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BURMA The struggle against military repression

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Issue 1763

BURMA The struggle against military repression

CHRISTINA FINK was an anthropology student who went to study on the Thailand-Burma border. There she became involved in the struggle of ordinary people against military rule in Burma. She has now published Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule. Here she speaks to SAM ASHMAN.

What are the origins of the military regime in Burma?

Burma was under British colonial rule until 1948. It was really an appendage of the empire in India.

During the Second World War Japan invaded Burma and Britain beat a retreat to India.

Many Burmans joined resistance to Japan alongside Britain, hoping for post- war freedom.

The independence movement in Burma was led by General Aung San. He was the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the contemporary democracy movement. He was assassinated in 1947 by a rival politician-along with most of his cabinet.

There is a strong suspicion of British involvement in the assassination, but it has never been proved.

Despite the assassination there was parliamentary democracy in Burma during the 1950s.

There were two kinds of resistance. There was the Communist Party, and there were ethnic minorities who wanted equal rights. Both engaged in armed struggle.

Demands by ethnic minorities for a federal system of government continue to this day.

In 1962 General Ne Win, the head of the army, used the excuse of ethnic conflict to take control from the civilian government and military rule began. Ne Win nationalised businesses, eliminated political parties and took over all private media.

In July 1962 around 100 students were gunned down by the army. The student union building of Rangoon University, the centre of student activism since colonial days, was blown up. Ne Win remained dictator until 1988.

How did the democracy movement begin?

Fighting continued in the ethnic minority states, and students and intellectuals developed underground networks.

In 1987 changes in currency regulations wiped out the value of people’s savings. People expected protests, but nothing happened. Then in May 1988 a university student got into a brawl with a local youth in a tea shop. The man who started the brawl was the son of an official so he was immediately released.

The students were angry and protested outside a police station. When the army fired and killed one demonstrator, the students went crazy.

Protest spread to other universities and there was a big march in the capital. Troops surrounded the students and drove them into a lake where some of them drowned. Female students were raped.

Ne Win promised to step down and hold elections. He didn’t mean it. However, in early August the BBC broadcast an interview with a student who had been raped. It included the call for a demonstration on 8 August. On 8 August people came out all over the country.

The military retreated and for six weeks there was democracy on the streets. Musicians and comedians performed everywhere. Magazines flourished. The regime fought back in September. Those who refused to get off the streets were killed. Again multi-party elections were promised.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party registered to participate in the vote.

At first she had not taken part in the demonstrations. But people demanded that she did.

In August 1988 she gave a speech and half a million people showed up to hear it. She was immediately propelled into a key leadership position. Her party was a coalition of leftist intellectuals and former military officers. A total of some 230 different parties registered to participate in the election. The regime hoped to survive because the opposition was so divided. But people were not fooled.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party got 392 seats. The regime got ten. The regime stalled. And there has been no transfer of power some 11 years later.

Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest before the election. Several other party members were also arrested and imprisoned. The party lost courage and disintegrated.

How did the regime respond?

The regime by this point wanted a market economy and to open up Burma to foreign investment.

For the first time since 1962 business grew, and big companies moved into Burma from all over south East Asia, and from the US and the UK. Burma is rich in natural resources-rubber, tin, gas, oil, jade, rubies, teak and of course cheap labour.

Oil companies-like Total, Unical and Premier-moved in and built a pipeline between Burma and Thailand.

People lost their land and got no compensation. Forced labour was used for work related to the pipeline and is still used today.

The garment industry has also grown, concentrated around Rangoon, including firms like Levi Strauss and Liz Claiborne.

The regime has courted foreign investment, but there is still not enough to sustain the army and the elite.

The regime is increasingly dependent on drug money as a result. Opium, heroin and amphetamines go to Thailand, Laos, India and China.

The dealers have arrangements with the army to get through the borders, and they launder their money through state banks in Rangoon.

The drug economy is larger today than the legal economy, with huge HIV consequences.

Many start taking drugs in the ruby and jade mines. They take payment in heroin instead of cash because their conditions are so miserable. They take drugs to alleviate the pain.

Drugs are also freely available in student areas. Despite the massive military presence in these areas, drug dealers are never arrested. It is in the regime’s interests for students to be addicts, not activists.

By 1995 the regime felt confident enough to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

The regime thought, “What can she do?” To its surprise, party groups and youth groups reactivated and re-formed.

She began to hold people’s forums at her gate every Saturday and Sunday and 5,000 to 10,000 people would attend. This was in the face of heavy intimidation. Students and activists from 1988 met up again at these meetings, and new students were pulled into the movement.

Tape recordings of these meetings were distributed all over the country. People in the movement set up their own private libraries to read and learn from history and other struggles.

Do people in Burma follow the anti-capitalist protests taking place globally? Most people in Burma would not know about these protests. Some 80 percent of the population are farmers and are barely literate, and the media is controlled by the state.

Intellectuals and activists do know of the protests, but Aung San Suu Kyi says nothing about the WTO and the anti-globalisation movement.

I think it is fair to say that she would be friendly to business. But she thinks it is wrong for it to exploit Burma while there is a dictatorship.

There is no sense in Burma of how globalisation could affect people, of the damage it could do.

I think many people are naive about how companies will take advantage. Multinational corporations will be able to exploit the situation very easily. Activists in the movement are inspired by struggles in other countries, however.

They are looking for models to emulate-like South Africa, Indonesia, East Timor, Serbia and the Philippines.

There is now a lot of international pressure on the regime to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi.

Negotiations with her began last October, but no one knows the content of the talks. There are rumours that she is prepared to accept less than full democracy, perhaps power sharing and some kind of five-year transition period.

But ultimately I think the movement will be successful.

People will act, once the space is created. I wrote this book because I wanted more people to know about what is going on, and I wanted more people to understand the experiences of ordinary people under military rule.

I wanted to explain how the military makes it difficult for people to take action but how all the time resistance is taking place, even if you can’t see it.

  • Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule by Christina Fink, 16.95. Available from Bookmarks-phone 020 7637 1848.

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