The Junta's Soft Landing

Why a sham election may be even better for the people of Burma than a legitimate one.

With Burma's government holding a rare election in November, it's fair to wonder whether the military junta has real changes in store for the beleaguered country. Last Friday, a Burmese official at the United Nations even went so far as to insist that the leader of the Burmese opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, will have a chance to cast a ballot. Unfortunately, the full evidence suggests that the regime isn't inclined to initiate any deep reforms after 48 years of autocratic rule: Although Suu Kyi will be able to vote, she was barred from running for office, and her imposed house arrest has yet to be lifted.

Nonetheless, Burma's rulers may be paving the way for their own eventual eclipse.

Even flawed elections can make a meaningful difference to the people of Burma. Indeed, things could hardly get worse for them. For the duration of the junta's rule, the Burmese have been plagued by terrible government and a barely functioning economy: They have suffered rulers who were insecure in their hold on power, but who were capable of easily enriching themselves through natural resources like timber and opium.

One of the reasons that Burma's economy is in such dire shape is that the junta has felt that economic growth would imperil their rule. The military junta, after all, hadn't merely imposed itself on an anarchic society -- it overthrew a popular democracy. Starving the country of dynamism has been one of the ways that the military has managed to consolidate its rule against the specter of an uprising among Burma's minorities.

By introducing mild liberal reforms, the junta now wants to shift from near-constant crisis management to the cultivation of longer-term legitimacy and stability for the current regime. That's what these elections are more-or-less explicitly about -- in contrast to the country's last elections, which were held 20 years ago, in 1990. Then, the junta was taken by surprise by the victory of Suu Kyi. The regime's response was to reverse the results, and rescind all of its nascent democratic reforms at the time.

This time, military leaders are making sure in advance that the outcome will be to their liking. Aung San Suu Kyi has been barred from running for president, 25 percent of legislative seats have been reserved for the military, and a powerful national defense and security council has been established that will be free of democratic oversight. Already, more than 20 high-ranking officials in the junta have resigned from the army to re-invent themselves as civilian candidates under the banner of a new party, Union Solidarity and Development Association.

It's clear that the regime is less interested in establishing a democracy than in resisting pariah status on the international stage and forestalling discontent at home. Whether they're motivated by the bite of sanctions, the restiveness of domestic ethnic minorities, or the discontent of a younger generation of officers among the junta, Burma's rulers want to restore some measure of legitimacy for themselves -- without, of course, loosening their grip on the country's levers of power.

But loosen it they eventually will. History shows that gradual, half-hearted reforms of this sort are exactly how many autocracies successfully transition to democracy. Rulers gradually liberalize laws while ensuring that they maintain their privileges and status, come what may. Chile's move to democracy, for example, was facilitated by protections that the new constitution gave to Pinochet and other leading generals. The process of political reform in 19th-century Britain was also smoothened by the ability of existing elites to protect their interests via the House of Lords. And the world's longest-running constitutional democracy -- the United States -- got its start because its "founding fathers" were convinced that the establishment of indirect elections for senators and the president would prevent radical, popular reforms. But, in all the above cases, the new openness produced a spurt of economic growth that eventually dislodged the old ruling class from its privileged perch over society.

An instructive comparison is also offered by the experiences of Egypt and Iraq since the 1950s. In Egypt, Colonel Nasser initiated a new tradition: Rulers were still invariably drawn from the military ranks, but they would henceforth present themselves as civilian presidents -- highly restricted elections would even be set up to validate their rule. Iraq did nothing of the kind. While the Egyptian economy has achieved sustained growth since the 1950s, Iraq is probably poorer today than it was then. Egypt is still unfortunately far from being a full democracy, but far fewer of its citizens are in poverty than they were 50 years ago, and many more of them are educated.

Flawed as Burma's current reforms are, they are unlikely to be the country's last. Once a process of liberalization has begun, it usually continues, however gradually. One instructive example is Taiwan. The island was long a one-party state dominated by Chiang-Kai Shek's Kuomintang. The group decided in the mid-1990s to introduce constitutional changes that would establish the country's first real elections, confident that the Kuomintang would continue to rule comfortably. They did, in fact, win the first election handily, but the process of competition forced the party to move away from its militarized roots and eventually allowed an opposition to flourish and challenge its monopoly. The gradual process also allowed the ruling and the opposition to normalize their relationship, so that the new leaders weren't fueled by revolutionary rage, and the old leaders were prepared to tolerate having lost their authority.

Taiwan's experience offers a portrait of the most optimistic scenario for Burma -- that the new constitution and the upcoming elections will be the beginning of a process of gradual reform that improves the economy and political participation, while avoiding a serious backlash against the ruling generals. The alternative path to political change -- a push for radical reform that destabilizes the country and potentially produces a civil war -- is much more grim and, unfortunately, all too plausible.

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You Don't Bring a Praseodymium Knife to a Gunfight

China thinks it can withhold its exports of obscure but important minerals to get its way with its neighbors. Why it picked the wrong weapon.

Last week, the New York Times published a stunning story: China, amid a nasty territorial spat with Japan, had quietly halted shipments of rare-earth minerals to its East Asian neighbor, threatening to escalate a skirmish into a full-blown trade war. China swiftly denied the story, while other journalists rushed to confirm it. The Times reported on Sept. 28 that China, while still not admitting the existence of the ban, may be tacitly lifting it -- but the damage to the country's image as a reliable supplier has been done.

In case you haven't been following this arcane dispute, here's a quick primer: Rare-earth minerals are the 15 elements in that funny box at the bottom of the periodic table -- known as lanthanides -- plus two others. About 95 percent of global production takes place in China, largely at one huge mining complex in Inner Mongolia. The lanthanides are essential to much of modern electronics and high-tech equipment of various kinds. The magnets in windmills and iPod headphones rely on neodymium. Lutetium crystals make MRI machines work; terbium goes into compact fluorescent bulbs; scandium is essential for halogen lights; lanthanum powers the batteries for the Toyota Prius. For some of these products, alternative materials are available (moving to a non-rare-earth technology would make those cute little white earbuds about the size of a Coke can, though). For others, there simply isn't a viable substitute.

For years, analysts have been issuing dire warnings about this situation, casting China's near-total monopoly and its steadily shrinking export quotas as a mortal threat to U.S. national security and global commerce. In 2005 testimony before the U.S. Congress, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy argued that China's interest in rare-earth elements "falls into a pattern of ... activity around the globe that is clearly deliberate, well thought out, and ominous in its implications." A more recent report written by a military researcher at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, urges the United States to stockpile the most important rare-earth elements and make studying the minerals a national strategic priority.

But the truth is that though most of the rare earths, both metals and oxides, do come from China, this isn't the same at all as having a monopoly that is sustainable -- as Beijing is about to find out in a fairly painful manner. Now that the specter of a monopoly being exercised for political ends has been raised, there will be sufficient political will to break that monopoly.

Two important facts about rare earths help explain why: They're not earths, and they're not rare. China has reached its dominant supplier position through good old-fashioned industrial aggression, not innate geographical superiority. Cheap labor, little environmental scrutiny, and a willingness to sell at low cost have made other producers give up. For competitors, like the owners of Mountain Pass, a California mine that shut down in 2002 partly due to the China factor, that has been a daunting combination. For the rest of us, it has been fantastic: Affordable rare earths have helped power the information-technology revolution, driving down the cost of everything from hybrid cars to smart bombs.

But the non-rarity of the rare earths themselves means that China's position isn't sustainable. That California mine, for instance, could potentially supply 20 percent of world demand, currently around 130,000 tons a year. Another facility, Lynas Corp.'s Mount Weld in Australia, has the capacity to produce a similar amount. In fact, there are enough rare earths in the millions of tons of sands we already process for titanium dioxide (used to make white paint) to fill the gap, while we throw away 30,000 tons a year or so in the wastes of the aluminum industry. There's that much or more in what we don't bother to collect from the mining of phosphates for fertilizers, and no one has even bothered to measure how much there is in the waste from burning coal.

If rare earths are so precious, why isn't the United States working harder to collect them? The main reason is that, for these last 25 years, China has been supplying all we could eat at prices we were more than happy to pay. If Beijing wants to raise its prices and start using supplies as geopolitical bargaining chips, so what? The rest of the world will simply roll up its sleeves and ramp up production, and the monopoly will be broken.

But, of course, it's not that easy. Rare earths aren't found in nature as  separate elements; they need to be extracted from each other, a process that involves thousands (really, thousands) of iterations of boiling the ores in strong acids. There is also almost always thorium, a lightly radioactive metal, in the same ores, and it has to be disposed of. (Thorium leaking into the California desert was a more serious problem at Mountain Pass than low prices.) So ramping up production would mean that Western countries would need to tolerate a level of pollution they've been all too happy to outsource to China.

Another possibility is that we find a new and different way to separate rare earths, as we find new and different sources for the ores. The main difficulty is that chemistry is all about the electrons in the outer ring around an atom, and the lanthanides all have the same number of electrons in that outer ring. Thus we can't use chemistry to separate them. It's very like the uranium business: Separating the stuff that explodes from the stuff that doesn't is the difficult and expensive part of building an atomic bomb precisely because we cannot use chemistry to do it -- we have to use physics.

The very fact that China has been supplying us all these years means that while Western academics in their ivory towers have been continuing to research all sorts of lovely things, very few of these findings have been tested in the real world. One possible solution, lightly investigated in academia but not elsewhere, is adopting the technology used to separate titanium. It might work with the lanthanides, or it might not. But we should try it, along with other high-tech methods, to make the best of our own strengths rather than trying to compete with China -- the land of cheap labor and environmental unconcern -- on its own terms.

In the end, the question of whether China has been using its rare earths access to threaten Japan doesn't matter as much as the possibility that it might -- and the certainty we'd better do something about it.

Herry Lawford via Flickr