The question is inspired by the current situation in Myanmar, but since at the time of writing what will happen remains to be seen and obviously people on here can't predict the future, but surely similar situations have occurred in the past.

So my question is, what happens to the ordinary "rank-and-file" members of law enforcement or military if there is a major regime change (or even a revolution) as a result of popular dissent as is currently going on in Myanmar? Do they just continue work to as usual, just treating it as a change of boss / orders?

e.g. if Aung San Suu Kyi is restored to power, it seems almost certain that (considering she is the democratically elected ruler) people using force in opposition will be seen to be "in the wrong" and disloyal to the country and its people, at best on a par with those who stormed the Capitol building recently in the US.

It seems strange to imagine that officers who were loyal to the outgoing regime, and who opposed protests and demonstrations, in some cases with violence, maybe even with lethal force, would just continue with their jobs, but now working for the people they previously opposed. On the other hand, while I imagine the upper echelons of the police & army (e.g. generals, commissioners, etc.) can be replaced relatively easily with people loyal to the new regime, you can't exactly quickly recruit and train an entirely new force, and it would seem a tad unfair to fire or prosecute low-ranking officers who were only following orders.

So do they just return to their beat or whatever with the mentality, "Well it's just that our orders have changed"? I can't really imagine them engendering much trust amongst the populace considering the crack-down they participated in is probably very unpopular with the people they are now serving, and considered wrong given the new regime's ideology.

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    Given that this is politics not history and you’re asking about what happens: a variety of outcomes within the scope of the possible dictated fundamentally by class forces but proximately by power conflict between the ideological smegma developed by prior class conflicts. This is a bad political question as it asks “what has happened in a broad category” and a bad historical question as it asks “what has happened in a broad category”. As such it looks and tastes to me like naïveté at best and line-driving at worst. Feb 17, 2021 at 7:47
  • It's worth pointing out that in the case of Myanmar, a "restoring to power" could very well mean a compromise where both the military and the elected politicians share power (as happened previously), in which case your question woudn't be applicable. So Myanmar might not be the best example.
    – JBentley
    Feb 19, 2021 at 13:46
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    @SamuelRussell Can you translate "a variety of outcomes within the scope of the possible dictated fundamentally by class forces but proximately by power conflict between the ideological smegma developed by prior class conflicts" into ordinary English? I can't make heads or tails of what you are trying to say. As for the overall point, politics doesn't exist in an isolated bubble of time - there is invariably a lot of historical context, and I think this question can generate valid and useful answers.
    – JBentley
    Feb 19, 2021 at 13:48
  • A variety of outcomes: everyone with glasses is killed; all members of the ruling party/class are killed / re-educated; a lot of cops are summarily executed; leading cops are tried for political crimes as representatives then executed / imprisoned / get off; truth and reconciliation commissions that give you new cops just like the old cops; new cops just like the old cops; old cops with new badges; old cops just changed who their government was. Feb 19, 2021 at 21:57
  • There isn't a rulebook of international law that says what happens. It varies a great deal from one case to another. It is an unanswerable question.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 20, 2021 at 2:17

3 Answers 3


Depends on the kind of change. And on what the new regime wants.

Take the German Reunification as an example. Junior Communist officials and officers remained in office, but their promotion prospects were severely limited. Senior officials were pensioned, many with lower pensions than they had expected under Communist rule. Individuals at all ranks were prosecuted for individual crimes. This Reunification was traumatic for many East Germans, but it went relatively well.

At the other end of the scale, look at the Khmer Rouge example in Cambodia. They killed about a quarter of the population, but they especially targeted people with any connection to the previous regime. Or people speaking a foreign language.

Regarding living with the former oppressors, South Africa is a very good example. They created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission where confessions were traded for amnesty.

Keep in mind that it is never just the cop on the street who is responsible for the previous regime. Once you add everybody in the civil service, and everybody in a business that supplied the government, and everybody who ever bribed a government official in order to do business, you get a large percentage of the population who are "somehow related" to the previous regime. As the Cambodian example shows, if you prosecute all of them it becomes a ghastly mess.

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    A similar (and gradual) thing happened after WW2 in countries which were ruled by Nazis or governments allied to the Nazis: high-level officials imprisoned or executed, medium-level officials barred from public posts, and the rank and file mostly unchanged.
    – vsz
    Feb 17, 2021 at 15:20
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    @vsz, except for those Nazis who got the Paperclip treatment because they knew enough. The West was worse in this regard than the Commies, but even they used some compromised experts.
    – o.m.
    Feb 17, 2021 at 15:52
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    @o.m. I don't know how factual it was - it is a work of fiction - but One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich talks about German engineers and scientists working for the USSR. Feb 17, 2021 at 18:47
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, there were large numbers of German POWs working in the USSR until the mid-1950s. In addition, there were also civilians from the Soviet Zone (later the GDR) working in the USSR. Not all of the latter were nazis and thus relevant to the question.
    – o.m.
    Feb 17, 2021 at 19:18

As an example (related, but not the same as o.m.'s answer), of what not to do, was the de-Baathification program launched by the US after the 2003 invasion.

Without getting involved on whether the invasion was a good idea or not (it wasn't), on the surface, de-Baathification seemed reasonable enough:

  • Sadaam's regime had been quite oppressive to most of the population (not unlike what you see in Syria) and the Baath Party (coincidentally also the term used by Syria's government to describe its ideology *) had been part of that oppression.

  • So purge anyone involved in the Baath Party from police and high government office, as well as senior civilian management.

What became apparent later:

  • In Saddam's Iraq, much like the USSR, in order to have any kind of semi-senior jobs, you had to a Party Member. So anyone running anything at a senior level had to have been a Baathist, regardless of political beliefs. Purging them left a massive vacuum of competence. Think schoolmaster, hospital managers, etc...

  • Purging all the mid and high level Army and police officers fed a massive supply of trained personnel with military experience into the ranks of the insurgency, something which in hindsight is exactly what the CPA wanted to avoid.

(Yes, there were other dimensions as well, such as the Shia vs Sunni dislike, but de-Baathification threw oil on the fire).

So, sometimes, in the interest of a peaceful, stable, transition, it is best to limit purges and punishments to the very top of the military and police elite and to the ones who clearly are impossible for the new government to keep.

That is the reasoning behind Truth and Reconciliation Commissions when transitioning from a dictatorship to the civilian/democratic rule. You want to mark the change in government and recognize past crimes, without cornering a big chunk of your armed forces and police personnel against the wall.

* before you say, "well, they are both Baathist after all"... it's complicated: Syria was a member of the anti-Saddam coalition during Gulf War 1.

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    Kind of a nit-pick... "Without getting involved on whether the invasion was a good idea or not (it wasn't)" ... you just did
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 17, 2021 at 12:48
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    I actually originally left out (it wasn't), but I then thought that doing so would earn me all sorts of comments about the invasion itself, which wasn't something I wanted to get into. So, yes, you are correct, but your nit pick is considerably less problematic than what I would have likely gotten otherwise. Feb 17, 2021 at 18:44
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    Unfortunately it's comments like that "it wasn't" that turn otherwise factual, indisputable answers into a political argument about ideology. If you want to refrain from turning answers into political arguments - then pass no judgement on the facts in either direction. The entire sentence "Without getting involved on whether the invasion was a good idea or not (it wasn't)" Adds no value to the rest of the answer. Removing it, and leaving the rest makes the answer an impartial distributor of the facts.
    – SnakeDoc
    Feb 17, 2021 at 22:47
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    @SnakeDoc If you look at how I wrote this answer, it starts out making a case against Saddam and his Baath Party. That could leave some to believe (and argue against) that I'm framing invasion as justified. For the purposes of this Q., and my answer, I want to get it out of the way that, no, I wasn't defending the invasion as such, only citing de-Baathification as an example of what not to do, despite de-B. being a superficially attractive proposition. Impartiality is hard to achieve anyway - Truth and Reconciliation for example is interpreted different ways depending on perspective Feb 18, 2021 at 1:24
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    That is an entirely ok stance to have... but it's opinion and opinions don't mix with impartial, fact-based answers (like what you've written above quite eloquently).
    – SnakeDoc
    Feb 18, 2021 at 3:16

The question seems to assume that the law enforcers were happy with the regime that was just overthrown and suddenly found them with a new regime whose rules they disapprove.

After a new regime is instituted, there may be a purge of the members of law enforcement that disagree with it. But a kind of purge can happen before a military coup. Subordinates that share the same ideology as the people preparing a coup are promoted and then spread the ideology to their own subordinates. For example, if some higher ranks think that a strong rule is necessary, lower ranks that enforce a strict rule will get promoted and those who voice an opposite opinion will be pushed to leave. It does not have to be a conscious process: most promotions in many organizations are made by cooptation, so after some time, people tend to think alike.

The question also considers the case of a popular revolution. In that case, low-rank law enforcers are also part of the people: they have a low salary, send their kids to bad schools, see their hospitals and public services being unfunded, they witness corruption,... like other people.

  • "The question seems to assume that the law enforcers were happy with the regime that was just overthrown" - not quite. But many of them participated in crackdowns and oppression before it was overthrown, and if they didn't it was probably because they just didn't happen to get assigned to that particular duty, rather than it being a moral choice, and they'll probably be seen by the new regime (and the public) as being part of, and in support of the force / institution that did, whether or not they were personally involved.
    – komodosp
    Feb 19, 2021 at 7:52

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