The 2011 edition of Dictatorship For Dummies will tell two cautionary tales of how, and how not, to cling to power.
First we have Burma, whose military rulers are the marathon men of autocratic government. After 49 years in power, and of their own volition, they have just ushered in a period of “parliamentary democracy”, filling a new national assembly for the first time last weekend with legislators elected in a nationwide poll three months earlier.
A Burmese general’s idea of “parliamentary democracy” is not one that many in the West would endorse: the new legislature is stuffed with serving and retired soldiers, whose strings are now being pulled by the same generals who were running the country in the first place. Nonetheless, a shift to “parliamentary democracy” makes for good PR, releasing at least some of the pressure that had built up domestically and internationally. Freeing Aung San Suu Kyi in November served exactly the same purpose. These were sleights of hand that, if you didn’t look too closely, resembled change.
Secondly, we have Egypt and Tunisia, whose dictatorships lacked this adaptable veneer. They were obviously inflexible, clinging rigidly to a formula tailored for the 1980s until popular pressure eventually snapped their autocratic structures beyond all hope of repair.
All tin-pot dictators have a tin ear for popular sentiment and aspiration, and Burma’s are no exception. But the Burmese generals, despite ruling for so long, have shown surprising energy. They have been building a new capital, Naypyidaw, from scratch and then created a parliamentary system – vacuous though it may be – with which to legitimise their rule. Even so, the Burmese people are unconvinced by the reforms, argues Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Burma researcher. “What’s happened is significant on the surface,” he says, “because the Burmese parliament hasn’t met since the 1980s. But people can see through it. The elections were so horribly rigged that any enthusiasm has pretty well disappeared.”
So what does the Burmese junta have that Egypt’s tottering dictator and Tunisia’s now exiled one didn’t? First, the Burmese junta regenerates itself: generals succeed other generals over time, whereas in Egypt and Tunisia one intransigent figurehead led their regimes into extinction. Burma’s autocrats don’t rely on military support – they are the military. To some Burmese, the army, for all its greed and cruelty, at least represents order.
But then Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali represented order too, and that ultimately didn’t help them. That’s because, despite standing for order, dictators are at the whim of chaos. Dictatorships fall when a storm of regime-ending pressures – social, economic and political – gathers and envelops them. These past few weeks, Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s luck ran out, and their storms arrived. Burma’s dictators have been proactive at battling those pressures, but they have also been lucky. Their storm may come eventually.