Peace Magazine: What Happened in Burma

Peace Magazine

What Happened in Burma

• published Jul 01, 2022 • last edit Jul 21, 2022

During the closing years of the Second World War, Burma’s struggle for independence from the British and Japanese was led by General Aung San, his Thirty Comrades, and the Burmese Army.

In June 1942, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Burma from Singapore, with help from the Burmese Independence Army — a force made up of nationalists led by 30 officers who had been trained and equipped in Japan. The most prominent of the leaders, Aung San and Ne Win, dominated the nation’s political landscape over the next few years.
As a consequence of the Japanese invasion, over half a million Burmese, Anglo-Burmese, and Indian citizens living and working in Burma, fled on foot through dense jungles on their way to India; many perished en route. But by May 1945, the occupation was over and the British colonials returned to Burma. However, political instability increased as the struggle for independence continued.

On July 19, 1947, during one of several demonstrations in Rangoon, General Aung San was assassinated, along with his elder brother and six cabinet ministers. The Union of Burma eventually achieved independence in January 1948, but Prime Minister U Nu was unable to maintain cohesion in the country. In fact a protracted civil war ensued as political and ethnic insurgencies took up arms against each other, threatening the stability of the decolonized state.

The government adopted a massive military response. After ten years of civil war U Nu handed over his administration to the Burmese Armed Forces, who had been leading the counterinsurgency campaigns. Over the next few years, General Ne Win collaborated with his officers to form a caretaker government and staged a coup d’état in March 1962, establishing a socialist regime that lasted for almost three decades.

In February 1978 the Burmese Army launched an operation targeting thousands of Muslim civilians (Rohingyas) — reportedly illegal immigrants — in Arakan state, near Bangladesh. General Ne Win stepped down to retire in 1988, handing over leadership to Brigadier General Sein Lwin; a move deeply resented by civilians for the brigadier-general’s brutal attacks on student demonstrators and ethnic minorities.

Shortly thereafter, another coup was staged by officers led by General Saw Maung, who formed SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council); the new junta only intensified the repression of dissidents. Ethnic insurgencies revived their armed struggles and counterinsurgency measures by the army lad to scores of destroyed villages and loss of lives.

Meanwhile Aung San Suu Kyi, Secretary-General of the National League for Democracy (NLD) — the new opposition party — was put under house arrest. “Free & Fair Elections” were announced by SLORC in May 1990, which NLD won by a landslide. However, the junta refused to hand over power to the newly elected MPs.

In February 2001 full-scale riots led by Burmese Buddhists and Arakanese mobs once again attacked Muslim communities in Akyab, while army, police and fire-fighters did nothing to intervene.

On May 6th, 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi was released, only to be re-arrested three weeks later while she was holding talks and meetings with party members near Mandalay. The NLD convoy was attacked by an armed group of pro-army civilians and over fifty people were killed.

The army chain of command kept grabbing power, ignoring Aung San Suu Kyi’s challenge against the 2008 Constitution, which granted absolute power to the army. Their arbitrary demands included 25 percent of parliamentary seats for serving army officers, who would not be required to contest general elections. Another demand: Home, Defence, and Border Control ministries were to be headed by army personnel.

The decades-long conflicts in ethnic minority areas dating back to Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948 show no sign of ending, largely driven by the army’s brutal destruction of ethnic minority villages and indiscriminate killing and torture of civilians. Countless young people from the cities of central Myanmar have joined the People’s Defense Forces and sought training with ethnic armed groups on Myanmar’s periphery, such as the Karen National Liberation Army. However, several of the largest armed ethnic organizations, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), remain firmly on the sidelines of this conflict.

The UWSA, by far the most powerful ethnic armed organization, controls an autonomous region within Myanmar’s northeastern Shan State, where their involvement in transnational drug syndicates and a standing army of approximately 20,000 soldiers have given them a measure of independence from central authorities that no other ethnic minority in Myanmar enjoys. They are also rumored to enjoy significant material and political support from Beijing, which has simultaneously extended a cautious embrace of the junta.

On the one hand, Beijing withheld criticism of the coup, which they referred to as a “major cabinet reshuffle.” On the other hand, Chinese officials reportedly pressured the new military junta in Naypyidaw not to dissolve Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party — the National League for Democracy — as Beijing had invested substantial energy and resources in Suu Kyi’s NLD, signing deals on infrastructure investment and bilateral cooperation.

Over the years, Beijing has sold arms to both the Myanmar military as well as numerous ethnic armed groups across China’s border, primarily through the UWSA. To quote veteran journalist and Myanmar watcher, Bertil Lintner, “Those arms transfers are “almost certainly directed from the highest level in Beijing.”

Scratching beneath the surface, he sums up Beijing’s double game in Myanmar: “China’s interest in talks between Burma’s government, its military, and the country’s many ethnic armed groups, is not motivated by a desire to find a final solution to decades of civil war. China does not seek peace, it wants stability which it can use to its geostrategic advantage.”

Beijing withheld criticism of the coup, which they referred to as a “major cabinet reshuffle.”

Myanmar offers China vital overland access to the Indian Ocean, thereby avoiding the circuitous route through the Malacca Straits. Myanmar’s military usually marks Armed Forces Day with an elaborate parade, as commander-in-chief General Min Aung Hlaing inspects his troops. Last year, as the generals celebrated the occasion, security forces across the country launched lethal attacks against protesters opposed to the February coup, killing some 160 civilians in a single day.

But the military has not let its international isolation dampen their mood. It appears that Russia — a fellow outcast after its February invasion of Ukraine — will always be an honoured guest at their Armed Forces’ Parade. Russia has a close and very important relationship with Myanmar, being a steady supplier of weapons. Junta members have travelled to Moscow to see the weapons firsthand and meet with military officials and arms dealers.

China’s presence in the Indian Ocean has increased dramatically in the past decade, along with its economic and military rise. While it barely had a footprint there in the late 2000s, today an average of eight to ten naval ships, submarines, and research vessels are operating annually, close to the Andaman-Nicobar Islands, causing India serious concerns.

Subir Guin is an editor of Peace.

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.38, No.3: Jul-Sep 2022
Archival link: http://www.peacemagazine.org/archive/v38n3p10.htm
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