In the good old days the military simply had to secure key sites like the radio, television broadcasters, airports, other transport hubs and newspaper offices. Once the sites were under control, then detain the ‘disputed’ head of government along with her key associates. Finally, put some helmeted soldiers decked out in combat gear on the streets of major cities, preferably with some tanks nearby for the ‘wow’ factor. The civil service and judiciary naturally fell into line by taking new oaths of loyalty or were simply fired from their roles.
All of the above happened in darkness and in typically the space of a few hours between midnight and dawn. Depending on the size of the country a few thousand loyal soldiers were all that was required for a successful coup. If a more detailed playbook were required then ‘Coup D’Etat: a Practical Handbook’ by Edward Luttwak would serve the purpose.
No more. That was the last century. Like many similar handbooks, Luttwak’s book is obsolete. Things are different in the new millennium.
The first sign that something was amiss came in July 2016 with the failed coup attempt in Turkey.
Yes, Turkey. A country where the military is revered and coups are (were) a normal fact of life. Despite these two factors, the coup was neither able to dethrone President Erdogan nor install a military council to run affairs of state.
Today the world is witnessing the ongoing efforts by Myanmar’s military to unseat the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi. At the time of writing, it seems unclear if efforts by Min Aung Hlaing, the military commander leading the coup attempt, will succeed. The coup is certainly not ‘done and dusted’ the way it would have been in the past.
What has changed in the last two decades to make successful, naked military coups a rarity?
Remember the days everyone read newspapers in the morning at breakfast? Then families gathered together in the evening to watch the news on national television. And only the news that was fit to print was printed.
International newspapers often arrived a few days late and circulation was easy to control. There were no international television broadcasters. Even radio broadcasts by international politically motivated broadcasters such as Voice of America or Radio Free Europe had limited success in shaping opinions in target countries.
In other word, national governments’ had a monopoly on information. Even print publications of the ‘free’ press could be coerced by into reporting with a particular slant or just simply not reporting certain events. A low ranking officer posted at the office of the major newsprint companies and the national radio / television broadcasters was sufficient to manage news flow.
Along came social media and broke the information monopoly paradigm. Not only has information become virtually impossible to control but the proliferation of disinformation, often politically motivated, has also become routine. Moreover, international news broadcasters are regularly watched in living room televisions all around the world.
Consequently, managing negative news – or any news for that matter - associated with a military coup is impossible. No state maintains a monopoly on news anymore. This less controlled movement of information and the immediacy of many social media platforms also allow ordinary citizens to mobilize protest movements in a manner not possible in the past.
Global Superpower Rivalries
The Cold War between the US and its Soviet rival spawned many doctrines. All were expedient for their time but among the most relevant (and loved) doctrine for coup makers was the Kirkpatrick Doctrine. The doctrine was postulated by the former US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick in a 1979 essay.
In her essay, Kirkpatrick made a distinction between Totalitarian and Authoritarian regimes. While totalitarian regimes try and control all aspects of a society and its citizens – including thought, authoritarian regimes try and control only certain behaviours. Additionally, authoritarian regimes are more amenable to gradual reform thus making them easier to move towards democratic norms.
In essence, the doctrine was Cold War influenced intellectual justification for supporting authoritarian dictatorships from Argentina to the Philippines - as long as these rulers supported free enterprise (read permitted US businesses to operate freely) and sided with the US in its battle against Soviet inspired communism.
In practice, the Kirkpatrick Doctrine gave a blank check to coup makers to overthrow leftist regimes. Once in control, these same coup makers could expect continued support from the Free World until the ‘threat’ from communism was defeated. Support for such right wing authoritarian regimes was only withdrawn if / when the optics of maintaining domestic control became untenable.
Corporate Dollars and the Rise of Social Media
In a bygone era, large multinational corporations often acted as catalysts for coups. Whether it was a left leaning government that needed ‘course correction’ or a privileged monopolistic position in a market was under threat by government policy changes, corporations were in the thick of things – typically on the side of the coup instigators.
Note the origins of the term, Banana Republic, which stemmed from the installation of a military government via a coup in Honduras in the early 1900s. The coup was championed and funded by an American businessman and founder of a fruit company with significant economic interests in the Honduran fruit industry.
Things did not change because multinationals miraculously grew a conscience and stopped supporting dictatorial rulers. That was a slow process and relied largely on consumer pressure. It reached critical mass in the 1980s as campus activists pressured companies doing business in apartheid South Africa to divest their holdings.
Activists held that by doing business with a racist regime in apartheid South Africa, large corporations like Bank of America and General Motors, were helping to prop up the system. Initially, this led to the establishment of the Sullivan Principles, a voluntary code of business ethics devised by a Baptist Minister, for companies involved in South Africa. However, ultimately it forced businesses to rethink their presence in apartheid South Africa.
Over the last several decades, the trend of social activism has entered the mainstream with concepts like ESG – environmental, social and governance, becoming an essential part of the framework used to review and analyze corporations. With the rise of citizen journalism and social media it is virtually impossible for companies to cover up unethical practices, including openly supporting regime change in foreign countries. On the contrary, companies have found it almost essential to implement positive and transparent ESG policies to cater to rising social awareness among contemporary consumers.
The New Normal
The generals in Myanmar are finding out the hard way that coups are an anachronism of the last century. To be sure, the Thai military successfully executed a coup in 2014 under General Prayut likely because the coup was quickly legitimized by a much revered monarch, the late King Bhumibol. The late King’s actions must be considered as a major factor in the success of the 2014 coup. Arguably, Thailand is the exception that proves the rule.
A new balance in civil-military relations has been precipitated by changing social conditions. While there is no clear rule for ‘new’ civil – military relationships the experience of Turkey, Thailand and Pakistan are illustrative.
In Turkey, the once all powerful Turkish military has had to swallow humble pie. From being able to change a government by issuing a memo, Coup by Memorandum, the Turkish military now plays a less powerful role under a powerful president. In Thailand, the military has so far resisted meaningful change. Though it is hard to predict how events will unfold in the coming years. In Pakistan, the military’s dominance remains a key part of the state power equation. Partly this is due to the military’s relationship with the current Prime Minister Imran Khan and partly because the military establishment has been careful in playing its hand. The possibility of the Pakistani military establishment overplaying its cards a la Myanmar must loom large with senior Pakistani generals.
As for Myanmar, only time will tell how the situation will play out. Even if the generals do survive intact until the next promised elections it is clear the military junta’s operational freedoms have already been circumscribed by domestic protests.
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.