The new totalitarians: Burma and the rebirth of a terrible idea

Joshua Kurlantzick – The Boston Globe

Copyright The Boston Globe
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.
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