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Joining the Local Gang: Making Authoritarianism Respectable in Myanmar (Burma)

Adam Simpson
Queen Mary, University of London
Adam Simpson
Queen Mary, University of London
Open Panel

Abstract

Following national elections in Myanmar (Burma) in November 2010 characterised by widespread fraud the military junta-backed party claimed almost eighty percent of the available seats in the new parliaments. Although discussing and engaging in ‘politics’ is now possible in Myanmar for the first time in two decades many of the same limitations on political discourse remain in place, with all media still heavily censored and an active state surveillance and intelligence regime. Despite the election of some ethnic and opposition parliamentarians, restrictions on activities in the new parliament together with the continued dominance by the military ensures that any move to more democratic modes of governance will be structurally undermined. With growing economic and political inter-dependence with its neighbours in East and Southeast Asia, a region characterised by the persistence of various strains of authoritarianism, there is very little incentive for Myanmar’s rulers to change tack. The revenue stream from regional energy exports in particular, which began in earnest a decade ago and is destined to grow much bigger, has left the sanctions regime imposed by the West entirely ineffectual and businesses linked to military elites now own a large slice of the state’s assets following recent privatisations. Based on fieldwork undertaken in Myanmar and the region before and after the election this paper argues that through both political and economic strategies, and geographic serendipity, the military has been able to entrench itself as the dominant actor in Myanmar’s political economy for the foreseeable future. As with other states in the region elections are likely to become a regular occurrence on Myanmar’s political calendar but, as with some other states, these elections will provide only a patina of respectability to what remains an authoritarian regime, but one which its neighbours are happy to accept.