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When Leaders are Silent: Aung San Suu Kyi, Coup Risks, and the Rohingya Crisis

People hold lit candles and portraits of Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during an interfaith rally in Yangon in response to the recent violence against the Muslim Rohingya. Photo credit: YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images.

We often hear news of armed conflict around the world and are sadly accustomed to the inaction of world leaders in response to violence. But in September 2017, something different happened. The world was outraged when Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the leader of Myanmar, did not condemn a brutal attack by the military on Rohingya civilians that displaced more than 300,000 and killed thousands.

The conflict was sparked by an attack on military forces by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a small insurgent group. In response, the military unleashed a scorched-earth campaign on all Rohingya civilians. The United Nations’ top human rights official called the crisis a textbook example of ethnic cleansing, and some suggested that the crisis might constitute genocide.

Why hasn’t Suu Kyi acted or spoken out against these crimes?

Research on military power, civil leaders, and coups suggests that Suu Kyi is much less powerful than we think, and her leadership can be threatened by the strong Myanmar military if she denounces its actions.

The world expected more from a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been a strong advocate for human rights. Many suggested that her convictions might have changed now that she is in power. But, as we tend to write on this blog, social science can offer additional answers.

Research on military power, civil leaders, and coups suggests that Suu Kyi is much less powerful than we think, and her leadership can be threatened by the strong Myanmar military if she denounces its actions. 

Curtis Bell, a political scientist at OEF Research, explained that we tend to misunderstand and overestimate the power leaders have over the military in many countries. Oftentimes, it is not a relationship of direct subordination, as it is in the United States. Myanmar is a great example; the military there maintains significant decision-making power and autonomy in many areas of government.

In fact, Myanmar was ruled by the military for more than 50 years, until 2011. Despite constitutional changes as well as the 2011 election of the first civilian government, the military holds 25 percent of the seats in parliament and has significant business interests throughout Myanmar. Active military officers head the ministries of Home Affairs, Defense, and Border Affairs, which gives the military a monopoly over the bureaucracy and administrative affairs, security forces, and immigration.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s position in power is precarious and could be undermined by the military through a coup, as well as through a democratic process.

Suu Kyi is legally banned from ever assuming the presidency. A special position of State Counsellor was approved by the parliament to accommodate her de facto leadership of the state, but the military considered the position unconstitutional and voted against it. If her National League for Democracy party does not maintain its majority in the next election and she does not have the military’s support, the position could be replaced or repealed by the military and its allies.

In addition to being potentially threatened by the military in parliament, Suu Kyi also faces a risk of coup. According to Bell, coups primarily occur because of trust problems between leaders and military elites. When both the military and the leader hold significant power, both can theoretically take actions to reduce the power of the other. When the military feels threatened by the leader, a coup can occur.

A delicate balance has to be maintained in the leader–military relationship to ensure that parties maintain trust in each other. To maintain this balance of power, Suu Kyi cannot challenge the military’s authority over key internal ministries related to security, and by extension, its activities in the Rakhine state, where the crisis is occurring.

Myanmar is also a new democracy and is especially susceptible to successful coups. According to Bell, militaries in states that are transitioning from an authoritarian to a democratic system try to maintain their influence in politics. Meanwhile, civilian leaders face restraints on their executive authority and cannot simply repress military elites. This inability to coup-proof gives militaries an advantage when planning a coup to unseat a democratic leader.

These vulnerabilities underscore how important it is for Suu Kyi to maintain a relationship with the military in order to stay in power. She cannot openly speak out against the military’s actions. If the military feels threatened by her leadership, she is much more likely to lose power through a democratic process or face a potential coup attempt by disgruntled military elites.

But, Suu Kyi might not be as threatened by the military as she may think, at least in the next couple of years. Our CoupCast model predicts the likelihood of a coup attempt every month in every country around the world using historical data and machine learning. In October 2017, the risk of a coup attempt in Myanmar is only 0.04 percent; in 2017 overall, the risk is 0.49 percent.

This risk level is almost equal to that of France or Indonesia. Why is it so low at the current moment? One of the strongest predictors of a coup attempt in the model is an upcoming election. No military would want to topple a leader who has just been legitimized by a popular vote, so coups are less likely to occur right after an election and more likely right before a new vote. Myanmar is currently nowhere near a new election, as the next one is scheduled for 2020.

Yes, the coup risk is only going to increase moving forward. This might indicate that if Suu Kyi hasn’t spoken out against the military at this point in the electoral cycle, she is even less likely to do so in the future as the 2020 election looms closer.

What does this mean? The fact that Suu Kyi’s hands are tied when it comes to denouncing the military does not make us feel better about the Rohingya crisis. This information also certainly does not clear Suu Kyi from any blame.

But it tells us that while Suu Kyi’s power is certainly threatened by the military, these concerns might not be as pressing as some may think. Suu Kyi may in fact have some wiggle room to work with the military over the Rohingya crisis while keeping her eyes on elections in 2020. This gives international actors a window of opportunity in which to persuade her to speak up against these crimes.