A brief explanation of the Myanmar coup

by Timothy_Liptrot1 min read2nd Feb 20217 comments



If you follow the news, you will have observed a recent coup in Myanmar. Myanmar had been a military dictatorship for 22 years until a semi-transition in 2011. Unlike the other autocracies of the region, the autocracy had elite support only in the military (no middle classes, communal or economic elites (Slater)). Myanmar’s regime was one of the most predatory in the world, relying on natural resources such as diamonds and brutally neglecting its people, restraining their collective action capacity to challenge the military (De Mesquita, political survival). The military regime once responded to a hurricane once by dispersing refugee camps and banning humanitarians to restrain collective action (Ibid).

Acemoglu and Robinson’s model provides a parsimonious description of the democratization game. De facto power fluctuates between the pre-democracy selectorate (PDS) and the pre-democracy ejectorate (PDE). Because power fluctuates, when the PDS is challenged by a revolution they cannot credibly commit to adopt pro ejectorate policies. The ejectorate knows that next year they may be weak again and the regime will change its mind. The military wanted to make concessions toward, but wanted a credible commitment that their monopoly on violence and access to rents from state industries would continue. But once democracy empowers the PDE, the democracy cannot credibly commit to maintain the military’s privileges. So the military “democratized” while reserving various veto powers and a, crucially, its monopoly on violence.

The military certainly retained a great deal of de jure power, appointing ¼ of the parliament, privatizing state-owned industries into military families, and influencing presidential nominations. But the military also retained great defacto power, including a majority on the National Defense Council, the vice presidency, and even the ability to compel public servants to attend rallies. The military always retained the ability to reassert control.

The military realized that once democracy consolidated under the opposition NLD, it would be too late to protect their interests. The timing of the coup supports this explanation; it was launched the day before the parliament accepted the NLD’s second landslide electoral victory. More electoral victories would enable NLD to consolidate and shift the balance of de facto power away from the military. Without a coup, the NLD could have waited until the military was weakest then broken them and dismantled their corruption machine. A faction of the military prefered a stunted national economy and international sanctions to this outcome, so they launched the coup.

The real puzzle is why were non-credible promises tolerated from Myanmar’s military, but not from the military in Spain, the monarchy in Britain or the UMNO in Malaysia in 2018. Surely most outgoing regimes would prefer to maintain a veto and their tanks. My tentative guess is that internal pressure on the military was weaker than most transitions (due to weak collective action and high state violence capacity). The transition relied more on pressure from foriegn sanctions. Foreign observers are less informed than challengers, and misread the credibility of the commitment. I am concerned about Sudan’s transition following the same path.

A second question is why the ANC’s promises to protect white South Africans through democratic institutions was credible, but the NLD’s promise to protect the Myanmar military was not. One theory is that the National Party was losing control in South Africa anyway, and trusting the ANC was the best remaining option. Anyone have another idea?

Citations: Slater \emph{Ordering Power} De Mesquita and Smith, \emph{The Logic of Political Survival} Acemoglu and Robinson \emph{The Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy}



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Could you define 'selectorate' and 'ejectorate'? The paragraph in which these terms are used is quite difficult to read, and I do not know what they refer to. Thanks!

Selectorate: People who select the leader

Ejectorate: People who don't.

In the Soviet Union, the selectorate was the Politburo Standing Committee. In Egypt and Myanmar the selectorate is a group of generals. In the US the selectorate are voters in swing states.

Thanks for the feedback.

I was under the impression that 'Ejectorate' refereed to people who had some ability to remove leaders, e.g. through coups?

Thanks for sharing this! I'd been curious about this, and your explanation gives a different perspective from the straightforward "here's what happened" way that most news outlets are reporting the story.

Also, your citation formatting didn't translate to the Forum, so people can't easily follow your sources. Just wanted to alert you so that you could add links if you wanted to.

Thanks for the post! I think more people should address this democratic recession with case studies (about Turkey, Hong Kong, Thailand... and maybe democratic regimes which are becoming increasingly mor eunstable, such as Brazil and Philippines), focusing on the peculiarites of each country and on international relations. That's something I often miss when reading more "high-level" material - such as Acemoglu's models about institutions. I wonder if there are effective interventions here.

Thanks for this post! It's an interesting perspective on some factors that might explain the coup. I'd just like to add a couple of things worth considering, based on what I know. I'm not very certain about how these factors interact with what you've written above. 

(a) Personalities. A lot of the military's decisions seem to stem from the personality and ambition of the top leader at the time. The military leader who initiated the shift to democratization in 2009/2010, Than Shwe, was sort of a wildcard and even military insiders were a little taken aback by his decision to democratize. Sanctions had something to do with it, but it's far from clear that they were straightforwardly the impetus for the democratic transition. His successor of sorts, Thein Sein, proved to be much more moderate and reformist than almost anybody expected. The current military leader, Senior General  Min Aung Hlaing, has not been shy about his ambitions to be President and has previously extended his reign on power past the mandatory retirement age to get the chance to be President of Myanmar. He was set to retire from the military after this last election and could have then been nominated by the military to be Aung San Suu Kyi's vice president (there are two vice-presidents, one always nominated by the military). He's reported to have hated the idea of working in a subordinate position to Aung San Suu Kyi. 

(b) Ongoing Civil Wars. While the country did democratize in 2010, many parts of the country have been undergoing civil wars of various types for several decades. The military is active and present throughout the country, controlling territory in part through official brigades, allied militias, and peace agreements with ethnic minority armed groups. I think the NLD's power to frustrate military power and interests is limited and even after repeated electoral defeats, what probably would have been damaged is the military's pride rather than its actual hold on power.

In any case, these are just some thoughts off the top of my head.  Sadly, whatever's happening in the country is a tragedy and will likely set back a decade or more of development efforts.

Source: a Myanmar politics class and my own Myanmar studies research work (sorry I don't have any links on-hand)