November 8th, 2011
12:33 PM ET

Looking up in Myanmar?

Editor's Note: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, both professors of politics at NYU, are the authors of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

By Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith - Special to CNN

Things are looking better in Myanmar. With a shift to civilian rule, its new leader Thein Sein is implementing reforms and releasing political prisoners. Unfortunately for the Burmese people, these changes are likely to be transitory.

After nearly 50 years of military rule, Myanmar held elections in November 2010. These were largely a sham as the military reinvented itself as the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and won with over 75 percent of the vote. Yet policy has shifted with relaxation of media restrictions and reform of tax and property laws.

Meaningful electoral competition should always be welcomed. But we should be dubious of Thein Sein’s motives. Leaders never make it harder to retain power unless they are forced to. The old regime was run to reward the few at the expense of the many. With natural resource wealth from gems, hardwood timber and natural gas, former military leader Than Shwe enriched military elites while keeping the people poor. Show elections don’t change this. But they do open the ranks of senior government offices to the masses.

This puts the military holders of these government positions on notice that there are many replacements for them. In the long run this competition for their jobs will strengthen loyalty to the regime of those lucky enough to have high positions. But in the meantime Thein Sein is vulnerable to defection by military men who fear they might be purged. Until he learns where all the money is and whom he can trust, Sein can mitigate the defection risk by temporarily swelling the number of his supporters. Once entrenched, he will back track and resume more dictatorial ways.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith.

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soundoff (One Response)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Myanmar's biggest asset is its huge natural gas reserves in its western province of Arakan and the adjoining seaboard, estimated at more than 30 trillion cubic feet or more. China and India, both neighbours of Myanmar are rapidly growing economies and desperate to lay hands on any major source of energy. Furthermore they are keen to offset each other's influence in the region.

    November 8, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Reply

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