[E]ven when the world isn’t watching, which is to say, even when the accused is not Suu Kyi, Burma tries political dissidents. It does so because even totalitarian regimes need to justify themselves to the people they rule and the bureaucrats who do their bidding. At some level Suu Kyi’s elaborate trial was held for the benefit of the minor officials, judges, and attorneys who orchestrated it—educated people who need to believe that their jobs are necessary and just, that they are ministers of due process rather than yes-men for a bunch of thugs.
A certain degree of “buy in” is a necessary condition of stability in any kind of regime. The great advantage of democracy is that it keeps policy and public opinion at least loosely aligned and provides a mechanism for peaceful transitions in government when public opinion disagrees too much with the prevailing policies of the state. As the great democrat Ludwig von Mises once put it:
Its function [i.e., the function of “the democratic form of constitution”] is to make peace, to avoid violent revolutions. In non-democratic states, too, only a government which can count on the backing of public opinion is able to maintain itself in the long run. The strength of all governments lies not in weapons but in the spirit which puts the weapons at their disposal. Those in power, always necessarily a small minority against an enormous majority, can attain and maintain power only by making the spirit of the majority pliant to their rule. If there is a change, if those on whose support the government depends lose the conviction that they must support this particular government, then the ground is undermined beneath it and it must sooner or later give way. Persons and systems in the government of non-democratic states can be changed by violence alone. The system and the individuals that have lost the support of the people are swept away in the upheaval and a new system and other individuals take their place.
But any violent revolution costs blood and money. Lives are sacrificed, and destruction impedes economic activity. Democracy tries to prevent such material loss and the accompanying psychical shock by guaranteeing accord between the will of the state—as expressed through the organs of the state—and the will of the majority. This it achieves by making the organs of the state legally dependent on the will of the majority of the moment. In internal policy it realizes what pacifism seeks to realize in external policy.
Myanmar’s current regime will collapse some day and chances are it won’t be peaceful.