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Burma - The Land of Fear

Burma, a country of around 50 million people is ruled by fear. A military machine of 400,000 soldiers denies a whole nation its most basic rights. Aung San Suu Kyi, pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, symbolises the struggle of Burma's people to be free.

  • Introduction
  • Brief History
  • Human Rights
  • Ethnic Groups
  • Economy
  • Tourism
  • Aung San Suu Kyi
    Brief History

    Traditional kingships and other local governments that evolved among Burma's peoples over many centuries werelargely stripped of their authority after Britain's 19th century conquest of Burma. Colonial administration continued with limited local self-government until the Union of Burma achieved independence in 1948. The new state came into being as a parliamentary democracy and, although beset by ethnic strife as minority peoples demanded autonomy from the Burman majority, survived as a representative government until an army coup in 1962.

    A military-dominated regime led by the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) held power for the next 26 years. There were no free elections, and freedom of expression and association were almost entirely denied. Resistance to the regime occasionally flared, but student and worker demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s were brutally crushed. Torture, political imprisonment, and other human rights abuses were common. Throughout this period, costly guerrilla wars with ethnic opposition groups along the country's frontiers continued.

    Under the BSPP's isolationist "Burmese Way to Socialism" the country's economy steadily deteriorated, and by mid-1988, rice shortages and popular discontent reached crisis proportions.The police slaying of a student sparked demonstrations by university students that were soon joined by monks, civil servants, workers, and even policemen and soldiers in cities and towns all over Burma. On the eighth of August - "8-8-88"- hundreds of thousands of people nationwide marched to demand the BSPP regime be replaced by an elected civilian government. Soldiers fired on crowds of unarmed protesters, killing thousands.

    On 18 September 1988, the army finally responded to calls for democracy by announcing a coup by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) (renamed the State Peace and Development Council in November 1997). The junta's next action was to open fire with machine guns on demonstrators in Rangoon and other cities. The carnage was immense. While the exact number will never be known, it is estimated that as many as 5,000 people were killed. Thousands more were arrested. Many were tortured. Amnesty International estimates that around 1,500 political prisoners still remain jailed under harsh conditions.

    The SLORC pledged that elections would be held after peace and tranquillity were restored in Burma. But the runup to the elections inspired little confidence in the process. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the most popular opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was placed under house arrest in July 1989. Many other senior NLD officials were jailed.The NLD had little access to media and few resources 'compared to the SLORC-backed National Unity Party (NUP).

    To most observers' surprise, a free vote did take place on 27 May 1990. Of 485 parliamentary seats contested, the NLD won 392 (over 80%). Ethnic minority parties opposed to the SLORC won 65 more seats. The army-front NUP won only ten constituencies, a resounding rejection of military rule that demonstrated not only the depth of the Burmese peoples' alienation from the military regime, but also the failure of the generals to recognize the reality of their unpopularity.

    The junta's response to this overwhelming defeat was simply to change the rules. It declared the election was not for a parliament, but for some members of a constituent assembly to consider a new constitution. Repression intensified. Many NLD elected representatives were arrested. Some have died in prison. Others fled into exile. An elected opposition member of parliament, Dr. Sein Win, is Prime Minister of the government-in-exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), which is among the many pro-democracy Burmese groups working internationally for change in Burma. In 1999-2000, the junta widened its campaign of intimidation against the grass roots of the NLD, as well as its leadership. State media reported almost daily the "resignations" of thousands of NLD members around the country. Many NLD leaders were put under house arrest or detained.

    The military regime in Burma has since declared a ‘roadmap to democracy’ and is currently drafting a new constitution. The constitution-drafting National Convention was first convened by the military regime in 1993. The draft document, which enshrines military dominance of any future government and marginalizes Burma's ethnic minorities, has already been rejected by the democratic opposition. In November 1995 the NLD sent a letter to the military requesting that the proceedings of the National Convention be liberalised. For example, criticism of any convention proceedings is an imprisonable offence with delegates sentenced to 20 years for ‘crimes’ as minor as distributing a paper that hasn’t first been ‘approved’ by the authorities. The regime rejected the NLD's appeal and all delegates from the NLD were subsequently expelled by the military from the National Convention and the National Convention process suspended in 1996.

    In October 2006 the thirteen year old National Convention was reconvened once again. This is the tenth time the convention has resumed since it first started in 1993. Attended by over 1,000 hand-picked delegates, cloistered within a military compound north of Rangoon, the convention is the first step on the military’s seven-point roadmap which the junta claims will lead to a ‘disciplined’ democratic state. No timetable or detail has ever been given regarding any democratic reforms. However, without the participation of the victors of the 1990 elections – the National League for Democracy - the assembly clearly lacks any credibility and the convention has long been dismissed by pro-democracy organisations within and outside Burma as a sham - a showcase designed to preserve military rule and manipulate regional opinion. It has also been severely criticized within international circles. UN Special Rapporteur on Burma Sergo Pinheiro has termed the convention “surrealistic” and “meaningless and undemocratic”. Constitution principles adopted so far clearly aim to legitimise an authoritarian centralist government, entrench the military in every institution of state and effectively establish the military as an ultra-constitutional organisation - above the constitution and above the law.

    It is believed that the regime plans to use the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) to extend and perpetuate military rule under a pseudo-democracy. The USDA, established in September 1993 by State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Chairman Snr-Gen Than Shwe Than Shwe, is a regime-run militia. It was the USDA that attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy on May 30th 2003 and beat around 100 National League for Democracy supporters to death in the attack. The SPDC has been attempting to cultivate and grow the USDA into a political force - inserting key members directly into the country’s administrative apparatus. The timing of any future elections will therefore be dependent on the precise time at which the regime judges the USDA to be strong enough to ensure them certain victory.

    After six years of house arrest, during which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released in July 1995. Early in 2001, she was again under de facto house arrest after repeatedly being blocked from visiting NLD supporters outside Rangoon. She was again released from house arrest in May 2002. However, during a tour of northern Burma in May 2003, Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters were attacked by the government militia, the USDA. As many as 100 people were killed in the attack and over 100 people arrested, including Aung San Suu Kyi. She remains in incommunicado detention and National League for Democracy (NLD) offices all over the country have been closed.

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    You can buy these books from Amazon using the links below and anything you buy will raise money for The Burma Campaign UK.

  • Freedom from Fear Freedom from Fear: And Other Writings.
    By Aung San Suu Kyi.
    London: Penguin Books. 1995.
      cover The Voice of Hope By Aung San Suu Kyi and Alan Clements.
    London: Penguin Books, 1997.
  • cover Burma: The Challenge of Change in a Divided Society. By Peter Carey
    Palgrave Macmillan, 1997

      cover The Making of Modern Burma By Thant Myint U
    Cambridge University Press, 2001
  • cover Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. By Martin Smith
    Zed Books, 1999
      cover Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule By Christina Fink
    Zed Books, 2001