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How the military lost its grip on government

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- Images of tanks rolling through the streets of Bangkok and demonstrators storming television stations in Budapest seemed to hark back to an era the world had left behind.

There was nothing unprecedented about events in either Thailand or Hungary this week. Elderly Thais could say they had already lived through 17 coups since their country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, while the scenes in Budapest echoed those 50 years ago when Hungarians rose up in vain against a Soviet puppet regime.

Yet in recent years, both nations appeared to have developed painlessly into Western-oriented stable democracies.

Showing admirable bluffing skills, even Thailand's Army Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin recently claimed military coups were "a thing of the past."

Yet this week's unrest in central Europe and southeast Asia offered a reminder that, however stable a country appears, it only takes a cluster of brick-lobbing students or a bored general with a couple of tank divisions at his disposal to throw a country into crisis.

Although the protests in Budapest have failed to shift Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany it is actually the Hungarian protesters who are more in tune with current global trends, rather than the Thai generals.

For the past quarter-century military and authoritarian rule has been in retreat across much of the world, with the number of electoral democracies in the world increasing between 1987 and 2006 from 66 to 123, according to Freedom House figures.

"The global picture suggests that 2005 was one of the most successful years for freedom since we began measuring world freedom in 1972," wrote Arch Puddington in the democracy monitoring group's 2006 report.

"Under any circumstances, the state of global freedom would be cause for cautious optimism. The record is even more impressive given the conflicts and crises that dominated the news in 2005."

Latin America, once dominated by U.S.-backed caudillos in dark shades and light uniforms, has largely cast off its jackboots, just as eastern Europe broke free of Soviet influence.

The past 12 months have seen elections in Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Mexico with further polls to come in Brazil and Venezuela before the end of the year.

Nowadays, in fact it is more likely to be people power than military power that topples a president. Recent history has seen a veritable floral encyclopaedia of popular uprisings, from the orange revolution in Ukraine, via the rose revolution in Georgia and the cedar revolution in Lebanon to the tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan.

Sometimes people power can work in unexpected ways. When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was deposed by a coup in 2002, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to restore him to power -- perhaps the only time in history the masses have taken action to demand that a politician stayed in office.

In fact, perhaps better than anyone, Chavez's career illustrates how power has drifted away from olive-uniformed soldiers towards contemporary sans-cullottes storming latter-day Bastilles.

In 1992 as a young paratrooper battalion commander, Chavez led a failed coup and went to prison as a result. It was only later in 1999, by harnessing popular support as a politician, that he was finally elected to his country's leadership.

The genetic code of all modern protest movements dates back to the end of the Cold War, when country after country across the Eastern Bloc and within the Soviet Union rose up against their governments as they realised that the imploding regime in Moscow was no longer capable or interested in intervening.

But technology, globalization and the media's ability to cast local struggles in a global context have also made it increasingly difficult for most states to take a hard line stance against protesters or stamp out dissent.

The Internet and modern communications have given protesters a modern edge. When Philippine president Joseph Estrada was ousted from office in 2001, the hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Manila had each been summoned by mobile phone text message.

Perhaps there is nothing new about people power. After all Iran's populist revolution of 1979 occurred in the midst of the Cold War struggle and became known as the "cassette revolution" as dissidents smuggled in taped sermons by the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.

But nowadays it can sometimes seem that all it takes to shift an unpopular regime is to adopt an emblematic national symbol and muster a crowd of photogenic teenagers and some TV cameras to a country's central square.

It's not always so simple. Belarus' opposition attempted to rally support in the aftermath of President Aleksandr Lukashenko's election win earlier this year, styling it as the "denim revolution," but the protests failed to reach a critical mass and those that did demonstrate ended up being arrested and dispersed.

There are plenty of other regimes that buck the general trend, such as Myanmar, which has been in the grip of a military regime since 1992, despite widespread condemnation.

Yet it seems increasingly difficult for hardline regimes to take action against motivated, well-organized and highly-visible protesters with popular support.

In 1989, with the Cold War structure still firmly in place and no inkling of the imminent collapse of the USSR, a lone Chinese student stood defiantly in the path of a column of tanks, a symbol of the protest movement bloodily crushed in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Seventeen years on, China's Communist Party may not have loosened its political grip, yet it finds itself ruling a country with increasingly prosperous outward-looking cities that pulse to the rhythms of the global economy -- a transformation highlighted by the fact Beijing will host the Olympic Games in 2008.

Should a Tiananmen-style confrontation occur again, it remains to be seen whether the outcome would be the same.


Thai military leaders appear on TV after seizing power.

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