10/12/2011 12:56 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2011

In Burma, Political Survival Means Doing the Right Thing, for Now

Change is coming to Burma, or at least that's the message coming out of Naypyidaw. On Wednesday, authorities began releasing 6,359 prisoners from the country's squalid prisons, a very encouraging development, although the democratic merit of the move is murky as the number of political prisoners to be included remains unclear. Burmese president Thein Sein also made a surprise decision on September 30 to suspend construction of the Chinese-operated Myitsone hydropower dam in Burma's restive Kachin State. This came after unprecedented public opposition to the controversial project.

The question of the day remains: Can Burma's leaders be trusted?

Consider the decision to halt the $3.6 billion dam. Why did Thein Sein suspend it when other seriously problematic hydro, mining, and pipeline projects continue as planned, many dubiously operated by Chinese firms and "secured" by abusive Burmese army battalions?

Some claim the bold suspension had less to do with the increasingly vocal popular protests against the dam's negative impacts and everything to do with Burma's military distancing itself from China. Others say the decision was an isolated regime's attempt to court the U.S. into lifting sanctions, while some even entertained conspiracy theories claiming it was all a mysterious plot conjured up by former dictator Than Shwe.

What does Thein Sein claim? He says he was simply following "the will of the people."

I'm inclined to think the decision has everything to do with Thein Sein's self interest. In this case, that's not a bad thing. The tricky part is locating his incentives.

In their new book, The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith demonstrate through quantitative methods how dictators and democrats alike act for one reason and one reason alone: to ensure their political survival. More often than not, the authors convincingly argue, a leader's political survival is guaranteed by acting badly.

What about leaders acting for the "national interest" or "the will of the people"? Hogwash, say the authors: leaders only follow the will of the people if their political survival depends on it.

Did Thein Sein's political survival depend on his decision to suspend the Mytisone dam project?

There's no question there was good reason to put the brakes on it. The dam, already under construction by state-controlled China Power Investment (CPI) on the Irrawaddy River, displaced thousands and threatened to displace tens of thousands more; it was set to flood a bio-diverse area the size of Manhattan; it threatened the food security of millions who rely on the Irrawaddy for sustenance and irrigation; and it was located dangerously close to an active fault line. Even CPI's own 900-page environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project, leaked earlier this year, concluded the dam wasn't a good idea.

The Myitsone project was also a factor in Thein Sein's perturbed military starting a major offensive against the Kachin Independence Army, Burma's second largest ethnic armed group that administers territory nearby. This ended a 17-year ceasefire, resulted in widespread human rights violations by the Burmese army, and displaced tens of thousands of people.

It is still illegal to organize in groups larger than five in Burma, and any act of popular protest comes with great risk. Despite that, directly affected ethnic Kachin communities started opposing the Myitsone dam and six other upstream dams at least four years ago. There were open letters, critical reports, anonymous educational leaflets, and prayer services in the predominantly Christian Kachin State.

This year, prominent Buddhists and other citizens in lowland Burma joined the fray, framing it as a national issue. Old and new technologies of democracy merged: there were art events, t-shirt campaigns, Facebook groups, and a critical discourse started to surface in regulated national media outlets, taking careful advantage of a mere sliver of tenuous press freedom. The project was actually debated by senior government officials.

If Thein Sein had not decided to scrap the project (for now), it's plausible that Burma's urban centers might be populated with protestors calling for more than the suspension of a controversial dam. That's the last thing Thein Sein can afford, especially as he courts the West to lift sanctions, persuades his neighbors to appoint Burma the chair of ASEAN in 2014, and shapes his desired legacy as a reformer.

In a way, what we're seeing is democratic by accident.