How to Commit the Perfect Dictatorship

by Blaine Harden

Free Burma Coalition, November 26, 2000


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 embassy there.

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 news media.

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 struggle."

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 ways."

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

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