Background/Burma Military regime

II: Background

Since time immemorial, Burma, located in Southeast Asian, has been an independent country except during the time of colonial rule from 1885 to 1948. The British colonizers conquered the land in 1885 and ruled until 1942 when the Burma Independent army invited Japanese to expel the British from Burma. However, the Japanese puppet independence to Burma led the anti-facist movement against the Japanese, which brought back the British into Burma. Burma Independent leader General Aung San signed independence agreement with the British in 1947. With the help of the British, the Burma Independence army expelled the Japanese during the Second World War. Not only did General Aung San unite the Bama ethnic group but he also united other indigenous groups such as Chin, Ka Chin, Shan, etc. for the establishment of the Union Country and signed the Panglong agreement on February 12th 1947. According to the Aung San-Atali agreement, Burma won her independence on January 4th 1948. Thereafter, the Union of Burma ever exists as a united political country.

Since before the time of the British colonization, the political nature of Burma was patriarchal and warlord style of leadership. At the time of independence, the independence movement political leaders were soldiers who had taken military training, and thus, they were military minded leaders. As the legacy of the British colonization, Burma practiced democracy as soon as independence was granted. The Burma democratic government practiced a centralized administrative system, which led some of the Burman leaders into Burmanization policy. The Burmanization policy, which oppressed the political and cultural rights of the non-Burman ethnic groups to proselytize, has been the main cause of the internal political struggle, the ethnic insurgency that caused a five decade long civil war in Burma. Ten years after independence, as the Panglong agreement became mature, according to the agreement (See 1947 constitution of Burma, articles nos. 201-206), member ethnic groups were supposed to have their own rights to choose whether to remain as member of the union country or to be separated as an independent country. At the same time, Prime Minister U Nu declared Buddhism as a national religion, which antagonized non-Buddhists, non-Burman groups and led the nation into chaos. As a result, and according to the invitation of Prime Minister U Nu, a new government, a caretaker government led by Ne Win was formed on October 28 1958. The caretaker government conducted national election and U Nu became Prime Minister again on 4th April 1960.

Since the time of independence, Burma faced internal political crises. The Burma Communist Party led by Takin Than Tun, one of the 30 compatriots, went to under ground political movement against the Burma democratic government and was supported by China. At the same time, the Karen ethnic group who did not sign the Penglong agreement on February 12 1947, in other words, who did not want to join to the Union Country, suffered annexation which led the Karen people for their independent movement against the Union Country. As soon as the independence was announced, the threat from the Karen independence movement and the Burma Communist Party were strong enough to threaten the stability of the Union Country. In the 1950s, the Shan leaders had talked about separation from the Union Country, as the Pang Lond Agreement, which guaranteed session rights to Shan people became mature after 10 years of independence. Therefore, out of such political crisis, the army claimed national security and stability as reasons to seize the central political power and overthrew the rule of the U Nu led Burma democratic government on March 2 1962.

The 1962 coup destroyed the Burma parliament system, the 1947 national constitution, and the legal and economic system of the country. U Nu and his ministers, and other ethnic leaders such as Shan and Karen were jailed. Ne Win established a Revolutionary Council comprising 17 senior army officers to govern the country, which later on was transformed into the Burma Socialist Program Party in which Ne Win led as the president of the party at the same time as the head of the government. In 1974, the BSPP adopted a new constitution and according to the new constitution the BSPP was the only national party. The military regime increased its operation against ethnic insurgency and anti-government movement.

The military's economy failed to meet the necessary development. Burma, one of the richest countries in natural resources, became one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. The continuing ethnic insurgency led the country into a political stalemate. After more than 20 years of military rule, the Burma university students demonstrated against the military regime government and demanded political change. The student pro-democratic movement led the 8-8-88 nationwide public demonstration. The military regime government killed thousands of students and demonstrators in September 1988. Out of such political crisis, the military regime government changed the government body and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Many students left the country and continued their struggle for democracy. The name of the country has been changed several times-Union of Burma in 1948, Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma in 1974, and the Union of Myanmar in 1989.

The military regime called for national election in 1990. On May 27 1990, the national League for Demcracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, won the election by winning 392 out of 485 seats. The SLORC refused to hand over the central political power to the winning party. Instead it arrested many of the elected MPs and put them in jail. Therefore, many of the MP-elects escaped from the control of the regime government and formed the National Coalition Government (NCGUB) in December 1990. The NCGUB, Student organizations, and ethnic insurgency groups joint together for the struggle for democracy. On the other hand, seeking political legitimacy, the SLORC also convened a national convention with 702 delegates, who were hand picked by the SLORC to draft a new constitution. Without a standing constitution, whatever the military leaders say becomes the enforceable law of the nation. In November 15, 1997, "The State Law and Order Restoration Council" was changed to "The State Peace and Development Council", with 14 senior military officers as members, and without much change inside. Both the democratic activists and international community condemn the regime government's political oppression, forced labor, and human rights violations. Since October 1990, the military regime has been engaging with the opposition leader Daw aung San Suu Kyi, the Secretary General of the National League for Democracy, through a covert dialogue. Due to lack of political power in the opposition side, lack of international intervention, and lack of regional support, the progress of democratization has been delayed and the future remains uncertain.


The Burma Military Mindset

Historically and traditionally, since before the British colonization in early 19th century, the Burma society had been ruled with military-type-authoritarianism. The era of the Burman kings ended in 1885 when the British deposed King Thibaw in Mandalay and made Burma a province of British India. As the rule of the British colonization subdued the pride of the Burma nationalist patriotism, it still remained as the painful memory for those military nationalists and some political leaders that eventually shaped the mindsets of the military leaders and ideologists. Therefore, for the sake of national integrity and survival, it is the first and second motto of the military leaders, as the basis of their political legitimacy, to protect the country from any foreign infiltration politically, economically, socially and culturally.

Our state has been in existence as an independent nation for

thousand of years...It is our bounder duty to defend and safeguard,

with our lives, the independence and sovereignty which our martyrs

and patriotic heroes wrested back, and to ensure their perpetuity as

long as the world exists.

This statement reflects that based on national patriotism the mindset of the military leaders goes against any foreign infiltration or interference.

Seen from our perspective, security entails non-interference

in international affairs and freedom from external affairs and

freedom from external pressures. Security is synonymous with

the basic right to choose freely one's own political, economic

and social systems and to determine one's future that one's

peace and in accordance with cherished values and ideals.

Suspicions of foreign interference captured the mindsets of the military leaders and any foreign pressure or ideological influence is intolerable, claiming national security as their priority. It shows the military leaders' lack of insight over the political evolution of the world society toward globalization and international cooperation. Thus, for the military leaders, to suppress any internal dissidents by any means and to resist any foreign influence is the national duty of every citizen. At the same time, any attachment to foreign ideology is as much worse as a traitor or treason, which led Burma into an insolated and closed society until now.

The Independence Movement

The Burma independent leaders were military minded nationalist soldiers, which one journalist compared with the Talibans in Afghanistan. Beside nationalism, communism and socialism were the main ideological trends that moved the independent fighters in the 1940s. However, the importance of nationalism occupied the first, second and third priority. Even after 50 years of independence, the military leaders still claim political legitimacy recalling their political role during the independent movement.

The myth that the army won Myanmar's freedom and is

protecting the country against centrifugal forces, threatening

to undermine its independence and sovereignty, has become

the military leaders' only sustainable claim to political legitimacy

in the NLD in the 1990 election.

If Bo Ye Htut and group, with the plot of the Burma Communist Party (BCP), were succeeded in their coup attemp, U Nu's democratic government wouldn't last a decade long. However, after the independence, the BCP backed by Chinese revolt, and the Karen National Defense Organization (KNO) opposed the annexation in 1949. The CIA backed Kuomintang (KMT) threatened the survival of the Burma newly freed country, which necessitated the military build-up during the 1950s.

The 1950s

The 1950s' Burma political phenomena necessitated the building of a strong military to defend the country from the potential threats. At the time of independence, the Burma military personals were not well trained and even some were illegal soldiers who were not officially admitted to the army but just happened to be in army during the highly emotional independent movement. At first, the KNO and BCP were the main threats to U Nu's Rangoon government. Later when the US assisted arms and other supplies to the KMT, it angered to the Rangon government even more. Therefore, U Nu's government built military challenging the serious political threat. Since that time, China wanted Burma to be a communist counterpart, while the U.S, for supporting with military supplies, no doubt, wanted the Shan KMT to become a political channel along the China border. The Karen leaders were politically strong during the time of the British in that the army chief and many other top officials were Karen nationals in the central administrative zone.

Although a democratic government ran Burma, the socialist and communist ideals dominated the ruling party, Anti-Facist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), because when the AFPFL was formed in 1945 its membership came from organizations allied with the Communist party and so on.

During the 1950s military buildup, except for the removal of rightists within the military, Ne Win, who sometimes busy with his romantic affairs, was not the key player as many thought, although he was the army chief commander at the time. Many of the projects developed in the military transformation were the ideas of Major Aung Kyi (later Brigadier General), who formed a "Military Planing Staff," the "Defence Service Institute" in 1951, a psychological warfare and so on, Colonel Maung Maung (considered by many to have been the architect of the modern Tatmadaw), Lieutenant Colonel Ba Than (who was the champion of the psychological warfare plans) and others were the staff officers who were responding to particular crises and quite unintentionally created institutions.

The Caretaker Government and the Coup de' tat (1958-1962)

The political influence of the independent movement had a strong impact among the military leaders during the 1950s. The first coup de' tat attempt in 1949was failed. While U Nu's Rangoon government faced political challenges by the KMT, KNO, and the Chinese, the ruling party AFPFL split into two in 1958. U Nu and Thakin Tin led one faction, and the other faction was led by U Ba Swe and U Kyaw Nyein. Due to this internal political chaos, the military was very angry and lost trust in the U Nu government. At the end of 1958, U Nu resigned from his post and proposed General Ne Win to be appointed as the new Prime Minister of the caretaker government. Ne Win ran a caretaker government from 1958 to 1960 with some civilian officers and army leaders. During the caretaker government, the army, according to Colonel Chit Myaing, won the public support. Ne Win enjoyed and became addicted to the tastes of both military and political power for a short period of time. During the 1960 national election, the AFPFL faction led by U Nu won by a landslide. Again U Nu became the Prime Minister of Burma in 1960.

The army leaders gained confidence during the caretaker government that they thought they would be able to run the government even for a long time. With the ttreat to the Union of Burma national integrity by ethnic insurgency, the KMT, KNO, and the Chinese, the army did not trust U Nu's Rangoon government. At the same time, U Nu, according to his election campaign promise, announced Buddhism as a national religion. The Ka Chin people rebelled against the central government. In many places public protests occurred against U Nu's national religion. Shan leaders considered declaring separation from the Union Country according to the Pang Long Agreement, which allowed the Shan to separate from the Union of Burma at will 10 years after independence. The Burma leaders believed that if the Shan separated from the Union country, Burma wouldn't be safe, on the other hand, the Burman would have no influence over the Shan. Therefore, Ne Win and his fellow military leaders seized central political power in 2 March 1962 and formed the Revolutionary Council with 17 members.

Since Ne Win became the head of the government (1962-1988), he cracked down student activists, and the Student's Union building in Rangoon was destroyed. The parliamentary democracy system was demolished and the 1947 constitution was abandoned. The Revolutionary Council drafted a new constitution, which was promulgated in 1974. The new constitution allowed the existence of only one party in the system, Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), which ruled until 1988 when the student democratic movement challenged for change of central policy. The military regime established its legitimacy by the necessity of the military's role to protect the nation from the separatists, the ethnic insurgency, the BCP and the foreign infiltration, particularly from the east, China. However, the military regime's closed and self-style social and economic policy failed to meet the challenge of public demand. Therefore, it led the country into being one of the poorest countries in the world. The 1988 pro-democratic movement and the resignation of Ne Win opened the new era for the military regime.

After 1988

The time of the Burma Socialist Program Party and its founder Ne Win's rule ended simultaneously in 1988 when the pro-democratic movement destabilized the country. Ne Win's brutal internal purging policy and zero tolerance toward dissent helped him rule such a long period of three decades. For example, as soon as Ne Win established his rule he dismissed U Aung Kyi who had been Ne Win's partner since the independence movement in 1945, an organizer of the Socialist Party (1947), a key figure in the Caretaker Government (1958-1960), and partner in establishing the Revolutionary Council in 1962. He was put in jail from 1965 to 1968 and 1973-74. Likewise, many leaders were dismissed from their role in politics. However, the fortune of Ne Win could not stand the 1988 political challenge.

Crushing the peaceful public demonstrators, the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) was once again replaced by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), with hard-liner army officers in 1988. The SLORC abolished the BSPP's People's Assembly and the 1974 constitution, promising the new general election and constitution. The SLORC conducted a national election on 27 May 1990 in which the National League for Democracy (NLD) won by 82 % of the total seats. However, the SLORC that promised national election and transfer of power, was replaced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) without any policy reformation in 1997. The change of name allowed some unwanted leaders to resign from their posts. In other words, the change of the name allowed the military regime to purge internal dissidents that might have a potential faction within the army.

The Burma military leaders promised to establish a democratic government, a military-democracy, in which the military would have constitutional rights to participate in politics. The military leaders demanded definite political roles that were not opened to civilians, but restricted to military leaders, roles such as defense, internal and border area departments. They also have been reframing a new constitution in which the army will have reserved seats 25 % of legislature and executive branches of government in both houses of parlianment-110 out of 440 seats in the lower house (Phithu Hluttaw) and 56 out of 224 in the upper house. Moreover, the future president of the nation will be required to have military experience. These are contrary to the western democratic values.

Since 1988, the Burma regime has been strategically playing its new political game while its intention for the future government is clear. It has been trying to gain a political legitimacy by calling a constitutional conference in 1993, but the work hasn’t been finished. In that constitution, the military intended to put the permanent political role of the military in the new civilian government. Like 1962-1974, when the Burma military regime ruled without a constitution, since 1988, after the 1974 constitution was abolished, there has been no standing constitution. Although the national convention has been called since 9 January 1993 to draft a constitution with the promise of democratic government in the future, the military' intention of doing all these remain uncertain. Trust in military’s pormise has eroded because in the 1990 national election the military leader Senior General Saw Maung had promised publicly to hand over the central political power to the winning party, but it didn’t, which later appeared as the military leaders' remarkable public lie.

After 1988, the military has increased its strength by increasing the number of army personnel, reforming and establishing the military infrastructure. The number of army personnel has increased to 450,000. There have been several internal reformation and building of the infrastructures such as the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB), Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI), and the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS) within the military, with 14% of GDP military expenditure (see the appendix). According to the report of "Burma Mynamar: Strong Regime Weak State" edited by Morten B Pedersen, Emily Rutland, and R. J. May, Burma uses more than half of the government's official funds for military expenditures. Moreover, it has gained regional concern from China, India, Japan and Singapore both militarily and economically that help the regime government one way or the other. The current military regime has done a successful deal with the ethnic insurgencies that after 1989 more than 18 armed opposition groups have signed cease-fire.

The Burma military has been strong as well as brutal enough to crush the opposition. It ignored the peaceful public demand and international pressure. The military has practiced very well internal political purge skillfully that there seems no potential crack down of the military within itself. In the recent coup de'tat attempt of April 2002, the military hard-liners took advantage to purge the internal potential political rivalry. There, the military regime's stand is still strong without internal threat for collapse and external threat from both the opposition and the international and regional pressure.