Perspective Unlimited

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Save the Generals, Save Burma

The moment the monks began openly defying the military regime in Myanmar, there was always going to be only one outcome - violent suppression. The fact that blood was spilled should not come as a surprise to anybody save the most idealistic and naive. The logic is perfectly simple - dictators who lose power often lose everything, and sometimes even end up in tribunals. Any rational person faced with this set of odds would always resort to violence to save himself.

A Heuristic Game Matrix

The above is a simple game matrix. On the left, we have the General, who has two courses of actions (Suppress, Not Suppress). On the top, we have the People, who can choose to (Revolt, Not Revolt). The payoffs are given in the 2x2 matrix, the number on the left denotes the General's payoff while the number on the right denotes the People's payoff. The payoffs applied here are very simple. If the General does not suppress (and his People do not revolt), his payoff is 100. Every time the General suppresses, he pays a political price and his payoff drops to 50. However, if the People revolt and the General does not suppress, he loses everything and gets 0. Whenever the General suppresses, the People's payoff becomes negative (bloodshed).

Clearly, the best outcome for the People is that they revolt, the General not suppress, and the revolution succeeds. In that case, the People gets 100. But is this a rational outcome? No, it cannot be. Faced with the outcome of losing everything when the People revolt, the General surely will suppress. Bloodshed is inevitable.

Rewarding the General

Can we ever find a way out of this logical jam so that the People can be better off? Yes, it is indeed possible but only if we come down from our moral high horse. Consider the next matrix.

There is only one number that I changed - in the lower left box where the General's payoff is changed from 0 to 75 (it has to be larger than 50). Immediately, the lower left box of (Not Suppress, Revolt) becomes established as a Nash equilibrium. When the People revolt, the General will choose not to suppress and get the payoff of 75, which is greater than the 50 he will get if he suppresses.

Logical Response

What does this simple analysis tell us? Short of a military intervention to carry out regime change, no amount of outside pressure or condemnation can ever help the Myanmese people. Sure, outside condemnation hurts but only as far as reducing their payoffs for the generals. But faced with the prospect of losing every thing should the revolt succeed, the only logical response is for them to suppress. The greater the threat, the more brutal the suppression.

Instead, the only way out is for the world to reach a settlement with the junta that rewards the generals for non-suppression. This may sound morally odious to those who believe that the generals should be punished for their crimes. But by cutting off the exit for the generals, we are in fact condemning the Myanmese people to more bloodshed. Herein lies the big moral dilemma. Should we reward the perpetrators of violence?

Swallow our Moral Indignation

Are there any historical precedents? Plenty. South Africa comes to mind first and foremost. Former white regime members were not tried for their crimes against the black people, there was merely the Truth and Reconciliation Tribunal where the whites were asked to confess their wrongdoings. Pinochet in Chile was made Senator-for-Life and continued controlling the armed forces even though the civilians were supposed to be in charge. Nearer to home, we have Marcos. As he was a key US ally during the Cold War, the US provided a safe haven for Marcos and his family to take their billions and comfortably retired to Hawaii.

Swallow our moral indignation, provide a safe haven for the generals with state protection, let them keep their billions, and guarantee that they never have to face any tribunals. To help the Myanmese people, we must consider rewarding the generals even if it is morally and politically difficult for us to do so.


  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger LuckySingaporean, at 2:20 am  

  • Bart,

    Your analysis...the maths is no good & the politics is no good & the history is also no good.

    Maths no good
    Your mathematical modelling does not resemble the reality.

    1. Why did the Burmese people choose to revolt now instead of before? The plunder of wealth by the junta reached a point that people were beginning to starve. If there was no revolt, people were going to die anyway...and their children, children's children will also suffer if nothing is done. The payback in the top righthand cell understate the suffering of the people not revolting under suppression should be [50,-50].

    2. The people revolted to change the course the country is taking and stop the plunder. A handful of thousand courageous died out of 50M. These people sacrificed themselves for the greater good. It brought the plight of the Burmese people to the attention of the world and caused the generals to exercise restraint. So the payback for the people revolting and getting surpressed is higher [50, -20].

    3. The negative payback for the people is cause by plunder and not suppression alone. When there is no suppression & the people choose not to revolt, the junta can still plunder until large segment of the people starve (which they did before the revolt)...[50, -30].

    Revolting was a rational decision to improve the situation in Burma. A handful of courageous monks/protestors sacrificed themselves in a selfless act to change the painful course the country was taking.

    Politics no good
    This is not directed at you but more the countries who openly declared that any solution needs to include the junta undermines the negotiations favorable to the Burmese pple. It is like telling the shop keeper the highest price you're willing to pay. Even if one expects the near term solution to incorporate the junta, such a position should never be declared. I saw the Chinese UN rep in an interview this more and he said "the long term solution for Burma is the establishment of democracy"...that together with the UN censure helps to put the heat on the junta to a better practical compromise for the burmese.

    This is a corrupt junta that has a history of murder, plunder, has to be removed. The payback for its existence has to be reduced. Sanctions on trade and arms help to reduce the benefits and safety of people joining the junta. Its power base will shrinks once cannot reward its soldiers and lower ranking officers properly. Dealing with the junta and offering medical care to its leadership perpetuates its existence. People joining the junta have to know they are at risk when it collapses and they will be brought to justice for its crimes.

    History no good..
    Yesterday, I was talking to a Burmese guy and he told me a story about how a group of 50 peaceful protesting school children(secondary school) were ordered to be drowned while crossing a bridge by the junta in the 80s. This is a hated regime with blood on its hands. To offer these people safe havens to spend their billions is a moral hazard, we are asking for history to be repeated. We should weaken them, force them into collapse, deny them medical treatment and future dictators will not dare to commit acts against humanity.

    The regimes in Phillipines collapsed because the people dare to revolt. Among the people in the military there is a good chance of a few good men and that can be all it takes to bring down a cruel regime. The chance of a revolt succeeding is higher than what you make it out to be. In south africa, the behaviour of the blacks towards their former oppressors was examplary but unexpected. Apartheid ended because of the concerted effort of the world to impose restrictions on S. Africa. Imagine if there was a lack of resolve to fight apartheid, it would have been still around.

    By Blogger LuckySingaporean, at 2:36 am  

  • Bart, it is one thing to keep saying you are using economic analysis on a purely non-normative basis, for the purpose of clarity and thus cleverly avoiding the issue of being tainted with emotive overtones. But it is another thing to use Game Theory as a JUSTIFICATION for Singaporean politicians or others with common interests to help perpetuate the continued existence of a brutal regime.

    You forget in your analysis too the non-logical heuristic model often used by the top members of the Junta, they are known to consult astrologers religiously on all matters of importance to them.

    Another thing, swallowing moral indignation is not for you or anyone of us to prescribe. It is up to the people in BURMA.

    And please do some basic research:
    before jumping on every issue with economic analysis. I may not be a Phd Candidate but I too can see the limits of seeing everything in life as a nail to be tackled with the hammer of "economics".

    One word of advice: talk more to heterodox Economists, I'm sure there're a few in LSE.

    By Anonymous ted, at 4:16 am  

  • What a creative application of Game theory!

    Methinks you lowly peons(Ted, Lucky) should start grovelling and kissing Bart JP cos clearly Mr Bart is not too far off from donning the magical white uniform.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:58 am  

  • Bart,

    In summary, you are saying that rewarding the generals for non-supression is beneficial to the people of Burma.

    Wrong. If you really want to be logical about it, you should apply the game theory from an evolutionary biology point of view. This point of view is far closer to reality than a simplistic economics game theory point of view.

    Evolutionary game theory explains why certain species of birds adopt a strategy of sacrificing themselves when a predatory chances upon its nest. In a case which a parent bird has invested alot of resources in bringing up its young, the parent sacrifices it's life to lure away the predator from the nest, thus ensuring the survival of it's young. This is the best option for the parent bird to take in terms of reproductive sucess.

    Similarly in the case of Burma, it makes more sense for the Burmese to oppose the generals. Not opposing the generals guarantees that this generation as well as future generations of Burmese will have lower reproductive sucess. If the Burmese civilians are able to cooperate and sucessfully overthrow the military regime, it does not matter if many of the adults die for once the regime is overthrown, their children will flourish.

    Therefore, we should give support to the revolting population instead. Giving them weapons or whatever they need to overthrow the regime is more beneficial to the Burmese, if you really want to be logical about it.

    By Blogger I must be stupid, at 7:53 am  

  • Hi Lucky,

    You are right, my history and context is not so good. It is not so much a problem of my maths as you suggested, but what subjective numbers to put into the payoff matrix.

    Sure, you can find numbers to tweak the matrix and show that to Revolt is always the best response for the People. That I agree. But the key is: You need to establish that NOT SUPPRESS is also the best response for the General too!

    Even though I personally find it morally reprehensible, letting the generals go scot free and keep their billions may the correct inducement for them. I am not saying this is the only option, but surely is one that is not as illogical as it initially sounds.


    Your criticism is valid. The junta members may not be rational to the payoffs. For example, if they are mad, they may take great pleasure in suppression such that no amount of inducement will work.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 9:29 am  

  • Stupid,

    We have a country in this world where a brutal dictator is overthrown, the streets are now flushed with weapons, and the different ethnic groups and minorities are killing each other on a daily basis. That country is Iraq.

    I don't think flushing Myanmar rebels with lots of weapons is the responsible way (although I am intrigued by the theory you proposed).

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 9:32 am  

  • Bart,

    I'm afraid you misunderstood my previous comment. It's not really to argue for flushing the streets with weapons.

    The salient point is that if one were to apply game theory to obtain the most ideal/logical/optimal results, one has to define the aim of the strategy first.

    I would say that maximising reproductive sucess or darwinian fitness would be the aim, instead of something else like maximising financial gains which is frequently characterised by economics theory.

    Why choose darwinian fitness over everything else?

    Consider 2 players, A and B in a game. A acts to maximise reproductive sucess while B acts to maximise financial gain or any other thing you can substitute financial gain for. Now put A and B in this situation : Choose either reproductive ability or $100 billion. Obviously B's genes on Earth will end with him while A's genes continue to survive. Natural eliminates those genes/person that do not maximise reproductive sucess.

    In fact seeking financial gain or other sort of gains is under the greater goal of reproductive sucess. Evolutionary game theory is therefore like the grand daddy of all other type of game theories.

    Which is why i say that having the Burmese citizens overthrow the junta is beneficial for them from the logical point of view. Getting rid of the junta even at the cost of their lives would be beneficial for their descendants.

    As for whether we should flood the burmese with weapons, that's another debate altogether.

    By Blogger I must be stupid, at 12:04 pm  

  • Hi bart,

    I believe that both you and lucky is right. The dominant strategy is to probably to revolt and suppress leading to a sub optimal outcome.

    I wonder if any country had offer exile to the Junta. After all that is how many dictatorship had ended, the leaders decided that they better get out while they are still at the top.

    The other way is for the people to start a armed revolution. However armed revolution seldom ended in a good way.

    By Blogger at82, at 12:34 pm  

  • Stupid,

    I can understand why Burmese would want to revolt (to better their reproduction I suppose, to fit what you say). But surely the generals will suppress since they too suffer from loss of reproduction if they do not? Or are the generals and soldiers in fact already the outcome of some evolution - they are the best in Myanmar since they are so successful at suppressing all competition, through violence?

    I can kind of see what you are trying to say, but my head is tied in knots by the implication and logical jams.

    I think my explanation is a far more concise explanation of current reality and offers actual a realistic way out. Negotiate a nice exit route for the generals, morally reprehensible as they are, and see if a better outcome can be achieved.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 12:37 pm  

  • AT,

    Exactly my point - the players could be trapped in a (Revolt, Suppress) outcome.

    [however, the way I wrote the matrix is that there is no dominant strategy, only mixed strategy, but that can easily be tweaked].

    I see you must have studied game theory.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 12:39 pm  

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    By Blogger Bart JP, at 12:42 pm  

  • AT,

    Is Suharto considered a good example? I believe he and his family are still very wealthy in Indonesia.

    I was about to say that maybe, just maybe, Singapore can offer the generals a way out since they are alledged to have lots of business with us? But I don't think it is politically doable for us given the outcry. China possibly? Just a wild shot in response to your comment.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 12:46 pm  

  • Bart,

    But then again, why would the junta be willing to reliquish power? Unless they see themselves at great risk of being overthrown, i don't see why they would do so willingly. And if they are at great risk of being over thrown, why would the Burmese people be willing to allow the junta to escape scot free?

    Isn't it contradictary?

    By Blogger I must be stupid, at 1:14 pm  

  • The junta will reliquish power only if it is in their incentive to do so. Presumably, continual suppression also does them no good, and they too live in insecurity. The key is therefore to offer them a secure, guaranteed, and financially lucrative way out. It is like paying them a large bribe to go away for the restoration of civilian rule. It is not contradictory I think.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 1:25 pm  

  • If the junta find themselves feeling insecure, it's more likely that they seek to take pre-emptive strikes against any potential revolter, which i believe is already happening.

    "Why give up a country just because a few peasants are making you insecure? Just quash them like flies." This would probably be how the generals are thinking.

    After all, which outright dictator has ever willingly relinquished power in exchage for safety and money? Adopting such a mentality would not have allowed them to become dictators in the first place.

    What say you?

    By Blogger I must be stupid, at 1:42 pm  

  • So, those who died are numbers in some equations. Pardon me for not being good in games theories.

    You have provided some solutions for the generals to retreat, to get out of the mess that they are in.

    Given that you know the ways of our Singapore government, would you propose these solutions to them to consider?

    I ask you a few questions. Please be emotional about it and do not give us numbers again or go round and round.

    Did those dead Burmese people deserve to die in the hands of the junta?

    After rewarding the generals, are you saying they are not responsible for the murders that they have committed?

    Will the safe haven be Singapore?

    I like to hear the human side of you, not the clicking sounds of a financial calculator.

    By Anonymous concerned sg citizen, at 6:59 pm  

  • Concerned,

    No one deserves to die in the hands of the junta. No person should be shot from behind for protesting and have the body thrown into a ditch. The situation in Myanmar is an affront to all who value justice.

    But let me pose you a question - which is the greater injustice (i) that the generals can get away scot free with their billions or (ii) the Myanmar people trapped in another generation of poverty, violence and bloodshed?

    I think (ii) is the greater injustice. So if it is possible to avoid (ii) even at the expense of letting the generals get away with past murders, it is a deal worth doing. This is just my view, I am not in a position to propose anything to anybody.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 10:11 pm  

  • Bart,

    If the junta leaders will leave and free up the country that will be a good solution for the Burmese people. Punishing them cannot bring back those who are dead...however I believe some Burmese hate them enough to pursue to "the ends of the earth".

    Unfortunately, there is a lot at stake for the junta. They enjoy alot of wealth & power by plundering the country. They will not leave by persuasion or "incentives" to behave. Alot of pressure external or internal has to be applied. Only when they begin to believe their power base in Burma is threaten then they will leave. Why did Marcos leave? The left because unrest spread to the point his power and safety was diminished. Also, certain parts of the military switch sides opportunistically under such situations.

    The situation in Myanmar is complex (and does it lend itself to simple non-cooperative game theory analysis) and no one can say for sure what is the best move for the Burmese people . But experts who understand the situation believe the junta will not leave (and stop bullying the Burmese people) unless there is great pressure.

    So good discussion here:

    By Blogger LuckySingaporean, at 6:40 am  

  • Bart,

    Thanks for the reply. Your desired outcome would be ideal in your game theory.

    In the end, it is about the money. If you present them with your kind of rewards, they only get a fixed amount of money which may last for a short term.

    If they stay, they will continue to make MORE MONEY from their natural resource and their people almost indefinitely. This is a far better long term option for them. Why would the junta want to be some prisoners in their foreign "safe haven" when they can be kings on their own soil.

    Now, given a choice and their records, which one do you think they will choose.

    Your game theory did not factor in human greed. So, the people continues to suffer injustice, for what I can see.

    By Anonymous concerned sg citizen, at 8:17 am  

  • Bart,
    Your solution would have been sound but for the fact that at this point in time there is no reason for the Junta to even contemplate or think about giving up. They call the shots in Myanmar, they have survived as a rather isolated country these past years; why would they even want to consider a scenario where they have lost power?

    By Blogger Ned Stark, at 3:32 pm  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger at82, at 10:53 am  

  • Hi Bart,

    Yeah I had studied game theory b4 :)

    I don't think Suharto is a good example. Even with all his faults, Indonesia wasn't the economic basket case like Burma is. In fact under Suharto, the lives of the Indonesian did improve considerably as compared to the time under Sukarno.

    So the Indonesians did not hate Suharto as much as the Burmese hate the junta.

    Anyway I don't think the generals would choose S'pore even if offered. The more logical place would be China. However China doesn't want to see a democratic revolution at its backyard for obvious reasons, so naturally the will try to prop up the regime instead.

    There is just no incentive for the generals to go into exile.

    That is where international pressures comes into play. If the UN send its troops to Burma's doorstep or the people starts to arm themselves, the situation might just change drastically.

    By Blogger at82, at 10:55 am  

  • Ecclesiastes 1
    Everything Is Meaningless
    1 The words of the Teacher,son of David, king in Jerusalem:
    2 "Meaningless! Meaningless!"
    says the Teacher.
    "Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless."

    Ecclesiastes 4
    Oppression, Toil, Friendlessness
    1 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:
    I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter;power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter.
    2 And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.

    Ecclesiastes 5
    Riches Are Meaningless
    8 If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. 9 The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.
    10 Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:38 am  

  • NoName,

    Nice !

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 9:53 am  

  • Let me tell a joke. Three guys went interview for a job. The interviewer pose this question: How much is 1+1? First guy is an accountant, and he says 2. Really? But of course, the account must always balance. Second guy is a statistician, and he also say 2. Really? Well, there is a 5% chance it lies outside two standard deviations (OK, I am sure that sum has been asked many times, so Law of Large Number says we will get a normal distribution). Third guy is an economist, and he says 2. Really? The guy shut all doors and windows, ask the interviewer back, OK what number do you want?

    So Bart, it is a dangerous proposition to put arbitrary numbers in a payoff matrix. You have already decided the answer before you answer the question.

    By Blogger 飞起玉龙三百万, at 5:26 am  

  • 飞起玉龙三百万,

    Greenspan appears to be able to justify policies of any administration he served which explains his longevity at the job. He did leaver Bernanke a ticking timebomb in social security....


    No more 'unlimited perspectives'? Your blog has not be updated for sometime. Maybe you want to do an article on inflation - bread prices in Singapore is going to be up by 50%....not to mention property, rentals, milk etc. In a few months, the economic boom is going to be like "who turned off the lights". I've got a really bad feeling about this one....recently 20,000 Singaporeans put $12K each on a Ponzi type scheme, it seems like people are losing their common sense, then there is the Hong Kong stock market....

    By Blogger LuckySingaporean, at 7:28 am  

  • Lucky,

    The past 3 weeks, every one is talking about 377A. I really don't have much to contribute on that area, so not too keen to jump in.

    By Blogger Bart JP, at 12:57 pm  

  • I am not a Greenspan fan, so I know little about many things he did. But as the Fed chairman, his business was really in monetary policy, not fiscal policy including social security (which started even before before Greenspan becomes Fed chairman). That should be the job of the President's economic advisors (I think Bernanke had that role before). The problem with the US social security is due to a great extent of demographic, dwindling number of workers contributing but a growing retiree population eating it. That's my 2 cent worth.

    By Blogger 飞起玉龙三百万, at 9:07 am  

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