In This Article Civil-Military Relations in Asia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Military Coups and Military Rule
  • The Military and Democratization
  • Civil-Military Relations in Established Democracies
  • Civil-Military Relations and Contemporary Authoritarianism
  • The Military and the Economy
  • The Military and Security Sector Reform

Political Science Civil-Military Relations in Asia
Aurel Croissant
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0150


The social science literature on civil-military relations—a concept that encompasses the entire range of interactions between the military and civilian society at every level—falls into a sociological and a political science strand. The former is concerned primarily with the military as a social organization and the social functions of military systems, as well as the ways in which these factors have changed over time. The political science strand, in contrast, more narrowly focuses on political-military relations, that is, the structures, processes, and outcomes of the interactions between the institutions and organizations of the political system on the one hand, and the armed forces and their members on the other. As is the case with other continents, the study of civil-military relations in Asia is both normative and positive, often within the same work. While normative contributions ask what “good” civil-military relations should look like, positive analyses seek to describe and explain the actual relationship between the soldier and the state in Asia, examine the effects of military coups and military rule on other political or socioeconomic activities, and predict the consequences of political-military relations for the persistence and performance of political regimes. Perhaps as a consequence of the highly diverse cultures, colonial histories, political legacies, and modes of postcolonial governance, single-case studies, and small-N comparative analyses dominate the field and systematic intra-regional comparisons and cross-national studies are rare. Since its inception in the 1960s, the research on Asian civil-military relations in social science has moved in various directions: as elsewhere, its initial preoccupation was with the role of military institutions in processes of decolonization, modernization, and nation building. In the 1970s, the scholarship moved toward analyzing the origins of military coups d’état and policy consequences of military rule. A second line of research investigated party-military relations in communist party regimes, which operated under societal and institutional circumstances that were quite different from those in the non-socialist states. From the late 1980s onward, the so-called third wave of democratization inspired a new generation of civil-military studies, which illuminate the military’s role in the breakdown of authoritarianism and how young democracies struggle with the double challenge of creating and preserving a military that is strong enough to fulfill its functions, but that is subordinate to the authority of democratically elected institutions. In the 2000s, the study of security sector reform has become the most recent addition to the literature. This article is primarily concerned with the political science strand of civil-military research. It focuses on the positive literature and gives priority to the research on Southeast and East Asia, but also includes comparative works and collections that illuminate civil-military relations in South Pacific countries.

General Overviews

Prior to the 1960s, historical work on the political evolution of the armed forces in countries such as China, India, and Japan were a domain of historical studies, whereas social science literature on Asian civil-military relations was virtually nonexistent. However, in response to the surge in military governments in the region, case studies on the military’s role in political development and modernization in countries such as Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, and Pakistan started to appear in edited volumes and academic journals. Since these early days, scholars demonstrate a strong affinity for single-case studies and—compared to other regions—little emphasis on cross-national comparative analyses. The seminal edited volume Johnson 1972 includes comparative chapters on civil-military relations in Latin America, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa, but, interestingly, separate case studies on three Asian countries. Until today, there is not a single monograph that would provide a comparative analysis of civil-military relations in East, Southeast, or South Asia, but there are several anthologies with collections of country studies, as well as some journal articles or book chapters that provide general overviews on parts of Asia, though often with a particular emphasis on the issue of military institutions and civilian control of the military in transitions to democracy and in emerging democracies. Guyot and Willner 1970 is the first overview of military elites as political elites in Asia, and Hoadley 2012 provides the first comparative analysis of civil-military relations in Southeast Asia. This work is followed by Crouch and Ahmad 1985, an edited updated survey of the state of the art in the study of civil-military relations in Southeast Asian countries. Olsen and Jurika 1986 is the first edited volume on the armed forces in contemporary Asia that covers East, Southeast, and South Asia. More recent volumes such as Alagappa 2001 and May and Selochan 2004 provide detailed country-specific chapters and give good overviews of current civil-military relations in different parts of Asia and the Pacific. Alagappa 2001 on the declining political role of the military in Asia has led to Mietzner 2011, which contests this view in regard to Southeast Asia.

  • Alagappa, Muthiah, ed. Coercion and Governance: The Declining Political Role of the Military in Asia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

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    This work analyzes sixteen East, Southeast, and South Asian countries. Key finding is the overall decline of military influence in Asian politics. Connects explanations for the changing state-soldier relationship with processes associated with nation building and state building, the development of state capacity, economic growth, and changes in the international system.

  • Crouch, Harold, and Zakaria Ahmad, eds. Military-Civil Relations in South-East Asia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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    Twelve chapters identify three patterns of civil military relations. Argues that military involvement in politics stems from internal characteristics of the military and the external environment in which it operates. Identifies intra-military consensus, safeguards for military interests, and strong civil governance as preconditions for military withdrawal from politics.

  • Guyot, James F., and Ann Ruth Willner, eds. “The Military as Political Elites in Asia.” Journal of Comparative Administration, o.s. 2.3 (1970).

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    Five case studies constitute the first systematic analysis of the roles of military elites as ruling elites in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, and South Korea. Case studies are preceded by an examination of the underlying assumptions and arguments of the theoretically oriented literature.

  • Hoadley, J. Stephen. Soldiers and Politics in Southeast Asia: Civil-Military Relations in Comparative Perspective, 1933–1975. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Transaction, 2012.

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    The only comparative analysis of the causes and consequences of military involvement in politics in Thailand, Burma, South Vietnam, Indonesia, and Cambodia from the postcolonial period until the end of the Vietnam War. Originally published in 1975.

  • Johnson, John J., ed. The Role of the Military in Underdeveloped Countries. 4th ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

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    Gives the first systematic, theory-driven analysis of the military’s political role in some Asian countries (Thailand, Burma, and Indonesia). Additional chapters on the political development of new states and the military’s roles in processes of political modernization provide cross-regional comparisons. Originally published in 1962.

  • May, Ronald J., and Viberto Selochan, eds. The Military and Democracy in Asia and the Pacific. Canberra, Australia: Australian National University, 2004.

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    Collection of essays that consider the military’s changing role in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Burma, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Korea, Fiji, and Papua New Guinea, particularly with regard to the countries’ performance against criteria of democratic government.

  • Mietzner, Marcus, ed. The Political Resurgence of the Military in Southeast Asia: Conflict and Leadership. New York: Routledge, 2011.

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    Contesting the conclusion of Alagappa 2001 regarding the declining political significance of the military for Southeast Asia. Identifies ineffective (civilian) leadership and intra-civilian conflicts as decisive factors for the political resurgence of the military and fragile civil-military relations across the region.

  • Olsen, Edward A., and Stephen Jurika Jr., eds. The Armed Forces in Contemporary Asian Societies. London and Boulder, CO: Westview, 1986.

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    Sixteen country studies analyze military or military-dominated regimes, civilian-led autocracies, and democracies; diagnose a crisis of legitimacy in military regimes; and examine difficulties of Asian armed forces in amassing popular support.

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