• Weird History

The Actual Reasons Why Military Coups Historically Happen

The 2021 military coup in Myanmar is just the tip of the iceberg when it to comes to examples of armed forces seizing power in countries around the world. From the French for "stroke of state," coup d'etats are much more prevalent than residents of stable nations may realize. Unlike democratic coups, military coups usually result in dictatorships or tyrannical, repressive autocracies.

Why do these military coups continue to happen with some frequency? Why are they most common in Africa, the Americas, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East? The reasons are complex and myriad, but countries that experience coup d'états tend to share common conditions. Whether it's economic strife, destabilizing outside influences, a legacy of colonialism, or ethnic tensions, the factors that spawn military coups perpetuate cycles of violence, war, and hardship for citizens.

  • Economic Inequality And Extractive Institutions Make It Easy To Gain And Retain Power

    The Problem: Leaders with ties to imperialist powers assume control by capitalizing on systems of inequality and opportunistic practices put in place by Western influences.

    The Story: The vicious circle of poverty and violence that plagues many non-Western nations is directly correlated to international laws that are still deeply rooted in imperialist ideologies. D. Acemoglu and J.A. Robinson shine a light on this reality in their 2013 book Why Nations Fail. According to the authors, these laws erected by European nations create major disparities in countries that lack the resources or economic systems to minimize wealth inequality.

    Acemoglu and Robinson posit that countries with what they call extractive economic institutions are usually destined to fail. Extractive systems, as opposed to inclusive systems, involve those in control hoarding assets while limiting the rights of citizens to access them. These extractive institutions were established by colonial powers, and in many countries, they were made worse by corrupt post-colonial rulers like the Congo's Joseph Mobutu. Under Mobutu's rule, the country experienced sharp economic decline.

    These trends lead to civil war, coups, and never-ending imbalances of power. The notion of coup-proofing, or ensuring a new nation won't spiral into political turmoil, is thrown out the window. If these nations created more incentives for citizens to save, invest, and innovate, their economies could see long-term stability that would greatly decrease the likelihood of military-led uprisings.

  • Photo: William Arthur Cram / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Coups Are Provoked By Foreign Powers For Their Own Benefit

    The Problem: Outside countries organize the toppling of democratically elected leaders in order to further their own international agendas.

    The Story: All those tales about the United States' involvement in military coups around the world are true. Like their neighbors across the Atlantic, Great Britain, America has a long history of interjecting in foreign relations by instigating takeovers in vulnerable nations. Two of the most well-documented instances of this involve the US's participation in Latin American coups and the CIA's central role in overthrowing Iran's government in 1953.

    Since the 19th century, America has implicated itself in Latin American affairs. The US government backed multiple coups that officials believed would secure American interests in the region, from the construction of the Panama Canal to President Reagan's backing of anti-communist far-right regimes. In 1964, the CIA sponsored the coup of Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz. Over the next few decades, the US government sought the deposition of left-leaning leaders and supported the rise of autocratic, despotic rulers who brought turmoil and genocide to Latin America.

    Led by senior officer Kermit Roosevelt Jr., the CIA worked with British agents to unseat Iran's elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. After Mossadegh sought to nationalize Iran's oil supply, which had been controlled by Britain for decades, Roosevelt created enough instability in the region to reinstate the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This is the direct precursor to Iran's 1979 revolution, wherein Iran became an Islamic republic under Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - which it remains to this day.

  • Photo: Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ethnic Factors And National Division Made Worse By Colonial Partitions Create Irresolvable Social Unrest

    The Problem: Ethnic tensions amplified under colonial rule create divides and grievances that span generations.

    The Story: Both geographical and social partitions put in place by colonial powers have spawned civil wars and military coups in Africa. Most of the boundaries between African nations have colonial origins, fostering border conflicts along ethnic lines. These ethnic tensions explode when they overlap with economic hardships.

    Rwanda's tumultuous history attests to this. The densely populated country went from German to Belgian control in 1918 after WWI. Under Belgian rule, the minority Tutsi group was favored over the majority Hutu group - the latter of which represented 85% of the population. This generated a legacy of friction between the two groups. The Hutus finally revolted in 1959, culminating with Rwanda's independence in 1962.

    Decades of ethnic violence reached a shocking critical mass in 1994 when extremist Hutus shot down the plane carrying moderate Hutu leader Major General Juvenal Habyarimana. From there, these militants began slaughtering Tutsis and Hutus left and right. Within three months, 800,000 Rwandans were deceased and 2 million fled, causing a refugee crisis.

  • Photo: Joel Alvarez / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0

    Some Instigators Create Disinformation Campaigns Against Elected Officials

    The Problem: Coups are sometimes fomented by spreading lies about elections, representative governments, and democratic reforms.

    The Story: Recent coup attempts have relied on media outlets, the internet, and newspapers to justify the sacking of elected officials. In 2019, popular Bolivian president Juan Evo Morales Ayma, after the country's court invalidated the limits previously put in place for elected officials, sought a fourth term in the general election. News sources around the world accused Morales and his government of election fraud when the results indicated Morales held a large lead over his opponent.

    Bolivian military officials forced Morales to resign, leading to a coup that saw Senate Vice President Jeanine Áñez assume power and replace top leaders with people of her own choosing. In early 2020, a study into the election conducted by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found no evidence of fraud, leaving them to conclude it was very likely Morales legitimately won the election. When Morales's political party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS), earned the most votes in the election re-do in June 2020, he returned to Bolivia after new MAS President Luis Arce was sworn into office.

    This draws parallels to the 2021 crisis in Myanmar, where General Min Aung Hlaing claims Aung San Suu Kyi's landslide victory was the result of extreme election fraud. Military leaders in Myanmar asserted people were allowed to vote more than once and there was a vast conspiracy related to almost 5 million names without registration cards. Aung Hlaing did not present any evidence proving his claims are true. In fact, military leaders took final voter lists away from public view.