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Coups Are in Decline As Agents of Change

September 19, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) _ In the 1960s, military coups d’etat were frequent, as countries in Africa and Asia threw off their colonial yokes. They remained in fashion until the 1990s, as power struggles played out in postcolonial nations and the Eastern bloc resisted Soviet rule.

These days, however, coups, like Tuesday’s in Thailand, are fairly rare, especially in East Asia, experts say.

Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia, says it’s no coincidence that the decrease in coups, which has been accompanied by a decline in overall armed conflict, began in the early 1990s.

``Since the end of the Cold War, two or three sources of armed conflict have been taken out of the system,″ he said, citing the end of colonialism, the evolution of postcolonial regimes beyond their early volatility, and the end of the Cold War itself.

Coups hit a peak of approximately 25 a year in the mid 1960s, according to the conflict barometer from the Heidelberg Institute of International Conflict Research. After that spike, an average of 15 a year held until 1992, when a sharp decline began. Since 1995 only about five a year have been recorded, though 2004 was an exception with 10.

Why this steady march toward more civilized changes of government?

``It’s just not seen to be seemly or appropriate″ to overthrow a government anymore, Mack said. ``Every regime in the world likes to call itself a democracy,″ which makes violent coups less appealing to those who seek power.

When Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote his book on coups in 1958, colleagues told him he would have to update it every three months because of their frequency. He attributes their decrease not to a change in leaders’ attitudes but to an increase in their savvy.

``Governments have learned that coups are a mechanical way of overthrowing governments,″ he said, so they make those mechanics an impossibility, by placing control of tank mobility in the hands of one general, for instance, and control of fuel in the hands of another.

Luttwak defines coups in narrow terms, as the splitting off of one section of the military to paralyze the rest of the armed forces and overtake the government. Tuesday’s events in Thailand were not a coup, in his opinion, because the army worked in concert through its normal chain of command.

Revolutions, however, cannot be stopped, Luttwak said, by such ploys. He attributes recent political stability to a decline in coups, but emphasizes that does not signal a decline in the desire to revolt.

Mack, who defines coups more broadly, says they are decreasing because of new political realities in many countries.

Not only do regimes want to appear democratic, but according to Mack, they also find it difficult to govern without the cooperation of their increasingly complex societies. Those societies are getting more sophisticated at ``withholding cooperation,″ Mack said, as a way of pressuring their governments.

``In the last 30 odd years, there has been an extraordinary decline of authoritarian regimes around the world,″ he said. ``The overwhelming majority have succumbed to peaceful pressure.″

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