“Welcoming the new guard,” the state-run newspaper the Global New Light of Myanmar splashed in November 2015 after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 80% of seats in both of Burma’s parliamentary houses. Observed by the international community, it was the first “proper” election for more than 50 years, and unlike in previous polls, the controlling military said it would accept the results.
Celebrations outside NLD’s headquarters under Shwedagon Pagoda on the night of November 8th. For author Peter Popham, an author and journalist who has written two books about modern Burma (now officially called Myanmar), it was a defining moment in history: “As anyone who was present will agree, it was an ecstatic moment of national catharsis, comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall and other events that heralded the end of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe” in the early 1990s. “Burma will never be the same again,” he added.
But little more than two years on from what were at the time regarded momentous events, it isn’t stories about a flourishing democracy that fills western TV screens and column inches in our newspapers. As I discussed in an earlier post in this series, the reason media outlets ran Christmas appeals was on account of a genocide that has so far forced hundreds of thousands Muslim Rodhingyas to flea for their lives in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Was Aung San Suu Kyi’s decades long battle against the generals really a victory for Burma and its people?
Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 and U Nu became the country’s first post-colonial prime minister. But as a result of growing violence, he “invited” military leader Ne Win to take charge of the country until new elections could be held. The general’s control of Burma remained, culminating in a full blown coup in 1962 (and U Nu was arrested).
Following the military takeover, Ne Win presided over what he called the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism.’ Opposition parties were banned, some 15,000 private companies were nationalised (all banks were merged into the People’s Bank of Burma) and press censorship was imposed. Foreign aid agencies and the World Bank were expelled and the country become isolated and impoverished.
But in 1974 came the first widespread protests against the regime, which the military brutally suppressed. Tension grew, not least after Ne Win introduced a new currency in 1987 that wiped out the life savings of many in Burma. This move was one of the triggers for the 8888 Uprising in August 1988 bringing mass nationwide protests against military regime. Numerous people died in the brutal military crack-down in cities across Burma and Ne Win resigned that year.
It was into this madness that Aung San Suu Kyi found herself when she returned to her native Burma in 1988 to look after her mother who had suffered a stroke. Suu was the daughter of General Aung San, who was murdered in 1947, the year before independence (and when Suu was aged just two). At aged 13 she moved abroad with her mother, who was sent into exile as Burma’s Ambassador to India. When she was aged 20 she started a degree in Oxford, before working for the United Nations in New York.
When she arrived in Burma in 1988 she initially had little interest in national politics: she was happily living in Oxfordshire with her husband, the academic Dr Michael Aris, and her two sons. Her true political awakening came on 26th August when she gave a speech at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (then known as Rangoon). It followed months of anti-regime protests in the capital. One eyewitness reported, how in response, soldiers “shot the people, unarmed people, indiscriminately” and described how it “was mayhem, and the shooting took a long time.”
Suu thought that the regime was so weak that the country would be liberated from military rule by Christmas. But the on September 18th martial law was installed and under the guise of the newly-formed State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) total control was brutally re-instated. As many as many as 10,000 people are said to have died in the uprising, while many more fled the country.
In response, Suu launched the NLD and called for free and fair elections, hoping for the multi-party democracy in Burma that her father had worked so hard for before he was killed in 1947.
But while the military pledged in 1989 to hold elections, Suu was placed under house arrest in July that year and for most of the next 20 years, until her release in 2010, she would be confined to her home by the lake in Yangon. Even when she was allowed, she couldn’t go far and in 2003 there was an assassination attempt on her life.
Suu received countless honours in absentia, most notably being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But missed being re-united with her husband before he died from cancer in 1999.
Elections for parliament to draft a new constitution were held in 1990, which resulted in a landslide victory for the NLD – they won 392 of the 492 available. This was an embarrassment to the SLORC-sponsored National Unity Party and the generals refused to recognise the victory. Given that the military had imposed control on media and all opposition leaders were under arrest, it thought its electoral success would be assured. Following that, no further elections were held until 2010.
After the protests and Ne Win’s subsequent resignation in the late 1980s, the Burmese Way to socialism was abandoned. Private businesses were allowed to return to Burma, with the first private bank since 1963 opening in 1992.
But in reality the military did not loosen its hold on the economy, as it continued to own numerous businesses through various holding companies, the main one being the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (founded in 1990). Many other private enterprises were owned by those closely associated with the generals.
Corruption remained rife and for every $1 of aid received between 1990 and 2008, $4.60 flowed out of the country. Army spending increased significantly, allowing the military to control internal dissent, while health and education investment remained amongst the lowest in the world. The government’s assessment that its economy was growing at 12.2% a year (ahead of China) was nonsense!
And then in 2005 the military government suddenly moved Burma’s capital from Yangon to the newly built Naypyitaw. The new city in the interior of Burma was designed so that it could be easy to defend. But its construction and moving the main ministries there cost billions of dollars – something a developing country could ill afford.
Between August and October 2007, there were significant protests in Burma in what became known as the Saffron Revolution. On September 24th alone there were estimated to be as many as 100,000 people on the streets of Yangon. The demonstrations were triggered by the government decision to remove subsidies on fuel, but soon were used as a means to express anger about other issues.
Significantly, Buddhist monks – who had been worried about Burma opening up to the outside world but still allied with Suu in the struggle against the regime – joined the protests. The military even bought large quantities of monastic robes and soldiers were even ordered to shave their heads, so that they would be able to blend in with the protestors and crush the demonstrations.
National elections were held in 2010, which Suu’s NLD party refused to contest on account of what it deemed an unfair 2008 constitution which ensured much power would remain with the military. Suu herself was still under house arrest at the time on account of providing hospitality in 2009 to an American called John Yettaw, who had swum across the lake to her home. Unsurprising, the winner in 2010 was the junta’s Union Solidarity and Development Party.
But less than a week after the rigged 2010 elections, Suu was released and was greeted by jubilant crowds as she addressed supporters at the NLD’s headquarters. However, she surprised many by telling the BBC’s John Simpson that she didn’t want to see “the military falling to dignified heights falling” but instead hoped they would “show professionalism and true patriotism.” Suu added: “I think it’s quite obvious what the people want; the people just want better lives based on security and on freedom.” Democracy would come to Burma eventually she believed, but didn’t know when.
It has not completely clear why the military released Suu from house arrest when they did. Some have suggested that the generals worried about being indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. The British government had supported a UN recommendation that the body should open a war crimes investigation in March 2010. After allegations of rape, murder, village clearance and seizure of land, perhaps the military thought that elections and releasing Suu would buy them time.
The man responsible for ending Suu’s house arrest was Thein Sein who had become the country’s leader in March 2011 when Than Shwe retired. While his predecessors are accused of trying to have Suu killed, he invited her to his office and brought her out of the cold. Thein Sein’s past was by no means squeaky clean (he was implicated for massacres in 1988, was responsible for anti-Rohingya policies and blocked foreign aid for the devastating 2008 cyclone in which 130,000 people were killed). But he will be remembered as the man who brought the NLD’s leader out of the cold.
From 2012 Thein Sein ushered in a series of reforms, including pulling back on surveillance and arbitrary detention. Trade unions became legal for the first time in 60 years. Foreign companies became permitted to conduct business in Burma. The changes had a particularly big impact on communications, with mobile contracts being awarded to Norwegian and Qatari companies. “After reform of the telecoms market, within a few months every teenager in Rangoon had a cheap smartphone and spent hours on it,” wrote author Peter Popham.
The changes had a big impact for media working in Burma. Foreign journalists found it easier to obtain visas. Private publishers were able to start-up daily newspapers, many of which I saw on newsstands in Yangon alongside a range of books, some of which had provocative titles and were critical of the government. Local media no longer needed to get clearance on stories from the authorities before publications (although it didn’t prevent editors from be sued and imprisoned as a result of what actually appeared).
I picked up a copy of the Global New Light of Myanmar – a government-owned newspaper – and the 7th January 2018 edition carried an editorial which acknowledged that even though 70 years has passed since the country broke away from Britain “most of our people have not yet gotten the chance to savour the taste of Independence to the full.” It blames this on “various kinds of unfairness, injustice and suppression in political, economic and social affairs.”
The paper was happy to criticise Ne Win’s 1962 military coup which meant “progress the country achieved came to a halt.” The editorial added that those “in power exploited benefits for their own sake only, and dictators and followers became extremely rich, with most of the people plunging into abject poverty.” But it put a positive spin on the fact that the present “Union Government is bravely cleaning up the mess of many years of military rule characterized by corruption, cronyism and high-handed management style.” – the Rohingya crisis wasn’t mentioned (although elsewhere in the paper there was a story about the government sending 1,050 Belgium-made tents to Rakhine State for repatriating refugees).
Being privately owned, the Myanmar Times, is more critical. In the 8th January 2018 edition, I read an article with the headline: “Ethnic groups not moved by Independence Day spirit.” It said: “NLD won the 2015 elections and promised two main points: peace building and reforming the 2008 Constitution. Both remain unfulfilled, three years into its five-year term.”
Thein Sein’s efforts at reform paid off because when the British prime minster David Cameron visited Burma in April 2012 he called for sanctions to be suspended, just days after by-elections – observed by the international community – in which the NLD won 43 out of the 44 seats contested. Suu herself secured the Yangon township of Kawhmu seat.
The NLD won 390 of the 498 seats available in the 2015 election. But the military still retains 166 of the 664 parliamentary seats, as well as control over the country’s armed forces. Eventually, in 2016, she reached a compromise over her position, and created the new role of State Counsellor, which is “above the president” (she wasn’t allowed to be president on account of her foreign next of kin). In the same year, the US lifted most of its economic sanctions against Burma.
Suu has suggested in the past that people have had unrealistic expectations for her country. “Burma is at the beginning of a road,” she said in 2012. “But it’s not smooth, it’s not well made – it’s not even there yet; we will have to create it for ourselves. Too many people are expecting too much of Burma. Many people think the Burmese road is like the road I took from London to Oxford, so smooth and straight that I was almost car sick.” But in Burma there is the need “to make the road ourselves, inch by painful inch.”
For some the fault lies in Suu’s character and “that at heart she is not a political animal,” her biographer Peter Popham has suggested in his book the Lady and the Generals: “It was not simply an accident that she had no political involvement of any sort until leadership was thrust upon her in August 1988: that was her temperament speaking. Had she been more conscious of her limitations, she might, since her release, have delegated, picked the winners among the young enthusiasts who clustered around her and her party, nurtured them, brought them on, then tapped them for the political wit she was deficient in. But this too has far proved beyond her: five years after her liberation she is almost as solitary as she had been for the previous twenty, but this time by choice.”
Some think that it is high time for Suu step down. “Today she finds herself the most powerful civilian in the government, but with no right to stand up to, let alone overrule, the government on crucial issues such as Rakhine,” wrote author Peter Popham. “Instead of challenging the military, she is now its poodle, its patsy, its flak-catcher in chief. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing – responsible for operations against the Rohingya – is off the hook.” She needs to admit she made “a fatal error [in accepting in 2011 the constitution giving considerable power to the military], and call it a day.”
“History will remember Suu Kyi as the leader of a pro-democracy movement who changed her mind and surrendered, who ignored barbaric violence, who helped split a nation, and who opened it to rapacious corporate development,” noted the blogger who labelled her “the worst person in Burma”. He added in his 2012 article that if she fails to use the power she has it would “be best if she leaves politics altogether and retires to her house on the lake.”
Burma has made some economic progress in recent years – it’s per capita GDP is now above neighbouring countries Cambodia and Laos for example. But much of the country’s wealth still remains in the hands of the military and, as even state-run newspapers acknowledge, many still live in poverty.
There is still much work to do in improving conditions for Burma’s ethnic group, not least the Rodhingyas who aren’t even given any official recognition. In this respect, the international community could be blamed for lifting sanctions too quickly after Suu’s release from house arrest. Did the west get too caught up in the Lady’s re-entry into politics and miss what was going on away from Burma’s heartlands?
As for life in Burma after Suu, what happens next is far from certain. One tour guide I spoke to said they had no idea about the future, but feared that power could return to the military.