In a year marked by democratic setbacks, Myanmar emerged as an unlikely success story. After nearly half a century of military rule, rights to unionize and protest were restored; opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest; and censorship was eased. Remarkably, these reforms happened because of, rather than despite, longtime dictator Gen. Than Shwe, in particular his decision to hand power willingly over to President Thein Sein.
Than Shwe’s voluntary retirement ensured a peaceful transition, but the circumstances of his departure present unique challenges for the quasi-civilian government that has succeeded the junta. The military maintains 25 percent of parliament’s seats and control over national security issues. Violence in Rakhine state has already prompted the imposition of military control. Certain topics, including security sector reform, remain off-limits. The former ruling elite maintains powerful economic monopolies, including over natural resources. While the April by-elections that returned Suu Kyi to parliament were judged fair, it remains to be seen just how free the military will allow elections to be when determining the next president in 2015.
A rare parallel to Myanmar’s transition to civilian rule can be found in Chile, where military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet left power similarly in 1990. Like Than Shwe, Pinochet faced large popular uprisings that, despite their size, never presented an existential threat. Also like Than Shwe, Pinochet moved his seat of government to a sparsely populated location to discourage protest. Both justified their rule as a lead-up to “disciplined democracy.” And both stepped down for opaque, but widely believed to be personal, reasons: Pinochet refused to “fix” a referendum on his rule, convinced he would win anyway; Than Shwe recognized that former leaders tended to suffer at the hands of their successors, making democratization the better strategy to safeguard his status and wealth.