Content Warning: violence, depressing content, politics
This is the start of a weekly diary on the Myanmar coup and revolution, inspired by Zvi's weekly Covid blog and Robin Hanson. Every week I will discuss recent events in the conflict between the military regime and the pro-democracy protests. I will make predictions about a few major events, such as state-protestor violence, information control, and the long run distribution of political power. I will focus on simple game theoretic models that explain the internal dynamics of rule. I am a PhD student in comparative politics at Georgetown University, where I specialize in authoritarianism. I hope to devote 4 hours a week to this project.
In this installment I will provide a brief historical context.
Major Context in Myanmar
Three historical periods are critical to understanding the current conflict. The military rule period lasted from 1961 until ~2009. The period began with a coup by general Ne Win overthrowing the parliament and establishing a nominally socialist regime. In the late 2000's the military reformed for internal reasons, establishing power sharing with the opposition lead by Aung San Su Kyi. The current period began in 2021 when the military reasserted control over the state and imprisoned the opposition, fearing they were losing power.
Military Rule 1961-2008
Military defacto power: The entire state apparatus, all extractive industries.
Opposition defacto power: None
Pleased groups: The military, clients of the military
Displeased groups: The rural poor, the middle class, business elites, the opposition, organized religion, the urban poor, the separatist rebels
Rather than provide a full account of the next 50 years of political economy, here are 3 stylized facts about the period of unitary military rule.
- Expropriation: After seizing power, the military aka the Tatmadaw, expropriated the most lucrative private businesses. The Tatmadaw in particular targeted lucrative mineral extraction industries, including jade, gold, amber, natural gas, and oil, forming Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) to manage these lucrative rent opportunities in 1994. Critically, natural resources freed the state from dependence on taxation. Without an interest in GDP the Tatmadaw regime had little incentive to grow the real economy or provide public goods in exchange for taxes, resulting in a weak state-society relationship. Those natural resources also incentivized particularist rebels to fight for control in the mineral-rich periphery, the origin of the Rohingya refugee crisis.
- Weak elite coalitions: Most autocracies rely on an alliance between violence specialists, traditional leaders, a section of the middle class, a competent bureaucracy and a business elite. Each group contributes critical resources to the regime, from ideological legitimacy to tax money to information on societies needs. For example, the Saudi regime has long benefited from a tight alliance between a hereditary military elite (the mujahideen), state supported clerics, and powerful business families of Saudi and Palestinian origin. A regime may not possess each component, but the strongest do. From the beginning, the Tatmadaw regime was exceptionally narrow and could only rely on support from violence specialists. The Tatmadaw could pay or coerce other social actors for support, but such support depended on the militaries limited ability to fund and verify reciprocity.
- Repression and limited collective action capacity: Not surprisingly, state society relations often turned violent during military rule. Public protests for reform were repeatedly met with massacres. At the same time, the state systematically disrupted the people's ability to organize in response. Until the mid 2000's sim cards were priced at hundreds of dollars to prevent citizens from communicating freely. In 2008 a typhoon struck Myanmar causing mass starvation and displacement. The Tatmadaw responded by delaying or stopping aid shipments, refusing any aid workers access to the country, and even dispersing refugees and breaking up internal refugee camps. Foreign observers often remark that the regime was blind to the victims suffering, but this is incorrect. The regime was well aware of the price of its action, but chose to prevent refugee camps and mutual aid form happening. Refugee camps and relief societies are viable cites of collective action in which toe people could organize to overthrow the regime (as occured in Mexico in the 1980's), and the regime chose to disperse the peasants rather than risk it. ~140,000 people died.
The power-sharing period 2008-2021
Military defacto power: Foreign policy, internal security, military policy, all extractive indistries, veto over legislation, patronage networks
NLD defacto power: Domestic policy (education, infrastructure, etc.), veto over legislation, electoral dominance
Pleased groups: Roughly everyone else, separatist rebels
Displeased groups: Eventually the military and their clients became displeased
In 2008 the Tatmadaw began devolving power to the opposition National League for Democracy, lead by Aung San Su Kyi. It appears the military hoped to escape international sanctions and demoralizing internal conflict by giving a minor, controlled role for the opposition. Meanwhile, they would retain their lucrative mineral holdings, a monopoly on violence and the ability to coup the NLD at any time and return to power. The resulting constitution is mostly a "fake", with a parliament hamstrung by constitutional restrictions and seats reserved to the military. Political scientists refer to such states as "hybrid regimes" because meaningful competition is allowed, but the state narrowly contains competition through media control, red-line issues, patronage and continued repression.
Life in Myanmar radically changed under NLD rule. The NLD passed a raft of badly needed economic reforms, opening the country to investment, trade and development. From 2009 to 2010 foreign investment increased from USD 300 million to 20 billion. International aid agencies returned for projects and billions in national debt were forgiven. Standards of living increased drastically: Real purchasing power doubled over ten years from 2009 to 2019. By 2018, 98% of the population owned smartphones and 10% enjoyed a bank account. It is difficult for a western audience to imagine standards of living doubling and modernity arriving in just 10 years.
Unsurprisingly, the NLD became much more popular than the Tatmadaw. To compete, the Tatmadaw formed its own party the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). despite a well-funded patronage systme, the USDP could not compete with the NLD who won repeated landslide elections in 2012, 2015 and 2021. Meanwhile the NLD alienated its western backers by supporting ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, which was internally popular. They also ingratiated themselves with the Chinese, Myanmar's main foreign backer.
The 2021 Coup
The Tatmadaw saw itself as increasingly vulnerable beside the popular and united NLD. The NLD reduced compromising with the Tatmadaw after winning control over both houses of parliament in 2015. Eventually the Tatmadaw feared they would lose their ability to launch a successful coup as the NLD conslidated its power and legitimacy.
We can model this interaction as a simple two stage game, see below. The Tatmadaw chooses first to launch a coup and repress the NLD, or continue sharing power. If they repress they can keep the mines, but lose the benefits of power sharing. This is T3, where the military gets 5 utils and the opposition 0 (because they are imprisoned). The military would prefer that the NLD continue running the country but let them keep the gold and other mines. This would maximize their financial power, military power and avoid the status loss from massacring monks. This outcome is represented by T2 where the military gets 10 utils and the NLD gets 5 utils. The NLD prefers continued power sharing because they are not in prison and have power, but they would prefer to control the mines. They also dislike that the same people who murdered their friends get to keep a their stolen gold, jade and oil.
The second stage occurs once the Tatmadaw has lost its coup-launching power (due to NLD popularity, a new generation of officers or the aging of current loyalists). At this stage the NLD chooses between enacting democracy and taking away the militaries stolen mines or continuing to share power. In T1 the NLD gets 10 whole utils because they control the natural resources, the state policy, and a more just outcome. They can choose to continue power sharing, which the military wants, but have no reason to. All the money, power and justice is under the democracy decision.
Therefore, the NLD cannot credibly commit to sharing power. They can say they will share power (cheap talk) but the Tatmadaw will not believe them. As a result, the only Nash equilibrium is repression, which the military chose on Feb. 1st (one day before the next parliamentary session began).
On that day, the military stormed the parliament building in a convoy of APCs. They imprisoned all current NLD leaders including Aung San Su Kyi and the president. They shutdown all opposition media, declared martial law, and broadcast 24hour military propaganda. They claim that the recent election was fraudulent and they will hold a new election in one year. Unfortunately, this promise is also not credible.
Next time we will review the protests so far. For now, here are some contextless predictions.
Min Aung Hlaing is Myanmar head of state on January 1st, 2023 - 55%
The NLD is head of state on January 1st, 2023 - 35%
Pro-Tatmadaw actors kill >20 protestors 02/28-03/06 - 70%
End of protests 02/28-03/06 - 15% (defined as no protests gathering 1000 or more participants in the week)