Burma: The Racket in Rangoon

Peace? Most Burmese would only smile sadly if asked about the prospects for peace. The six ethnically different founding nations of the country have been at war with each other for over 40 years now, and the fighting has intensified since 1988. Yet at the end of May 1990, even the most hardened cynic dared to hope briefly that peace would be given a chance. Why?

By Harn Yawnghwe | 1991-01-01 12:00:00

In the 19th century, the British Empire expanded east from India and came to a land inhabited by people of diverse cultures. Some, like the Mons and the Arakanes, were ruled by the Burman king of Ava. Others (e.g. the Shans and the Karennis) had their own feudal states. Still others (e.g. the Kachins and the Karens) were nomadic.

The Kingdom of Ava, where the Arakanes, Burmans, Karens and Mons lived, was annexed to India. The British were then reluctant to press further east but feared the French expansion westward from Indochina. Therefore, a buffer zone for British Burma was created by bringing the Chins, Kachins, Shans and Karennis under British "protection" but leaving them to manage their own affairs with little interference.


Burman nationalism grew and culminated with the Burmans helping the Japanese invade British Burma in the Second World War. The Karens, Chins and the Kachins, however remained loyal to the British and fought the Japanese and Burmans behind enemy lines. The Burmans finally switched sides and won a promise of independence from the British for their co-operation. The Burmans led by General Aung San also managed to secure the agreement of the Chins, the Kachins and the Shans to form a federal union. But in their hurry to leave, the British added the Karennis and the Karens to the new republic and gave independence to a centralized, Burman-dominated Union of Burma.

After independence in 1948, various Burman political parties decided to seize power and civil war broke out. The Karens and the Karennis also decided against being ruled by the Burmans and took up arms to defend their homeland. General Aung San, who might have been able to hold the country together, was assassinated in 1947 and did not live to see independence.

General Ne Win

General Ne Win became more prominent as the Burma Army expanded. By 1958, Ne Win was seen as a "savior" by the majority of Burmans and when Prime Minister U Nu's ruling party split into two factions, he called on Ne Win to head a temporary "caretaker" government to restore order.

U Nu won a landslide victory in the 1960 general elections. But Ne Win had tasted absolute power and in 1962 he seized power. The Shans, Kachins, and Chins resisted the Burman military and joined the armed struggle. Later, U Nu himself escaped to Thailand and headed another resistance army. The picture became even more complex when China decided to provide arms to the underground Burma Communist Party and its allies. Well-armed drug smugglers and black marketers also contributed to make the already confused civil war even more chaotic.

Ironically, the international community had tacitly welcomed Ne Win's coup. Here was a "modern" leader who would end the internal fighting and give Burma the stability it needed to develop economically. His early heavy-handed suppression of dissent, including the 1962 student massacre, was all but ignored by the media.

Ne Win's one-man rule was also a failure economically. His xenophobic "Burmese Way to Socialism" placed all economic factors under state control. "Foreign" businesses, even those owned by ethnic Chinese and Indians, were nationalized and their owners expelled. As the economy declined, poverty, rampant official corruption and the black market became a way of life. By 1987 Burma, which used to be one of Asia's most prosperous nations, was designated one of the world's "Least Developed Countries" by the United Nations.

1988 and the Democracy Movement

Plagued by 28 years of senseless poverty, the Burmese people finally exploded in 1988. Students, Buddhist monks, and workers took to the streets demanding multi-party democracy. A general strike was declared nationwide and even civil servants, the police, and units of the air force and navy joined the protests. Shocked by the extent and depth of the discontent, Ne Win called in the army, now led by General Saw Maung, to restore control. Troops in full combat gear attacked protest centres, reportedly shooting and killing as many as 10,000 people.

The international community this time condemned the killings and called for reforms. Eager to justify their actions, the ruling military State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) promised to hold general elections and hand over power. They allowed political parties to be formed but restricted their activities to ensure that the military-backed National Unity Party (NUP) would win the elections.

Unfortunately for Ne Win, the daughter of General Aung San, the Burmese independence hero, appeared on the scene. Aung San Suu Kyi had returned to Burma in April 1988 to care for her ailing mother and was soon caught up in the pro-democracy movement. Building on her father's reputation for honesty, she rallied the fragmented opposition-the National League for Democracy (NLD). Scared of her potential, SLORC put her under house arrest and banned her from contesting the elections.

The May 27, 1990 Elections

Again misjudging the extent of their control and the mood of the people, SLORC yielded to international pressure and allowed the foreign media to observe the elections. Given a chance to vote as they pleased, the people gave the NLD 396 seats out of the 485 seats available. The NUP won only 10 seats. Although forced into submission by guns and bullied by SLORC into a rigged election, the people showed that they were still defiant and wanted the military out.

Ne Win has inadvertently managed to unite the Burmese people as never before. Over 100 political parties and 83 independents had contested the elections, and it had been feared that the opposition would never be able to unite effectively to overthrow the military in a democratic manner.

The Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) representing 21 resistance armies including the Arakanese, Burman, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan armies, the All Burma Students Democratic Front, and exiled Buddhist monks, also hailed the NLD victory. Both the DAB and NLD have endorsed the concept of a new federal structure for Burma. So, for the first time in 42 years, it seemed that the Burmese were in agreement and that peace might finally come to the war-weary people.

But Ne Win was not ready to fade away. SLORC first said the NLD must not negotiate with the DAB. Then, finally, it said that the election results were void.

Will There Be Peace In Burma?

According to SLORC, yes. With the help of foreign investors, it aims to build up its financial resources, upgrade the military's hardware, and wipe out all opposition. SLORC will enforce law and order as defined by itself and force the Burmese people into submission.

But Ne Win has tried to do exactly that since 1962-without success. More powerful arms will only kill more people and entrench the opposition more deeply. Pol Pot wiped out half the population of Cambodia to stem dissent. He did not succeed either. How many million Burmese is SLORC prepared to kill? Five, ten, twenty million?

In the immediate future, then, peace in Burma is not likely. The main obstacles are Ne Win and SLORC. Ne Win will be 80 in 1991. The field commanders who are currently supporting SLORC's policies, therefore, need to re-examine their stand. They are the ones doing the actual fighting and ordering the hapless porters and young recruits to their deaths. Are their actions benefiting the people of Burma? Or are they being manipulated to make sacrifices so that the leadership in Rangoon can continue to enjoy its privileges?

If the field commanders withdraw their support for SLORC, hand over power to the NLD, and allow the DAB to participate in drawing up a new constitution, peace could eventually be achieved. Otherwise, the short-term prospects for peace are dim.

The democratic opposition to the military is growing and becoming more co-ordinated. It has launched a publicity offensive against foreign investment in Burma in order to cut off the military's lifeline. It has also launched a diplomatic offensive to challenge the Myanmar regime's right to Burma's seat in the United Nations. In time, given the continued efforts of the opposition, Burmese field commanders will come to see that backing SLORC is not in their best interest. They will come to see that the objectives they have for their country and for their families can best be achieved in an atmosphere of peace. Only then will peace come to Burma. Pray that it will not be too late.

The author was born in Burma, studied in Thailand and came to Canada in 1969. He is the editor of "Burma Alert," A newsletter out of Shawville Québec.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1991

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1991, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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