Sunday, June 22, 2008

Thai coup bad, Burmese coup good

The night of the Thai coup of September 2006 was my entry into the world of blogging. Today Thailand stands on the brink of another coup. Street demonstrations reminiscent of the summer of 2006 seem likely to continue, perhaps to the point where the royalist-backed Thai military might once again claim cause to depose an elected government. Since the last Thai coup, I have also blogged about the desperate situation facing many Burmese. A country run for decades by an oppressive military dictatorship, Burma seems in need of a good coup.

Development expert Paul Collier, the author of a recent and important book about how the West can best advance the welfare of the "The Bottom Billion" (more here), takes up the question of "the good coup" in a WaPo op/ed. Citing the dictators in Burma and Zimbabwe as prime candidates, Collier reasons that a military coup can be a good thing. Collier is cautious, however, in making such a pronouncement:
I find it a little awkward to be writing in praise, however faint, of coups. They are unguided missiles, as likely to topple a democracy as a dictatorship. But there is still something to be said for them.
. . . as likely to topple a democracy as a dictatorship. Thailand comes immediately to mind. The Thai coup of 2006 toppled a democratically elected government; if the country were to experience yet another coup this year, it would be a crippling blow to Thai democracy. Truly, a Thai coup would be a bad coup. So how to rationalize -- legitimate -- a means of transferring power that seems anathema to the democratic ideal? Collier writes:
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the international community has taken the rather simplistic position that armies should stay out of politics. That view is understandable but premature. Rather than trying to freeze coups out of the international system, we should try to provide them with a guidance system. In contexts such as Zimbabwe and Burma, coups should be encouraged because they are likely to lead to improved governance. (It's hard to imagine things getting much worse.) The question then becomes how to provide encouragement for some potentially helpful coups while staying within the bounds of proper international conduct.

In fact, some basic principles are not that hard to draw. For starters, governments that have crossed the red line of banning U.N. food aid -- a ghastly breach of any basic contract between the governors and the governed -- should temporarily lose international recognition of their legitimacy. Ideally, such moves should come from the United Nations itself; surely banning U.N. help constitutes a breach of rudimentary global obligations. But realistically, other dictators, worried that they might wind up in the same boat, would rally to block action at the United Nations, so we must look elsewhere.
. . . should temporarily lose international recognition of their legitimacy. Of course, Collier has Burma in mind. I agree. On 23 May I blogged:
There is no excuse for the widespread conviction that a group of criminals in uniform, men who have the audacity to call themselves "a government," must first approve before the strong, rich, and free peoples of the world go to the aid of the cyclone victims. We should be in there now, saving Burmese lives with our ships and helicopters. . . .
By turning away aid to cyclone victims, the Myanmar regime demonstrated its criminality. At such times as these a regime should not be recognized. Collier proposes a formal mechanism of international de-legitimization, which would be wonderful. At least the prospect of being "de- legitimized" serve as an incentive for a rouge regimes to behave with greater civility.

Collier reasons that UN recognition would be difficult to successfully withdraw. Therefore, he proposes that a withdraw of EU recognition might be the next best thing. Collier explains how this future mechanism of the European Union might function. Optimistically perhaps, Collier thinks the mechism could be used not just serve as a stick to keep dictators in line, but as a carrot to encourage any would-be coup plotters. Collier believes such a protocol could make good coups more likely to occur -- where and when they are most needed:
A collective E.U. withdrawal of recognition from the Mugabe or Shwe regimes would be an obvious and modest extension of the values that underpin the European project. Making any such suspension of recognition temporary -- say, for three months -- would present potential coup plotters within an army with a brief window of legitimacy. They would know that it was now or never, which could spur them to act. And even if the loss of recognition did not induce a quick coup, E.U. recognition would be restored after the three months were up.
Is fear that the outcome of a coup would not be deemed legitimate actually that which has held back potential coup-makers in the past? We don't know the answer. It seems to me there is no harm -- and much that could be gained -- were the EU to implement Collier's proposal.

You can read my post concerning Collier's bold ideas about development here.


  1. That wouldn't be a bad boat for the U.S. to get on either. Unilateral sanctions (or bi-lateral, as the EU often joins us) just don't cut it in the worst cases.

    The main thing that worries me is that some of these small tyrants have big friends - China, for example, has financial interests in the governments of Zimbabwe, Sudan and Burma. Russia isn't much better. What kind of reciprocity could we expect from just these two players if we started toppling governments in their financial backyards?

    A couple of other things come to mind as well. Like, what if the coup is bloodier than expected? If the West causes a situation that leads to a refugee problem for neighboring countries, are we going to help with that problem? And what if the coup starts a civil war? Somalia has effectively been without a government for decades; if we cause something like this, will we then have to intervene further?

  2. Consider these words carefully from the U.S. foundation document:

    We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

    That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.

    That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is in the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.

    If we apply these words to the question of good and bad coups, we may find something of value. Note the words the Right of the People. This seems to imply that the military does not have a right to alter or change the government, but the People do. The army may take part in the sense of not putting down actions which represent the will of the people. An example of this is in the Philippines where Marcos was overthrown by the People and the army refused to thwart the action of the citizens.

    It may be possible in Thailand for the people to insist that the government be changed, and call on the army not to interfere.

    Even in Burma, if the monks are people were to rise up, they could be successful if the common soldiers choose not to follow the orders of the military dictators.

    Ultimately though it seems a change in government directed by or organized by the military does not fall within the legitimizing mandate of the text quoted.

    If it an exercise of the right of the People it must be carried out by the People in their own name and with their own participation.

    Such a change in government could be recognized and supported by the EU and the US.


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