After Coup, Myanmar’s Military Rule Is an Exception

How the country became primed for a sort of violence, and a sort of dictatorship, that had grown rare.,

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Myanmar’s rulers this week crossed a threshold few governments breach anymore: They have killed, by most estimates, more than 500 unarmed citizens of their own country.

Such massacres by government forces have, even in a time of rising nationalism and authoritarianism, been declining worldwide. This is the seventh in the past decade, compared with 23 in the 1990s, according to data from Uppsala University in Sweden.

And the violence in Myanmar was carried out by a sort of government that has grown rarer still: outright military rule.

Myanmar does not signify a return to an earlier era, experts believe, so much as an echo. Its violence hints at the ways in which the world has changed, and hasn’t.

Governments are more oppressive but, with a handful of exceptions like Syria, less likely to kill their own people at scale. Dictatorships are more common but less overt. And world powers have come to shun the government crackdowns they once encouraged.

Myanmar is unusual partly because it is a country out of time, resembling a bygone style of autocracy, but also for the ways in which it is unique.

And those traits, experts say, helped enable the February coup led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and the subsequent crackdown on peaceful protesters. They also point to a long and difficult road ahead.

ImageSoldiers during a raid in Yangon last month.
Soldiers during a raid in Yangon last month.Credit…The New York Times

No two crackdowns are alike, each brought about by events and personalities particular to its time and place. But scholars have identified a set of factors that make a government likelier to kill large numbers of its own citizens. And virtually all are present in Myanmar.

Perhaps the most important warning sign: direct military rule.

Military rulers tend to be more aggressive in deploying troops to crush dissent. And unlike civilian autocrats, they have little reason to fear the troops turning on them, as happened when Romania’s armed forces ousted the communist rulers who’d ordered them to open fire on protesters in 1989.

But what most primes military rulers for violence, said Erica Frantz, a scholar of authoritarianism at Michigan State University, is their inexperience at ruling any other way.

“They get paranoid and don’t have a sense for what levels of dissent are acceptable in society, so they might be quicker to use force against their citizens,” Dr. Frantz said, adding that such rulers tend to have a “kneejerk reactions to threats.”

Myanmar’s generals are typical in this sense: experienced at fighting, politically powerful, but unfamiliar with the give-and-take required of even autocratic rule. Force is the tool they know best.

The country bears another serious risk factor: its civil war, raging against various ethnic militias since the 1940s.

Most militaries see themselves as protectors against foreign threats, with a strong taboo against committing violence at home. But civil war can break that taboo, normalizing the idea that deploying domestically is legitimate, and making it easier to see fellow citizens as enemies.

And it accustoms generals to the idea that their proper place is not guarding the borders but imposing order at home. Myanmar’s military has considered this its role for decades — even when it allowed elections and limited civilian government in the years before the coup, it granted itself permanent seats in the legislature.

But few factors predict future government massacres like past ones. And it has been less than four years since Myanmar’s conducted one of the bloodiest of the 21st century, targeting thousands of members of the country’s Rohingya minority in what the United Nations and human rights groups called a genocidal campaign.

International outrage, though severe, did little to the leaders’ calculus. And much of the domestic response to the Rohingya killings was supportive. Social media filled with praise for the campaign and the military officers who led it.

The current violence is not surprising “because of the genocide and the fact that they were able to get away with it with very little repercussions,” Dr. Frantz said.

Once a military kills its own with impunity, and even feels it benefited from the bloodshed, there is very little to stop it from doing so again.

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Supporters of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar civilian leader arrested by the military junta in February.Credit…The New York Times

The era of armed forces rule peaked between 1960 and 1990, when dozens of countries around the world came under full or partial military dictatorships, many of them propped up by the United States or the Soviet Union.

When the Cold War ended, that number collapsed to just a handful, and has been steadily declining ever since, according to data maintained by One Earth Future, a research foundation.

Government-sponsored massacres became less frequent too. But a wave in the 1990s were mostly in countries that, like Myanmar, had histories of civil war, weak institutions, high poverty rates and politically powerful militaries — Sudan, Rwanda, Nigeria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others.

Though they largely failing to stop those killings as they happened, world leaders and institutions like the United Nations built systems to encourage democracy and avert future atrocities.

Myanmar, a pariah state that had sealed itself off from the world until reopening in 2011, didn’t much benefit from those efforts.

The country also missed out on a global change in how dictatorship works.

A growing number of countries have shifted toward systems where a strongman rises democratically but then consolidates power. These countries still hold elections and call themselves democracies, but heavily restrict freedoms and political rivals. Think Russia, Turkey or Venezuela.

“Repression in the last couple of years has actually gotten worse in dictatorships,” Dr. Frantz said. But large-scale crackdowns are rarer, she added, in part because “today’s dictators are getting savvier in how they oppress.”

Only 20 years ago, 70 percent of protest movements demanding democracy or systemic change succeeded. But that number has since plummeted to a historic low of 30 percent, according to a study by Erica Chenoweth of Harvard University.

Much of the change, Dr. Chenoweth wrote, came through something called “authoritarian learning.”

New-style dictators were wary of calling in the military, which might turn against them. And mass violence would shatter their democratic pretensions. So they developed practices to frustrate or fracture citizen movements: jailing protest leaders, stirring up nationalism, flooding social media with disinformation.

Some Myanmar experts argue that the country’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was pulling the government in this direction before the generals seized power for themselves.

But there is one way, experts stress, in which the world has not much changed: its seeming inability to stop government-sponsored killings once they begin.

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Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief and instigator of the coup, on the front page of the Global New Light of Myanmar, a state-owned newspaper, on Tuesday.Credit…The New York Times

“Once the military is involved in politics, it’s hard to get them out if they don’t want to get out,” said Tom Pepinsky, a Cornell University political scientist. “Very, very hard.”

Most military rulers do step down after a few years, usually in response to an economic downturn, protest movement or other headache that they decide they don’t want. And usually with a promise that they can keep their ranks and salaries.

But there is a big exception: Rulers who oversee atrocities tend to stay in office more or less for life.

“They cling on until the end because they know there’s a lot of uncertainty should they leave power,” Dr. Frantz said. Rather than risk prison time or war crimes charges, they do whatever it takes to hold power.

This can take a generation to resolve. In some Latin American countries, juntas that took power in the 1970s stepped down only in the 1990s, and even then under arrangements that granted them lifetime rights and immunities. Some countries are only now moving past those legacies.

And the intervening decades can be dangerous.

“They have a very dangerous future should they lose control,” Dr. Frantz said. “And that’s going to incentivize more violence.”

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