What is involved in running a military dictatorship in a large country like Burma? Simply having a lot of military force is obviously not enough. It is necessary to organize and manage a number of complex processes in order to manage the basic “metabolism” of the government and society. Even a dictatorship requires a political administration that is capable of solving problems and implementing policies on a broad basis. And this means decision-makers, a bureaucracy, rules and procedures, agents at the local level, etc. There are several tasks that simply must be attended to; if not, the state would collapse:
- maintaining the nuts and bolts of a military organization — command, discipline, recruitment, training;
- monitoring, co-opting, and repressing internal opposition groups;
- monitoring telecommunications and internet activity;
- controlling borders and potential military threats across borders;
- negotiating with and controlling internal armed groups;
- collecting revenues for use by the government and its officials;
- maintaining a minimum level of civil amenities (routine policing, sanitation, provision of electricity, water, and fuel).
Not essential but certainly in the interest of long-term stability are functions such as these: a plan for national and regional economic development, a plan for development of stable institutions for civil society, and a plan for transition to civilian rule. If it is possible to demonstrate that ordinary life is improving for the mass of ordinary people, the state is more likely to gain a degree of acceptance.
Almost none of the positive functions of government seem to be available in Burma today. Corruption is rampant. Brutality and mistreatment of civilians by soldiers appear to be rampant as well, especially in peripheral states. (Examples of brutality by soldiers drawn from the twitter feed include beatings, rapes, forced marriages, and forced labor.) And economic prospects for typical citizens are not improving; the country’s wealth is being exploited for the benefit of military and political elites almost exclusively.
Burma’s generals have done everything possible to keep their regime inside a black box. It turns out, however, that we know a little bit about how the Burmese military goes about a number of these tasks. Mary Callahan’s 2005 book Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma provides quite a bit of detailed information and analysis of the organization and goals of the Burmese military. The Epilogue provides an extensive description of the strategies and actions of the military in the past decade. She notes the apparent stability of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) regime, indicating that it was necessary to rebuild the military state substantially after the elections and riots of 1988. Stability and order were the highest priority, and the military went about building the institutions and organizations that it needed in order to suppress threats against its survival. Callahan highlights a number of important steps that have occurred since then — all of which fall under the general heading of “military dictatorship state-building” (211 ff.):
- Ministry of Defense reorganized
- Substantial rearmament
- New army garrisons in towns and villages throughout the country
- Expansion of military industrial base
- Expansion of system of education, health, and welfare facilities for members of the military
- Office of Strategic Studies takes charge of policy — ethnic areas, drug trade, economy, foreign relations
- State-building and civil administration delegated to (corrupt) regional commanders
- Funding derived from taxes and fees; profits of drug trade; control of natural resources (gems, forestry, tourism) controlled by Myanmar Economic Corporation
- Development of severe discipline problems in the ranks and corruption problems in the officer corps
So what does this suggest about Burma and its current subjection? Several things. First, the Burmese military state appears to have a very secure grasp on power; the opposition has little real leverage to force change. The ethnic armies have either come to cease-fire agreements with the regime, have been crushed (Karen National Union), or have settled into an acceptable status quo. Even the more active Kachin Independence Army poses no realistic threat to military rule. The National League for Democracy (NLD) may have widespread support in Rangoon and London; but it is hard to see how it can lead a movement that would seriously challenge the military and police system. Even mass demonstrations appear to be ineffectual in forcing change on the SLORC — this was one of the lessons of 2007. The regime has adequate access to revenue, through its control of Burma’s natural wealth. The junta’s willingness to use overwhelming brutal force against civilians is entirely credible — witness the past forty years. And internationally, only China appears to have real economic leverage with the Burmese junta — and the Chinese are doing a great deal of investment in Burma. Western sanctions have not had economic effect on the junta or the military, and it appears that ASEAN censure is harmless as well.
So it’s hard to see how this is going to turn out well for the forces of democracy in the medium term. A democracy movement needs a certain amount of space in order to act effectively on a mass scale; and the junta seems to be all too capable of ensuring that this doesn’t happen.