What are the elements that shape the outcome of a country’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy? All too often policy analysts focus on political processes while the vital role of economic reform in determining democratic success or failure is frequently overlooked.

In this latest lecture looking at Burma, Gwen Robinson discussed potential reasons behind the radical reform programme that has steadily transformed the country from an economically closed, secretive and repressive society into one that is open to foreign investment, global engagement, and further reforms.

She argued that two fundamental shifts are underway:

  1. the erosion of traditional power centres and the rise of new centres of influence; and
  2. the role of the military, which is losing its firm grip. Economic issues now play a much bigger role than before. For example, new business groups and personalities have emerged replacing cronies and corrupt individuals, and pushing to improve transparency, accountability and corporate governance standards.

While parliament has emerged as the most significant new power centre, the position of the once all-powerful military remains critical to the success or failure of the reforms set in motion by President Thein Sein two years ago.

The discussion was moderated by Anne Applebaum, Director of Global Transitions at the Legatum Institute, with introductory remarks from Brian Joseph, Senior Director for Asia and Global Programs at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Video - Discussion with Gwen Robinson

The Burma case study is the fourth lecture in a joint series on “The Role of Economics in Democratic Transitions” which explore the link between economic reform and political transitions.

Video - Gwen Robinson interviewed by Democracy Lab editor Christian Caryl

About the Speakers
Gwen Robinson joined the Financial Times as a foreign correspondent in Asia and America in 1995. From 2000 to 2007 Gwen was FT’s comment editor and online news editor, among other roles. From 2007, she was a correspondent in FT’s Tokyo bureau, later moving to New York in 2011 as a senior news editor. At the end of 2011 she became FT’s Bangkok based correspondent for Myanmar, Thailand, and the surrounding regions. Gwen is now a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. She also serves as senior Asia editor of the Nikkei Asian Review.

Anne Applebaum is Director of  Global Transitions at the Legatum Institute. She is also a columnist for the Washington Post and Slate, and the author of several books, including Gulag: A History, which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction as well as other awards. She is the recipient of the Cundill Prize for Literature for her most recent book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56.

Brian Joseph is Senior Director for Asia and Global Programs at the National Endowment for Democracy, where he also served as Director for South and Southeast Asia programs from 2005 to 2009. Brian has spoken widely and written about Burma, Pakistan, Thailand, human rights in Asia, and democracy promotion in closed societies, also testifying before various Congressional committees.

Further Reading
Lab Report: Burma (Democracy Lab report, January 2014) - PDF