You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Survivalists

As the death toll from the cyclone that hit Burma earlier this month spirals past 100,000, the country's ruling junta continues its intransigence. Holed up in its new bunker capital in the middle of the country, the regime has gone from initially welcoming aid, to blocking U.S. and French assistance, to simply seizing relief supplies--before, finally, relenting and allowing some aid in. All the while, the chance for effective relief has grown slimmer.

Burma defies political understanding in many ways. In the twenty-first century, when military juntas are all but dead, how has a regime run by an uneducated general managed to survive for over four decades, while providing little economic growth? The junta's reaction to the cyclone--blocking aid and then relenting just a bit to keep the world off its back--provides a glimpse of an answer. While successful at little else, the Burmese regime is extraordinarily adept at one thing: doing the bare minimum to continue business as usual, both abroad and at home.

It may be a military junta, but brute force cannot explain the survival of the Burmese dictatorship. True, when major protests have erupted--as they did last year--the military has crushed them, killing hundreds and, in 1988, probably thousands. But the generals are savvy enough to understand that, in a nation as small as Burma, co-option is a more effective strategy. They've focused their palliative efforts on the army, creating a parallel social welfare system for soldiers while steadily expanding the size of the military. (Today, it is the second-largest force in Southeast Asia.) The relatively modern military hospitals in Rangoon contrast sharply with the dilapidated public health system. The average Burmese knows that, if you want decent health care or a good education, you have to have a relative in the military. So, although they hate the junta, people often try to get their sons into military positions; this, in turn, links them to the junta and undermines potential opposition to the government.

The junta has also created a mass youth organization, called the USDA. Though many join the usda simply to avoid harassment by the regime, there is a dedicated core of USDA members drawn from the families of businesspeople close to the government and other regime cronies. USDA acolytes serve as a counterweight to the student leaders at the fore of pro-democracy protests and have even harassed and beaten them. According to one human rights group, USDA members also infiltrate and try to intimidate civil organizations.

The generals blend co-option with isolation, divorcing their soldiers from average citizens. As the army and other regime allies lose touch with their countrymen, it becomes easier for soldiers to gun down their fellow Burmese. During last year's Saffron Revolution, for example, soldiers even proved willing to attack monks, the most venerated segment of Burmese society. Such separation also makes it less likely that a top military leader will break from the junta. Moving the capital from cosmopolitan Rangoon to a jungle redoubt--a decision portrayed as loony by the foreign press--cemented the army's alienation from society.

Essentially, the government was providing just enough comfort to just enough people to stay in power--and it was doing the same thing abroad long before the cyclone struck. For example, the regime promised slightly greater political openness in order to secure enough outside investment to fuel limited economic growth. The junta promoted detente with pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, briefly releasing her from house arrest on several occasions. It also launched tourism campaigns, allowing multinationals like Shangri-La Hotels to put up new buildings like the Traders Hotel in downtown Rangoon, where tourists could buy day-old copies of the International Herald Tribune, sip cappuccinos, and think they were in Singapore or Bangkok. After the investment flowed in, though, the junta abandoned detente. In 2003, USDA-affiliated thugs attacked Suu Kyi on a rural road, killing members of her entourage, and the regime re-arrested her. And, today, the Traders seems ghostly empty.

The other key to the regime's survival lies in Burma's second city, Mandalay. Spread across hot, dusty plains, the city immortalized by Kipling would resemble any squalid developing world city were it not for the crumbling Buddhist monasteries on the outskirts of town and the colonial-era fort in the center. But, in recent years, Mandalay's business district has become a bustling commercial area, full of trucks unloading cheap radios and other consumer goods, new apartment blocks, and small shopping malls. Nearly all the goods--and most of the shopkeepers--come from neighboring China. At one brand new shop selling cheap jewelry, a woman from neighboring Yunnan province exulted in her good fortune. "We can bring in anything," she said.

Once only a bit player in Burma, China has become a dominant presence over the past decade. In recent years, it has helped finance a massive new petroleum pipeline into Burma and become the regime's major source of aid. As the relationship warms, thousands--if not tens of thousands--of Chinese traders and businesspeople have flowed into northern and central Burma to sell everything from apples to air conditioners. At international bodies like the United Nations, where Burma faced a Security Council investigation into its human rights abuses and humanitarian crisis, Beijing has repeatedly protected the junta.

China's support has emasculated human rights campaigners, who had successfully pressured many Western companies to leave Burma, but who have little influence over Chinese firms. Moreover, China allows the junta to thumb its nose at the United States, which has maintained sanctions against Burma for more than a decade. By courting the generals, China has forced regional powers like India to drop their own past efforts to push political reform in Burma in order to compete with Beijing for oil and gas. As the regime was brutalizing monks and other demonstrators last year, India's petroleum minister actually visited Burma to sign new deals.

Fortunately, while the junta may see little reason to change its m.o., Beijing may be having second thoughts about backing Burma's dictatorship. As was the case in Darfur--where they went from doing nothing to supporting a peace-keeping force--Chinese leaders are recognizing that resisting the will of the entire international community can gravely damage their image. Even more important, Burma's problems, such as HIV and heroin, have been seeping across the border into southwestern China. Privately, Chinese diplomats fear that the regime's policies could eventually result in massive unrest in Burma, sparking a refugee crisis and damaging China's interests. Already, during last year's protests, someone fired gunshots on the Chinese consulate in Mandalay.

So Beijing has begun to budge. In a 2006 meeting with Burmese leaders, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao tacitly criticized the generals' failure to address social problems. According to the International Crisis Group, Beijing has recently backed attempts by the U.N.'s special Burma envoy to reconcile the junta with the opposition. Chinese officials have even met with exiled Burmese pro-democracy groups based in Thailand. With its investment, aid, and close relations, Beijing could make a substantial impact in Burma. It could push the generals to accept far more international relief, to at least begin a substantive dialogue with Suu Kyi, and even to embrace real economic reforms. If it did, at least some good might come of this tragedy.