How to Commit the Perfect
by Blaine Harden
Free Burma Coalition, November
The Southeast Asian country formerly known
as Burma may not be a perfect dictatorship, but it's as close
to perfection as is humanly (or perhaps inhumanly) possible at
the beginning of the 21st century.
Myanmar is more insulated from outside
pressure than North Korea because it can almost always feed its
own people. It attracts far less international criticism than
Iraq because it is not so anvil-headed as to invade its neighbors
or go to war with a superpower. And it's much less likely than
China to be destabilized from within by the growing pains of high-tech
prosperity. That's because it allows almost none of its citizens
to prosper and the Internet is against the law.
There are a number of useful, if ugly,
lessons to be learned by examining four decades of repression
in Myanmar a reign of fear, poverty and isolation that, so far,
shows no signs of coming to an end.
Outstanding achievement in the field of
dictatorial misrule demands more than merely a willingness to
commit murder to stay in power. This isn't to suggest that the
generals who run Myanmar shy away from murder. Their troops killed
at least several hundred pro- democracy demonstrators in 1988.
According to the State Department, soldiers have since executed
people unwilling or unable to work in forced labor gangs.
What separates the Burmese generals from
lesser (and in many cases, former or dead) dictators is their
thoroughness and creativity.
"They have effectively destroyed
civil society," said Robert Helvey, a retired United States
Army colonel who since 1992 has run training seminars in nonviolent
resistance along the Thai-Myanmar border. "Burmese society
has been atomized. People cannot come together for any purpose
because all the organizations have been destroyed."
Whether it's being a Boy Scout or allowing
a foreigner into your home, sending an unauthorized e-mail or
gathering outdoors in groups larger than five, it is illegal in
Myanmar and punishable by a long prison term.
Yet the generals are exceptionally flexible
when it helps them hang onto power or attract foreign currency
into the country's anemic economy. They have made a series of
sovereignty-sharing deals with armed ethnic minority groups on
the country's borders. These cease- fires have ended decades of
war and freed the regime to focus its repressive talents and most
of its 400,000 troops on the unarmed majority.
Since making all this carefully calculated
peace, the generals have welcomed investment capital from ethnic
minority groups that specialize in the sale of heroin and amphetamines.
Many of the buildings erected in the country in recent years have
been built with laundered drug money, according to the American
The proven fragility of authoritarian
leaders most recently in Serbia, but going back to the henchmen
of apartheid in South Africa and to Eastern Europe's Communist
bosses suggests that even the most repressive governments are
vulnerable to mass democratic opposition.
"In general, the rule of thumb is
the more brutal, the more brittle," said Dr. Peter Ackerman,
an expert on nonviolent resistance and the principal content advisor
to "A Force More Powerful," a recent PBS series on the
triumphs of nonviolence in the 20th century.
But that rule of thumb doesn't seem to
matter in Myanmar, at least for moment. "You have to distribute
resistance to all strata of society and the Burmese people have
not yet figured out a way to do this," Dr. Ackerman said.
"Nonviolent resistance is a strategy that doesn't always
work. I think the Burmese dictatorship is doing a good job at
doing a bad job."
For purposes of comparison, it's worth
noting that the failed regime of Slobodan Milosevic did a bad
job at doing a bad job. In the run-up to the October election
that Mr. Milosevic lost and then failed to steal, his regime seem
to fall asleep at the dictatorial switch. It allowed opposition
groups to organize and distribute literature in the smallest towns
and villages in Serbia.
IN a display of half-hearted authoritarianism
that would never pass muster in Myanmar, Mr. Milosevic ignored
the power of the Internet to mobilize his opponents. He tolerated
independent media outlets in the Serbian capital and in many other
cities. He allowed foreign journalists to roam all over, sniffing
out news that filtered back into Serbia via the Internet and independent
Burmese generals know better. If they
don't control it, they ban it. And the foreign press is kept out
(unless they sneak in as tourists, as I did).
The generals in Myanmar have perfected
a style of governance that limits information, sows distrust and
prevents private misery from snowballing into mass political action.
"The individual who walks out of his house in Burma in the
morning is confronted with the overpowering control of the state,"
said Mr. Helvey, who periodically trains Burmese to go back inside
their country and try to organize nonviolent action against the
government. "People do not have a place to go to talk to
each other because they know that there are informers everywhere."
The country, of course, has an immensely
popular, articulate and internationally acclaimed opposition leader.
But that leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a winner of the Noble Peace
Prize, is under house arrest, as she has been for more than 6
of the past 12 years. Nearly all the leaders of her opposition
party are also locked up.
Locking up "the lady," as she
is widely known in Myanmar, has all but paralyzed serious opposition
to the generals, according to Mr. Helvey, who served as military
attach in the 1980's at the American Embassy in Myanmar. Some
of his current pro-democracy work is funded by the Albert Einstein
Foundation, a Boston- based nonprofit group that supports nonviolent
activism around the world. "Politics in Burma have always
been personalized and Aung San Suu Kyi is the symbol of the entire
pro-democracy movement," said Mr. Helvey. "Without her,
the movement has not demonstrated the ability to take on a strategic
The dictators in Myanmar are also geographically
lucky. Positioned between China and India, two huge and antagonistic
neighbors, the regime has been able to play on their mutual suspicions
to acquire cheap arms and make favorable trade deals.
More than anything else, though, it seems
to be single-mindedness that allows the generals to remain at
the top of their game.
In the mid-1990's, they flirted with the
Chinese model of combining openness to technology and foreign
investment with continued political repression. That experiment,
though, gave substantial economic power to people who had no loyalty
to the regime.
"The generals decided, `Uh-oh, we
can't tolerate this,' " said Mr. Helvey. "They seem
to be going back to isolation. They aren't trying to have it both
In the past two years, the military has
taken over scores of profitable foreign-owned companies and hundreds
of businessmen have fled the country. In a perfect dictatorship,
things are getting