Myanmar's Fifty-Year Authoritarian Trap

By Turnell, Sean | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Myanmar's Fifty-Year Authoritarian Trap

Turnell, Sean, Journal of International Affairs

Myanmar has been under military rule in various guises for nearly fifty years. The most durable and unyielding of the authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia, Myanmar's military rulers have expertly exploited circumstances and methods that prolong their rule, even as they have failed to deliver genuine economic growth and development. Their methods include ruthlessly suppressing dissent, inciting ethnic divisions and fears of external threats and making implicit bargains with neighboring states and domestic elites over the spoils available to a rentier state. Myanmar's emergence in recent years as a significant regional supplier of natural gas has dramatically increased the country's distributable economic rents, thus exacerbating the country's political stasis. This article examines the ways in which Myanmar's military regime has maintained its rule through the exploitation of these methods, but with a particular focus on the impacts of the country's exploitable energy and resource wealth and its implications for Myanmar's economic development and political transition.


In March 1962 a military coup in Myanmar installed a regime that, in various guises, has continued to rule ever since. In April 2011 a nominally civilian government, complete with an executive presidency and a parliament, was installed despite widespread perceptions that the previous year's election was flawed. The new government has yet to do anything to suggest it is more than a facade for ongoing military control.

The longevity of military rule in Myanmar is a function of a number of circumstances, including most notably that the country is ruled by a regime prepared to use lethal force against its opponents. The same regime has been almost as assiduous in rewarding its supporters. It uses its tight control over the economy to grant military and other elites concessions against its own labyrinthine restrictions and rules on economic activity. Myanmar's emergence as a rentier state in recent years through the regional export of natural gas has only increased its ability to pursue both aspects of this dual strategy of repression and patronage, further inhibiting genuine change after fifty long years of authoritarian rule. (1)


The most obvious way in which Myanmar's military regime has remained in place is its readiness to swiftly and brutally suppress dissent. The coup that installed the military in 1962 was a relatively bloodless affair, but in the intervening years, the regime has been quick to put down challenges to its rule with violence. Such suppression has existed as a routine part of everyday life, manifested in an all-pervasive surveillance apparatus, bans against more than five people assembling without a permit, the harassment and imprisonment of political opponents and numerous other policies and institutions of political domination. (2) As of April 2011, there were over 2,000 political prisoners in Myanmar; most of them have been incarcerated and given lengthy sentences under biased legal proceedings and are frequently subjected to torture. (3) Outside of its prisons, the people of Myanmar face limits to their freedom of movement both domestically and internationally, and forced relocation is commonplace. Meanwhile, the flow of information in Myanmar is greatly restricted. The press is subject to tight censorship, the Internet is strictly controlled and the country's perfunctory education system is little more than a vehicle of indoctrination for the military's interpretation of Myanmar's history and its central role in this history. Myanmar's universities were broken up long ago and their faculties geographically dispersed to prevent student concentration and activism. (4) Similarly, state spending on education, at little more than 0.57 percent of GDP in 2000, was the lowest in the world. (5)

Of course, on a number of occasions the suppression of dissent in Myanmar has been revealed in episodes of state-sponsored military violence against more widespread uprisings. …

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