An Oxford economics professor said in a recent Washington Post article that the best hope for either Burma or Zimbabwe is that military officers might overthrow their respective dictators and leap through a window of legitimacy held open by the free world.
“Rather than trying to freeze coups out of the international system, we should try to provide them with a guidance system,” Paul Collier has written, adding that in countries like Zimbabwe and Burma coups “should be encouraged because they are likely to lead to improved governance.”
There is nothing new here. Coup making worldwide has for decades been premised on this fraud that if things can’t get worse, surely they can only get better. In Asia, people from Pakistan to the Philippines have been forced to pay for the fraud again and again, yet still it is circulated as if an original proposal to the world’s intractable problems.
The people in Burma, for whom a coup is somehow being posited as a cure rather than yet another curse, are already repeat victims of this fraud. It was in 1958 that army officers originally cornered the country’s struggling civilian prime minister and put it to him that he had better hand over power or they just might not be able to control their boys.
The “caretaker” regime that followed built its legitimacy on precisely the argument that it would do a better job of governing than the corrupt, inept and violent political parties that had been mucking things up for a decade since independence.
To this day it is credited with having restored order, yet when it handed back power to the electorate in 1960 it was not military-backed candidates but those of the former government who were overwhelmingly voted back into office. The public was less impressed with army discipline than the economists.
Still, General Ne Win (pictured above) at the time received credit for stepping down peacefully and it was not until 1962 that the fraud was exposed, when he stepped back up again, this time for good. Burma didn’t have another election for a further three decades, and then, when the outcome was the same as before, the soldiers didn’t bother with any pretense.
What the experts and intellectuals missed in the 1960s, and what some of their peers seemingly continue to miss almost half a century on, is that coup making is habitual. Once armies get the taste for taking over, they don’t lose it easily. The same fraud is perpetrated time and time again; the ailment and the cure become one.
Burma’s neighbors also have many informative lessons on habitual coup making. To the east, despite its vastly different social and political life, Thailand was in 2006 for the eighteenth time forced back under military control thanks to what fawning media outlets improbably eulogized as a “good coup.”
The takeover in Thailand was run to the same old tune that the army could somehow do a better job of managing a by-now highly complicated bureaucracy and modern economy than the corrupt and divisive civilian regime that it booted out; in this case, through the appointment of savvy officials rather than direct control of the sort preferred by its counterparts in Burma.
But the army didn’t do any better and the general election that it arranged also ended with many of the people it had pushed out getting back in again – although not before it had made a mockery of the nascent constitutionalism of the 1990s, left an array of public institutions in an utter shambles, and stuffed the deep corners of its coffers with public monies. Unsurprisingly, the country is still in turmoil, and few people are prepared to rule out the likelihood of the military intervening again in the next few years.
In Burma the stakes are even higher, given that many more lives are directly threatened and the likelihood of tragedy ever present. The scandalous mishandling of the Cyclone Nargis relief effort that has provoked Collier and others to write well-meaning articles about a country of which they know nothing is still being played out in the lives of millions there daily. There are grave fears for food stocks if rainy season crops are not soon planted across the damaged areas of the delta.
Whether or not any of this might give cause for a coup of the sort upon which junta opponents have already hung their hopes for years is a matter of conjecture. But that just about all of this is the consequence of a coup, or two, is a matter of undeniable fact.
Let us not praise coups, and let us certainly not wish them upon people who are already acutely suffering their iniquities. They are not a way out of trouble but a way into more of it. No better advertisement of this exists than Burma today.
Source: Let us not praise coups
See also: Collier in praise of toppling Mugabe (Response to Collier’s article with reference to Zimbabwe)