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Burma's Black Box: Regime vs icon

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29 May 2012 14:34

Aung San Suu Kyi is showing fine touch as she moves from being an icon to a politician.

Her status as icon is yet to be matched by her formal power in Burma's political structure. If present shifts were to continue, she might fulfill her destiny as Burma's democratically-elected leader. Not yet, though. Suu Kyi is playing the cards she's been dealt with skill and some daring, but the hard reality is that the military regime still dominates the game and makes the rules.

The regime has the power to call off the game completely and again banish Suu Kyi to house arrest. Many surprising signs point in a hopeful direction, but the continuing risk of backsliding or backlash is significant; the bad old habits are deeply ingrained. This brings us to a set of core questions about the extraordinary moment playing out in Burma: why is the regime loosening its grip? Why now? And will the democratising trend continue?

Burma's course is markedly different from the Arab Spring. Burma had its Saffron Revolution in 2007 and that was brutally snuffed out. The current shift was set off by the regime and it is driving the process. The black box nature of the regime means it is virtually impossible to give definitive responses to the questions like 'why?' and 'why now?' So without promising answers, let's try to give some marks to various elements of the puzzle and see what they add up to.

The scoring approach is inspired by Suu Kyi's response to a journalist's question about where Burma's shift towards democracy stands on a scale of one to ten: 'We're approaching one.'

Accepting that as an accurate assessment of Burma's progress to democracy, here is an attempt to score the pro and con weightings on a more limited question about the internal forces driving the regime's choices. This is a Black Box scoring system, seeking to weigh and rank the forces inside an opaque regime.

The score always adds up to 100 – inside the Black Box the regime is entire unto itself. The purpose of the individual scores is to assess what is influencing regime choices and the conflicts between the key factors; to chart what is driving policy in one direction, while noting forces that could cause a change of course. The majority of the marks will be about factors inside the regime and within Burma, but players beyond the border do matter in convincing those inside the Black Box that it's time to tip, not sit.

For Burma's military, the status quo mark is always been high. This is the part of the Black Box where hardliner habits of holding power for decades mingle with the personal and economic self-interest of various parts of the officer corps. As Bertil Lintner writes, the military interest is what it has always been: 'to remain the ultimate arbiter'.

At the time of the Saffron Revolution, the status quo mark probably stood at close to 90 out of 100, because of the imperative to crush any challenge and hang on to existing power. At that point, the status quote mark was a massive weight against any chance of reform.

Obviously, the changes under way have more than halved this number (if it wasn't below 50, Suu Kyi would not be an elected politician). The status quo mark is still a measure of regime self interest, but the reformers seem to be winning some ground with what can be a powerful argument: 'If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.' That exquisite line from The Leopard encapsulates the tensions inside the Black Box: what change will work for the regime, what change will sap its power?

Let's be optimistic and give the status quo a weighting of 35 points. On that score out of 100, not much has to shift in other areas of the equation to drag the regime back into backlash territory.

The status quo mark in most regimes is usually higher. So why have some in Burma's ruling elite decided to be bold in seeking to change regime structures? Call this the new and surprising element the 'Glasnost' score. In this instance, Glasnost can stand for concepts such as Growth, Legitimacy, Atrophy, Social Needs, Openness...

The popular support for Burma's Glasnost may be huge outside the Black Box, but as with its earlier Soviet manifestation, this is a top-down policy. Just like Gorbachev, Burma's regime wants to improve the system, grow the economy and achieve more popular support and prestige. And just like Gorby, the regime wants its power to stay unchanged while lots of other things are altered.

Some in the regime have decided it is time for a bit of dialogue with the people. The need for greater legitimacy and the risk of atrophy are among the hardest elements to score in all this. Some in the military and the bureaucracy are smart enough to know that without a bit of Glasnost they might eventually stumble into their Ceausescu moment. Camus had it right ('Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes') but as Ceausescu found when delivering his last wooden monologue to the masses in 1989, there comes a moment when the millions start booing and jeering.

The Glasnost mark at 25 is well short of the status quo mark; still, it is a high mark that suggests an understanding inside the Box of the need for some form of renewal and greater popular legitimacy. To give change a pass mark, we need to add together various external forces which provide some push.

The China factor always matters. The regime gives signs that it is no longer so keen on being lumped with North Korea as China's pair of rusted-on allies. The Burma visit by South Korea's president dealt with a lot of history but it was also another step for a regime finding more space beyond China's orbit. Putting a stop to the major Chinese dam project on the Irrawaddy river last year just as Hillary Clinton touched down for the first visit by a US Secretary of State since 1955 was an interesting confluence of events. Finding more space beyond China – a lean towards India while the door opens to everyone else — should be worth at least 10 points.

Give a matching 10 points to ASEAN. Engagement seems to be paying off. Many in ASEAN are having trouble believing it because of the long history of snubs and snarls from the regime. Yet ASEAN membership does have privileges that matter. Getting that annual ASEAN chairmanship in 2014 is a prize that is worth something. Face always counts. And achieving that leadership role in 2014 is an objective that melds regime status with the need to continue on the course of political reform.

Remember that on the previous cycle, ASEAN deprived Burma of its right to the chair in 2006 because the pariah state was so on-the-nose with the rest of the world. The rest of the world impinges only slightly on the Black Box, but regime standing with the rest of Southeast Asia has significance. The score for the West and decades of sanctions needs to be appropriately modest; significantly less for ASEAN or China. As the West turns to engagement, perhaps it is worth 5 points in support of the importance of Glasnost.

The score so far is: Status Quo 35, Glasnost 25, China 10, ASEAN 10 and the West 5. And that leaves the final 15 points to a force that is external to the Black Box but integral to its future. The final 15 points must go to the people of Burma and to Suu Kyi, an icon now allowed to work her magic as a politician to help break open the Black Box and remake the scoring system.

Photo by Flickr user Robert Reed Daly.

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