Myanmar, Thailand and Pakistan are completely different in historical evolution, national temperament, political, social, and cultural processes but have one common factor: their armies are both professional and intensely political. Significantly, over the past six months, the armies have faced protests to curb their intrusion into politics. The latest manifestation has been in Myanmar where the army staged a coup on February 1 and put political leaders, including the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi, into detention. Earlier, in Thailand, the youth launched unprecedented demonstrations, demanding that the monarchy redefine its role and refrain from legitimising military coups, as it had done in the past. The real target of the youth was the monarchy-army alliance. And, in Pakistan, the opposition parties picked up the courage to launch a movement denouncing the army’s manipulation of the political process.
The issue for India is whether the protests in these countries will succeed in reducing the political role of the armies.
While developments in Myanmar have attracted international attention, those in the other two countries did not do so in equal measure. This is because unlike the Myanmar coup, the other two armies’ interventions have not been, in the recent past, as dramatic. The Myanmar coup has been condemned by the western democracies and the ongoing protest movement will continue to receive support. However, the West has been traditionally indulgent towards the Pakistani and Thai armies.
The essential contemporary issue, particularly for India, is not the attitude of western democracies, though it exposes their hypocrisies. It is if the protests in these countries will succeed in reducing the political role of the armies.
Myanmar and Pakistan began as democracies after their independence from Britain. However, their democratic systems could not acquire stability. Pakistan came under direct military rule in 1958 when the army staged a coup and the Myanmar army gained direct control of the country when it also staged a coup in 1962. Thailand never lost its independent status, and from 1782, came under the rule of the Chakri dynasty after a devastating defeat by the Burmese. That loss is part of the Thai people’s consciousness. From 1932, the monarchy accepted a constitutional status. Theoretically, the country became democratic but the army, on numerous occasions, overthrew elected governments and the monarch always gave these moves legitimacy. The last Thai coup took place in 2014. All three armies projected their actions as necessary to protect their respective countries’ sovereignties; their peoples largely acquiesced.
Over the past decade, all three armies allowed in greater or lesser measure the ‘return’ to democratic governance but kept a firm grip on their countries’ security sectors. The Pakistani army did not constitutionally entrench itself in the political system but manipulated it from outside, while also signalling to the country and the world that it was the repository of final authority. The armies in Myanmar and Thailand ensured their presence in their respective legislatures to directly participate in their political processes. Indeed, the Myanmar coup now is largely because the success of Suu Kyi’s party in the last elections in November threatens its political position and especially those of the senior generals.
The opposition parties’ Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) began last autumn. Its most significant demand, voiced most assertively by former PM Nawaz Sharif, is that the army should become apolitical. It is ironic that like many Pakistani politicians, Sharif was initially the protégé of the army itself but the split between the two came decisively in 1999, and since then, the politician and the generals have been enemies. The PDM has held impressive rallies throughout the country and there is a constituency within Pakistan that wants the army not to play politics. However, the generals keep the Indian threat continuously alive to ensure that the people consider them as the country’s ultimate saviours. This will ensure that their role in being the final arbiters of the country’s security policies—an essential element in the hands of elected governments in all democracies—will never get diluted. This would be so even if the PDM were to gain enough momentum to force an early election. That contingency seems unlikely now but cannot be ruled out as PM Imran Khan’s continuing incompetence is obvious.
The Thai youth movement’s demand that the present elected PM, Prayut Chan-o-cha, who as army chief staged the 2014 coup, should go. More significant is its desire that the monarchy should remain above politics and never legitimise army coups. The movement has, unprecedentedly, moved away from observing the traditional forms of respect towards the monarchy. After showing a degree of patience the government is hitting back through the legal process. The movement also hit the pause button because of Covid resurgence but fresh confrontation is now emerging. Eventually, the monarchy and the army will have to show a degree of accommodation to the protests, but Thailand becoming a true democracy anytime soon is unlikely.
In Myanmar, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), especially in the larger cities, is widespread. Till now the army has avoided violence and the Chinese, even while shielding it, are doubtless advising that it should avoid bloodshed. The army’s patience, though, is being tested. What will not weaken is its resolve not to give up its constitutional political role despite international sanctions and condemnation. The ethnic complexities of Myanmar strengthen that resolve.
All in all, for the foreseeable future, India and the world will have to deal with these three armies as playing very significant roles in their countries destinies. This would be so whatever forms of government they may have.
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