Myanmar: Cohesion and Liberalism
-I.P. Khosla, former Secretary to Ministry of External Affairs, Govt of India
Developments in Myanmar since 1988 illustrate a conflict which is not unique to that country.
On the one hand, the global spread of liberalism suggests the desirability of adopting democratic political institutions based on pluralism, freedom of expression, individual liberty and other political values associated with the West; and an economic regime which gives free play to the market place. Though nuanced in recent years, this is today a political and economic philosophy strongly propagated by the USA and Europe for universal adoption; the paradigm authorises external legitimacy.
On the other hand, aims like state cohesion, rapid economic growth, or even the preservation of cultural uniqueness may conflict with liberalism, and require it to be modified or abandoned, or that some elements of it be taken up in combination with a more authoritarian political and/or economic regime. This does not mean democratic socialism on the pattern of the erstwhile Soviet Union, for that was an equally holistic system incorporating one-party politics and an economy dominated by the state. It means the selection of elements from these earlier systems, or even new elements in a pragmatic mix designed to promote foundational aims.
The aims of state cohesion and national integrity, more than others, bring in the question of internal state legitimacy, meaning whether the people, including religious, ethnic or other minorities, accept the state without special incentives or the use of force; and institutional legitimacy, meaning the same for the political and other governing institutions. Hereditary authority, sheer continuity, prosperity, the adoption of a religion or ideology that finds wide popular acceptance, are some of the instruments that are used to enhance legitimacy.
Where the state or its governing institutions are, despite the use of such instruments, not accepted by one or more significant groups, the latter can be coerced into doing so by the threat or use of force, often in combination with the giving of special incentives such as material goods or legal exemptions. Even so, the legitimacy of states and of governing institutions has been frequently disputed over the years, sometimes successfully, as happened most recently on a large scale in Eastern Europe. In Myanmar the latter has been disputed both since the colonial power established control, and since 1942, when that control dissolved.
Those who held power in Myanmar during the last 50 years have sought the right mix of instruments to promote internal legitimacy so that state cohesion is ensured, and governing institutions agreed, with a minimum use of force. The search has not yet been successful, but the 1988 crisis marked a turning point.
The turn was away from the liberalism with religious promotion which prevailed till 1962; and from the authoritarian socialism which had been adopted after 1962. It was towards the adoption of an experimental and pragmatic mix. This means in practice that the armed forces continue to be in control; multiple political parties are allowed but there is little freedom of speech or expression; there is a liberal economic package, and an encouragement of uniqueness in cultural identity. This mix appears to have resulted in an economic boom, an easing of the problem of minority separatism, and closer ties with a region which is going the same way.
External legitimacy is likely to come about if liberalism is adopted and the military goes back to the barracks. But the military no longer seeks it; and it seems no longer relevant in Myanmar to look for a military-civil polarisation or a "transfer of power" from the military to a liberalist elected government.
Geography into History
Geography offers the most easily perceptible rationale for the unity of Myanmar. The central plain of the Ayeyarwady Valley is arched by mountains and plateaux along which its land borders run; to the south the coastline also forms a natural border.
But this is not a correct perception; more often than not international borders are determined by factors other than natural features; and in historic times the great kingdoms based in Myanmar were not limited by them.
It is more true that in pre-colonial times the Buddhist faith, which strongly influenced political and social life, promoted unity, blending with prosperity and expanding power to enhance the legitimacy of the ruler. In the role of Dhammaraja this was enhanced by his being acceptable as a potential Boddhisatva who strengthens religious belief and the religious establishment by pious acts like the building of pagodas, the making of donations for pious purposes, and the carrying out of rituals. As Cakkavatti, or universal ruler whose conquests should bring together within the kingdom not only the valleys and mountains of Myanmar but the neighbouring lands in a process of continuing expansion, the ruler's legitimacy depended on his military and administrative ability. This was equally important, for the aim was to enrich the expanding state, and thereby to increase the prosperity of his people.
The chief source of later divisiveness was unknown at the time of the great kingdoms; the racial distinctions created by anthropology being a product of the 19th century, the Karens, Kachins, Shans and others were represented in the Army and the civil services without the reified identities of the colonial period.
When the British occupied Myanmar in three military campaigns (1824-6, 1852 and 1885), they deposed the King and annexed it to their empire in India. Apart from the glory of imperial expansion, Britain's main aim in Myanmar was to run it as a colonial extractive economy. Peaceful conditions for the development of agriculture and trade were essential for this purpose, the main threat being the growth of nationalism. And one of the instruments they developed to meet that threat was to convert geography into history, to impose their version of two Myanmars onto the history and the political-administrative landscape of the country, to undermine the legitimacy of Myanmar as a unified state.
The group names of the 15 per cent of the population living in the mountainous or frontier areas were converted into separate identities with distinct histories and ethnicities:1 Karen, Kachin, Shan, Chin, Mon or Arakan. While lowland Mynanmar was ruled directly, varying systems were evolved for these groups. The Karenni areas were not annexed but their rulers were obliged to accept British paramountcy. Others like the Shans, the Kachins and the Chins were ruled indirectly, through hereditary or local chiefs. Christian missionaries concentrated their proselytising among these groups; it was the American Baptists in particular who, along with British civil servants, propagated the idea of an independent Karen state, which gave rise, in time, to similar demands by the other minority groups. And a Burma Frontier Service was created to emphasise the separation between the two Myanmars. To ensure the continued autonomy, and possible eventual independence, of the mountainous areas, and to curb nationalism (seen to originate largely in the lowlands) the British recruited the armed forces almost exclusively from these areas. And the so-called racial or ethnic minority groups were given the right to use their own law in matters of religion and custom.
Thus the historical and political uses to which geography was put became more decisive than the natural features in themselves, and led the British, followed by other commentators, to the conclusion that nature had divided rather than united Myanmar: the "country divides naturally into two distinct areas--the lowlands (plains and delta) and the mountains." History, then, is not cohesion but struggle; "the political history of Burma before the British conquest can be summarised as a never-ending struggle between at least four different indigenous groups..."2
British rule also undermined religion, seen by them as a social bond which could strengthen nationalism. The ecclesiastical hierarchy and the head of the Sangha were stripped of their power by derecognition, and Buddhist law, which traditionally maintained discipline and order within the Sangha, was ignored or superceded by secular or civil law. Lay persons were appointed to administer the major Buddhist pilgrimage sites and public places of worship. In the result the discipline of the monks declined, monastic education was neglected, pagodas and shrines were denied adequate maintenance, and the supervised uniformity of a religious institution broke up into segregated enclaves for religious observance or salvation.
Obedience depended solely, therefore, on a state system based on the threat or use of coercion; on military power, the external military power of the British Indian Army, officered by the British, manned largely by Indians and at a later stage also by the minority groups.
In mid-December 1941, units of the Japanese 15th Army moved into southern Tenasserium; ten days later, Yangon was being bombed and the British retreat began, along with that of the entire administrative and military superstructure that was the state. Half a million people fled to India, including almost the entire armed forces, the military and civil police, government servants, professionals, businessmen and missionaries. The population of Yangon became one-third of the 1940 level. The Japanese had little interest in the administrative apparatus. Their armed forces, which in principle had replaced those of the British, in fact did not do so except in strategically important areas. Initially they set up a central administration headed by a Burmese but this had not the wherewithal of power and was unable to exercise control. Then in August 1942 they set up a regular government manned by some former civil servants and politicians, but this was equally ineffective, Finally on August 1, 1943, with Japanese approval, the Government of Burma declared independence, with the same result.
The state system had been removed, and there was nothing in its place.
The Threat of Disintegration
Nearly six decades of colonial rule followed by three years of Japanese occupation thus left little possibility of transiting peacefully after the war to a unified and independent Myanmar. Without a state system or a central administration, law and order broke down; parallel governments run by Bo, or locally powerful individuals, emerged. They organised paramilitary forces to defend their areas, assumed responsibility for law and order, ran their own politics and administration, and issued their own decrees as law. Myanmar was on the way to becoming a series of semi-independent little republics. When the British administration returned after the Japanese withdrawal in early 1945, it could not reverse the loss of central authority. Having retreated virtually without a fight, British prestige had suffered irretrievably; the Burmese assumed that independence was around the corner, that the British had returned only to negotiate its terms, and prepared to deal with the new Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) administration.
The nationalist movement had started by using a platform set up to promote religion in order to make constitutional demands. It worked for the reassertion of Burmese identity, and demanded improvements in educational and religious matters and the transition to home rule. But it made little effort to bring in the minorities; indeed constitutional reform further distanced the latter by allocating separate electoral and nominated seats for them. As for religion, the Sangha was split. As the nationalist movement divided and redivided over one issue or another, so did the Sangha. It was not until Aung San, U Nu and the Thakins came to dominate the nationalist movement in the late 1930s, starting with the Yangon University students' strike in February 1936, that the movement acquired a direction that could have taken Myanmar into a future of unforced cohesion. By then it was too late.
The AFPFL was a coalition put together during the war under the leadership of Aung San and U Nu which included, apart from the Thakins, the Socialists as well as the Burmese Communist Party. That it had overwhelming support was shown in elections to the Constituent Assembly held in April 1947, during the run-up to independence, when it won 172 out of 182 seats not allotted to minorities. The problem faced by the AFPFL was to resurrect or create the legitimacy needed to maintain cohesion without coercion.
Meanwhile the British continued to promote separatism. Apart from separate electorates for the minority or frontier areas, they specified while making the arrangements for the transition to independence, that their peoples would continue to have a special regime until they signified "their desire for some suitable form of amalgamation of their territories with Burma Proper."3 Aung San and the AFPFL made special efforts to reverse this by showing friendship to and reassuring the minorities. By February 1947, this had so far succeeded that each of the minority communities agreed, subject to certain special provisions, to join the Union. Personal factors, mainly the minority leaders' faith in Aung San, his unremitting efforts to earn their friendship, and his evident sincerity, had played an important role in this achievement.
On July 19, 1947, in a major setback to cohesion, Aung San was assassinated, along with eight others including three leaders of the Karen and Shan minorities who had consistently supported a unified Myanmar. U Nu succeeded Aung San as leader of the AFPFL and became Prime Minister in a provisional government on July 23, 1947. By the end of the year he had steered the Constitution through the Constituent Assembly, and Myanmar became independent on January 4, 1948. He was to remain Prime Minister till March 2, 1962, with a brief gap in 1956-57 and an eighteen-month gap from September 1958 to April 1960 when General Ne Win headed a caretaker government.
U Nu Seeks Legitimacy
U Nu sought legitimacy for the state and his government in a mix of foreign and Myanmar sources. The Constitution was a mix of Western and Socialist precedents. It was based, in the preamble, on "the eternal principles of Justice, Liberty and Equality," but also included strong Socialist principles, like the promise to end large land holdings and the directive principles for promoting welfare. Elections to Parliament, which were generally free and fair, were held in 1951, 1956 and, under a caretaker government, in 1960; there was freedom of the Press, speech and assembly; the legal code established by the British continued in place; a pluralist democracy on the Western pattern seemed to be emerging.
Beyond this, his government promoted the culture of Myanmar, including the use of the Burmese language in the legislature, the courts and the administration; the celebration of local festivals and religious occasions; and the study of local literature and the humanities. Above all, religion, which had originally inspired the nationalist movement, was brought in by the state as the prime ingredient of the nationalist post-colonial revival of legitimacy for the state and its governing institutions.
Soon after independence, he steered the Ecclesiastical Courts Act (1949) through Parliament, restoring the pre-colonial authority of the Sangha to have its own clerical courts. In the next year, the Buddha Sasana Act established a council to promote Buddhism, and to undertake missionary activity in and outside Myanmar. A Ministry of Religious Affairs and a Pali University (to resume instruction in the language of the scriptures) quickly followed. The biggest international gathering of his Premiership was the 6th Great Buddhist Council (the 5th was in 1871 under King Mindon): 2,500 learned monks met from May 1954 to May 1956 along with officials and dignitaries from the world of Theravada Buddhism in this effort to clarify the texts and inspire the Buddhist community around the globe. His last major step in September 1961, which was opposed by the minorities as well as the left, was to adopt Buddhism as the state religion.
These measures gave autonomous authority to the Sangha which had, however, not had the time to acquire the organisational discipline of pre-colonial times. Factionalism intensified; the monks used their power and access to interfere in state activity. So U Nu's personal piety, including his increasingly public indulgence in nat worship, was praised, but the legitimacy of his government did not increase, for any increase was fragmented and absorbed by the faction ridden Sangha.
Economic success could have partly made up for this; but in implementation the Welfare or Pyidawtha Plan (1952-60) succeeded too little for the purpose. The ravages of war had brought agriculture, transport and communications, industry, and the national income generally to levels well below pre-war; the Pyidawtha Plan intended to restore those levels and cross them. This meant an annual increase in GDP of almost 10 per cent, well beyond Myanmar's capacity; in the event, the annual increase was just 3 per cent, leaving the per capita GDP at the end of the plan at a level slightly below that before the war. Infrastructure and industry suffered from the policy of extensive nationalism. And agriculture, which contributed over a third of GDP and 80 per cent of export earnings, was neglected. Rice production in 1960 was 93 per cent of pre-war production.
The sum of the U Nu government's achievements in Western style liberalism, Myanmar style cultural promotion and Socialist economics was not enough to give it (or the state) the legitimacy needed for stability. That legitimacy was violently contested within weeks of independence day; different groups sought to take advantage of the displacement of state authority during the war, and what they saw as the government's inability to re-position it thereafter. The local bossess, or Bo, offered the government peace in their areas in exchange for retention of their power and influence. The government was often glad to acquiesce, for it saw as the greater menace the Communists and the minority insurgents.
The Communists had been part of the AFPFL at its creation. In October 1946, they were expelled, and by March 1948, went underground to take up arms against the government. Four months later, several units of the People's Volunteer Organisation (PVO) did likewise, in many cases joining the Communists. The PVO had been organised by Aung San in 1945 as a 100,000-strong paramilitary association to take over the functions of the retreating Japanese armed forces, to assist in the transition to independence, and to help the post-war reconstruction of the country. Its officers and men had a strong personal loyalty to Aung San himself, but with his death the plan for putting them into reconstruction tasks could not be implemented. In frustration they took to rebellion.
By October 1948, the Karens had also taken up arms against the government. The Karen National Union (KNU) was organised in early 1947 by Karen leaders who till then had been with the AFPFL; by mid-1947 they had formed an armed force, the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO), demanding an autonomous or separate Karen state, which should remain in the Commonwealth, which Myanmar did not intend to do. In Britain, political support to the Karen separatist movement was openly propagated on the ground that under U Nu, Myanmar was going the Communist way while the Karens would be firmly anti-Communist; there was also evidence of British military help to them. This was the most serious threat to the government, and U Nu declared in a speech, "Among all the insurgents, KNDO's were the most formidable, and their rebellion put the government into unprecedented straits."4
The turning point came in April 1949. Government forces retook Mandalay, and the gains thereafter were slow but steady. The insurgents were driven from Insein and elsewhere around Yangon, and by 1951, U Nu felt strong enough to organise elections. Insurgency did not, however, die out after 1951. The Communists, the PVO and the Karens were weakened and many of them returned to legality; but a simmering armed opposition continued till 1960, when a split in the AFPFL and the growing apparent weakness of the state authority enabled it to flare up again. This time the Shans and Kachins also rebelled. The proposed enactment to make Buddhism the state religion gave the minorities a platform to struggle for autonomy or independence; the Communists, though ineffectively, tried to step up their struggle as they saw the weakness of the state; the Karens did the same more successfully and were able to coordinate with the Shans.
The Military Take-over
By July 1961, the demand of the minorities was to loosen the constitutional ties between the centre and the outlying areas, and U Nu seemed unable or unwilling to control this. He agreed to negotiate statehood for Arakan and for the Mons, and greater autonomy for the Shan and Karenni states. Fissures in his political party (which had already split in 1958), which widened in early 1962, a further deterioration in the economic situation, and a nationwide strike by the business community in February 1962 convinced the armed forces that U Nu would not be able to reverse the drift towards disintegration. On March 2, 1962, by coup d'etat, General Ne Win took control of the government and established a Revolutionary Council to run it.
The Constitution was held in abeyance, though not formally suspended or abrogated; Parliament was dissolved along with the Councils in the states; the Supreme Court and the High Courts were abolished; while the President, Prime Minister U Nu, the Chief Justice and the key leaders of the minority communities demanding autonomy were arrested. There was no significant opposition from any part of the country, and many welcomed the change with relief as a way out of the crisis.
The armed forces of Myanmar originated as part of the nationalist movement initiated by the Thakins. In 1940, Aung San, Ne Win, and twenty-eight others, the Thirty Comrades, were taken by the Japanese to Hainan Island for military training. On return to Myanmar with the Japanese occupation forces, they headed the Burma Independence Army (BIA, later the Burma National Army) and, after further experience with, and then against, the Japanese, became the core of the armed forces. Few in the early BIA were from the minorities, but the latter, who provided almost the entire recruitment for the British controlled forces, were partially integrated before independence.
Three developments led the armed forces to conclude that they should play a greater role in the future of the country. Firstly, the period of colonial rule had set a long-running precedent for reliance on military force as the single source of authority in government. Secondly, they had played a major role in the nationalist struggle; this was reinforced by the insurgencies of 1948-51, when it became clear that without them, the Union could have disintegrated. Thirdly, they retained a sense of responsibility for the stability and smooth administration of the country. As areas were wrested from the insurgents and brought under central rule the armed forces assumed charge for law and order, often handling the details of day to day administration. And a tradition grew that they would not be under civilian control, would in fact be a parallel authority in the wings, aiding the civil government but independent. More than this, they would not accept certain steps by a civilian government, such as giving greater autonomy to the states. When the AFPFL split in 1958 and U Nu handed over power to a caretaker administration under Ne Win, there was tangible progress in suppressing insurgency, reducing crime and lowering the cost of living; the self-image of the armed forces as the only organisation that could hold the state structure together was reinforced.
Policy Towards Separatism and Religion
The Revolutionary Council (RC) gave the highest priority to stamping out separatism and insurgency.
The States Councils had some autonomy; in their place administrative organisations under direct central control were set up; the Mon and Arakan Ministries were thought to have encouraged separatism; they were abolished. Different states had been given some autonomy in legal matters; this was annulled. And under the new Constitution, adopted in 1974, the states were given no autonomy; every part of the Union would be treated alike. In the attempt to remove ethnicity or minority status from the area of dispute surrounding the question of power sharing the RC tried to ensure that cultural identity was fully preserved. Seven divisions were established for lower Myanmar, and an equal number of states for minority areas, which were given the respective group names: Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine (Arakan), and Shan. The cultural uniqueness of each of the latter was emphasised by developing their language, literature, religion and traditional customs.
A military crackdown in April and May 1962, led to the capture of the Karen rebel headquarters and the surrender of other insurgent groups. By April 1963, having had some success in the field, the RC was ready to negotiate and announced an amnesty and unconditional negotiations with safe-conduct. And the various insurgent leaders arrived in Yangon to negotiate: the Communists, the Shan State National Front and the Shan State Independence Army; the Kachin Independence Army; the KNDO. The only agreement reached was with the KNDO; the rest went back into the mountains. Thereafter insurgency simmered on, and even the KNDO resumed fighting; but the government was confident that it could contain the problem to the border and outlying areas.
The RC's second priority for the preservation of the Union was to remove religion from the sphere of state and politics, though here it acted with caution. It did not abrogate the constitutional amendment making Buddhism the state religion, but state financial and moral support to religious institutions was stopped; the government and government controlled companies stopped paying for pagoda construction and other religious work; official observance of the Buddhist Sabbath was stopped; the ban on cow slaughter lifted; and the Buddha Sasana Council dissolved.
This was not enough, however, for under U Nu the Sangha had acquired political influence. In 1964, the RC tried to get the religious organisations registered, as a first step. But protest from the monks and public opposition forced it to rescind the decision. In 1965, another attempt was made by convening a General Congregation of the Sangha. Some senior monks who were prepared to cooperate with the government were included, but there was still no success in getting the organisations to register.
For fifteen years thereafter the state concentrated on ground work to get the monks on its side. Then in 1980, a second General Congregation was convened. This was more successful; it was agreed to create a Supreme Sangha Council with the aim of "unifying, purifying, developing and stabilising the Burmese Buddhist religion and church,"5 to introduce a uniform policy for the registration of monks and religious organisations, and to evolve procedures for settling matters of monastic discipline and appointments. In 1985, a third General Congregation ratified the reorganised Sangha.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, three things happened to the relationship between state and religion. First, the government-Sangha rapprochement of the second and third General Congregations did not hold. As the pro-democracy movement gained ground in the late 1980s, it was clear that a majority of the 300,000 monks of Myanmar, specially those belonging to the minority groups, supported or went back to one or other political party. They saw the movement as the best hope for a return to the kind of power and influence they had enjoyed under U Nu. Secondly, the government gradually learned how to deal with religion and the Sangha in a more effective way. The rigid separation of state and religion was relaxed. The sole political party, the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) was mobilised to collect donations for Buddhist causes, the state itself made donations and was increasingly associated with merit making rituals and even encouraged missionary activity among non-Buddhist members of the minorities. Thirdly, the preoccupation of the 1990s with material wealth, a consumerist culture and foreign mass media entertainment caused a decline in popular religiosity; as an autonomous source of support or opposition to the state, religion had decreasing potential.
The outcome was a new construct. The binary opposition of religion and state had given way to a fluid relationship between religion, politics and the state. This further accentuated the power of the gun as the real source of authority for the state.
The Military Seeks Legitimacy
"For reasons which look valid at the time, though in retrospect they may be regretted as weak or foolish, the repressive state usually finds it opportune over time to seduce some of those it used to repress and to lean more on consent."6 To create consent, the RC tried to develop a new ideology incorporating Socialist aims as the basis of legitimacy to replace military force. The attempt met with virtually no success.
In April 1962, the new ideology, called "The Burmese Way to Socialism" came out; three months later the RC said it would establish a party, the BSPP, to implement this, and in January 1963, the BSPP published "The System of Correlation of Man and Environment," a philosophical and ideological treatment of the way forward. The documents signalled a clean break from the liberalism of U Nu. There would be only one political party; all others were banned under a law of March 1964. Parliamentary democracy had failed in Myanmar, which must develop a form of democracy suited to its particular social development. There were references to ideas from Theravada Buddhism and Marxist terminology; but the basic purpose was to show that centralism, a concentration of power in the state, was the necessary pre-requisite for material progress. "Without centralism society will tend towards anarchy." Above all, the emphasis was on unity, the sense of oneness that would bind all the peoples of Myanmar into a nation with a spirit of patriotism. And the RC made it clear that in achieving unity through centralism the instrument of choice would continue to be, for some time and until the ideology was more widely accepted, coercion, both hard and soft.
This was seen in July 1962, when a students demonstration went out of control; the Army fired into the unruly crowd, killing and wounding several of them. Then it blew up the students union building and closed all universities and colleges. And it was seen periodically thereafter, particularly in June 1974, when over two dozen were killed in firing on a demonstration; in December 1974, when students and monks demonstrated at the state funeral arrangements made for U Thant; in March 1976, during a student demonstration protesting conditions in the country; and, on the largest scale since 1962, in 1988, when several thousands were killed and many times that number wounded in repeated clashes between the armed forces and demonstrators.
Soft coercion saw the armed forces propagating the new ideology. Their officers built the BSPP, propounded its philosophy, sought out those who might sympathise. In 1971, they organised the first party conference, and tried to make it a mass party thereafter, sponsoring a peasants organisation, a workers organisation and a youth organisation. The new ideology was incorporated into a draft Constitution. Fifteen teams systematically criss-crossed the countryside to elicit opinions on the draft provisions; then another draft was prepared and the 15 teams did the same with that. Officers went from town to town, village to village, explaining the provisions, asking for suggestions, arranging local groups to carry on the work after they had left. Only then was the 1974 Constitution finalised.
The structure and style in all this work was military; the texts used for educating the people about the philosophy or the Constitution were military in wording and metaphor; the style was of command and obey, and there was little or no flow from down to up. So dissent simmered, and was kept under control only by the likelihood that soft could quickly turn to hard coercion.
"To lean more on consent" could also be achieved by transferring economic power from private into government hands through even more nationalisation, and by raising the general living standard. These two aims proved incompatible.
The first to be nationalised, reflecting the RC's suspicion of external influence, were the foreign owned companies: Burma Oil, the Steel Brothers, Anglo-Burma Tin, the 14 foreign owned banks. By May 1964, 3,000 companies had been nationalised including wholesale and retailers. Many were later closed down, declared redundant or handed back to the owners; but in 1985, there were still nearly 2,000 state owned, state run companies, including the entire infrastructure, all financial services, mining and energy, and all major manufacturing companies.
The Crisis of 1988
Inexperience in business and incompetence in handling internal and external trade soon led to shortages and rising discontent. From being a major rice exporter, Myanmar became a country of shortage; in 1987, rice exports fell to 150,000 tons, the lowest in 40 years; food riots erupted sporadically in the 1980s. The state's ability to raise revenue remained low, for the nationalised sector performed badly; so there was little investment. After 1962, investment seldom exceeded 10 per cent of GDP, and growth was constrained to an annual level of 3 per cent till the mid-70s. It increased thereafter, partly because of resource inflows from abroad, but never enough to make the infrastructural improvements needed to accelerate the pace over the long term. There was a decline in foreign trade: imports from 19 per cent of GDP in 1962 to 2 per cent in 1987; exports from 20 per cent to 9 per cent. An economic crisis in 1972 forced the RC to look for more foreign aid and loans, but in an economy long insulated from the world this led to more problems. Growth improved, but Myanmar's foreign debt, which was below US $100 million in the 1960s, jumped to nearly US$2.5 billion in 1984; debt service to 36.3 per cent of the GDP, then 45 per cent in 1987. In that year, foreign exchange reserves fell to US$20 million, just enough for two weeks' imports.
The economic crisis was the central issue for the BSPP in 1987. On August 10 of that year, Ne Win called an extraordinary meeting of the Central Committee of the party. There he took the view that the economic crisis was due not just to faulty economic policies, but to the "system as a whole"; it was a generally accepted view at the time: that a single party political system, a planned and centrally controlled economy, an ideology imposed from above, blended in a unified totality; the alternative being a package containing a pluralist polity with, among others, a free market economy and a choice of ideologies. At the meeting he admitted the failure of the past 25 years political, economic and social policies and institutions and called for self-criticism. The next month saw small scale student riots in Yangon and the RC closed the university.
Six months of relative quiet was followed, in March 1988, by a week-long public protest against economic hardship, and more violent student riots, the worst since December 1974. The protest was put down brutally; reportedly over 100 persons were killed and more injured; June saw further student protest, again put down brutally; the universities and colleges were again closed, and dusk to dawn curfew imposed in Yangon. The unrest spread to other towns, Taunggyi and Prome; in Prome the government imposed martial law.
The leadership now wavered. Ne Win called an extraordinary Congress of the BSPP on July 23, 1988, and there resigned his post of Chairman, asked the party to accept the resignations of five other senior armed forces ministers and, in a final admission of the failure of the "system as a whole," asked also for the holding of a national referendum on whether Myanmar should adopt a multi-party system. It seemed like a move to bring back liberalism. However, the Congress accepted his resignation but nothing else, and the public, encouraged by the wavering, took to the streets in larger numbers. Martial law was imposed in Yangon; despite this, on August 8, 100,000 people marched its streets in protest; and among them were students, urban workers and monks who called for an interim government acceptable to the people which would conduct multi-party elections leading to a democratic government. The second week of August saw more protest, now joined by many soldiers; an Air Force group announced they would support the protesters' demands. And the movement spread to Mandalay and Moulmein, Pegu and Prome and Sagaing. Government officials, troops and senior party members started to leave many townships; local committees or councils led by the Opposition, usually the monks, were set up spontaneously to run the local administrations.
The government reacted by imposing martial law and with large scale violence; during that second week of August alone, 3,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Yangon, and there was no sign that the movement would abate; Then on August 12, as a conciliatory gesture, the BSPP nominated a civilian as Chairman and, therefore, President of the country. Martial law was lifted, a number of imprisoned political leaders released, and students union activities permitted. On September 10, an emergency session of the party decided that multi-party elections would be held within three months; the next day 350,000 people demonstrated in Yangon, including some armed forces personnel, particularly from the Navy and Air Force; they wanted the BSPP to hand over power to an interim government immediately; and meanwhile groups of students and monks were assuming control of the administrative establishments in an increasing number of townships.
SLORC: The Military Anew
The first step towards reassertion of the state was taken on September 16, when all members of the armed forces, police and the civil services resigned from the BSPP. Two days later, General Saw Maung, as head of the armed forces, assumed all powers of the state by proclamation. All the leading state organs, including Parliament and the Council of Ministers, were abolished; martial law was reimposed; a dusk to dawn curfew enforced; public gatherings of more than five persons were banned; and restrictions placed on travel and publications. A new ruling group was set up called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Now that the armed forces had been separated from politics, this comprised only military officers. SLORC also moved quickly to centralism, taking back control of the townships which had been run by students and monks, punishing armed forces personnel who had sympathised with the movement, and setting up subordinate organs all over the country. However, it also implemented the earlier commitment to elections under a multi-party system.
Liberalism maps out what should be done before, during and after elections: the run-up to elections are held under specified conditions including freedom of the Press, of speech and of assembly; the balloting itself is a free and unforced choice between several parties; and the consequences are the taking over of the reins of office and power by those who are victorious. SLORC rejected the first and third elements, while by and large honouring the second.
It was made clear that martial law would remain in force throughout, and it did, upto balloting day and beyond. Campaigning was restricted to a three-month period; and the rules for it were stringent: no gatherings of more than five persons; no violation of curfew; no freedom of the Press or speech, and all speeches would be censored; no criticism of SLORC or of any political party. Further, eleven military tribunals were set up to try persons violating martial law regulations, the minimum sentence they could impose being three years imprisonment, the maximum the death penalty. Several Opposition leaders were arrested, and the most popular of them, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the national hero Aung San, was put under house arrest in July 1989, ten months before the election, as also was the Chairman of her party, and U Nu.
But the voting was free and fair. SLORC withdrew the March 1964 law making the BSPP the only legal party, and invited political parties to register so that they could contest: 233 had done so by February 1989, including the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the BSPP, now under the new name of the National Unity Party (NUP). Some of them did not contest, some were disqualified, but a total of 93 parties did contest the elections held on May 27, 1990. Several dozen foreign journalist were given visas to observe and report on the elections, and were allowed to travel relatively freely; they conceded that the balloting was free. And the results confirmed this. The NUP won only 10 seats out of 485, while the Opposition NLD won 392.
The Post-Election Scene
A year before the elections SLORC had made it clear that these would result in an Assembly which would draft a Constitution. A government would then be formed under the terms of the new Constitution, and only then would power be handed over. The landslide victory of the Opposition, however, led to the expectation, under the provisions of the liberal paradigm, that power should be handed over immediately; that an elected government should draft the new Constitution. Soon after the results were announced, therefore, anti-government protest began, and Buddhist monks decided to boycott military personnel. SLORC was unrelentingly firm. Four days after the election General Saw Maung had stated that there was no question of the Army handing over power soon; it would remain in control till a government could be formed according to law, and no repeat of the 1988 turmoil would be tolerated.
Troops fired on the protesters to suppress them; several leaders and elected members of the Opposition were arrested; and the monasteries were surrounded to bring the monks under control. All but nine Buddhist orders were banned. And to make it even clearer that there would be no early transfer of power, further conditions were specified before that event could happen. Under a decree issued in July 1990, all powers of the state were vested in SLORC; it was required that a new Constitution be drawn up and submitted to a national referendum before it was taken as approved; thereafter further elections would be held under it to decide who would be in power. All those elected in May 1990 were required to endorse this decree. Those who refused would have their election annulled. Some doubt was cast even on this procedure when SLORC declared in April 1991 that it was "unfeasible" to transfer power to the political parties since most of them were subversive and incapable of ruling the country.
And after Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1991, the NLD leadership was required to, and did, expel her from the party.
The doubts about the procedure seemed confirmed as the work of the drafting assembly got under way. In June 1992, over two years after the elections, SLORC started a dialogue with representatives of the NLD, other Opposition parties, and of the minorities. In October of that year, it announced the formation of a Convening Commission for the National Convention, the body that would draft the Constitution. Principles were laid down for this purpose which included "non-disintegration of the Union; non-disintegration of national sovereignty; consolidation and perpetuation of sovereignty; emergence of a genuine multi-party system; development of the eternal principles of justice, liberty, and equality in the state; and the participation of the tatmadaw (armed forces) in the leading role of national politics of the state."7
When the National Convention finally met for the first time on January 9, 1993, almost 80 per cent of the 700 delegates were not elected members at all but nominees of the armed forces, many of those elected having gone underground or being under arrest; and the first item was approval of the armed forces' demand for a leading role in government, to which the NLD objected, stalling the proceedings. The Convention met sporadically thereafter; at one point, in November 1995, only 86 NLD members remained and decided to boycott the session on the question of the armed forces' role. All were expelled, cutting to less than half the number of elected members. The Convention continued to meet; several chapters of the draft Constitution were agreed, but SLORC was clearly in no hurry to complete the work. In November 1997, in a parallel move, it was announced that SLORC had been dissolved and replaced by a State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), with essentially the same armed forces officers in it, with some addition of younger officers, and three civilians.
The Democratic Liberal Paradigm
There are problems in ascribing indisputable value and universality to the liberal paradigm. It is not demonstrably advantageous for all nations over every other system, though it does suit most nations and societies better than any other; for instance, the connection between casting a vote and the aspirations of the voter is at best fragile; and equally so between pluralism and better government. It is recent in application, having been implemented over most of the democratic world for less than fifty years; in all of the USA since the 1960s. And recent in advocacy; in determining the legitimacy of governments before the end of the Cold War, the USA attached little importance to liberalist democracy, emphasising instead "freedom," which meant being pro-American and included Pakistan under military rule and Iran under the Shah; and economic policies that allowed the inflow of surplus US capital and high value added goods. In contrast the Soviet Union's package emphasised the completion of the democratic revolution, meaning being pro-Soviet; and developing the state sector, which meant nationalising the foreign (read Western) companies and bringing in Soviet technology and equipment. Both were holistic: politics, economics, culture, value systems were integrally connected. When the Soviet Union collapsed it was assumed that the one remaining system would govern universal norms, but the contents of the package had changed; US policy shifted from emphasising freedom to the assertion that democracy based on liberalism or neo-libralism has ethical value, serves essential US interests, and would now be easier to spread across the world.
A basic statement of the paradigm can be taken from the text of the 1995 US National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement: "Democracies create free markets that offer economic opportunity, make for more reliable trading partners, and are far less likely to wage war on one another." Hence US national security strategy "is based on enlarging the community of market democracies."8 Beyond this, it is the US version of the liberal paradigm defining democracy that should prevail. Strobe Talbott, then Deputy Secretary of State stated in 1996 that the US is "a country founded on a set of ideas and ideals, applicable to people everywhere"; but further, the US must make it prevail in its own interests, since "in an increasingly interdependent world Americans have a growing stake in how other countries govern, or misgovern, themselves. The larger and more close-knit the community of nations that choose democratic forms of government, the safer and more prosperous Americans will be."9
And US Pressure
Engagement is the word that describes what the USA should do for this purpose, and it means a range of action from persuasion to intervention, including military intervention. The Presidential Assistant for National Security Affairs, therefore, noted that the policy had been marked with success, as seen in the spread of democracies and open markets, but persistent engagement was still required because in many places democracy still needs nurturing, markets have not sunk deep roots, and there are dangers like "aggression by rogue states, international terrorism, economic dislocation and conflict between freedom and oppression."10
Myanmar was one of those places. An unofficial comment, though somewhat strongly worded, gives the flavour of the thinking: "The rest of the world has started to see Myanmar as an international menace, a source of drugs, AIDS, refugees, ecological devastation, and regional military instability," hence "no better case exists than Myanmar to test a new paradigm for international diplomacy in which violations of human rights, narcotics trafficking, refugee flows, and environment degradation together are seen as just as great a peril as the nuclear threat was once."11
The US policy aim was that Myanmar should move towards the liberal paradigm through progress in democratisation and respect for human rights. Immediately after the May 1990 election, the White House said, "The US calls on the military government to honour its repeated promises to respect the election results. We look forward to a prompt transfer of power by the military government to the newly elected People's Assembly"; to which SLORC replied that it "does not care" for pressure by big nations, and that it would continue in power till a Constitution is framed. Five years later, having completed a review of policy on Myanmar, the aim had not changed. After a September 1995 visit to Myanmar, Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the United Nations, said she had delivered a "tough message" to the government that while America is ready for friendship, that can only be when fundamental progress towards democracy and respect for basic human rights is achieved.
Backing up this policy, regular reports were published about the human rights situation. Amnesty International indicted SLORC each year, saying life under that regime was characterised by fear, intimidation and widespread violation of human rights. The Human Rights Watch World Report of 1995 mentions persistent human rights abuses, and that SLORC "continued to be responsible for forced labour, especially on infrastructure projects; arbitrary detention; torture and denials of freedom of association, expression, and assembly."12 And each year the Committee of the UN Commission on Human Rights adopts a resolution deploring human rights violations in Myanmar, citing reports, inter alia, of arbitrary arrests, the killing of civilians, forced labour and restrictions on the freedom of speech and assembly; and urges the earliest substantive political dialogue with the political leaders including representatives of ethnic groups as the best means of promoting national reconciliation and the full and early restoration of democracy.
In the post-Cold War world, with the USA as the sole superpower, these policy aims should not have been difficult to achieve, and four levers were initially considered to this end. The State Department told Congress in May 1992 that the four foci were: an international arms embargo; ending international financial institute lending; preventing new bilateral assistance; and mobilising concerted action for resolutions in UN fora. But by then China had become Myanmar's main arms supplier and would refuse to join any embargo; the economic leverages were only partially workable as the East Asians, perhaps excepting Japan, would ignore them; and resolutions in the UN would not be worth the drafting time taken on them. Eventually, the leverage tried by the US was two-fold: economic and consular sanctions; and the threat that if Myanmar continued down its present path it would be internationally isolated.
Given Myanmar's increasing reliance on foreign aid for development after 1972, this was the most important economic lever. The 1986 meeting of the Aid Burma Group had promised US $500 million per year, most of the bilateral aid being Japanese, while the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) provided most of the multilateral inputs. All this stopped in 1988 when the military took over. Japanese aid for on-going projects was resumed in 1989, but the aid cut-off did initially lead to severe shortfalls in imports, especially of capital equipment for the infrastructure. Since the US also decertified Myanmar on narcotics cooperation, requiring that the US oppose any aid from multilateral agencies, this meant a cut-off of their aid too. Myanmar later said that the aid had been transferred to underground and terrorist armed groups.
The US and the West also placed curbs on trade. After 1988, the US suspended Myanmar's right to GSP benefits; three years later, in July 1991, the US refused extension of the textile agreement under which Myanmar exported some US $9 million worth annually. And by April 1997, the US had decided to prohibit new private investment by US companies, based on a judgement by the President that repression by SLORC of the democratic Opposition had deepened, and that a state of large scale repression existed (to which SLORC said this would not force them into opening a new dialogue with the Opposition). The European Union (EU) followed suit by, for instance, withdrawing Myanmar's special trading status in December 1996, a decision never before applied to a developing country. Travel restrictions were also imposed by both the US and the EU on officials from Myanmar and their families in September 1996. (The next month Myanmar imposed reciprocal travel restrictions).
The sanctions had little impact. After some initial difficulties due to the aid boycott, Japan, the major donor, partially resumed aid; and the opening up of the economy meant that more foreign investment, largely from non-Western sources, flowed in to compensate. Only 5 per cent of Myanmar's trade was with the USA and the EU, so the trade restrictions had little effect; while the ban on travel had no effect at all.
Policy was, therefore, reviewed, and in October 1994, the review having been completed, the aims remained, but the instrument changed: isolating Myanmar acquired importance. Following the review the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State went to Myanmar and offered SLORC two visions of a future relationship: increased cooperation based on positive movement on human rights, democratisation and counter-narcotics action, or increased international isolation. But Myanmar paid little attention and, in any case, the policy could not work if, as seemed to be happening, both the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China drew Myanmar closer. The central thrust of US and Western policy, therefore, became to arrest, or at least slow down this trend. That neither ASEAN not China paid any attention to the US or the West highlighted certain basic changes in the structure of world politics since the transition that marked the end of the Cold War, changes which made it more difficult, not less, to spread democratic liberalism to other countries, hence easier for ASEAN, China and Myanmar to ignore or reject the attempts by the USA and Europe to isolate the latter.
Weakness of US Policy
The transition, despite generating heightened rhetorical volume, made American policy weaker, easier to ignore, for two reasons. Firstly, the Cold War polarisation pressurised uncommitted societies from two sides, encouraging internal division between left and right; externally, it often pitted pro-Soviet against pro-US, forcing nations which had disputes with neighbours to one side or the other in the bid to obtain aid and better trading conditions as also, most importantly, arms. The end of the Cold War halved these pressures.
Secondly, the continuing relative decline of the sole remaining super-power and the West generally was written into the economic figures showing the gradual shift of power from the Atlantic to East Asia. This fact came to prominence once the Cold War ended. It is estimated that in the next decade, more than half of total world GDP growth would come from East Asia, and since savings and investment rates there are high and likely to stay that way while those in the USA and Europe are subject to long-term decline, the shift will continue. One estimate suggests that by 2020, five of the six largest economies in the world will be Asian, four of them East Asian.13
This made it easier to reject democratic liberalism, to spot the problems in ascribing universal validity to it, and to experiment with non-holistic systems. One of those who did this was an official from Singapore, who pointed out that in 1960, East Asia accounted for 4 per cent of world GNP, the USA, Canada and Mexico for 37 per cent while 35 years later each group accounts for 24 per cent; the tectonic plates of history are moving, he wrote, and it is no use trying to defy this trend, for with it the assumption that the European-American societal model has universal validity no longer holds. It is a European assumption that all societies will become liberal, democratic and capitalist; "this assumption creates an inability to accept that other cultures or social forms may have equal validity..."14
SLORC's approach to the liberal election package presaged its view of democracy under the liberal paradigm, an approach well illustrated in the treatment meted out to Aung San Suu Kyi. She embodied the values associated with this paradigm, and her general popularity as shown by the election result, demonstrated how widespread in Myanmar was its acceptance. SLORC neither isolated her, which would have made her into a martyr, nor allowed her full freedom, which would have strengthened the popular movement against the military. Instead they treated the question how far she could be a public persona with unpredictable arbitrariness. For almost three years after placing her under house arrest in July 1989, the government did not allow her to meet anybody. Then in 1992, her husband and children were allowed to visit her on two occasions. In February 1994, she was allowed to meet US Congressman William Richardson, accompanied by the UN representative in Myanmar and a New York Times correspondent. In January 1995, SLORC let it be rumoured that her release was imminent. A large number of foreign reporters sought, and were given, visas to visit Yangon; but six months later she was still under house arrest, and a government spokesman said the rights of 45 million people in the country were more important than the rights of an individual.15 Her release still seemed far away. A few days later she was released.
She was now free to take up political activity, but there were obstacles. Train bookings to meetings were cancelled, the meetings often dispersed by the military before she got there; in October, the official newspaper called for the police to take action against her for cracking cheap jokes and obstructing traffic. At one point roads to her house were blocked and her telephone cut. SLORC took no risk that an upsurge of public opinion in her favour would recur, but they did wish to use her as a sounding board to determine the strength of public opinion in the country supporting the liberal democratic system.
Myanmar Turns East
Myanmar had tried to diversify by establishing contacts with ASEAN in the mid-1970s, and approached Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The approach was tentatively reciprocated; Thailand extended some cooperation in dealing with cross-border insurgency. But neither ASEAN nor Myanmar were then ready to take matters further. By 1991, the situation had changed for three reasons. Firstly, the ASEAN economies during the 1980s, particularly the end of the decade, had experienced rapid growth and unprecedented prosperity. Targets were being set for even closer integration of the six member states economies, and the organisation felt confident enough to expand. The Indochina states and Myanmar were clearly prospective members. Secondly, Myanmar had opened its economy after the 1988 crisis; it was ready to participate and made this clear by offering special incentives to South-East Asian capital and business.
Thirdly, particularly after the 1994 review, US pressure to isolate Myanmar intensified. There was pressure earlier; at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting of July 1991 the US Under Secretary of State urged the members to do something about Myanmar. Underdeveloped and undemocratic Burma, he said, will poison the region with narcotics and remain a cancer of instability. But the ASEAN leaders said they wanted "constructive engagement," and agreed only to send the Philippine Foreign Secretary, and even he clarified that his visit would be "as a friend and neighbour."
A year later Madeleine Albright was telling ASEAN leaders to take a strong stand against human rights abuses in Myanmar; ASEAN again preferred constructive engagement, a dialogue in private.
In 1994, Thailand invited Myanmar to the annual ASEAN Ministerial meeting in July. The USA strongly objected, and 53 members of the House and Senate wrote to the US Secretary of State urging the Administration to call on ASEAN to use their influence to press SLORC on human rights improvements. The only effect, as a former Foreign Minister of Thailand clarified, was to accelerate the process. "It was US highhandedness and US pressures that moved ASEAN to actually accelerate the inclusion of Myanmar."16
In July 1995, Myanmar acceded to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which aimed to resolve disputes among signatories through peaceful means; a year later it was admitted as an observer to ASEAN and as a member of the Asean Regional Forum. There was more US pressure, to which the Indonesian Foreign Minister said Myanmar cannot be treated as an outcast and, in any case, "it is our organisation, not theirs." And in July 1997, ignoring urgings from the USA to delay, and criticism from both the USA and the EU, ASEAN admitted Myanmar as a full member.
Relations with China
For years China-Myanmar relations had two tracks. The Chinese developed friendly, but not close relations at government level, which dipped in the 1967-78 period; and party to party relations with the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), to which military and financial aid was given. When Ne Win went to China in November 1975, this policy was made clear to him: at the party level the CPB, not the BSPP, would receive support. In the mid-1980s, however, China was more responsive to the overtures from Myanmar. Party to party relations were established with the BSPP; aid to the CPB diminished and then dried up. And when, after the 1988 crisis, China was the first to recognise the new SLORC government, giving an early and one the few signs of approval for what the military had done, relations improved more rapidly.
Further political support came in the form of a December 1994 visit by Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng, who praised the SLORC government's efforts at national reconciliation, and declared it was not permissible for anyone to use human rights issues to interfere in another country's internal affairs; and on the ASEAN issue when the Chinese said, shortly before its admission as a full member, that isolating Myanmar by excluding it from ASEAN would only increase tension and aggravate confrontation and will benefit no side.
Economic aid was also given in the form of soft loans for the purchase of commodities which the stoppage of Western aid had affected, and for the infrastructure: the airport at Mandalay; a road to connect China's neighbouring province of Yunnan to Mandalay and beyond; and a port at Hanggyi on the Bassein river, a distributory of the Ayeyarwady delta which could provide an onward connection to the Bay of Bengal. Trade expanded, specially between Myanmar and Yunnan. By 1993, China was the second largest exporter to Myanmar and "began to dominate Myanmar economically."17
Most important, China became the first and largest arms supplier to Myanmar under SLORC. In late 1991, a US$1 billion deal was reported; in late 1994, another deal worth US $400 million. The supplies included naval frigates, jet aircraft, tanks, APCs, and were a major factor in the government's successful campaign against the insurgents. Although Myanmar diversified in the mid-1990s with supplies from other countries, China still remained the largest source.
Handling the Economy and Separatism
After 1988, Myanmar delinked political from economic liberalisation. The result was an economic boom. In September 1988, responding to the severe shortages, the government had opened the rice trade to the private sector, and followed this up by liberalising internal trade in other commodities as well as allowing the private sector into foreign trade (except in teak, natural gas, petroleum, pearls and gems). This included legalisation of the black-market trade in goods across the Thai border. When Thai logging operations were officially allowed, the Government of Thailand, in order to take full advantage for their logging companies of this profitable business which, hitherto, had been largely in the hands of the insurgents, began to clamp down on Myanmar insurgents operating from Thai territory and not to look too hard if Myanmar troops crossed the border while campaigning against them.
In November 1988, official trade across the border with China also began with the establishment of three trading points there.
Encouraging foreign investment, Myanmar adopted in November 1988 a foreign investment law allowing full foreign ownership of companies in certain areas like export expansion and the mining of natural resources, while joint ventures were encouraged in other areas. For both, a generous tax exemption regime was added to other incentives including guarantees against nationalisation. In January 1993, private banks were allowed to function, and then licences were issued to foreign banks; in three years 20 foreign banks, mainly from Thailand and Singapore, were operating.
It was South-East and East Asia that particularly welcomed the opening of the economy. Singapore, Hong Kong and Thai companies were among the earliest to sign joint venture agreements in light industry, the retail and service sectors, hotel and tourism development. In 1993, for instance, Singapore companies signed hotel and tourism investment deals worth US $465 million. In 1995, a subsidiary of the Thai Petroleum Authority, together with a US and a French company, signed a deal worth US $1 billion to build a 416-km pipeline from the Gulf of Martaban to Thailand. But Western companies, initially reluctant due to political pressure from their governments, also came in; in fact, by 1996, the British were the largest investors of all, while the French and Americans were among the top five. By 1996, a total of 169 foreign investment projects had been signed involving a foreign investment of US $3.23 billion.
The economic boom was seen in domestic as well as trade growth. The four-year plan ending March 1996 saw an average annual GNP growth of 8.25 per cent.18 Helped by good rice crops, the liberalisation of the rice trade, a rapid rise in tourism, and large remittances from Burmese abroad, exports rose 50 per cent from 1992 to 1995, and by 1996, foreign exchange reserves stood at nearly US $600 million.
The major insurgent challenges to the government in the 1970s were two: the CPB, largely comprising Wa hill tribesmen and the Kokang Chinese from the north; and the minorities, who had formed a coalition in 1975 (the National Democratic Front or NDF) which comprised, in 1988, 10 parties including the Shans, Kachins, Palaungs, Pa-O, and, somewhat uneasily, the Karens.
Through the 1970s and early 1980s, the CPB was the major threat. Myanmar's relations with China had deteriorated in 1967; until 1978, when relations started improving, Chinese military aid to the CPB was generous. But when relations improved, and Chinese aid diminished and dried up, the government approached a weakened group, separately offering inducements to the Wa and to the Kokong Chinese. They responded positively, and by late 1989, the CPB had collapsed.
There was equal success with the coalition. The Karens were the most powerful of the NDF members. In December 1990, responding to the action by SLORC against Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD, it was to their headquarters at Manerplaw that politicians from that party, monks and students went to continue the fight for democracy; there they created a new political grouping, the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) which formally brought together the insurgents and the political dissidents; this later became the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), and drafted its own Constitution which adhered to the particulars of the liberal paradigm, and provided for a looser federal union of eight states of which seven were for the minorities and one for lowland Myanmar. This contrasted sharply with SLORC which stood for a unitary state with nominal acceptance of regionalism, centralism in the distribution of power, and a departure from traditional concepts of liberal democracy.
A December 1991 military offensive by the government, using newly acquired Chinese equipment, failed. Four months later, a ceasefire was offered but, of course, refused. The opening came in late 1994 when a Buddhist group from among the Karens (most of them are Christians) separated. An offensive of January 1995 succeeded in capturing the Manerplaw headquarters, forcing large numbers of Karen insurgents to flee to Thailand. With the remaining Karens the government continued a pragmatic mix of ceasefire offers and military action. Several rounds of peace talks were held in 1996 and 1997; from time to time, offensives were also launched, but the Karens were no longer an important threat. With other groups also the post-1988 period saw a rapid strengthening of the government position. The Kachins were the second strongest minority insurgent group. Facing pressure from the government, from China as well as from Thailand, they agreed to talks in 1993; in October of that year, a ceasefire agreement was signed. By the end of 1994, ceasefire agreements had also been signed with the Shans, the Pa-O, the Palaungs and the Mons. There was, except for the weakened Karens, no minority group left which could offer significant armed opposition.
India: A Difficult Background
There were more differences than common interests between India and Myanmar during the colonial period; and the root of the former, the Indian presence, ran deep enough to affect post-colonial relations.
A miniscule pre-colonial Indian population of traders and merchants at points along the Myanmar coast was converted by the requirements of the British into a large body of troops, contractors, lawyers, doctors, land owners, administrators, money lenders and others spread across the Myanmar countryside. From the early 20th century, Indians began arriving in Myanmar at an estimated rate of 250,000 per year. The number increased steadily and was 480,000 in 1927. Though most of them were seasonal labourers who went back after a season or two, many stayed. By 1931, there were a million Indians in residence, and Yangon had an Indian majority.
The British used the Indians to run Myanmar as a colony. At all times there were more Indian than British troops to control nationalism and dissidence; Indians ran the administration in the capital and occupied the senior-most positions in the districts for many years. Indians dominated trade and owned most of the shops. They lent money to the farmers during times of hardship, and resumed their land for non-payment; in 1939, nearly 25 per cent of agricultural land in lower Myanmar was held by Indian money lenders, absentee landlords against whom resentment grew. When the nationalist movement in Myanmar wanted to separate from India, the Indian National Congress, under some persuasion from Indians there, passed in 1927 a resolution that "this Congress disapproves of all attempts to separate Burma from India." It was subsequently, and wisely, reversed, but it led to a suspicion among the people against the local Indians, and among the Myanmar nationalists that the Indian interest may remain an important influence in deciding independent India's policy towards its neighbour.
The suspicion assumed a racist form during the repeated riots against Indian labourers and money lenders in Yangon in the 1930s. Years after independence even Aung San Suu Kyi gave vent to this, writing of the Burmese "well justified apprehension that their very existence as a distinct people would be jeopardised" if colonial rule continued, a threat emanating not so much from the British as from the Indians and Chinese who "set up homes with Burmese women, striking at the very roots of Burmese manhood and racial purity."19
The important positive factor during this period was the support given by the Indian nationalist leaders (except for a short aberration on the separation issue) to the Myanmar nationalist movement. Aung San himself, U Nu, and the other leaders looked to India to learn how they should pursue their struggle for independence. And this developed into a mutual respect that was reinforced, after independence, by the adherence of both to the Non-Aligned Movement. U Nu felt personally close to India and to Jawaharlal Nehru. Their attitudes towards the political and economic issues that faced the world in the 1950s were similar or identical, and both worked to strengthen bilateral relations.
This changed after the military government took over in 1962. Ne Win did not feel personally close to India, while the Indian leaders, given their experience with Pakistan, felt difficulty in developing warm relations with a military government. Then from 1963, Ne Win started nationalising shops and trading establishments; the measure was not overtly discriminatory, but the very fact that Indians were the largest affected group led to a subdued feeling of resentment in India. Ne Win's less than astute effort at resolving the India-China border question in 1964, after the Colombo powers had failed in 1962; and a feeling in India that Myanmar had allowed China to use the settlement of the Myanmar-China border issue to show how reasonable China was in dealing with neighbours (hence how unreasonable India was), added to this.
Neither side made an effort to intensify relations. After 1967, Myanmar was under pressure from China, and tried in the early 1970s to make overtures to India; support was extended on issues such as India's peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974, the bid for Security Council membership, and the declaration of the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace. But the response from India fell short. Cooperation in day to day matters continued. Visits, including minister level visits, were exchanged; talks were held on the India-Myanmar border demarcation and made progress; at the border itself trade was kept open and there was a regular exchange of information on insurgency. It was not, however, a close or warm relationship.
Impact of 1988 Crisis
The 1988 crisis in Myanmar changed the direction of relations towards overt but subdued hostility. All India Radio adopted as prominent a profile as Western radio stations such as the BBC and the Voice of America in condemning the actions of the military, and came in for equal denunciation from SLORC. A "Free Aung San Suu Kyi Campaign Committee" was launched in India, and held regular meetings at which SLORC was criticised, and the transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people demanded; this was not officially sponsored, but the presence of members of Parliament from the ruling and other parties in India was noted by SLORC. Government of India spokesmen made regular statements. In November 1992, India's Minister for Water Resources was reported saying the military junta was a major threat to peace in the subcontinent, that India and the world at large could not remain silent spectators to the disruption of human rights and dignity in Myanmar. Similar statements, getting gradually toned down over the years, continued to be made, like the one at the ASEAN Regional Forum of July 1997 by India's Finance Minister, that Myanmar should take note of the strength of public and Parliamentary opinion in India regarding democracy, and must "come on to that road as soon as possible." A pragmatic working relationship was re-established in the mid-1990s, with cooperation in dealing with narcotics trafficking and insurgents along the border, the exchange of some delegations, and some expansion of trade; but the present relationship is best described as one of distance: Myanmar seeing its future to the east and with ASEAN; India looking with muted suspicion at China's increasing influence and close military ties. This has evident implications for the security and stability of north-east India, given also the rapid growth in the size and strength of Myanmar's armed forces since 1990.
Many in India look back with nostalgia at the Nehru-U Nu period, seeing that as the peak of bilateral relations; they hope for a return to civilian rule in Myanmar. However, the sharply opposed options of military rule or restoration of liberalism can no longer be seen in the political future of Myanmar; nor will the armed forces go back to the barracks. They have seen some success in handling the two major problems of economic growth and insurgency; they suspect that the elected representatives will wish to move away from centralism and may jeopardise the cohesion of the state; and they see the future bringing gradually increased civilian participation in a government which will remain under the control of the military, in which growing prosperity and internal stability will ensure that dissatisfaction is kept to the minimum. Above all, they are in a region where liberalism is not necessarily the most desired aim of governments, and alternatives are successfully implemented.
For India, it is necessary to accept that in Myanmar as in many other countries around the globe the liberal democratic paradigm will not automatically come about; that some elements of that paradigm will be combined with elements of authoritarianism, as economies will be governed by a varying mix of state control and the market, or cultures will allow or restrict the entry of foreign influences. We have to promote our interests in the world as it is, not shape them to fit the world as we would like it to be.
1. See Robert H. Taylor, The State in Burma, (London: Orient Longman Ltd., 1987), p. 286.
2. Josef Silverstein, "Burma: The Historical Background," in George Mcturnan Kahin ed., Governments and Politics of Southeast Asia, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1965), pp. 75, 76. The same author writes "Burma is not and never has been a nation," Burma, Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation, (London: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 197.
3. British White Paper quoted by Frank N. Trager, Burma, From Kingdom to Republic, (London: Pall Mall Press, 1966), p. 81.
4. Quoted in Trager, Ibid., p. 106.
5. Bruce Matthews, "Buddhism Under a Military Regime," Asian Survey, vol. XXXIII, no. 4, April 1993, p. 415.
6. Anthony de Jasay, The State, (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), p. 6.
7. Working People's Daily, Yangon, October 3, 1992.
8. Cited from Strategic Digest, vol. XXV, no. 5, May 1995, p. 591.
9. Strobe Talbott, "Democracy and the National Interest," Foreign Affairs, vol. 75, no. 6, November-December 1996, pp. 48-49.
10. Anthony Lake, "The Price of Leadership," address before the National Press Club, Washington DC, April 27, 1995.
11. William McGowan, "Burmese Hell," World Policy Journal, vol. X, no. 2, Summer 1993, p. 48.
12. p. 132 of the report.
13. Richard Halloran, "The Rising East," Foreign Policy, no. 102, Spring 1996, p. 11.
14. Kishore Mahbubani, "The Pacific Way," Foreign Affairs, vol. 74, no. 1, January-February 1995), p. 105.
15. See Mary P. Callahan, "Burma in 1995," Asian Survey, vol. XXXVI, no. 2, February 1996, p. 158.
16. Thanat Khoman, in an interview, World Affairs, vol. 1, no. 3, July-September 1997, p. 19.
17. David I. Steinberg, "Myanmar as Nexus: Sino-Indian Rivalries on the Frontier," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 16, no. 3, 1993, p. 4.
18. International Monetary Fund confidential report quoted in the Financial Times, March 13, 1997.
19. Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear and Other Writings, (India: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 103-4.