In the past few weeks, the secretive nation of Burma suddenly landed on the world's front pages, as small demonstrations by monks spiraled into massive protests and triggered a violent crackdown by the military government.
Such an impromptu uprising surprised many observers. Searching for explanations, some have cited the rising price of fuel, which is subsidized in Burma; this summer, the regime allowed the price to skyrocket, adding to the economic misery of average Burmese people.
But behind the unrest also lies a larger explanation, one that makes the isolated country a critical test of foreign policy. Burma's brutal ruling junta, which has long kept power through force and fear, is taking the next step and transforming itself into one of the world's few totalitarian regimes.
It has recently moved beyond its years of authoritarian rule, in which it controlled politics but allowed some degree of personal freedom, toward more absolute control of its citizens' lives. As totalitarian regimes die out in other parts of the world, Burma has been clamping down on the last vestiges of dissent, creating a personality cult around the junta's leader, and isolating itself by moving Burma's capital away from Rangoon to a remote town.
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.
Burma has been run by its military since the 1960s, when the armed forces took power in a coup. The army has always maintained a tight lid on political unrest. In Burma's last big wave of protests, in 1988, the military allegedly killed thousands of demonstrators.
After 1988, the junta remained an authoritarian regime, controlling politics and savagely repressing opponents, most famously prodemocracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But it still maintained some links to foreign nongovernmental organizations, governments, and businesses, giving Burma's government and people some contact with the outside world. UN agencies had a major presence in Rangoon, and, at least for a time in the 1990s, foreign companies invested in Burma, hoping for a share of its significant offshore petroleum resources. The country even experienced a small tourism boom. The junta's power was shared among its top three leaders, Than Shwe, Maung Aye, and Khin Nyunt.
In the past five years, however, that balance has begun to change. Than Shwe, described by Burmese exiles as a paranoid control freak, has consolidated more power around himself. Than Shwe turned on Khin Nyunt, the regime's face to the outside world, throwing him under house arrest and jailing many of his supporters. (Than Shwe allegedly also has tense relations with Maung Aye.) Than Shwe has also begun dominating state-controlled television, which portrays him as a godlike figure blessing pagodas around the country. He has increased support for the Union Solidarity and Development Association, or USDA, a state-sponsored youth group reminiscent of Mussolini's fascist youth organizations.
"Insiders say he wants to be remembered as a benevolent king," writes Burmese analyst Aung Zaw. He notes that Than Shwe has been emulating Burma's old absolute monarchs, who commanded total loyalty, built shrines to reflect their power, and made decisions on the advice of astrologers. Indeed, two years ago, and allegedly on the advice of his astrologer, Than Shwe moved the entire government from Rangoon to an obscure town in central Burma, where the regime is building a series of palatial complexes. The town's name, Naypyidaw, means "abode of kings."
The junta has limited communication inside Burma and access to technology. It has curtailed cellphones by making them prohibitively expensive for average Burmese, and created comprehensive Internet filtering, though activists have been able to smuggle out some photos of recent demonstrations.
Than Shwe also has placed severe limits on foreign organizations in Burma, essentially making it impossible for them to operate. In June, the International Committee of the Red Cross, unable to visit political prisoners in Burma, issued a rare censure of the Burmese government. Two years earlier, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria pulled out of Burma, saying it was too difficult to work because the government was increasingly restricting the travel of aid workers.
Around the country, the USDA has stepped up its monitoring and intervention in the lives of average Burmese, harassing people if they even appear in private to be questioning the government.
The result is a paranoid regime increasingly divorced from the world, and even from most of Burma's people, many of whom remain in Rangoon, the largest city. Having disregarded the advice of Burma's few remaining technocrats, the regime has destroyed the economy: Rangoon suffers from frequent blackouts, and in some parts of the country as much as 60 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Outside Burma, a sophisticated global network of activists has developed to push for democracy in the country. Yet so far, Burma's more democratic neighbors have done little to put pressure on Than Shwe. In the 1990s, India supported the democracy movement in Burma; today, hungry for petroleum and worried that instability in Burma could spill over its borders, India has largely kept quiet. So has Thailand.
China, meanwhile, has actually helped prop up the Burmese government, providing aid to the regime despite Western sanctions, blocking UN resolutions designed to put more pressure on the junta, and regularly shipping arms to the brutal Burmese military. Today, China has become Burma's most important foreign ally.
It's possible that the Burmese regime's isolation will start to undermine its ability to rule. In the past, some degree of openness probably allowed the Burmese regime to anticipate and forestall protests. Now, isolated in its jungle capital, the government may not have anticipated the impact of fuel increases on average people. The Burmese generals also may not have understood how growing military patronage for Burma's Buddhist clergy, by building pagodas and supporting monasteries, infuriated many monks.
The generals made this mistake once before. In 1987 and 1988, when the military was ruled by Ne Win, another unpredictable dictator with a cult-like approach to governance, the regime suddenly declared certain currency notes worthless. (Ne Win also allegedly consulted astrologers before making major policy decisions.) This bizarre move sparked demonstrations in 1988 that drew millions of Burmese, ultimately triggering a harsh crackdown by the regime.
But that took place during the Cold War, and before the Internet and the rise of global nongovernmental organizations. In 1988, stories and photos from the Burma uprising took time to make their way into the foreign media, but today photos of the protests appear on foreign websites about Burma the same day. In 1988, repressive governments ruled much of Asia, so it was not surprising when few regional leaders stood up for the battered Burmese people. In 1988, the United States remained locked in a titanic struggle with the totalitarian Soviet Union, and all other conflicts took a lower priority.
Today, the situation is vastly different. Democracy has taken root in Asia, the Cold War is a relic, and the United States has committed itself to global democratization. Inside Burma, Than Shwe is attempting to turn back the clock, seemingly an impossible task.
But if Than Shwe stays in power, unchallenged by neighbors who covet Burma's resources and unperturbed by a UN that refuses to sanction him, he may be able to extend his control of society. If so, he will show he is no anachronism - and provide an example to other tyrants still standing.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a visiting scholar of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Joshua Kurlantzick is a visiting scholar of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace