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DEMOCRACY STRUGGLE IN MYANMAR (THE
Subject: DEMOCRACY STRUGGLE IN MYANMAR (THE HINDU, 21/11/96).
Democracy struggle in Myanmar
The Hindu, November 21 1996.
By V Suryanarayan
THE conflict between the military Generals of the State Law
and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and the democratic
forces led by the Nobel Laureate, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, is
entering another phase of tension and turmoil in Myanmar. The
large-scale arrests of activists of the National League for
Democracy (NLD) in September 1996 and hiring of goons to
disturb her meetings are definite indicators that the Generals
will go to any length to cling to power. The struggle to restore
democracy has a long and chequered history. It started in 1962,
when the military seized power. The long spell of military rule
under General Ne Win and the ridiculous slogan of 'Burmese
Way to Socialism' led to nationalisation of virtually everything,
so that a coterie could reap the benefits. As a result, one of the
richest countries in South East Asia was ruined economically
and politically. Still worse, Myanmar today has become the
world's largest producer of heroin.
General Ne Win's regime collapsed under the weight of popular
discontent in 1988, only to be replaced by an ostensibly liberal
regime: under the new dispensation, the military, under General
Ne Win, effectively controlled the administration from behind
the-scenes. Students, workers and the Buddhist clergy, who
demonstrated against the Government, were brutally mowed
down. The elections in 1990, which the military hoped to win,
turned out to be a victory for the people. Even after securing 80
per cent of the votes and 60 per cent of the seats, the NLD was
not invited to form the government. The SLORC maintained
that the elected members had no mandate to govern, that they
were responsible only for drafting the Constitution and that
until ii new Constitution came into force, the SLORC would
continue to rule under martial law.
In addition to the democratic upsurge in the Burmese heartland,
the indigenous minority groups, living in areas bordering
Thailand, Laos, China and Bangladesh, had been up in arms for
several years against the manner in which the ruling elite was
attempting to destroy their ethnic identities and "Burmanise"
them. These struggles took parallel courses; however, after the
brutal incidents in 1988, the younger elements of the democratic
movement fanned into minority areas to forge a united front
against the common enemy. Forty-eight years after
independence, Myanmar has not sorted out any of the major
problems - popular representation, ethnic discontent, military-
civilian relations and removal of poverty.
The military regime is being strengthened in a big way by China.
As Bertil Lintner has pointed out, the junta, which seized power
on September 18, 1988, after crushing a nation-wide uprising
for democracy, clearly saw in China a potential ally, "especially
when the leaders in Beijing staged a very similar massacre of
pro-democracy activists in June the following year". The
strength of the Myanmarese Army, currently 3,00,000, may go
up to half a million by the end of the century. China has
provided fighter planes, patrol boats, tanks and ammunition, in
addition to communication equipment. According to Lintner,
China is also evincing interest in Myanmar's infrastructure,
including construction of roads from the Yunnan border to
Yangon and upgradation of ports. Myanmar is one of the most
important markets for Chinese consumer goods and China
imports timber, seafoods, minerals and agricultural produce.
It is unfortunate. but true, that India has yet to evolve a
comprehensive policy towards Myanmar, with which we share
land and maritime boundaries. As early as 1944, Sardar K. M.
Panikkar focused attention on the strategic significance of that
country to India. To quote Panikkar: "The defence of Burma, in
fact, is the defence of India and it is India's primary concern no
less than Burma's to see that its frontiers remain inviolate. In
fact, no responsibility be considered too heavy for India when it
comes to the question of defending Burma."
It is relevant to recall that India played pivotal role in bolstering
Myanmar politically militarily in the early years of
independence. As is well known, independent Myanmar was
beset with many problems. The assassination of Aung San was
followed by revolts by Karens and communists. The security of
even Yangon was threatened by rebel forces. Indian concern
was naturally sharpened with the emergence of the People's
Republic of China, which shared common borders with both
India and Myanmar. Thanks to Nehru's diplomacy, the
Commonwealth countries were persuaded to provide economic
and military aid to Myanmar. Indian assistance to Myanmar,
which encompassed military and economic help and bolstering
of the U Nu regime, was aimed not only at having a friendly
buffer between India and China, but also at preventing the
destabilisation of North East India, where Nagas and Mizos
straddle the India-Myanmar border.
After initial expressions of unhappiness over developments in
Myanmar, New Delhi has taken initiatives to mend fences with
Yangon, and this step is providing legitimacy to Myanmar's
tyrannical regime. Those who support New Delhi's policy argue
that the junta cannot be isolated internationally. Major General
Dipankar Bannerjee, former Deputy Director of the Institute for
Defence Studies and Analyses, has argued in a recent article
that "India's cause and national interests would be served better
by a more pragmatic approach," He points out that Myanmar's
increasing relations with China "have to he seen in perspective.
The arms sale is more an instrument of influence designed to
enhance dependency than it strategic threat to Myanmar's
Advocates of a "constructive engagement" in India and ASEAN
(Association of South East Asian Association) maintain co-
operation with the SLORC will bring about the dismantling of
the authoritarian structure and gradual introduction of
democracy. When Ms. Suu Kyi was freed in July 1995, after six
years of house arrest, they considered the release a signal for
positive change. They also hoped that if Myanmar joined the
ASEAN, the SLORC could be persuaded to introduce further
reforms. All these hopes have turned out to be a pipe-dream.
It will be a tragic day, if India, like China and some of the
ASEAN countries, adopts a foreign policy of cynicism and
opportunism. It is undoubtedly true that the pro-democracy
movement suffered serious reverses during recent months. But
temporary setbacks were a feature of even the Indian national
movement. The logic of history and the justness of the peoples
demands will bring about a turn of the tide in Myanmar. The
movement will once again gather momentum. Ms. Suu Kyi, to
quote Vaclav Havel, "is an outstanding example of the power of
the powerless." She is Myanmar's woman of destiny and is the
hope and inspiration of her people.
In Myanmar's political equation, as Joseph Silverstein has
pointed out, "while the SLORC has the guns and is willing to
use them, Aung San Suu Kyi has the people. If Burma is ever to
achieve internal peace, national reconciliation and popular
support the SLORC needs her co-operation." '
Given our nationalist heritage, more so the Gandhi-Nehru
legacy, New Delhi owes it to itself and the struggling people of
Myanmar that it should immediately initiate steps to mobilise
international opinion so that pressure will be brought on the
junta to restore democracy and human rights.
As Ms. Suu Kyi pointed out in the Joyce Memorial Lecture,
"The dream of a society ruled by loving kindness, reason and
justice is it dream as old as civilised man. Does it have to be an
impossible dream? Karl Popper, explaining his abiding optimism
in so troubled a world as ours, said the darkness had always
been there, but the light was new. Because it is new, it has to be
tended with care and diligence."
(The Author is Director, Centre for South and South East Asian
Studies, University of Madras).