Since seizing power in a coup in early February, Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, has increasingly cracked down on civil society and the political opposition. In recent weeks, it has shuttered most independent media outlets; arrested many members of the former ruling party, the National League for Democracy, or NLD; declared martial law in parts of the country; and unleashed security forces on pro-democracy demonstrators. By one estimate, at least 200 people have been killed since protests began against the coup last month, and thousands of people have been detained. The real number of deaths is probably much higher, and the bloody repression seems to be escalating.But apparently, Myanmar’s military rulers seek more than to wield brutal force—or at least, they had hoped to when the coup was launched. They have tried to legitimize their rule by gaining recognition from regional powers and international organizations, and by putting in motion a process that will supposedly lead to fresh elections in the future. As a number of other Southeast Asia scholars have argued, the junta is clearly looking to neighboring Thailand as an example of how to build such a democratic facade. Indeed, shortly after the coup, the Tatmadaw’s commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, contacted Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who led his own coup in 2014, to ask for his assistance in instituting “democracy” in Myanmar. The Thai and Myanmar militaries have longstanding links, although they have also had to manage a history of tensions along disputed portions of their countries’ border. As Oren Samet recently noted in an article for The Diplomat, Min Aung Hlaing has received several royal decorations from Thailand, and has enjoyed close ties with a series of Thai army chiefs.
However, the Tatmadaw is unlikely to enjoy the same degree of success as the Thai military as it seeks to entrench a pseudo-democratic government. Its efforts to gain global recognition, for example, have thus far met with limited success, as foreign governments and international organizations have roundly condemned the killing of peaceful protesters by security forces. It is also unlikely to convince many of Myanmar’s citizens that it can implement a credible election. Meanwhile, the country’s growing pro-democracy uprising—known as the Civil Disobedience Movement, or CDM—has spread across the country, organizing mass demonstrations that have brought the economy to a virtual standstill. It is gaining global support and seeking to convince rank-and-file soldiers to defect, while also forming alliances with Thai pro-democracy demonstrators.The CDM has emerged as a formidable obstacle to the Tatmadaw’s efforts to follow the Thai playbook—a plan that otherwise might have had some modest chance of success. After all, it worked well for Thailand’s generals. After the 2014 coup, the Thai junta enlisted several well-respected civilian technocrats to staff the transitional government—a strategy that other coup leaders in the country had routinely used in the past. Although some countries condemned the coup and the U.S. imposed a modest suspension of security assistance to Thailand, foreign governments generally recognized the transitional government. The Thai military then midwifed a constitution that created an electoral system designed to sharply favor pro-military parties and unelected senators and bureaucrats loyal to the armed forces. It also tried to split existing political parties and woo some of their leaders to join the military’s proxy party.In the disputed election in 2019, the Thai military’s favored coalition won control of parliament, largely because of byzantine constitutional changes that the junta made in the lead-up to the polls, and possibly even outright electoral fraud. Prayuth then became prime minister. Still, that did not prevent foreign powers, including the U.S., from recognizing the new government in Thailand.After seizing power last month, Min Aung Hlaing gave signals that he intended to go down this road. He appointed a large Cabinet and advisory council with some respected figures, including Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, a retired colonel who previously served as foreign minister from 2011 until 2016.Min Aung Hlaing also gave the junta an innocuous-sounding name: the State Administration Council. It promptly launched an election commission to potentially create a new system of proportional representation and make other alterations that could favor military-backed parties, which had been badly beaten by the NLD in elections last November. The junta also appeared ready to woo some ethnic minority parties alienated by the NLD—whose base primarily comprises members of the majority ethnic group, the Bamar—and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest as she faces contrived criminal charges leveled against her by the junta.Myanmar’s Tatmadaw is unlikely to enjoy the same degree of success as the Thai military as it seeks to entrench a pseudo-democratic government.At the same time, the junta has been scrambling to convince neighbors and global powers to recognize it as the legitimate government of Myanmar. The junta has reportedly hired an Israeli-Canadian lobbyist, Ari Ben-Menashe, to help it explain “the real situation in the country” to foreign officials in the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. At the same time, Wunna Maung Lwin flew to Thailand in late February for talks with other Southeast Asian officials, probably to try to convince his regional counterparts to recognize the new military government. But those efforts didn’t pan out, and the junta still hasn’t been recognized by other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors are not the only ones to resist recognizing the new government. Regional powers like Japan have also demurred, and the United Nations has continued to insist that Kyaw Moe Tun—the pre-coup government’s ambassador to the U.N. and a critic of the military regime—still represents the country at the international body. In an unusual show of unity, all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, including China and Russia, condemned the violence against protesters in Myanmar and called for continued support for a democratic transition in the country.Overall, the bloodshed in Myanmar makes it much harder for the junta to gain foreign recognition like the generals in Bangkok. Although the Thai military detained activists, civil society leaders, journalists and opposition politicians after the 2014 coup, and imposed harsh restrictions on public gatherings, it did not massacre hundreds of people the way the Tatmadaw has. Thailand is also a major regional economic hub, a very close partner of Japan, and a U.S. treaty ally. Given Thailand’s geostrategic importance, major powers have treaded lightly in addressing the kingdom’s political transitions. Even now, with the Thai government pursuing harsh charges against demonstrators who regularly gathered last year to call for democratic reforms and even rethinking aspects of the monarchy, Washington and other major powers will be reticent to push Thailand too much. President Joe Biden’s administration has, in fact, made bolstering links with Thailand and the Philippines, its two treaty allies in Southeast Asia, a centerpiece of its foreign policy.Myanmar, by contrast, is a tiny economy and of less geostrategic importance to the U.S. and the European Union—though it is still important to Japan, India and China. Its military is far more brutal than the Thai armed forces, and Ben-Menashe, who reportedly also has represented former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the Sudanese military, is not going to change minds in Washington.In recent weeks, the Biden administration has increased its pressure on the junta, ramping up targeted sanctions while also announcing temporary protected status for Burmese nationals residing in the U.S. The EU also appears ready to institute a new round of sanctions on the coup leaders.Meanwhile, at home, Myanmar’s military has faced a much harder time in getting civilian politicians, even from ethnic minority parties, to work with it, in part because of its excessive brutality. A few small parties have met with the junta, but the biggest ethnic minority parties, as well as the largest ethnic armed organizations, came together in late February and called for unity in combating the junta.Myanmar’s protest movement also has been more widespread than the demonstrations in Thailand, and more capable of shutting down large portions of the economy and convincing civil servants, police, firemen and other essential workers to show solidarity by stepping off the job. In recent months, some Thai protesters have demonstrated solidarity with the CDM, making gestures to include it in the informal, transnational coalition known as the Milk Tea Alliance, which links pro-democracy activists in Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan and now Myanmar.It is no exaggeration to say that the CDM enjoys more support from foreign powers than the junta that it is demonstrating against. Ultimately, this is likely to lead the Tatmadaw to try and bludgeon the populace into submission, as it has many times in the past.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.