Conflict and leadership: The resurgent political role of the military in Southeast Asia

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    In 2001, Muthiah Alagappa’s edited volume Coercion and Governance: The Declining Political Role of the Military in Asia evaluated the state of civil-military relations in 16 countries across the region. Despite significant differences between the analysed nations, the study diagnosed a general decrease in the political significance of the armed forces in East Asia. The Southeast Asian cases presented in the book seemed to confirm this trend. To begin with, Thailand had seen its last coup in 1991 and had marginalized the military since then. The Philippines had emerged successfully from the Marcos dictatorship and the post-authoritarian transition under Aquino, stabilizing politically and economically during the strong leadership of Fidel Ramos. Indonesia, for its part, was undergoing a messy democratic transition, but it had nevertheless ended three decades of Suharto’s military-backed rule in 1998. In Vietnam, the military gradually adjusted to a new, less prominent role after decades of wars against France, the United States, and China. Finally, Singapore’s semi-authoritarian, civilian regime remained in control of its large and modern armed forces. The only exception from the rule was Burma:1 there, the military junta showed no signs of softening its repressive grip on the country that it had ruled more or less continuously since 1962. Overall, however, the Southeast Asian region appeared to go down the same road that Latin America had travelled in the 1980s and 1990s: sidelining the armed forces from politics and establishing functioning civilian regimes. A decade later, however, the decline of the military’s political role in Southeast Asia had been stopped, if not reversed. In Thailand, the military launched a coup in 2006 after mass protests had demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The coup failed to restore order, however. In 2010, Thailand saw the worst political violence since 1992, with more than 100 people killed and Bangkok’s streets turned into a civil war zone. Similarly, the Philippines descended into chaos in 2001, with President Estrada removed in a violent popular uprising. His successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, became dependent on the armed forces, using them to secure victory in the 2004 elections and to survive subsequent protests against her rule. Southeast Asia’s youngest nation, Timor-Leste, witnessed divisions in its military that contributed to widespread violence in the country in 2006 and 2007. The Burmese military government, not unsurprisingly, clung to power, despite organizing farcical parliamentary elections in November 2010.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe political resurgence of the military in Southeast Asia: conflict and leadership
    Editors Marcus Mietzner
    Place of PublicationOxon UK
    PublisherRoutledge, Taylor & Francis Group
    ISBN (Print)9780415460354
    Publication statusPublished - 2011


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