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  • Sustaining Burma's Hopes for Freedom
  • Sein Win (bio)

The National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma is committed to resolving the two basic problems that confront our country. The first is how to find peace and harmony in our multiethnic society—in other words, how to find unity in diversity. The second problem is how to restore democracy to a country that has been under one-party military rule for more than three decades. These issues are clearly interrelated. History has shown that we cannot have a stable democratic government without first solving the ethnic problem; but we also know that the ethnic problem cannot be solved without a democratic government.

In order to understand these problems and their possible solutions we must first look at Burmese history. After World War II, negotiations for Burmese independence from British rule took place under the national leadership of General Aung San, a figure respected and trusted not only by the Burman majority but by all of Burma's ethnic nationalities. [End Page 144] Ethnic minorities make up roughly 30 percent of Burma's population, the largest of them being the Karen, Rhakine (Arakanese), Kachin, Mon, and Shan peoples. The Shan and Mon, in fact, have been established in this region as long as the predominant Burmans. Although some of these groups are ethnically related, and all are linked by a long history of interaction through trade and conflict, it is important to remember that each is linguistically and culturally unique. In 1947, a historic agreement was forged in which all these nationalities voluntarily agreed to join together in a union. The fact that the political will to form a union existed among these groups more than four decades ago is very important, and I believe that this same will still exists today.

Later in 1947, General Aung San and most of his cabinet were assassinated while negotiations for independence were still underway and before his program for unification could be implemented. My father, who was General Aung San's older brother, was also killed at that time. In the wake of these assassinations, the first postindependence, democratically-elected government was unable to regain the trust of the minority nationalities.

As a result, Burma has suffered continuing ethnic warfare from 1949 until the present day. The ethnic minorities have remained dissatisfied with the political arrangements that govern their relationship with Rangoon. In 1962, Shan and other minority leaders held a meeting with Prime Minister U Nu in Rangoon at which the prime minister agreed to discuss possible constitutional amendments with them. This could have opened the way to national reconciliation, had negotiations not been interrupted in March 1962 by a military coup led by General Ne Win. The generals claimed that the coup was needed to avert the danger that the Burmese union would disintegrate, but in fact the coup shattered the prospects for reconciliation between the ethnic minorities and the Burmese government. After the 1962 coup, the various ethnic groups stepped up their resistance to the government in Rangoon. Three decades later, this same civil war remains the government's primary justification for the continuation of military rule.

This military government, now known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), has two main characteristics that drive its policies and actions: it wants to control everything, and it is willing to use whatever force is required to do so. Admittedly, these same characteristics can be found in many dictatorships, but no other group of military dictators has used fear and force so effectively to control every aspect of their people's lives. On the economic front, the military government has nationalized all industries, businesses, and enterprises in order to keep them under government control. It has attempted to isolate the country and keep out all foreign influences. By controlling the media, it prevents the Burmese people from knowing what is happening elsewhere in the world and from having access to objective information [End Page 145] about events inside their own country. The government has also been the driving force behind the constant intensification of the civil war. It has tried to solve the problems of ethnic strife and civil...


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