After the coup d’état

Anti-coup protesters march during a demonstration organised by allies of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok, 2007. Photo by AFP.
06 August 2013
Anti-coup protesters march during a demonstration organised by allies of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok, 2007. Photo by AFP.

Indonesia offers an example for other Southeast Asian and Pacific nations looking to democratise after military rule, write NICHOLAS FARRELLY and MARCUS MIETZNER.

Military interventions break the rules.

They require the mobilisation of men and materiel, alongside a commitment to rapid action, and often violence, in the pursuit of an abrupt, illegal political outcome.

Speaking generally—though they may be semi-regular events in some countries—coups d’état remain exceptional. Even in countries where such action almost seems the norm, like Thailand and Fiji, there is still widespread bewilderment when uniformed officers opt to overthrow their own government.

Whether it is the tanks or commando battalions that are used to seize power, the outcome is usually stark: a constitution shredded, media freedoms usurped and old leaders forced onto the ignominious side-lines. In the longer term, the questions that preoccupy analysts of post-coup politics habitually emphasise the prospects for re-democratisation.

A good place to test these prospects is in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

For a recent special issue of the Australian Journal of International Affairs we examined coups and their outcomes in Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Our studies suggest three general conclusions about post-coup re-democratisation and military consolidation in these two regions.

First, those countries that experience significant ethnic or political polarisation have a higher chance of military intervention than those with a high degree of power diffusion. This polarisation usually takes the form of two large and opposing groups seeking to assert control.

Such polarisation is relevant to the situations of Fiji (between indigenous and Indian Fijians) and Thailand (between “yellow” and “red” shirts), while it also clearly played a role in Indonesia in the 1960s (between communist and anti-communist forces).

On the other hand, greater diffusion of power has been the prevailing pattern in Papua New Guinea, where there has not been a coup, and is also the case in Indonesia today.

Second, there is an often-overlooked international dimension to the management of military interventions. In particular, the hazards of launching a coup and implementing long-term military rule—under conditions where post-Cold war sanctions against coups often have significant impact—are significant. Nonetheless these have been partly neutralised by increased Chinese support for long-term military regimes like those we have seen in Burma and Fiji.

Third, extensive institutional reform is no guarantee against military coups and intervention. Such institutional engineering appears to have worked in Indonesia, but in Thailand the reforms could not take root because of the underlying elite coup culture found there.

As a result of this coup culture, Thailand has the largest number of military interventions among the countries we have investigated. Moreover, Thailand is distinguished by its unique enmeshment of royal and military powers. During the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (1946 to the present), the country has grown accustomed to sporadic coups and coup attempts.

The dominance of military leaders ensures that rumours of looming intervention are an annual rite. This history of coups is best explained by the dominant relationship between palace and army interests, the compliance of ruling elites, their special alliances with economic players, and the support of international actors, most particularly the United States. This is especially relevant to the unstable period since the September 2006 coup toppled Thaksin Shinawatra’s elected government, and provides hints at the direction the country may take after the end of Bhumibol’s reign.

Indonesia, on the other hand, offers insights into both the conditions under which the military comes to power and the factors that can lead to its marginalisation from politics.

The Indonesian armed forces grabbed power in 1965 amidst extreme levels of political polarisation, economic chaos and Western support for anti-communist governments around the world. The military subsequently consolidated its power through a mixture of repression and unprecedented economic growth. Ironically, it was also the state of the economy that led to the downfall of the military-backed New Order regime – the Asian Financial Crisis had driven demonstrators to the streets in 1998 to demand Indonesia’s democratisation.

After regime change – and after an unstable transition that lasted six long years – the Indonesian elite managed to keep the military at bay by maintaining a consensus on the armed forces’ exclusion from politics, introducing new and effective civilian institutions, and securing economic growth rates that eventually resembled those under authoritarian rule.

A different story emerges from the recent history of military dominance in Burma. Since the first coup in 1962, the army has exerted sustained control over the country’s political institutions. In particular during the period after the so-called “self-coup” of 1988, Burma’s government worked to stamp out dissent in the cities while cultivating new peace deals in some ethnic minority regions.

Still, the flicker of democratic opposition was kept alive. After two decades of unapologetic junta rule without a constitution in place, the long-delayed, post-coup democratisation has been re-imagined since elections in November 2010. However, the prevailing mentality of the armed forces, the fragility of their opponents and the support of certain international actors explains a persistent reluctance to democratise – and the likely problems that Burma will therefore face in the “transitional” years ahead. 

Fiji’s patterns of repeated military interventions—and the extent of social polarisation that underpins it—are not dissimilar to Thailand. Since the 1980s, heightened political tensions between indigenous and Indian Fijians, and the general acceptance of military intervention as a conventional instrument of politics, have played a key role in justifying the overthrow of elected governments.

The most recent of Fiji’s coups, in December 2006, has seen the consolidation of control under Commodore “Frank” Banimarama. His well-entrenched military rule is peppered by promises (and some actual efforts) to gradually implement the post-coup transition to a managed democratic structure. Elections, currently planned for 2014, offer hope that a new constitutional era will see a return to more participatory governance.

Nonetheless, the post-coup exodus of Indian Fijians means that internal frictions within the indigenous community are likely to increase, with uncertain consequences for the future role of the military. 

As we learn from these case studies, the upheaval of a military coup does not fade quickly. In places as disparate as Thailand and Fiji, cultures of semi-regular military intervention have spawned specific local responses, including widespread frustration and a high degree of popular ambivalence. Tolerance of military interventions is a persistent theme in these two regions, and it remains likely that the years and decades ahead will continue to generate the conditions, and the appetite, for military take-overs.

In this regard, it is worth clarifying that perhaps the most thoroughly consolidated post-coup democracy of those explored is Indonesia. It currently sets a regional benchmark for the rigorous application of democratic procedure.

Nonetheless, the military remains influential, and in the next generation there will be real tests of its commitment to “stay in the barracks”. As experiences in all of these countries show, coups are hard to predict. For that reason, as a committed neighbour of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Australia in particular should continue to watch for their disruptive potential in this highly strategic region.

This is an extract from a special issue of the Australian Journal of International Affairs, ‘Coups, military consolidation and re-democratisation in Southeast Asia and the Pacific’, edited by Dr Nicholas Farrelly and Dr Marcus Mietzner from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. Based on a workshop sponsored by the College, the special issue will be launched at the Hedley Bull Centre, ANU, at 5pm on Monday 12 August.


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team