Remembering Burma, Overturning the bowl

General Ne Win, the founder of military authoritarianism in Burma, was secretly trained during World War II by the fascist-allied military regime of Japan. Four decades later, during the 1988 popular uprising in Burma, the general warned that when Burma's army shoots, it shoots to kill. That year, thousands of protesters were killed on the streets of Burma. Little has changed in the country during the intervening two decades. As such, it was not particularly surprising this past September when, during the massive public uprising that has since been dubbed the 'Saffron Revolution', Burmese soldiers shot and killed over 100 citizens. That number included members of the country's venerated clergy.

Although public demonstrations had been ramping up for weeks, the Saffron Revolution can be thought of as beginning on 5 September 2007, when thugs thought to be connected to the junta government attacked a group of monks in Pakokku. Doing so was in direct violation of Buddhist teachings, something of which the military had long been cognisant, largely due to the massive public support that the clergy holds in Burma. Urging the military leaders to reflect on their action, Burma's Sangha, the national council representing the country's Buddhist monks, demanded an apology from the military within 12 days. When the junta refused to do so, the clerical leaders began a religious boycott, dubbed the "overturning of the alms bowls". This was an act of severe moral rebuke, in which monks refused to accept alms from military families, thereby denying them important religious merit. This had only happened a few times before –when the Burmese people rebelled against British colonialism and, more recently, following the country's nullified 1990 elections.

Six month after the Saffron Revolution began, the All-Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA) continues to boycott Burma's military families, all the while urging the Burmese people to continue resistance against military domination. This resistance has taken several forms. On 17 January, 200 demonstrators in Taungkok, including a handful of monks, attempted to gather near a local market, where they were met with a large number of armed personnel and forced to disperse. At that time, one resident of Taungkok warned that local people continued to "boil with anger", and that the next time they would not be stopped.

Since the September uprising, student unions, activist groups, bloggers and youth wings belonging to the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) have continued spreading underground pamphlets and posters. In late December, the NLD's detained leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, told followers to "prepare for the worst while hoping for the best". In a particularly creative form of protest, the poet Saw Wai wrote a short poem that included a series of hidden letters spelling out the words for 'power hungry Than Shwe', referring to the junta's senior leader. The poem was published in a government-backed publication and, following his arrest on 22 January, Saw Wai's poem became an instant sensation.

Meanwhile, the sustained international interest since the 2007 uprisings have also allowed for the monks' calls to be heard with greater strength around the world. Over the past couple of months, the Sasana Moli, the International Burmese Monks Organisation, has opened 14 new international branches, including in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as several countries in the West and throughout Southeast Asia. In January, the Thai branch of the International Burmese Monks Organisation in Thailand declared that the crimes committed against Burma's clergy, in particular, had laid bare the junta's "false piety", and warned of "far-reaching consequences".

Tatmadaw's stranglehold
According to military scholar Mary P Callahan, immediately following independence from Britain, World War II-era politics made violence the "currency of power" in Burma. The country's postcolonial operational failure included army mutiny, ethnic rebellion, communist insurgency, warlordism and economic chaos. This near-anarchy subsequently paved the way for the creation of the Myanmar Tatmadaw, an army modelled after the 1950s Yugoslav and Israeli militaries. Callahan has written that the Tatmadaw came to use violence – "the once despised coercive tools of colonials" – not only to pacify but also to mould the Burmese citizenry into dependable defenders of the army state. It is this 'dependability' on which the junta regime has attempted to balance for the past half century, and which has led the military leaders to attempt frantically to eliminate any perceived crack in the façade.

The military moved quickly to establish pre-eminence in the Burmese state. In 1956, the army's Directorate of Psychological Warfare presented the first draft of what eventually became the official ideology of the post-1962 socialist government, as well as the present-day military regime. Entitled "Some Reflections on Our Constitution", the paper recommended a review of constitutional flaws and the adoption of a draconian Anti-Subversion Ordinance, which essentially allowed the government and army to treat all critics of the regime as enemies of the state.

Callahan writes that, by 1958, the Burmese Union's Constitution was no longer considered sacrosanct, as the army circulated a critique of the document's fundamental tenets. With this, the Tatmadaw successfully created a chokehold on political power in Burma. Under such conditions, citizens came to be seen as 'barriers' to the military's consolidation of power. It was in this context that an onerous British law, a section of the Public Order Preservation Act, was resurrected and used to arrest as many as 400 government critics. During 1958, the Press Registration Act of 1876 was also amended, and the 'Psywar' Directorate shut down a half-dozen newspapers, imprisoning numerous editors and publishers in the process. Today, 50 years later, nearly the exact same scenes are again being repeated in Burma.

After more than 45 years of army rule, political power in Burma remains in the hands of what Callahan has termed "specialists in violence". This catchphrase actually includes members of the Tatmadaw, anti-government armed forces, criminal gangs and paramilitaries, though the first of these maintains by far the most significant hold over power. "More menacing than the records of murderous militaries in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Philippines," Callahan has noted, "is the comparative 'durability' of the Tatmadaw's command relationship with its society." Since the 1962 military coup, the Tatmadaw have come to dominate all levels of government, civil administration and commerce in Burma.

Military sovereignty
After some modest growth during the mid-1990s, Burma is once again facing dramatic economic problems. The early rush of foreign investment – mostly in tourism and small-scale manufacturing – has by now almost completely dried up, largely as a result of poor economic management by the regime, though coupled with the after-effects of the Asian financial crisis. Regardless, however, the junta looks set to survive, at least in the near term. As the Central Statistical Organisation in Burma has reported, the country's foreign direct investments during fiscal year 2006 totalled nearly USD 753 million, due to investments from China, South Korea, Russia, Singapore and Britain, most of them in the lucrative oil and gas sector.

Indeed, contrary to the spike in public interest in Burma, a recent New York Times editorial suggested that, just a few months after the Saffron Revolution, many governments appear to have started losing much of their short-lived enthusiasm for challenging the junta. This has been put down to the fact that they are either eager for contracts with Burma for resources such as oil and gems, or fear creating instability in the region. While observers have long noted that the governments of China, India and the Southeast Asian countries are particularly crucial in applying pressure on Rangoon, it is impossible not to notice that Europe and the US continue to maintain commercial interests in Burma.

China's economic and military support for the junta has attracted particular attention from pro-democracy activists. One school of thought believes that small, poverty-stricken Burma will inevitably succumb to the pressures of its much larger neighbour, effectively becoming a pawn within China's geopolitical orbit. It is also believed that China's position on the UN Security Council is seen by the Rangoon regime as an ultimate guarantee against action by the UN. A massive military machine, after all, has long been believed by Beijing policymakers to be necessary for the Burmese regime to protect foreign investments and encourage economic growth in the country. This would, of course, include the protection of China's current and future investments, including the planned gas pipelines into Yunnan province. As such, Chinese and Burmese officials have in common the view that Burma's internal stability is vital to the survival of Burma's independence – and the Myanmar Army's sovereignty.

But the Saffron Revolution, and the renewed international interest that came with it, does seem to have altered the geopolitical situation with regards to Burma, at least in the short term. Beijing, for instance, took on a significantly more active, albeit behind-the-scenes, role during the uprising, reportedly adopting an unusually stern line with the junta out of the public's glare. Just how far the Chinese are willing to take this pressure, however, remains uncertain.

For its part, India had briefly supported the Burmese democracy movement in 1988. But by the early 1990s, New Delhi had begun actively courting the Rangoon junta, a move that many put down as an attempt to balance Beijing's influence in Burma. Recently, however, Indian policymakers have been coming under stepped-up pressure to re-examine the official line. Following longstanding calls by rights groups, India recently agreed to halt arms supplies to the Rangoon regime (though, according to Indian officials, only temporarily). Likewise, in early February New Delhi officials promised United Nations Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari that they would increase official backing for UN interventions in Burma, though India remains adamant that it will not support any further imposition of sanctions. Indeed, Gambari seemed buoyed by his Delhi visit. Looking ahead to a planned trip to Rangoon in April, he noted, "Last time, China facilitated my trip to Myanmar. This time, I believe it will be India."

Even the generals themselves seem to have felt the need to capitulate more than usual to international pressure. In mid-February, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged action by the UN Security Council against Rangoon for the use of child soldiers. As a consequence, the Burmese leadership agreed to bring charges against 43 of its officials for child recruitment. But while this swift action in response to UN diktat is notable, the practice of forcing children into the army is almost certainly continuing, particularly in the country's more remote areas.

This type of dynamic has been seen before, as the junta, when pressured, pretends a willingness to cooperate. After pacifying the Security Council with a few meetings between junta liaisons and Suu Kyi in 2007, by 2008 the generals no longer seem to be showing much interest in genuine political reform. This includes the surprise announcement, on 9 February, of plans to hold a referendum, to be held this coming May, on the country's new Constitution, as well as a general election in 2010. The news has been received with skepticism from the political opposition and the West, however, with only the government of Singapore welcoming the news (see box).

A rotten system
The junta's stranglehold over Burma notwithstanding, the Myanmar Army may not be nearly as strong as is generally believed. General Shwe Mann, the army's third-highest official, reported manpower losses of nearly 9500 during just a four-month period leading up to September 2006. Much of this was due to desertions, which had risen by eight percent even over the previous year alone. Indeed, the Burmese military is not only chronically plagued by desertion, but its troops suffer from particularly high rates of HIV and Hepatitis B, and morale is said to have clearly plummeted.

A hint as to why this is so can be found in a late-2007 report by Jane's Defense Weekly, the US-based military journal, that the army's battalions have become poorly managed and resourced. Much of this can be put down to the fact that corruption has reached unprecedented levels, even by the junta's standards, causing a significant drain on the government's budget. According to Transparency International's 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, Burma was ranked dead last on a list of 180 countries, tied only with Somalia, which has not had a functioning central government in a decade and a half. The fact that the junta has further isolated the armed forces from the rest of the population has essentially led to the creation of a state within a state, where the members of the Tatmadaw, along with their relatives and supporters, have become a privileged caste within Burmese society.

The longstanding disconnect in Burma constitutes a constant worry for the authoritarian regime: that the junta will be weakened by its alienation from the civilian population, and will continue to face the threat of armed opposition. Meanwhile, the NLD's landslide victory in the 1990 general elections included an overwhelming vote by military personnel, strongly suggesting that dissatisfaction and even active dissent within the military was well entrenched nearly two decades ago.

It can be said that today the will of the people is much stronger than nearly ever before in modern-day Burma. One of the most important elements to come out of the Saffron Revolution has been the quiet transformation of the power behind the moral influence in Burma. First and foremost, the uprising has largely succeeded in uniting the vast number of Burmese citizens behind a common cause. Second, public will has, to a great extent, re-focused international concern onto Burma – a process that has proceeded more slowly and unevenly than many hoped, but one that is nonetheless continuing. As one student leader, nicknamed Phoenix, said in the aftermath of the September uprisings, "While international pressure is necessary, the ultimate answer to Burma's future lies with the people inside the country, including the military leaders who disagree with the killing of the monks."

18 years later

The 9 February 2008 announcement of plans to hold a countrywide referendum in May and a general election in 2010 followed a strikingly similar template to what transpired two decades ago. The 1988 public uprisings in Burma led to the downfall of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), the military-formed group that had run the country since 1964. Although the military was quickly able to re-establish its power at the time, public anger continued to mount, particularly following a bloody crackdown on demonstrators on 18 September 1988. Thereafter, the junta was forced to call an election.

Those polls eventually took place on 27 May 1990, and the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a massive margin. But instead of ceding power, the military ordained that the Constitution first be re-drawn. The National Convention to draft that document began work in January 1993, which it finally completed late last year (see Himal Oct-Nov 2007, "Burmese powder-keg"). The referendum slated for this coming May, 18 years to the month after the junta declared the NLD's victory null, will ostensibly be to gain the Burmese people's 'approval' of the new Constitution.

Still stinging from the experience two decades ago, however, there is little excitement in Burma regarding the recent announcement. The All-Burma Monks' Alliance (ABMA) has rejected both the referendum and election proposal as mere ploys to prolong the junta's rule. The monks continue to urge a tripartite dialogue between the people's last electoral choice, the NLD, along with the military regime and representatives of Burma's various ethnic communities. As such, the ABMA has stated its intention to continue its struggle for freedom, regardless of the recent announcements.

The popular activist group called the 88 Generation Students (led by activists from the 1988 uprising), have said it views the junta's recent actions as an outright declaration of war on the people. Both the students and the monks have asked the United Nations Security Council to call for an arms embargo and travel ban to be enacted against the Burmese military, in the hopes of pressuring junta leaders to start an inclusive dialogue with the opposition. The students have particularly called on the government of China to take on a more active role in the Burmese situation, urging Chinese policymakers to include the people of Burma in the sentiment behind the slogan for the upcoming Beijing Olympics, "One World, One Dream".   



















May Ng, from Shan state in Burma, is currently the New York regional director for Justice for Human Rights in Burma.

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