Aung San Suu Kyi The Burmese military have held power in the country since 1958 and show no signs of yielding it to civilian political leaders. They have prevented discussion of the most burning political issues which have divided Burma since independence: the nationalities question, the insurgencies, the balance of power between central and regional governments, the nature of the state, and the role of democracy. The military, by means of poor policies and incompetent administration took a relatively prosperous country and turned it into a state of economic chaos.

There was a brief 1960-1962 period when Prime Minister U Nu was restored to power while General Ne Win waited in the wings. Ne Win came to center stage again in 1962 and ruled the country with a small group of fellow officers calling themselves the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP). However, unlike the Chinese Communist Party – Ne Win’s inspiration – the BSPP had no local members, no cells, no party structures and no conferences. The BSPP resembled many one-party states of Africa where the single party is only a reminder of an earlier administrative style. Real power is administered through the military hierarchy. Under Ne Win’s direction, Burma closed in on itself. It was not active in the Non-Aligned Movement and was part of no regional grouping. The one civilian Burmese leader of value, U Thant, was pushed outside and became Secretary General of the United Nations.

The military leadership has been both corrupt and incompetent. They weakened administrative services, schools, health care and the state infrastructure despite a bloated public sector of underpaid and inefficient civil servants. Many educated Burmese left the country for jobs in Britain, Canada and Australia; other Burmese joined the merchant marine in order to be able to feed their families.

Burmese diplomats at the United Nations made strenuous and finally successful efforts to have Burma designated one of the “least developed countries”. Burma joined ‘the Club’, made up of mostly African states in 1987. However, other than attending a conference every five years, there is little advantage in ‘Club’ membership.

The military prevented discussion of the most burning political issues which have divided Burma since independence: the nationalities question, the insurgencies, the balance of power between central and regional governments, the nature of the state, and the role of democracy.

By 1988, economic failure, lack of social services, and an oppressive atmosphere preventing discussion led to student protests. University students have always been the leaders of reform movements in part in memory of the 1936 student strike in Rangoon which was the most visible cry for independence. In March 1988 during “seven days that shook Rangoon”, there was a remarkable series of non-violent protests, led by students, younger Buddhist monks, and young professionals. The demonstrations received a good deal of sympathy from the wider public whose economic conditions were worsening due to ever-rising prices.

The military hit back with large-scale arrests of students and shootings of demonstrators. Unrest continued and on 8 August there was a general strike and massive street demonstrations in Rangoon. Tens of thousands demanded democracy, human rights, an end to the socialist economic system, and the resignation of the BSPP government. The movement began to spread beyond Rangoon. The army intensified its crackdown, and many student leaders left the country for Thailand or the border areas. The military, however, recognized the seriousness of the crisis. General Ne Win resigned and some of the military in his cabinet were also ‘allowed’ to resign.

A slightly modified group of military officers retained power but to indicate that a change had taken place they called themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and dropped all mention of the “‘Burmese road to socialism’. They changed the name of the capitol from Rangoon to Yangon and Burma to Myanmar. Since there had been wide international criticism, especially at the UN, of the brutal crackdown upon students, the SLORC decided that there should be elections in order to confirm their legitimacy.

SLORC had hoped to continue the military’s monopoly of power following the holding of the promised elections, through a classic policy of ‘divide and rule’. The idea was to create a multitude of political parties built around personalities from each section of the country. In all, 93 parties with no previous legal existence were created for the election. The anticipated result would be a divided parliament through which SLORC would continue in power by the building of fragile coalition governments.

In order to facilitate this plan, the election procedure was weighted against the creation of a mass party. No election meetings of more than five people were allowed. Party publications were limited; no access to radio was given. Leaders of the potentially stronger political parties were put in jail or under house arrest.

Confounding the military’s plans, one party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) with Aung San Suu Kyi as its secretary general – won 392 of the 485 seats in parliament. A set of ethnic parties, collectively called the Union Nationalities League for Democracy and allied to the NLD won 47 seats, while the political party most allied to the SLORC gained only 10 seats. The SLORC was so out of touch with popular sentiment that they were surprised by the results. Had they had reliable opinion polls on which to base their decisions, chances are they would not have permitted the elections to go ahead at all. Since the elections, for over 16 years the SLORC has had to invent reasons why the Parliament cannot meet.

As a result, Aung San Suu Kyi has become increasingly the symbol of democracy and of a Parliament unable to come into being. Auug San Suu Kyi represents a new spirit – partly because, unlike many of her contemporaries, she has lived most of her life outside Burma and is, in consequence, not linked to existing political compromises. Her father, Aung San, who died when Aung San Suu Kyi was two years old, was one of the original ‘Thirty Comrades’ – student nationalists, also including Ne Win, who were inspired by Second World War Japanese propaganda which appealed for a common Asian struggle against Western imperialism. Aung San went to Tokyo to assist the Japanese conquest of Burma. By 1944, however, the Thirty had decided that the Japanese were not liberators, that the occupation of Burma was being carried out for Japanese rather than Burmese aims, and that the Japanese might also lose the war. In the last year of the Second World War, the Thirty co-operated with Lord Mountbatten.

Thus, on 27 January 1947, Clement Attlee and Aung San signed an agreement for full independence of Burma within a year. On 19 July 1947, Aung San was assassinated by a political rival. He became a legend of Burmese independence.

Aung San Suu Kyi was educated in India (where her mother served as ambassador) and at Oxford University. She married an English academic, Michael Aris, a specialist on Tibet, in 1972 and only returned to Burma in 1988 in order to care for her dying mother. Her dynamism, combined with the legend of her father, led her to being named secretary of the National League for Democracy. She toured the country and was welcomed enthusiastically. She always stressed the importance of non-violence in pressing for democracy against the military.

The SLORC does not care for symbols it does not control. Since July 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi has been most of the time under house arrest, cut off from most communication, including with her own family. The government refused an entry visa to her husband Michael Aris, who was dying of cancer. He died without being able to see her. It is impossible to know from outside how strong and how structured the democratic forces in Burma remain. Many democratic Burmese have left the country and are often active in pro-democracy activities.

The major change from the 1962-1988 period is that now Burma is open to the world and the winds of trade. Burma has become a major opium exporting country. Opium is the main export of the country, sent over land through China, Bangladesh, and Northeast India, leaving a trail of ruined lives and conflicts among middlemen along the way. The other major export, largely undocumented, is tropical wood to Thailand. The Thais have limited their forest cutting, having already destroyed much of their forest lands. The Thais buy their wood from the Burmese military – a trade under the control of higher officers on both sides.

China is the chief beneficiary of the new Burmese openness. The Chinese government sells Burma arms of all sorts but especially cheaply-made land mines which are planted in frontier areas where the ethnic minorities live. Chinese merchants, probably not pushed by the government but following an age-old pattern of Chinese migrating to do business, are taking over the hotels, restaurants and shops of Burma, selling Chinese goods. As hardly anything is made in Burma, it is natural for the Chinese to sell Chinese goods. As a result China is one of the only open defenders of Burma at the UN.

The military keep marching in place, without vision, without policy, taking what they can while power lasts, but their footprints make ever deeper ruts all the time.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva. Photo from

For more resources:

For a moving account of the 1988 protests and crackdown, including many interviews with participants see: Bertil Lintner Outrange: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy ( London: White Lotus, 1990, 208pp.)

For an effort to understand why the military continue in power despite economic and administrative incompetence and why so few Burmese democrats criticize the military as such, see the useful analysis by an anthropologist interested in the psychological effects of military rule: Christina Fink. Living Silence: Burma under Military Rule ( London: Zed Books, 2001, 286pp.).