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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).