Strategic Violence during Democratization: Evidence from Myanmar


Democratic transitions from military rule are often followed by violence and regularly revert back to autocracy. In this paper we explore one explanation for why this may occur: military leaders’ strategic use of violence to retain control of economically valuable regions. We find evidence of this dynamic in Myanmar, a country transitioning from four decades of military rule. Fearing that the new civilian government will assert authority over jade mining, the military initiates violence in mining townships to deter civilian control. Using geocoded data on conflict and jade mines, we find support for this argument: as Myanmar starts to transition in 2011, we observe a sharp increase in conflicts involving the military in jade-mining areas. We address alternative explanations, including a nationwide shift in the military’s strategy, the co-location of mines and military headquarters, commodity prices, opposition to a controversial dam, and trends specific to Kachin State. We substantiate the theoretical claim that outgoing generals use instability to retain rents — a winning strategy where plausible challenges to state authority provide pretense for asserting military control over lucrative territory.