Advancing a Free Society

Looking up in Myanmar?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Hot air ballons in Bagan, Myanmar
Image credit: 
Bule Sky Studio, Shutterstock

By Bruce Buena de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Things are looking better in Myanmar. With a shift to civilian rule, its new leader Thein Sein is implementing reforms and releasing political prisoners. Unfortunately for the Burmese people, these changes are likely to be transitory.

After nearly 50 years of military rule, Myanmar held elections in November 2010. These were largely a sham as the military reinvented itself as the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and won with over 75 percent of the vote. Yet policy has shifted with relaxation of media restrictions and reform of tax and property laws.

Meaningful electoral competition should always be welcomed. But we should be dubious of Thein Sein’s motives. Leaders never make it harder to retain power unless they are forced to. The old regime was run to reward the few at the expense of the many. With natural resource wealth from gems, hardwood timber and natural gas, former military leader Than Shwe enriched military elites while keeping the people poor. Show elections don’t change this. But they do open the ranks of senior government offices to the masses.

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(photo credit: Taro Taylor)