Militarization of Politics in Myanmar and Thailand

Date01 April 2016
AuthorNehginpao Kipgen
Published date01 April 2016
Subject MatterArticles
Militarization of Politics in
Myanmar and Thailand
Nehginpao Kipgen1
Consolidation of democracy is one common problem found in majority of Southeast
Asian countries. Lack of stable democratic institutions often leads a country to
hybrid regime or some form of authoritarianism, such as military dictatorship or
one-party rule. Myanmar and Thailand, the two immediate neighbours, are two
such examples of weak democratic institutions where the role of military has been
dominant in politics. Since its independence from Great Britain in 1948, there have
been two military coups in Myanmar: 1962 and 1988. The military has played an
important role in politics by successfully ruling the country for over four decades
until the general election in 2010, which formally ended direct military rule. Despite
the democratic transition and political reforms since 2011, the military continues
to play a significant role in the country’s politics. Whereas in Thailand, there have
been as many as 12 successful coups since the removal of absolute monarchy in
1932, with the latest coup in 2014. The article discusses the militarization of politics
by examining the role of military in Myanmar, particularly under the National
League for Democracy (NLD)-led civilian government which assumed power in
2016, and the entrenchment of military role in politics in Thailand, especially since
the 2014 military coup. The article attempts to understand the conditions under
which military intervenes and then holds on to power.
Democracy, government, Myanmar, Thailand, military, politics
Myanmar and Thailand are two immediate neighbours in Southeast Asia, which
maintain a shared border, economic and cultural ties, among others. Moreover, the
fact that Thailand has hosted the largest Myanmar migrant population in recent
International Studies
53(2) 153–172
2017 Jawaharlal Nehru University
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/0020881717728156
1 Assistant Professor and Executive Director of Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of
International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, India.
Corresponding author:
Nehginpao Kipgen, O. P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat Narela Road, Near Jagdishpur Village, Sonipat,
Haryana-131001, India.
154 International Studies 53(2)
years has made the two countries even more a closely knitted transsociety. Food
and social activities of the two predominantly Buddhist societies are another common
feature. Diplomatic relations between the two countries have largely been peaceful,
except the sporadic tensions as a result of armed clashes between the Myanmar
army and Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups along the Thai–Myanmar border,
which forced the Myanmar army to occasionally cross over to the Thai territory in
the 1980s and 1990s. Up until power transition in 2011, Myanmar was under mili-
tary rule, where the military commander-in-chief was head of the government as
well as the State. And up until the 2014 military coup, Thailand had a constitu-
tional monarchy under which the prime minister was head of the government and
the king as head of State.
In Myanmar, the military ruled the country under the aegis of the State Peace
and Development Council (SPDC), which was previously called the State Law
and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), when it ratified the 2008 constitution in
a controversial referendum which entrenched the role of military in politics.
Though a general election was held in 2015 and subsequently a civilian govern-
ment was formed in 2016, the dominant role of military in politics continues. In
Thailand, following the coup in 2014, the military revoked the 2007 constitution
and ruled the country under the aegis of the National Council for Peace and Order
(NCPO). Despite the difference in the nature of the two governments, the military
plays a vital role in the politics of both countries. While the Myanmar military
continues to retain a dominant role under a civilian government, the Thai military was
reluctant to return power back to a civilian government after the coup. By examining
the pattern of political developments in the two neighbouring Southeast Asian
countries, the article attempts to understand the conditions under which military
intervenes in politics and then holds on to power.
There are different circumstances under which military dominance comes into
play in politics. Both Myanmar and Thailand share a common history of military
coups and political instability. The politics of Myanmar has been dominated by
military with a couple of coups since the country’s independence from the British:
1962 and 1988. The military junta adopted a new constitution in 1974, which was
suspended in 1988 and the same was replaced with a constitution drafted by the
military government-appointed convention. The SLORC government held a multi-
party general election in 1990, but refused to handover power to the election
winning party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The reason, according
to the government, was that a new constitution had to be drafted first before power
transition. When a new constitution was completed in 2008, the military then
allowed some of its leaders to retire and contest the 2010 election, which was held
in accordance with the government’s roadmap towards democracy. Following
electoral victory by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), former
military generals in civilian garb formed a new government that formally ended
decades of military rule. After five years of the USDP government, the NLD won
the 2015 general election and formed the first civilian government after several
decades of direct or indirect military rule. Despite NLD forming the government,
the dominance of military in politics continues.

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