October 20, 2007


The new totalitarians: Burma and the rebirth of a terrible idea (Joshua Kurlantzick, September 30, 2007, Boston Globe)

Burma's transformation bucks the global trend away from such tightly repressive societies. For years, totalitarianism loomed as the West's mortal enemy, a terrifying force that drove the massive purges of Stalinist Russia, the bizarre personality cult of Albania, and the wholesale eradication of intellectuals in Maoist China.

But in the years since the Cold War, totalitarianism has appeared to be in wide retreat. With the advent of mobile phones, satellite television, and cheap, fast Internet access, it has become nearly impossible for any government to totally isolate its people from the world, or to dominate their private lives.

In Laos, where the Communist government once created a personality cult around its revolutionary founder, city-dwellers can watch news reports about their country on television from Thailand. In China, the Communist Party continues to stamp out organized dissent but no longer tracks ordinary citizens' every movement, and many people can afford to buy homes and give themselves a degree of domestic privacy. Even in North Korea, which spent decades walling itself off, cheap cellphones smuggled across the border from China have created some tiny cracks in Kim Jong-Il's regime.

But in Burma, the junta has headed in the opposite direction. Last week's protests most immediately speak to the sufferings of the average Burmese, but they also send an important signal at a moment when a handful of governments - including Zimbabwe and Venezuela - are showing fresh signs of totalitarian rule, building personality cults and infiltrating their citizens' private lives. As it quickly becomes a central topic for the UN and the Bush administration, Burma will prove a test of whether these repressive regimes have any future at all.

...and predict that, with its GDP per capita of $1800 (neighboring Thailand is, by comparison, at $9200), the Burma model isn't going to catch on.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 20, 2007 12:49 PM

Democratization tends to go in waves. Then there's a period of consolidating those gains, as oppressive regimes go on the offensive. Eventually, we push back. Several trends indicate that this last wave - begun around 1986 - is sputtering out. We probably won't see many more revolutions for another ten years or so. The main focus now is to make sure that the democratic gains made in borderline states like Ukraine, Lebanon, and Colombia are entrenched.

Tyrants are not indigenously overthrown until the normal rank and file of their armies decide the regime is not worth defending and throw their support to the rebels. If they still side with the regime, protestors simply get shot.

High oil prices have emboldened many of the tyrants, and they have rewarded their goons well enough that they can keep their support for quite a well. It also allows them to be quite adventurous and support other thugs far away simply to keep the democracies busy.

I don't forsee a whole lot of new victories until sometime in the 2020s. It'll take that long for the new democracies to have consolidated their democratic achievements and economically grown to prove a better model to their immediate neighbors. In the meantime, the petrotyrants will have stagnated like they always do.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 20, 2007 2:51 PM

Zimbabwe, Cuba, Vietnam, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela--there's a whole batch that won't make it anywhere near 2020.

Posted by: oj at October 20, 2007 5:58 PM

Add China to the list...

Posted by: Perry at October 20, 2007 7:01 PM