All the Burmese who are exiled to various countries around the world have been anticipating genuine political climate changes back at home—a time when they could visit their homeland, relatives, and loved ones without fear or military surveillance. Lately there is new hope for that change. Here I’ll review Burma’s past and possible future.
Burma obtained independence from Britain on January 4, 1948. General Aung San, who led the struggle for Burma’s independence, had been assassinated on July 19, 1947. Beforehand, he and some ethnic leaders had signed an agreement in Panglong, a town in Shan State, to establish a genuine federal regime in independent Burma.
After independence, Burma did take a few steps toward democracy for almost a decade. This was ended by a military coup d’état led by General Ne Win in 1962, and the “Panglong agreement” has never been recognized since, so several ethnic tribes began an armed struggle. Since then the Burmese military regimes have changed their administrative titles many times, with names such as the Burma Revolutionary Council, Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and most recently The Government of the Union of Myanmar (Burma officially became Myanmar in 1989).
General Ne Win was one of the “Thirty Comrades,” a group that General Aung San formed in the early ’40s before the Japanese invasion of southeast Asia. They secretly went to Japan’s Hinan Island to study military strategies before coming back with Japanese troops and expelling British troops from Burma.
Ne Win ruled the country with an iron fist for 26 years. He formed two main ruling structures: the Burma Socialist Program Party and the State Council. The BSPP was the sole political party allowed to exist legally in Burma during Ne Win’s military dictatorship. He was also able to strengthen the Military Intelligence group (MI) to secure the Burmese Army’s power. Several MI agents had been deployed undercover in every administrative structure across the country. The MI was favored by the regime and monitored everyone; as a result, no one in Burma could trust others.
Ne Win’s BSPP party was eliminated after a popular nationwide uprising took place on August 8, 1988. After he stepped down from power he appointed General Sein Lwin from the State Council to rule as president. The momentum of the uprising allowed Sein Lwin’s presidency to last only 17 days. Then Dr. Maung Maung from the State Council took power temporarily until the second military coup led by senior army general Saw Maung, which took place on September 18, 1988. The coup leaders declared themselves as State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).
Despite the military’s iron rule, during the past half-century there have been several peaceful demonstrations in the country, led by students, monks, and workers, demanding democratic reform and a genuine federal union. Instead of listening to the people’s demands, the regimes always utilized military strategies with the support of MI, brutally cracking down on demonstrators and incarcerating innocent people for long jail terms.
Gradually the country has indeed undergone numerous changes. Originally Asia’s richest rice country, Burma has become its least developed country, with billions in foreign debt. Timber, gems, natural gas, and other natural resources have been depleted by foreign investors.
A mass exodus from the country has increased, especially after the second military coup. The government is still carrying out major military offensives in many territories that are controlled by various armed ethnic groups. Well-documented evidence comes up regularly proving such human rights violations as rape as a weapon, forced labor, forced relocations, the use of human beings as mine shields, extra-judicial killings, torture, and the use of chemical weapons in a civil war against armed ethnic groups.
Thousands of peaceful student demonstrators from the 1988 uprising fled from the regime’s crackdown into opposition-controlled areas. They changed from being peaceful students to freedom fighters, forming the All Burma Students Democratic Front, as a student army.
Meanwhile, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the only daughter of independence hero General Aung San, came back from England to visit her dying mother Daw Khin Kyi. She established her political role by taking part in mass demonstrations, and formed a political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) on September 1988 in preparation the general election which had been called for May 27, 1990. At the same time the SLORC regime formed the National Unity Party (NUP), a pro-military junta party whose members are mostly former BSPP members.
Before the election the SLORC’s General Saw Maung had pledged to hold a free and fair general election for the country and to go back to their army barracks after handing over power to the party that won. The NLD won a landslide victory over the NUP. Then the regime changed its mind and has never accepted the results of the 1990 election. Since then, the military junta has oppressed the NLD and its members, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, by subjecting them to arbitrary detentions and bizarre restrictions to weaken them systematically.
Many NLD members have been forced to resign. Some members, as well as some elected MPs, had to flee to the border areas where the ethnic Karen armed struggle continued. There in late 1990 they founded the Burmese exile government-the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB)—in Manerplaw, the headquarters of the Karen National Union (KNU). The KNU has been fighting for Karen autonomy from Burmese regimes since 1949. On the other hand, the junta founded an association, called the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), and manipulated it until 2010.
A few years later General Saw Maung was removed from his post by another senior general, Than Shwe, who became the chief of Burmese Army (known in Burmese as the Tatmadaw). After Saw Maung’s removal the junta, as well as NUP members, tried to orchestrate the so-called National Convention in 1993, which lasted for 14 years and ended in 2007. Then General Than Shwe changed the regime’s name from SLORC to “State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)” on November 15, 1997. In August 2003, General Khin Nyunt, who was a secretary of the SLORC/SPDC and also the chief of MI, drafted a document called “Seven Steps Roadmap to Democracy” and submitted it to the sham National Convention.
Some ethnic armed struggle groups—the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO) and the Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF), the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the opium warlord Khun Sa and his troops, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) which split from the Burma Communist party in the early 1990s, and a number of other small ethnic armed struggle groups—started reaching ceasefire agreements with the regime in 1994 because of the efforts of General Khin Nyunt. At the beginning of 1995, some of the KNU fighters, who are mostly Buddhist, split from the Christian-dominated KNU, reached agreements with the SPDC, and formed the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). Then under the guidance of DKBA the SPDC troops were able to occupy many KNU strongholds, including its headquarters Manerplaw. All members of the government in exile had to go into exile in various countries.
The military offensive forced thousands of villagers from war zones to flee into neighboring countries, especially into large refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Inside Burma, student leaders of the 1988 uprising, plus other human rights activists, Buddhist monks, lawyers, journalists, comedians, and artists, were detained repeatedly for violating laws that were being changed unpredictably all the time.
In July 2005, Than Shwe and the other generals dismissed General Khin Nyunt—who had invited Karen leader General Saw Bo Mya to Rangoon for peace negotiations—from his post and arrested him, along with several military intelligence officers, allegedly for corruption. They were all given long jail sentences.
The regime drew up a new constitution in 2008, based on the now-imprisoned General Khin Nyunt’s “Seven Steps” roadmap. Simultaneously, they undermined the NLD Party, gradually becoming confident that it offered no significant opposition against them in the upcoming election.
In 2008 Cyclone Nargis struck Burma’s delta region, including parts of Rangoon and vicinity, claiming more than 100,000 lives. The US government offered relief aid to the Burmese generals and prepared a navy vessel to deliver it to the affected region, but their proposal was refused. Many humanitarian groups inside the country contributed in helping those affected, such as setting up temporary shelters for them, sharing drinking water, burying the corpses, and delivering food and other supplies. After serving the people, many of them were arrested by the regime for no apparent reason. While cyclone-affected people were struggling for survival, the SPDC generals went to meet them and pushed them to support their referendum to establish a new constitution, which had been written just before the cyclone. People had to support it in hope of receiving relief aid.
After that, two of the high-ranking military officers defected, seeking asylum in the United States, as well as a vice-chief of staff from the Myanmar embassy in Washington D.C. One of the defecting army officers brought along secret evidence that Burma had been constructing tunnels for nuclear weapons production while people are suffering from poverty in the country.
In 2009 the regime ordered members of those armed groups which had signed ceasefire agreements to join the Border Guard Force (BGF). Some ceasefire groups agreed, but others refused and resumed their armed struggle, both before and after the elections of November 2010. Some of the DKBA troops broke the ceasefire agreement and civil war had flared up again in Karen State by the time of election, though a year later another ceasefire agreement was reached with the new government. The regime swiftly declared that the USDP had won a landslide victory, although many observers pointed out that the election was fraudulent.
The regime formed a new government that allocates 25 percent of the parliamentary seats to military personnel. It is called the Government of the Union of Myanmar and the president is the former General Thein Sein. There are two vice-presidents; one is a former general, Thi Ha Thu Ra Tin Aung Myint Oo. (His name is so long that in the army community, he is just called “Eight Words.”) The other vice-president is from the Shan ethnic minority, Dr. Sai Mauk Kam.
When President Thein Sein was sworn in, he declared that he will run a “clean” government. The 1992 Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest immediately after the election. She and her younger son made a pilgrimage to upper Burma and another trip to Pago to see her supporters. In both trips she was assisted by some of the local authorities for her safety. (In 2003 she had been assaulted by paramilitary thugs and narrowly escaped death while traveling with her party members in upper Burma.) Furthermore, President Thein Sein declared a moratorium on a joint Chinese-Burmese dam construction mega-project upstream in the Irrawaddy River. This declaration was highly appreciated and welcome by activists inside the country and around the world. Some optimists even assumed that was an opening to change in the country.
But on the other hand the government sent more troops to Kachin and Shan States to defend their multi-hydropower sites, which are being developed with Chinese construction companies. Also, the government identified as an insurgent group the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its military wing the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) which had accepted a ceasefire agreement since 1994. Therefore, another civil war broke out in both Kachin and Shan States in June 2011; there the government troops are still practicing their old techniques: burning down villages, raping women, torturing innocent villagers, and shelling the Kachin and Shan areas with chemical weapons.
The US government has sent a high-ranking diplomat and a high-ranking army officer to meet with President Thein Sein and Burma’s chief of army commander, General Min Aung Hlaing, whom General Than Shwe appointed as his successor when he retired. (However, many people still believe that General Than Shwe is still the mastermind behind the curtain.)
After that, the government released more than 2,000 prisoners from jails that supposedly included only about 200 political prisoners-despite President Thein Sein’s insistence that “we do not have any political prisoners in the country.” Allegedly there are still about 2000 political prisoners remaining in jails. On November 14, 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi celebrated the anniversary of her release. Four days later she and her NLD party members met and announced that they will re-register the party and join the upcoming by-elections to fill 48 vacant seats.
Many people still anticipate that the best change will take place soon after the by-elections if the NLD does well, though others have a negative opinion of the announcement. President Thein Sein went to ASEAN summit and was promised ASEAN chairmanship for 2014. He had discussions with US President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Some people hope for President Thein Sein to comply with all international demands, such as releasing all political prisoners and declaring a country-wide ceasefire with ethnic armed struggle groups before he takes his seat as ASEAN chair. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited Burma, where she held discussions with the government, parliamentary members, ethnic leaders and NLD members, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Since her visit there seems to be an opening of freedom: People can organize protests and assemble for discussions-though in other ethnic areas land is being confiscated by the Burmese Army and forced labor, killing, torture, and intensive military offensives are still going on.
Now we are watching to see how much the situations improve. It is still too early to conclude that Burma has begun a genuine change toward democracy.
Ler Wah Lo Bo is a member of the Karen community who formerly lived in Burma but now in Toronto.