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Burma's Latest Uprising

By Bertil Lintner

Once again, the Burmese people have risen up against their military-led government - and once again have the authorities used lethal force to crush the protests, defying the demands of their own citizens and ignoring international condemnations. As was the case during an even more massive uprising in 1988, the authorities also this time blamed the "disturbances" on "internal and external destructionists." (sic). In a speech on September 24, Burma's religious affairs minister, Brig-Gen Thura Myint Maung, asserted that "political extremists" from the pro-democracy party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), "remnants" of the Communist Party of Burma (which has been defunct for more than 18 years), and foreign broadcasting stations had instigated Buddhist monks and others to demonstrate. The situation, he said, was being handled "softly" and "with care."

So who are those recalcitrant generals, who appear completely detached from reality, and isolated from the population at large? And what odds is Burma's pro-democracy movement up against? Burma is no "ordinary" military dictatorship; when Gen Ne Win seized power in 1962, military coup d'etats were not uncommon in the region, but when the Burmese army assumed not only political but also economic power. Known as "the Burmese Way to Socialism" it meant that everything in sight was nationalised, ie, handed over to 23 military-controlled state corporations. The outcome was a disaster for the population at large, and a flourishing black market, sometimes jokingly referred to as "corporation 24", emerged.

But the military did not suffer, and brutally crushed a nation-wide pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Following internationally-condemned massacres in August and September that year, the government began to introduce what was described as free-market reforms, and foreign investment was encouraged. But, in essence, the new Burmese Way to Capitalism has made little difference in the overall structure of the economy. The military is still in charge, enjoying privileges that its counterparts in, for instance, Thailand or Indonesia, could only dream of.

Since 1962, waves of hundreds of thousands of well-educated Burmese have also left the country, while its universities have been closed off and on during times of unrest, which means that today there is no other elite than the generals and their cronies. And since 1988, the strength of the country's armed forces has increased to 400,000 from around 200,000, at the same time as the government has entered into cease-fire agreements with practically every ethnic rebel group in the country. Thus, the strengthening of the armed forces is meant to consolidate the military elite's grip on power, and to subdue a population that is hostile to it.

The 1988 uprising gave birth to the NLD which, in the beginning, was a mass movement. It won a landslide victory in 1990 in the only free election that Burma has held since 1960, but the elected assembly was never convened. Furthermore, the entire original leadership of the NLD is either in prison or have died while some have simply given up all political activity. Most young NLD activists have been imprisoned, cowed into submission, or fled the country. Only a handful of elderly spokespersons remain, and none of them has the strength and charisma to carry the party forward. That serves the interests of the junta, since the new-look NLD would appear to the outside world not to be a viable alternative.

Nor have external forces had much influence over Burma's ruling generals. Western sanctions have had minimal as the country's neighbours - China, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN - continue to trade and invest in the country, allowing the generals to use the country's ample natural resources and strategic geographical position to survive. The "constructive engagement" policy of ASEAN has also failed to move the generals towards permitting more openness and pluralism. Successive visits by various UN envoys and rapporteurs over a period of almost two decades have produced little more than reports to the UN, and a few token meetings in Rangoon between some of the generals and the detained leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Burmese writer Kyaw Zwa Moe pointed out in a commentary in the Thailand-based website Irrawaddy on October 9, after the crackdown "it's game time again for the generals". Having cracked down on dissent, the ruling junta's standard tactic is to throw out some bait to the international community to keep them guessing - and criticism at bay. This time it is the appointment of a deputy labour minister, Maj-Gen Aung Kyi, to "liaise" with Aung San Suu Kyi. It would be a mistake to see this as a "concession"; the junta is just buying time by making some foreign observers believe that progress is in motion.

The bitter reality is that nothing is going to change as long as the military remains united, and willing to gun down its own people. A younger generation of army officers, who see the need to negotiate with the pro-democracy movement, is probably the only hope. But for now, no one is aware of any "young Turks" lurking in the wings, and there are no signs of serious cracks within the ranks. But if change does come to Burma, it will in any event be because of action taken by such younger army officers, not demonstrations led by monks. The protests can, at the most, perhaps influence sections of the army to realise that there is no future in supporting the present regime. But only time will tell if that is going to happen.

WATCHPOINT: There are credible reports of dissent within the ranks, including the dismissal of two, perhaps three, regional commanders for refusing to send out their troops to attack monks in Rangoon and Mandalay. Small numbers of troops from the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions are also reportedly under detention or suspension for refusing to take action against demonstrators and publicly begging pardon from the monks. If the junta manages to contain this development, it will remain in power, if not, change may come to Burma.

This article first appeared in Asian Analysis, November, 2007

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