The military is subordinate to civilian authority in a liberal democracy.
The military is subordinate to civilian authority in a liberal democracy.

Civilian governments, as opposed to military governments, are defined by who has the monopoly over state violence--that is, armed forces. In a civilian government associated with liberal democracies, the military is subordinate to elected leaders. However, in authoritarian forms of government, armed forces are controlled either by the military itself ( such as Burmese junta) or by a family based on hereditary rule (such as the Saudi monarchy) or by an elite cabal belonging to a single party (such as the politburo in China).

A Democratic System of Governance

A democratic system is defined by the right of the people to chose their rulers. Civilian governments uphold two central principles of democracies: participation and contestation. Free and fair election lets people participate by voting to choose their rulers. At the same time, government leadership is contested in elections by those campaigning to run a public office. Contrast that with a military rule, where leadership of government is determined behind closed doors by top-ranking generals.

Accountable and Transparent

A civilian government is accountable to an independent judiciary and parliament. They must submit the government’s proposed budget every year for parliament’s approval. This ensures that the resources available to the country are spent to benefit maximum number of people. At the same time, the government must disclose full information about its activities, although, in the beginning of the 21st century, governments increasingly cite security concern as an excuse to become more opaque.

Respect for Human Rights

A civilian government, because it is chosen in elections, does not need to forcibly suppress the opposition. A military government, however, resorts to physical violence to stifle any dissent. Physical violence such as torture and killings is the most pernicious example of human right abuses. Lesser forms of abuse may be persecution, intimidation and unlawful detention. As the reactions to the 2010 and 2011 protests against the government in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and other Middle-Eastern countries showed, military rulers do not hesitate from mowing down their own people.

Freedom of Speech

A civilian government is more amenable to freedom of speech and a free press than a military government. However, there are boundaries around freedom of speech, be they implicit cultural boundaries or explicit constitutional boundaries. Even in liberal democracies, the degree of freedom of speech during times of war--usually when the military has the most influence over the government--is lower than during times of peace. However, regardless of the security situation inside the country, military rules are notorious for forbidding free speech. The government of Libya and Yemen during the “Arab Spring” jammed satellite signals and banned television channels they despised.