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Cover story:

Burma’s military vigilant in power


Burma has always been a multiethnic country. Of more than a hundred distinct ethnic groups, the largest is the Burmans, who have dominated the nation’s political life. The larger ethnic groups -- especially the Mon, the Karen, the Karenni, the Shan, Wa and Wahoo -- have tended to live in the border areas maintaining their own more or less autonomous states.

Most Burmese are Buddhists, but the various ethnic groups include large numbers of Christians: Anglicans, Baptists, Evangelicals, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics.

The larger ethnic groups support armed insurgencies and have been fighting nearly continuously for their independence since the end of World War II. This fighting intensified in the 1980s and 1990s as the ruling generals sought to consolidate control of all territories. Some of the ethnic groups, seeking finances for their independence movements, have become leading cultivators of opium and the world’s suppliers of heroin. However, the trade is dominated by crime syndicates, allegedly abetted by the government, and local people are basically cultivators of a cash crop. These syndicates have also become major producers and exports of amphetamines.

Twenty-six years of corruption, economic mismanagement and political repression came to a head in the spring and summer of 1988 with university students leading anti-government street rallies. The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, emerged as the voice of the opposition.

On August 8, 1988 (8-8-88, a magic day in Burmese numerology), hundreds of thousands took to the streets, shaking the ruling military junta from its complacency. Repression was heavy. An estimated 3,000 demonstrators were killed. Suu Kyi, who would win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, began six years under house arrest. Her movements continue to be severely restricted, including periodic restrictions to her house.

In September 1988, a coup within the ruling regime was reported and a new governing body emerged: the State Law and Order Council.

Although the council was pretty much the same regime with a different name, it did set a schedule to reopen parliament and prepared for holding democratic elections.

Multiparty elections were held in May 1990. The Council-backed National Unity Party won 5 percent of the vote, while the National League for Democracy won 82 percent of the popular vote. But the State Law and Order Council refused to hand over power. Instead, it jailed the elected members of parliament and increased its systematic, brutal repression of activists for democracy.

Thousands of students, labor leaders and other activists fled the country after the council stole the 1990 election. Many of them took shelter in the border areas and joined forces with the ethnic groups fighting the central government. Many others crossed the border into Thailand and became refugees. A government in exile was formed.

The State Law and Order Council renamed the country Myanmar and introduced free market reforms in an attempt to open up its bankrupt economy to international investors.

Meanwhile, it continued a tenacious repression of opponents and stepped up military actions to consolidate power in the ethnic states and border areas. Their strategies include the relocation of remote villages into strategic hamlets near army bases. Since the mid-1990s, the council has signed peace deals with some ethnic groups, but fighting continues in many areas. The relocation of villages continues even in areas under peace agreements.

In 1997, the State Law and Order Council renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council. It was a thinly disguised public relations move, and little has changed. Economic repression is as serious as political repression. Besides being mismanaged and corrupt, the economy is dominated by state-owned enterprises or private enterprises controlled by the military.

Once the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia, Burma is now the poorest. It has the highest infant mortality rate and spends the smallest amount on health care and education of any other country in the region. The military, meanwhile, consumes 40 percent of the national budget.

National Catholic Reporter, January 12, 2001