Pro-democracy movement in Burma

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(CC) Photo: Rusty Stewart
A Buddhist monk attends a pro-democracy rally on the steps of Victorian State Library in Melbourne, Australia, in 2007.

The pro-democracy movement in Burma began in opposition to Ne Win’s military regime in the 1980s. Although Burma had a functioning parliamentary democracy by the late 1950s after independence, internal divisions brought about instability that allowed Ne Win to seize power in a military coup in 1962. A series of protests and escalating violence led to Ne Win’s resignation and replacement by Saw Maung in 1988. With martial law imposed and order restored, the country held a multiparty election in May 1990, in which the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory. The military regime refused to transfer power to the NLD, however, and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she had been since the previous year.

Suu Kyi became a prominent leading figure in the movement due to her winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and being continually subjected to intermittent house arrests by the government in Myanmar (its official name since the military takeover in 1989). She has had considerable degree of contact with Western governments,[1] which have continued to advocate for her release and place sanctions on the Myanmar regime.

In March, the Myanmar government officially annulled the results of the previous election, citing inconsistency with its current laws. It plans to hold an election sometime later this year.[2]

Initial course to democracy

When Burma was liberated by the Allies after World War II, it adopted a parliamentary form of democracy. Despite previous exposure to self-rule that was instituted by the British, albeit limited in form and divorced from the general populace,[3] democracy in Burma lasted for merely 14 years from 1948 to 1962. Burma as a democratic state was not viable from the onset due to its diversity and the colonial legacies. The country was and continues to be one of the most diverse countries in Asia - it has 135 different ethnicities, including 8 major groups.[4] During the period of British occupation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, these divisions were exploited by the colonial policies. The British separately administered the majority lowlands and the minority uplands, subjecting the former to direct rule while providing relative autonomy to the latter. The minorities were favored in the colonial administration as support against the majority, which resulted in the creation of educated local elites in the autonomous upland regions who would compete with the traditional elites of the lowlands. The cultural differences that resulted with the British presence in the lowlands contributed further to the perceived divisions between the two groups.[5] The split was most clearly visible during World War II when the Burmans briefly allied with the Japanese before returning to the side of the Allies, whereas the uplands people stayed with the British all throughout the war.[6]

The strong ethnic divisions contributed to the social instability that intensified the military's involvement in the political affairs. The British precedent and the internal divisions resulted in the drafting of a very weak constitution that provided autonomy provisions for the minority groups and spurred waves of revolts throughout the country upon its signing in 1958.[7] Prime Minister U Nu authorized a "constitutional coup" by General Ne Win to restore order in preparation for the 1960 general elections. When U Nu resigned in 1962 due to divisions within his party (the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League), Ne Win seized power through another military coup and established a socialist state under one-party rule.[8] Newin faced little to no opposition or foreign criticism, since his handling of the previous coup was remembered favorably, and the coup appeared to be a genuinely populist and socialist program.[9]

Socialist regime under Ne Win

In order to justify the coup and win over the populace, Ne Win's regime adopted a very nationalistic and populist rhetoric. The military coup was explained as necessary means of preserving national unity and establishing socialism. Nationalism became an all-encompassing form of discourse and evaluation that portrayed the state as inherently good by its intent alone while ignoring the actual results. Nationalism also served the dual purpose of suppressing minorities and spreading xenophobia. English was no longer permitted as a medium of instruction, and citizens were denied access to various places and institutions if they could not prove their Burmese ancestry back to 1823. Xenophobia was useful in driving out the foreign entrepreneurial class that might economically challenge the state.[10]

The commitment to socialism was portrayed as a populist and nationalistic agenda. It allowed the state to nationalize all aspects of the economy except for agriculture; as a result, Burma's foreign trade was significantly reduced, and its economic status declined from one of the richest countries in Asia and a major rice exporter to a country dependent on food aid.[11]

The government established nationwide councils which had a negligible degree of decision-making power but was a considerable boast in retaining the loyalty of the peasant and worker class against increasing opposition from the intellectuals. Economic stagnation did not go about without labor unrest and student demonstrations, including a major gathering during a funeral for the former U.N. Secretary General U Thant in 1974,[12] all of which were brutally silenced.[11]

In 1972, Ne Win resigned from the military as to appear as a legitimate civilian leader. A constitution was drafted with the opinions gathered through committees that toured the countryside. It was signed in 1974, and it formally invested power in the People's Assembly with Ne Win as the president.[13]

8888 protests

Despite the success of the government’s public relations campaigns, the public became less and less tolerant of the economic hardships by the late 1980s.[14] This was especially true after Ne Win suddenly promulgated the cancellation of certain currency notes. “As a superstitious man, he wanted only 45 and 90 kyat notes in circulation... because they were divisible by nine, which he considered a lucky number.”[15] In March 1988, a case of petty dispute between college students and townspeople involved a death of one of the students and led to a major anti-government student protest. As with previous demonstrations, the students were met with brutal force by the special riot police.[12] Cover up efforts by the government in the aftermath horrified the public while prompting thousands of students to engage in activities that would send them off to prisons. In hopes cooling the student fervor, the government shut down all of the universities in Burma, but student activism was renewed when the schools were reopened in late June. Again there was violence when the riot police drove a truck against a student march, but this time the witnesses who were enraged by the sight retaliated and killed 8 of the policemen on the spot.[12]

In light of what had happened, Chairman Ne Win convened meetings with the BSPP (Burmese Socialist Program Party) and the national assembly in late July. In these proceedings, the Chairman and the President were replaced by Sein Lwin, who was primarily held responsible for the brutal violence agaherinst the student protestors.[12] Demonstrations became widespread and were attended by all members of the society, unlike the previous student protests. [16] Consequently, the government responded by declaring martial law and banning all public gatherings. But, in defiance to the government, 100,000 people convened in Rangoon on August 8, 1988, a day considered auspicious, when Aung San Suu Kyi “… made a speech at Shwedagon Pagoda and became the public face of the democracy movement.”[17] Unfortunately, the government decided to resort to force again, killing 3,000 and wounding more than 1,000 within a span of five days.[16][18]

The violence was followed by Sein Lwin’s resignation and replacement by Dr. Maung Maung, who immediately withdrew the army from the streets of Rangoon. Dr. Maung Maung announced that the public would be given a chance to make a referendum for a multiparty rule. The public referendum was already indicated by the large demonstrations occurring almost daily throughout the country, including those that took place on August 23 and 24 with about one million participants.[16] But the government responded by releasing thousands of criminals from its cells, with the intended effect of discouraging political activities, and wiped out the remaining protestors with the troops that were redeployed to the capital and the other major cities.[19]

(CC) Photo: Stephen Brookes
The NLD headquarters in 1997.

With “order” having been restored, Myanmar held a general election on May 27, 1990. The clear winner was the National League for Democracy, which Aung San Suu Kyi had founded the previous year. (It won 80% of the seats in the parliament.) However, the SLORC refused to transfer power to the NLD and kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.[20]

Human rights situation in Burma

2010 general elections

Burma today is again at a critical juncture in its modern history. Sometime later this year in 2010, the Burmese junta will hold its first-ever general election since 1990.[21] Aung San Suu Kyi will be released in November after the election takes place, but she is not permitted to appear in the polls as a political prisoner.[22][23] The NLD decided to boycott the election to protest the exclusion of Aung San Suu Kyi; this also means that the NLD as an organization will be forced to dissolve and cease operations according to the new election laws.[22] Analysts and international observers remain hopeful, however, since further concessions could be achieved with diplomatic pressure, and the 2010 elections could be the point from which military’s power can begin to be decentralized.

The election in 2010 is consistent with the wider pattern of decentralization and liberalization of the economy observed in the recent years. The country is aiming to revive its agriculture and re-engage in global trade; it is allowing people to have cars and motorcycles; it’s been transferring ownership of formerly state-owned factories, hospitals, and schools to the private sector.[24] As General Than Shwe ages closer to his mortal limit, a major concern for him is the risk of another military strongman who might endanger his family. By holding “an election of generals,”[25] General Than Shwe aims to both legitimize the succession to the rival generals and decentralize the system to have a way out if the situation goes out of control after succession.[24]

Will the 2010 election result in any progress for democracy in Burma? What are the possibilities for a democratic transformation, and what are the key factors for the different outcomes? There obviously has not been much study since the failure of the 1990 general elections. Ian Holliday, who was aware of the 2010 elections, wrote an article in 2008 accepting both success and failure as possibilities of the election, and emphasizing the importance of outside intervention in facilitating talks and sponsoring grass-root organizations.[26] Interestingly, Holliday suggests that the rigged election might be the best way of transitioning to democracy, since the military leaders would pull out entirely if they were to feel significantly threatened by the election process.[27] Another study from 1997 by Jalal Alamgir recognized the nationwide opposition to the military rule and speculated that Burma would gradually transition into a limited form of democracy that is typical of the other ASEAN countries in Southeast Asia.[28]

The pro-democracy movement is returning to the political scene in Burma, as the 2010 election has branded Burma as Burma as a “discipline flourishing democracy”[29] and legitimized grass-root political activism in the public sphere. Political participation is largely displacing the politics of dissent (i.e. student protests) as the primary modus operandi of the civilian political scene in Burma. As it was the temporary discontinuation of repression by the regime that triggered the nationwide 8888 protests, the election may also have had an encouraging effect on political activism as the people interpret it as a sign of change by the regime.[30]

The military is reserved 25% of the national seats, and the junta's leadership expects to control more with the participation of its civilian party, the SLORC.[31] Due to the election's unfairness, there are fears that the election will merely serve to legitimize the government and its dynastic leadership. But the election also offers the possibility that the pro-democracy movement will grow stronger, and there could eventually be fundamental democratic reforms through constitutional revisions, which require 75% of the parliamentary votes.[31]

The election process will likely have the effect of shifting the center of power away from the military.[24] Although analysts point out that the military has influence over all walks of life in Burma, it should be noted that the military's power is primarily economic influence, beyond which it has no source of legitimacy or acceptance. With more economic and institutional liberalization that are undergoing or planned, the military may be “introduc[ing] opportunities for a broader range of economic actors to make their interests felt, including many closely associated with the military.”[32] In March of this year, the government began selling confiscated cars, government buildings, farmland, and major stakes in national enterprises such as the airline, fuel import and distribution network, gem and tin mines, and factories.[33] Many analysts worry that “liberalization has resulted in cartels and monopolies that would only strengthen state power,”[34] and military leaders will be able to achieve economic liberalization while maintaining tight political control.[33] On the other hand, further liberalization of the economy could make Burma become more vulnerable to international pressure and sanctions.[35] And it could undermine the military's hold of the country by accommodating the rise of independent economic interests outside of the military.[34]


  1. Bert 2004: 277
  2. Tun, 2010
  3. Holliday, 2008: 1042-1043
  4. Holliday, 2007: 383
  5. Thomson, 1995: 272-273
  6. Holliday, 2007: 384
  7. Holliday, 2008: 1044-1045
  8. Alamgir, 1997: 338
  9. Alamgir, 1997: 342
  10. Alamgir, 1997: 338-339
  11. 11.0 11.1 Alamgir, 1997: 340-341
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Burma Watcher, 1989: 175
  13. Alamgir, 1997: 342
  14. Burma Watcher, 1989: 174
  15. “Burma’s 1988 protests,” 2007: 2nd par
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Burma Watcher, 1989: 176-177
  17. “Burma’s 1988 protests,” 2007: 11th par
  18. Ferrara, June 2003: 305
  19. Ferrara, June 2003: 314
  20. Lansner
  21. Petty, 2010a
  22. 22.0 22.1 Petty, 2010b
  23. "Aung San Suu Kyi 'will Be Released in November,'" 2010
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 "Change Comes to Myanmar," 2010
  25. Aung, 2010
  26. Holliday 2008: 1052-1058
  27. Holliday 2008: 1053
  28. Alamgir, 1997: 349-350
  29. Mydans, 2010
  30. Ferrara, 2003: 318
  31. 31.0 31.1 "Burma PM 'applies to Form New Political Party'" 2010: Table - Burma's election
  32. South, 2010: 28
  33. 33.0 33.1 "Myanmar'€™s Ruling Junta Is Selling State's Assets," 2010
  34. 34.0 34.1 Alamgir, 1997: 347
  35. Ockersz, 2010