Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya (and hopefully Syria) chart one path for the fall of a repressive extractive regime: a revolution deposing the regime — peacefully or violently, largely depending on the reaction of the regime.
Burma shows another: the regime itself gradually letting go of the reins.
In September 2010 in Foreign Policy, we argued that this “soft landing” strategy, though far short of meaningful political reform and flawed in many ways, could be the first step of a longer process of political opening in Burma.
We have had an opportunity to answer some more questions about Burma in a recent interview.
The gradual process of reform in Burma has indeed continued, with Aung San Suu Kyi being allowed to run for and being elected to parliament but boycotting the opening session (over the wording of oath of office imposed by the junta). The European Union deemed this political opening to be significant enough to suspend most of the sanctions against Burma for one year.
Both the Arab and the Burmese paths towards more inclusive institutions come with serious pitfalls.
The Arab path opens the way to another group coming to power and re-creating yet another extractive regime as has been the case with many of the post-colonial governments that overthrew the colonial regimes after World War II or the Bolshevik Revolution that kicked out the czarist regime in Russia — both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood our candidate would-be usurpers in Egypt, for example.
The Burmese path risks creating the appearance of change without real change, and is also vulnerable to a reversal down the road if the new cadre of the military, still completely and forcefully dominating Burmese institutions, wishes to change direction.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way out of extractive institutions.