Myanmar's soldiers march in a formation during a parade to mark the country's 74th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/Thet Aung

Myanmar’s recent reversion to outright military rule has ended a brief and tentative experiment with electoral democracy and restored the country’s status quo ante as a junta-run dictatorship.  

While international condemnation grows around the putsch, Myanmar is not alone in a region where the armed forces continue to play outsized political roles.

While Southeast Asia’s militaries are deeply enmeshed in politics, their political authority could soon grow as the region teeters towards a potential conflict in the South China Sea and as internal strife simmers in various locales.  

Southeast Asian states spent US$34.5 billion on defense in 2019, up 4.2% from 2018, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) think tank.

A report last year by SIPRI’s Siemon T. Wezeman found that military spending by the ten ASEAN states increased by 33% between 2009 and 2018, “significantly more than the global increases [in] military spending or the growth in most other regions and subregions.” 

Thailand has seen two military coups in the past 15 years, in 2006 and 2014, both against the democratically elected governments of the Shinawatra siblings.

Thailand is now ruled by the military-civilian hybrid government of Prayut Chan-ocha, the junta leader who took charge in 2014. He faces mounting street-level resistance among protesters who question his democratic legitimacy.  

In Cambodia, rumors suggest that Prime Minister Hun Sen is planning a dynastic succession to his eldest son, Hun Manet, who became the de facto military chief in 2018. 

For decades, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces has acted as the armed wing of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which came to power militarily in 1979 after overthrowing the Khmer Rouge regime with Vietnam’s backing. 

Ahead of the 2018 general election, three of the most senior military officials, including commander-in-chief Pol Saroeun, retired so that they could run for the CPP at the ballot.

Hun Manet is widely rumored to be the heir apparent when his father, who is now one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers, steps down.

But the military leader who holds no political office is already head of the ruling party’s youth wing and often stands in for his father at state functions. 

This has led to queries over whether the military is overly politicized or if Cambodian politics is becoming increasingly militarized. 

In neighboring Vietnam, the People’s Army (VAPN) is firmly controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (left) inspects troops with his son Lieutenant-General Hun Manet. Photo: Handout/AFP

The 2011 constitution mandates that “the people’s armed forces must show absolute loyalty to the homeland, the People, the Party, and the State; their duty is to protect… the socialist regime and the fruits of the revolution.” 

Most military decisions are taken by the Party’s Central Military Commission, not by the state president, the formal supreme commander-in-chief of the military. 

In Vietnam, too, an increasing number of military officials are in top political roles. At last month’s Communist Party National Congress, a quinquinnel event at which senior officials are reshuffled, two military chiefs were elected on to the powerful Politburo, up from the normal one. 

Between 2001 and 2021, the defence minister, usually a retired general, was the only representative of the military on the Politburo. 

The two newcomers are General Phan Van Giang, chief of staff of the VAPN, and General Luong Cuong, chairman of the military’s General Department of Politics.

Moreover, Colonel General Nguyen Trong Nghia, elected on to the Central Committee last month and formerly the deputy director of the VAPN, was chosen to head the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda and Education Department, putting him in charge of all state-run media outlets. The post serves as guardian of the Party’s image in society. 

Although the Vietnamese military won public applause for its sacrifices during the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 began with the so-called “Tong Dam massacre” when the military and police raided a small commune outside Hanoi in January last year and shot dead the 84-year-old leader of local land-rights protesters. 

For years, residents of the commune had campaigned against efforts to expel them to make way for a factory to be built by the military-run Viettel Group, one of Vietnam’s most important conglomerates. Maj Gen Nguyen Manh Hung, a former executive in Viettel Group, was named the Minister of Information and Communications in 2018.  

Even in countries where depoliticization of the military was progressing, there are now signs of regression.

During Indonesia’s three-decade New Order dictatorship, led by Suharto after his military coup in 1965, the armed forces played a so-called “dual function”, protecting the regime and generating vast profits from military-run businesses. 

The reformasi (“reformation”) period, which began in 1998 after Suharto’s downfall, sought to expand the authority of civilian politicians and keep the military in its barracks as the country democratized. 

Former military leaders have contested presidential elections, but President Joko Widodo has allowed greater numbers of military officers to take top jobs in government ministries while his increasingly illiberal administration has also relied on the armed forces for social stability. 

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto is one of several former military officers with key roles in the Indonesian government. Image: Facebook

Former New Order military leaders like former Lieutenant General Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, once a business partner of Widodo and who is now coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, occupy key cabinet posts. 

Prabowo Subianto, of the controversial special forces (Kopassus) and who was banned from the US in the 1990s for his role in human rights violations, became defense minister in 2019.

“During [Widodo’s] tenure it appears that the military is gaining greater ground in the civil-military balance, marked by the appointment of several New Order figures in politics, increased reliance on the army’s territorial system, and a greater ability for retired officers to shape public discourse and policy,” wrote Natalie Sambhi, a nonresident fellow at Brookings, in a study last month. 

In the Philippines, where the military played a key role in bringing down the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the late 1980s and in the reconstitution of democratic rule, President Rodrigo Duterte has also surrounded himself with top brass.  

By the end of 2018, one-third of Duterte’s cabinet was either former military or police personnel, according to a report at the time. 

Philippine President Rodrugo Duterte has surrounded himself with military personnel. Photo: AFP/King Rodrigues

Malaysia and Singapore are rare examples of where the military have remained out of politics.

In fact, only the current defence ministers of Malaysia (Ismail Sabri Yaakob), Singapore (Ng Eng Hen) and Brunei (absolute monarch Hassanal Bolkiah) have never been active servicemen.

What explains the increasing militarization of Southeast Asian politics?

In Vietnam and Cambodia, the military’s role has been aggrandized because of its loyalty to the ruling parties, which insulates them from possible political change. 

When civilian governments did take power through elections in Thailand and Myanmar, their existence was predicated on preventing a military reaction, which required them to countenance the demands of the armed forces rather than weakening its power.

For Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which took power in 2016, that meant having to publicly defend the military’s “genocide” against the Rohingya minority.

In much of the region, military-run conglomerates still occupy important positions in the economy, providing them with power over civilian governments. 

The military-run Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited controls vast swathes of the country’s export and natural resource sectors, while Vietnam’s Viettel Group dominates the country’s telecoms industry. 

But a much larger problem is how militaries view their role in society. 

Thai Prime Minister and coup leader Prayut Chan-ocha. Some militaries see their role as saving the country from elected governments. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Across much of the region, analysts argue the military still sees itself as the “guardian of the nation” or as the “people’s army.”  Rather than being an instrument of the state, the military sees itself as the protector of the state and therefore not subservient to civilian governments. 

Indeed, as coups in Thailand and Myanmar demonstrate, they are nominally staged to “save” the country from civilian politicians. In other countries, the armed forces still consider themselves on the frontlines against real or imagined threats to national stability. 

Even Western governments recognize the political power of the region’s militaries, with much of the rivalry between the US and China for influence in Southeast Aisa centered on gaining the ear of the commanders. 

During his first month as president, Donald Trump restored military relations with Thailand, including resumption of joint drills which had been halted by his predecessor Barack Obama following the 2014 coup. 

In late 2016, Cambodia’s armed forces began drilling with China for the first time. A few months later, it “suspended” joint military drills with the US, a sign of the country’s geopolitical switch in allegiances.

Phnom Penh also began importing more arms from China, which has provided Cambodia with hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid since 2017.  

In response, Washington has constantly asserted that Phnom Penh is in secret talks to allow Chinese military personnel to be stationed in the country, which the Cambodian government has repeatedly denied. The accusation is clearly intended to forestall closer relations between Cambodia and China’s armed forces. 

In part, the political power exercised by militaries is a result of the increased risk of conflict in the region, brought on by heightened tensions in the South China Sea where a handful of regional states contest territory with China. 

The latest State of Southeast Asia survey by the ISEAS, released this month, found that 45% of respondents thought military confrontation between the US and China that results in a political crisis was the main concern in the South China Sea. 

How the Myanmar coup is settled will be symbolic. After several weeks, nationwide protests are still trying to roll back the military’s power and restore the NLD government, despite deadly repression from the authorities. 

The US has already imposed targeted sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders, as will the European Union.

Yet there is a creeping sense that the international community will accept an outcome if the junta agrees to quickly hold fresh elections, despite one only taking place in November which the military claims was rigged. 

Indeed, Jakarta is said to be formulating a regional action plan that would try to ensure Myanmar’s new military junta sticks to this promise.

That outcome, however, would not only legitimize the coup but also risk giving the military carte blanche to decide how the election proceeds, including who is and isn’t allowed to stand. 

After the 2014 coup in Thailand, its military junta also vowed to hold fresh elections. These didn’t take place until 2019 and only after the junta radically altered the constitution and electoral laws to guarantee the military political power regardless of electoral results. 

Whichever direction one looks in the region, Southeast Asia’s political militaries are not likely to return to their barracks anytime soon.