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His Story, not History

By Bertil Lintner/Chiang Mai

The 1988 Uprising in Burma by Dr Maung Maung (foreword by Franklin Mark Osanka). Monograph 49, 1999, Yale Southeast Asia Studies, New Haven, Connecticut. 285 pages.

Despite its title, this is not an account of the dramatic events that engulfed Burma in 1988. It is an attempt to rewrite history, a whitewash of one of the most brutal massacres in modern Asian history. More precisely, it is a blind eulogy to Burma's aging strongman Gen Ne Win. And the reverence for the "Old Man," as he is usually referred to in Burma, is extended even to his children and grandchildren. For these reasons alone, Dr. Maung Maung's book is worth reading because it shows how far an academic sycophant is prepared to go to please his mentor.

One of the worst examples of a deliberate distortion of history is Dr Maung Maung's version of Ne Win's infamous warning on July 23, 1988 to the increasingly restless people of Burma who by then had begun to take to the streets in the thousands to demand political and economic change: "As for the control of civil disturbances, I have to inform the people throughout the country that when the army shoots, it shoots to hit, it does not fire into the air to scare. Therefore, I warn those causing disturbances that they will not be spared if in the future the army is brought in to control disturbances." However, Dr Maung Maung quotes Ne Win as saying: "Soldiers are trained to shoot straight on order, not overhead into the air. Let those inclined to anarchy be duly warned: if they have to face the troops it will be no laughing matter." (page 41)

Dr Maung Maung served as Burma's president for a month during the upheavals of August-September 1988. He took over the presidency after his predecessor, Sein Lwin, had been forced to resign on August 12 after only 18 days in office. The first massive massacre was carried out when Sein Lwin , the "Butcher of Rangoon," was in power, and most independent observers estimate the number of unarmed demonstrators who were gunned down by the army from August 8 to 12 to be at least 3,000.

Dr Maung Maung, however, does not even mention those killings. In his version, some Buddhist monks (!) ordered the troops to open fire on "looters" (p. 267), and Sein Lwin, who was "as soft as soft could be," (p. 64) was only doing his best to control the situation (p. 62). All the people of all ages and from all walks of life who in 1988 risked their lives for a better future for Burma are called "hooligans, looters, arsonists, headhunters and all" (p. 227), and the only reason why the world media paid any attention to the upheavals was because "sensational news was not breaking out elsewhere in the world in 1988" (p. 93).

But despite the bizarre interpretations of what happened in Rangoon twelve years ago and its title, the book contains precious little about the events of 1988. Nearly three quarters of the text is a glowing account of Ne Win and his efforts to build up Burma's armed forces to a formidable and "responsible" institution. It is even questionable whether the title of the book, "The 1988 Uprising in Burma," is Dr Maung Maung's own. Nowhere in the text does he call the events of 1988 an "uprising," implying popular discontent with the regime. Dr Maung Maung uses "the disturbances" and similar terms to describe the events of 1988, echoing the military regime's own description of the popular pro-democracy uprising.

It is far more likely that the title was given by the American scholar, Franklin Mark Osanka, who met Dr Maung Maung in Burma in the mid-1990s and then obtained the original manuscript. Osanka's foreword to the book also reveals some astonishing ignorance about Burma and Dr Maung Maung. Osanka, for instance, believes that Dr Maung Maung was elected President of the Union of Burma on August 18, 1988. Dr Maung Maung was appointed not elected president on August 19 by the inner circle of the then besieged ruling party, the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP). Osanka also states that Dr Maung Maung was "removed by the ruling powers on September 19, 1988." Dr Maung Maung's short-lived and inept regime was replaced by a new junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc), on September 18.

But whatever the origin of the title, and other possible alterations by Osanka, this is a very sad book. Under different circumstances, an obviously intelligent and well-educated person such as Dr Maung Maung could have been an outstanding scholar. But he decided to adjust his scholarship to please one of Asia's cruelest dictators and, in the process, to become a defender of mass murderers. It is perhaps even more astonishing that Yale University's Southeast Asia Studies program, a respectable institution, chose to publish this book without a serious and objective commentary.

This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, August, 2000

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