The Opposition


The four decades long Burma military regime has been facing multiples of oppositions through which the regime government has survived. However, the cost of the regime government's struggle for political survival has created enormous political landscape, which left the country with economic poverty, thousands of refugees and political chaos. Since 1962, because of the internal civil wars and political challenges, the Burma regime government never enjoyed peaceful political stability. In spite of the oppressive brutality, the role of civil society has been very important in opposing the regime government. The student's anti-regime movement has been a significant factor that contributes and stimulates democratic movement. Since 1962 until the collapse of the BCP in 1980s and ethnic insurgencies' cease-fire agreements with the regime government in 1990s, the Burma Communist Party (BCP) and the ethnic insurgencies had been the strongest oppositions against the regime government. However, after the recent so-called cease-fires of more than 18 armed groups, the student activists and the 1990's MP-elects and their party men have become the most effective oppositions both in the internal and international levels. Nevertheless, due to the fragmented political forces of the opposition, the military regime government's brutal oppression on the opposition, and the regional and the Asian neighboring countries' support for the regime government, the opposition still lacks a balanced political power to overthrow the regime government.

Political Party

Under the military regime government there has been no political tolerance for dissents, and there were no free political competition. However, the 1988 pro-democratic movement had shaped the Burma political landscape in which the situation compelled the military government to conduct a national election. Out of national political chaos in the whole country, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) promised to conduct a national election, which was conducted on May 27, 1990. Although the formation of political party was allowed, the SLORC restricted free movement and political campaign on all political parties, while the SLORC supported National Unity Party (UNP) which was not subject to its restriction. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Secretary General of the NLD and U Tin Oo, the NLD party Chairman who was subsequently sentenced to three years imprisonment, were under house arrest during the 1990 national election. In spite of such restriction, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's party won 82% of the total contested seats.

On September 27 1988, the SLORC publicly announced the Political Party Registration Act, which allowed political parties to register with the Election Commission. Within a short period of time, 236 parties were registered, out of which 130 were deregistered before the 1990 election and only 93 parties contested the election. The SLORC's expectation for the NUP failed winning only 10 out of 485 seats. The NLD won 81%, 392 out of 485 seats.

Instead of handing over the central political power according to the SLORC leader General Saw Maung's promise, the SLORC changed its election promise, as though the election was conducted to elect the people who would draft a state constitution. The SLORC's intention became very clear that the election result was invalidated. So the national election of members of parliament became a national election of members of prisoners, who would go to jail or go to exile. Therefore, many MP-elects were arrested and put into jail; in 1990 55 MP-elects were dismissed and banned from political activity, 42 MPs were imprisoned, and many more escaped to the border area and some to other neighboring countries such as India, and Thailand. In December 1990, the MP-elects formed the National Coalition Government (NCGUB) at Manerplaw on the Thai-Burma border. In May 1996, some 300 NLD members and MPs were arrested, and 46 MPs resigned from Parliament under the compulsion of the military regime. In 1992, most of the politically active NLD MPs were forced to resign.

By March 1992, out of 90 political parties that took part in the 1990 election, only10 remained legal. The rest were banned and dismissed by the Election Commission according to their alternative political party acts that were intentionally created to invalidate the registered parties and the 1990-election result. Therefore, since the 1990 election, the political parties and their figure leaders have been harassed and restricted not to be able to participate in any active political role. As a result, the strength of the opposition parties has been dramatically reduced and there is no balanced political power between the military regime and the opposition inside the country.

Outside the country, the National Coalition Government of Burma (NCGUB) composed of the 1990 MP-elects, with the corporation of the ethnic insurgencies such as National Democratic Front (NDF), Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB), and the Student Organizations, has been struggling against the regime government. The NCGUB was formed at Manerplaw on December 18 1990 with Dr. Sein Win as Prime Minister. In the NCGUB, not only the NLD MP-elects but also other party MP-elects, are also included. The NCGUB's political campaign against the regime government, except within the Asian regional context, has gained the international supports. However, the Asian neighboring countries' support and constructive engagement hinder the international isolation of the Burma regime government. Unlike South Africa, due to the support of some sympathizers to the regime government, the Burma delegate in the UN cannot be unseated. Therefore, the strength of the NCGUB, the 1990 MP-elects and the political activists is limited and not enough to overthrow the regime government at the spot.


Since before independence, the Burma youth movement had contributed an important political role to the political development of the Burma society. The Burma student activated against the government in 1920, against the Act of 1920, which placed Rangoon University under the University if Calcutta. In the 1930s several student strikes took place and the Rangoon University Student Union (RUSU), the All Burma Youth League (ABY) and the Dobama Asiayone were formed. Young people called the "Thirty Comrades" formed the Burma Independent Army (BIA), led by Aung San, in Bangkok, who consequently went to Japan and took military training against the British rule. After overthrowing the British rule, the BIA, the "Thirty Comrades" turned against the Japanese by forming the Anti-Facist People Freedom League (AFPFL) whose activity was awarded with true independent on January 4 1948.

After independent, and after Aung San and his cabinets was assassinated on July 19 1947, U Nu, the former chairman of the Rangoon University Student Union (RUSTU) led the country as Prime Minsiter. After Ne Win's coup de'tat in 1962, the Burma students have been playing a very crucial role against the military regime government: July 7 1962 student demonstration; 1963 Peace and Cessation of War Demonstration; 1967 Akyab Rice Tiots/Sino-Burmese Conflicts; 1969 south East Asian Games Demonstration; 1970 Moulmein University Student Strike; 1974 Funeral Riots of U Thant, Former Secretary General of the United Nations; 1976 uprising commemorating the centenary of Thakin Ko Daw Hmaing; 1987 demonstration against demonetarisation of the 25, 35, and 75 Kyats notes; 1988 student national wide pro-democratic demonstration; 1990 student boycott against the SLORC; and 1996 student demonstration against the regime. All these remarkable events contributed to the political evolution of Burma.

Approximately, more than 10,000 student left the country in 1988 when the military regime brutally killed the student demonstrators. Many formed their student organizations and struggled against the regime. Among them, the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF) which was formed on November 1 1988 at Thai-Burma border, is a popular organization that has been struggling for Burma political transition. Many have taken armed struggle against the regime government. Students' lobby around the world also gains the international support. However, compared to the brutal force of the Burma military regime, the fragmented Burma student force is weak militarily for it does not get enough military support from the international community. And its international campaign against the regime government, though very important, is not enough to balance the regime government politically. For one reason the military leaders are not rationally pursuable and another reason is that students are fragmented into multiple organizations and are not well organized enough to overthrow the military government, both militarily and politically.

The ethnic insurgency

Before 1988, the anti-regime government political activists and armed groups were mostly the ethnic groups; however, after 1988, the military regime's subtle way of political persuasion misled many armed groups and many have made cease-fire. Due to the rise of pro-democratic movement, the international pressure, and unignorable public pressure, the Burma regime government has changed its political strategy. Instead of kill-and-root-out policy, the military regime practiced persuasive political strategy and made cease-fire with more than 18 armed groups after 1990. The regime government's self-administered zone policy, which called back many armed groups and let them live within their claimed territory with arms, lulled many them to enjoy a temporary autonomous and political freedom without future guarantee for their national political survival.

The collapse of the Burma Communist Party, backed by China, eased the Burma military regime to at least some extent, because China was one of the main source from where the Burma armed groups received arms and ammunition. On the other hand, instead of condemning, as it used to do since Burma independence, China became the main supporter of the Burma regime government. Almost all major armed groups have made cease-fire with the regime government within the last decade, and others were crashed or politically weakened. Therefore, the Burma regime government does not have a potential threat from the armed groups at this time, while there seems no outside military intervention against the military regime is possible.

The Role of Civil Society

"Civil society generally refers to all organized, small and large, which act independently of the government." A weak society is generally related to the centralization of power and a lack of tolerance for dissent. Even during the democratic rule (1948 to 1958) the freedom of Burma civil society was threatened by civil war. Due to lack of social cultural development the Burma civil society still remains with traditional form of leadership pattern. Moreover, as a result of the military regime's influence and traditional and cultural impact, and lack of modernized education system, most of the civil organizations are, although not directly controlled by the military, formed in a hierarchical authoritarian order. Some religious, cultural and social welfare organizations are allowed to move independent from the government control, but strictly limited to apolitical issues. The regime has established numerous military-led organizations, which promote loyalty to it and its policies. The social order and leadership principles still remain as the pre-colonial patron-client relationship, that instead of issues, the political party intended to be organized around magnetic leaders. Due to military control for more than four decades, many people do not understand the role of civil society for the promotion of democracy or that a healthy democracy requires broad-mindedness and dispersion of power.

In Burma traditional society, hierarchical relations have normally accepted a leader's power to make decision on behalf of the people, holding any information related to power, leader's decision making without or with a little consultation, the general public's lack of participation in decision-making and dispersed power, avoiding confrontation with leaders and top-down relationship within the society, are all common practices even among democratic supporters. Therefore, the traditional concept of leadership role in the society is favored toward military dictatorship.

Today, Burma is entangled in two political struggles: the restoration of democracy and the resolution of ethnic minority rights. The military leaders believe that they would easily be able to Burmanize ethnic minorities who composed a third of the total population. Because the Pang Long Agreement (of 1947), which guaranteed ethnic groups with rights of secession 10 years after independence was abolished, there is no trust between the Burman leaders and the ethnic groups. Therefore, the society of Burma remains as diverse and unorganized, which prevent the active participation of civil society for the political development.

The like Ne Win's 1962 Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), after the demolition of the BSPP and the defeat of the military backed Union Party in the 1990 election, the military regime has established The Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) on September 15, 1993. The USDA is patronized by top military officials and headed by military officers and supporters. This is a similar mass organization of independent movement, AFPF in 1940s, and Ne Win's BSPP in 1960s. As military and civil servants are not allowed to become members of political parties, the USDA will benefit those military and civil servants composing 15-20 percent of the total adult population in the country. By providing social cultural development programs, job training, and other occasional training, the USDA persuaded as many as more than 15 million young people who were mobilized by the military leader against the democratic movement. The USDA became the only free and legal social organization that backs the military regime government.

As I have mentioned above, the role of political parties has been dismantled and severely restricted during the last decade so that there has been almost nothing that political organizations contribute for the promotion of democracy inside the country. Student movement has been strictly watched. Parents of university students are required to sign letters of guarantee that their children will not participate in political activities. All student organizations have been banned. Traditionally active political actors, students could not openly express political opinions. Religious monks actively participated in the pro-democratic movement. However, the military regime has arrested several Buddhist monks and restricted any suspicious movement. The Buddhist organizations were closely watched, and monks are not allowed to speak with civilian about anti-military regime government. They are not allowed to read any anti-military regime material. Christian organizations are also restricted and are required to register to the regime government. Any suspicious activity is strictly watched. Therefore, under the military rule, the civil society has very limited, if any at all, opportunity to promote their cause toward democratization and political transition from military regime government to civilian government.

Individual Level

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was Born on June 19, 1945, daughter of General Aung San the Burma independent leader and Daw Khin Kyi, Burma's only woman ambassador to India and Nepal after her husband's death. She studied in Rangoon until the age of 15 and continued her study at Delhi University, India, and at Hugh's College, and Oxford University. After a long year, she returned to Burma in 1988 and got involved in pro-democratic movement. She was a co-founder of the National League for Democracy party and is the secretary general. She was kept under house arrest from 1989 until 1995,but her free movement continued to be restricted. Against she was kept under house arrest since 2000, and she was recently released in May 2000, after the seventh visit of the UN envoy Razali Ismail, without assurance for her future political freedom. It is suspected how far Daw Suu Kyi would have freedom to move around the country. However, her release and the release of 200 more political prisoners, shows a positive result of the 19 months old the so called secret-talk between Suu Kyi and the military junta leaders. Once the junta leaders regarded her as a "foreign axe handle" or a "puppet", they now have been dealing and building trust between each other for the cause of the nation, though it would be too early to predict the long ran result. She became the figurehead among democratic movement and won more than 64 prestigious prizes, awards, and appointments, including Nobel Prize in 1991. In the 1990 national election, her party won more than 80% of the total contested seats. She is trusted and loved by the people of Burma and is the hope of the future of Burma.

U Aung Shwe

U Aung Shwe is the chairperson of the NLD party. After he graduated in Arts from Rangoon University in 1940, he served in the Burma Independent Army (BIA), Burma Defense Army (BDA), and Patriotic Burmese Force (PBF) from 1942 to 1945. He was forced to retire from the army. He was appointed as ambassador to Australia, Egypt, France, Spain and New Zealand from 1961 to 1975. He was the chairperson of the POOL party and when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo were kept under house arrest, he became the chairperson of the NLD. He is one of the trusted political figures among the democratic activists.

U Tin Oo

U Tin Oo is the Deputy Chairperson of the NLD. He was born in 1927 in Bassein, Burma. He was a general and defense minister from 1974 to 1976 until he was accused of a coup attempt and put into jail. He was released from jail under amnesty in 1980. He became the vice chairperson of the NLD in September 1988, and in December 1988 he became the chairperson of NLD. In July 1989, he was put under house arrest, and in December 1989, he was imprisoned for three years.

Overall, the military is not likely to collapse by itself very soon. While there is no balanced political power in the opposition side, the Burma political struggle for democracy seems have to go further for more years.

VI. International and Regional Contributions

As the Burma military regime has been practicing self-promoting and noninterference policy, in the world community Burma issues have been ignored for along time. However, since the 1988 Burma pro-democratic movement, the western countries' attention on Burma issues has increased. The popularity of an activist leader, Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San the Burma independent movement leader, also draws the international concern. The western countries' economic sanction and diplomatic pressure have, at least to some extent, impacted the progress of political evolution in Burma. The geopolitical setting, laying between the big Asian Powers, China and India, limits the effectiveness of the international pressure toward regime change in Burma. Without the cooporation of China and India, the international pressure wouldn't be much effective. Moreover, the Asian countries' constructive engagement helps the regime government's survival. Therefore, the international contribution toward Burma political change has not yet been effective enough to stimulate change. However, the UN delegates and other individuals' concern help to let the world know that the Burma military government is not doing well in the issues of human rights and political issues.

The United Nations' contribution toward democratization in Burma by sending the UN envoys and giving pressure on the regime government concerning human rights and political issues have just a little impact on the regime government. However, it is an effective tool to condemn the regime government before the world's political community and to urge the military regime for political dialogue with the opposition. Diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, and encouragement to have dialogue with the opposition are the main things the UN has done so far.

The UN and international economic sanctions, as punishment for the brutal regime's bad policy and to give pressure to do what it ought to or not to do, serves as a clear signal disapproval of against the regime government's human rights violation and failure to improve the situation. Although economic sanction was criticized by some of the Rangoon based journalists for its practical impact on the people, this has been the most effective international pressure over Burma regime government. The U.S also bans new investments to Burma in 1997 under the Clinton administration. There were more than 25 U.S. companies that have pledged to avoid business with Burma in 2001. Senator Jesse Helms and Tom Harkin introduced legislature banning all imports from Burma. A bipartisan group of 35 US Senators sent a letter to President Bush urging him to maintain the sanction imposed on Burma. The US' pressure over Burma for political change has been critically reacted by the Burma regime government. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the European Union also sanctioned against the military regime.

In spite of the western pressure on Burma regime, the Asian countries chose a so-called constructive engagement to deal with the Rangoon government. China, in support of the Burma regime government economically and militarily, is the political backbone of the regime government, especially, after the break down of Burma Communist Party in 1990s. Likewise, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, and India practiced a constructive engagement with the regime government. Moreover, the admission of the regime government as a member of the ASEAN has increased the political legitimacy of the regime government within the regional context.

The military leaders have been leading the country into very bad economic condition for several decades, while they themselves enjoy wealth and power. With the help of the Asian countries, the economic sanction does not destabilize the regime government. At the same time, Burma's strategic importance in the regional context has shaped its regional support politically. The important geopolitical issue is China's interest in Burma. Burma was not part of the nexus of regional power politics. But now it has clearly demonstrated by its relation with China. China has support arms and weapons receiving the $ US 1.4 billion worth since 1988 when the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) came into power. And according to Professor David Steinberg's interview with a Chinese military attache in Asia, China would support the SLORC government when attacked militarily. Even if the international community stand together against the SLORC government, China would still support the SCLORC government as the Pakistan government did in supporting the Taliban of Afghanistan until the last minute. Therefore, China is the protector of the Burma military regime government both in the Asian geopolitical context and in the UN forum. Therefore, the Burma regime government can not be unseated in the UN as once the South Africa was.

The regional competition between the Asian supper powers, China and India benefits the Burma military regime government. The illegal border trade between Burma and China was legalized. China assisted Burma with its construction and development program, and China has gained military base in the Burma sea which provoked India. As India and China have been regional rivalry, stationing the China's military in Burma territory is inconvenient for India. At the same time, India has built a border trade road between Burma and India, which with extension will connect Thailand and Bangladesh as a regional highway. Moreover, ethnic insurgency and political separatist movement in the 7 sister states of the Northeast India play a crucial role in India's relation with Burma. The cooporation of the recent western Burma democratic activists and ethnic insurgency along the Indo-Burma border line has angered both India and Burma. The Indian and Burmese army conducted several joint operation along the border area against democratic activists in Burma and ethnic insurgencies in India. Therefore, the regional pressure toward Burma democratization is negligible. On the other hand, their constructive engagement becomes the regime government's great chance to promote their cause for survival.