishment players in Thailand or Myanmar into launching parties that are actually competitive and stand a chance at winning free and fair elections are strong norms, ones that fundamentally disavows coups and favor civilian control of the army. 

Second, it’s a reminder of how fragile democratic progress can be. It is seldom that countries switch from authoritarianism to democracy completely and quickly. Instead, they languish as some sort of hybrid regime that oscillates back and forth between varying levels of democracy. 

Let’s consider the cause of the coup in Myanmar. Explanations vary, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that in March last year, the NLD had tried to push through various amendments to the deeply undemocratic 2008 constitution. Again, this scenario more than sounds familiar to longtime observers of Thai politics.

Now, any possibility of continued peaceful democratization in Myanmar has been wiped out by the military coup. The Tatmadaw has wiped out decades of work — some of it its own work — in slow political liberalization. 

Also consider the difficult choice that those who condemn the military and defend Aung San Suu Kyi has been put in. She is hardly the small-d democrat people hailed in years past; her image as a democracy icon has long ago been tarnished by a sad transformation into an apologist for ethnic cleansing and an authoritarian in her own right.

Myanmar under Aung San Suu Kyi, with its deeply flawed constitution and her own leadership instincts, was hardly a democracy.

But the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is still the only credible democratic choice in Myanmar, on its own, speaks volumes about how democratic progress can often be imperfect and full of unsavory compromises. 

And those compromises in the name of furthering democracy are legion, her reconciliation with the generals who arrested her for years rather incredible. According to Thant Myint-U’s The Hidden History of Burma, she had once said that her relations with the military are “not that bad” and that the generals in her cabinet are “rather sweet.”

Would she say the same today?

Democracy, and democratic progress, are imperfect, fragile things indeed. 

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