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Burma since 1988: the politics of dictatorship.
Causes of the 1988 coup
The economic crisis
The politics of frustration
Lead up to the Coup
Opposition on the borders
SLORCs military offensives
Against the trends: Burma in 1991
1992: a year of transition?
The coup of 18 September 1988, was the third military intervention into contemporary Burmese political life. The first two such coups, in 1958 and 1962, had replaced civilian regimes which in the view of the military were becoming incompetent. However, this one was different. It was undertaken not to overthrow an incompetent government but to shore up a regime which was in danger of being overwhelmed by popular protest. The urban population of Burma was in revolt against the political, economic and social conditions that had been deteriorating over a period of time. The situation was made worse by the excesses perpetuated first by the riot police, the lon htein, and then by the armed forces, the tatmadaw. From the point of view of the Burmese government, it was a friendly coup. The military simply took over the place of their former colleagues who, years earlier had retired to assume government positions. From the popular perspective, the coup was devastating. Between March and September 1988 some four to five thousand people died, although some estimates are twice as much. Instead of securing a victory for 'peoples power' as was the case in the Philippines, events in Burma proved to be a premonition of China's Tiananmen a year later.
The politics of Burma are quite unique in the sense that they combine the elements of military dictatorship, ethnic conflict, ethnic cleansing, drug trade and environmental degradation. 1 The purpose of this paper is to analyse developments in Burma since the events of 1988 and assess the prospects for national reconciliation.
Contrary to popular perception, highly diverse ethnic, linguistic and social systems exist in Burma. The largest group, known as the 'Burmans' 2 are concentrated in the central plains and the Irrawady delta, are almost entirely Buddhist and comprise about two thirds of the total population. They are also the only major ethnic group that are not spread across national borders. The Karen are the largest minority group and (along with the Mon) their traditional homelands straddle the Burma-Thai border. The Shan are closely related to the Thai and Lao people and the Kachin and Karen are found on both sides of the Sino-Burmese border. The Chin and Naga are on both sides of the India-Burma border and many of the Arakanese (or Rohingya) Muslims have close links with the Bengalis. Even these can be divided into sub-groups, for example, the Pa-O and the Karenni are sometimes regarded as Karen, and sometimes as distinct groups with their own identities. 3
Current tensions between the central government in Burma and the various ethnic minorities are essentially a legacy of the past. Even during pre-colonial times, the 'Burman' kingdoms did not directly control the 'minority' peoples, such as the Karen, Kachin, Shan, Mon and Arakanese. The British too administered central Burma separately from the frontier regions which were able to maintain their political and social structures more or less intact.
In 1947, in negotiations during the lead up to independence, General Aung San -leader of the independence movement and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi -convened a conference of minority leaders at Panglong in the Shan state. Kachin, Chin and Shan representatives agreed to work with the interim Burmese government to accelerate the independence process in return for promises of regional autonomy. However, Aung San was assassinated soon after, and successive governments have constantly moved towards greater centralisation. Under the 1947 compromise, the Shan and Kayah states could theoretically secede from the Union subsequent to a plebiscite to be held after ten years. 4 Power sharing arrangements included a bicameral legislature with a Chamber of Deputies of 250 members and a Chamber of Nationalities with a strength of 125. Although the latter had limited powers, it did provide an opportunity for minority groups to participate in the political process. This system was eliminated after the military coup in 1962, and in 1974, under a new constitution, the military formally replaced the federal state with a unitary one. There was to be only one legal party, the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), headed by General Ne Win. Although the military created seven states for minorities and organised the Burman area into seven divisions, power was totally centralised.
These efforts notwithstanding, what has been lacking is a recipe that would transform Burma from a state to a nation. Be it a constructed ideology such as Pancasila in Indonesia; or a common symbol of national unity such as the Thai monarch and his role as defender of the Buddhist faith, Burma has lacked such symbols, for whenever one is chosen, some group is threatened. It is ironical that while national unity has been a persistent theme in Burmese politics, the reality has been exactly the opposite.
Causes of the 1988 coup
The urban revolution of 1988, which was started by the students and later became a popular movement, was a reflection of the political frustration and economic hardship brought about under 26 years of Ne Win's rule. Declining exports and increasing foreign debt repayments had brought the economy perilously close to collapse, a point that was not lost on Ne Win. During the previous year, in August 1987, in a speech at the BSPP congress, Ne Win had criticised his advisers for failing to provide national leadership and indicated that the country was in difficult straits. He further went on to say that economic and political changes were needed and proposed that suggestions for improvements be presented at the next party congress, scheduled for 1989.
The economic crisis
On 1 September 1987, Ne Win announced a program of economic reforms that lifted government controls from most aspects of production, transportation and distribution of rice and other staple crops. Tax laws were also changed to ensure government requirements of rice, for export as well as for the armed forces and civil servants, were met. In order to cope with growing inflation and an overvalued kyat, farmers were now required to pay their land tax in kind and an additional tax was levied on grain merchants. While the immediate effect of these measures was to improve farm income, it was also an acknowledgment of a breakdown of the public distribution system which had resulted in increasing rice shortages in various parts of the country.
On 5 September, just days after the economic reforms were announced, and without prior warning, Ne Win ordered the second currency demonetisation in less than two years. All 25, 35 and 75 kyat notes were demonetised, affecting about 70-80 percent of the country's money supply. Also, unlike the 1985 demonetisation, there was to be no compensation. This, in effect, wiped out the savings of ordinary Burmese, most of whom could ill afford the loss. Officially, the reason was to destroy the value of large holdings of the designated currency by insurgent groups, black marketeers and smugglers in Burma and Thailand, and wealthy merchants who might try and gain control of the newly deregulated grain trade. However, the government depended on this trade to sustain an economy which could no longer produce enough to meet essential needs. Critics also claimed that the government had been printing so much money to finance its spending that this measure was merely a quick means to reduce money supply and curb inflation. According to some observers, it was Ne Win's well known superstitious nature and his obsession with astrology that was the driving force behind this move:
abstruse astrological and numerical calculations (all involving the number nine or numbers adding up to nine) were involved, designed to enable Ne Win (for whom the number nine is said to be lucky) to live to be 90 years old. Whether or not this is accurate, it is significant that it was widely believed, indicating both the continuing aura around Ne Win's person and the seemingly vast capacity for the personalisation of power in Burmese society. 5
While it can be argued that demonetisation had its desired effect, it also caused widespread hardship and triggered the first violent student demonstrations since 1974. Casualties and damage were low, and by closing all schools, colleges and universities which were in the middle of examinations, the situation was quickly brought under control.
At the same time, the economic situation was getting progressively worse. External debt had risen to more than US$ 5 billion (or about 70 percent of GNP), partly because of excessive borrowing and partly because of the appreciation of the yen and the deutschmark, as Japan and Germany were Burma's largest aid donors. Internal debt was rising significantly as the inefficient State Economic Enterprises (SEEs), the public sector, were borrowing heavily from the government. Oil production had declined considerably and diesel fuel and kerosene were in short supply.
In all, given the problems facing the country, the stage was set for confrontation.
On 11 December 1987, the UN General Assembly declared Burma to be a 'least developed nation', the criteria for which was an annual income of less than US$200 per capita and a very low level of industrialisation and literacy. This was despite the fact that in urban areas, literacy levels in Burma approached 75 per cent. Burma was now one of the ten countries (including Chad, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Nepal) which were considered to be economic 'basket' cases. This move came after an extended campaign by the Burmese government for such a designation, which, it was hoped, would increase international aid and enable some donors to convert loans into grants. That the official media withheld any announcement of the status for four months is an indication of the government's recognition of the stigma that the Burmese people would attach to such an embarrassing blow to the country's prestige. 6
The politics of frustration
The incident which precipitated the most brutal suppression of political dissent in the history of independent Burma was, in fact, quite apolitical, but was a significant reflection of the level of frustration in Burmese society. On 12 March 1988, a group of students from the Rangoon Institute of Technology got into a fight with a teashop proprietor and other patrons about the type of music being played at the establishment. Violence ensued and the riot police, the lon htein, under the command of General Sein Lwin, were called in to restore law and order. Their brutal handling of students transformed the situation into a major protest by most of the population of Rangoon. Unofficial estimates of deaths were in the hundreds, although the government admitted to only two. Later, the government admitted to the death by suffocation of 41 students when over a hundred people were crammed into a single police van to be taken to jail. Thousands were arrested. 7
The political unrest and its violent suppression was a consequence of more than two decades of implicit army control of Burmese society. The country's sole political institution the BSPP had, in 1971 been formally transformed from a cadre based party to a mass organisation, of which one had to be a member in order to enjoy social and political mobility. By 1977, the BSPP had 181 617 members and 885 460 candidate members, over half of whom were drawn from past or present army and police personnel. Nearly 80 percent of the soldiers in the armed forces were party members. 8 The BSPP also controlled the formation and membership of other mass organisations like peasants and workers' groups and party youth leagues. The civil administration was delegated to 'Peoples Councils' at various levels but real power lay in the hands of the army-cum-party apparatus. A new constitution promulgated on 3 January 1974 had been officially approved in a referendum, by 90 percent of the voters.
Despite wordings such as "socialist democracy is the basis of state structure", the tatmadaw, or the armed forces controlled the BSPP and its subsidiary organisations, and the tatmadaw, the BSPP and the administration were under the control of Ne Win. That was, in short, the actual power structure that had emerged...
In effect, the military, after having done away with the old social and political power structure had established itself as the new ruling class. The elevated position of the military in Burma far exceeded that of the armed forces of the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh or even Thailand... 9
Consequently, since the state controlled both the political and economic process, the political structure was held responsible for the corruption, nepotism, shortages and high prices and the increasing alienation of Burmese society.
Lead up to the coup
As a consequence of the demonstrations of March 1988, the government closed all schools till 30 May in the hope that this would ease tensions. This was not to be, as rumours about beatings and torture circulated, and there were demands for a full government accounting of the dead and missing. Political activity increased and a second period of violence occurred in late June, killing a large number of people. All educational institutions from elementary level to universities were closed indefinitely and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed.
By now Ne Win was under sufficient pressure to call for an extraordinary party congress of the BSPP on 23 July, to consider economic, political and constitutional issues. It was expected that the meetings would result in political concessions, including the expulsion from BSPP of the General Secretary, General Sein Lwin, the man held responsible for student deaths in 1962, 1974 and for the brutalities of 1988 .
The congress approved reforms of the economy but within the existing framework. The state was to retain monopoly on onshore oil production, teak, gems, communication and banking, but private enterprise was to be encouraged in other sectors. Also, private foreign firms could now work with either public, cooperative or private companies, whereas since 1971 they had been limited to working with the state sector.
On the political front, Ne Win called for a referendum on the question of a multiparty system and constitutional changes. Both he, and President San Yu resigned their party and state posts and, in a surprise move, the BSPP appointed the extremely unpopular General Sein Lwin as party chairman and, consequently, the president of Burma.
Reaction was swift and predictable. Demonstrations became a regular feature, and on 3 August, martial law was declared in Rangoon. Nonetheless public unrest continued and a general strike was called for 8 August. 'Over the next five days throughout the country some three thousand people were killed by the military with unprecedented brutality'. 10
On 12 August, at the suggestion of the BSPP Central Executive Committee, Sein Lwin resigned and on 19 August, after a meeting of the party's army cadre, Maung Maung, a civilian and the closest non-military associate of Ne Win was chosen as party chairman and later confirmed as president.
Maung Maung adopted a conciliatory attitude. He announced that the proposed referendum on multiparty elections would go ahead. The popular reaction was that the demonstrations were, in fact, a yes vote of the people. There were calls for an interim government to supervise multiparty elections.
Opposition leaders began to emerge. Prominent among them were U Nu, the former prime minister deposed by Ne Win in 1962; sacked Brigadier General Aung Gyi, one of Ne Win's earlier heirs apparent who had fallen from grace, after he disagreed with Ne Win's policy of nationalisation; General Tin Oo, a favourite of Ne Win in the 1970s who was jailed for alleged prior knowledge of an attempted coup against Ne Win in 1976; and Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, normally resident in Oxford, but who happened to be visiting her ailing mother in Rangoon.
By September it had become evident that the government could no longer control the state. Political parties had been formed, opposition groups illegally constituted. The demonstrations had continued, and all classes and groups, including some from the civil service, the lower echelons of the military, and the party itself, had joined in the antigovernment, prodemocracy marches. 11
On 18 September, Armed Forces Chief of Staff, General Saw Maung announced that the army had taken over the government. A State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), comprising 19 senior military officers, was established. A new cabinet was formed, with General Saw Maung as its head and included a token civilian. This military pseudo-coup placed the military, which had always been the real power in Burma, in total and official command of the country which was now under martial law.
Although widely described in the foreign media as a 'coup', the imposition of martial law amounted to a change of faces. The chairman of SLORC, General Saw Maung, the army Chief-of-Staff and Minister of Defence was a loyal subordinate of Ne Win and his protege Sein Lwin. While he promised multi-party elections in his first press statement, Saw Maung made it clear that the army's first priority was the restoration of law and order.
The country was on the brink of collapse through a total breakdown of law and order. What became quite clear was the army's intention of crushing the democracy movement once and for all. In fact, a report, first published in the newspaper of the All Burma Federation of Students' Union (ABFSU) 12 in early September, mentioned the details of a secret meeting of senior BSPP leaders at Ne Win's residence on 23 August, the day before martial law was lifted. According to this document, the meeting agreed on the following points:
the continued loyalty of the tatmadaw to the BSPP was dependent on the defeat of the pro-democracy movement. If a multi-party system was introduced, it would undermine the role of the military and the supreme sacrifice of the army veterans would have been in vain. Consequently, a new strategy to crush the opposition was necessary;
the first step would be to separate the students from the masses after which the students and other "hard-liners" would be suppressed. To this end, military personnel would be secretly sent throughout the country to spread disorder and anarchy so that the army would have to step in to restore peace. In this process, the people would realise the futility of a multiparty system and the situation would pave the way for a coup;
if the slide into anarchy was not quick enough, criminal elements would be let loose and allowed to go on the rampage;
once the tatmadaw was in control, it could easily arrest the activists on the basis of photographic evidence then being gathered by the Military Intelligence Service (MIS, the organisation later changed its name to Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence, DDSI).
Whether this analysis was an accurate portrayal of the 'conspiracy' that was orchestrated by Ne Win has been doubted by some analysts while many observers believe that it was totally authentic. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that the events that followed proved this analysis to be surprisingly accurate:
at the end of August some 9 000 prisoners were suddenly released under circumstances which have never been adequately explained;
on 26 August, Radio Burma carried reports of apparently spontaneous uprisings in several prisons across the country; that 513 prisoners had escaped from Insein prison and another 57 were killed. Meanwhile 1 600 prisoners escaped from Sittwe prison and six more killed. A further 100 escaped from Bassein prison and rioting was reported in Bhamo, Kyatha, Mandalay and Myuangmya prisons involving further casualties;
regardless, the government released a further 4 805 prisoners from Insein prison. They were said to be nearing the end of their sentences;
there were daily reports of looting and attacks on government warehouses, rumours began to circulate that these attacks were being instigated by MIS agents. Several times men in uniform were seen carrying away cash boxes from branches of the Union Bank of Burma. 13
Whoever was responsible, such actions only served to vitiate the atmosphere so that much of the violence appeared to be quite irrational and resulted in the imposition of martial law on 18 September. In a series of orders broadcast by Radio Rangoon, Gen. Saw Maung announced the dissolution of all government bodies, including courts, down to the village level, the imposition of a dusk-to-dawn curfew and a ban on gatherings of four or more people. He declared that the takeover was for 'the sake of the interests of the people' who were facing 'deteriorating conditions on all sides'. In order to 'restore law, order, peace and tranquillity' the country would now be governed by Law and Order Restoration Councils (LORCs) at various levels and the new authorities would work towards creating conditions for organising democratic multi-party elections.
What followed were days of horrific violence and bloodshed, which, given the restrictions on the press, has never been properly recorded. Within twenty-four hours after the coup, Rangoon Hospital had admitted up to 500 patients, most of them suffering from gunshot injuries. Doctors were reported as saying that they had received only a fraction of the casualties, many corpses being picked up by the army for discrete cremation. Official figures listed 54 deaths which was revised to 120 and later to 180 on 21 September. Unofficial estimates by Rangoon-based diplomats and others of the number of deaths in the immediate aftermath of the takeover range from 400-500 in Rangoon alone and up tp 1,000 country wide. By official estimates, 450 people had been killed between 18 September and mid-October. 14 However, the victims were invariably described as 'unruly and undisciplined elements', 'looters' and other assorted criminal types. Thousands of suspected pro-democracy activists were arrested nationwide during the same period. Those arrested were not just student and labour activists but also included Buddhist monks, doctors, teachers, government employees and ordinary workers. Although most were said to have been released after initial questioning, there were reports of brutality and torture. These indiscriminate arrests continued to take place in October and continued through to December. According to Amnesty International 'these seemed particularly aimed at suspected grassroots and middle-level leaders and organisers of anti-government protest activities'. To the demand that all political prisoners be released, the official response was that 'the point need not be answered as there were no people arrested for political reasons. There have been arrests only for violations of the law of the criminal procedure'. 15
In another operation, army patrols in Rangoon and other towns began rounding up, sometimes at gunpoint, hundreds of urban residents who were then taken to combat zones along the border and made to work as porters carrying ammunition and food for the army. On 17 October, while announcing that it had rounded up 1,120 Rangoon residents, SLORC denied that they included students, professionals and other workers suspected of having taken part in the pro-democracy movement. Instead, it was claimed that these sweeps were aimed at reducing crime by punishing gamblers and other 'law-breakers' and clearing the streets of 'waifs and strays'. 16
Another consequence of the crackdown was that thousands of students fled to remote border areas seeking sanctuary and common cause with the many ethnic minority groups, who were engaged in their own struggle against the regime. By mid-October some 1 000 students had taken refuge on the Indian border, and about 2 000 had fled to the China border. However, the largest number, about 7 500, went east to the Thai border where they found help from the Karen, Mon, Karenni and Pa-O minority groups. Another 1 000 or so crossed into Thailand where the welcome was decidedly different. Initially, the students were described as 'war refugees' by the Thai Foreign Minister, Sitthi Savetsila who said that they would be granted temporary asylum in Thailand. 'We cannot send them back right now because they would be killed', he said, adding that the Foreign Ministry was developing a Burmese refugee policy in coordination with the Ministry of Interior. Within days the Thai government appeared to back off from its earlier position, saying the Burmese would not be considered refugees, but 'temporarily displaced persons'.
On 17 October, the Burmese government announced that it was opening '27 reception centres' along the border and offered an amnesty to all those who returned before 18 November. Following the return of up to 1 000 people, the deadline was eventually extended to 31 January 1989. 17
Amnesty International reported that some of the returnees were allegedly 'either taken into custody and executed by army units, or were shot and killed by soldiers who ambushed them'. There were other reports where students were either beheaded or executed as well as incidents of gang rape. 18 Nonetheless, given the close relations between the Burmese and Thai military, and following a state visit to Burma by Gen. Chawalit Yongchaiyut, commander-in-chief of the Thai army, the two governments agreed to establish a repatriation centre at a military airfield outside the Thai city of Tak. There were reports of forcible repatriation and despite statements of concern from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) and the US State Department, the program continued. By end March 1989, about 400 students had been repatriated, when the centre was finally closed after international pressure as well as protests from Thai students and religious groups. 19
Domestically the regime concentrated on consolidating its control. A deadline of 3 October for government personnel to return to work was generally adhered to, and all government employees, including the armed forces, were given a pay rise. On 26 September, the SLORC promulgated a Judicial Law re-establishing courts (which had been abolished on 18 September) and included the provision for the formation of a Supreme Court (which had been abolished by Ne Win after the 1962 coup).
Two weeks later, on 10 October 1988, Martial Law Notification No 8/88 prohibited political parties from publishing, propagating or engaging in any organisational activity that could be deemed to create 'misunderstanding between the people and the Defence Forces' or to divide and undermine the 'unity of the Defence Forces'. Later, on 17 and 18 July 1989, the SLORC announced Martial Law Orders Numbers 1/89 and 2/89 which authorised the Military Commanders in Rangoon, and the Central and Northwest Military Commands to conduct summary trials of those found committing offences, 'either in law courts formed under existing laws or by established military tribunals'. Those who opposed martial law authority by violating or defying orders issued by the SLORC, the government or military commanders could only be tried by military tribunals. Order 2/89 stated that 'regardless of the provisions under existing laws', those found guilty of such offences must receive one of three sentences:
the death sentence;
life imprisonment; or,
a jail sentence of not less than three years with hard labour.
Military tribunals conducting such trials could 'waive unnecessary witnesses', 'indict an offender without hearing prosecution witnesses' and 'reject the recalling of witnesses who had already testified'. Also, decisions of such tribunals would be final, there was no right of judicial appeal, although military commanders had to approve life imprisonment and death sentences. The only recourse to those convicted was an appeal to the army commander-in-chief, Gen. Saw Maung, the Chairman of the SLORC. Two days later, Martial Law Order No. 4/89 among other things commuted to life imprisonment the death sentence of all those 'legally tried for an offence on and prior to' the takeover of 18 September 1988 (emphasis added). While this move resulted in the commutation of the death sentences imposed on 155 people (including 12 women), prior to the takeover, 20 by October 1989, 100 people had been sentenced to death by the military tribunals, although none were reported to have been executed. 21
The post-coup regime took some initial steps towards long-term economic change while at the same time concentrating on raising funds in the short term to overcome its foreign exchange crisis. The scope of economic reform had already been indicated by Ne Win at the BSPP Congress on 23 July 1988. On 1 December 1988, Burma promulgated its most liberal foreign investment law since independence. The law permitted foreign investors to form either wholly-owned enterprises or joint ventures with local partners and included guarantees against nationalisation and for the repatriation of profits. 22 On 31 March, a new law specifying those areas of economic activity which would remain under government control was announced. Joint ventures would, however, be permitted. 23 Later, on 30 May 1989, the newly formed Foreign Investment Commission issued a detailed list of manufacturing and service industries that would be open to foreign capital. 24
Of more critical importance to the regime were short-term measures that would provide foreign exchange as well as a variety of consumer goods the demand for which the inefficient state sector was unable to fulfil. The first ventures were short-term permits to Thai, Malaysian and Japanese fishing companies to fish in designated territorial waters. Next came the extensive logging concessions.
The role of Thai logging companies in Burma was a consequence of a mudslide in southern Thailand in November 1988, which was directly attributable to deforestation. It resulted in extensive damage to property and killed several hundred people, prompting a call for a complete ban on further logging. Before the ban was introduced, however, the acting supreme commander of the Thai military, General Chawalit Yongchaiyut visited Burma, the first foreign dignitary to visit the country since the coup. The result was that by April 1989, 16 Thai companies (including one owned by the wife of Gen. Chawalit) had been granted 24 concessions inside Burma, permitting the export of 1.2 million tons of logs annually. 25 These projects provided the Burmese an immediate US$51 million 26 in foreign exchange; a ten-fold increase in its reserves. Border trade with China was also regularised. One of the major sources for the thriving black market and cross-border smuggling, trade with China was regularised on 1 October 1988 and the government claimed to have collected US$5.5 million in customs taxes in the six weeks in November-December alone. 27 Although officially the trade was supposed to be worth about US$ 300 million a year, the total trade between the two countries, both legal and illegal, was estimated at US$ 1.5 billion. 28
By late 1989, various joint ventures, with firms from Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Thailand, had been established. A series of oil exploration and production sharing contracts had been signed with various oil companies including Yukong (Korea), Shell (Holland), Amoco and Unocal (US), BHP (Australia) and Petro-Canada. Perhaps the two ventures that most symbolised Burma's break from its 'isolationist' past was a production and marketing agreement with Coca Cola and a contract with an Austrian firm to build three luxury hotels, in Rangoon, Mandalay and Bagan, at an estimated cost of US$ 110 million. 29
On 17 February 1989, SLORC confirmed that elections would be held within 14 months from March, i.e. by May 1990. This decision was taken after some hesitation, as on 20 January the regime had announced that elections would be held only when 'law and order' conditions permitted and that the transition from a single party to a multi-party system would take time. It would also appear to have been influenced by a desire to see a resumption of the flow of aid which had been cut off after the coup. 30
By the time the registration of political parties closed on 28 February, some 233 separate parties had registered. Under the martial law regime, it was illegal for four or more persons to meet. By registering as a political party, people could meet indoors and legally discuss politics. Consequently, some of the parties were genuine and some were just discussion groups. Most of them represented narrow local interests and a few were referred to as 'telephone and petrol' parties. 31
Over the next few months, in order to improve the chances of cooperation among the various parties, there continued to be a process of realignment as various parties joined forces. Several applied for and received permission from the Election Commission to deregister. By the time the period for nominations ended in January 1990, 100 parties had put forward 2 310 candidates with another 82 contesting as independents. Only six parties expected to field more than 300 candidates, the most prominent of them being the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the National Unity Party (NUP, which had taken over from the now defunct BSPP). 32
In any event, the Election Commission announced on 6 November 1989 that elections for a new national assembly would be held on 27 May 1990. Soon after, prominent members of the opposition parties were declared ineligible to contest the elections. Former prime minister U Nu (League for Democracy and Peace) was banned because of his unwillingness to renounce his claim to be prime minister at the time when he attempted to form a parallel government in 1988. Other members of his 'cabinet' resigned and were permitted to contest. Tin Oo, chairman of the NLD, was sentenced to three years hard labour on 22 December 1989 for encouraging the disintegration of the armed forces in 1988, sending anti-government news abroad and inciting unrest in 1989. On 16 January 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD secretary-general who had been under house arrest since 20 July 1990, was banned from contesting the elections on the grounds that she had alleged connections with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), that she was married to a foreign national and that she allegedly had no permanent resident status in Burma. 33 In fact SLORC cited an article in the Bangkok Post of 14 January 1990 to justify the claim of her link with the KIA. 34
While the regime claimed that the elections would be held according to the law it is significant to note that, according to Aung Suu Kyi, it made no provision for a handover of power after the elections. 35 Also, the NUP, a direct descendent of the BSPP was expected to do well, having inherited most of its organisation and assets. It would appear that SLORC intended the elections to proceed in a similar way to some other countries, such as Indonesia, which would ensure that power remained in the hand of established authorities while permitting some expression of public discontent. Also at stake was the resumption of Western aid that had been suspended after the 1988 coup.
SLORC made other attempts to weaken the NLD, which had gained a substantial degree of support nationally. It banned the use of heavenly bodies and animals as party symbols in the elections. With this, the NLD was automatically banned from using its party symbol -the yellow star and the fighting peacock. Instead, the regime issued a list of 25 symbols which could be used. These included a comb, a chair, an
alarm clock, a peasants hat, a ring, a gong, etc. A ban was also placed on students wearing badges of the late Gen. Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, at schools. 36
In all, the basic attitude of the SLORC towards conducting the elections would appear to have been one of fairness in a restricted political process. Martial Law remained in force, outdoor gatherings of four or more people were banned, party political literature had to conform to restrictions, each party was allowed one 15-minute radio address and 10 minutes on television, with a text that had to be approved in advance. 37 Also, in order not to 'disturb the majority of the people' the use of loudspeakers was restricted to only what was 'actually needed'. 38
In a major address on 9 May, Gen. Saw Maung gave the SLORC view of the forth coming elections.
The SLORC allowed formation of political parties and holding of multiparty elections. The SLORC is in charge of all Myanmar affairs. The SLORC remains the government until a new government is formed under a new constitution ... So no matter what others say, all organisations and people are to act according to SLORC instructions.
The multi-party system, according to the law pledged by the former government, emanates from the force of law. That force of law was ineffective. What we are using is the force of power. However we use law as much as possible. We are using both force of law and force of power... 39
In the elections held on 27 May 1990, the NLD clearly won and SLORC very obviously lost. Out of a total of 485 seats, the NLD won 392 compared to 10 won by NUP and its allies. The NLD polled 60 per cent of the valid votes compared to 25 per cent for the SLORC-favoured NUP and its allies. 40
With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that while maintaining a public facade of neutrality, SLORC was, quite obviously, not pleased with the results and soon began to change its views on the transfer of power. According to the Deputy foreign Minister U Aung Kyaw, SLORC would transfer executive power to the constitutionally approved government, that it was up to the elected parliamentarians to decide what type of system, or administration they would pursue. Nonetheless, he maintained that the new parliament's role remained undetermined. There must be " some boundary, some rules" adding that SLORC would set them (emphasis added). 41 At a press conference on 1 June, the Information Committee of SLORC said that while elected representatives would draft the constitution, they could 'obtain valuable suggestions and views on a new constitution from the people including the indigenous national groups, before a new constitution comes into force'. 42 Not only was the exclusive right of the elected parliamentarians to draft a new constitution being questioned, but its ratification was now a pre-requisite to the transfer of power. That according to the Straits Times
quoting the chief of military intelligence, could take up to two years (emphasis added). 43 Aung San Suu Kyi, continued to be under house arrest.
By July 1990, SLORC had made its intentions clear. Announcement no. 1/90 issued on 27 July said that 'SLORC, the Defence Services, is not bound by any constitution. The SLORC is ruling the country with martial law', that the elected members of parliament would draft a new constitution which, subject to approval by SLORC would then be subject to a national referendum. 'Drafting of an interim constitution to obtain state power and to form a government is not acceptable in any way, and if it is done, effective action will be taken according to the law'. 44 In other words SLORC would retain legislative, administrative and judicial powers till a new constitution was adopted. This move was to pre-empt the meeting of NLD parliamentarians that was held on 27-29 July. The meeting adopted a five-point resolution and issued a statement, called the 'Gandhi Declaration' (after the hall in Rangoon in which the meeting was held), which asked that the legislature be convened by September. SLORC's response was to increase the military presence in Rangoon.
On 8 August 1990, the second anniversary of the demonstrations which had rocked the short-lived government of Gen. Sein Win, four demonstrators, including two monks, were killed by security forces in Mandalay. Six more leading members of NLD, including the acting chairman, U Kyi Maung and its acting secretary, U Chit Khaing were arrested.
On 27 August in protest at the shootings on 8 August, monks in Mandalay (the home of about 80 000 monks) refused to accept alms from army families or perform religious ceremonies for them. The boycott quickly gathered support and spread to Sagaing in the north and Rangoon to the south. This move clearly unsettled SLORC which initially was unwilling to counter what amounted to excommunication of the military with armed force. Finally, after having given the monks three days to end their boycott, on 21-22 October SLORC issued decrees banning 'illegal' monastic orders and ordered a series of raids on monasteries, accusing the monks of taking part in a plot by the outlawed Burma Communist Party (BCP) to overthrow the regime. 45 About 350 monks were arrested. On 31 October 1990, SLORC issued Law 20/90 which had a provision for the recognition of only one Sangha (monastic organisation) and that no new sects outside the nine named in the text of the law would be permitted. 46 There was also a crackdown on the leadership of the NLD and another 90 leading figures were arrested in October. At least 20 NLD MPs elect fled to the Thai border to join the estimated 3000 students already there.
If the Burmese population had any doubts about SLORC's commitment to democracy, the Thai military was quite confident of SLORC's intention of remaining in power. On 20 November 1990, the Bangkok Post reported that soon after the May elections officials of the Burmese junta had assured their visiting Thai counterparts that it intended to remain in power for at least another two years. This had been in response to concerns raised on behalf of Thai timber 'concessionaries' regarding their business, once a civilian government took over. One trader was even quoted as saying that the stability of the Burmese government was much stronger than the Chatchai government!
Opposition on the borders
Along the Sino-Burmese border, the Burma Communist Party (BCP) was the country's strongest rebel force which, by the early 1970s controlled an area of over 20000 sq km along the Chinese frontier. While the party leadership was predominantly Burman, the Wa people made up the bulk of the BCP forces, since the BCP operated largely in Wa territory. The BCP played no role in the events of 1988 but did advocate the formation of an interim government. In April-May 1989, the Wa people revolted against the BCP leadership leading to a collapse of the party. Over the next few months, SLORC managed to strike deals with the Wa National Army (WNA). A 'border development scheme' was launched by Rangoon with special funds being allocated for building roads, bridges, schools and hospitals in these previously neglected frontier areas. 47 The Wa soldiers, now called the United Wa State Party (UWSP) reportedly came under the control of the Burmese army. The change also affected the military balance in the region, allowing government troops to move away from this area and direct attacks against the Kachin and other rebels instead.
Besides the BCP there have existed several ethnic-based opposition groups. The main Karen organisation, the Karen National Union, and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have enclaves on the Thai border. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) leads the struggle in the Kachin state. The Shan state had the Shan United Army (SUA, later known as the Maung Tai Army, MTA).
In 1976, the main ethnic groups combined to form the National Democratic Front (NDF), which in November 1988 joined with the various Burman groups which had fled to the border to form the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB). 48 The DAB shares the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw on the Thai border with KNU leader, Gen. Bo Mya, as chairman and KIO leader Brang Seng as vice-chairman.
The most prominent Burman organisations in the DAB are the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma (CRDB) and the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF). The latter is made up predominantly of students who fled the suppression following the events of August-September 1988. They have received military training from the Karen and Mon. Significantly this was the first time that the ethnic and Burman opposition had united, giving credence to the DAB claim to be a truly national group representing all the peoples of Burma. In December 1990, eight MPs belonging to the NLD who had fled to the border founded the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB). The NCGUB claims the support of some 20 MPs and is led by Dr Sein Win, a cousin of Aung San Suu Kyi. The DAB decided to be in alliance with the NCGUB but not formally belong to it. In August 1992, the NCGUB, DAB, NLD (liberated area) and the National Democratic Front (NDF) signed an agreement in Manerplaw to join forces to topple the Burmese regime and to form a 'Federal Union of Burma'. They also agreed to the following measures after the overthrow of SLORC:
to convene a true national convention involving all indigenous nationalities and all political parties;
to draw up a true federal union constitution in accordance with the desires of indigenous nationalities and all peoples;
to follow principles that no nationality shall enjoy special privileges and to ensure no restrictions on basic rights of any nationality or minority; and
to build a federal union where all indigenous nationalities enjoy equality, rights of self-determination, democracy and basic human rights.
In so doing:
the Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Chin, Mon, Burman, Arakan and Shan peoples will have national states incorporated in the federal union;
the national states will assign certain powers to the federal union and the remaining powers will be exercised by the national states, including administration and judicial powers;
the federal union will consist of two houses;
in accordance with the principle of civilian supremacy over the military, the federal union and state armies will be put under the direct supervision of the elected governments; and
the constitution will be designed to prevent any re-emergence of chauvinism and fascist dictatorship. 49
Consequently, the DAB appears to have reached a degree of consensus on the future of Burma which had not been achieved before. In its view, the details of the future constitution would be open to further refinement in a constitutional assembly, once civil war ended.
SLORC's military offensives
Apart from crushing internal dissent, SLORC has also been relatively successful in its campaign against ethnic minorities. The collapse of the CPB in the north of the country enabled the regime to concentrate its forces elsewhere. Another factor that aided this process was that the regime came to terms with several minor guerilla groups including the Wa, who were allowed to retain their weapons and, in effect, function as semi-autonomous militias.
Further, SLORC signed a US$1.2 billion arms deal with China in 1990. Purchases included 12 F-6 and F-7 fighters, 60 medium tanks, 25 anti-aircraft guns, a number of 120 mm and 105 mm howitzers and six patrol boats -besides a number of shoulder-fired HTM-5A missiles. 50 Other suppliers of arms to the regime have included Singapore, Poland, Pakistan and recently, despite a European Community arms embargo, Portugal. The army has been expanded to counter both internal and external threats to the extent that its strength is now about 270 000 compared to about 185 000 in 1988, an increase of nearly 50 per cent. There are 23 military intelligence companies compared to about 17 in 1989 and as few as 10-12 before 1988. The new intelligence units cover border areas as well as the urban centres that were hard hit by demonstrations four years ago. 51
In addition, the extremely close relationship between the Burmese and Thai military has also proved beneficial to the Burmese army in its offensive against the Karen and Mon minorities. Between 1989 and 1991 the Thai army allowed Burmese soldiers to cross into Thai territory and attack the guerillas from the rear on several occasions. 52
During the period January -April 1992 the army launched an offensive code named 'Dragon King' against the KNU/DAB/NCGUB headquarters in Manerplaw with the intention of capturing it by 27 March, Armed Forces Day. The campaign failed to fulfil its objective and SLORC announced that it was suspending military operations 'not because it was facing a political or military crisis, but because it wanted national unity and amity and solidarity among the national people'. 53 What the regime did not say was that offensives are usually suspended during the wet season. Proof of this was evident in November 1992 when the Burmese army captured a key KNU camp (Mawpasu), a month after Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw had reassured the UN General Assembly that the regime had suspended all offensive operations. 54 It must be added that during these operations, it is not just the guerrillas who suffer. According to Amnesty International:
Hundreds of thousands of villagers in minority areas have been forcibly conscripted or seized by the military to work as porters carrying arms, ammunition and other supplies, or as unpaid labourers building roads and army camps or working on commercial projects such as prawn cultivation and bamboo cutting. Porters and labourers are frequently detained at their workplaces or at army camps, and are severely ill-treated, even killed. Many have died from exhaustion and neglect, others have been extrajudicially executed for disobeying orders or for trying to escape. 55
While fighting the ethnic minorities on the Thai border, SLORC was simultaneously carrying out an ethnic cleansing operation in the state of Arakan. The Arakan Muslims, known as Rohingyas, are descendants of Arab and Persian traders, and trace their ancestry back to the tenth century. Comprising some 30-40 per cent of the population of the state they are also linguistically different from the Buddhist Burman majority of Burma. Although they have been victims of persecution over the years, in late 1991 there was a substantial increase in the numbers of Rohingyas taken as porters, and the frequency with which they were taken. Others were just evicted from their houses and land. By mid-1992 there were believed to be upwards of 270 000 living in refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh. 56
For its part, SLORC has denied that the Rohingyas are a separate ethnic group and claim that they are illegal immigrants. In a remarkable explanation Foreign Minister U Ohn Gyaw, in a press release on 21 February 1992, stated that:
In fact, there are 135 national races residing in Myanmar today, the so-called Rohingya people are not among them. Historically, there has never been a Rohingya race in Myanmar. The very name Rohingya was a creation of a group of insurgents in the Rakhine State.
Since the first Anglo-Myanmar War in 1824, people of the Muslim faith from the adjacent country have entered Myanmar illegally, particularly Rakhine State. Being illegal immigrants, they do not hold any immigration papers like the other nationals of the country. With the passage of time, the number of people who entered Myanmar illegally has become greatly inflated. In the present case, people who dare not submit themselves to the routine scrutiny of national registration cards by immigration officials fled to the neighbouring country. It is not a unique experience, for such occurrences regularly took place in the past when immigration checks were carried out. It should be categorically stated that there is no persecution based on religious grounds. 57
On 28 April 1992, an agreement for the immediate repatriation was signed by the foreign ministers of Bangladesh and Burma. By 25 November 1992, a total of 1 156 refugees had been repatriated 58 amid fears that the disaster of 1978-79 would be repeated, when hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh to escape abuse, only to be starved back to Burma.
Against the trends: Burma in 1991
While monumentous changes took place elsewhere in the world; including the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and the final peace in the Cold War, the Burmese regime continued to consolidate its authoritarian rule, SLORC persisted in its refusal to facilitate a transition to civilian rule. Ignoring the results of the 1990 election, on 19 April 1991, the commander in chief of the army and deputy chairman of SLORC, Gen. Than Shwe categorically stated:
We have explained repeatedly that we do not lust for power. The reason we have not transferred the responsibilities of the country to the others is because it is not yet feasible to hand over them. At present, we cannot find any organisation that can govern the country in a peaceful and stable manner. For this very reason, Declaration no.1/90 was issued so that a strong constitution will come into being and the country will be governed in a peaceful and stable manner. We are also working in accordance with that declaration. 59
Pressure on the NLD continued unabated as it was forced to change its leadership under pressure. Three NLD MPs died while in prison. 60 Several other political parties were deregistered for allegedly collaborating with the banned BCP which had long ceased to exist.
On 6 August, an article written by a 'senior military official' appeared in the Burmese press which gave some idea as to the recent SLORC thinking regarding the constitution. As if by design, SLORC appeared to have discovered that there were 135 racial groups in Burma which were all of equal significance.
The fact that there are 135 racial groups in Myanmar makes it hard to argue in favour of a constitution based on the major racial groups ...
... While establishing unity at the regional level through the autonomy of racial groups, unity of all racial groups can be achieved by the head of state, the legislative assembly, and the supreme court. 61
Consequently, this was an attempt to put an end to the question of whether Burma should have a federal system, as the minorities want, or a military system as already existed. It was also meant to downplay any role that the elected members of Parliament might have in deciding any future constitution since the 135 minority groups would presumably have an equal say.
Also, the persecution of Aung San Suu Kyi assumed new dimensions. The Law for Safeguarding the State under which she had been held provided for detention without trial for a period up to three years. To meet 'new requirements', several weeks after the anniversary of her second year in detention, Gen. Saw Maung signed an amendment which extended the period to five years. Having earlier received the 1990 Thorolf Radio Human Rights award and the 1990 EC Human Rights prize, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize. On 11 December 1991, the day her family received the prize on her behalf in Oslo, there were student demonstrations in her support. The result was that 'to ensure the rule of law' all universities and technical colleges were closed. 62 The universities, closed in 1988, had only opened in May 1991 after parents signed guarantees that their offspring would not cause trouble.
Three days later, on 15 December, the Election Commission reported that the NDL Central Executive Committee, at its meeting on 11 December 1991, had 'passed a resolution removing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a member of the NLD'. The press release further went on to say 'that there is concrete evidence regarding Daw Suu Kyi's contacts with the insurgents' and that she was 'indirectly receiving support from an organisation from a foreign country'. 63 By late December, SLORC had made its attitude towards Aung San Suu Kyi quite clear. Maj. Gen. Khin Nyunt, -Secretary-1, SLORC in a speech said:
She can return to her family. If she returns peacefully, she will be allowed to do so. The SLORC government and the Armed forces, for the good of the country, race and religion, will never accept Daw Suu Kyi. 64
International response to the military crackdown in September 1988 was, with the exception of the ASEAN nations and China, one of universal condemnation. The two main aid donors, Japan and Germany suspended assistance as did Australia, UK and the USA. These steps had the cumulative effect of cutting off 90 per cent of Burma's foreign exchange. Subsequently there were some changes in the attitude of some countries. Japan recognised the new regime in February 1989, and, under pressure from Japanese business, announced a continuation of aid for projects which had already been sanctioned. It also gave debt relief grants in August 1990 and in March 1991 (as did France). No new multilateral assistance from the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank has been forthcoming. However, like Japan, the World Bank, while refraining from funding new projects, continued disbursements for projects sanctioned before 1988. This amounted to about US$37 million in 1991 besides another US$80 million provided as debt relief since 1988.
In March 1989, the United Nations Human Rights Commission approved a mildly-worded resolution encouraging the Burmese government to take steps to safeguard human rights. The European Community did likewise. In 1990, Sweden, supported by 20 Western democracies, tabled a resolution calling on the SLORC to halt human rights abuses and to honour the outcome of the May 1990 elections. Following opposition by China, Cuba, Singapore and Mexico, the resolution was withdrawn at the request of Japan for a year. The UN Third Committee's resolution of November 1991 was the first human rights resolution to receive unanimous endorsement. Expressing its concern at the 'grave human rights situation' the resolution stressed the need for an early improvement and urged the government 'to allow all citizens to participate freely in the political process in accordance with the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights'. A report by the special UN Commission of Human Rights representative, Dr Sadako Ogata, of her 1990 fact-finding trip was critical of the situation and her lack of access. Another UN team visiting Burma in October were again denied a visit to Aung San Suu Kyi.
ASEAN as a whole has been publicly uncritical of the SLORC. When requested by Australia, Canada and the United States to protest against Burma's abuses of political and human rights, ASEAN at its meeting in Kuala Lumpur in July 1991 preferred to pursue a policy of 'constructive engagement'. They did decide that the Philippines Foreign Minister, Raul Manglapus, would visit Rangoon to discuss the issue. The Burmese regime agreed to the visit only on the condition that he visit as Philippines foreign minister and not as the ASEAN representative. One of the main issues on which ASEAN has resisted Western pressure is that of aid conditionality, with the ASEAN countries arguing that linking aid to any country with its human rights record is an interference in the domestic affairs of that country. According to Raul Manglapus 'We have to be given the right to do it our way, not the American way, not the European way, but the Philippine and Asian Way'. 65
Nonetheless, in 1992, attitudes of individual countries, especially Malaysia and Indonesia changed after the massive influx of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. Both Malaysia and Indonesia condemned the treatment of Rohingyas and Singapore issued a statement saying the exodus was 'creating a potential area of instability for the region and human suffering', The 46-nation Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) condemned Burma for its 'campaign of repression and persecution against its Muslim community'. 66 Only China, the principle arms supplier to SLORC, has remained silent, citing its policy based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence which implies non-interference in the domestic affairs of any country. The close relations between the two countries was symbolised by the fact that the only overseas visit Gen. Saw Maung made as Chairman of SLORC was to China in August 1990.
More recently, in November 1992, the United Nations took the unprecedented step of releasing a preliminary report on human rights in Burma prepared by Professor Yozo Yokota, Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, detailing cases of torture, forced labour and arbitrary executions, mostly involving the Muslims in Arakan and the Karens in the east. Professor Yokota was scheduled to visit Burma from 7 to 15 December and hoped to meet detained political leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi who has been on hunger strike since 1 December. 67
Burma has not historically been in the front rank of Australia's foreign policy interests, although our relations prior to 1988 were friendly enough. Burma adhered to a moderate, non-aligned foreign policy and shared positions with Australia on issues such as Cambodia. Burma was also a major recipient of Australian overseas aid, and high level visits were exchanged at fairly regular intervals. 68
The above statement by Senator Gareth Evans summarises Australia-Burma relations prior to the events of 1988. After Japan and Germany, Australia was the third largest aid donor, providing about $12 million annually. 69 Two-way trade was about $40 million in 1990 and Burma ranked sixty-ninth among Australia's trading partners. No Australian aid has been provided to the SLORC regime and by 1992, two-way trade had declined to about $18.5 million and Burma now ranks eighty-first among Australia's trading partners. 70
Of all the countries in the region, Australia has been the most active proponent of human rights and political liberalisation in Burma. It has explored the possibility of trade and economic sanctions, albeit unsuccessfully because of lack of support from most countries, including the United States. Besides imposing embargoes on aid and the supply of defence related equipment, Australia, along with the European Community and the United States, has consistently urged the ASEAN nations to influence change in Burmese policies. China, the leading arms and aid supplier to Burma has also been asked to use its influence to press for meaningful change.
In the United Nations, Australia has supported resolutions critical of the Burmese regime in the General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights as part of its policy towards Burma. In October 1992, following assurances given to Senator Gareth Evans by the Burmese Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw that the regime was 'sincerely seeking ways of resolving the civil war in Burma', Australia indicated that it was prepared to act as the intermediary in preparatory talks between Rangoon and the DAB/NCGUB opposition. This offer was promptly rejected on the grounds that negotiations with the opposition were out of the question 'unless they come back within the law.' 71 Far from showing any willingness to enter into dialogue, the regime appears to have been affronted by what it considers to be interference. In a reference to Senator Evans, a writer in Rangoon's Working People's Daily commented:
I am down on him who loves to apply an ointment to an unswollen part. He does not seem to understand anything about the Burmese people, the Burmese army and the history of the Burmese independence struggle. 72
1992: A year of transition?
The year began with growing speculation about the health, both physical and mental, of SLORC Chairman Gen. Saw Maung. His speeches and behaviour have been increasingly erratic. For example, at a meeting with senior officials on 21 January 1992 he said:
Today the country is being governed by martial law. Martial law means no law at all. That is their saying. If you study Buddhist scripture there is such a thing as Divine law. 73
He further went on to add 'I always work with caution, perseverance, and wisdom. Wisdom does not mean black magic'. On 23 April 1992, Radio Burma announced that 'due to the effects of the state's enormous responsibilities' his health had deteriorated to a stage where he required a rest. 74 Consequently, he was retired and replaced by Gen. Than Shwe, the SLORC vice-chairman and commander-in-chief of the army.
Within days of Saw Maung's resignation, the regime initiated a series of seemingly liberal measures:
SLORC announced that all prisoners not deemed to be a threat to national security would be released, including U Nu, who had been under house arrest since December 1989. As a result hundreds of political prisoners have been released, though several thousand still remain in captivity;
Agreement was reached with Bangladesh on the repatriation of the Rohingya refugees. However Burma turned down the suggestion that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees supervise the repatriation. Consequently, only about 216 of a total of over 260 000 refugees have returned home;
Aung San Suu Kyi was granted a visit from her family although the regime refused to free her;
In April SLORC announced that it had suspended operations against the Karens in the name of 'national solidarity'. This however has not turned out to be a genuine gesture because, as noted earlier, the dry season offensive has resumed;
On 23 June SLORC held a coordination meeting for convening a national convention. A steering committee, comprising 15 members of the military, chaired by the Rangoon military commander and minister for religious affairs Myo Nyunt, was set up to select delegates. Seven political parties including the NLD were asked to send delegates to the meeting where they were asked to put forward their nominations on who should be invited to the national convention to draft the constitution. SLORC thus made it clear that its intention was to convene the national convention which would draft a new constitution, rather than to convene the elected National Assembly. Apart from MPs, the delegates to the convention would include representatives of political parties, ethnic minorities, workers, peasants, intellectuals, public servants and others;
On 24 August all universities, colleges and institutes were opened albeit under heavy surveillance by the secret police;
The same day Burma signed four protocols of the 1949 Geneva convention on protection of victims of armed conflict, but declined to sign the two additional protocols -on the protection of victims of international and non-international armed conflicts -saying it needed time;
On 11 September the 11pm to 4am curfew that had been in effect since September 1988 was lifted;
On 26 September two martial law decrees imposed in July 1989 were revoked. These related to summary trials by military tribunals and the granting of martial law powers to regional commanders;
On 28 September the Township Law and Order Councils (TLORCs) were reorganised and were now to be chaired by civilian administrators;
On 5 November it was announced that the national convention to draw up a new constitution would begin on 9 January 1993.
While these changes are quite significant in the Burmese context, it is not to suggest that the softer line adopted by Than Shwe represents a departure from the past policies of suppression. The protests of foreign governments and international organisations certainly played a part in the change of attitude. Than Shwe, like Saw Maung is a Ne Win loyalist. It is therefore unlikely that these changes were a consequence of his assuming power. On the other hand, western aid and trade and investment by its neighbours are critical for the survival of the Burmese economy. Of late, there has been increasing pressure for reform coming from countries which earlier preferred a quiet diplomacy to open criticism.
Malaysia has publicly asked Burma to draw up a program of action on how it intends to improve its human rights record. Malaysian Foreign Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is reported to have told his Burmese counterpart, Ohn Gyaw that the seemingly liberal concessions announced by the regime were insufficient. While it was not Malaysia's intention to interfere in Burma's domestic affairs, he urged the regime 'to do a little more' as ASEAN was concerned about the situation. 75 Earlier, Burma's request to attend the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Manila on 21-22 July had been opposed by Malaysia and Indonesia. The decision was quite obviously a sign that the association was no longer willing to be seen to condone the situation in Burma. At the post-ministerial conference Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, was critical of the 'insubstantial and incomplete' changes being implemented by SLORC and urged other countries to adopt Australia's proposed international arms embargo on Burma.
At an ASEAN Congress in October 1992, apart from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia also urged the Burmese government to restore democracy and called on the Thai government to take the lead in this context. Lately, Japan, which earlier had tended to stay silent on this issue, has also asked Burma to implement democracy and release Aung San Suu Kyi.
On the other hand, given the fact that Burma has traditionally followed an isolationist policy, both political and economic, international pressure has its limitations. China, Thailand, Singapore and Japan, Burma's major trading partners have pursued a policy that separates trade and investment issues from criticism of the Burmese regime. 76 Economic sanctions would not be very effective given the fact that western countries take only 8 per cent of Burma's exports. With friendly neighbours, the regime can afford to sit out criticism by selling off its natural resources to bring in foreign exchange.
While there has been some effect as a result of international criticism, the situation in Burma essentially remains unchanged. Thousands of political opponents remain in jail. The regime recently announced an 18 per cent increase in defence spending for 1992-93, taking the defence share of government spending to 35 per cent. 77 For a country that is an economic 'basket' case, this is a clear indication that the army is unlikely to give up power. This view is further substantiated by the fact that among the duties of the Commission for Holding the National Convention is to ensure 'participation of the Defence Services in the national politics of the state in the future'. 78 Significantly, a recent article in Working People's Daily, called for:
... the Tatmadaw to continue as a political force that perpetually protects the people's interests and prevents Myanmar politics from again going astray. That alone would ensure a peaceful future for Myanmar. 79
Consequently, it is certain that the new constitution will permanently enshrine the military a role in politics, possibly under the guise of civilian participation. This could possibly be along the lines of the Indonesian Parliament where a number of legislators are appointed by the President from among the armed forces. Nonetheless, the prognosis for the future of Burma does not appear to be bright. Despite the proposed national convention to be held in January 1993, the regime has not announced a time-table for the transfer of power. On the other hand, it has made it clear that it would rule until 'the appropriate time.' As mentioned earlier, despite the Australian offer to mediate, the regime is categorical in its refusal to talk to the opposition. Instead as a justification of its continued rule, SLORC raises the spectre of Burma becoming another Yugoslavia or Soviet Union. Hence, in the short to medium term, it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that, barring another 'coup' or a popular revolt, the current regime and its policies of repression are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
1 While the involvement of the Burmese regime in the drug trade is well documented (see, for example, various articles by Bertil Lintner in the Far Eastern Economic Review) this paper, in the interest of brevity, does not discuss the issue. Nor does it deal with the problems of environmental degradation arising from logging operations along the Sino-Burmese and the Thai-Burmese borders; an issue that seems to have escaped the attention of environmental movements worldwide.
2 The word 'Burmese' refers to the residents of the country and the language rather than any particular ethnic group.
3 The total Burmese population was estimated at 40.8 million in 1991. In 1986, the Burmans constituted about 68 per cent of Burma's total population, Karens and Kayahs 11 per cent, Shans 9 per cent, Chins 3 per cent and Kachins 2 per cent. People of South Asian origin made up another 2 per cent of the population, and the Chinese 3 per cent; a small number of Europeans were included among the remaining 2 per cent. See Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations: Asia and Oceania. Worldmark Press, New York, 1984: 44.
4 The only other constitution in the world that has a similar clause was that of the Soviet Union in 1936. Presumably, the right for secession was included to facilitate amalgamation of their areas into the Union, and, as was the case with the Soviet Union, a right not expected to be exercised.
5 David I. Steinberg. The Future of Burma: Crisis and Choice in Myanmar, New York, University Press of America, 1990: 22.
6 David I. Steinberg. The Future of Burma: Crisis and Choice in Myanmar, New York, University Press of America, 1990: 22.
7 'Burma Watcher', 'Burma in 1988: There came a Whirlwind'. Asian Survey Vol. xxix, no 2, February 1989: 175. For a detailed account of the events of 1988 see, Bertil Lintner. 'Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy'. Hong Kong: Review Publishing Company, 1989.
8 Bertil Lintner. Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy. Hong Kong: Review Publishing Company, 1989: 82-83.
9 Bertil Lintner. Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy. Hong Kong: Review Publishing Company, 1989: 83-83.
10 The date 8.8.88 was of great symbolic significance to many Burmese, "four eights" was the equivalent of the year 888 in the Burmese era, the date of the fall of the Ava dynasty (1527 AD). Refer David I. Steinberg. The Future of Burma: Crisis and Choice in Myanmar. New York: University Press of America, 1990: 29.
11 David I. Steinberg. The Future of Burma: Crisis and Choice in Myanmar. New York: University Press of America, 1990: 22.
12 This was an organisation set up in Rangoon on 28 August 1988 and claimed a membership of about 50 000.
13 For a detailed account of the events of August-September 1988, see Martin Smith. Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London: Zed Books, London, 1991: 1-26.
14 Amnesty International. Burma: The 18 September 1988 Military Takeover and its Aftermath. London, December 1988: 2-8.
15 ibid: 9,11.
16 Amnesty International. Burma: The 18 September 1988 Military Takeover and its Aftermath. London, December 1988: 2-8.
17 U.S. Committee for Refugees. 'We Asked for Democracy and got only Bullets': Students and Minorities on the Thai-Burma Border. Washington DC, 31 August 1989: 1-2.
17 Amnesty International. Burma: The 18 September 1988 Military Takeover and its Aftermath. London, December 1988: 12.
19 Amnesty International. Burma: The 18 September 1988 Military Takeover and its Aftermath. London, December 1988: 3-6.
20 Amnesty International. Myanmar (Burma): New Martial Law Provisions Allowing Summary or Arbitrary Executions and Recent Death Sentences Imposed Under These Provisions. London, August 1989: 4-6, 10.
21 James F. Guyot and John Badgley. 'Myanmar in 1989: Tatmadaw V'. Asian Survey, vol. xxx, no.2, February 1990: 188.
22 Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). Country Report: Thailand, Burma no. 1. London, 1989: 30.
23 EIU. Country Report: Thailand, Burma, no. 2. London, 1989: 30.
24 EIU. Country Report: Thailand, Burma, No. 3. London, 1989: 28.
25 Refer James F. Guyot and John Badgley. 'Myanmar in 1989: Tatmadaw V.' Asian Survey, vol. xxx, no.2, February 1990: 39.
26 David I. Steinberg. The Future of Burma: Crisis and Choice in Myanmar. New York: University Press of America, 1990: 39.
27 EIU. Country Report: Thailand, Burma, No.1. London, 1989: 31.
28 EIU. Country Report: Thailand, Burma, No.3. London, 1989: 29.
29 EIU. Country Report: Thailand, Burma, No.4. London, 1989: 27.
30 The regime was partly successful in its effort; Japan recognised Saw Maung's government and, under pressure from Japanese business, lifted the freeze on disbursements of aid for projects already sanctioned.
31 This is because in the early days the government also gave each party telephone connections, and a ration of petrol at the official rate, and paper, all items in short supply. See Bertil Lintner. Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy. Hong Kong: Review Publishing Company, 1989: 217-218.
32 EIU. Country Report: Thailand, Burma, No. 1. London, 1990: 25.
33 Agence France-Presse. 16 January 1990.
34 Radio Burma. Daily Report, East Asia. Washington, DC: Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), 19 January 1990.
35 EIU. Country Report: Thailand, Burma, No. 3. London, 1989: 24.
36 Nation, 2 February 1990. NLD chose the peasant's hat as its party symbol to indicate that it protects the people not only from the elements but also from oppressive rulers. The students overcame the badge restriction by wearing one kyat currency notes which pictured Gen. Aung San.
37 Text of order no. 3/90 on 23 February 1990. Radio Burma. Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 26 February 1990.
38 Radio Burma, 28 February 1990. in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 1 March 1990.
39 Radio Burma, 9 May 1990, in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 14 May 1990.
40 For an analysis, see James F. Guyot. 'Myanmar in 1990: The Unconsummated Election.' Asian Survey, vol. xxxi, no. 2, February 1991: 209-210.
41 Bangkok Post, 29 May 1990.
42 Radio Burma, 1 June 1990, in Daily Report: East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 4 June 1990.
43 Straits Times, 30 May 1990.
44 Radio Burma, 27 July 1990, in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 30 July 1990.
45 Agence France-Presse, 22 October 1990.
46 Rangoon Domestic Service, 31 October 1990, in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 1 November 1990.
47 For an account of the breakup of the BCP, see Bertil Lintner. 'The Internationalisation of Burma's Ethnic Conflict,' in K.M. de Silva and R.J. May, ed. Internationalisation of Ethnic Conflict. London: Pinter Publishers, 1991: 187-199.
48 The DAB's members include: the All Burma Moslem Union (ABMU), All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), All Burma Young Monks Union (ABYMU), Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), China National Front (CNF), German Burma Association (GBA), Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), Karen National Union (KNU), Lahu National Organisation (LNO), Overseas Burma Liberation Front (OBLF), Overseas Karen Organisation (OKO), People's Liberation Front (PLF), People's Patriotic Party (PPP), Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), and the Wa National Organisation. In May 1992 four Muslim organisations from Arakan also joined the DAB. These were: the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF), Ittedhadul Mujaiddial (IM), Rohingya Islamic Liberation Organisation (RILO) and Rohingya Jammatul Ulama (RLU). See John Bray, 'Ethnic Minorities and the Future of Burma', World Today, August/September 1992: 147.
49 Bangkok Post, 7 August 1992.
50 Nation, 27 November 1990.
51 Jane's Defence Weekly, 13 June 1992.
52 Bertil Lintner. 'The Internationalisation of Burma's Ethnic Conflict,' in K.M. de Silva and R.J. May, eds. Internationalisation of Ethnic Conflict. London: Pinter Publishers, 1991: 185-186.
53 Radio Burma, 23 June 1992, in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 24 June 1992.
54 Agence France-Presse. 1 November 1992.
55 Amnesty International. Myanmar. 'No Law at all' Human Rights violations under military rule. London, October 1992: 17.
56 Amnesty International. Union of Myanmar (Burma); Human rights violations against Muslims in the Rakhine (Arakan) State. London, May 1992.
57 Radio Burma. Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 24 February 1992.
58 Agence France-Presse, 25 November 1992.
59 Burma Television, 20 April 1991, in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 22 April 1991.
60 EIU. Country Report: Thailand, Burma, No. 2. London, 1991: 29.
61 Loktha Pyeithu Nezin, 6 August 1991, in Daily Report, East Asia.Washington DC: FBIS, 7 August 1991.
62 Radio Burma, 11 December 1991, in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 12 December 1991.
63 Radio Burma, 15 December 1991, in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 16 December 1991.
64 Burma Television, 24 December 1991, in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 26 December 1991.
65 EIU. Country Report: Thailand, Burma, No. 1. London, 1992: 32.
66 EIU. Country Report: Thailand, Burma, No. 2. London, 1992: 37-38.
67 Sydney Morning Herald, 2 December 1992.
68 Opening address by Senator the Hon. Gareth Evans QC, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, to the International Seminar on Burma, Griffith University, Brisbane, 3 December 1992: 7.
69 Traditionally the largest donor has been Japan which, for example, in 1988, contributed 78 per cent of the Official Development Assistance (ODA) received by Burma. The same year Burma ranked seventh in the top ten of Japan's ODA recipients.
70 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Composition of Trade: Australia 1991-92: October 1992
71 Agence France-Presse. 18 October 1992.
72 The Situation in Burma and Australia's Response. Speech by Senator Gareth Evans: 1.
73 Burma Television, 21 January 1992, in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 23 January 1992.
74 Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 24 April 1992.
75 Bernama News Agency, 22 October 1992, in Summary of World Broadcasts. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC): Reading, 23 October 1992.
76 Interesting enough, since the enactment of the Foreign Investment Law in 1988, US companies have topped the list with investments amounting to US$163.7 million followed by Japan ($100.7 million), Netherlands ($80 million) and Thailand ($38.7 million). Bangkok Post, 19 September 1992.
77 EIU. Country Report: Thailand, Burma, No. 2. London, 1992: 38.
78 Radio Burma, 2 October 1992, in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 5 October 1992.
79 9 October 1992, in Daily Report, East Asia. Washington DC: FBIS, 20 October 1992.
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Published by the Department of the Parliamentary Library, 1992