Early Results from a New Atrocities Early Warning System

For the past couple of years, I have been working as a consultant to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide to help build a new early-warning system for mass atrocities around the world. Six months ago, we started running the second of our two major forecasting streams, a “wisdom of (expert) crowds” platform that aggregates probabilistic forecasts from a pool of topical and area experts on potential events of concern. (See this conference paper for more detail.)

The chart below summarizes the output from that platform on most of the questions we’ve asked so far about potential new episodes of mass killing before 2015. For our early-warning system, we define a mass killing as an episode of sustained violence in which at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group are intentionally killed, usually in a period of a year or less. Each line in the chart shows change over time in the daily average of the inputs from all of the participants who choose to make a forecast on that question. In other words, the line is a mathematical summary of the wisdom of our assembled crowd—now numbering nearly 100—on the risk of a mass killing beginning in each case before the end of 2014. Also:

  • Some of the lines (e.g., South Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan) start further to the right than others because we did not ask about those cases when the system launched but instead added them later, as we continue to do.
  • Two lines—Central African Republic and South Sudan—end early because we saw onsets of mass-killing episodes in those countries. The asterisks indicate the dates on which we made those declarations and therefore closed the relevant questions.
  • Most but not all of these questions ask specifically about state-led mass killings, and some focus on specific target groups (e.g., the Rohingya in Burma) or geographic regions (the North Caucasus in Russia) as indicated.
Crowd-Estimated Probabilities of Mass-Killing Onset Before 1 January 2015

Crowd-Estimated Probabilities of Mass-Killing Onset Before 1 January 2015

I look at that chart and conclude that this process is working reasonably well so far. In the six months since we started running this system, the two countries that have seen onsets of mass killing are both ones that our forecasters promptly and consistently put on the high side of 50 percent. Nearly all of the other cases, where mass killings haven’t yet occurred this year, have stuck on the low end of the scale.

I’m also gratified to see that the system is already generating the kind of dynamic output we’d hoped it would, even with fewer than 100 forecasters in the pool. In the past several weeks, the forecasts for both Burma and Iraq have risen sharply, apparently in response to shifts in relevant policies in the former and the escalation of the civil war in the latter. Meanwhile, the forecast for Uighurs in China has risen steadily over the year as a separatist rebellion in Xinjiang Province has escalated and, with it, concerns about a harsh government response. These inflection points and trends can help identify changes in risk that warrant attention from organizations and individuals concerned about preventing or mitigating these potential atrocities.

Finally, I’m also intrigued to see that our opinion pool seems to be sorting cases into a few clusters that could be construed as distinct tiers of concern. Here’s what I have in mind:

  • Above the 50-percent threshold are the high risk cases, where forecasters assess that mass killing is likely to occur during the specified time frame.  These cases won’t necessarily be surprising. Some observers had been warning on the risk of mass atrocities in CAR and South Sudan for months before those episodes began, and the plight of the Rohingya in Burma has been a focal point for many advocacy groups in the past year. Even in supposedly “obvious” cases, however, this system can help by providing a sharper estimate of that risk and giving a sense of how it is trending over time. In the case of Burma, for example, it is the separation that has happened in the last several weeks that tells the story of a switch from possible to likely and thus adds a degree of urgency to that warning.
  • A little farther down the y-axis are the moderate risk cases—ones that probably won’t suffer mass killing during the period in question but could more readily tip in that direction. In the chart above, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burundi all land in this tier, although Iraq now appears to be sliding into the high risk group.
  • Clustered toward the bottom are the low risk cases where the forecasters seem fairly confident that mass killing will not occur in the near future. In the chart above, Russia, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia are the cases that land firmly in this set. China (Uighurs) remains closer to them than the moderate risk tier, but it appears to be creeping toward the moderate-risk group. We are also running a question about the risk of state-led mass killing in Rwanda before 2015, and it currently lands in this tier, with a forecast of 14 percent.

The system that generates the data behind this chart is password protected, but the point of our project is to make these kinds of forecasts freely available to the global public. We are currently building the web site that will display the forecasts from this opinion pool in real time to all comers and hope to have it ready this fall.

In the meantime, if you think you have relevant knowledge or expertise—maybe you study or work on this topic, or maybe you live or work in parts of the world where risks tend to be higher—and are interested in volunteering as a forecaster, please send an email to us at ewp@ushmm.org.

Reform in Burma Isn’t Unraveling (Yet), But Our Narrative About It Sure Is

If a couple of recent pieces on Foreign Policy‘s website are to be believed, the democratization process that sputtered to life in Burma two and a half years ago has stalled and is now rolling back downhill. In “Hillary’s Burma Problem,” Catherine Traywick and John Hudson argue that “the promise of a free and democratic Myanmar is rapidly receding as sectarian violence escalates and the government backslides on a number of past reforms.” Meanwhile, Democracy Lab blogger Min Zin tells us that, for the past few months, he’s been “unable to escape an ominous sense that the political situation in Burma is on the wrong track,” and he points to a leadership crisis and a growing risk of social unrest as the chief sources of his anxiety.

I won’t dispute any of the facts in those pieces, and I’ve been an avid reader of Min Zin’s excellent Democracy Lab posts as long as he’s been writing them. As I argued on this blog a couple of years ago, though, I think it’s more accurate to think of what’s happened in Burma so far not as a transition to democracy, but as a case of liberalization from above that may or may not produce a try at democratic government in the next few years.

Is that a distinction without a difference? I don’t think so. As O’Donnell and Schmitter propose in their Little Green Book, liberalization involves the expansion of freedoms from arbitrary acts of the state and others, while democratization entails the expansion of popular consultation and accountability. The two processes often coincide, but they are usefully construed as distinct streams of political change. Crucially, while democratic government is impossible without civil liberties—especially freedoms of speech, association, and assembly—liberalization can and sometimes does occur without any democratization.

Understood on those terms, I think the liberalization process in Burma has progressed incrementally but significantly in the past two years and has not yet regressed in any substantial way, with the partial but significant exception of the plight of the Rohingya. What Burma’s liberalization has done is create space for new political and economic activity, and as is often the case, not all of what people are doing with that space is progressive or good. On the positive side of the ledger, freedoms of speech and the press remain incomplete but are much improved. Political prisoners have been released and not restocked. Apparently, there’s even a budding startup scene in Yangon. On the negative side of the ledger, the prospect of new fortunes is spurring land grabs by elites, and attempts to protest those displacements and the pollution that sometimes follow have largely been ignored or harshly repressed. And, of course, some Burmans have responded to the opening by mobilizing around an aggressive chauvinism that has already produced what amounts to a slow-rolling episode of ethnic cleansing and still threatens to slide into genocide.

As is sometimes but not always the case, this partial liberalization has also been accompanied by some significant but still limited elements of democratization, too. Parliamentary by-elections were held in 2012, opposition parties won nearly all the seats at stake, and no one shut the process down. More recently, word came that the National League for Democracy, the party of ostensible opposition leader Aung Saan Suu Kyi, would field a candidate for president in balloting scheduled for next year, even if Suu Kyi herself is not permitted to run.

What we still haven’t seen, though, is any clear sign that deeply entrenched elites plan to allow that process to threaten their station. Rather, what’s emerged so far is more like the arrangements that hold in monarchies like Morocco or Jordan. There, loyal opposition parties are allowed to contest seats in the legislature, and a certain amount of free discourse and even protest is tolerated, but formal and informal rules ensure that incumbent insiders retain control over the political agenda and veto power over all major decisions.

For that to change in Burma, the country’s constitution would have to change. When military elites rewrote that document a few years ago, however, they cleverly ensured that constitutional reform couldn’t happen without their approval. So far, we have seen no signs that they plan to relinquish that arrangement any time soon. Until we do, I think it’s premature to speak of a transition to democracy in Burma. Democratization, yes, but not enough yet to say that the country is between political orders. What we have now, I think, is a partially liberalized authoritarian regime that’s still led by a military elite with uncertain intentions.

To make sure this view wasn’t crazy, I queried Brian Joseph, senior director for Asia and Global Programs at the National Endowment for Democracy and a longtime Burma watcher who also happens to be the father of one of my son’s classmates. In particular, I asked Brian by email if he agreed with Traywick and Hudson’s thesis that the “transition” in Burma was “unraveling.” He pointed me toward Min Zin’s piece as “a more informative analysis” and said he agreed with Min Zin that “the transition’s trajectory is no longer clear” and then added parenthetically: “Not that I ever thought it was in the first place but that was clearly the message of the [international] community.”

Brian’s reference to “the message of the international community” in that aside is crucial to understanding how what I described here can be true and we can still see analyses claiming that Burma’s “transition” is “unraveling.” Best I can tell, what’s coming undone right now isn’t Burma’s reform process, although as Min Zin discusses, that certainly could happen, and there are plenty of reasons to fear that it might.

No, what I think we’re really seeing in articles like the one by Traywick and Hudson is an overdue deflation of the hype balloon Burma’s reforms have pumped up. With some help from various outsiders—some eager to see deeper political transformations occur, others looking to capitalize on the money-making opportunities this new market presents—we let our hopes for Burma’s future drive our narrative about what was happening in the present. The Arab Spring spurred a similar dynamic in American analysis of that part of the world. Let’s hope the whiplash over Burma isn’t as severe.

Egypt’s Mass Killing in Historical Perspective

On Thursday, I wrote a post arguing that Egypt was sliding into an episode of state-led mass killing. Now, three days later, it seems clear that Egypt’s post-coup rulers have carried their country across that threshold. According to a story in this morning’s New York Times, the crackdown that began a few days ago “so far has killed more than 1,000 protesters.”

This puts Egypt in rare and sullied company. Since World War II, the world has only seen onsets of about 110 of these episodes, and fewer than a handful of those onsets occurred after 2000: in Sudan in 2003 (Darfur) and again in 2011 (South Kordofan);  in Sri Lanka in 2009; and in Syria since 2011.

State repression is routine, but it rarely escalates and concentrates in this form. When it does, though, the escalation often occurs quickly, as it has in Egypt. Governments rarely back into mass killing.

Soon after Egypt’s crackdown began, lots of observers drew comparisons to Tienanmen Square. In fact, the violence in Egypt is probably already worse. We don’t know exactly how many protesters were killed in China in 1989, just as we’ll never know exactly how many have been and will be killed in Egypt in this campaign and whatever ensues. Still, most estimates of the toll in China in 1989 include fewer than 1,000 deaths and more like several hundred.

The prospect that Egypt’s crackdown is already more lethal than China’s is less surprising—though no less appalling—when we put the two cases into the proper reference sets. In my previous post on this topic, I argued that mass killings generally follow one of three story lines: 1) attempts by incumbent rulers to “drain the sea” in civil wars; 2) attempts by incumbent rulers to suppress emerging threats to their power; and 3) attempts by newly installed governments to destroy the rivals they have recently supplanted. China’s 1989 crackdown probably doesn’t qualify as a mass killing in the strict sense on which my data are based (at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians killed), but if it did, it would fall squarely in the second set. Egypt’s crackdown, by contrast, lands clearly into the third set.

In fact, most of the brutal crackdowns by incumbent rulers against emerging challengers that easily spring to mind fall short of this macabre 1,000 threshold, and with reason. Cases like Teinanmen and Burma’s Saffron Revolution and the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan suggest that it’s comparatively easy for entrenched authoritarian regimes to quash nascent popular uprisings. Even the rare occasions when nonviolent movements succeed at bringing thousands of citizens into the streets fail more often than not to force a regime change (see here and here).

What tend to be much bloodier are efforts by putschists and recently victorious revolutionaries to consolidate their power after toppling a well-organized rival. Apparently, it’s much tougher to shove a genie back into a bottle than it is to keep the bottle from opening in the first place. Instead of focusing on Tienanmen, we should be looking to cases like Argentina’s “dirty war” and the civil war that erupted in Algeria after its 1991 coup for clues about the paths Egypt might now follow and the toll that violence could take.

Finally, I’m also seeing various claims that the violence by state security forces against Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters doesn’t constitute a “massacre” because the Brotherhood has also used violence, especially in some recent attacks on Christian churches. I don’t accept that equivalency. The sit-ins and marches and attacks on churches may be associated with a single organization, but they apparently don’t involve the same crowds, and virtually all of the dead so far have come from gatherings that were primarily nonviolent. If police and soldiers were only using violence to suppress attacks by civilians on other civilians, we might decry any disproportionality, but we would not call it a massacre. When snipers fire into marching crowds and burn tents with protesters still in them, however, we are right to utter that word. Guilt by association is a slender filament to start, and it cannot justify the indiscriminate use of lethal violence against unarmed protesters.

Mass Killing in Egypt

Let’s define a state-led mass killing as an episode in which state security forces or groups acting at their behest deliberately kill at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group in a relatively short period of time—weeks, months, or maybe even several years. This is a paraphrased version of the definition my colleague Ben Valentino developed for a U.S. government-funded research project, so using it allows us to identify and compare many episodes over time, as I did in another recent post.

Since World War II, nearly all of the state-led mass killings that have occurred around the world have followed one of three basic scenarios, all of them involving apparent threats to rulers’ power.

First and most common, state security forces fighting an insurgency or locked in a civil war kill large numbers of civilians whom they accuse of supporting their rivals, or sometimes just kill indiscriminately. The genocide in Guatemala is an archetypal example of this scenario. In some cases, like Rwanda, the state also enlists militias or even civilians to assist in that killing.

Second, rulers confronting budding threats to their power—usually a nonviolent popular uprising or coup plot—violently repress and attack their challengers in an attempt to quash the apparent threat. The anti-communist massacres in Indonesia in 1965-1966 fit this pattern. In rare cases, like North Korea today, just the possibility of such a threat suffices to draw the state into killing large numbers of civilians. More often, state repression of nonviolent uprisings succeeds in quashing the challenge with fewer than 1,000 civilian deaths, as happened in China in 1989, Uzbekistan in 2005, and Burma in 2007.

Third, rulers who have recently seized power by coup or revolution sometimes kill large numbers of civilian supporters of the faction they have just replaced as part of their efforts to consolidate their power. The mass killings carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s are probably the most extreme example of this scenario, but Argentina’s “dirty war” and the long-running political purges that began in several East European countries after World War II also fit the pattern.

What happened in Egypt yesterday looks like a slide into the third scenario. Weeks after a military coup toppled Mohamed Morsi, state security forces violently assaulted crowds using nonviolent action to protest the coup and demand Morsi’s restoration to the presidency. The death toll from yesterday’s ruthless repression has already surpassed 500 and seems likely to rise further as more of the wounded die and security forces continue to repress further attempts at resistance and defiance. What’s more, the atrocities of the past 24 hours come on top of the killings of scores if not hundreds of Brotherhood supporters around the country over the past several weeks (see this spreadsheet maintained by The Guardian for details).

One of the many rationalizations offered for the July 3 coup was the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood had used violence to suppress its political rivals during and after mass protests against Morsi last December. People were right to challenge the Muslim Brotherhood over that thuggery, which was arguably a nascent version of the second scenario described above. In calling on the military to deliver them from that threat, however, some of those challengers seem to have struck a Faustian bargain that is now producing killings on a much grander scale.

Comparative Politics, Meet Complex Interdependence

On the IPE@UNC blog a few days ago, Kindred Winecoff compellingly argued that much of the theory-testing done in international relations (IR) and international political economy (IPE) in recent years rests on the false assumption that outcomes across cases are independent of each other. Paraphrasing here, he points out that “almost all” of the big theoretical traditions in IR and IPE—neorealism, liberal institutionalism, and Marxism among them—identify ways in which outcomes across cases are strongly interdependent, but the research designs we usually adopt to test those theories implicitly assume they are not. In other words, “in the typical case, our empirical design does not match our theoretical structure.”

I think he’s right, and I think the same can be said of theories of political development, which is really most of what comparative politics is about. Two cases of current interest illuminate how it’s really impossible to understand persistence and change in national political institutions without thinking about how those institutions are embedded in a larger global context.

Let’s start with Myanmar. Conventional theories meant to apply to the reforms occurring there focus our attention on domestic processes, like socioeconomic modernization or economic inequality, as the likely impetus behind these changes. At best, though, these processes are structural conditions that have shifted little in Myanmar in recent years, and at worst they’re close to irrelevant. Myanmar is currently experiencing a rush of “modernization,” but much of it’s happening as a consequence, not a cause, of the regime-initiated liberalization. Any effort to understand why this liberalization is occurring now has to consider the growing fears of Burmese elites about their dependency on China, the bite of U.S. sanctions, and the opportunity costs of remaining isolated in a global economy that sees the country as an untapped trove and under-served market. If you try to estimate the effects of income or education or inequality on these trends in a model that ignores these wider forces, you’re probably going to get a misleading result.

Or take Bahrain. It’s impossible to explain the start of the popular uprising in Manama in the spring of 2011 without talking about diffusion, and it’s impossible to understand the outcome (so far) without looking at the material and diplomatic support the monarchy receives from powerful patrons—support that is itself rooted in those patrons’ regional geopolitical (counterbalancing Iran) and global economic (oil) concerns.

If you want to get really silly, imagine trying to infer the effects of income or oil wealth or inequality on the propensity for democratization from a data set composed only of Panama and Iraq. Talk about omitted-variable bias…

I don’t mean to imply that of scholars of comparative politics are oblivious to these issues. Interpretive studies of political development often reference international forces, and over the past 20 years, we’ve increasingly tried to incorporate these ideas into our statistical models as well. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s thoughts on linkage and leverage are an example of the former. Other studies have nibbled at the problem by looking for evidence of diffusion in patterns of democratization, or at the marginal effects from participation in international organizations and other treaty regimes. Studies on the relationship between oil wealth and the survival of authoritarian regimes also lean in this direction, although it’s telling that newer research suggests that these effects really aren’t about oil per se so much as the specific role that commodity has played in a particular (and likely fleeting) realization of the global political economy. Dependency theory also operated at this level, although the results were a bit cartoonish and the long-term predictions have now been proved flat wrong.

What’s still missing from comparative politics, I think, is the one-two punch of theories that are more explicitly systemic combined with methods that suit those theories. Right now, we’ve got little bits of each, but nothing that really brings the two together. We’re stuck in a complex adaptive system that doesn’t really distinguish between national and international, political and economic, human and natural, and our theories of stability and change in political institutions should take that whole more seriously.

Instead of thinking of the international environment as something we incorporate into our models by tacking one or two covariates onto the tail ends of our country-level equations, we should think more carefully about country-level institutions as middle-range manifestations of processes occurring in a global system. The simplifying assumption that states are separable units certainly has its uses, but we shouldn’t conflate that utility with causal relevance. Like maps, all models are simplifications, but those simplifications aren’t useful if they ignore the very causes they’re meant to locate. That’s true in a metaphorical sense, but as Winecoff calls out in the blog post that sparked this ramble, it’s also true in the more literal sense that badly misspecified models produce unreliable results.

I’ll wrap this ramble up by noting that the “development” metaphor itself helps illuminate the problem, and might even contribute to it by reinforcing a certain frame of mind. In many fields of study, “development” is a process that happens to individuals and follows a certain arc. It connotes directional growth and maturation, and it has a beginning, middle, and end. When we apply this metaphor to politics—comparing “fledgling” and “mature” democracies, for example, or talking about the “international community” as if it were something like a gathering of people in a room—we get stuck in a rut from which it’s hard to see the other, arguably richer, aspects of that world.

Prospects for Political Liberalization in North Korea

Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab has just posted an essay of mine on why the odds that North Korea might undergo a “thaw” of sorts in the next few years aren’t so bad. The top-line judgment:

Improbable does not mean impossible. Maybe this time really will be different. The U.S.S.R. wasn’t supposed to loosen the screws, and then it did. The Burmese junta was supposed to have battened down the hatches when it crushed the Saffron Uprising in 2007, and look where we are now, just a few years later. Although the safe money’s still on continuity in North Korea, there are sound reasons to believe the chances for political liberalization in the near future are improving.

Those “sound reasons” have to do with trade-offs inherent in the political economy of authoritarian rule, a topic I also discussed on this blog last fall in a post about Burma. Dictators want to preempt or squash domestic political threats, but they don’t like having to pay so much for security, and all that monitoring and repression trips up their economies, too. Those dilemmas mean that dictators might sometimes decide to relax repression when their opposition is weak and their economies are languishing, as is the case in North Korea today.

If you’re interested, please take a look at the piece in FP and let me know what you think. For more academic treatments of this topic, check out the 2007 conference paper on which I based my essay and this article by Georgy Egorov, Sergei Guriev, and Konstantin Sonin from the November 2009 issue of the American Political Science Review.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Burma

Over the past year or so, Burma’s authoritarian government has implemented significant, albeit limited, political reforms. This partial liberalization has won guarded praise from Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s leading dissident who is now set to run for parliament in by-elections this spring, as well as Western governments who support her cause. At the same time, the country’s military has intensified its vicious fight against the autonomy-seeking Kachin people of northern Burma. In its efforts to snuff out that uprising, the Burmese military has “committed serious abuses” against civilians, including killing them, using them as forced labor, and pillaging their homes. And the Kachin conflict is just one of several long-running ethnic insurgencies in Burma, none of which is yet resolved.

These seemingly schizophrenic responses to popular demands for reform–releasing prisoners one minute, literally smashing villages the next–has a lot of people wondering: Which of these approaches shows us the real Burmese government? Is the country being run by budding democrats who haven’t quite figured out how break their atrocious habits in the north, or is it being run by tyrannical genocidaires who are using piecemeal reforms as a tactic to trick the rest of the world into ending painful sanctions? In a post on his always-thoughtful Securing Rights blog, Georgetown University student Daniel Solomon put it this way:

The release of Burma’s political prisoners is a symbolically significant effort, essential to effective political reconciliation between Burma’s civilian government and the pro-democracy opposition. However, the real challenge to Burma’s democratization will stem from the regime’s effort to negotiate a political settlement with Burma’s ethnic minority groups. The Karen conflict is a microcosm of a wider issue–Burma’s central government, interested in consolidating political authority and access to the border regions’ natural resource wealth, prefers a Naypyidaw-based, centralized government, while minority opposition groups prefer a federalized system.

From that passage, I inferred that Dan sees the ethnic wars in northern Burma as more fundamental to the country’s future than its constitutional changes, and therefore the government’s counterinsurgency efforts as somehow more revealing of its true nature. That order of priority was echoed in a recent tweet from former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who linked to the New York Times story on the Kachin war with this commentary: “New military action against the Kachin reminds how far Burma has to go to achieve genuine reform. Not there yet.” Meanwhile, Burmese journalist Zin Linn noted for the Asian Correspondent that President Thein Sein had twice instructed the military commander-in-chief to stop the Kachin offensive, but those instructions have apparently been ignored. From that fact, he concluded that the president’s commands are a “deceitful tactic,” “worthless statements intended to satisfy the international community” so it will lift long-standing sanctions.

I wonder, though, if attempts to view these two streams of behavior through a single lens obscure more than they clarify. Burma’s reform process will inevitably be multidimensional, because governance is multidimensional. Democratization lies on one dimension, centralization lies on another, and ethno-nationalism arguably on yet another. Democratization is about the expansion of a government’s accountability to its citizens. Democratic states vary widely in the extent to which they centralize power, from the genuine federalism of the United States to the highly centralized administration of the French Republic, and one end of that spectrum is not obviously more liberal or democratic than the other. Existing democracies also vary widely in the extent to which they recognize ethnic “communities” as rights-bearing groups and provide legal opportunities to advance demands for national self-determination. These three dimensions are interrelated in their concern for popular sovereignty, but they do not and need not move in lock step.

If that’s right, then I’m not sure it’s helpful to presume that decentralization represents the only just and liberal outcome to Burma’s ethnic wars. Without question, it is deeply illiberal to respond to demands for autonomy or even independence with mass atrocities, where punishment is collective, disproportionate, and indiscriminate. It is not inherently illiberal, however, to reject demands for decentralization or autonomy, and it is arguably more liberal in the classical sense of that word to reject attempts to link citizenship to ethnicity than it is to accept them.

I also agree that it’s reasonable to look to the government’s treatment of the communities entangled in these insurgencies for clues to that government’s direction and intentions. That said, I don’t think it is sensible or even particularly helpful to presume that both streams of behavior flow from a single “character,” or even a common strategy.

What if these seemingly contradictory tracks are the twin results a house divided? It’s quite possible that actions on these different fronts are being led by different factions within the Burmese government. Maybe civilian leaders intent on liberalization are driving reforms at the center while military leaders committed to maintaining the country’s territorial integrity retain control over counterinsurgency. Maybe civilian and military elites have both split into “soft-liner” and “hard-liner” camps, and the two are wrestling for control while we scratch our heads over their seemingly incoherent behavior. I don’t know which of these is true, and I get the sense that very few people do. Based on my knowledge of other reformist episodes in recent history, however, either of these scenarios seems more plausible to me than a narrative in which a ruthless and unified cadre outfoxes the world.

This question isn’t academic. On the one hand, foreign governments and international activists have every right and reason to demand that Burmese forces immediately stop committing atrocities. On the other hand, if the Burmese government is internally divided, then conditioning rewards for political reform on specific responses to the country’s ethnic insurgencies could push liberalizers into a confrontation with their internal rivals before they’re strong enough to win that fight. If soft-liners are competing with hard-liners for the upper hand in this process, they will gain powerful allies over the next several months as political parties and civic groups mobilize in response to reforms at the center and even, hopefully, win seats in parliament. I don’t see any simple answers to this moral dilemma, but I do believe we’ll grope our way toward more effective responses by avoiding policies that tightly link conditions on the two dimensions and the assumptions of organizational and strategic coherence on which those policies would be based.

Is Burma Democratizing?

Burma is getting a lot of credit for its recent reforms, something I wrote about on this blog in early October. President Obama recently announced that Hillary Clinton will travel there in December, a trip that would make her the first Secretary of State ever to visit Burma and the highest-ranking U.S. official to go there in half a century. Now comes word that longtime dissident Aung San Suu Kyi will probably seek a seat in the country’s parliament when the  political party she leads, the National League for Democracy (NLD), runs candidates in the next elections, which haven’t yet been scheduled.

Amid this flurry of activity, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that what’s happened so far in Burma is only liberalization, not democratization, and just a partial liberalization at that. In their seminal work on transitions from authoritarian rule, political scientists Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter make a helpful distinction between the two. In their view, liberalization is about the expansion of civil rights, while democratization is about the extension and deepening of political participation and accountability. Quoting at length, with emphasis added:

By liberalization we mean the process of making effective certain rights that protect both individuals and social groups from arbitrary and illegal acts committed by the state or third parties. On the level of individuals, these guarantees include the classical elements of the liberal tradition: habeas corpus; sanctity of private home and correspondence; the right to be defended in a fair trial according to preestablished laws; freedom of movement, speech, and petition; and so forth. On the level of groups, these rights cover such things as freedom of punishment for expressions of collective dissent from government policy, freedom from censorship of the means of communication, and freedom to associate voluntarily with other citizens…

Democratization, thus, refers to the processes whereby the rules and procedures of citizenship are either applied to political institutions previously governed by other principles (e.g., coercive control, social tradition, expert judgment, or administrative practice) or expanded to include persons not previously enjoying such rights (e.g., nontaxpayers, illiterates, women, youth, ethnic minorities, foreign residents), or extended to cover issues and institutions not previously subject to citizen participation (e.g., state agencies military establishments, partisan organizations, interest associations, productive enterprises…)

By those definitions, all of the reforms undertaken so far this year–the release of political prisoners, the (marginal) expansion of freedom of information, plans to register opposition parties and to allow the formation of independent labor unions–clearly land in the liberalization bin. The first major test of whether or not this liberalization is going to be paired with democratization will come with the arrival of election campaigning. For Burma to democratize, the regime will need to register parties and candidates fairly, to eschew backing favored candidates with state resources, and to protect freedom of speech and assembly throughout the campaign. As recent events in Egypt show, the authoritarian habits that run counter to those ends are often hard to break, especially when electoral politics is accompanied by social disorder.

Equally important, even if it holds competitive elections, Burma won’t really become a democracy unless and until it changes its constitution. That’s because the current version, adopted in 2008, reserves one-quarter of the seats in the country’s legislature for members of the military. That reserve domain guarantees the unelected military a strong hand in the country’s politics, a situation that’s fundamentally incompatible with the principle of popular accountability underscored by O’Donnell and Schmitter.

The only way to remove the military from politics is by constitutional amendment. And, as it happens, the constitution requires more than three-quarters of legislators vote in favor of amendment before an amendment can be put to a nationwide referendum (at which point it only needs to win more than half the votes). Because the military fills one-quarter of the seats in parliament, the current constitution ensures that full democratization cannot happen by legal means without the military’s support. In drafting the 2008 constitution, military leaders craftily gave themselves a veto over constitutional change without saying as much.

The changes occurring in Burma are real and significant, but we should be careful to see them for what they are and to recognize their limits. Specifically, we shouldn’t start talking about a democratic transition until we see evidence of a new approach to electoral politics, and we shouldn’t slap the “democracy” label (with or without adjectives) on the regime until the military finally and officially removes itself from government. Those are the high hurdles, and the partial liberalization occurring does not guarantee that they will soon be cleared.

Cracks in Burma’s Political Permafrost

A few days ago, the New York Times ran a story describing a hesitant liberalization underway in Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) and the U.S. government’s equally cautious response to it. Nearly a year ago, Burma held national elections that were neither free nor competitive but did restore at least the veneer of civilian government after a long spell of rule by military junta. Despite its illiberal origins, that civilian government seems to be finding its legs and taking small steps toward political and economic liberalization. According to the Times,

The new president, U Thein Sein, a former general who was part of the military junta that ruled the country for two decades, has in six months in office signaled a sharp break from the highly centralized and erratic policies of the past. Mr. Thein Sein’s government is now rewriting laws on taxes and property ownership, loosening restrictions on the media and even discussing the release of political prisoners.

Conventional explanations for political liberalization have a hard time explaining cases like this one. According to the usual thinking, authoritarian rulers only loosen the reins as a defensive concession to political challengers who might otherwise destroy their regimes. Absent a clear and present danger, an autocrat has no incentive to expand his subjects’ freedoms, because in so doing he only stands to empower an organized opposition, the single-greatest threat to his grip on power.

This can’t explain Burma, where only a few years ago the regime violently and thoroughly quashed a popular uprising. To understand why autocrats might liberalize in the absence of an immediate threat, we have to widen our view to include the economic costs as well as the political benefits of closed dictatorship. In a conference paper I wrote a few years ago, I used game theory to explore the idea that authoritarian rulers will sometimes choose to expand civil liberties as a way to increase revenues by reducing their own transaction costs and the transaction costs of their constituents. By reducing the costs to the ruler of acquiring information and monitoring compliance, political liberalization can directly increase the state’s net income. By expanding opportunities for private exchange and facilitating coordination among constituents who control productive resources, this kind of liberalization can also indirectly increase state revenues by expanding the economy’s productive potential, and thus the regime’s tax base.

The core idea in this take on the political economy of authoritarian rule is that political and economic transactions are not neatly separable, so state-imposed constraints on political behavior are likely to interfere with economic exchange as well. The resulting friction, and the costs of maintaining the machinery that creates it, represent opportunity costs that authoritarian rulers would like to avoid, or at least to minimize. A game-theoretic representation of these trade-offs suggests that dictators are most likely to undertake political liberalization either when citizens already pose a credible and formidable threat (liberalization by concession), or when citizens appear to pose only a weak threat (liberalization by imposition).

Viewed through this wider lens, recent events in Burma make a little more sense. Like Gorbachev’s initially timid steps toward openness (glasnost) in support of economic restructuring (perestroika), the Burmese government’s recent reforms seem to identify that country as a budding case of liberalization by imposition. After the collapse of the USSR, dictators may have become more inclined to err on the side of caution and forego the potential gains from reduced economic friction. More recently, though, the Chinese government’s success (so far) in managing these trade-offs in its favor seems to have re-opened the door to liberalization from above.

Whether this process will create an opening for democratization or will reinvigorate dictatorship in Burma is impossible to know right now. Either way, though, I think it is crucial that we avoid confusing this timid expansion of civil liberties with a genuine commitment to expanded political rights. As Serge Schemmann wrote about the greatest of the twentieth century’s accidental democrats, “Though the West lionized Mikhail Gorbachev as a reformer, it is important to remember that his goal was not to destroy or even humanize Communism, but to perpetuate it.”

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