Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Battle of Wills in Burma

Things are coming to a head in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). The military government that seized power in 1989 has responded to massive political protests with force. So far, at least 9 people have been killed as security forces fired into pro-democracy crowds, and government forces have raided monasteries in an attempt to break the monk-led protests. The protests, involving tens of thousands of people, are the largest pro-democracy rallies since the 1989.

How will this end? Governments hold power through a combination of two elements: legitimacy and force. Few governments rely solely on force; North Korea is truly the only one I can think of. Even for governments as oppressive and reliant on force as Iraq under Hussein, the USSR, China, or Zimbabwe require the acquiescence of the people, and even democratic governments are ultimately underpinned by the monopoly of force. But it is the balance of force and legitimacy that is critical.

When a government is faced with massive systemic and existential protest, as is Myanmar now or as China was in 1989, it must decide how to deal with that protest. Sometimes, the government cannot bring itself to use the amount of force that would be required to maintain control of society; this is ultimately what happened in Eastern Europe during the Velvet Revolution. The governments had lost so much legitimacy that maintaining control would have required such a massive use of force that the government was unwilling to do so. Sometimes, as in Tiananmen Square, the government is willing to use sufficient force to crush the dissent. In these case, the government hopes that the will of the people is insufficiently strong to withstand a strong display of force and that the protest will collapse. Once force is used, there will be enough legitimacy left that people will prefer to continue with the government rather than maintain their protest.

We are at that phase in Myanmar. Have the monks and the other pro-democracy protesters lost enough of their sense of legitimacy in the government that they will be willing to stand in the face of brutality and violence? Will the government be willing to use enough force? Will the soldiers be willing to carry out their orders? The answers to these questions will determine whether the government or the protesters fold.

But the outcome is not entirely in the hands of the domestic protagonists. International pressure on the regime can affect its willingness to trade legitimacy for force and how it perceives the benefits of maintaining control over the country. Sadly, China has blocked the UN Security Council from taking action, claiming that "these problems now at this stage (do) not constitute a threat to international and regional peace and stability."

But I wouldn't have trusted the UN to do much anyway. Instead, the US, the EU, Japan, and the other liberal democracies should immediately impose massive and near-total sanctions on Myanmar and begin putting diplomatic pressure on the leaders. In particular, offers of safe havens and amnesty in exchange for stepping down would be especially useful.

It is always particularly inspiring to see people willing to take such massive risks for democracy. I hope that the will of the Burmese people is stronger than that of their repressive government.


Anonymous said...

Professor Weinberger,

It is interesting to me that you see North Korea as the only country in which the power of the government is derived solely from force (and, I assume you include, the threat thereof). Would you not agree that Iran is coming closer and closer to that point? Cuba and legitimacy? Maybe I am simply not making the necessary leap from acquiescence to legitimacy.

Second, what good would be expected from sanctions when the vast majority of Burma's trade is with China, who would obviously not participate in such an act? Burma's natural resources are of tremendous value to the Chinese, as I am sure you know.

Third, don't ever underrate the spine of the Burmese, as you have not. Remember, this is the land of the Ghurkas and the cradle of Bando.

I very much appreciate your writing.

How did you intend to end the first paragraph? It seems incomplete.

Seth Weinberger said...

I don't mean legitimacy in the sense of "democratic legitimacy." Perhaps a better word would have been "acceptance." Iran, Cuba...these regimes, while authoritarian, nonetheless rely on and exist because of the day-to-day acceptance of their rule on the part of their citizens. North Korea, on the other hand, is a state that literally starves and brainwashes its population into submission.

While the regimes in Iran and Cuba may not be popular, the vast majority of the people believe that the government can sufficiently protect and advance their interests; thus, protest is not worthwhile. Note that in Myanmar the current protests broke out in response to economic hardship (a drastic rise in the price of fuel). Only when people perceive that the cost of protest/revolt is less than the cost of continuing to live under the regime will the people rise against a regime.

Simmons said...

Mr. Weinberger,

I've been reading your blog for a couple weeks now (I really like it), and was wondering if you would be interested in joining a bipartisan political network, Political Grind. You can register here, and the blog is at I'm a member, and they're now accepting new members.


Anonymous said...

Professor Weinberger,

That is much clearer. However, I still think that the "vast majority" in Iran is becoming less vast. Do you agree with that?

Thank you for the clarification.

Tim Anderson