by Roland Watson
October 1999

A system is in equilibrium if it has established a measure of stability. The system either is at rest, or it is following a periodic cycle. However, if energy is applied to the system it is forced to adapt. If possible, it absorbs the additional energy without altering its fundamental structure. Or, if it is unable to do this, it creates a more complex form of order to accommodate it. In the science of chaos, it has been shown that such developments in order often occur via “bifurcations.”

If the energy addition is sufficiently great, the system can no longer absorb it in an orderly fashion. A threshold is passed, and turbulence - chaos - ensues. But it has also been shown that such chaos itself is not truly chaotic, not truly random. Patterns are embedded in the turbulence, and these eventually surface, giving rise to a completely new type of organization. Order leads to disorder, and then back to order. This is the basic evolutionary process.

The social system in Burma, its rule by a dictatorship, is itself in equilibrium, and when it is able to accomplish the change to democracy this will constitute such an evolution. Furthermore, the system in Burma is composed of many internal subsystems, and it interacts with numerous external systems as well.

System stability is a continuum. Some system equilibriums are stronger than others. For the latter, a small amount of energy - a slight trigger - can lead to turbulence and disruption. For the former, great energy, in the form of one major trigger, or many distinct minor ones, is required to initiate a change.

The equilibrium which has been established by the Burmese military dictatorship is strong, and there are many reasons for this. The first is the pattern of external political interests and influences which relate to the country, which can be very briefly summarized as follows:

Bordering nations

China: a leading world and regional power, and the foremost backer of the Burmese dictatorship. China has a critical vested interest in ensuring that democracy in Burma does not take hold, and there are many elements of this. Among the most important:

- Democracy in Burma would lead to great pressure on China to reverse its violent annexation - its colonial occupation - of Tibet. China will do everything in its power to fight such a precedent being established locally, to any extension in its area of direct influence of the global trend of dictatorships falling like dominoes.

- Such pressure would also be a huge challenge to the Chinese dictatorship itself, and a great boon to the efforts of Chinese democracy activists.

- It would have a significant effect on China's present and future access to the Indian Ocean.

Laos: Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma form a distinct least developed niche within ASEAN, and all of them are dictatorships. Laos, albeit without the same immediacy as China, has no desire to see Burma become a democracy.

Thailand: a very complicated equation, but again, on balance, favoring the dictatorship.

- The Thai public has great antipathy to Burma, because of the conquest their nation suffered in the past. The current situation there is viewed by many Thais as long-overdue just desserts, and this antipathy is reinforced by the fact that the source of the drug epidemic Thailand is now experiencing is Burma.

- Thai leaders have their own reasons to support the current situation in Burma. The longer it remains a dictatorship, the more time the Thai economy will have to strengthen. When democracy finally is established in their neighbor, the Thais will be best positioned to capitalize on it and dominate it. This is actually another developing chapter in the history of economic colonialism, which in earlier incarnations occurred from West to East and North to South.

- Many Thai political and military leaders already have lucrative business dealings with the dictatorship, and the establishment of democracy would disrupt them.

However, the equilibrium of the system of Thai/Burmese relations is itself quite fragile, as has been shown by the after-effects of the embassy takeover. One small action has pushed it way out of alignment, although not, it would seem, into chaos. One would therefore expect that without additional disruption it will settle back to the former state of affairs.

Bangladesh: suffers a large refugee problem due to the internal repression in Burma, and hence it would benefit from a change to democracy there. But, because it is a weak state, and beset by an internal power struggle, it is not in a position to have a great impact on this.

government attention is reserved for political in-fighting, national development issues, and the conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir. Any slight pro-democracy in Burma stance, such as a means to further Indian interests relative to China over the Tibetan refugee problem and northern border disputes, is countered by the concern that Burmese democracy would fuel the demand for greater autonomy or even secession from several of the Northeast frontier states.

Other nations

ASEAN: when combined with China, it is the largest remaining block of authoritarian rule in the world. The leaders of the dictatorial states in the group have much to fear from further democratic developments in their neighborhood. Malaysia and Singapore, for example, are now pinched between the developing democracies in Indonesia and Thailand. Any further losses, as of Burma, would greatly undercut their own positions of power and such group policies as non-interference and constructive engagement.

Japan: no great friend of democracy (or the environment), and through the efforts of its multinational corporations, regularly in opposition to it. Furthermore, Japan awaits the slightest pretext to resume large scale aid to the dictatorship.

The United States, Europe, Australia, etc.: supporters of the democratic movement in Burma on ethical grounds, through such things as the imposition of sanctions and diplomatic pressure. For all this, though, Burma is not a pressing concern to such nations, as it is of little consequence to their defense interests and economic performance. Therefore, it is unlikely that such support will be extended to more proactive involvement to bring about the end of repression and the establishment of democracy, as in Kosovo.

On balance, then, the political situation greatly favors the dictatorship. The leaders of most nations which have a direct interest in Burma actively support SLORC/SPDC.

There are many other sources of support for the dictatorial equilibrium as well:

Corporate support: many international corporations, from Europe, the USA, Japan and ASEAN, through their business practices in Burma, directly fund the military dictatorship. Companies such as Unocal, Total, Premier, Mitsubishi and Mitsui are its commercial partners. And the governments of these nations have not shown the will necessary to rein in these corporations: to force them to cut their ties to the dictatorship completely.

Supranational support: while not active now, as with Japan such institutions as the United Nations and the World Bank await the chance to reengage the dictatorship and to provide financial assistance. They do not recognize that any variation of the carrot and stick approach, including constructive engagement (free carrots, no sticks!) will not work with the SLORC generals.

Burma's isolationist policy: the reason for the supranationals' misappraisal is that they do not appreciate the significance of the Burmese isolationism of the last thirty-eight years. The current dictatorship is still following the policies of Ne Win. They have no great desire to open up to the world, even given the financial rewards this would entail. They are grateful for the funds and assistance that they are getting from the oil companies, Japanese and regional multinationals, and China, and this is sufficient to satisfy their main goal: to keep the Tatmadaw happy (or, if not happy, at least not rebellious) so they can stay in power. By keeping their external contacts to a minimum, and largely restricted to other unethical institutions and individuals, they limit the pressure to which they can be subjected.

Restricted media:
the only free media in Burma is small and scattered, and foreign video media is excluded. Attempts at internal rebellion are quickly shut down before they can be publicized widely and used to fuel further internal dissent and external pressure. Rangoon is not Jakarta. (And Burma is not East Timor. The latter had a greater media presence, a well-organized rebel army, and, most importantly, the presence of a large trigger, the shift to democracy in its colonial oppressor - which also viewed it as an expensive mistake. Burma will not win democracy along the lines of an East Timor model.)

The ruthlessness of the dictatorship: Burma's generals will kill (and rape and torture) anyone who gets in their way.

The consequences of all of this are that the dictatorship's position, publicity from the Bangkok incident notwithstanding, is still very strong. It raises the question: what possible system disturbance could create enough energy to generate the chaos out of which a new form of social order, democracy, might evolve.

Developments in system complexity occur sporadically and unpredictably. For an increase in energy sufficient to lead to a complete system change, one action must follow another, action after action, faster and faster, until a threshold is reached, turbulence ensues, and the phase transition is accomplished.

The embassy incident certainly increased the pressure on SLORC, but this pressure now appears to be disseminating. And in any case, for Burma to become a democracy external pressure will not be enough. There will have to be a greater degree of internal rebellion, and the actions of such rebels will have to be widely publicized. This is the only way enough energy can be added to the system such that chaos ensues.

The various internal triggers, the means by which energy can be added to the Burmese social system from the inside, include the following:

- Actions by the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. (Their ongoing efforts, including the standoff at the bridge and the convening of the CRPP, have served to maintain a heightened energy level, but on their own they have not been sufficient to instigate a change.)

- Demonstrations and strikes in the cities, including with the involvement of students, monks, workers, etc.

- Actions conducted by foreign activists inside the country, such as James Mawdsley, the Rangoon 18, etc.

- Guerrilla warfare in the hill regions by student and ethnic democracy activists.

- Sabotage of the pipeline and other such facilities.

- Assassination attempts of the SLORC leaders.

- A military coup. While the generals do have a firm grip on the tatmawdaw, a coup attempt cannot be ruled out, particularly given the continuing tension which exists between military intelligence and the army.

- And other stochastic phenomena, such as the death of Ne Win.

By including in the list the last few, extreme, measures, I am not condoning their past or future occurrence in any way. I merely point out that these are the types of events which historically have fueled political change. This also raises the question of whether there can be a peaceful transition: if the government can change or be changed without a turbulent period. Chaos theory, and history, would say no, but some people may choose not to believe or accept this. (SLORC's sweet talk of democratization and of being a caretaker government is designed to encourage such people, to give them what they want to hear.) A better phrasing of the question, then, is what steps would be required to initiate a peaceful transition?

Such an outcome would require at a minimum one of the following actions:

- The ending of investment in Burma by multinational corporations.

- A change in Chinese, Thai, ASEAN and Japanese policy, leading to their disengagement from the dictatorship.

- A change in United States, European and Australian policy, such that they push much more energetically for change, by exerting all the leverage which they have available, up to and including Kosovo-style remedies.

As such events are almost certainly not going to occur, it is improbable that a change to democracy can be achieved without some period of disorder. Theory and history show that the evolutionary process cannot be controlled. It can only be experienced. A chaotic period is necessary. Of course, one hopes that such a period will be short. Also, it is possible that such disorder would lead to something other than democracy, e.g., a new dictatorship, the breakup of Burma, etc.

It is a sad testament on human nature and the process of social development that such steps must be taken, and chaos must develop, for a change to take place. Dictators are not insane or irrational, but they cannot be reasoned with. All societies which have evolved from dictatorship to democracy have undergone some period of violence, as this is necessary to unseat them. And this violence extends from the actions of the dictators to some of the people who are fighting them as well. Violence, once unleased, is almost impossible to contain. Like a fire, it goes on and on until there is no fuel left to burn, until no one on one side is left to fight. And in the process atrocities are committed, including sometimes by the freedom fighters. Indeed, some of them may become (or seek to become) the next dictators.

Evolution is a painful process. Burma is at war, with itself. The struggle to achieve democracy there, and elsewhere, is nothing less than a civil war. And in a war, the people are compelled to defend themselves, and in doing this almost anything is appropriate. The only unethical means include to attack civilians and other noncombatants (including through the use of landmines), and torture.

At this time it appears unlikely that the above steps - either internal or external - will be taken, at least to the extent necessary to trigger chaos and change. The people of Burma have been divided - the army against the public, the burmans against the hill groups, the hill groups against each other - and conquered. The general public is cowed. It appears unable, psychologically, or practically, to resist. As Southeast Asia recovers economically, engagement with the dictatorship will resume, and the generals' position will be strengthened. And support from China will be unwavering. One wonders not so much what it will take to accomplish change, but if it is even possible.

The dictators of Burma - Khin Nyunt, Than Shwe, Maung Aye, Tin Oo, etc. - will only leave when they are forced to go. And since in this process they will have a high risk of losing their wealth and their lives, they will fight hard, and resort to any tactic, to see that it does not happen. The force necessary to expel them therefore will have to be very great.


© Roland O. Watson 2001-3