Saturday, June 15, 2013

Explaining Myanmar's Political Reform

I've been noticing a lot of great coverage lately about Myanmar's rapid shift from isolated kleptocracy to nascent democracy, and what makes this democratization story different from other countries is the top-down nature of reform. Most of the prevailing theories in political science try to explain institutional shifts of this sort using incentives. Bottom-up revolutionary campaigns supported by the mass citizenry changes the calculation of leaders concerned with holding power, forcing them to offer public concessions in the form of better policy and political inclusiveness. Often incumbent-driven reform is an illusion: leaders are simply reacting to the ground shifting beneath their feet by cleverly preempting political change. When you do see a truly top-down reform process, it's usually driven by conquest. Think modern-day Iraq, or Japan after World War II.

What's fascinating about Myanmar is the seemingly complete lack of a good explanation for the junta-driven reforms unfolding today. It's not totally clear the leadership was preempting any structural shifts in the society or economy, and appeals to a unique Buddhist culture or a personality-driven account of change seem far-fetched. Clearly Myanmar's geography--nestled between India and China--means linking up with the global economy offers swifter and more certain rewards compared to isolated countries. And depending on where the benefits of reduced international sanctions and increased capital inflows accrue, it's possible that Myanmar's military leaders will be better off in a material sense. Still, the initial process that established a reform coalition at the highest levels of power remains a complete mystery and amounts to a fairly damning critique of incentive-based models of political leadership.

For more on the political science of leadership check out this short video summarizing Bruce Bueno De Mesquita's 'selectorate theory' or read The Dictator's Handbook.

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