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Burma: Struggle for Democracy

Contested Ground: The Struggle for Democracy in 

by Alan Senauke

[This article appeared originally in the Spring 
1994 issue of Breakthrough, a political journal 
published by Prairie Fire Organizing Committee. To 
respond to the article, to order a copy of the 
publication, or to subscribe, please send mail to 

I remember best the faces of children. a fourteen-
year-old Burmese Shan girl sold over the border to 
a Thai brothel in the Golden Triangle. Karenni kids 
with tattered clothes and bellies starting to swell 
from malnutrition at a camp for displaced Burmese 
ethnics a few dusty miles inside Thailand. A 
twelve-year-old Karen army boy with a handmade 
cigarette and an automatic weapon slung on his 
shoulder, playing at war games that are not games. 
A feverish baby with an IV taped to her arm, sick 
with malaria and intestinal disease. Eleven-year-
old girls jumping rope at the Daughter's Education 
Project in Mae Sai, for the moment safe from the 
flesh trade and from AIDS. These are only a handful 
of memories.

I don't really know the faces of the junta, the 
State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, 
as it's familiarly known. Rangoon and fabled 
Mandalay are just glossy pictures. Chances are I 
won't see them until democracy is established. But 
I see SLORC's victims in my dreams: tribal people 
driven in flames from their villages, old men and 
women conscripted for deadly work carrying supplies 
over the mountains, revolutionary students, monks 
in the jungle, intellectuals and activists far from 
family and home in the cities. How is it these 
people can still offer a smile in the midst of 
great suffering, and share their small rations with 
a strange guest or an old friend?

In the winter of 1991 and again in 1992, I traveled 
on two week-long witness delegations to the 
Thai/Burma border, a journey organized by the 
International Network of Engaged Buddhists at the 
invitation of resistance organizations on both 
sides of the border. My own experience of Burma as 
guest of rebel students, monks, and ethnic peoples 
didn't take me very far into the country. But what 
we saw of courage, despair, resistance, disease, 
and poverty left me with images and concerns 
forever etched in my mind.

Our 1991 journey to Manerplaw, the rough-hewn 
ethnic Karen military town that headquarters the 
Karen Army, the national government in exile, and 
the All Burma Student Democratic Front, came at a 
dramatic hour. With the rainy months quickly 
approaching, SLORC's generals had vowed to capture 
and destroy the town during the current winter 
offensive. But we didn't know that at the time. 
>From Mae Son Lap on the Thai side, we traveled down 
the Salween and Moie Rivers in long flat-bottomed 
boats propelled noisily by small truck diesels. The 
forests and hills around us were thick and green, 
scraped bare in places for now-empty Karen 
settlements. Our papers were scrutinized at rebel 
checkpoints along the river, where young soldiers 
warily eyed our strange contingent of monks, Thais, 
and Westerners.

In Manerplaw we were treated graciously, given what 
bare, clean floors were available for sleeping. Our 
meetings with various factions, leaders, officers, 
and functionaries were friendly but often distant 
and full of speechifying. In the damp heat we 
consumed many gallons of tea, bottled water, and, 
incongruously, cans of Pepsi and other soft drinks 
hauled across and down the river from Thailand.

The backdrop for these discussions was a fierce, 
ongoing battle for Sleeping Dog Mountain, strategic 
heights that overlooked Manerplaw and the Thai 
Border. As we talked, there was the sound of not-
so-distant mortar fire. We would stop a moment, 
take a deep breath and then go on. The men we met 
with spoke confidently of victory, but they looked 
drawn and weary. In a day or two, we would return 
to the comforts of Thailand. Most of them would be 
back at the front.
The day that we left to visit refugee camps across 
the river, the Burmese launched their first air 
strikes on Manerplaw, swinging their Yugoslav jets 
eastward over Thai airspace to bomb the town from 
the rear. Thankfully there were few casualties, but 
several of the buildings we met in were destroyed, 
while people sheltered in shallow dirt bunkers. 
This was the start of a bitter assault on Manerplaw 
that just barely failed, persisting for the 
following six weeks, claiming several hundred lives 
on both sides. Two years later this is still 
contested ground.

My journey in 1992 was less dramatic, but somehow 
more disturbing. By train and van we came north 
from Bangkok and Chiang Mai towards the Golden 
Triangle, where Burma, Laos, and Thailand meet, and 
China looms just a few miles away. In the raw 
border town of Mai Sai anything can be bought and 
sold: opium, Buddhist treasures, gems, Chinese 
household goods, young women. The crowded streets 
and markets closed up with the coming of evening, 
and a feeling of menace rose with the moon, the 
only place in all my Thailand travels that my 
street sense said to watch my step.
A little to the south and west, not actually so far 
in miles, large settlements of displaced tribal 
people lived in conditions I had never witnessed 
before: a village of 1,500 without running water--
it had to be carried a mile from the spring; a 
handful of medicine, some quinine and antibiotics, 
a few rolls of bandage. How could this meet the 
needs of desperate people? With the annual rains 
again approaching, many of the thatched palm and 
bamboo shacks didn't even have a roof. We stood in 
the dust with our own grim faces and tears. The 
small stores of rice, beans, oil, and fish paste we 
had brought as an offering would not go very far. 
Would it even be enough to feed all the children?r

A History of Tyranny

Under the tyranny of General Ne Win, along with Ne 
Win's xenophobic Burmese Socialist Program Party, 
and the current regime of brutal generals, Burma's 
great human and natural resources have been 
squandered in civil war, spent for weapons of 
destruction. In recent years Burma has achieved 
dubious status as a UN-designated "least developed 
country," where many of the 40 million Burmese 
people earn less than $200 per year. In a nation 
that was formerly known as "Asia's rice bowl," even 
rice with a bit of fish paste is often a luxury. In 
fact one can't even find Burma on a map today. 
SLORC has renamed their country the Union of 
Myanmar. The ancient capital Rangoon is now Yangon, 
and many other names have been changed, daily 
reminders of SLORC's self-appointed power over many 
millions of desperate citizens.

Under this same corrupt leadership, Burma's most 
famous daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 
1991 Nobel Peace Prize, lives under close house 
arrest and constant surveillance, silenced by an 
illegal government that fears her message of peace 
and democracy may be heard and taken up in a 
country that has long lacked both. Thousands fill 
unmarked graves. Many more fill the jails without 
benefit of trial. Along the borders with Thailand, 
China, and Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of 
displaced people find a precarious existence, 
almost invisible to the outside world.

The roots of Burma's suffering are deep and 
tangled. A patchwork region of highly independent 
ethnic minorities-- Burman, Shan, Karen, Mon, 
Arakanese--were annexed as a province of India 
after the last Anglo-Burman War in 1886. The 
customary British colonial strategy of divide-and-
rule took advantage of existing differences and 
tensions. Indian civil servants were brought in to 
run civil affairs, so a native middle class 
familiar with Western administration and technology 
never developed. The timber-rich ethnic nationality 
areas, circling the more densely populated central 
region, were administered separately as restricted 
areas, driving a wedge even deeper between these 
peoples and the majority of Burmans. This remained 
the status quo until 1937 and the prelude to World 
War II.

The war took a terrible toll on Burma, where a 
scorched-earth policy by retreating British and 
Japanese forces devastated indigenous agriculture. 
Initially a core of young Burman intellectuals 
sided with the Japanese, who courted them with an 
anti-British, anti-colonial line. A generation of 
Burma's future leaders, Aung San (Aung San Suu 
Kyi's father), U Nu, and Ne Win took secret 
military training in Japan, then marched back to 
their country behind Japan's army of occupation. 
(Japanese occupation was bitterly opposed by many 
of the ethnic groups, whose loyalty had been bought 
by the British with assurances of future autonomy.) 
But these young leaders soon found that Japanese 
domination was even crueler than the British, and 
began to form the first delicate alliances with 
both pro-Western ethnic peoples and pro-Communist 

After the war British promises of autonomy were not 
kept. While Ne Win was consolidating a national 
army from the anti-Japanese resistance, Aung San 
was simultaneously negotiating with the British, 
and with the Karen and other ethnic groups. It was 
a masterful balancing act, moving towards 
independence and representative democracy. But this 
hope was wiped out when right-wing assassins 
machine-gunned Aung San and six other ministers in 
July of 1947. His friend U Nu tried to fulfill Aung 
San's mission, declaring an independent Burma on 
January 4, 1948. But neither the ethnic minorities 
nor the pro-Communist forces who had spearheaded 
the war against Japan had been offered a place in 
this government. Within a year they had taken up 
arms against the new government.

The civil war begun then continues to this day. 
With rebels closing in on the cities, the army, 
under Ne Win, took control from 1958 to 1960, and 
again in 1962. Pursuing his own "Burmese Way to 
Socialism," he expelled the Indian and Chinese 
administrators and managers, replacing them with 
inexperienced Burman military officers, and closed 
the door on all Western contact and investment. In 
1974 as the insurgency was growing, Ne Win 
attempted to legitimize himself, imposing a new 
constitution, sanctioning one-party rule, and 
eliminating even the most fundamental human rights.

In 1987 Ne Win astonishingly declared the three 
highest-denomination kyat bank notes worthless and 
issued 45 and 90 kyat bills, based on his 
fascination with the number nine. The de-
monetization wiped out many people's savings, and 
Ne Win's looting of the economy funded a military 
that consumed more than 50 percent of the GNP. In 
1988, students, monks, and intellectuals spoke out 
forcefully, calling for an end to war and for a 
federal democracy recognizing minority rights. All 
through the spring, demonstrations and the army's 
violent response intensified; the death toll ran 
into hundreds. Universities and high schools were 
shut down--many are still closed. And for the 
following year even primary and elementary schools 
were closed. As the nation ground to a halt, Ne Win 
made a show of retirement, leading to even greater 
chaos and repression. His appointed successor, 
General Sein Lwin, was, if anything, even more 
hated and feared than Ne Win, having led bloody 
repressions of urban dissent in 1964, 1974, and in 
earlier months of 1988.

Two weeks later on August 8, protest reached a peak 
and was met by a paroxysm of state violence that 
left more than 1,000 dead--without managing to 
silence the call for democracy. The army was 
withdrawn in confusion, Sein Lwin stepped down, and 
an incredible flowering of free expression and hope 
ensued. In these brief, promising days a new leader 
emerged. Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been living with 
her husband and children in England, was in Rangoon 
visiting her dying mother. As daughter of Burma's 
most revered post-war leader, she wears a mantle of 
moral authority and fearlessness quite naturally, 
giving peaceful voice to the people's yearning for 

A month later on September 18, 1988, realizing that 
their 30-year grip on Burma was slipping away, the 
generals declared martial law and established 
SLORC. The killings began in earnest the next day. 
Machine guns swept the streets from the tops of 
buildings and overpasses. Demonstrators and 
bystanders were murdered without warning, many 
carried away to mass graves or mass cremations 
where the cries of the wounded could be heard amid 
the pile of corpses. No one knows precisely how 
many died in these few days, but estimates run from 
5,000 to 20,000. Many thousands more, particularly 
students and young monks, fled to the border areas, 
where they linked up with the ethnic Karen, Kachin, 
and others who had long been involved in armed 
struggle against the central government and Burman 

As SLORC consolidated its power, the generals 
realized that the nation had almost no cash 
reserves either to feed or arm itself. After so 
many years of isolation, they turned to Japan, 
Thailand, the U.S., and UN agencies for loans and 
development funds. To curry favor with the West the 
junta promised timely elections. But SLORC's 
numerous delays, rigidly controlled media, and 
impossible campaign regulations failed to contain 
the hunger for democracy. Ninety-three political 
parties put up candidates for election in May of 
1990. Of these, Aung San Suu Kyi's party, The 
National League for Democracy (NLD), won 392 of 485 
seats in a new government; ethnic minority parties 
opposed to SLORC claimed victory in 65 other 
contests. SLORC's National Unity Party won only ten 
seats, two percent of the contested places.

But a new government was never formed. Within days 
the military had arrested many elected 
representatives from the NLD, carrying them off to 
the notorious Insein jail. Some of them are still 
imprisoned, some were executed on fabricated 
charges of treason and insurrections. Others fled 
to the border region, a second wave of exiles. 
Burma's two most respected leaders, U Nu, who led 
the only attempted democracy Burma has ever known, 
and Aung San Suu Kyi, were placed under stringent 
house arrest in Rangoon. Four years later, Suu 
remains a prisoner, silenced in her own land, 
revered around the world. SLORC recently extended 
her sentence for a fifth year, piously asserting 
that she is free to leave Burma any time she 

Over the last three years SLORC's policies have 
carried repression from the cities far into the 
interior, displacing several million people in 
countless villages, driving them into exile or into 
strategic hamlets reminiscent of the Vietnam War. 
Some of these villagers are pressed into service as 
porters for the army, used up like pack animals 
until they drop from exhaustion. There are reports 
that SLORC has marched villagers into known mine 
fields to clear a path with their own blood.  The 
seasonal offensives on ethnic insurgents and 
students have extracted a great price on all sides, 
but pro-democracy allies have held on against all 

International political and economic pressures in 
1992 and 1993 again forced SLORC to offer a 
pretense of motion towards democracy. With much 
fanfare they announced preliminary meetings to form 
a new constitutional convention. But few of those 
elected in 1990 chose to collaborate, and the 
proposed gathering was strongly denounced by the 
provisional National Coalition Government of the 
Union of Burma, headquartered in the Karen border 
town of Manerplaw. In March of 1993, a delegation 
of former Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including 
the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Oscar Arias, added 
their own principled protest against this sham of 
democracy, demanding and failing to meet with 
sister laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon. They 
got no further than the insurgent border.


Many analysts think that China is a key player in 
Burma, as it has been in Cambodia, Tibet, and 
elsewhere in Asia. With the Cold War coming to a 
close, China is seizing the opportunity to become a 
"great power." Its vast commercial and arms sales 
to Burma (more than $3 billion) and growing 
investments provide a crucial foothold in South and 
Southeast Asia. This has a terribly destructive 
effect on the Burmese people. Inexpensive and 
relatively well-made Chinese consumer goods, like 
rice cookers, cigarettes and crockery, have 
displaced locally-made goods. Weapons have flowed 
freely across the border from China's Yunnan 
province for many years. In decades past, China 
avidly supported the now-defunct Communist Party of 
Burma (CPB), often using it as a buffer against 
remnants of Kuomintang nationalist forces that 
carved out fiefdoms on the border.

But even before the CPB's collapse in 1989, there 
were clear signs that China's leaders saw their 
strategic interests in other terms. General Ne Win, 
long reviled as "Burma's Chiang Kai-shek," was 
invited in May of 1985 for the first in a 
continuing series of state visits to China, and 
welcomed as an "old friend" by Deng Xiaoping. Today 
many of SLORC's modern weapons--including tanks, 
jet fighters, and rockets--are purchased with 
profits from Burma's heroin trade via the Chinese 
Polytechnologies Corporation, a corporation managed 
by Deng Xiaoping's son-in-law. Looking beyond the 
simple profit motive, as the Soviet Navy is 
dismantled and U.S. forces are drawn elsewhere in 
the world, China can at last implement its vision 
of a blue-water navy. Burma has been courted as an 
important ally, with deep water ports necessary for 
China to extend military power across the Indian 

Military goals not withstanding, other ASEAN 
nations (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, 
the Philippines, and Brunei), along with Japan, 
Korea, Taiwan, etc., are similarly involved in the 
intense competition for new markets and new sources 
of labor and resources in a region where economic 
development is still surging ahead of much of the 

There Is Much to Do

Amnesty International is deeply committed to the 
cause of human rights in Burma. The U.S. 
government, including the president and Congress, 
are on record against the abuses of SLORC, and have 
instituted a ban on textile imports, which, while 
symbolic, has almost no economic impact. More to 
the point would be further conditioning or 
revocation of China's Most Favored Nation trade 
status for the scope of its arms sales to Burma and 
throughout the region. U.S. corporations with 
capital investment in Burma such as Amoco, Unocal 
Petroleum, Pepsi Cola, Dean Hardwoods, and others 
are targets of first opportunity for letterwriting 
and consumer boycotts.

I would especially encourage you to support the 
organizations below that work directly with the 
Burmese insurgents and those at risk. In each case 
these are people that we at the Buddhist Peace 
Fellowship have met and continue to work with. We 
are also happy to provide you with further 
information, analyses, and to serve as a channel 
for any funds you may have in support of the 

Alan Senauke is National Coordinator of the 
Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He is also an ordained 
priest at the Berkeley Zen Center, where he lives 
with his family.


   Alan Clements, Burma: The Next Killing Fields? 
(Emeryville, CA: Odonian Press, 1992)
   Bertil Lintner, Land Of Jade (Edinburgh, 
Scotland: Kiscadale Publications, 1990)
   Bertil Lintner, Outrage: Burma's Struggle for 
Democracy (Edinburgh, Scotland: Kiscadale 
Publications, 1990)
   Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin; CIA 
Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (Brooklyn, NY: 
Lawrence Hill Books, 1991)
   Edith Mirante, Burmese Looking Glass: A Human 
Rights Activist on the Forbidden Frontier (New 
York: Grove Press, 1993)
   Sulak Sivaraksa, Seeds of Peace (Berkeley, CA: 
Parallax Press, 1992)
   Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics 
of Ethnicity (London & New Jersey: Zed Books, 1991)
   Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom From Fear and Other 
Writings (New York: Penguin, 1991)
   Towards Democracy in Burma (Washington, DC: 
Institute for Asian Democracy, 1992)


Buddhist Peace Fellowship, P.O. Box 4650, Berkeley 
CA 94704, (510) 525-8596. Acts as a clearinghouse 
in the U.S. for information and funds related to 
Burmese freedom. Slide show is available.

Burmese Relief Centre, P.O. Box 48, Chiangmai Univ. 
Chiang Mai 50002, Thailand. Small but deeply 
respected organization providing food and medical 
relief on both sides of the Thai/Burma border, 
regardless of any factional alignments. In many 
places they represent the only outside support.

Daughter's Education Project, P.O. Box 10, Mae Sai, 
Chiang Rai 57310, Thailand. Provides an alternative 
to prostitution for young girls, offering basic 
education, vocational training, with an emphasis on 
collective values and self-esteem.

All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF), P.O. 
Box 22, Mae Sot, 63110, Thailand. The main 
organization of students in the border region. They 
provide medical support and education to refugees 
and serve as combatants with the alliance of ethnic 
armed forces, the NDF.

Southeast Asian Information Network (SAIN), P.O. 
Box 217, Chiangmai Univ, Chiang Mai 50002, 
Thailand. An organization of non-violent activists 
who train environmental documentation and 
journalism. They have excellent contacts with all 
groupings among the insurgents and are developing 
first-rate documentary materials.