The Myanmar Public Fights Not to End Up Like Thailand

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The Myanmar Public Fights Not to End Up Like Thailand

Myanmar’s army chief wanted a Thai-style coup. What he got was an uprising.

The Myanmar Public Fights Not to End Up Like Thailand
Credit: Flickr/Anthony Tong Lee

A week after overthrowing Myanmar’s elected civilian government on February 1, coup leader Min Aung Hlaing sent a letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha asking – with no hint of irony – for his help in supporting “democracy” in Myanmar. The letter was revealing not for what it said, but for who it was addressed to. Prayut is, himself, a former general, who overthrew Thailand’s elected government in 2014 and has been in charge ever since. When it comes to coups, Thailand’s generals know what they’re doing.

Myanmar’s military is an opaque institution, and assessing its motivations is notoriously difficult. A military-drafted constitution, promulgated in 2008, already gave the generals immense power and zero accountability, while allowing them to blame civilian leaders for governance failures. Why jeopardize all that to retake direct control? There have been many proposed explanations: embarrassment after losing another election to Aung San Suu Kyi’s popular National League for Democracy (NLD), concerns about the security of the military’s vast economic interests, and Min Aung Hlaing’s own looming retirement. But they all implicitly assume one thing: that they thought they could get away with it.

When the Thai military took power in 2014, it did so relatively seamlessly, without significant damage to the economy or the everyday operations of government. It’s likely that Myanmar’s military leadership was hoping for something similar. It is, after all, an attractive proposition, being able to sideline a popular elected government without massive societal disruption.

When Min Aung Hlaing made his first televised statement since taking power, he repeatedly emphasized that government policies would remain unchanged and welcomed continued foreign investment. Despite the disastrous consequences of previous military takeovers in Myanmar, he promised that this coup would be different. He might as well have said, “this time we’re doing it Thai style.”

It’s not a surprise that Min Aung Hlaing would look to Thailand as an example. Both Thailand and Myanmar have long histories of military involvement in politics. Min Aung Hlaing himself has close connections to the Thai military. He received multiple high-level honors from the Thai authorities, even after orchestrating the Rohingya genocide in 2017. Prem Tinsulanonda, a previous Thai general turned prime minister, considered Min Aung Hlaing his “adopted son.”

But despite these connections, Min Aung Hlaing is learning that the Thai playbook cannot be so easily deployed in modern Myanmar.

Despite some protests in the aftermath of Thailand’s 2014 coup, the Thai bureaucracy, critically, continued to function as normal, undeterred by the abrupt change of power at the top. In Myanmar, a growing Civil Disobedience Movement has undermined prospects for a similar outcome. Initiated by medical workers in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the movement has spread throughout the civilian bureaucracy. Staff from numerous government departments have walked off work en masse, crippling critical infrastructure and causing the gears of government to grind to a halt.

Thai coup leaders were also able to take advantage of genuine societal polarization. Mass protests against elected governments, which preceded coups in 2006 and 2014, were used as pretexts for the takeovers. In both cases, there was a vocal minority of Thais who saw the military as rescuing the country from the corruption and excesses of the former prime minster, Thaksin Shinawatra, and his powerful political machine.

Thailand’s military used Thaksin as a bogeyman, effectively dividing and demobilizing the population. But in Myanmar, the bogeyman is the military itself. Having completely decimated the country politically and economically through decades of abject misrule and brutal repression, it is the subject of near universal antipathy.

It’s no surprise, then, that the military’s attempts to foment similar popular support for their putsch have fallen flat. The charges of voter fraud they used as a pretext don’t hold much weight. Ginned up by the deeply unpopular, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, they have been utterly discredited by election observers. Now the military has turned to arresting election officials and coercing them into signing false confessions.

The junta has also tried to co-opt the NLD’s political opposition by offering them positions in the newly created State Administrative Council. A few took up the offer, but they were largely unpopular anyways, like Thet Thet Khine, a businesswoman and former NLD member whose own party performed abysmally in the last election. Efforts to peel off support from ethnic parties by playing on resentment of the NLD were moderately successful, particularly in Rakhine State. But these moves were rejected by vast swaths of the civilian population and have undermined the legitimacy of ethnic leaders willing to collaborate with a military that has committed heinous abuses against their people. Thai-style divide-and-rule requires a level of public support for the military that just doesn’t exist in Myanmar.

With the Thai-style coup playbook not packing the same punch, Myanmar’s military leaders have been forced to engage in much harsher repression than their Thai counterparts. While the Thai junta censored specific material online, the Myanmar military has already attempted to completely block Facebook – a critical communication channel – and has now resorted to nightly internet blackouts. But these moves have not stopped the flow of information and images of widespread public opposition to the coup. Nighttime arrests, designed to instill fear and exhaustion, and the release of more than 23,000 ordinary prisoners, ostensibly to clear room for political prisoners, are all part of a cynical ploy to foment instability and justify the takeover. But each of these steps has only revealed the military’s utter failure to copy the Thai model.

In the end, it’s the protesters that are having more success drawing on the example of Thailand, which has been convulsed by its own set of anti-government demonstrations over the past six months. The three-finger salute, borrowed from The Hunger Games series of novels, has become a symbol of opposition to the coup in Myanmar, just as it has been in Thailand since 2014. When Myanmar netizens flocked to Twitter after the government blocked Facebook, the hashtag #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar began trending, echoing a popular Thai Twitter trend.

Another hashtag roughly translated as “If you don’t fight, you’ll end up like Thailand” – that is, caught in an endless loop of polarization and military takeovers – was floating around on Thai Twitter in the days following the Myanmar coup. The people of Myanmar seem to be taking it to heart. Despite the military’s heavy-handed tactics, they keep pouring out into the streets day after day. Perhaps more importantly, the Civil Disobedience Movement has only grown.

Where this all leads is still uncertain. There are hints that a more brutal crackdown may be yet to come. But such a response threatens to drag the country back even further and jeopardize the military’s own interests, which benefited from a decade of relative political openness. Regardless of what happens next, the Thai-style coup that Min Aung Hlaing was likely hoping for has already been taken off the table.

Oren Samet is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on opposition parties, civil society, and authoritarianism in Southeast Asia. From 2014 to 2018, Oren was based in Bangkok, Thailand, where he worked for human rights NGOs and wrote political analysis for numerous outlets. His writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, Slate, The Diplomat, The Pacific Standard, New America Weekly, and World Politics Review, among other publications.