II. Crackdown After Crackdown: 45 Years of Military Rule

On March 2, 1962, the Burmese army under General Ne Win staged a coup against the democratically elected government in Rangoon and took control of the country. Within weeks, basic freedoms were severely restricted, with political parties outlawed, public gatherings limited or banned, press freedoms sharply restricted, and internal and international freedom of movement regulated by the Burmese army. Those freedoms have never been regained.

The newly formed Revolutionary Council of military officers opposed all forms of perceived political dissent. Following protests by the Rangoon University Students Union on July 8, 1962 the army shot scores of students and blew up the student union headquarters. Many political activists and journalists were jailed for expressing dissent. As part of its plan to gain legitimacy for continued military rule and economic reform, which even General Ne Win admitted the military was ill-equipped to manage, the Revolutionary Council in 1973 staged a national referendum to adopt a new constitution. The vote was rigged, with official results stating that more than 90 percent had voted in favor. The new constitution reformed Burmese federalism, establishing seven predominantly ethnic Burman “divisions” and seven ethnically distinct “states” that formed the Socialist Union of Burma. This system remains in place today.

Soon after the new constitution was promulgated, major demonstrations erupted in Rangoon in late 1974 as the body of former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant was returned for burial. Students and monks seized his casket, which they argued was being sent to a discreet burial, insulting his stature as a Burmese national and world figure. The army and riot police (lon htein) cracked down on the protesters, taking scores of lives.1

The social tensions produced by 26 years of repressive military rule and socialist economic mismanagement came to the surface in March 1988. Following an incident between students and local workers at a tea shop in Rangoon, a group of students demonstrated over perceived abuse of power and corruption by local officials. The reaction by local officials and police was to violently disperse the protesters using the lon htein riot police, who bundled students into a small police van that drove around in the afternoon heat until some 42 died of asphyxiation and heat.2 The deaths of the students sparked more demonstrations by university students. The authorities closed all universities in Rangoon and ordered the students to return home, but this only emboldened the students. Small demonstrations against the government began to spread throughout towns and cities in government controlled areas.

Ne Win resigned from his position and admitted government failings. But he argued that events since March 1988 had gotten out of hand due to the protesters, and sent them a sinister warning:

Although I said I would retire from politics, we will have to maintain control to prevent the country from falling apart, from disarray, till the future organizations can take full control. In continuing to maintain control, I want the entire nation, the people, to know that if in future there are mob disturbances, if the army shoots, it hits—there is no firing into the air to scare. So, if in future there are such disturbances and if the army is used, let it be known that those creating disturbances will not get off lightly.3

Despite these threats, people continued to march in the streets in large numbers. As the government rapidly lost control of the streets, newspapers and political posters were produced and openly distributed. Service personnel from the air force joined the demonstrators.

On August 8, 1988 (commemorated in Burma as 8-8-88), a major nationwide protest took place, with hundreds of thousands of people (some estimate up to one million) marching in Rangoon calling for democracy, elections, and economic reforms. Two days later, as tens of thousands of protesters remained on the streets, army units trucked into Rangoon began shooting at unarmed protesters. At Rangoon General Hospital, five doctors and nurses who were helping the wounded were shot and killed by soldiers.4 The government’s authority then effectively collapsed. Much of the daily order of towns and cities was now in the hands of ordinary civilians, with the Buddhist monkhood, the Sangha, playing an important role as marshals of demonstrations to keep them peaceful and avert rioting, looting, and reprisals. At a rally at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon on August 26, nearly half a million people came to hear speeches by student leaders, former political figures, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero General Aung San. She told the gathering:

At this juncture when the people’s strength is almost at its peak we should take extreme care not to oppress the weaker side. That is the kind of evil practice which would cause the people to lose their dignity and honor. The people should demonstrate clearly and distinctly their capacity to forgive. The entire nation’s desires and aspirations are very clear. There can be no doubt that everybody wants a multi-party democratic system of government. It is the duty of the present government to bring about such a system as soon as possible.5

On September 18, 1988, the army forcibly retook control of the cities and towns. Army chief General Saw Maung declared martial law and the creation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC, or Na Wa Ta), a collective of senior military officers who would form a “transitional” military government. Through military brutality and a shoot-to-kill policy against the protesters, the SLORC managed to deter further street protests. Estimates of the number killed range from 1,000 to 10,000 deaths nationwide, with 3,000 civilian deaths a commonly accepted figure. Although the army was responsible for the vast majority of the deaths, mobs murdered some suspected military intelligence agents, soldiers, and government bureaucrats.6

To gain internal legitimacy and foreign support for its rule, the SLORC rapidly instituted a series of reforms, including changing the English name of the country to “Myanmar” and promulgating an electoral law that permitted political parties to form and organize.7 The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi and retired generals such as U Tin Oo and U Aung Shwe, became the most popular and well-organized throughout the country.

The SLORC announced parliamentary elections for May 1990, but placed severe restrictions on political parties and activists. Suu Kyi’s widespread popularity proved to be a major threat to the SLORC, which had embarked on a strategy to discredit the 1988 uprising as instigated by old guard communists, foreign “colonialist” powers, and the Western media.8 As Suu Kyi’s speeches drew large rallies throughout the country, the SLORC sentenced her to house arrest in July 1989 on charges of instigating divisions in the armed forces. 

The May 1990 elections were surprisingly free and fair. A total of 13 million valid votes were cast out of nearly 21 million eligible voters. The results of the election were overwhelming for the NLD, which won almost 80 percent of the seats and nearly 60 percent of the vote. The SLORC-created National Unity Party won only 10 seats.

The SLORC was taken by surprise by the magnitude of its defeat and the repudiation of military rule. It scrambled to nullify the NLDs victory, announcing months later that the new members of parliament (MPs) were elected only to form a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, rather than sit as the elected parliament. This generated more protests and arrests. Dozens of elected MPs went into exile in Thailand and the West.

In 1990, the military brutally crushed a protest by Buddhist monks and nuns in Mandalay, called the patam nikkujjana kamma (“overturning the bowl”), whereby Buddhist monks refused to accept alms from or confer religious rights on SLORC officials and their families. Scores of monks were beaten and killed, hundreds deprived of their monkhood by being “de-robed,” and an estimated 3,000 thrown into prison.9

Following the reported nervous breakdown and retirement of SLORC head General Saw Maung in 1992, General Than Shwe took control of the SLORC. During the 1990s, the SLORC gravitated between continued repression and limited, often quickly aborted, attempts at economic and political reforms. Basic rights all but disappeared.10 High schools and universities were often closed for fear of protests. Many teachers and lecturers were forced to attend “refresher courses,” which were basically reeducation courses to deter them from deviating from government regulated curriculums.11 The fear of “MI,” the undercover spies and informants of Military Intelligence, controlled by the Secretary Number 1 of the SLORC, Major General Khin Nyunt, was widespread and curtailed the everyday conversation of many Burmese.12

Because the “SLORC” had become a synonym for repression and brutality, in 1997 the name of the regime was changed to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The SPDC further consolidated its control through the establishment of so-called mass-based organizations, most notably the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA).

In December 1996, demonstrations by university students in Rangoon were broken up by security forces after a week, and hundreds of students were imprisoned.

International pressure for a political settlement led the government, in 1995, to release Suu Kyi, who in 1991 had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Her unabated popularity led to renewed house arrest in 1997, following violent attacks by USDA thugs on her motorcade in Rangoon. Suu Kyi was again released in 2002, whereupon she and the NLD embarked on a series of rallies around the country that drew crowds of tens of thousands of supporters.

The SPDC organized USDA members to stage anti-NLD demonstrations wherever she made an appearance. On May 30, 2003, an SPDC-organized mob attacked her convoy at Depayin, injuring Suu Kyi and other NLD members. At least four NLD bodyguards were killed. Credible reports suggested that dozens of onlookers were killed in the attack.13 The government permitted no independent investigation of the attack.

Suu Kyi was then detained at the notorious Insein prison in Rangoon. She was later moved back to house arrest, according to the SPDC, “for her own security.” She has remained under house arrest and almost completely cut off from the outside world, only occasionally allowed to meet with anyone other than her jailers.

Long-simmering internal divisions within the SPDC, apparently over power succession, financial interests, and economic and political reform, boiled over when, on October 19, 2004 Than Shwe ordered the arrest of his closest rival, Khin Nyunt, the closing down of his powerful military intelligence apparatus, and the arrest of many of his associates. Khin Nyunt was replaced as prime minister by Lt.-General Soe Win, the man allegedly responsible for orchestrating the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade at Depayin in 2003.14 These events signaled the consolidation of power by the hard-line faction of the SPDC led by Than Shwe and its vice-chairman, General Maung Aye.

The SPDC signaled an even further distancing from the population when it suddenly moved the capital from Rangoon to a jungle redoubt near the central Burma town of Pyinmana in late 2005. The newly constructed capital, called Naypyidaw (“Abode of Kings”), is a vast sprawling complex of new buildings housing all government ministries. Tens of thousands of public servants were forced to relocate to a city with which the International Monetary Fund estimates cost over 2 percent of Burma’s gross domestic product (many observers place the cost much higher).15

Burma’s Economy: Poverty and Price Rises Spark Protests

The August 2007 protests were sparked by massive fuel prices that a desperately poor population simply could not afford. On August 15, the SPDC announced a sudden and dramatic rise in fuel prices by as much as 500 percent. This change led to immediate rises in prices for basic goods, including rice, and made bus travel unaffordable for many poor residents. Although Burma is rich in fossil fuels, precious stones, and hardwood timber, decades of economic mismanagement, vast spending on the military, and corruption have left the majority of the population deeply impoverished. A large portion of Burma’s population lives in poverty, and many of those live in extreme poverty, subsisting on less than a dollar a day. A recent household survey conducted by the United Nations found that more than 30 percent of the population lives “well below the poverty line.” In 2006 the UNDP Human Development index ranked Burma 132 out of 177 countries in the world. A 2007 UN survey concluded that living standards had declined markedly in the past ten years.

Corruption16 and the dominant role of the military in Burma’s economy have produced a widening gap between a privileged urban elite connected to the military, and the majority of the population, which lives in the countryside, where government health and education services are virtually non-existent and there are few alternative employment opportunities beyond agriculture. Conditions have also worsened for ordinary urban residents, as they confront rising inflation, high unemployment, frequent power outages, a collapsing sanitation infrastructure, and deteriorating roads and other public infrastructure.

The SPDC spends a significant proportion of Burma’s resources to maintain its enormous army and engages in profligate spending on unproductive projects such as the relocation of the capital, yet has some of the lowest social spending of any country in the world. Inadequate nutrition is the fifth leading cause of infant deaths in Burma. Burma is the only country in the world where beri beri, a vitamin deficiency affliction, is a major cause of infant mortality. A recent UN statement summed up the plight of the population, finding that “in this potentially prosperous country, basic needs are not being met”:

Today, [Burma]’s estimated per capita GDP is less than half that of Cambodia or Bangladesh. The average household is forced to spend almost three quarters of its budget on food. One in three children under five are suffering from malnutrition, and less than 50 percent of children are able to complete their primary education. It is estimated that close to seven hundred thousand people suffer from malaria and one hundred and thirty thousand from tuberculosis. Among those infected with HIV, an estimated sixty thousand people needing anti-retrovirals do not yet have access to this life-saving treatment.17

Healthcare in Burma has suffered as a direct result of military rule. Epidemics of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis have exacerbated serious health challenges in the country. Restrictions on grassroots health activists and even private health clinics and services by the authorities are commonplace, as the SPDC tries to control even small-scale health initiatives. Healthcare in ethnic conflict areas is even more dire, where death and injury by war, disease, poverty, and poor nutrition is an everyday reality. A 2006 study by mobile health clinics in eastern Burma found that one in four children die before they are five-years old.

The Burmese economy is stifled by an unwieldy dual exchange rate for the national currency, the kyat. The official rate is 6 kyat per US dollar, while the market rate fluctuates between 1,000- 1,400. Widespread poverty has been exacerbated by disastrous economic policies, such as the 1987 demonetization in which currency notes of 25, 35, and 75 were summarily withdrawn and replaced with notes of 15, 45, and 90 (the last two of which were apparently chosen by Ne Win because of his affinity for the astrological auspiciousness of the number nine).

1  Andrew Selth, Death of a Hero. The U Thant Disturbances in Burma, December 1974, Working Paper no.49, Griffith University, 1988.

2  Bertil Lintner, Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy, (Bangkok, Kiskadale Publications, 1995).

3  The Extraordinary Session of the BSPP Congress, “Speech by U Ne Win, July 23,” July 23-25, 1988.

4 Maureen Aung-Thwin, “Burmese Days,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 68, no. 2, Spring 1989, pp. 143-161.

5 “Speech to a Mass rally at the Shwedagon Pagoda,” in Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear and Other Writings, London, Penguin, 1995.

6  Maung Maung, “The 1988 Uprising in Burma,” Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, January 2000.

7  “Pyithu Hluttaw Election Law,” SLORC Law No.14/89, May 31, 1989.

8  Ministry of Information, “The Conspiracy of Treasonous Minions Within the Myanmar Naing-ngan and Traitorous Cohorts Abroad, Rangoon, News and Periodicals Enterprise,” State Law and Order Restoration Council, 1989.

9 Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, Tokyo, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa Monograph Series No.33, 1999.

10 Human Rights Watch, Burma: Entrenchment or Reform? Human Rights Developments and the Need for Continued Pressure, vol.7, no.10, July 1995.

11 Article 19 (London), “Our Heads are Bloody but Unbowed”: Suppression of Educational Freedoms in Burma, Censorship News no.18, December 1992.

12 Christina Fink, Living Silence. Burma under Military Rule, (London: Zed Books, 2001).

13  “Preliminary Report of the Ad hoc Commission on Depayin Massacre (Burma), July 4, 2003,” Legal Issues on Burma Journal, No.15, 2003. 

14  Soe Win died in October 2007 after a long illness. He was accorded a state funeral, the first time in decades any official in Burma had been granted such an honor.

15 Maung Aung Myoe, “The Road to Naypyitaw: Making Sense of the Myanmar Government’s Decision to Move its Capital,” Asia Research Institute Working Paper 79, National University of Singapore, November 2006; Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, “As Myanmar’s new capital emerges, analysts question its true cost,” Agence France Presse, April 6, 2007.

16 Burma (together with Somalia) received the lowest ranking in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, which evaluated perceptions of public sector corruption in 180 countries. Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions, Index 2007.

17 UN Country Team, “Statement of the United Nations Team in Myanmar,” October 25, 2007.