In July 1997 I was an eyewitness to an actual, unambiguous coup d’etat in Cambodia, when soldiers loyal to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen ousted First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh. For a young journalist it was exciting; I rode motorbikes behind the lines and briefly faced the working end of a loaded rifle. When I returned to Bangkok eleven days later, after commercial flights resumed, the veteran British foreign correspondent Gavin Young smiled and said to me indulgently: “Well, you’ve survived your first coup. Every young man must have his first coup.”
The Cambodian coup was exciting for me, but it was also educational. What I learned from Cambodia – and, later, from the October 1999 coup in Pakistan – was that military takeovers and coups happen when civilian politicians and institutions no longer reflect a consensus about how society can and should be governed peaceably.
“What is happening now is precisely how a tiger becomes a man-eater,” the Pakistani war hero Cecil Chaudhry warned me several months before the coup. “It’s obvious. This is how all our martial laws have happened. It’s not as though there’s Bonapartism in the army. It’s failure of civilians. One institution after another is being destroyed or desecrated.”
I wasn’t in Pakistan when the coup happened there, but I had been in that country twice for long stretches earlier the same year, and I could smell it coming. In both Pakistan and Cambodia, coups happened when something had to give.
I don’t know what’s coming next here in America, nor do I presume to know what should happen. What I do know is that, as of January 31, 2017, both the personalities and the institutions of civilian politics in America have failed us.
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