The 1990 Elections in Myanmar (Burma)

Broken Promises or a Failure of Communications?

 Derek Tonkin [1]

 “Whoever is elected will first have to draw up a constitution that will have to be adopted before the transfer of power. They haven’t said how the constitution will be adopted. It could be through a referendum, but that could be months and months, if not years.” 

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, interview with Dominic Faulder in ‘Asiaweek1 July 1989


· The National League for Democracy (NLD) won a resounding victory in the May 1990 general elections, but was unable to persuade
the ruling military junta to agree to a transfer of power.

· The junta (the State Law and Order Restoration Council or SLORC) had initially promised when they took control in September 1988 that whichever party won the elections could form the new government.

· But within months they backtracked as democracy activists, led by the NLD, pursued a vigorous campaign for basic civil rights, including freedom of expression, publication and assembly.

· Even before NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was confined to house arrest in July 1989, the junta had redefined their position, which was that they would continue to govern until a new constitution, approved by the people, had been promulgated and a new government based on that constitution appointed.

· When the NLD won the elections with over 80% of the seats in the People’s Assembly, they argued that they now had a strong mandate for assuming power without delay. But the regime reaffirmed in a formal Declaration its pre-election stance that the main purpose of the new Assembly must be to draft a new Constitution.

· Deprived of strategic guidance from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD nonetheless decided to confront the junta which had already shown that it would ruthlessly suppress dissent.

· Internationally, the junta could not compete for the world’s affections with the iconic, charismatic personality of the daughter of the leader of Burmas independence. Accordingly no-one listened to what the junta had to say.  

· In short, from mid 1989 onwards, the SLORC made it abundantly clear that they would retain power until a new constitution had been adopted and a government set up according to that constitution. Even so, there were hopes that the SLORC might relent in the face of the overwhelming expression of the will of the people. They have not yet done so.


 In general elections held in Myanmar (Burma) on 27 May 1990, the National League for Democracy (“NLD”), whose Secretary-General Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been placed under house arrest on 20 July 1989 along with other leading members of the NLD, won a resounding victory, fielding 447 candidates and securing 392 of the 485 seats to a Pyithu Hluttaw or People’s Assembly. The NLD secured 80.82% of the seats with 59.87% of valid votes cast, 52.44% of all votes cast (valid and invalid) and 38.11 % of all eligible votes which could have been cast.

 The statistical record [2] was:

             Constituencies                                        492
            Elections held                                         485 [7 suspended for security reasons]
            Eligible voters                               20,818,313      
            Votes cast                                    15,112, 524
            Valid votes cast                            13,253,606
            Party candidates                                   2,209 [479 elected]
            Independent candidates                             87 [  6 elected]
            Registered political parties                        235
            Parties presenting candidates                      93      

 National League for Democracy                            392 seats  80.82%      7,934,622 votes     59.87%
Shan Nationalities League for Democracy                23 seats    4.74%         222,821 votes      1.68%
National Unity Party                                               10 seats    2.06%      2,805,559 votes     21.16%
Mon Democratic Front                                           5 seats    1.03%         138,572 votes      1.05%
Miscellaneous Parties and independents                   55 seats  11.35%      2,152,032 votes     16.24%

             National League for Democracy                447 candidates    [392 elected]
            National Unity Party                                  413 candidates    [  10 elected]
            League for Peace and Democracy              309 candidates    [    0 elected]
            United National Democracy Party             247 candidates    [    1 elected]

The NLD’s nearest rivals in terms of valid votes cast were the National Unity Party (“NUP”), the successor to the Burma Socialist Programme Party (“BSPP”) which dominated political life in the one-Party state which existed from 1974 to September 1988. The NUP, which some expected to win comfortably, polled only 21.16% of valid votes cast and secured only 10 seats although fielding 413 candidates. They failed to capture a single seat in the capital Rangoon, even in districts with military cantonments. The remaining seats were won by other parties and independent candidates who were either in electoral alliance with the NLD or generally supported their aims. If anything, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s enforced absence from the electoral campaign enhanced the success of the NLD. She had become the national symbol of democratic opposition to military rule. That was all that most Burmese voters needed to know.

 The vote was an expression of overwhelming support for a change to democratic politics and at the same time a rejection of old-style politicians like former Prime Minister U Nu  whose League for Peace and Democracy, though fielding 309 candidates, secured no seats at all. Many commentators saw the elections as more of a popular referendum, for or against democratic rule, rather than as a competition between political parties whose declared policies were so generalised that it was often very difficult to distinguish between them. Against this background, the voting could be interpreted 78.94% [475 seats] in favour of fully democratic government and 21.06% [10 seats] in favour of power-sharing with the military.

 The NLD, which now dominated the political scene, made it immediately clear that they expected to assume political power, and became increasingly frustrated because the State Law and Order Restoration Council (“SLORC”), which had taken control on 18 September 1988 in a coup against a collapsing BSPP administration and had supervised the elections, were reluctant to agree to a date for the People’s Assembly to meet. In the ensuing political crisis, some elected representatives met secretly in Mandalay in October 1990 and agreed to try and call an Assembly. Following a security clamp-down, a dozen elected representatives fled to insurgent controlled territory and subsequently established a National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (“NCGUB”) on 18 December 1990 at Manerplaw in Karen State on the Thai-Burmese border. The NCGUB later went into exile. The NLD however maintained its legal presence in Rangoon and in the interests of its own survival disassociated itself from the NCGUB and those NLD elected representatives who had joined.

International Condemnation

 The international community strongly condemned the SLORC for refusing to allow elected representatives to meet as a People’s Assembly, and for failing to honour the results of the elections and hand over power. The UN General Assembly (“UNGA”) has since 1991 passed successive annual Resolutions in the Third Committee on Human Rights Questions calling on Myanmar (Burma) variously “to take all necessary steps towards democracy in the light of the elections held in 1990” [UNGA 1991-1998] “to take all necessary steps towards the restoration of democracy in accordance with the will of the people as expressed in the democratic elections held in 1990” [UNGA 1999 and 2000], “to take.…….measures to ensure the establishment of democracy in accordance with the will of the people…..” [UNGA 2001], “to restore democracy and implement the results of the 1990 elections” [UNGA 2002], and “to restore democracy and respect the results of the 1990 elections” [UNGA 2003]. [3]

 It should however be noted that these annual UNGA Resolutions are passed by consensus, with critical interventions by the Myanmar representative supported at times by other Asian representatives. At UNGA 2003, the Republic of Korea was the only Asian country to co-sponsor the Resolution.

In terms of international public relations, there was simply no contest. In the run-up to the elections, the SLORC had relied on set-pattern weekly press conferences to present their views, and occasional speeches to mainly military audiences by the SLORC Chairman General Saw Maung. The NLD, on the other hand, through the iconic, charismatic, and cosmopolitan personality of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, had unhindered access to the world stage and filled the pages of the international media - press, radio and television - with reports and interviews about the struggle in Myanmar (Burma) for civil rights and democracy. It was a situation in which the SLORC could not possibly win the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Burmese people or the international community.

It might then seem that the situation in Myanmar (Burma) was crystal clear and that in failing to hand over power to the NLD, the SLORC was in serious breach of accepted norms of international parliamentary behaviour and human rights. This generally received wisdom is not however wholly compatible with the historical facts. A study of the period from the SLORC assumption of power on 18 September 1988 to the elections on 27 May 1990 points to a slow but steady erosion of their original intention  to hand over power after the elections, and a growing realisation that elections in isolation were not a sure or effective means to achieve multi-party democracy. As Carl Bildt, the former Swedish Prime Minister, said on a BBC Interview on 18 January 2004:

It is only when you get a consensus on the structure of a State that you can move forward towards electing the representatives to govern that State. Then, elections could unite, otherwise they risk to divide.”

The 1990 Elections held in a Political Vacuum

Carl Bildt’s concerns reflect closely what happened in Myanmar (Burma) in 1990. There was no consensus on the way ahead. The elections were held in a political vacuum without any previously agreed process which would lead to the transfer of power, or even a general understanding of how best to proceed. It is only too easy to allocate the blame for this to SLORC. But SLORC was by its own admission (supposed to be) a temporary administration only and it ought not to come as a surprise to anyone that military rulers are not by training or inclination constitutional experts.

It should be recalled that the final days of the BSPP administration saw first the resignation of General Ne Win [4] as Chairman in July 1988, then the resignation a month later of his successor Sein Lwin who had an unsavoury reputation for crushing dissent, and finally an offer by the respected civilian Dr Maung Maung to organise multi-party elections within three months. It is possible that if the emerging political leaders, the “Big Four” of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi [5], Aung Gyi [6], Tin Oo [7] and U Nu [8], had agreed to this and had been willing to accept the nominated Election Commission to supervise the elections, the 18 September 1988 coup might never have happened. But the four leading politicians said that they could not accept the Election Commission as impartial because, though they respected the commissioners individually, it had been appointed by a compromised administration. They demanded instead the establishment of an interim administration comprising non-BSPP personalities which could pave the way towards multi-party democracy. The BSPP not surprisingly declined. General Saw Maung was to comment after the elections [9] that: “Had we accepted and consulted when the BSPP offered to hold multi-party elections, then the National Assembly would not have been dissolved…….I believe that the matter would have ended then after the Assembly representatives amended the constitution.”

US Call for an Interim Administration in September 1988

The call for an interim administration was enthusiastically taken up by the United States where the House of Representatives on 7 September 1988 passed a resolution expressing its strong support for the restoration of democracy in Burma “and, to this end, urges the establishment of a transitional body, consisting of Burmese citizens who are unquestionably committed to democracy and who have the confidence of the Burmese people, to organize multi-party elections……..” While such sentiments can be applauded in the abstract, it was not really practicable to establish such a body in the conditions existing in Burma at the time. If politics is the art of the possible, the expression of such wishful thinking is not helpful in resolving a complex situation in which the Tatmadaw, the Burmese Armed Forces, were bound to play a decisive role.

It was encouraging and understandable, but in retrospect possibly unfortunate that one of the first measures introduced by the SLORC on its assumption of power was to confirm its intention to hold multi-party elections and to reconfirm the appointments to the Election Commission. In a rapid volte-face, the “Big Four” agreed to recognise the Commission. The then Brig Gen Khin Nyunt, Director of Defence Services Intelligence, speaking to foreign Military Attachés on 22 September 1988, made it clear that:

 "Elections would be held as soon as law and order had been restored, and the Defence Forces would then 'systematically hand over state power to the party which wins', Khin Nyunt said." [10]

SLORC and the Transfer of Power

These words have frequently been quoted to show that SLORC intended to hand over power without delay, though the word “systematically” is often omitted. That the SLORC only intended to hold power for a short time was seemingly confirmed by Chairman General Saw Maung, who in a broadcast appeal on 23 September 1988 said: [11]

"The fact that we have formed a government with very few people is evidence that we have absolutely no desire to hold on to state power for a prolonged period........As our period of responsibility is very short, we will only be able to take limited action on social affairs such as health, education and other social services. The long-term reforms in social services, such as in health and education, have to be carried out by the government that comes to power after democratic multi-party general elections are held.”

Finally, as if to confirm the SLORC’s intention to return power to a civilian administration, General Saw Maung, in his capacity as Defence Forces Chief of Staff, said in a speech on the occasion of the 44th Armed Forces Day parade on 27 March 1989: [12]

"As conditions improve on all fronts, genuinely fair multi-party democratic general elections will be held nationwide except in some areas where there is no security due to insurgency. After the necessary work has been carried out following the elections, a new government will be formed in accordance with the law by members of the People's Assembly elected by the people. We hope that this new government will be able to best serve the interests of the people as they continue to lead the country. As for members of our Defence Forces, we will return to the barracks and continue to relentlessly to carry out our original duties......."

Evolution of SLORC Policy on the Transfer of Power

There are nuances already creeping into SLORC pronouncements. General Saw Maung [13] saw a requirement for “necessary work to be carried out following the elections”, and for the new government to be formed “in accordance with the law” which could be seen to imply the need for a new constitution to be first drafted and promulgated. For the Electoral Law of 31 May 1989 only set out the technical and administrative requirements for the holding of the elections, but contained no provisions about how and when the People’s Assembly should be convoked, nor what its powers might be.

 The evidence indeed strongly suggests that a gradual change in SLORC policy on the transfer of power was taking place. The struggle in many cities and towns in Myanmar (Burma) for human rights and democracy, seen as an essential preliminary to any free and fair elections, dominated the scene. By June 1989 the SLORC had come to realise that the transfer of power through multi-party elections was a rather more complicated task than they had initially thought. It might also be that the SLORC realised that a united focus of opposition to their interest in a military-controlled democracy was emerging in the shape of the NLD. The change in SLORC policy was noted well before the elections by specialist Burma watchers  like Asia Watch, the predecessor to Human Rights Watch - Asia, who in their 1990 Report [14] commented:

 “Despite the Government’s initial promise of a rapid transfer of power, SLORC soon backtracked and insisted that a new constitution would first have to be drafted and approved in a general referendum - a process which some say may take several years.”

 A key document is the record of the 43rd SLORC Press Conference held on 9 June 1989:[15]

 "In response to a question from the News Agency of Burma correspondent, information committee members said that Saw Maung, Chairman of SLORC, had on numerous occasions touched on the matter of transfer of power……..We do not know as yet to whom and how power would be transferred, and we do not know who would win and in which manner we would transfer power. We cannot transfer power as soon as the elections are held. The government would be formed according to a constitution. If the state power is hurriedly transferred, it would lead to a shaky and weak government. This can be worked out by any person with intelligence. Stability can be achieved only by systematically forming a government based on a constitution…….

 “Neither the Defence Forces nor the SLORC will draw up a new constitution. The elected representatives are to draw up the constitution. If the people approve that constitution, we will transfer power as soon as possible to the government which emerged according to that constitution. There should be no worry about the transfer of power. We are ever-ready to transfer power. We are just stressing systematic transfer of power according to the law. We do not want to hold onto power for a long time.”

 The use of the words “systematically” and “systematic” should be noted, though quite what the system might be was never elaborated in any detail, as it should have been, through a formal announcement or policy statement by the SLORC, or at least discussed with the main political parties.

 David Arnott, Librarian of the Online Burma/Myanmar Library, has recently noted [16] “the 1989 to mid-1990 statements that the elected representatives could and then should and then (after the election victory of the NLD) must  first draft a new constitution”. My own reading of SLORC texts is that the pre-election responsibility laid on the political parties to draft a constitution was rather stronger than this, as it is self-evident that a constitution is a sine qua non for any future government. Even the post-election pronouncement in SLORC Declaration No.1/90 (see below) that those elected “have the responsibility to draw up the constitution” is very much in line with what was said before the elections.  There was in fact no disagreement between either SLORC or the political parties on the need for a new Constitution, only that after the elections the NLD wanted power, and the SLORC a Constitution first.

SLORC Intention to Retain Power until the Constitution is drafted

The outlines of a process are to be seen, and it will be almost a year before the elections will be held, so that the political parties have been given fair notice that the hand-over of power would not follow automatically after the elections. To make sure that SLORC’s position was understood in outline, even if it were not elaborated, SLORC Secretary (1) Maj Gen. Khin Nyunt said on 12 April 1990 in the course of an address to Yangon officials, and hence only six weeks before the elections: [17]

"Altogether 93 parties will be contesting in the forthcoming elections. It is learnt that only 89 parties will deliver their campaign speeches over the radio and television. Except from the speeches that amount to sowing a discord within the Tatmadaw, that tarnish the image of the State Law and Order Restoration Council and that might lead to causing unrest, everything is allowed.

"The party that wins in the 27 May elections will have to form a government. Only if a firm Constitution can be drawn up and a government formed in accordance with it will the government be a strong one. Only a strong government can lead the State for a long time. The Law and Order Restoration Council at different levels will continue to carry out the responsibilities of the State while the Constitution is being drafted. So we will continue to carry out the responsibilities even after the elections. We will continue to do so till a strong government has been formed."

The process of approval might well entail a national referendum and, as some SLORC commentators noted [18] even fresh elections under the new constitution. Yet few Burmese politicians seem to have grasped or wanted to grasp the implications of this redefined policy, however sparse the detail and despite occasional incoherence in presentation. There were two Burmese who might have done, namely Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Secretary-General of the NLD and U Nu, Patron of the League for Peace and Democracy. Unfortunately, both were detained in July and December 1989 respectively. In any case U Nu, deposed in a military coup in 1962 by Army Commander General Ne Win, had rather crossed the Rubicon by announcing, on 9 September 1988 even while the BSPP administration was still in power, that he was reclaiming power as Prime Minister under the 1947 Constitution and appointing a parallel government.

Even so, there were those international Burma-watchers who well understood that power would not be handed over on a plate to whoever won the elections. Writing in The Washington Post on 9 May 1990, less than three weeks before the elections, James A Goldston [19] commented:

If ever proof were needed that elections do not by themselves ensue that a Government is protecting its citizens’ human rights, Myanmar, formerly Burma, is it. Later this month the Burmese people will go to the polls for the first time in 28 years. At the same time, the military regime is imprisoning or killing thousands, subjecting many more to inhuman compulsory labour  and forcibly uprooting half a million people from their homes. Because the military has pledged to retain power whatever the outcome, such gross mistreatment will not likely diminish once the votes are counted on May 27……..Under such conditions, the Burmese elections can hardly serve as a referendum of the popular will.”  [20]

In the days preceding the elections and immediately after, the international press were in no doubt that early promises by the SLORC to hand over power to whoever won the elections had now been replaced by an intention to retain power until their conditions were met:

·         Steven Erlanger, The New York Times 27 May 1990 [Bangkok 26 May 1990]:

“……The military authorities now say that those elections will produce only a national assembly to write a new constitution, a process that could take many months…..”

·         Daw Aye Aye Win, The Straits Times [Singapore] 25 May 1990:

The ruling military council, led by General Saw Maung, has said it would not relinquish power until a government is formed and a new constitution is written, which is expected to take some time.”

·         Nick Cumming-Bruce, The Guardian, 26 May 1990:

What is emerging is a political shadow-boxing, not an expression of public will which will have any direct effect on the exercise of power……..The SLORC has made it clear that it will do everything necessary…… avoid a transfer of power.”

·         Jean-Claude Pomonti,  Le Monde, 28 May 1990:

The SLORC has recently declared that its withdrawal must be preceded by the adoption of a new Constitution and the formation of a new government, which could take two years.”

·         Terry McCarthy, The Independent, 26 May 1990:

Burma holds its first elections in 30 years tomorrow, but the ruling military junta has already said there will be no transfer of power”.

·         Reuters from Rangoon 27 May 1990:

Military leaders said during the campaign that a new constitution must be passed and a stable government formed before the junta stepped down.”

It is important to note that SLORC’s declared intention to retain power until due constitutional process had been completed was made at a time when it was simply not known who would win the elections, although as the day of the elections approached most international observers predicted a victory for the NLD, provided the polls were not rigged. The NLD certainly knew well in advance of the elections what they were up against. We may applaud their subsequent bid for power, but few international observers were in the least surprised when the SLORC said no.

Insurgency issues of little relevance during the Elections

It is noteworthy how little the ethnic insurgencies intruded on the election scene. A main reason was that the revolt by ethnic national elements against the predominantly Burman leadership of the Burma Communist Party (“BCP”) during 1989 led to the collapse of the BCP insurgency, but little of this drama was known, let alone played out in Rangoon during the pre-election period. From March to December 1989 while pre-election activities were in full swing in major towns and cities, the SLORC negotiated no fewer than five cease-fire agreements with Kokang, Wa, Shan, Akha and Kachin ethnic insurgents and opened negotiations with several others. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who had only arrived in Burma in March 1988 to look after her ailing mother, had little experience or involvement with the ethnic insurgencies rampant in regions away from central Burma [21]. The relationship between the various nationality groups in Burma is however of fundamental importance and until the insurgencies have been settled, the issues of democracy and human rights will not be resolved [22] .

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Views on the Elections and the Transfer of Power

The primary focus of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s activities, until her detention on 20 July 1989, was the struggle for civil rights, not winning the elections. In an interview broadcast by New Delhi Radio on 25 March 1989 she commented: [23]

 "The main thing is that the elections must be free and fair. We will take this factor into account in deciding whether or not to run.........What our League has said is that right now we should be aiming neither for an interim government nor for the elections, but should be seeking the attainment of basic human rights as soon as possible. If these basic rights are achieved, one of the rights - free and fair elections - will materialise."

 The following day, 26 March 1989, she was quoted in the Bangkok Post [24] as saying:

 “ ‘In order to have free and fair elections, we must create a kind of condition in which elections can be free and fair, which means that first of all the people must be entitled to the basic human rights and democratic freedom…….We must have freedom of speech, publication and assembly.’ If these are not granted, then she did not think anyone would ‘have trust and confidence’ in any elections.”

Amnesty International has recorded that: [25]

 “On 2 June 1989 military spokesmen announced intentions to keep the martial law regime in place even after the elections scheduled for May 1990. They said it would stay in power until after the parliament elected could agree to a constitution and a government could be formed on the basis of that constitution……..On 5 June the NLD denounced the announcement. Party Chairman Tin U described the military’s position as a ‘senseless’ delaying tactic to prolong its power, and said that if it stayed in power after the elections, this would be tantamount to ‘ignoring the people’s mandate’. Aung San Suu Kyi declared that the NLD could not participate in the election ‘until the question of power transfer was resolved’…….” [26]

Four weeks later, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi expressed even greater concern. In her interview with Dominic Faulder of Asiaweek on 1 July 1989, or only 19 days before she was placed under house arrest which lasted until 1995, she said: [27]

"Day by day we're losing more and more of our basic political rights.” The NLD had studied carefully the elections rules drawn up by the Election Commission, but she regretted : “They haven't paid any attention to all the suggestions that must have poured in. We have made a large number which were totally ignored. We have also asked for special provisions to do with the transfer of power, and they haven't touched on that at all."

Asked what she thought would happen after the elections, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said: "We don't know; this is the problem. Whoever is elected will first have to draw up a constitution that will have to be adopted before the transfer of power. They haven't said how the constitution will be adopted. It could be through a referendum, but that could be months and months, if not years. That's why provisions for the transfer of power are so important....." [28]

It is significant that as early as July 1989 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi appears to have accepted that the process for the transfer of power could take time, whatever arrangements might be agreed with the SLORC.

Detention of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other Senior NLD Officials

Her increasingly outspoken criticisms of the SLORC and the Tatmadaw were to result in the detention not only of herself, but also of several leading personalities in the NLD on 20 July 1989. She was quoted by SLORC spokesmen as making unacceptably divisive and hostile remarks: [29]

Syriam 18 March 1989: “There are two sides within the Defence Forces: one side represents the Defence Force personnel who honourably stand on the side of the people, while the dishonourable ones prolong their hold on power.”

·         Kemmendine 14 June 1989: “The Defence Forces are divorced from the people and also divided within because they have been used to preserve the power of U Ne Win” (the retired Chairman of the former ruling BSPP).

·         Sanchaung 17 June 1989: “It was the duty of everyone to oppose laws which were unjust.”

·         Okkalapa 17 June 1989: “The NLD would stand on the side of the people and defy authority.”

·         NLD headquarters 26 June 1989: “Basic human rights are currently being eroded bit by bit and repressive acts were getting worse, so it is the duty of everyone to defy unlawful commands in the present struggle for democracy…..It is the opinion of all our people that U Ne Win is still creating all the problems in this country.”

·         NLD headquarters 8 July 1989: “The Army have been made to play the role of thugs, to make sure that  a few old men can remain in power.”

·         NLD headquarters 19 July 1989: “We have a fascist government in power…..They are acting now like a fascist government and like fascists the only language they understand is confrontation.”

The SLORC did not take kindly to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s remarks. The decision was taken to silence her. A major contributory factor in their decision was their conviction that the NLD had been infiltrated by Communist agents and advisors who had, they said, even prior to the SLORC’s assumption of power allegedly been encouraging Daw Aung San Suu Kyi along the path of strikes and confrontation. The evidence produced for this, notably at a Press Conference on 5 August 1990, may have been disjointed and generally unconvincing, and the most which could reasonably be concluded is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may have been unwise to allow a small number of left-wing intellectuals to join her campaign organization, while student groups supporting the NLD may well have had contact with individuals from the ailing Communist Party of Burma. Nonetheless, communist influence was the reason given by former Brigadier General Aung Gyi for leaving the NLD in December 1988 and setting up his own party, the Union National Democracy Party, which some have suggested was a ploy arranged with the SLORC, though no evidence for this has been produced. The SLORC’s obsessive concerns with communism might however have been better appreciated by the NLD, not least because the Tatmadaw had been fighting communist insurgents ever since independence and many officers and soldiers had been killed or seriously injured over the years. The Tatmadaw was in no mood to tolerate any signs of communist involvement in the country’s emerging political parties.

As regards Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s conviction that Ne Win was still pulling the strings behind the scenes, she may have been unduly influenced by the conviction, shared by many, that Ne Win was seeking to undermine the memory of her father, the legendary Aung San, who like Ne Win had been one of the “Thirty Comrades” trained by the Japanese to spearhead their ambitions in Burma and who is widely revered as the leader of Burmese independence [30].

Serious Problems in Communication between SLORC and the Political Parties

In contrast to the political settlements in South Africa and in Cambodia which began at about the same time, the 1990 elections to the People's Assembly in Burma were not part of a process which could have involved some or more of the elements of negotiation, transitional authority, interim settlement, elections and final constitution. In South Africa the settlement process took eight years to complete, in Cambodia five. The elections in Myanmar (Burma) were carried through on a wave of hope and expectation, even wishful thinking about the assumed immediate transfer of power, though many political leaders such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Nu were either in jail or under house arrest. There were considerable restrictions on canvassing, electoral publications, and radio and television appearances by candidates. In terms of freedom of speech, publication and association in the run-up to the elections, the description of “free and fair” is wide of the mark, though like the elections which the caretaker military regime organised in 1960, the actual voting arrangements on the day were conducted without pressures or intimidation.

In the run-up to the elections, Western media and politicians were unanimous that the forthcoming elections could not possibly be free and fair. Yet when an overwhelming victory for the NLD was announced, the elections were instantly acclaimed as such. The irony is that what happened on the day contrasted sharply with the pre-election campaign, which underlined a fortiori the success of the NLD.

Writing in the Sunday Times of  27 May 1990, Jon Swain noted from the Thai-Burmese border that “with the main opposition leaders jailed, free speech muzzled, a curfew, gatherings of more than five people banned, and the prisons full of political prisoners, many Burmese regard today’s elections as an exercise in democracy conducted through the barrel of a gun.”

Asia Watch said that violations of human rights and restrictions on political expression were so severe “as to render impossible a free and fair election.” [31]

The Washington-based International Human-Rights Law Group said in a report issued a week before the elections that the SLORC “had grossly breached minimum campaigning freedoms” and generally fallen “far short of international standards for free and fair elections.”

The multi-ethnic Democratic Alliance of Burma (“DAB”) from exile in India, in an appeal to the Chairman of SLORC after the elections, observed: [32]

“…..As for the elections you held, political leaders were put in prison, election speeches were not freely allowed, martial law was declared throughout the country, almost all members of the various political parties were arrested under pretext of various laws. The parties who should have been giving election speeches before the people were required to submit their speeches to you for your approval before presenting them to the people. You allotted 15 minutes to each party on television and required the parties to deliver speeches at a prescribed place, a prescribed time and within the prescribed laws. If we do not describe these restrictions you imposed as unfair, what are we to say……?”

Reactions to the Election Results

The SLORC were clearly very surprised (as were most international observers and the NLD) by the dramatic results of the elections, but within 48 hours, in a radio broadcast on 30 May 1990, General Saw Maung had reminded Burmese citizens of the SLORC position: [33]

If someone asks us if our duties are over, we must say no, they are not over. Our duties will not be over until a government has been formed in accordance with the law. It is necessary to understand that we will bear the responsibility of enforcing the rule of law and order and regional peace and tranquillity.”

Even before General Saw Maung’s broadcast, The Times [London] in a leading article published on 29 May 1990, and so written on 28 May 1990 only a day after the elections were held and before the full extent of the NLD’s victory was known, noted that: “The Government has been putting it about that it will not be possible to form a Cabinet until a constitution is promulgated, and it is not clear whether the powers of the National Assembly elected at the weekend extend that far…………Until Daw Suu Kyi is released from house arrest (and her colleague, the League’s Chairman, let out of jail), the opposition will be at a severe disadvantage and the conditions for an orderly transition will not exist.” Prophetic words. Andrew McEwen, Diplomatic Editor, writing in the same issue of The Times, referred to fears that the transition “might be delayed for about two years while the constitution is written” and quoted a junta spokesman as saying that the military would hand over “to any government that is constituted after a written constitution”. In Britain at least it was recognised that the “due process” of the transfer of power was going to take time.

At the 100th SLORC Press Conference [34] on 13 July 1990, in an extensive review Maj Gen Khin Nyunt sought to contain NLD pressures for an immediate transfer of power. He made it clear once again that :

"If a political party convenes a parliament and forms a government according to its own wishes, then such a government can only be a parallel government. If that happens, the SLORC Government, which is a legal government, will not look on with folded arms. Representatives from political parties which are to build a new democratic state must consult among themselves on a new constitution stage by stage……." The need for a step-by-step approach had been made crystal clear, though the NLD had already decided that the SLORC position was unacceptable.

The NLD’s Bid for Power

The NLD thereupon threw down the gauntlet and demanded that a People’s Assembly be called before the end of September 1990. The battle lines were drawn in SLORC Declaration No 1/90 of 27 July 1990 and the Gandhi Hall Declaration by the NLD on 29 July 1990 [35] Aware that elected NLD representatives would be meeting on 29 July 1990, the SLORC confirmed in their pre-emptive Declaration that they retained legislative, executive and judicial power, and that this had been pointed out already by the Chairman of SLORC in previous speeches.

The received wisdom is that the SLORC Declaration was an unexpected bombshell. It was in fact fully consistent with SLORC’s declared pre-election statements. If SLORC had shown a greater awareness of the looming public relations battle, particularly on the international stage, they could have referred more pointedly to statements made at their weekly Press Conferences and by Maj Gen Khin Nyunt as Secretary (1) on various occasions prior to the elections themselves, and even to reports in the US and British press, as well as to publications by Amnesty International and Asia Watch. But public relations were not one of SLORC’s strongest talents, and they found themselves outclassed. The sympathies of the Western world lay with the NLD.

In their Gandhi Hall Declaration, the NLD had made a strong bid for the rapid transfer of power. “It is against political nature that the NLD, which has overwhelmingly won enough seats in the Pyithu Hluttaw to form a government, itself has been prohibited from the minimum democratic rights.” The SLORC position was that “under the present circumstances, the representatives elected by the people are those who have the responsibility to draw up the constitution of the future democratic state.” This was not, as some have interpreted it, a statement that those elected were delegates only to a “Constituent Assembly” as such. SLORC spokesmen had on several occasions made it clear that the only Constituent Assembly in recent Burmese history was the Assembly which drew up the 1947 Constitution, which was not referred for approval to the population by referendum.

The new People’s Assembly would however clearly have been in these circumstances without effective power, at least in the initial stages. To judge from the texts of their radio pre-election addresses none of the political parties, even the NUP, seem to have understood that representatives were being elected to a body whose sole initial task was to draft, or perhaps only to help draft a new constitution, whatever further powers might have been placed on them at a later stage. On the other hand, in none of the pre-election radio addresses by the four main parties selected by the BBC Monitoring Service for verbatim translation is there any indication of an awareness of how the process for the transfer of power might in practice work. The NLD seem to have been vaguer than most on whether they were to form a government or not. Acting Secretary-General U Chit Khaing told listeners on 12 April 1990 that: “I will have to submit a statement on what the NLD’s disposition will be and what it will do for the country if it wins the elections……The forthcoming election is not meant for a group, a single party or a group of people to attain power or to form a government. It is an extraordinary event in our country’s history and will go down in history as an election that marks the change and transfer to a new system and a new democratic era……The early transitional establishment of a democratic system that respects the honour of the people is urgently needed.” [36]   Nonetheless, even if the NUP had won the elections and shown themselves to be more accommodating, indeed compliant towards the SLORC, there is no reason to suppose that the SLORC would have changed their basic policy in any way, but would have retained power until the due processes of drafting and promulgating a new constitution had been completed, and a new government had been appointed.

The NLD’s  Tactics and Strategy Challenged by SLORC

Following the elections, the NLD had achieved, both domestically and internationally, recognised political legitimacy. But an excess of zeal and over-enthusiasm to take political power [37] as soon as possible seems to have overcome the caution and concern they should perhaps have exercised in dealing with an antagonistic military regime. They were also deprived of strategic guidance from their leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Relations between the SLORC and NLD once again became confrontational. The NLD did not improve their chances of persuading SLORC to agree to the convocation of a People’s Assembly, as the NLD had demanded by the end of September 1990, by presenting a hastily drawn-up draft revision of the 1947 Constitution, which had long been defunct, as an Interim Constitution, claiming that this was “in exercise of the authority of the 1947 Constitution, Article 11, Section 207” which concerns the amendment of the Constitution. Such constitutional sleight of hand, reminiscent of U Nu’s declaration on 9 September 1988 of a parallel government also based on the 1947 Constitution, did not appeal to the SLORC, not last because the draft constitution left in abeyance so many issues for further discussion, such as the status of the various national races. It is perhaps not surprising that by mid-September 1990 the NLD had dropped this particular proposal. AFP reported from Hong Kong on 19 September 1990 that “the NLD has offered to start drafting a new constitution as required by the military……..Observers see the NLD decision as a direct response to an overture by the SLORC on 11 September 1990 urging successful candidates to start drafting a constitution ‘together with the leading political party’.”

But by then relations between SLORC and the NLD had reached a new low. The SLORC had turned down flatly the convocation of an Assembly on NLD terms, which would have meant the transfer of power to a parliament with full legislative, executive and judicial authority. The SLORC would in any case soon have to contend with another alternative government - in addition to U Nu’s “parallel government” - set up in December 1990 by exiled politicians in the NCGUB. The momentum had been lost. Reuter reported  on 30 October 1990 [38]that Daw Kyint Myint Khin, a senior member of the NLD, had “signed Friday [27 October 1990] an order of the SLORC yielding to its plans for drawing up a constitution…….Diplomats said that the NLD’s apparent capitulation amounted to surrender of its claim that it had won a popular mandate to form a civilian government.” The NLD was to kick its heels until they agreed to take part in the National Convention which SLORC initiated in January 1993, and which they left in late 1995 when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now released from house arrest, proclaimed that its procedures were undemocratic and discussion too highly controlled. By now, as David Arnott has pointed out, [39] the elected representatives had been relieved “of even the limited task of constitution drafting.”

SLORC “Recognition” of the Election Results, though not of their Implications

It remains US official policy to insist on the recognition of the results of the 1990 elections, while non-binding UNGA Resolutions speak of respecting and even implementing the results. Yet the historical facts are that the SLORC in a sense recognised the results of these elections, declared that those elected were indeed representatives to a People’s Assembly (and not a Constituent Assembly), undertook in Declaration № 1/90 “to help with the convening and formation of the People’s Assembly” and sought to involve elected representatives and their parties in the process of drafting a new constitution. It was the political parties, and particularly the NLD, which declined to consider a People’s Assembly called for these purposes only, but continued to demand the transfer of power with full legislative, executive and judicial authority [40]. The result was an impasse.

 It is true that SLORC did not live up to its earlier promises to transfer power immediately to the winning party, but they could have claimed that their change of direction in mid 1989 and declared intention to follow a step-by-step process had been made clear well in advance and had been a necessary response to events. [41] Even NLD Spokesman, U Kyi Maung, is quoted in The Times of 14 June 1990 as saying that there was no point in rushing to push the Council in a corner, adding that there was a clear mandate from the people. “SLORC has recognised that. So it has to tie up its own affairs, and then give us the information we need to govern the country properly.” U Kyi Maung was right to stress the “mandate” from the people. But the SLORC did not accept the stark implications of the NLD’s electoral victory [42]

Some time later, at the Coordinating Meeting for the National Convention in June 1992, the NLD were themselves to refer to SLORC Declaration 1/90, and to note that elected representatives had been tasked with the responsibility of drawing up the new constitution and that accordingly all those elected should be invited to participate in the National Convention. SLORC did not accept this, though their failure to do so is in clear breach of their own Declaration. Indeed, as early as 11 May 1990 SLORC spokesmen at their 90th Press Conference had expressed the view that “the drafting of a constitution should be discussed and decided by elected representatives in the Assembly.” [43]  

The 1990 Election Process flawed and so doomed from the start

In assessing the importance of the 1990 elections, it is clear that they were doomed to failure when it became apparent that the SLORC did not want to discuss with the main political parties a detailed process for moving to multi-party political rule. The elections should in any case have been the culmination of a settlement process, not the first item on the agenda. It was probably a mistake by SLORC to have agreed to elections so rapidly after taking power and then to have backtracked when they realised the implications. The SLORC claimed that it was not practical for them to open discussions with some 235 registered political parties. On the other hand, it was generally acknowledged that the NLD, LDP, UNDP and LDP, who provided 1,416 of the 2,209 party candidates, were the leading contenders. The SLORC asserted that they were not a political party and that their sole responsibility was to see that “free and fair” elections were held.  But it is now clear, particularly in the light of experience with South Africa, Cambodia and currently Afghanistan and Iraq, that an attempt should have been made to open discussions with the main protagonists before the elections, and certainly with the NLD immediately after the elections.

I recognise that there will be those who will say that the SLORC never had any intention of giving up effective power, that having secured well over 90% popular support in a referendum for the 1974 Constitution they thought that they could not possibly fail to secure a leading role for the NUP, or at the worst a coalition of parties, and that when the elections produced a totally unexpected result, they refused to yield to the popular will. Although the NUP was not subject to harassment in the run-up to the elections, and although it was clear to all that the NUP was the SLORC favoured political party, there is no evidence that SLORC either openly or clandestinely sought to influence the was military personnel voted. Indeed General Saw Maung went out of his way on several occasions to say that military personnel were completely free to vote for any candidate and for any political party they wished, and indeed they did. A Directive to all military units to this effect was reportedly issued. It might indeed be said that in the elections the Tatmadaw did not give the SLORC their vote of confidence.

Military rulers who intend to stay in power do not leave matters to chance. SLORC would clearly have preferred an NUP victory, since the NUP would have been more amenable to the protection of SLORC interests. But there is so much more that SLORC could have done to secure an NUP victory, had they really wished or had they been less confident in an NUP victory. They had in any case made it clear that they would stay in power until their conditions had been met, and no one should be surprised that they did what they said they would do.

The Elections in Perspective

The failed elections of 1990 were an important stage in Myanmars progress towards democracy. The NLD undoubtedly acquired political legitimacy, especially in the eyes of Western countries for  whom elections have an almost mystic sanctity.

The events surrounding the 1990 Elections merit substantial redefinition. The old shibboleth that the “NLD won the 1990 Elections, but the SLORC refused to hand over power” implies that the SLORC had agreed to the transfer of power before the elections, whereas the SLORC had undeniably set conditions for the transfer of power through the promulgation of a new constitution, a process which the leader of the NLD, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, had herself articulated before she was placed under house arrest.

It is in my view rather the steady erosion during the 1990s of the ability of the NLD, representing the clearly expressed will of the Burmese people, even to participate in the drafting of the constitution which should be the primary focus of historical attention.

As in several other countries in South East Asia, the crucial issue remains the nature of the power-sharing which needs to be worked out between the military and the politicians. The difficulties in the case of Myanmar are far greater than in other countries of the region because of the dominance of military activity in the country ever since independence in 1948 and because of the much higher and all-pervasive profile of the Tatmadaw in national affairs. A resolution of the issue of power-sharing is likely to require considerable compromise on all sides. Reconciliation will not be easy to achieve, given the traditionally authoritarian nature of Burmese politics.


Note on sources. Four main “raw material” sources have been used. They are:

-          BBC Summary of World Broadcasts Far East Section [“BBC SWB FE”] available on open shelves at the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London or on microfiche at the BBC Written Archives Centre at Caversham, Reading. [44]
-          The Burma Press Summary 1987-1996 created and edited by Hugh MacDougall, Counsellor at the US Embassy in Rangoon
1981-84, available at the Online Burma/Myanmar Library - see:
-          Amnesty International - “Myanmar (Burma) Prisoners of Conscience : A Chronicle of Developments since September 1988” November 1989.
-          British Newspaper Library at Colingdale, London, a section of the British Library. All regional and international newspapers. [Note: the BNL also holds copies of the Working People’s Daily [Rangoon] 1964-75 and The Guardian [Rangoon] 1959-77]

The SLORC published at the time verbatim official records of their weekly Press Conferences, with illustrations of documents and materials presented as well as photographs of the proceedings and of individual participants, including military spokesmen  and  local and foreign correspondents.  The SOAS Library in London
holds three volumes: № 1 [PCs 1-22], № 2 [PCs 23-37] and № 3 [PCs 50-66].  A full set is no doubt available in Yangon (Rangoon).

Derek Tonkin
Worplesdon, Surrey 

23 March 2004


[1]  The author was British Ambassador to Vietnam (1980-82) and Thailand (1986-89), and Chairman of the Beta Mekong Investment Fund 1984-2000. He is most grateful for the advice and comments of Burma scholars in the preparation of this paper.

[2]   Adapted from 1990 Multi-Party Democracy General Elections - Khin Kyaw Han MP NLD - Online Burma Library at , -02.htm, -03.htm and -04.htm which provide a detailed statistical analysis and documentary database of the 1990 Elections.

[3]  I am unhappy with the phrase “restoration of democracy” since I am less than convinced that the previous Burmese experience with democracy 1948 to 1962 was in any sense a model to be “restored”. Democracy as then practised became dirigiste, fractious, divisive and corrupt, though probably better than dictatorial rule.

[4]   Deputy Prime Minister 1949 and Commander-in-Chief, seized power in 1962 from Prime Minister U Nu

[5]   Daughter of General Aung San, national independence hero, assassinated on 19 July 1947

[6]   Former Vice-Chief of Staff and Minister of Trade and Industry, who fell out of favour and was imprisoned 1965-68, 1973-74 and July/August 1988

[7]   Former Chief of Staff and Defence Minister, imprisoned 1976-80 for alleged involvement in a suspected coup attempt

[8]   Prime Minister 1948-58 and 1960-62, imprisoned 1962-66, in exile overseas, but later returned

[9]  BBC SWB FE/0809 B/2 of 6 July 1990, in a speech on 3 July 1990 to local SLORCs

[10]   BBC SWB FE/0265 i - 24 September 1988

[11]   BBC SWB FE/0266 B/1 - 26 September 1988

[12]  BBC SWB FE/0420 B/4 - 29 March 1989

[13]  General Saw Maung was in many ways a simple soldier, and not a politician. He was most at ease when talking to his troops as their Commander, and it would be a mistake to analyse his pronouncements too profoundly. Such “political” statements as were necessary, though often made in the name of the SLORC Chairman, came from Maj Gen Khin Nyunt and military spokesmen responsible to him

[15]  BBC SWB FE/0489 B/2 - 2 June 1989

[16]  “Burma/Myanmar : How to read the Generals ‘Roadmap’ ” at

[17]  Working People’s Daily - 13 April 1990

[18] E.g. Nyan Htet writing in Loktha Pyithu Nezin  on 22 April 1990: “The problem of drawing up a constitution and having to form a new government……..[means] having to hold another election, in the view of the author”

[19] James A Goldston was described by The Washington Post as a lawyer who had just completed a mission to Myanmar for Asia Watch.

[20]  In fact, the elections very much served as a “referendum”, of the popular will.

[21]   Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may well have seen these distant events as something of a distraction from the struggle for human rights and democracy.

[22] Fortunately, there are indications that the last and most important insurgent group, the Karen National Union (“KNU”), is at long last ready to negotiate a lasting settlement, which could be secured by their presence at a reconvened National Convention

[23]  BBC SWB FE/0419 B/3 - 29 March 1989

[24]  Amnesty International “Prisoners of Conscience : A Chronicle of Developments since September 1988” - November 1989 Page 26

[25]  Amnesty International ob.cit. Page 46.  The reported statements by the military spokesmen as well as by Tin U and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi do not however appear in either BBC SWB or the Burma Press Summary for 2 August 1989, especially in their accounts (not verbatim) of the  42nd SLORC Press Conference held that day. Amnesty International have assured me of the competence and integrity of their researcher at the time.

[26]  The question of transfer of power never was resolved, but the NLD decided to participate in the elections nonetheless, possibly without the benefit of  Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s advice.

[27]  Chapter 17 “Freedom from Fear” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Pages 224-225

[28]  These and similar statements make it clear beyond any reasonable doubt that the issue of the transfer of power was foremost in the minds of NLD leaders well before election day.

[29]  All quotations taken from Amnesty International op. cit. Pages 50 et seq.

[30]  It seems in retrospect doubtful that Ne Win was unduly influencing, let alone controlling the SLORC, despite his reputation as an eminence grise. Though his associations with the Tatmadaw continued, as the press from time to time reported, his status would have been honorary and advisory, and no doubt influential, but this is traditional for retired military men and politicians in almost any country in South East Asia. Many Burma-watchers however would  disagree with this analysis.

 [31]   Quoted by The New York Times 27 May 1990

[32]  BBC SWB FE/0801 B/1 - All India Radio 23 June 1990

[33]  BBC SWB FE/0779  B/1  1 June 1990

[34]  BBC SWB FE/0817 B/1-4  16 July 1990

[35]  The texts of both declarations may be found at .         

[36] Pre-election radio addresses in BBC SWB : NUP - see FE/0736 B/1-2 of 11 April 1990 ; NLD - see FE/0740 B/1-2 of 17 April 1990 ; UNDP and LPD - see FE/0747 B/1-3 of 25 April 1990

[37]  which might or might not have been tempered by their strategic leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest.

[38]  Reuter report carried in The Christian Science Monitor of 30 October 1990.


[40]  We may fully sympathise with the NLD demand for the transfer of power. But as the SLORC had long before stated that this would not be possible, it is not logical to accuse the SLORC of  refusing to recognise the results of the elections.

[41]  I do not regard this “broken promise” as more than a political error committed in haste. Initial statements about having elections as soon as possible and handing over power were done more than anything to  calm the population.

[42]  This is the crux of the issue. It was not so much a question of broken promises, but of a  failure by SLORC  to communicate and to spell out formally and in detail what their proclaimed “systematic” transfer of power entailed. SLORC intentions, however, were not open to doubt.

[43]  BBC SWB FE/0763 B/6 - 14 May 1990

[44] The BBC Monitoring Service is a joint operation with the US Foreign Broadcast Information Service (“FBIS”). Monitoring tasks around the world are shared between the BBC and FBIS. Most monitoring in SE Asia is completed by FBIS and the product, either in the local language or in translation, is passed to the BBC Monitoring Service.