• Avery McQuirter

The Application of Althusser’s ISA and RSA by the Military During the Coup in Myanmar

In early February 2021, the military of Myanmar overthrew the democratic leadership in a coup, leading to pro-democracy protests all over the country. This paper will argue that Louis Althusser’s theories of Ideological State Apparatus and Repressive State Apparatus are currently being used by the Myanmar military and the unelected, military dictatorship to silence pro-democracy protesters after the initial coup occurred. This paper will include a discussion on Althusser’s theories, a summary of the coup in Myanmar and the recent history that led to it, and an analysis of these events using the Ideological State Apparatus and the Repressive State Apparatus. More specifically, this paper will argue that Myanmar is in a unique situation in terms of national ideology, as the ideologies between generations are vastly different. This is due to the type of leadership that each respective generation has grown up under, and the Ideological State Apparatus changing as leadership changed. This paper will also argue that the Repressive State Apparatus is actively being used by the military dictatorship in Myanmar as a way to intimidate civilians and maintain power. This investigation is essential to understanding state power in Myanmar and other non-democratic nations. The situation occurring in Myanmar demonstrates what can happen when state power goes too far, and when democracy is undermined. It also demonstrates the ways in which fear and intimidation are still used by authoritarian governments around the world to control citizens and prevent the overthrowing of oppressive, non-democratic governments.

To begin, Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s theory of Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) explains that power and order are created through ideological persuasion, rather than violent coercion (Buchanan, 2018, p. 242). This kind of ideological persuasion is achieved when institutions and non-governmental entities such as schools, families, media, and other systems act collectively to create a universal ideology within a nation (Buchanan, 2018, p. 242). More specifically, Althusser (1971) names eight institutions as catalyzers for ideology indoctrination: religion, education, family, legal, political, trade union, communications, and cultural (p. 80). All of these institutions work to promote and disseminate a specific ideology that either benefits the state and its structures or is approved by it. Althusser argues that the function of ISAs are necessary for any successful government, as a government cannot succeed without the support of at least a small percentage of its civilians (Buchanan, 2018 p. 243). Althusser argued that though the institutions that contribute to the creation and shaping of national ideology are diverse, they all contribute to the same result: “the reproduction of the relations of production,” (Buchanan, 2018, p. 243). Althusser also emphasized that this method of conditioning is often invisible; civilians are not conscious of the processes that are taking place to control their behaviours (Buchanan, 2018, p.243). The application of an ISA allows state powers to create national identities, national values, and most importantly, obedient and unquestioning citizens. To exemplify this concept, Hyslop-Margison and Leonard (2012) use the entwinement of neoliberalism within post-secondary institutions (p. 5). The scholars (2012) explain that neoliberalism has been calculatingly normalized to students throughout both public and post-secondary schooling as an “unchangeable social reality”, which hides the reality of neoliberalism as an “ideological movement imposed by hegemonic corporate interests on citizens of industrialized democratic societies.” (p. 5). In this example, the ISA of post-secondary education is being used to push support for neoliberal values, which in turn benefits the hegemonic powers, whether governmental or corporate, of a specific state.

On the other hand, Althusser’s (1971) theory of Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) refers to governmental ways of control that are visible to the public and are often executed using physical coercion or restrictive action (p. 79). Examples of the RSA include the military and police, the prison and court systems, and less visibly threatening institutions such as political and administrative systems (Althusser, 1971, p. 79). Althusser (1971) explains that by using the term “repressive,” he is suggesting that these institutions ultimately function by violence in order to maintain order and control (p. 79). Hyslop-Margison and Leonard (2012) use the previous example of neoliberalism in post-secondary schooling to explain the RSA (p. 5). They explain that the 2008 financial collapse detrimentally affected ideologies surrounding economics, and more specifically neoliberalism, all around the world (Hyslop-Margison & Leonard, 2012, p. 5). To sustain support in neoliberal values, more aggressive behaviours were necessary to minimize citizen anger, distrust and resistance (Hyslop-Margison & Leonard, 2012, p. 5). Hyslop-Margison and Leonard (2012) also argue that during instances of economic decline, states have historically adopted dictatorial, militarized approaches when implementing economic changes that have a low approval rating among the general public (p. 5).

Similar to the ISA, the RSA works as a tool to control citizens’ behaviours. It is different, however, in the sense that there is one RSA that includes multiple governmental branches, whereas there is a plurality of ISAs that work collectively to shape ideology (Althusser, 1971, p. 80). The other difference between the RSA and ISA is that the RSA belongs to the public domain, meaning governmentally controlled, while the ISAs are part of the private domain, though are perpetuating ideologies that are beneficial to the state (Althusser, 1971, p. 80). It is important to note that though the RSA and ISA are separate and distinct, they often intertwine and are both employed by the state to exert power and encourage dominant systems of thinking.

To summarize the events occurring in Myanmar, on February 1, 2021, the military ousted and arrested the democratically-elected leadership and many government officials following a general election in which the National Democratic Party won by a landslide (Cuddy, 2021). The military claimed widespread election fraud as the justification of the coup, though the election commission could not find evidence to support these claims (Cuddy, 2021). Democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi is being held with various charges against her, including publishing news meant to “spread fear and alarm,” and the possession of illegal walkie-talkies (Cuddy, 2021). Min Aung Hlaing, the military’s Senior General, has taken power as the main leader of the country (Cuddy, 2021). Since the initial coup, pro-democracy protests have attracted thousands of demonstrators throughout the country. Though persistent, the demonstrators have been met with severe violence from police and military forces, with the current death toll sitting at over 550 people (Sidhu & Salai, 2021). It has also been recorded by Human Rights Watch (2021) that hundreds of protesters have been “forcibly disappeared” by state police. Security forces have been recorded using water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds against protesters (Cuddy, 2021). Demonstrators have been on the streets every day since the coup began on February 1, 2021, to fight for the reinstatement of the National Democratic Party and of democracy itself (Sidhu & Salai, 2021). The military junta has implemented a five-step military roadmap, or steps they are going to take to reinstate the military rule that existed before the National Democratic Party was in power (Lederer, 2021). One of the most troubling steps in this roadmap is the implementation of a new election committee, one that favours the military junta and declares them winners during every election (Lederer, 2021). This is opening the door to decades of military rule, a very concerning fact given that the military has already been investigated for human rights abuses and genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (Human Rights Watch, 2021).

Democracy has been a new and very slow process in Myanmar. Since the 1960s, and since the country’s independence from Britain, Myanmar has lived under military rule which led to isolation on the international stage and sanctions from essential trading partners (Lederer, 2021). Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned, democratically-elected leader, campaigned to restore democracy in Myanmar in the 1990s and became a world-renowned icon of peace (Ellis-Petersen, 2018). Suu Kyi spent a total of 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010 for organizing a movement calling for democratic reform and free and fair elections (Cuddy, 2021). In fact, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts (Cuddy, 2021). In 2015, as the leader of the National Democratic Party, Suu Kyi won Myanmar’s first openly contested election in over 20 years (Cuddy, 2021). This brief explanation of the history of democracy in Myanmar will be essential in the analysis section of this paper when it discusses differences in ideologies between generations, but it also gives context to the events that occurred in 2021 as described above.

The analysis section of this paper will be arguing two things. First, Myanmar provides an interesting perspective in that the national ideology is different between generations due to the state leadership and corresponding ISAs changing. This will be proven by explaining the high number of young protesters at pro-democracy demonstrations, the changing or removal of ISAs by the military junta to promote a new ideology, and the surprise being felt by the military towards opposition to the coup. Second, the RSA in Myanmar is being used by the military state as a way to intimidate pro-democracy demonstrators and maintain power and order. This is demonstrated by the fact that revolutionary pro-democracy figures are being assassinated to lower morale, pro-democracy demonstrations are being met with increased violence and murders of civilians by the military, the implementation of a state-wide media blackout and a specific example of fighter jets flying over Mandalay in a show of military might.

Myanmar is a unique example of a national ideology changing between generations due to differences in state leadership and thus, national values and identity. From the 1960s to the early 2010s, citizens of Myanmar grew used to military rule, authoritarianism and the values that accompanied them. However, the new generation of youth who have grown up under a democratic system have had their values and preferred systems ripped out from under them, including democracy itself, fair and free elections, and free use of media and the Internet (Ratcliffe, 2021). In fact, most of the pro-democracy protesters are young people (Lederer, 2021). Lederer (2021) explains that “opposition to the coup is being spearheaded by young people who lived in freedom for 10 years,” and states, “they are well organized and very determined they don’t want to go back into dictatorship and isolation.” Young people in Myanmar are willing to die at the hands of the military while attempting to revive democracy, as we have seen with the 550 person death toll thus far. This shows the indoctrination of democracy and freedom as firm ideologies through ISAs within the younger generation. In fact, democracy and freedom are no longer just ideologies to the demonstrators, but the only acceptable ways of life. This belief demonstrates success in terms of the function of ISAs; the development firm, unwavering values within millions of people that cannot easily be changed. To exemplify this, on March 4, pro-democracy protester Maung Saungkha told the media: “We know that we may get shot and killed with live bullets, but there is no meaning to stay alive under the junta.” (Davies & Birsel, 2021). This quote demonstrates how deep values of democracy and freedom run within young people; they would rather die than live without them, or live in oppressive systems. Another example showing this sentiment is a quote by Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who said: “The [military] never anticipated that once people enjoy basic freedoms, as the Myanmar people have over the past decade, they will fight doubly hard to keep them,” (Sidhu, Regan & Watson, 2021).

As we have historically seen around the world, youth are often the leaders of pro-democracy movements, as they have grown up in democratic systems, whereas other generations may have experienced other national systems and forms of government. Older generations may not be as eager to participate in the pro-democracy protests in Myanmar because they have experienced military rule before. In turn, their ideologies may still be based on the ISAs that existed during the first military rule. Such ISAs would have promoted military rule as a positive thing and would have created an ideology to support the present form of government. Thus, older generations would have been indoctrinated into a different ideology than young people in Myanmar, leading to fundamental differences in the way they think about society and the values they hold dear. As mentioned previously, ISAs serve to create firm values that cannot easily be changed, explaining the lack of focus on older generations within the pro-democracy protests. In fact, scholar N. Husayn (2015) states that ISAs encourage the public disavowal of political reform (p. 33). This explains why certain people are inactive in fighting the coup, based on the generation they are part of. This, combined with repressive actions taken by the military to harm and imprison political activists and those who are seeking systemic change that will be discussed later, demonstrates how ISAs and the RSA work together to benefit the state.

In early February when the coup started, young people in Myanmar experienced a shift in ideology and formation of a government that they had never seen before, at least in their adult lives. Values of freedom, democracy, and fairness were turned into authoritarianism, shutdowns on free speech and the circulation of information, and other values directly opposing the ones they believed to be right. The ISAs that were previously in place to support a democratic government were suddenly changed to support a military rule or were taken away entirely. For example, journalist Rebecca Ratcliffe (2021) explains that the military junta has shut down access to the Internet, stifling access to information. As mentioned earlier, the media and communication systems are both ISAs, institutions that promote a specific ideology meant to benefit the state. However, it can be assumed that the Internet, specifically channels for communication such as social media, were promoting democratic ideologies and were being flooded with both local and global opposition to the coup. Due to the Internet’s discussion and opinion-based nature, it can also be assumed that the Myanmar military could not easily change the rhetoric being fostered online, and thus turned to another option: shutting the Internet down entirely. The ISA no longer supported beneficial ideologies for the state, so they simply removed it. For the young people of Myanmar, having access to information and communication with the world being ripped away from them was a total shift in ideology and social organization than what they had grown up with.

Another example to support the argument of national ideology changing in Myanmar is the fact that the military was surprised to see opposition to the coup. According to journalist Edith Lederer (2021), the U.N. special envoy for Myanmar said that the military generals in charge are “very surprised that their plans to restore military rule without much opposition isn’t working.” The envoy also stated that the military believes that civilians will get used to the situation and “go back to business as usual,” (Lederer, 2021). However, the military did not account for the fact that young people in Myanmar have lived in a democracy for 10 years and have been taught that democracy is the only way to have freedom, through many ISAs, including families, media and communications. Lederer (2021) mentions that uprisings against the military rule had taken place before, in 1988, 2007, and 2008, and had failed. What is important to remember about these demonstrations versus earlier ones is the use of social media as a tool for organization and the global dissemination of information. Young people in Myanmar have grown up ingesting global media that promotes democracy as a way of life and a value to die fighting for, mainly through social media. The military did not account for this fact when predicting the outcome of the coup. It can be assumed that most of the military officials in charge are from older generations who lived through military rule for decades, thus it can be assumed that they hold different values when it comes to forms of government, and may not think of going back to military rule after 10 years of democracy as adversity. All of this being said, it seems like the young people are not going to give up as easily as the military had originally hoped.

To continue, the RSA is actively being used by the military in Myanmar to maintain control over citizens and their behaviour. To begin, the military is assassinating revolutionary pro-democracy figures to decrease morale in protesters. The most notable instance of this was the assassination of 19-year-old Kyal Sin on March 3. Kyal Sin was shot in the head in Mandalay during a peaceful demonstration to denounce the coup and call for the release of imprisoned leaders (Pierson, 2021). Kyal Sin was part of a core group of advocates and was well known amongst pro-democracy protesters (Sidhu, Regan & Watson, 2021). It can be assumed that Kyal Sin was targeted due to her popularity and her determination to promote democracy amongst young people. It can also be inferred that the police purposely targeted her as she was shot in the head as she was attempting to take cover and hide from the police (Sidhu, Regan & Watson, 2021). Only hours after her burial, authorities exhumed her body and exonerated the police from her killing (Sidhu, Regan & Watson, 2021). This demonstrates the power of the state to kill its civilians and acquit itself from any type of blame and shows the RSA at work. This kind of oppressive force is visible to the public and is obvious when attempting to control or shape behaviour. However, to the junta’s dismay, Kyal Sin became a martyr for democracy to other young protesters (Sidhu, Regan & Watson, 2021). CNN states: “Her struggle was emblematic of a generation fighting for freedom and democracy against a brutal and unrelenting junta that has launched a systemic attack against peaceful demonstrators.” (Sidhu, Regan & Watson, 2021). In fact, Min Htet Oo, a friend of Kyal Sin and pro-democracy activist, says the death of their friend has fueled even more anger within the movement and has increased determination to fight for democracy, showing that the military’s plan seems to have backfired (Sidhu, Regan & Watson, 2021).

Next, as discussed prior, extreme force is being used on peaceful demonstrators during pro-democracy protests. The horrifying violence includes the murders of detainees, the use of weapons of war, and in one instance, burning a man alive (Eckert, 2021). This fact perfectly exemplifies the application of the Repressive State Apparatus and its role in controlling citizens and maintaining systems of power. Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, says: “The military junta’s widespread use of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances appears designed to strike fear in the hearts of anti-coup protesters,” (Ratcliffe, 2021). The excessive force being used is meant to result in fear and intimidation, and ultimately, an end to the protests. Scholar A. Gallas (2017) explains that when states exert excessive power on citizens, rebel strategies must be sensitive towards potential violence “unleashed by the repressive state apparatus on revolutionary forces.” (p. 256). Gallas is referring to organizing strategies that are mindful of violent retaliation. In many cases, the oppressors will always retaliate with ten times the amount of violence that was employed by the oppressed. This is why it is so difficult to fight the RSA; because the state has the resources and manpower to continue the crackdown, while the oppressed are being worn down to nothing. A large aspect of RSA is the fact that it is visible and public. The military is purposefully using violence as a way to show their power to the population of Myanmar, to prevent people from joining the rebellion and to forcefully take over dominant systems in the country.

Related to this is the state-wide media blackout that has been implemented in Myanmar. According to German journalist Rodion Ebbighausen (2021), social media sites such as Facebook have been blocked in Myanmar since February 5, disallowing the flow of information between activists and allowing for state-approved media to circulate instead. Hyslop-Margison and Leonard (2012) explain that the RSA can have detrimental impacts on critical public spaces, or spaces in which dominant systems can be questioned and critiqued (p. 1). In this example, social media works as a critical public space where citizens can engage with each other and discuss current events. Without that essential space, Myanmar is vulnerable to misinformation and underreporting of the atrocities being committed by the military. An example of this is the emphasis by state-approved media on the killing of a police officer during the pro-democracy protests (MacSwan, 2021). This instance was repeatedly circulated throughout state television in what seems to be an attempt to demonize pro-democracy demonstrators and paint them as violent, while underreporting the hundreds of protesters killed by police. This is a tactic used by dominant powers that we often see, meant to gain public support. For one example, this was used in the United States by the media and by state officials during Black Lives Matter protests, to make protesters seem like thugs and criminals. It is an extremely common method of oppression meant to change the narrative and change public opinion about the protesters, the military and the coup itself. This example also demonstrates the entwinement of RSA and ISA, and how though they are different, they work together to support the agenda of dominant state powers.

A final example of the RSA being used to intimidate civilians is a specific instance that occurred in Mandalay on March 4. Five fighter jets made a flight in formation over the city in “what appeared to be a show of military might,” (Davies & Birsel, 2021). This perfectly exemplifies RSA and dominant powers employing public, visible acts of intimidation to scare people into submission. The fighter jets had no other task than to fly over the city, meaning a large budget and lots of manpower was used to complete this task. This shows that instilling fear and intimidation in civilians is a priority for the military junta. Though the military says they are implementing steps to reinstate a democratic system, their actions, which have been described above, do not support these claims. These actions support an authoritarian government where free speech and press freedom are restricted, and where people live in fear of their government, rather than a democracy.

In conclusion, the coup in Myanmar perfectly exemplifies Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s theories of Ideological State Apparatus and Repressive State Apparatus. This paper has explained these theories in full, summarized the coup in Myanmar and the recent history that led to it, and analyzed the events using both ISA and RSA. This paper argued that Myanmar is a unique example of national values and ideologies changing between generations, leading to a large number of young pro-democracy protesters who have had their values and ways of life challenged. This paper also argued that the RSA is actively being used by the state to intimidate civilians, resist support for anti-coup protesters, and maintain power, shown through the horrifying violence against protesters, state-wide media blackout and the use of fighter jets to show military might. Though the global community is hopeful this coup will come to an end, given all the tactics being employed that this paper has discussed, it is hard to see an end in sight.

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