Reforms, Protest, and Repression in Democratic Transition:
A Hypothesis-Generating Case Study from Myanmar (2011–2015)
Abstract: Existing scholarship lacks important knowledge about how protest and coercion
change during regime change. This study provides new evidence by studying legal reforms as
well as patterns of protest and repression during the first 46 months of Myanmar’s regime
change. By examining law amendments and analyzing protest data compiled via a protest
event analysis from local news resources, it can be shown that the de jure exercisability and
de facto exercise of protest have changed considerably over time. Informal repression of
protest, such as by arbitrary violence, have gradually made way for methods that are formally
in accordance with the rule of law, but remained inconsistent with human rights standards.
Additionally, repression has become more selective, demonstrating a continuous high state
control over the civil society. I suggest that the observed changes may be general features of
elite-controlled transitions to competitive authoritarianism, a hypothesis that merits future
How do protest and repression alter during regime change, and what does it indicate about the
prospects of democracy? Contemporary Myanmar can provide tentative answers to these
questions. In 2011, the country embarked on an unprecedented process of sociopolitical change.
With the inauguration of President U Thein Sein, far-reaching political reforms were set in
motion, paving the way for an internationally lauded general election in November 2015 and
ultimately the transfer of governmental power to Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National
League for Democracy (NLD). Despite the reforms, Myanmar’s military has successfully
safeguarded for themselves a wide range of prerogatives that are considered undemocratic
causing skepticism among scholars about the sincerity of Myanmar’s transition (e.g., Jones
2014, Selth 2018, Girke and Beyer 2018).
While doubts regarding democratization in Myanmar are pertinent, it is widely
acknowledged that the reforms have made leeway available for a civil society to re-emerge
(Egreteau 2012, 2016, Bünte 2016).
A civil society is one of the pillars of democracy, and as
*!firstname.lastname@example.org; Department of Political Science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and Department of
Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford
For instance, a fourth of the seats in the parliament are reserved for military personnel, key ministries are under
direct military supervision, and the parliament has no oversight of the armed forces. The recent campaign in
Rakhine state, which has forced hundreds of thousands to flee into neighboring Bangladesh, demonstrates the
continuous impunity of the military.
Though, reports after 2016 indicate yet again a shrinking political space under the NLD government.
a large number of studies have shown, at times, a united civil society can challenge non-
democratic regimes through collective action and render withholding further reforms
increasingly costly (Collier 1999, Schneider 2010, Foweraker and Landman 1999, Slater 2009,
Boudreau 2004). Empirical evidence that facilitates an assessment of Myanmar’s civil society,
however, has remained sparse at best and has mostly been limited to small-N case studies, often
in consequence to missing data, which has prevented scholars from engaging in comparisons
beyond a small set of cases (Prasse-Freeman 2012, Petrie and South 2014, Simpson 2013, Chan
In contrast, this study engages in a large-N analysis of civil society activity in Myanmar,
especially civil society’s engagement in protest. Protests are largely driven by civil society
organizations, including NGOs and social movements, and can act as a proxy for the shape of
a civil society. Moreover, protests can attest to the coercive assertiveness of the state. To the
best of my knowledge, this study is the first that engages in such an analysis in Myanmar.
As this study reveals, protests and strikes in Myanmar have indeed undergone
considerable change in quantitative and qualitative terms after 2011, which one may regard as
In terms of repression, brute force tactics committed by the state have lessened in
frequency from 2011 to 2015. However, a comparison between the decline in blunt repression
with the number of formal charges brought about against peaceful protest participants makes it
clear that the former has diminished to the same extent that the latter has multiplied. The
inversely proportional relationship between bone-crushing violence and legal codification may
suggest a mere shift in the means of repression rather than an overall decline in the percentage
of it. I suggest that this could be a general feature of elite-controlled transitions from closed to
more open forms of autocracy (in contrast to democracy). In the same vein, I suggest the
hypothesis that increasing protest activity is possible amid thorough state surveillance and
selective repression. These hypotheses are in line with the literature on competitive
authoritarianism, which, at the most general level, notes that institutions that are commonly
found in liberal democracy are often present in autocracies too (see, e.g., Gandhi 2008,
Magaloni and Kricheli 2010).
However, a rise in numbers does not necessarily imply a change that is conducive to democracy, since
protest activity can also jeopardize democratization, e.g., if antagonistic groups in the civil society mobilize against
each other (Berman, 1997, Bermeo 2003, Bellin 2004, Way 2014, for a review, see Wnuk-Lipiński 2007). This
could be well perceived to be the case in Myanmar, as hate speech by Buddhist nationalists against Muslim
minorities have been frequently reported. Nonetheless, the data presented here suggests that those protests were
rare during the observed time period. (Violent mobs were not treated as protests. See operationalization below.)
Even though this study builds upon a single case and provides new and rich primary
data for scholars working on Myanmar, it is also relevant for both democratization and social
movement scholarship. First of all, the effects of regime change on social mobilization have
remained a domain that seriously lacks sufficient study and theorization with regard to both
disciplines (Tarrow 1995, 221f., Teorell 2010, 101, Della Porta 2014).
To address this
empirically and theoretically bleak situation, the present study aims to empirically examine
(macro-) patterns of protest and repression during Myanmar’s regime change. This ought to
help generate hypotheses for future cross-sectional research, incrementally providing a better
understanding of what role civil society and protest mobilization play during transition.
Studying the Myanmar case to this end has several methodological advantages. First,
because its transition has only started in 2011, Myanmar allowed me to collect protest even data
at a time much closer to the actual events, thereby reducing the risk of gaps in reporting,
alleviating selection bias. Second, because the news sources were all online, the protest events
could be digitally processed, coded and more thoroughly crosschecked, mitigating the
likelihood of description bias, which may be more severe in situations where only print news
are available (e.g., Earl et al. 2004).
Last, pre-2011 Myanmar can be described as a closed autocracy. Closed autocracy
differs from more “open” forms of autocracy in that “[most] public expressions of discontent
are either de jure or de facto outlawed” (Robertson 2010, 19). This puts 2011 Myanmar in a
quasi-experimental setting, which allows the estimation of the actual effects of liberalizing
reforms on protest and repression, while holding confounding factors, such as pre-reform
protest movements, constant.
The present paper presents a hypothesis-generating case study, integrating two forms of
primary data. To trace the extent of de jure reform in post-2011 Myanmar, domestic laws are
examined and compared to international human rights law. For analyzing the de facto patterns
of protest and coercion, a novel dataset, the Myanmar Protest Event Dataset, is utilized that I
have compiled through an in-depth protest event analysis from local news outlets, covering N
= 185 protests between February 4, 2011 (the election of President Thein Sein) and December
31, 2014 (see the methodology report in the supplementary material).
The structure of the paper is outlined hereafter. First, it will briefly examine theoretically
plausible changes in the patterns of protest activity during regime change as well as discuss the
meaning of repression in the context of protest. Second, the data, methodology, and
Notable contributions on protest and repression during regime change were made in the case of South Korea by
Chang and Vitale (2013), Chang (2015), and Kim (2009).
operationalization of key variables will be presented. Third, the de jure reforms regarding civil
liberties will be analyzed, and the de facto changes in protest activity and repression
investigated in Myanmar. Last, learnings from Myanmar for broader scholarship on civil
society, protest and repression during regime change will be discussed.
Protest Activity During Regime Change
For students of regime change, O’Donnell and Schmitter’s (1986) seminal work is a common
theoretical point of departure. In this model, social protest plays a peripheral role in the actual
process of bringing about democracy, which is rather the outcome of an inter-elite bargaining
process. Nonetheless, protest is an important signaling device for the democratic opposition.
Following the transition model, liberalizing reforms generate a mobilizing signal, causing an
“…outburst of autonomous organization in the civil society” as people believe that “…at least
some forms of autonomous organization will not be repressed” (Przeworski 1991, 56f.). If
protests rise to a certain threshold, a snowball effect sets in (which Przeworski has called a
“multiplier effect”). With growing mass protests, the costs of repressing and withholding
further democratization increase, making splits and defections within the ruling elite
increasingly likely. To safeguard some prerogatives, soft-liners from within the regime decide
to reach out to society and agree to negotiating a pact. However, social mobilization needs to
be moderated to avoid risking its failure due to concerns over security (O'Donnell and Schmitter
1986; cf. Bermeo, 1997). Thus, protest activity is expected to proceed as “boom and bust”
during transition: reforms cause an outburst of protest activity, while subsequent moderation
causes its decline.
In a similar fashion, social movement scholarship has conceptualized protest activity
during regime change. Scholars have argued that protest activity is conditioned by political
opportunity structures (POS), which Tarrow (1994, 85) defines as “…dimensions of the
political environment that provide incentives for people to undertake collective action by
affecting their expectations for success or failure” (cf. Eisinger 1973, Tarrow 1995, 1989,
McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 1996, Meyer 2004). Similar to the transition model, Tarrow’s
(1994) protest cycle theory suggests that protest activity follows an inverted U-shape over the
course of transition once political opportunities allow for social mobilization. While protest
activity is at its peak during early regime change, referred to as liberalization, it is supposed to
decline with the increasing institutionalization of democracy. However, this decline is not
necessarily a result of moderation. Rather, protesters see their demands being met after
democratic institutions are installed, and use the new channels to voice discontent, or,
alternatively, are disillusioned about the assiduous democratization process, leading them to
withdraw from public into private life (e.g., Biggs 2003).
Arguably, the idea of a boom and bust cycle is of limited use for a non-revolutionary
regime change as is happening in Myanmar. If an ever-powerful authoritarian (or military) elite
introduces liberalizing reforms without facing an immediate threat to its survival, as is the case
in controlled “top-down” transition such as the one in Myanmar, a boom and bust cycle is a
rather unlikely scenario for two reasons: First, in general, a boom in protest activity has the
potential to spiral out of control and develop into a revolutionary upheaval. With a functioning
coercive apparatus at hand, authoritarian leaders are most certain to prevent such a
revolutionary mass from emerging (as the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989 prototypically
demonstrated). Second, reforms that come from the “top” are likely to be viewed as “cheap
talk” by the citizenry, as the same people who previously answered dissent with blunt
repression, suddenly pledge democracy. This is likely to have a psychological effect on citizens,
which dampens their mobilization potential. For both of these reasons, a steep boom and bust
trajectory is unlikely to be observed in Myanmar and in other countries featuring liberalizations
from the “top.”
Other explanations suggest a linear rather than a bell-shaped development of protest
activity during democratization. In some cases, the protest patterns observed following
democratic reforms indicate that protest has become something of a collective habit which, as
Ekiert and Kubik (2001) have argued, might even be beneficial for building trust in a new
democracy. In Poland, for example, “collective protest [has] emerged as one of the most
important forms of participation in public life and became institutionalized as a routine means
of advancing grievances and pressing for policy changes” (Ekiert and Kubik 2001, 116). This
may also apply to transitioning regimes. South Korea, as an example, has, until today, continued
to see growing protest mobilization, despite (or because of) its good democratic performance
(Kim 2009). Admittedly, the “normalization” of protest takes time to be (collectively)
internalized (cf. Goldstone 2004, Kriesi 1989). Thus, protest normalization may be not a very
compelling explanation for growing protest activity during early regime change.
Nonetheless, a linear and (relatively) steady growth of protest activity still seems most
perceivable in cases such as Myanmar. This is because, on the one hand, even limited
liberalizing reforms expand political opportunity structures, which, at least some, protesters
may increasingly exploit, while, on the other, the state remains in a powerful position to prevent
revolutionary forms of social mobilization by the use of force. Hence, it is perceivable that the
state allows certain protests to happen while curtailing others, most likely those that it perceives
as a revolutionary threat.
Until now, I have only discussed theories that address mainly quantitative aspects of
protest activity, such as the number of protests and protest participants. Other variables such as
grievances, social groups, state response, and so on, are equally important. However, the
literature has remained vague on the expected change in qualitative variables of protest. Even
the literature on protest in (competitive) authoritarian regimes does not prove particularly useful
in this sense, other than suggesting protests challenging dominant elites are more likely to be
repressed (see, e.g., the debate on "rightful resistance", O'Brien 1996, O'Brien and Li 2006,
O'Brien 2013, Lorentzen 2013). That existing literature is not more helpful is not least because
transitions are contingent on various context-specific uncertainties, standing in stark contrast to
consolidated democratic but also (semi-) authoritarian regimes. In consolidated hybrid regimes,
Robertson (2010) argues, protests are “…permitted, controlled, and integrated into the broader
political strategies of elites” (Robertson, 2010, 4). Even if one may believe this to be an overly
elite-centric perspective, context-specific power dynamics, whether it is solely on elite- or elite-
mass-level, matter with regard to change in protest and repression in transition too. Why, when,
and how they matter however, is unclear. Thus, I prefer to accept that we do to large extent not
know how protest and repression alter during transition, urging us to generate hypotheses,
which I will do here inductively from my case study of Myanmar.
Repression During Regime Change
Repression ought to be central when analyzing protest in terms of regime change, particularly
with regard to transitions from the “top”. As mentioned earlier, if an authoritarian elite remains
in possession of an effective coercive apparatus, it is unlikely that it will permit all protest
activity, particularly those that grow exponentially (because it may become a revolutionary
force). At the same time, even in highly elite-controlled transitions, protest activity may
increase, implying that the coercive apparatus undergoes change and repression becomes more
permeable. I refrain from formulating explicit hypotheses about change in repression, for the
same reason that I do not hypothesize how protest activity changes during regime change.
Nonetheless, operationalizing and measuring change in repression requires a clear
understanding of what constitutes repression. Generally, I consider all methods which
illegitimately violate or undermine and therefore repress the peaceful exercise of civil liberties
and political rights, as constituting repression. Since repression is a multidimensional concept,
I differentiate between formal and informal repression, as subsequently discussed in more detail
(cf. Davenport 2007).
Formal Repression: Using the Law to Subvert Civil Liberties
Formal repression includes the application of laws that are incompatible with the rule of law
because they violate international human rights standards (cf. UN Human Rights Council
2016). These standards are pertaining in existing democracies and in international human rights
law, enshrined internationally in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant
on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Beetham 2004, Klug, Starmer, and Weir 2003, Alston
1999). Although these treaties require states to uphold certain human rights standards,
international law allows the imposition of legitimate restrictions on the exercise of freedoms in
order to protect the freedom of others and to ensure that other fundamental rights are not
infringed. Nevertheless, there are limitations to these limitations (see, for example, Article
29(2) UDHR). Any restriction on fundamental freedom needs to pass the so-called ‘three-tier
test’ in terms of legality, legitimacy and proportionality, based on grounds prescribed in Article
21 of the ICCPR. First, limitations need to be prescribed by law for them to be legal; second,
limitations are only legitimate in the “…interests of national security or public safety, public
order …, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms
of others”; third, measures are only proportional if they are necessary and sufficient to meet the
prescribed goal in a democratic society. Restrictions that do not pass this test but are used to,
for instance, prosecute peaceful protesters, are deemed to be undue obstacles to free expression.
Ginsburg and Moustafa (2008) famously called the subversion of civil liberties by legal
means the “rule by law.” Rule by law involves methods that are formally in accordance with
the rule of law (arrest and prosecution is based on legal codes), but are inadequate to a
substantial degree because the protection of, and compliance with human rights standards is not
given. Beetham (2004) termed illegitimate subversions of fundamental civil liberties “generic
modes of subversion”. Some of the most typical subversions stated in laws with regards to
protest, include unrealistic timescales for notification and inappropriate locations. However,
they do not necessarily arise as tools for repression, but as a result of the failure of judicial
processes to protect fundamental civil liberties, where courts are either incompetent or lack
Informal Repression: Silencing Dissent Without the Law
Informal repression includes all methods that violate the physical or psychological integrity of
peaceful protesters without being based on legal grounds. They might include, but are not
limited to, police harassment or intimidation of protesters and journalists, the presence of plain-
clothed thugs, and the use of arbitrary violence against peaceful protesters. Informal repression
is incompatible with the rule of law because, by definition, it is not based on legal grounds (cf.
UN Human Rights Council 2016). Among the most typical informal generic modes of
subversion are the harassment and intimidation of protesters and journalists by security forces
or by state-sponsored thugs (Beetham 2004).
Lastly, it is commonplace to exclude certain groups from the protection of their rights and
expose them to repression (Beetham 2004). Schmitter and Schneider (2002, 10), for instance,
contend that “…many liberalized autocracies continue to imprison some categories of political
opponents […], even in otherwise thoroughly liberalized regimes”. Thus, any assessment of
macro-patterns of repression has to be aware of the possibility of selective liberalization with
regard to certain protest characteristics such as sensitive issues and social groups. To uncover
selective liberalism, I will specify logistic regression models below that allow testing the effects
of key variables with regard to formal and informal repression.
Data, Methodology and Operationalization
The subsequent analysis is twofold, and, in the first part, builds on a qualitative analysis of
Myanmar’s legal codes concerning protest, as well as, in the second part, the description and
analysis of quantitative protest event data. Firstly, reforms and (potential) generic modes of
subversion will be identified. Secondly, protest data from a novel dataset, the Myanmar Protest
Event Dataset, are analyzed by means of descriptive and inference-statistical methods. The
latter consists of two logistic regression models used to identify the determinants of formal and
I collected the protest data from online news articles in early 2015 using quantitative
content analysis (protest event analysis). At the moment, the dataset includes details of
demonstrations, protest marches, and labor strikes from February 4, 2011 (the inauguration of
President Thein Sein) through to December 31, 2014 (N=185). I set the timeframe to capture
the early period of regime change so as to avoid biases from the political campaigns before the
November 2015 elections that I expect to have exercised an independent effect on protest and
repression. While the sample size seems small at first sight, all protest events have been coded
in terms of an extensive set of 100+ variables, including information on the actual event to its
aftermaths (e.g., arrests and court rulings), thereby capturing events in depth. As the primary
media source, the English online version of “The Irrawaddy”, a critical, formerly exiled news
outlet, which has continuously published in English and Burmese since 2001, was used.
Random crosschecks were conducted with the “Myanmar Times” and “The Global New Light
of Myanmar.” While the Myanmar Times is another popular and privately-run newspaper, The
Global New Light of Myanmar is a government-owned newspaper which is published by the
Ministry of Information. Variables regarding arrests and charges against protesters were
additionally crosschecked with data available with the Assistance Association for Political
Prisoners Burma. The full methodology, discussion of biases, and other limitations are
thoroughly discussed in a separate article I wrote to specifically introduce the dataset and which
can be found in the supplementary material.
The data collection was limited to protest assemblies (excluding other forms of protest, such as
hunger strikes or protest letters, but including labor strikes). Myanmar’s law defines a protest
assembly as “…a gathering of more than one person, […] for the purpose of expressing their
wishes and convictions” (Section 2(b), The Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2011a). This
definition of protest has been followed. The following variables will be used in the analysis and
have undergone re-coding (see the code sheet in Appendix II):
Legal Prosecution: The variable takes on the value of 1 if at least one protester was legally
charged after a peaceful protest (otherwise 0). This variable aims to capture the incidence of
formal repression and is used as the dependent variable in the first logistic regression model.
Informal Repression: The variable takes on the value of 1 if at least one protester was
subject to one or more of the following (otherwise 0): intimidation, threat or arbitrary physical
violence. Intimidation or threat is found if there were attempts to hinder protesters from
proceeding with their protest, to hinder press coverage, if a massive presence of security forces
was reported, or threats of consequences for protesters were expressed by officials such as the
police, to discourage protesters from exercising the right to assemble. Arbitrary physical
violence includes violence from officials against peaceful protesters, either during a protest or
a crackdown. This variable is used as the dependent variable in the second logistic regression
Illegal-by-law: This variable takes on the value of 1 if protests were illegal according to
laws at the time. In Myanmar, this was the case if protesters refrained from requesting
permission (before July 2012, enforcement of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession
Law), failed to give prior notice (after June 2014, first amendment of the same law), or when
permission was not granted prior to the protest.
Key Date: Repression could be less severe on key dates. In Myanmar, the two visits of
President Barack Obama are suitable moments to control for key dates. The US lifted most of
their sanctions against Myanmar after it initiated its reform process (U.S. Office of Foreign
Assets Control 2015). Hence, one can expect that much hinged on the impression it gave to the
US during the Presidents’ visits to the country. This might have affected repressions around
these dates. All protest events that were staged in the annual quarters during which Obama
visited Myanmar, i.e. in November 2012 (Q4/2012) and November 2014 (Q4/2014)
respectively, were coded with 1.
Sensitive Issue: This is a dummy variable containing all protests that address most sensitive
issues: land disputes, calls for justice, forced army recruitment, human rights, disagreements
with officials, and calls for peace (cf. Appendix I).
Duration: The reported duration is included as dummy set. Short protest events did not last
longer than 12 hours (the reference category), medium-long protests lasted for more than 12
but less than 24 hours, and long protests lasted longer than 24 hours.
The Cause of Change: Legal Reforms in Myanmar (2011-2015)
For almost five decades, Myanmar had been ruled by harsh military regimes. In 2003, the then-
Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt proclaimed the “Roadmap to a Disciplined Democracy”
(The New Light of Myanmar 2003b). The roadmap consisted of seven steps towards the
establishment of a “disciplined democracy”, including, among others, the draft of a new
constitution, the transfer of executive power to an elected civilian government, and the re-
establishment of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the Union Parliament, as the legislative body (The
New Light of Myanmar 2003a, 52). The new constitution was adopted in 2008 after a rigged
I will discuss these laws in greater detail below.
referendum that officially had a turnout of 98.12% and 92.48% yes-votes. In accordance with
the new constitution, a general election was held in November 2010, which saw the military’s
party proxy, the USDP, winning. Until this point, most people perceived the top-down reform
agenda as mere window dressing (e.g., Kyaw Yin Hlaing 2012).
Nonetheless, as mentioned in the Introduction, the new government under President U
Thein Sein that took office in 2011 turned out to be surprisingly reformist, and facilitated
changes that were unthinkable only one year previously, and ultimately led to a relatively free
and fair general election in November 2015, and the landslide victory of the NLD. The new
constitution has also had far-reaching implications for fundamental civil liberties, which I will
succinctly examine in the following section. Article 354 of the constitution states:
“Every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of the following rights [...]: (a) to express
and publish freely their convictions and opinions; (b) to assemble peacefully without
arms and holding procession; (c) to form associations and organisations; …” (The
Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2008)
Thus, the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association have been constitutionally
guaranteed since 2008. Nonetheless, up to 2012, the power to decide when a protest assembly
was permitted had, typically, been in the hands of local authorities, and was often arbitrarily
managed. Therefore, protest assemblies could only be staged on an exceptional basis. The first
law that changed the legal status, even though only for labor strikes, was the Labour
Organization (LO) Law (The Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2011b). The parliament
passed the LO Law in October 2011, and granted freedom of association for trade unions,
collective bargaining and industrial relations following its implementation by the Labour
Organization Rules in February 2012 (The Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2012). The
conditions for other protest assemblies were only legally defined in July 2012, with the
implementation of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (PAPPL). However,
this law has frequently been used to justify the legal prosecution of protesters.
The PAPPL, as it was first enacted, required organizers to apply for permission five
days in advance, which prevented any kind of spontaneous reaction to political events. Charges
with regard to violating the permission requirement or any other rule of the PAPPL carried
draconian penalties of up to one year imprisonment. According to Section 12, protesters were
not allowed to “…say things or behave in a way that could affect the country or the Union, race,
or religion, human dignity and moral principles”, were legally liable for “…rumors or incorrect
information”, and “…must not recite or shout chants other than the ones approved” (Section
12, The Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2011a). Violation of this led to a revocation of
consent, accompanied by the obligation to disperse, based on Section 18. In addition, violations
could lead to up to six months’ imprisonment and fines.
According to international human rights law, it is “unlawful” to arrest and detain
protesters when they are peacefully engaging in exercising their fundamental civil liberties
(Articles 20, 21 ICCPR). Moreover, holding protesters liable and breaking up protests based on
broad verdicts such as sharing “incorrect information” are not legitimate reasons, and are too
broad to be justifiable (Section E, UN Human Rights Council 2016, UN Human Rights
Committee 2011). Additionally, charges that are brought based on the information spread, or
the requirement to register all “chants” in advance of a protest, contradicts any understanding
of the freedom of expression (UN Human Rights Committee 2011). Therefore, the PAPPL
initially fell fairly short with regard to international human rights standards.
The law was amended in June 2014. Following the passing of the amendment, protesters
were only required to give prior notice of assemblies, rather than needing permission, and the
maximum sentence for violating the law was shortened to six months in prison and 30,000 Kyat
(Section 18, The Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2014). The reform lowered the legal
restrictions on protests, but it did not change the provisions that could still be used to disperse
peaceful protests and prosecute protesters (Section 12, The Republic of the Union of Myanmar
2011a). Despite the continues reform of the PAPPL
, Myanmar’s colonial-era penal code
includes additional sections of law that have been used to crush dissent and prosecute peaceful
protesters (see Appendix III).
Nevertheless, the reforms have improved the legal situation for protesters, which, as I
will show in the following, has had consequences for the observed patterns of protest and
The Effects of Reforms on Protest and Repression
Changing Patterns of Protest Activity
Table 2 shows the distribution of certain primary variables taken from the dataset. What
becomes clear at the outset is that protest activity has generally increased over time. The number
of demonstrations and strikes has increased more than fourfold from 2011 to the end of 2014,
The PAPPL has seen another reform in 2016. The legal punishment was reduced by half, and the notice
requirement in advance of a protest was shortened from 48 to 5 hours (Thein Ko Lwin 2016).
albeit with a temporary drop in 2013. The total number of protest participants has almost
doubled each year.
Moreover, there is a high correlation between legal amendments and the number of
protests, as shown in Figure 1. The first surge of protest activity in Q 2/2012 appeared after the
adoption of the LO Law (see Policy 1 in the x-axis of Figure 1) and the passing of the PAPPL
through the Parliament (Policy 2) in the previous two quarters. After strikes had been legalized,
labor strikes even outnumbered demonstrations in that quarter. The second surge in the number
of protests occurred after the commencement of the PAPPL in Q 3/2012 (Policy 3). The latest
peak of protest assemblies, at the end of 2014, occurred after the first amendment of the PAPPL
(Policy 4). The high-point in q1/14 can be explained by the anti-Letpadaung protest movement
that will be discussed below.
Table 2: Principal Variables of Protest Activity
Length of Protest
< 24 h
Number of Groups
Number of Issues
Protests related to
1: Includes: call for justice; forced army recruitment; call for human rights; disagreements with officials; opposition to
government plans; 2: Protests directly related to previously held protests.
Biggs (2016) finds that in many protest datasets, the frequency of protests poorly correlates with the total
number of participants, which is problematic when using only either of the two in analyses. In the Myanmar
Protest Event Dataset, both variables correlate highly (as annual aggregates): r=0.99 in case of demonstrations
and r=0.47 for labor strikes. Thus, I refer to the frequency of protest events rather than the number of
participants when I exemplify increasing protest activity below.
Figure 1: Number of Protests and Policy Changes by Units and Quarters
The correlation between legal amendments and increasing protest activity may suggest that
reforms leading to the more secure granting of civil liberties actually led to changed political
opportunity structures and, as a result, increased social mobilization.
This and the numbers shown in Table 2 imply that the right to protest has indeed been
increasingly upheld, so that protest activity could grow. Over the observed period of time
however, no clear inverted U-shape, as the protest cycle suggests, can be found. Rather, we
note a volatile, and, if annual figures are compared (as opposed to the quarters in Figure 1), a
linear growth of protest activity (excluding 2013, which will be explained below). The missing
“bust” could imply that Myanmar until December 2014 had not sufficiently institutionalized
democracy, so that protest remained an important participatory means for society during that
time (see, e.g., Tarrow 1989).
Qualitative characteristics of protest have changed too. Particularly noteworthy is that,
over time, more groups have openly stated themselves to be protest organizers, which may
imply decreasing fear on the part of civil society. Although one might expect the then-
opposition party NLD to have staged most of the protest events, in fact only 5.41% (10/185) of
all protest events were staged or co-organized by the NLD. This is positive because, particularly
in 2013 and 2014, an increasing number of local grassroots movements and initiatives emerged,
demonstrating a developing plurality within civil society. Even “Single Issue Movements”,
which are groups pursuing only one specific objective, emerged as organizing forces. An
010 20 30
Absolute number of protests
Policy 1 - q4/11
Policy 2 - q1/12
Policy 3 - q3/12
Policy 4 - q2/14
Quarter / Year
example of such a group is the “Committee to Deter Moving of the Gems Marketplace” that
aimed, in 2014, at preventing the re-location of a market in Mandalay. Figure 2 reveals that
mobilization occurred throughout the country, despite the geographical shape of the border
regions and the strong development gradient between the geographic center and the periphery.
Figure 2: The Geographical Distribution of Protest
In terms of focus, there has been a trend towards critical topics and issues of pluralism (for a
list of issues see Appendix I). Especially since 2013, protests have increasingly dealt with
human rights and land grabbing, a finding that has been supported by recent single case study
findings in Myanmar (e.g., Chan 2017).
The country’s liberalization has also strengthened radical voices in society. Ultra-
religious and nationalist organizations such as Ma Ba Tha (“Association for the Protection of
Race and Religion”) and the 969 Movement, have become increasingly popular, and have
frequently incited tensions between Buddhists and Muslims. These tensions have sometimes
led to violent riots and mobs, as seen, for instance, in the anti-Muslim riots in 2012 in Rakhine
state (Zin 2015, Walton and Hayward 2014). From 2012 onwards, every year there have been
large-scale protests against the Rohingya Muslim minority, in which, on average, double the
number of participants turned out than in the protests that were addressing other topics (1375
and 720 respectively). However, only four protests were coded for the whole period of time.
This might correspond to findings by Schissler, Walton, and Thi (2017, 2015). The authors
question the common belief that Myanmar’s reforms were a door-opener for anti-Muslim
sentiments that already existed but were repressed before 2011. Contrastingly, they argue that
the “Muslim threat narrative” has been incrementally constructed in recent years “through
reference to ostensibly reasonable and credible sources such as international news coverage of
global events” (2015, 17). If anti-Muslim sentiments had been as salient during the first few
years of regime change as in 2017/18, I would probably have observed more such protests.
Nonetheless, while this argument is reasonable, the number cannot be safely interpreted
as an indication of the (in-) significance of anti-Muslim protests, since many of the violent
clashes between Buddhists and Muslims did not march this study’s definition of “protest
assembly”. If instances were not initially aimed at expressing “wishes and convictions” or
discontent, but started off as violent mobs or riots, they were not coded as protest events (as not
covered by Section 2(b), The Republic of the Union of Myanmar 2011a).
Changing Patterns of Informal and Formal Repression
More protest activity implies less repression, though repression might have just transformed
and become “better hidden.” As Figure 3 shows, brute force tactics targeting protesters and
intimidation, which I call informal repression, have clearly declined. However, informal
repression was still being deployed and had, in relative terms, even temporarily surged in 2013.
Figure 3: The Decline in Informal Repression
In 2013, but also in other years, targeted intimidation tactics were used, specifically in relation
to demonstrations against the violent putdown of protest camps at the Letpadaung copper mine
on November 29, 2012. In fact, all the countrywide protest events in 2013 in which protesters
were intimidated, were addressing discontent with the authority’s handling of the Letpadaung
protest camp. Also, the heightened level of informal repression in 2013 occurred the same year
0.05 .1 .15 .2 .25
Intimidation Arbitary Physical Violence
that protest activity had declined, as noted earlier and shown in Figure 1. By 2014, the use of
informal authoritarian methods had, however, decreased again.
This finding is obviously positive as far as it goes. Countering this, Figure 4 shows what
amounts to an opposing trend in the number of protester arrests. A decrease in the use of
informal repression, and an increase in the involvement of jurisdictions, could be a positive
sign. Arrests for breaches of the law are first and foremost a formal tool of states, and those
based on the rule of law.
However, the almost perfect negative relationship between informal repression and
legal charges raises the question of whether or not these arrests and charges subvert the right to
protest. If violence on the part of protesters had increased, the increased arrest rate could be a
legitimate application of law. As a matter of fact, no increase in violence on the part of the
protesters was reported.
Figure 4: The Relationship Between Informal Repression and Legal Prosecution
Since previous legal discussion on Myanmar’s liberalization has pointed out shortcomings in
the laws in terms of compliance with human rights’ legislation, a look into each case of potential
formal repression would be necessary to test whether or not the increasing number of arrests
and charges were intended to repress and, therefore, take the form of formal repression, or only
a sign of incompetency on the part of the judiciary. As mentioned earlier, due to space
constraints, I cannot discuss the potential intentions behind the legal prosecution of peaceful
protesters here. However, in summary, the data actually provides evidence for both, which is
consistent with the literature on the legal system in contemporary Myanmar (see, e.g., Crouch
and Lindsey 2014, Cheesman 2015). It is also important to state at this point that not only
official state agents file legal cases against peaceful protesters, but so too do private citizens,
020 40 60 80 100
020 40 60 80 100
companies or organizations.
This might either indicate a lack of understanding of protest on
the part of these entities, or is another state-sponsored way to bring about formal repression.
This is another open question worth digging into in future research.
In more open forms of autocracy certain forms of protest may be tolerated, while others trigger
state repression. To test selective repression among protest characteristics, two dummy
variables were constructed, one for informal repression and one for (potentially) formal
repression (that I call “Legal Prosecution”), which were used as dependent variables for two
logistic regression models. Table 3 depicts the odds ratios accordingly.
Table 3: The Determinants of Repression
Location (1=center, 0=periphery)
Key Dates, Obama’s visits
Number of Participants
Duration: Medium < 24h
Duration: Long > 24h
Staged by the NLD
Odds ratios reported, seEform in parentheses; *** p<0.01, ** p<0.05, * p<0.1;
Goodness-of-fit: Informal repression model: Nagelkerke, Cragg & Uhler’s R²: 0.271; Pearson’s
I thank Renaud Egreteau for raising this point.
p=0.0212. p<0.05 and no. of covariates close to no. of observations, thus Hosmer-Lemeshow test:
p=0.1027>0.05, indicating a good model fit. Legal prosecution model: Nagelkerke, Cragg & Uhler’s R²: 0.377;
²(110)=157.76, p=0.0019. Again, Hosmer-Lemeshow test:
²(8)=15.86, p=0.0444<0.05, questioning
the model’s fit, as already indicated by the number of (in)significant odds ratios/logits.
Only long-lasting protests (lasting over 24 hours) as well as illegal-by-law protests increased
the likelihood of protestors being exposed to informal repression. For long-lasting protests, the
odds increase by a factor of 6.34, whereas they are about 3.79-times higher for “unlawful”
protests than for lawful ones. These findings are intuitive: Breaching laws provide ‘easy’ (and
potentially legitimate) justifications for bringing legal charges to protesters. Moreover, the
longer-lasting the protest, the more attractive it is for security forces to apply even illegitimate
tactics in order to disperse protest crowds. For what determines legal prosecution, illegal-by-
law protests and violent protesters are the only significant protest variables. The odds for legal
prosecution for illegal-by-law protests are 10.26-times higher than for legal-by-law protests,
and, interestingly, almost threefold the odds to face informal repression, which may suggest
that legal prosecution has been the preferred way to silence protesters. The factor with the
highest odds to lead to legal consequences is violence committed by the protesters (19.31-times
higher than for peaceful protesters), which may not constitute informal repression per se.
To test if certain groups were more likely to face repression, I decided to add only the
biggest opposition group at the time, the NLD, to the model, as I expected the most serious
contender to have a higher chance of facing repression than less-known oppositional groups.
Especially with respect to the recent NLD government’s backing of the Burmese military’s
campaign in Rakhine State, the opposite seems now conceivable as well: because the biggest
opposition is the hardest (because most costly) to repress, ruling elites might have decided to
better let the NLD do, and pursue a cooptation strategy instead. However, if one replaces the
NLD with oppositional groups other than the NLD, and codes the variable accordingly, the
regression coefficient remains insignificant. At least with the present method, no selective
informal repression against oppositional groups could be found. Due to a lack of sufficient
observations, the effect on formal repression could not be tested.
To test if patterns of selective repression have changed over time, I added time to both
models. Time has no significant effect, meaning that the factors that caused informal
repression/legal prosecution did not change with time. Not to find such time effect is surprising,
considering the tremendous change observed in protest activity over time. One could expect
that in transitions that are driven by civil society, the state looses its grip on repression, and
caves in to expand democratic reforms. If this had been the case in Myanmar, however, one
would have expected time to have had a significant effect on repression. This result, however,
adds to the overarching picture that, in Myanmar, the state persisted in controlling social
mobilization at least throughout the observed time period.
Conclusion: What are the Implications?
The findings in this study offer relevant insights for the Myanmar case and for the broader
scholarship on protest and repression in regime change.
As the analysis has shown, repressive laws concerning civil liberties in Myanmar were
incrementally reformed. Although these laws remained non-compliant with international
human rights standards, protest activity has significantly increased in terms of frequency,
duration and size, particularly following legal reforms concerning fundamental civil liberties.
This lends support to the idea that liberalizing reforms actually changed political opportunity
structures for civil society. Not only did quantitative aspects of protest activity increase, but
also qualitative measures of such activity saw considerable change. Protesters’ demands
became increasingly pluralistic, as did the groups which engaged in protest, and issues
diversified and became more sensitive, respectively. Thus, judging from protest activity alone,
Myanmar’s civil society seems to have become considerably more vocal during the first few
years of regime change. The question is, however, whether this development was actually
engendered by a civil society that continuously expanded its autonomy as a result of crossing
the boundaries of “rightfulness” or if these changes were ultimately foreseen, and from the
beginning, part of the autocrats’ calculations.
The increased level of repression in 2013, and the decline in protest activity the same
year despite growth in all other years, suggests that certain topics, as land confiscated by the
military, possibly crosses a red line, causing (successful) state repression. This demonstrates
that, at least until 2013, protest activity depended on state leniency. If topic boundaries were
crossed, as happened in 2013 with protests against the Letpadaung crackdown, repression
intensified and, in consequence, effectively reduced protest activity in the following quarter(s).
This is not what one would expect to see if civil society had gained momentum in terms
of challenging an autocratic state. Moreover, the shift in methods of repression from blunt
violence to informal means fits into the picture of a powerful authoritarian state controlling and
limiting the democratic transition. The results from the regression models add more pieces of
evidence to the puzzle, by showing that long protests were significantly more likely to be
exposed to informal repression. Long protests were most often protests against land
confiscation, linking the selective repression back to the Letpadaung protests and the Burmese
armed forces. The selectiveness of repression did not change over time, indicating that power
dynamics have not sufficiently shifted toward the opposition.
It is difficult to conclude whether the changed patterns of protest and repression augured
ill or good for democracy after 2015, since Myanmar has remained a somewhat “moving
object.” However, the negative relationship between formal and informal repression and their
selective application, could be indicative of a transition toward competitive authoritarianism
(Levitsky and Way 2002, 2010). In competitive autocracies, or hybrid regimes, incumbents
misuse state resources and exhibit power in violation of democratic procedures, but give space
for opposition, particularly in the electoral arena, the legislature, the judiciary and the media.
Elections, for instance, are held on a regular basis, and are to a great extent free of massive
voter fraud, but impeded in terms of preventing the opposition from receiving adequate
publicity and by intimidating the opposition as well as critical journalists, for instance, during
public rallies. Competitive autocracies require more subtle and punctuated forms of stifling
opposition than closed autocracies. Therefore, the changes described here might be part of a
more general pattern one can observe in controlled transitions from closed to more open forms
of autocracy. Future research should test this hypothesis across cases.
In conclusion, it is important to note that this paper has only investigated protest and
repression until the end of 2014. Since the taking-office of the NLD-government in 2015, the
number of political prisoners, often incarcerated for violations against Section 66(d) of the 2013
Telecommunications Law, has increased (Buschmann 2017). The law provides for up to three
years in prison for “…extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing,
causing undue influence or threatening any person”, by using means of telecommunication such
as the Internet. Whether the patterns of reform, protest, and repression found in this study have
changed or sustained under NLD rule, merits future research.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Nicholas Owen, Timothy J. Power, Michael Biggs,
Matthew J. Walton, Renaud Egreteau, Debby S. Chen, Jella Fink, Uta Gärtner, H. Christoph
Steinhardt, Jonne Kamphorst, Richard Roewer and the participants of the ECPR Authoritarian
Legacies Workshop 2017 in Nottingham for the invaluable comments and feedback received
at different stages of this project.
Biographical Sketch: Andy Buschmann is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political
Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His work focuses primarily on regime
change and social movements, as well as public opinion, specifically in Southeast Asia. He can
be contacted via email@example.com. His website www.andybuschmann.com
Conflicts of interest and contributions of funding organisations: None.
Supplementary Material: For supplementary material accompanying this paper, visit
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