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  • Burma’s Uneven Struggle
  • Josef Silverstein (bio)

The unequal struggle to restore democracy and freedom to Burma has been going on since the military seized power in 1962 and replaced the country’s original liberal-democratic constitution with an authoritarianism that, in one form or another, has prevailed ever since. 1 The contest took a new turn in May 1996, when 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) called a national meeting of their party on the sixth anniversary of its overwhelming victory in the 1990 balloting to choose a new Pyithu Hluttaw (Burma’s unicameral National Parliament). The NLD leaders were reminding Burma and the world that the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the military junta that seized power in September 1988, is governing illegally and denying the people’s elected representatives the right to carry out their mandate.

The ruling party that SLORC displaced in 1988, the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), was itself a creature of the military, operating under a constitution written by generals in 1974. In 1988, deteriorating economic conditions, official mismanagement, and violence against protesters finally provoked massive demonstrations demanding a return to civilian democratic rule. The military response was government by the gun, featuring the brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations and the imposition of the worst repression in modern Burmese history. 2

Most of these events took place in the ethnic-Burman heartland of the country, which includes the capital of Rangoon and the valley and delta of the Irrawaddy River, and is home to about 70 percent of Burma’s [End Page 88] estimated 42 million people. Less well known have been the long struggles for greater self-government waged by various minority peoples living in less populous upland areas closer to Burma’s long land frontiers, which border Thailand, Laos, China, and Bangladesh. 3 Following Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948, many of these minorities took up arms against the new postcolonial state. They complained that the overwhelmingly ethnic-Burman government in Rangoon was breaking promises made to them before independence, and in some cases attempting to “Burmanize” smaller ethnic groups. Some of these peoples have continued holding out against SLORC through years of armed clashes, negotiations, and brutal sanctions.

Until 1988, Burman democrats and minority activists waged separate struggles, with neither group paying much attention to the other. After the military coup that year, however, thousands of Burman students, monks, and other civilians fled to minority-controlled areas in Burma and minority enclaves in neighboring states. There they sought protection, aid in continuing the fight against the military, and support in their political struggle. This was the first step in uniting the dictatorship’s two sets of opponents.

SLORC’s Program

When SLORC seized power, it announced a four-point program: 1) protect national and territorial unity; 2) preserve sovereignty; 3) improve the economic and social well-being of the people; and 4) hold a multiparty national election. SLORC stressed that it meant to keep power only as long as it took to achieve these goals. 4

The military dictatorship sought to meet its first three goals through the use of force and the denial of human and civil rights. Backed by an army enlarged to a strength of more than 300,000 and equipped with more than $2 billion worth of new weapons, SLORC banned or severely restricted freedoms of speech, assembly, and movement. Military courts enforced these martial-law edicts; torture of suspects and prisoners became common.

To meet its fourth goal, SLORC allowed parties to form and issued a law to provide for the election of the Pyithu Hluttaw. 5 Of the 93 parties that fielded candidates, the NLD (with Aung San Suu Kyi as secretary-general) quickly emerged as the most important prodemocratic formation. The popular appeal of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late father is considered the founder of modern Burma, led a worried SLORC to isolate her under house arrest in July 1989. She was denied the right to meet or speak with anyone other than her guards; in February 1990, she was barred from running for office.


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pp. 88-102
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