• Analysis

How pop culture can help explain the coup in Myanmar

Disney's "The Lion King" offers critical insights into how coups work — and the causes and mechanisms behind the recent coup in Myanmar.

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As the United States and other Western nations consider sanctioning the leaders of the military coup against Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy party she leads in Myanmar, it is important for us to understand the underlying causes of the coup and the mechanics of coups themselves. From afar the situation in Myanmar can look complex and potentially even impossible to comprehend, but military coups are age old stories that have been seen, unfortunately, in every corner of the globe.

Popular culture, like television shows, music and movies can be used to understand what might otherwise seem incomprehensible. Pop culture can also be useful for humans to better process the world around them and assess roles they themselves play within society. For example, people protesting the coup in Myanmar have adopted the three finger salute, a sign of solidarity and resistance borrowed from the protest movement in Thailand but with origins in the young adult fiction book-turned-blockbuster-movie series, “The Hunger Games.”

Disney’s 1994 animated classic “The Lion King” is beloved by multiple generations of children and adults. And while it is more often understood solely as a play on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” it has a lot more to say about power and how it functions in society. It may also be the best piece of pop culture for understanding how coups work and particularly the causes and mechanisms behind the recent coup in Myanmar. Before we get into that analysis, we need to take a brief detour to better understand how Myanmar got to this point.

A history of military rule

The current coup is part of a long history of coups and military rule in Myanmar since its independence from the British Empire in 1948. Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, led the country through years of turmoil and political maneuvering as the colony navigated World War II, switching sides between the Japanese and British whenever convenient. After successfully leading the country to independence, Aung San was murdered by political rivals. Despite this, the nation charted a way towards democracy. The new government struggled to appease the various factions that had put it in place, and was eventually overthrown in 1958 by Gen. Ne Win, an anti-communist who purged many of the leftists he’d worked with during the independence struggle of the 1940s. 

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  • 4 potent lessons in creative cultural activism from Myanmar
  • After a brief return to democracy, the government was then overthrown again by Ne Win in 1962, who went on to control Myanmar until the 1988 Uprising — where college students led a movement of monks, doctors, housewives and children to protest the one-party state. Members of the military took advantage of the situation and overthrew Ne Win and established the State Law and Order Restoration Council, later renamed the State Peace and Development Council, a military government. They held elections in 1990, which were won by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party — the National League for Democracy, or NLD — but refused to recognize the results and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest instead. The State Peace and Development Council dissolved itself in 2011 and called for a return to democracy, though its leaders still held the lion’s share of power as high-ranking military officials, through the newly formed Union Solidarity and Development Party, and the country’s new Prime Minister, Thein Sein, a retired general.

    In 2015, the NLD swept the elections and won a supermajority in the legislative branch of the government, leading to the establishment of Aung San Suu Kyi as the first non-military leader of the country in 54 years. Aung San Suu Kyi granted amnesty to student leaders arrested during a previous uprising, re-established relationships on the international level, and was seen as a step forward for the country.

    Despite high hopes from the global community, she did little to stop the brutal genocide of the Rohingya Muslim minority, and engaged in the repression of journalists. International opinion turned on her as she ignored calls to end the genocide and refused to cross the military or acknowledge their actions as a genocide. Her appeasement did very little to protect her, and she was overthrown by the military on Feb. 1 in response to another landslide victory by the NLD.

    The Lion King’ and coups

    “The Lion King” and the history of its setting, Pride Rock, reflects much of the experience of Myanmar, but also the experiences of many people and nations throughout contemporary history, like those who lived through the little-known 1898 white supremacist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina.

    The story follows the Lion King, Mufasa, and his heir Simba, as Simba is prepared to take rulership over the kingdom. Scar, Mufasa’s younger and craftier brother, assassinates Mufasa, and overthrows his regime in an otherwise bloodless coup using an army of hyenas to establish total dominance. Scar’s regime seems to rob the Pride Lands of many of its animals and flora, turning the once lush plains into wasteland. Simba is exiled and returns only in adulthood, after being pushed by his childhood crush Nala — and the ghost of his father — to take his rightful place at the top of the animal kingdom. Simba leads the remaining lions in a violent coup, with apparent support from working-class animals, and overthrows his uncle in a battle. He re-establishes himself as the leader of Pride Rock and cements his claim with a marriage to Nala and the birth of their own child and heir.

    David Lane, a former professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge, provides a useful framework for understanding the coups in Myanmar and “The Lion King.” Lane uses the “elite theory” to explain how coups work in his 2008 research article “The Orange Revolution: ‘People’s Revolution’ or Revolutionary Coup?” Elite theory holds that most countries, both democratic and non-democratic, are controlled by a small minority of wealthy people and blocs of politicians and military leaders who share and contest for power through various mechanisms.

    Every society has three categories of elite: The ruling elite, or those who are currently in the driving seat of government and hold most of the governing authority of the country; the secondary elite — my own term — who hold a lot of political power but aren’t currently in the position of actually leading the government; and the counter elite, i.e. those who may have economic or military power, or political influence, but no actual ability or role in governance.

    The people of Myanmar must be wary of any wing of the government or a new counter-elite seeking to merely replace the military regime at the top of the pyramid of power.

    A coup, according to Lane, is when members of the secondary elite or counter elite, use swift — and often violent action — to seize power and replace the ruling elite with themselves. Aside from elites who have deep ideological convictions, coup plotters usually have no real interest in altering the structure of the country’s political or economic system, but merely want to become the new governing body. Lane also details the concept of revolutionary coups, which involve high audience participation — meaning a mass movement is in the streets seeking change at the same time as the coup plotters are springing into action.

    “The Lion King” involves at least two coups. The first is the standard affair. Scar, is a member of the secondary elite — with direct access to governance, but isn’t in the governing seat himself — and decides to recruit the hyenas, a counter-elite military unit, to overthrow Mufasa. Scar becomes the new ruling elite and the hyenas the new secondary elite, with the Lionesses of Pride Rock becoming a counter-elite.

    Simba then joins with the Lionesses and members of the oppressed animal public, like Simba’s friends Timon and Pumbaa, to participate in another coup. It is arguable that the animal masses were engaged in civil disobedience at the same time, causing the desolation of the Pride Lands that is often just blamed solely on Scar’s mismanagement, thus making Simba’s coup a revolutionary coup.

    Understanding Myanmar

    The coup in Myanmar can be understood with similar terms. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy have long been a domestically and internationally influential counter-elite in Myanmar. Through public pressure and eventual elections, the NLD was swept into the position of a precarious ruling elite, finally having access to real governing power. The military were arguably transformed into both a secondary elite and counter-elite through their political party and their complete autonomy as commanders of the army, navy, air force and police.

    The 2021 election was a step towards the NLD solidifying its position as the new ruling elite and triggered a response from the military, which launched its coup as a means of retaking its old position as the total governing body of Myanmar. It is also, important to note that the current ruling military regime was once a counter-elite that overthrew the ruling elite of Gen. Ne Win in the 1988 coup that stole a revolution and turned it into a revolutionary coup. While the coup leaders insist that this too was a revolutionary coup on behalf of the people, it is clear that the people feel otherwise.

    Protests are raging across the country, with the aim of preventing the military government from functioning. Hundreds of thousands of protesters are marching in the streets and calling for the military regime to step down. Nurses, doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers and even some police officers have gone on strike, along with factory workers, railway staff and farmers.  

    “The immediate aim is to take away the military’s power by stopping all of its governance mechanisms from working,” said anti-coup activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi in an interview with Al Jazeera, explaining their strategy. “It will disable the military’s ability to rule.”

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    Boycotts against companies owned by the army are growing, and small business owners are destroying products that belong to companies connected to the military’s corporate conglomerate. A walk out of 2,000 miners has forced a military owned copper mine to temporarily cease operations. The people of Myanmar are desolating the military’s Pride Rock and the threat of defections from the military itself threatens to strengthen the raw power of Myanmar’s pro-democracy counter elite, or create an entirely new counter elite to contest with.

    While Aung San Suu Kyi is not the saint that the West has long painted her as, it is clear that some kind of civilian government would be a better alternative to the openly genocidal military government. Based on the arguably revolutionary coup of 1988 that turned a people’s uprising into a military takeover, the people of Myanmar must also be wary of any wing of the government or a new counter-elite seeking to merely replace the military regime at the top of the pyramid of power. While elite-theory is useful for understanding coups, the power of the public taking matters into their own hands can never be underestimated.

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