Dictatorship and its Evolution, Chapter II: Contrasting Burma with Ethiopia Messay Kebede

The news that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, in addition to wining a majority in Burma’s recent parliamentary elections, has enough seats to elect its own candidate to the presidency, is both a remarkable triumph of democracy and a lesson for Ethiopia’s ruling groups and opposition parties. In December 2011, I published an article, titled “Dictatorship and its Evolution: Contrasting Burma with Ethiopia,” in which I lay out the similitudes and differences between the two countries, with the view of understanding the reasons why Burma is moving toward democratic reforms while Ethiopia under Meles was moving backward by bluntly violating the constitution. Those interested in reading the article, go to


Ethiopia and Burma have in common an extended period of dictatorial rule and economic mismanagement, first through the adoption of a socialist program and then through “a skewed policy of privatization of state-owned enterprises” that led “to the formation of conglomerates owned by ramifications of the ruling parties or their closest cronies.” Another similarity is that both countries have suffered from ethnic conflicts and insurgencies and are still fragmented along ethnic lines, with the notable difference that “the military in Burma were able to contain ethnic insurgencies, whereas armed insurgent groups defeated and destroyed the Ethiopian army.” Even more characteristic of the two regimes is the way they dealt with electoral defeats. When in 1990 the opposition party led by Suu Kyi won a landslide victory, the military refused to accept defeat and put Suu Kyi and other leaders under house arrest. In a similar way, Meles ignored the substantial gain of the opposition in the 2005 parliamentary elections and jailed Kinijit’s leaders.

As to the differences between the two regimes, two important factors stand out. (1) The attitude of Western countries: even though both regimes are openly undemocratic, the West chose to support the Ethiopian regime diplomatically and economically while it imposed international sanctions against Burma. (2)  Dissimilar political strategies: recognizing its undemocratic nature, the military regime in Burma came up in 2003 with a roadmap for a progressive democratization, unlike the Ethiopian regime, which “never offered any transitional arrangement on the grounds that Ethiopia is provided with a blossoming democracy.” As a result, taking the opposite direction of Burma’s path toward democratic opening, the Ethiopian regime cancelled all the democratic provisions of the constitution in its bid to win all parliamentary seats, de facto establishing a one-party state.

What can explain the divergent paths taken by the two regimes? There is no doubt that one major incentive for change of Burma’s military leaders is the understanding of the necessity of political reforms to bring about economic development. The understanding stems from the geographical situation of Burma, notably, from the fact that “it is part of a region that is going through an unprecedented economic boom. The realization that Burma, far from participating in the boom, is falling behind is incentive enough for the military to think about change.” The other incentive is the need to lift the international sanctions that the West imposed by the promise of progressive reforms toward democratization.

By contrast, the Ethiopian regime still benefits from Western generous economic aid and diplomatic support despite its appalling violations of the democratic rights of the people.  Moreover, the extremely poor performance of African countries, in particular of the Horn of Africa, presents the Ethiopian regime as the least of all evils. It even allows the regime to brag about achieving a growth rate unprecedented in any other African country. In other words, both the Western support and the failure of the surrounding environment deprive the Ethiopian regime of the incentive to change.

Another reason is the illusion created by Meles and endorsed by the TPLF according to which Ethiopia can replicate the Chinese model of development. Otherwise known as the developmental state, the model is believed to achieve rapid economic development without the attendant political reforms, including democratization. Having decided to rule by sheer force and constant surveillance after its 2005 electoral defeat, the ruling party understood that the success of an outright policy of repression depends on a strong and dedicated repressive apparatus and on the ability to deliver some rudiment of economic growth for ordinary people. Developmental state is just this instrument to achieve the two goals of silencing the country and offering, in exchange, a modicum of economic betterment for the people while rewarding profusely party members, cronies, and supporters.

The illusion originates from a complete misreading of the conditions that made possible the Chinese economic success and of the drastic differences between the sociopolitical characteristics of China and Ethiopia. To mention some of them, Ethiopia is a country fractured along ethnic lines, as opposed to the ethnically uniform nature of Chinese society. The ethnic divisions, mostly fueled by the TPLF itself, have created fractured elites that are in constant state of rivalry and little prone to pursue a common goal in a systematic and dedicated fashion under an uncontested leadership. This explains why governmental plans are always subject to inconsistent revisions, let alone being fully implemented.

For the idea of developmental state to work, it requires what the Chinese had, namely, a “monolithic political elite fashioned by decades of ideological uniformity, Spartan alignment, and an internalized sense of hierarchical discipline.” Instead, what we observe even within the EPRDF with the so-called democratic centralism is not discipline, but the fear of repression by the Woyanne leadership. That the EPRDF is saturated with arrivistes, yes-men, and opportunists of all kinds, to the extent that their proliferation raises the level of corruption, incompetence, and self-serving culture to an unfathomable degree, is another indication of its inappropriateness for the conception and implementation of feasible developmental plans.

In my previous article, I wrote that, unlike the Burmese orientation toward an incremental progression to democracy, “the Woyanne’s attitude of denying rights permitted by the Constitution blocks political evolution, giving Ethiopians no other option than violent uprisings.” Yet, at the time I wrote the article, I had still some hope that the regime would regain its sense and move away from the path of repressive methods of government. I expressed my hope by asking a question that looks terribly naïve now: “Why wait until things get out of hands with animosity reaching a boiling point even as solutions able to reconcile all interests can be worked out?” Indeed, the inability of the regime to pull the country out of generalized poverty, as witnessed by the millions of people who now suffer from famine, and its dedication to enriching the few at the expense of the many, are proof enough of the need for political reforms that the Woyanne elite seems unable to understand.

The last elections as a result of which the EPRDF declared an electoral score of 100 percent made me understand that the Woyanne are determined to risk anything, even violent uprisings and civil wars, to retain their economic and political hegemony. Also, I could not find any external or internal constraints that would influence them to contemplate even a modest political opening. That is why I had to resign to the inevitability of change through violent means in light of the powerlessness of peaceful opposition. Giving up the hope of a peaceful change was not my choice; it was and still is dictated by objective conditions. After all, as Marx said, “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already.”