Culture: Political Science: Misunderstood Myanmar:
Chapter IV: The Milieu Interieur (Part II)
By Koh Kim Seng, Ph.D.
International Business Executive, Political Scientist
Editor’s Note: This paper is one of a series of chapters excerpted from Dr. Koh’s book, ‘Misunderstood Myanmar: An Introspective Study of a Southeast Asian State in Transition’. With years of experience operating a business in Myanmar (Burma), Dr. Koh has first-hand knowledge and a deeply practical understanding of the economic and administrative opportunities and challenges currently existing in the country. This segment explains Myanmar’s internal affairs scenario. -JP
Addendum Notation: Chapter IV has been divided into two segments, the first of which is presented here. - JP
Autocracy and the Myanmar Junta1
“It appears that Myanmar prefers to tread the trodden path and it seems it is generally reluctant to change. Thus, for example, even Ministers’ Meetings, which used to be held at night since 1942, still persists - “ngyakyaung” (night tuition2.)”
The prevailing character of the civil service in Myanmar is, “unfortunately the lack of administrative experience in civilian government.” This is what a former Mayor of Yangon and head of the Yangon City Development Committee admitted to me when I raised certain issues regarding the speeding up of administrative procedures such as the system of revenue collection by computerization, the mechanization of certain environmental health procedures, and so forth. But, the former Mayor added, “we are catching up fast.” Hearing this, I could only have high regard for my key respondents in-so-far as they were able to pragmatically humble themselves by way of straight-forward admissions of their shortcomings in public governance, by their realizing the irony in the value of humility on one hand, and the alleged belief in their superiority, on the other. This, among other things, to my mind demonstrates the importance of confidence building measures when dealing with Myanmas. Is change likely to take place in Myanmar or is it resistant to one, is the perennial question every “outsider” wonders about. If there is any truth to the saying “old habits die hard” this must apply to Myanmar which appears more comfortable acting on precedent than to venture a change. In point of fact, there could not have been a sharper observation in my view because it would appear that even the current “7-point Road Map” to democratization must have had as its basis, Gen. Aung San’s “Seven Point Independence Resolution” for drafting the Constitution which Aung San read out on 16th June 19472 At least Michael Aung-Thwin seems to hold the view that Myanmar’s political development is mired by traditions and institutions – political, religious and sociological – which die hard3. Robert H. Taylor philosophizes on how the change in governance, economic and political systems can only come about if the present-day governments are prepared to undertake some “soul searching” into their historical precedents to comprehend their present status.4 Here Taylor shares J. S. Furnivall’s thesis that it was the interpretation and implementation of policies by the local power, difficult as this may be, that went wrong and he laments that this still persists today. It was perhaps a matter of expediency for Furnival, however, because control by the British was so tight that there was no room left for the Myanmas to exercise any “discretion” either in policy formulation or policy implementation.
Obiter dictum, Furnivall’s lamentation of the practice / habit still persisting (in his time in spite of his long stint in Myanmar) seem to indicate that this long practice of sticking to tried and tested methods and systems had become part of the psyche. He would not be surprised had he been around today to witness the phenomenon perpetuating itself and would attribute Myanmar’s problems to its leaders’ sticking too closely to tradition. That their primary preoccupation appears to be that of dealing with the nitty-gritty of daily living and of survival rather than that of looking at the bigger picture and trying to innovate. One might jump to the conclusion that Myanmas are more adept at tackling the micro– rather than the macro– problems of the State, yet perhaps drastic changes represent a step in the unknown which is certainly “intimidating and considering the enormity of the State’s problems, prioritization over what to attend to seems to be the way out for the Government. This has been, in my estimation, undoubtedly the cause of, inter alia, Myanmar’s extended closure leading to the lack of exposure not to mention their suspicion of outsiders’ intentions. However, we should not be making essentialist assumptions about the Myanma “psyche,” since attitudes are shaped by changing contexts. Brother narrated how, after the 1988 Conflagration, for example the Government did factor in the diagnosis and prescription of past colonialists like Japan as well as that of development in neighboring countries which were also formerly subject to “colonial imperialism”. It considered as well, the impact of capitalism on such states, even though by then the Country was already in a truly awkward position, making it difficult to effect quick, drastic changes, which they did try.
Nevertheless certain kinds of behavior on the part of Myanmar’s leaders lend themselves to the possible interpretation that they are “resistant” to change. For example, in 1942 Ministers’ meetings were held nightly and to this day, the practice of ngyakyaung, affectionately known as “night tuition” (of Ministers), wherein problems of the State are discussed (by Ministers chaired by the Senior General), prior to their Thursday Cabinet Meeting, still persists. Indeed many frequent visitors to Myanmar have been “intrigued” and fascinated by the incessant use of all government media, when reporting on Ministerial visits to ascertain the status and progress of projects undertaken, that the Minister left after “giving guidance” to the “concerned parties” and “left necessary instructions.” On my raising this with one of my key respondents, Brother, he remarked that this presumably is because Col. Suzuki who at one time headed the BIA/BDA did such a good work of drumming into people the philosophy of the Japanese Greater East Asia Co–prosperity Sphere – of “providing guidance” and leaving “necessary instructions” to the peoples of “occupied territories.” And so the “archaic practice” continues unchanged.
Retired government ministers I have spoken to are critical of such lack of experience and exposure in governing among their predecessors that they follow the system they are used to and not change. They also cited the common place situation of how when Ministers asked for more “voice” in decision making and a former Governor in the British colonial days formed “Coordinating Committees of four” approved plans were sat on because such Committees turned out to act as order conveyors and gave some measure of legality to such orders; otherwise, members occupied themselves with “trivia and never questioned the Governor.” This is a rather well-informed observation coming from someone who became part of the system. It moreover validates the same conclusion reached by Dorothy Hess Guyot in her PhD dissertation, namely that “despite their real power… they (Burma’s elites) quietly resumed an old habit5.” The ‘habit’ Guyot referred to being their “willingness to accept proper guidance,” given by Gen. Iida Shojiro, so well, albeit he was treated as a “father” of sorts, without the elites realizing that this was expedient to his own aim of fulfilling his Government’s policy of the day.
As I assessed from the chit-chat with my key respondents on yet another evening, one longstanding challenge of governance is that the “racial character of politics” has never been eradicated and it would take a long time for an attitudinal change in this respect, that is, change in the political relationship between and among the various ethnic groups. Brother narrated the tale of the Karen dispute under the Japanese Colonel Suzuki, wherein it was claimed that it was the Burma Independence Army (BIA) from Yangon that brutally disarmed the Karens. BG. Myo Thant recalled how Dr Ba Maw at a Sinyetha Party Meeting on July 03, 1940 elected himself Anashin (or “Dictator”), ruling and controlling in a highly hierarchical manner as he learnt from the Japanese, or perhaps from previous monarchs? This brought about a cleavage between the centre and the periphery, that is, the Bamars and the National Races as the British had “strategically conceived” according to Cousin, and this “burden” has not essentially changed.
“You have raised the issue of our seeming resistance to change with Brother Ko Lay”, (the Yangon Mayor) Cousin commented, “but I am not sure if you are correct because we did change. For example, we were democratic for a while but not long enough and everything got messy. We changed to a military administration in 1958 and the Country went well. We changed it back to a civilian government / administration and matters got messy again so that the military under Gen. Ne Win had to step in again in 1962. Then looking at the good performance of the Soviets, we changed to Socialism but I am not sure if overly rapid change is correct. We must now be more skeptical.” Could their admitted unpleasant experience arising from the external and internal demands for rapid change be the cause for them not being able to change so readily, I wondered, in spite of Cousin’s adamance that changes have occurred, as he mentioned. Or, could it be that the changes that he mentioned are because the circumstances were so dire that change became inevitable, whereas under “normal circumstances,” in the deep psyche, status quo seems the preferred way to go.
Perhaps another reason for the apparent resistance to change on the part of the Myanmas is that the British colonialists in their total command position created such a great built-in chasm between the local Bamars, the National Races, the Indian Civil Service personnel (Kalas) in the Government/bureaucracy resulting in general dislike by the Bamars for the British (Thosaung kalas) apart from creating “suspicion” between the Bamars and the others. For the usually prudent British from the Foreign and Administrative Services, for reasons best known to themselves but viewed by the Bamars as part of their “Divide and Rule” policy, it never escaped the Myanmar government’s attention that they practiced a very partisan policy of differential treatment of the population along ethnic-lines. This went to the extent, Brother remarked, that Myanmar became “affectionately known to practically all foreign scholars as a three-tiered society with the Brits being at the top, some ethnics and kalas of the Indian Civil Service at the Middle and Bamars and others at the bottom of the heap – regrettably not the most flattering for the bulk of the population or society.”
Thus, according to Sir, “it is well known in history that those whom the British favored were privileged with cash, education, guns, vehicles but these were the very items the then BIA soldiers also wanted and therefore, friction was inevitable between and among the military, the people/civilians and the various Minority groups, the last of which were always accorded relatively high positions.”
Moreover, there is yet another integral point in that in those early days of the Armed Forces, all were youths. Thus, the separation between officers and men was not well defined, all being inexperienced. Probably, officers did not do so well then, but when older officers came on, the reaction was one of strict separation between the two and indeed with the civilians. At this point Cousin interjected, “so you see, all other reasons apart, the dichotomy between and among the Tatmadaw members as well as that of the Tatmadaw and the civilians have their origins quite early and even from those days the general sentiment in line with the culture within the military was that it was the armed forces that factually fought for independence, and this ‘one-upmanship,’ too, caused certain problems. Did someone forget?”
I raised the question of what justification there was in running the country in a hierarchical manner utilizing the central command economic system, and why it is that the Myanmar military Junta opted for a central command administrative system, a point which remains bewildering to many at the very least, academically. As a consequence some more plausible reasons for Myanmar going for socialism – such as NeWinism – surfaced, as in our usual discussions.
Clearly, from my conversations with retired government ministers and bureaucrats who comprised my key respondents, the general sense was that most of the Myanmar bureaucrats had been influenced, one way or the other, by Marxism, as well as other socialist literature. It seems from what I could glean over a number of chit-chats with such people who worked with the policy makers in those days, that Independence was then coming hot on the heels of the Soviet Union’s politico-economic success, that is, full employment, double-digit growth, etc. It was, therefore, tempting for the “higher ups” to emulate the socialist model.
Brother for example explained, how by 1945 Beatrice Webb, originator of the London School of Economics (“LSE”) pushed her Fabian Society’s political concepts of the State being in a position to “run a country’s economy better or more efficiently than the private sector or capitalists.” The basis he added was the Keynesian idea that “government knowledge is superior to market knowledge.”’ In the 1940s this was the accepted concept because of how, over the period, governments tended to have control over all basic industries.
Sir, on the other hand, mentioned that, “the bosses felt that James Burnham’s ‘Managerial Revolution’ supported the concept because it was considered that capitalists were a group of “myopic oafs.” Indeed, Sir asserted that, “the bosses felt that this was in line with Keynesian economics and its adherents, especially in the immediate post World War II period, Keynes having postulated that the interwar disaster could have been averted if governments had spent more.” From what I could gather, what he implied was that countries would fare better if the economy is run and micromanaged by government; “private sector experts having the tendency merely to gripe over their grievances.” Sir said he agreed with Burnham.
“What,” queried Sir, “would be more convincing than to indulge in dirigisme and hierarchical governance?” After all, he added, “Myanmar, could be considered after independence, to have been in a state of war, fighting insurgents, the KMT, drug armies, secessionists, communists, and so forth, thus forcing us to indulge in the system of what has been seen as autocratic governance, though we prefer to think of it in terms of oligarchy and if you like, in view of the past experience, our desire for self reliance led us finally to autarky6”. He continued, “considering the dilapidated state of the economy by 1962 arising from the so called liberal democratic system of which we were not used to, the Government was forced to micromanage politically in the way of firm governance and economically by becoming self reliant.”
Much effort at self-evaluation at this point surprisingly surfaced, leading the group I was conversing with to go into deep introspection. Thus, for example, Brother mused that, “though pushed into this changed system, perhaps Government could have soft pedaled on autocracy and the other autarkic moves to our so called cordon sanitaire - political and economic – as these might have served to exacerbate the problem.” Seeing that they were obviously cognizant of the problems, my immediate response was, “Why did the Government push such a move through?” BG. Myo Thant responded that “then, as is now, every such decision lies with the ‘higher authorities’7 (or quite often, ‘higher ups’) but the situation was compelling, I suppose.”
However, according to some of my respondents, given the time and exposure to globalization, and other confidence building measures (CBMs) which it is following closely, the “higher authorities” of the SPDC Government might still concur in the importance of globalization and realize that it is not quite “globaloney,” as they jokingly put it. This is the obvious result of having been isolated for too long, politically and economically, so that Myanmar watchers/analysts feel that they still operate on the bases of old-school economic theories with the tendency to micromanage and hoarding power to themselves as many a scholar has observed. This is obviously not true from my experience.
What in my view is closer to the truth is the trauma of the past and the “fear” of the unknown and of being “taken for a ride,” again - hence the delay and vacillation. That government Ministers are familiar with modern economic theories as well as Third World development literature there can be no question. However, whether or not they are and will be heard or be allowed to implement such modern econo-political practices is another thing as everything, culturally, lies finally with the “higher authorities/ higher ups.” Thus, the sense felt generally by the milieu exterieur is that the Government is strong authoritarian/ autocratic, behind time and hoards power to itself. In brief, any pessimism that the Government will find its way to exercising Foucault’s “epistemic break” even in a short 5–year term, may turn out to be misplaced, judging from the infrustructural and other developments achieved in the last 15 years and from the optimism of my key respondents.
Also, “structurally” from chats with informed and well schooled former SLORC/SPDC members, what was evident is that, collectively, SLORC/ SPDC has been thinking seriously of succession, of not wanting to be a gerontocracy, and of installing younger leaders or military commanders to achieve this “rejuvenation.” It also has been looking at the bigger picture of at least the region, if not the world. According to them this is their “amor patriae of true nationalism.” This would be an important change but, paradoxically, this too is what is holding them back as seen in the statement by Sir: “We want to be sure and careful not to be sold-out again.” Sir cited old treaties entered into by the international community, which have been flouted. The respondents cited, in addition, how in recent times the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) granting autonomy to states had been flouted and of how the Declaration of Paris (1956), wherein 49 countries agreed on maritime law for all to adhere and to apply equally to all, was never practiced nor applied equally if at all it was. Moreover, Brother reminded me of how the League of Nations Charter (1920) became irrelevant after the Second World War mainly because the US was not included, and of how the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and Yugoslavia, once models of federalism, disintegrated. In this context, Sir added, “you know the Baltic States tried to break away from the Soviet Union because obviously the US was pushing them. Gorbachev disagreed and was squeezed by the US to allow so, but he was adamant that secession was out of the question. The Nobel Peace Prize was offered to him in 1990; then he agreed. The outcome was that a year later, the USSR broke up into 15 independent states.” Do you see a parallel with Myanmar? We must move carefully,” Sir concluded.
The dilemma, it became apparent to me in the minds of the military Junta, is how to move to multilateralism, or international governance, virtually without having to give up “nationalism,” or “national governance.” The implications it seems to me are whether the Government should adopt a multinational responsibility as called for by globalization with authority usurped by the “big boys,” or to carry on with national sovereignty and as with some states, continue to control their own future and destiny. Getting the sense of the direction of the chat, I enquired, “why does the government not do the ‘in thing’ - liberalize, go into MIAs (Multilateral Investment Agreements), globalize, and so forth?” The response from Brother was, “you see, we cannot afford to indulge in creating a Reichstage fire8 against any threat, real or perceived, or worse still be ‘swallowed up’ by some first world state, nor do we want to practice some government’s method of assuming that all who do not conform to Government diktats are ‘mentally ill’ and are therefore consigned rightly to the asylum, if the moves prove wrong.”
The Junta and International Pressure
Robert Taylor, in keeping with J. S. Furnivall’s analyses, upon revisiting the present-day dilemmas of Myanmar laments that even at this time and age, Europeans and Americans still feel that the superimposing of systems and functions that work in their countries would similarly work for Myanmar9 - this, in spite of the fact that the British had found out since the old colonialist days that policies that worked well at home “went awry in Burma” when introduced there. I also subscribe to this observation so that it is no wonder that Myanmar is unable to move either politically or economically. There simply is too much pressure to superimpose “euro–and ameri-centric” norms (often merely the external face of economic and strategic intentions) on Myanmar, leading its political leaders to be skeptical of external intents!
Maung Kyaw Thet sees Myanmar’s move to autocracy and autarky as being caused by its historical past.10 Mutebi views Myanmar’s colonial legacy as being “critical” to comprehending the bureaucracy’s (which is essentially the military government’s) tribulations including that of its negative attributes inherited from past legacies.11 It is only in consideration of the foregoing that we can hope to understand why Myanmar responded in such a specific, unusual and exceptional “Myanmar Way” in its international relations leading to isolation and autarky, authoritarianism or autocracy before one can ever hope to prescribe a cure for its “public service (essentially the Military Junta and its entire machinery) that refuses to wither away,” as Mutebi puts it.12
I concur with Mutebi’s perspective above, in spite of the fact that the Tatmadaw has always been considered by all and sundry in the Country to have been, inter alia, the “savior” of the Country. However, Brother nonchalantly mentioned that, “Bo Kyaw Nyein, a frequent Myanmar writer and contributor observing the political situation within the Country contended that many Burmese political observers make fun of Burmese generals as uneducated idiots and some intellectuals take pleasure in characterizing us as ‘unsophisticated rednecks of Burma.’ Older generations of Burmese who took the brunt of oppression in the early days of Ne Win's rule loved to claim that ‘adding four Burmese military officials did not add up to Third grade education’ and attribute the failures of Ne Win’s experimentation with ‘the Burmese Way to Socialism’ to his/our lack of education.”13
In this context, Sir remarked that, “where we went wrong is not autocracy but autarky and isolation. We lost touch with the outside world but it is never too late to change. The ‘Opposition’ loves to make fun of us generals; many of them do not make any attempt to understand the thinking behind our moves or to study the structure and culture within the Armed Forces and what changes had been taking place inside the Burmese military which influence its collective thinking, that is, the dynamics of culture. Perhaps it would have been better to make our thinking for certain moves known, but really this is not a done thing culturally nor strategically.” He explained that very few western academics if at all have had a chance to access any documents of the Armed Forces/ Government and even when they were exceptionally granted access, the military restricted that access only to the time before 1962. Sir remarked, “this is not to say that they should write on surmises. So, how do they draw valid conclusions?”
Sir continued, “of the many words Bo Kyaw Nyein wrote in his articles about ‘Understanding the Burmese General,’ only two points stood out loud and clear, namely, that the Military officers are superior to civilians, reflecting our culturally embedded belief of the concept of karma; and that only the Military can ‘save the country from disintegration,’ validating the very fact that not anyone, even with popular support, can govern the Country.”
The above comment confirmed the events of 1962 when gross and chaotic economic upheavals occurred. The Tatmadaw then under Gen. Ne Win, assisted by Brigadier San Yu (later President, Myanmar) and Brigadier Sein Win (later Revolutionary Council Member), took over the helm in what foreign scholars have “expediently” termed a ‘bloodless coup,’ and formed the Revolutionary Council/ Bogyoke Government to prevent chaos to the Country. This Government went on without too many problems. “Unfortunately without the infusion of either foreign capital or technology not to mention the move of the political system away from socialism, the higher ups realized we were ‘drained’ in many respects. Change was inevitable but it came a little too late and this resulted in the 1988 Conflagration!”
I then commented, “having heard you and assuming that the civilian government of U Nu had a free hand in running the Government with the military staying at arm’s length in governance, it does appear that a civilian government run along democratic lines is a no-go situation. But why is this so? Indeed foreign scholars, analysts and even governments seem to imply that it is because the military is interfering. For example practically every Myanmar scholar refers to the 1962 take-over of Government by Gen. Ne Win as a ‘bloodless’ military coup…?” Brother stopped me in my tracks and retorted, “I think in the last 20 years you have seen with your own eyes how foreign governments have incessantly tried to derail this Government. Just to recapitulate, in the course of the 1988 event, a number of American senators were right here trying to negotiate the handover of Government to ASSK who insisted on a carte blanche handover. Not having succeeded they supported her, and therefore the NLD, with all sorts of awards and by our reckoning she has received at least US$46 million. Not succeeding terribly well to throw our Government out the US, followed by their collaborators the EU, started applying trade sanctions, accused us of human right abuses, tried to make us face the ILO (International Labor Organization) music etc., etc.
And why? Brother emphatically stated that it was “because as any 5000 series political science student knows – because of geopolitical / geostrategic reasons vis- à- vis the ascendant China. They want to shut China down but we are not interfering. We are too small to do anything about it. The irony is, shutting down our textile, beverages and other industries, that is, pulling them out or getting to pull them out, only benefitted local and regional players. Also, by way of illustration, publicly it was said by the international bodies, that we lost a US$200-300 million contribution to GDP per year but in fact in terms of actual business loss/ profit contribution from the turnover, it was less than US$60 million.”
Being conscious of the fact that these key respondents of mine are fully aware of the change in the attitude of the US towards Myanmar - from “support” to antagonism–as well as the reasons appertaining to the disgruntled outlook of some of the past key state-actors, not to mention the truth or falsity of the much written about “bloodless coup” of 1962 with hardly any scholar ever sharing the mechanics nor the causative factors of these state of affairs, I decided to probe the soul of the past.
This, I did, furthermore in consideration of the fact that after some 15 years of “unsuccessful castigation” by the US supported by its allies, the EU, not to mention elements of the milieu interieur, I felt the US and others would find their nirvana, pragmatically do a volte face and change its antagonistic attitude. The more reason considering the evolving geo-strategic regional complex and dynamics. I asked, “why and is it that the US, which at one time welcomed Myanmar leaders to the Country and supported Myanmar with military hardware, etc. changed its attitude, and this applies to the British ex-colonialists, too? Likewise why was it that the key military commanders at one time aligned to Gen. Ne Win were later prepared to gun his government down? Furthermore, concerning the truth or falsity of the “bloodless coup” of 1962 - was it a “coup” in the normal sense?”
After clarifying and needlessly reminding them that my quest was to attempt to ascertain facts and to fill in the “gaps” left out in the very voluminous “Myanmar story” written by so many scholars, analysts, and journalists so as to enable me to truly add to the epistemology of the story, I was obliged by my respondents. As dinner proceeded and wine flowed I was rather surprised to hear the stark response, perception and sentiment of the Group as being that “the worst enemy of Myanmar are the disgruntled Myanmas.” With the British, it became obvious as we went along that all “antagonism and behind the scene moves” are the result of “hurt pride” and generally of Myanmar not wanting to “play ball.” In Brother’s words, “[the British] felt we shut them out and snubbed them, so that they lost their cushy position. Having been driven into India is not something which is easily forgotten either.”
It appeared that with respect to the US/Myanmar relationship, the perception was that while the US was supporting the KMT forces at the border trying to put in place their McCarthyism and Monroe Doctrine (in with respect of China), Myanmar was trying to put them down, fighting them tooth and nail because they were causing Myanmar havoc in many ways, with the local populace and subsequently with the proliferation of drugs. This was attributed partially to a “communication problem” with the US insofar that Myanmar did not make clear the reasons for wanting to whittle down the KMT forces because they were causing problems.
The good thing is that there was general acceptance among the group that the US’s Myanmar friends – “the correct people” – were no longer in powerful positions. In the meantime Brother reckoned that the US felt in more recent years that Myanmar was “becoming a surrogate of the emerging and ascendant China” which would pose a threat to their leading position in the world. It became clear in the Government’s view that the change in attitude to Myanmar was “the result of geopolitics and geo-economics. Myanmar not being of direct ‘strategic importance’ to the US anymore”, even though the perception of the Group seemed to have been, that “Myanmar had become an ‘obstruction’ to the US hegemony, through the China connection” as Brother puts it.
Being fascinated with the role of the so called “correct people” vis- à-vis the changed attitude of the US towards Myanmar, I drew the conversation back to it by asking, “by the way, what about the ‘correct people’ and how did they affect the Country?” The discussion then turned to this particular subject. There was agreement by the Group that when senior military officers like BG. Maung Maung (Director Military Training) and Aung Gyi were holding important positions, relations with the US were so good that they actually assisted Myanmar with military hardware.
However over the General Election which U Nu had set to hold, there were attempts by such “senior military officers” to “interfere” in the elections. General Ne Win, “smelling a rat,” stepped in and told the Officers that the “Election was to be treated as a football match in spite of both teams (Nu-Tin vs. Swe-Nyein) being useless.” The role of the Military would be merely to “act as a referee” and no more. The game rules were not kept and as it turned out, U Nu’s Yellow Faction won the Election. Subsequently, four months later, there was the firing of 13 Senior Officers including BG. Maung Maung, Aung Gyi and others. Assuming that these officers would have been very angry, Brother volunteered that, “General Ne Win was quite thoughtful so that some were sent as ambassadors and military attaches to various countries.” Apparently there was “no rancor” at least at that point because they seemed to realize that they did not follow orders and so had to go. It was “better than having to face a court martial,” Brother remarked, adding that in any case “with the removal of this ‘Group’ the US rapport/ support appeared to have been lost.”
On my query about pressure caused by other members of the old guard, Brother reminded, as narrated at a previous chat session how when than Chief of Staff was in charge of an important government function sometime 1971/72, fire arms were found in one of the deliveries for the function. Of how after through investigation this was interpreted as an attempt at Gen. Ne Win’s life, sometime 1974/75. Tin Oo was dismissed from service. There were other reasons apart from what is noted above for his dismissal, like his chartering a special flight to take his demised son back from London without proper approval. “Gen. Tin Oo stayed out for many years and with the resurgence of the new political force of NLD, he joined it and became a Central Executive Committee member and got it going to hammer the SLORC – so you see how pressure is put on the SLORC by our own internal forces,” Brother said.
Taking the chance, I then commented, about the 1962 Coup, that “the military forced the Government out, so that it was some kind of a ‘coup,’ albeit virtually bloodless” though it would appear that some seem to recall that Saw Shwe Thaike, one time Acting President was killed in the process. To this BG. Myo Thant replied that the “takeover did not involve any force nor was there the most important characteristic of a “coup” that is, suddenness and the element of surprise; the Government had been given adequate notice of the deplorable state of the Country and told to take remedial action. All that was wanted was to save the Country from going into an ‘anarchic position.’ The idea, in the view of my key respondents, was not so much to change the Government or its leaders but, to quote Brother, “to try to change the ways of the Leaders, which obviously failed” and this was one of the reasons the military took some time before acting. It seemed that the same reason was offered as to why even after 1988, the Government was taking its time to change and it would not be rushed into change nor would it let the milieu exterieur push them to change. Meanwhile, I wondered if the group of respondents would argue that if 1962 was a “coup,” the military’s takeover in 1988, too, could be considered a “coup” as the conditions / position in the Country were almost the same although, back then U Nu, the government leader, did cause the necessary conditions to have the military takeover the Government, whereas, the 1988 conditions were far worse in that the rioting was getting out of hand.
The aforesaid are only a small sampling of the external pressures placed on the military government in modern Myanmar history. I was reminded of this when the gathering of respondents volunteered information on what they termed “active interference” and “inactive” ones, which brought pressure to bear on Myanmar. This, BG. Myo Thant said, is confirmed by the recent release of “sensitive documents to the British media. It was clear that the pre-independence assassination of General Aung San … and the Kayin insurgency that began around 1947-1948 had been stage managed by the Britain-based Friends of Burma Hill People with definite links to the colonial conservative government of Britain.” Furthermore, Brother added that it is documented that it was only after the British Prime Minister declared no support for the Karens, that the KNU / Karen Leaders like Saw Po Thin (KNU Leader / President) Mahn Ba Khaing and their pack decided to stay with Aung San and the AFPFL and to participate in the elections for the Constitutuent Assembly.14
BG. Myo Thant narrated to us how even the Korean War caused the “split” of the socialist AFPFL,. Simply put, the Red (Crypto–communists) and the White (faction of the Group) could not agree on the Government’s support of the UN’s action in Korea during a parliamentary debate. “The pressures brought on by an external event, the Korean War, with the US, and China as major players, therefore had profound internal effects, among which was the split between the two groups,” as BG. Myo Thant put it.
Brother pointed out that, in more recent times, it had been revealed that the Myanmar diaspora and local Myanmas had been putting pressure on the Government, suggesting that Junta members ought to be made to face a Nuremberg type trial, although the government is not bothered by this. “Also, we must not forget”, said Brother, “that the NLD and others have openly declared that tourists ought not to visit Myanmar and that trade and other sanctions be placed on Myanmar”.
Brother added, “if you want to know the ‘mother of all external pressures’ over which the Government has documentary evidence, I would say that it was when Peter Bourne, President Jimmy Carter’s advisor on narcotics affairs, visited Khun Sar at his MTA Headquarters two times asking him to ‘stage political maneuvers.’” This simply meant that Khun Sar was to strategize such that “the international community would see and support the Shan nationals as a political force to fight for secession and independence from the Government of Myanmar. Khun Sar was also offered ‘assistance to open up representative offices in Western countries’ after the Shan State had declared independence. Actually he finally did open up offices in Washington D.C. and New York. All this in spite of the fact that Khun Sar had been indicted twice by the US in 1989 and 1994.”15
And so, Brother concluded, “the pressure from all fronts, drugs, trade, narcotics, human rights abuse, labor infringements, go on and on from abroad and from their local ‘satellites’ whereas we continue with our own pace of development, feeling hopeful someday the outsiders will regain their vision and reconcile to themselves the fact that changes occurring in Myanmar are not merely cosmetic, and that it is the correct approach; that they too would gain something by treating Myanmar well.”
The account that follows of the events of 8 August 1988 (hence the subtitle above) arises from the random communication I obtained through my key respondents over my visits to Yangon, some as always, on a strictly confidential and personal basis. As always, this relies heavily on the “conception” or the process through which the memory of events flows down through their accounts / stories / views. Fundamentally they are the recollections of, in particular, a well-informed mind which is likewise one of the key figures in the SLORC / SPDC Government. In this section of the narrative, this key respondent “Cousin,” a former member of the Myanmar government as well as being an accomplished academic/ scholar himself, gives an account which together with Brother’s account, form part of this narrative leading to the events on the 8th of August 1988.
We began with 5 September 1987 as the reference point when the Myanmar Government instantly and without explanation demonetized 25, 35 and 75 Kyat currency notes, and in the process nullifying between 60 and 80 percent of the currency in circulation. New bank notes were created in 45 and 90 Kyat denominations16 in replacement. I commented on the serious and adverse effects of the “demonetization” to every Myanma, particularly the students and as it turned out even members of the Sangha. Cousin agreed that the timing was “not so good because the students were just about to enroll in the university.” He felt that obviously the much needed cash [that] they possessed had “no monetary value even though the circumstances were such.” Cousin was aware that the demonetization had tremendous impact on the members of the Sangha, who “apparently” had large hoards of currency, as it turned out. The Sangha, according to other key respondents, should not have been affected because at least theoretically or doctrinally they should not be involved in money matters or handle any, at all, as they would be in breach of the Vineya rule.17
It appeared that immediately after the news of demonetization broke, goaded insidiously by the Burmese Communist Party (“BCP”) working in tandem with the Communist Party of China (“CPC”) intent on the export of the then expediently-called “cultural revolution,” by the UG (Underground) section of the BCP, wide- spread rioting commenced. According to Brother and Cousin, who at that time were on the sidelines of history, the student-initiated riots ignited in Rangoon. These protests, though only lasting a few hours, were the first large-scale popular protests since 1974.18 The government responded by shutting down the country's universities in an attempt, using the words of Cousin, “to nip the seeds of any larger revolt in the bud.”
Cousin added that, “though the upheaval was short it was known that a student activist said that the protests later in September opened the floodgates to new political thoughts and put revolution in the minds and hearts of the students.19 It was alleged that, soon thereafter, student newspapers, newsletters and journals advocating democracy got distributed around Yangon, playing in this context to the already generally agitated populace; [they were] ‘selling like hotcakes’.
Cousin’s recollection of the struggles of the Myanma students became interesting to me. Soon I found out that his nephew was a university student during that period and so he was very much aware of student-led discussions and immersions. He had himself heard of the goings on about the demonetizations narrated by his nephew and from the grapevine, as well.
Cousin gave an account of what he had heard, namely that, “social discussions, especially in the cities, centered on ‘revolution’ and students sitting along university building steps began to seriously consider the possibility of risking their lives to overthrow what they considered their ‘country's totalitarian regime20’, the latter of which is somewhat “unfortunate” because if indeed true it is incongruent with modern systems of governance. It was nevertheless not much different from the glorious era of the former kings who were true monarchs of all they surveyed – that is, everything belonged to them or in Pye’s terms they were the ‘apex of power’ and ‘universal monarchs’ to the extent that their powers extended ‘above the logic of everyday life21’.
These discussions were given a boost, according to Brother, “when, several months after the original protests, Myanmar, deeply indebted was recommended by foreign nations and some close foreign friends to apply to the United Nations for the LDC status.” This was “in the hope,” says Brother, “to somehow erase Myanmar’s foreign debts.” Myanmar, as one having practically the richest natural resource bases in the world and a population traditionally very proud and disdainful of foreigners22, was naturally outraged. As Bertil Lintner seeming nonchalantly stated: "The application for LDC status was perceived as a national insult and a final confirmation of the failure of 26 years of ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’23”. However, according to the Financial Times in 1988, “of those countries which have been granted LDC status by the UN. . . .Myanmar stands out as the most improbable.”24 And herein lies the crux of Myanmar’s problems. The question to be posed is: What led to the change from an ascendant position in the mid 1950s to the descendant position in the early 1960s and thereafter, reaching its nadir by 1988?
Nevertheless, the country stayed relatively peaceful until March in spite of the reopening of schools and what Brother termed the “hot bed of the agitprop groups.” However in retrospect, it seems that the members from the September protests were still waiting to erupt and larger protests were imminent. As the country soon learned, one small spark was all that the students needed to reactivate their struggle.
Recalling the events, Cousin said that, “the ‘spark’ turned out to be the lenient treatment to the son of a military officer arrested for beating up a student in a debate over music” what became known as the ‘Tea Shop’ incident. It appeared from his narration that for many students, this was the last straw because they were tired of being poor, being treated differently, and being victims of police brutality, as well. Immediately, hundreds took to the streets. The protests grew in strength, as students were arrested, taken to jail, and released only to narrate the stories of their ostensible torture to their classmates. At this point, “a very important psychological change occurred - the culture of belief changed25” - Lintner noted perhaps for the first time, students regarded government statements as lies and believed only reports from other students and non-official sources.26
The protests continued, and turmoil continued to grow - though with schools closed for vacation from March until June, the movement was temporarily quelled. However, as soon as the schools opened, the frenzy of protests began again. This time, Myanmar's autocratic leader, Gen. Ne Win announced a proposal for a sort of multi-party elections. After Congress rejected the request, Gen. Ne Win offered his resignation and appointed Sein Lwin ("the Butcher”27) to be the new President. As the session ended, Gen. Ne Win added an ominous note: "In continuing to maintain control, I want the entire nation to know that if in the future there are mob disturbances, if the army shoots, it hits - there is no firing in the air to scare.”28
People who were adversely affected by the demonetization and students infuriated by the appointment of Sein Lwin and what is popularly believed by some foreign scholars to be the clamor for democracy, the last of which according to Brother, “the bellicose crowds were in reality ignorant of ”, as he ascertained when he had to address a crowd. Nevertheless, egged on by foreign elements taking the opportunity to try to topple the Government, such people called for a general strike on August 8, 1988. This subsequently came to be known as the “8888 or (four eights) Movement”. No one knew who originally proposed organizing the strike, ex post facto, the idea quickly gained support29. Perhaps more importantly, BBC and in particular one news reporter, Christopher Guinnes,30 started broadcasting news of the strike throughout the country. It was Christopher Guinness who initially helped undo the Government according to many bureaucrats I spoke to. The radio news broke through the continuous broadcasting of military propaganda, catalyzed support and spread the news of the revolt throughout the entire country.31 According to some students in Myanmar, “the most important thing was the role of the BBC. The students could not spread the news about 8888 events to the whole country but BBC did the splendid job. After its broadcast through BBC, the entire population knew and prepared for it32”.
On 8th August, thousands of people took to the streets and demonstrated peacefully. The protests were still mostly coordinated by students but with an ever-growing support-base among monks33 and the rest of the population though ethnic minorities were relatively underrepresented.34 Unlike the protests of March, the students wanted more than just an end to police brutality. The goal had changed from discontentment with police brutality to democracy presumably as they understood it.35 While there had always been some people arguing for democracy - and Gen. Ne Win's sudden announcement in July, it seemed, helped to put the issue on the table - many of the students did not even know what they were protesting for. They just knew that they were protesting against the government. One student later admitted that he had to look up the word "democracy" in his dictionary after the protests.
In the context, Cousin had the occasion to recall a defining event, when a government member of the Ministry of Planning and of Trade, one whose mission was to ascertain what was egging the mob on asked in a gathering what the people wanted. On being told that they wanted “democracy,” he enquired if they could tell him what “the cost per viss36 of democracy was, and where they could get it.” On both accounts, they were stumped and according to Cousin, “the crowd was looking at each other for an answer and one of them thought democracy could be got from the Cooperative Stores.” This obviously was a dangerous thing because philosophically, little knowledge is always dangerous and in this event, it could undo a whole country. Quite apart from this, it seems to dispel the popular belief that the desire for democracy and a democratic form of government were the prime reasons for the conflagration.
Having heard Cousin’s narrative, I was reminded that it had been mentioned by various parties that the protests and demonstrations were “joyous and peaceful,” and from what I had been told I said, “the armed forces have strict regulations pertaining to the use of fire arms, so how did the fellows get shot…?” In rapid fire response, Cousin interjected, “let me tell you the exact situation at the time. While initially the situation was relatively calm, the crowd started agitating. The situation got really riotous to an explosive point in terms of damage to life and property-matters. It became a mob and it was totally out of control. We have photographic evidence of this. Under the circumstances, the Tatmadaw men arrived at the nodal point and in spite of strict orders on procedures to be followed in mob control, the Tatmadaw was forced to open fire on the rioters who had created the anarchic state.” It appeared that the originally peaceful demonstration suddenly turned somewhat bloody. The Government then barred foreign journalists from entering the country.
Subsequently, most estimates put the death toll at several hundred to several thousand. However, while many people died and the protests were temporarily shut down, the unfortunate deaths of “8888” did not end the uprising. It was clear that “the overall effect was to galvanize popular support for the demonstrators,” according to Cousin, presumably especially in the light of the subsequent public appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi,37 Gen. Aung San’s daughter and “alter ego.”
Immediately after the events of 8 August 1988, the protests stopped as the demonstrators regrouped after the shooting. Soon after, the protests started up again and for the next three weeks, grew and became more and more frequent. On 26 August, the anarchist movement received a burst of energy with the appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi (“ASSK”) who championed their cause. A crowd of what was estimated to be a few thousand showed their support for the charismatic ASSK and this further fuelled the movement. The basic ingredients of a revolution to overthrow the government appeared in place because a leader had emerged and this was someone no less than the daughter of the national hero. Sir’s view was then, “it emboldened the rioters.”
Then on 18 September,38 in view of various nationally disruptive developments (e.g., arson, looting, beheadings, etc.), the military returned in full force and according to Brother, “not being able to contain the mayhem in spite of following due process for mob control, soldiers started to shoot the uncontrollable mob.” This was followed by the mopping up of student activist leaders and subsequently, the proclamation of the formation of the new SLORC government. With the onslaught, SLORC forces successfully crushed the student opposition and more importantly, it was able to crush much of the resolve of the people to riot. The situation was, as Chief of Staff Gen. Saw Maung said: "if we had waited for two more days, we would be in big trouble. I believe [that] I saved the country from an abyss”39- an analysis worthy of note as it was a strategically crucial move to preserve law and order, and whatever the country had in infrastructure and physical resources, at least from what I could gather from this little meeting with Sir, Brother, Cousin and a couple of others. And from this point of view my friendship with these senior members of government has been quite a “blessing” for my research.
In the context of the above and bearing in mind Guyot’s comments that with the Myanmas, many accounts of whatever transpired in conversations/ discussions were recorded only from the (British) Governor’s side; there was practically “no informal correspondences between Burmese and British and then from Aung San and Thakins,” though that there was only an “occasional letter so that the British had to try to understand Burmese view point through public announcements especially resolutions, statements, speeches40”. Considering this, Guinness’s move was strategic and understandable. This situation, unfortunately in my view, still persists and it is for this reason that Myanmar has so often been “misunderstood.”
I therefore decided to take the opportunity, as previously, to dig into two “grey areas” which had been interpreted or narrated by scholars I have read but which did not quite tie in with the actual accounts I had been hearing on the ground. These pertain to the very swift, decisive, and what has often been described as “brutal action,” which the Tatmadaw took to stop the rioters in their tracks during the 1988 Conflagration, and the date, that is, 18 September, when action was taken. What is fascinating here is that in the case of the timing of the blow up as it was with the demonetization (or what Brother prefers to term “remonetization”) of currencies, both involved the number “9”. The “onslaught” on the rioters also involved “9” purely on superstitious grounds and without any rationality because “9” so it is said, happens to be General Ne Win’s favorite and lucky number, notwithstanding the fact that Gen. Ne Win had already retired some one year earlier and was no longer running the country. This incidentally, is interesting because it would appear that it validates General Patton’s comment that old generals do not die but that they merely fade away. Gen. Ne Win did not die nor, it would appear, did he fade away. He was still very much in every Myanma’s mind as the active player, although from all accounts of my “key respondents” he had truly retired.
In light of the above, I remarked to the gathering, “you know, the general consensus on the Tatmadaw’s action against the rioting was that it was a knee jerk reaction taken to capitalize on the superstitious Cherio’s number 9 which apparently happens to be Gen. Ne Win’s lucky number.” To this, the “reflex reaction” in my reckoning, from Brother was, “yes, I too have read about this and have heard such rumors, but I have never commented. However since you are conducting research and are quite objective, let me clarify the situation existing at the time: first, there were six American warships at ‘action station’ near Pathein. Second, the commies were trying to grab the ground at the Border areas.41 Third, soldiers who were guarding the Ministry of Trade Building had been overcome by mobs and were confined in it, because they had no mandate to use their firearms – there are strict rules and regulations for the employment of firearms. At that stage their counterparts/ colleagues were pressing commanders to get them released as the mob had threatened to take the soldiers away, failing which they would move in to get them released, in which event there would be untold bloodshed. Fourth, mayhem in the form of looting, ransacking arson and worse of all, beheadings of citizens by the mob became rampant. The Tatmadaw was stranded between the devil and the deep blue sea. It was criminal for it not to act because as you may be aware, unlike many countries, our police force is not geared to handle mob control, but only normal law and order duties. I hope this clarifies this point. You can see the move was a perfectly rational one.”
I thanked Brother for his clarification and added that this is one of the “problems” that Myanmar has. It does not bother to explain the reasons for actions it takes. Cousin’s reaction was, “should we allow others to misuse information?” What about the superstitious “9,” I enquired and the reply from Brother was, “as for the date and number 9 and our indulgence in superstitions practices, this is true cultural and it applies across the board nationally. Just as there is the claim that the Tatmadaw acted on the number 9, ostensibly Gen. Ne Win’s favorite and lucky number, you know scholars too have remarked that the students and opposition also acted on the basis of their lucky number 8 as in the 8888 – four eights. But for the skeptics and non-believers I am unable to comment. For your benefit let me give you a couple of anecdotes in which I was involved personally so that you get an idea why we do not treat such things lightly.”
Brother narrated how in 1975 there was a German geological survey mission which visited the Nantu Silver Mine. It was headed by one Dr. Brickmann. The team was made up of 4 Germans, 2 Myanmas, 3 crew (including 2 pilots). The aircraft was a Twin Otter plane. When they were returning to Mandalay, they were told that the Nat in the region would not allow the use of “9” as it was its “number.” On the first and second attempts to fly back, they had mechanical problems after a few minutes flight and had to return to base; inspections and reinspections revealed no problem. They were reminded of the taboo no. “9” – the Regional Nat’s number – and they were again advised to take Mr Stone (represented by a block of granite) on board so that 10 would be flying. They did not believe and the same thing happened. Again they returned to base. Finally Dr. Brickman, a scientist, condescended to take our advice and brought Mr Stone along. This time they took off and returned safely.
Another example was cited by Brother to illustrate the point. It seemed that in 1970, nine Myanma Government auditors travelled in a 1.5 ton truck to Mandalay to give a lecture in the Law School. On the 21st mile, half way down a hill, the brake failed at the 2,000 feet altitude level. The truck crashed and the nine people were killed. Many in the bureaucracy know of this incident and thought the team imprudent to have “challenged” the Nat. In like manner Sir commented that no Myanma disrespectful of religion would ever visit Mt Popa dressed in black or after having eaten pork as this would grossly offend the Nat in charge of the area and bring about disaster.
At this point of the chat, I felt that I had hit a raw nerve somehow, querying Myanmar’s indulgence in superstition and (Ne Win’s) number “9” because the discussion would not cease. There was the careful and deliberate attempt to impress on me the reason for such cultural practices and that this is not to be treated as a facetious subject. It dawned on me that even in a couple of seminars on Myanmar which I attended in Singapore, when queries had been raised about certain, what were considered “inexplicable”, moves by the Government, panel members had jokingly replied, “ask the astrologers”. My conclusion was that it was only prudent to hear my key respondents out because there must be a definite matter of “principle” involved if those dealing with the Junta members do not want to be “bristled” at and also that this question of culture must always be factored into relations – local and international – when dealing with Myanmar. I then commented that it was highly interesting and I appreciated my lack of depth and experience in such matters, coming from a rather western educated background and living in a very secular society.
To drive the point of the sudden move to stop the Conflagration and perhaps to emphasize its legality and rationality, Brother emphasized that the action of the Tatmadaw was taken in full compliance of Article 21 of the 1974 Constitution, i.e., that the Tatmadaw could not be involved in civilian unrest unless specifically requested by the Government. Having said so, Sir remarked that, as a true student of ASEAN history, I ought to know that superstitious practices abound in the region. That in the case of Indonesia, which declared Independence on 17 August 1945, “the first Five Year Plan of development, post-Independence, was made up of 8 chapters, 17 sections and 1945 Paragraphs. So, which country in ASEAN does not indulge in superstitious practices and which country leader does not have a ‘special consultant’ for this purpose?” He volunteered to assist me in sorting the chaff from the grain. He said that this is culture, good or bad being immaterial but that it extended way back into their political history. Thus for example, he said, Myanmar declared Independence on 4 January at 4 a.m. – the ungodly hour – but did it hurt anybody? Yet eye brows have been raised. Why? So, Gen. Ne Win is no exception as far as superstition is concerned. It is very much their culture for which he felt there was no need for them to apologize.
In response to my comment, Sir was willing to provide the raison de’tre for various moves which had “intrigued many for a long time.” Starting with, “let me take the opportunity to give you more anecdotes in this respect,” he then proceeded to narrate how “it is on record that the then Governor, Sir Hubert Rance cabled the Earl of Listowel on 2nd August 1947 that the entire Cabinet headed by U Nu visited him to advise him that the date 20th July 1947 when the Cabinet was sworn in was most inauspicious, so that the entire Cabinet members would resign and be sworn in again on the propitious date of 1st August 1947 between 1820 hrs and 1825 hrs and that as it turned out under the Government of Burma Act, 1935, an Oath of Secrecy had to be endorsed. The Oath Form for this was locked and the key could not be found so U Tin Tut, a Cabinet member, got a piece of paper, scribbled the words “Oath of Secrecy” on it and all members present endorsed it. What was this “great event” about that it had to go all the way to London? Was this funny, ridiculous, or the ‘smallness’ of the mind of the observer?”
Sir, on his part, commented on the rumor “that Gen. Ne Win because of his superstition changed the direction of flow of traffic, from driving on the left side to the right side because he thought it ‘lucky’ to do so'. The fact of the matter, he said, is that the Government entered into contract with the Skoda and Fiat motor companies to produce cars in Myanmar. By an oversight, it was overlooked that the cars were left hand drive to be driven on the right side of the road. To overcome this ‘problem,’ Gen. Ne Win agreed that the direction of traffic flow be changed from left to right hand side. Having changed the direction of traffic flow, the Agreement with the two companies was not implemented, but for other reasons such as too low production volumes. Meanwhile the changed direction remained. “So you see,” explained Sir, “this is a myth, which has been utilized to perpetuate the perception that Myanmar military leaders act irrationally but superstitiously because they are ‘uneducated.’42 And also this is a myth that has been perpetuated along the rumor mill, picked up as secondary material even for researchers and it goes on. Perhaps too, this is part of our ‘problem’ insofar that we do not provide information nor take the trouble to scorch rumors, but really we have no time for such pettiness.”
My impression is that the intent of the ultra-long anecdotes was to convey the message that not only Ne Win but also U Nu had believed in superstition and that this was practiced even in the old colonial days. Even the Governor acquiesced to such practices. Thus there is no element of truth that the decisive government move on the 18th of September against the destructive 8888 Movement is based on superstition, but that it had a perfectly rational basis. I then commented, “it seems such a pity that such a misconception over such an important national, anti-government rebellion is not debunked, leaving even the international community to perceive Myanmar leaders as irrational people who are inadequately educated so that decisions are made purely on grounds of superstitions and astrologers’ advice.”
“Let me give you some quick response,” retorted Brother. “First, mass media rebuttal over the justification of our full scale move against the rioters is an expensive affair. Indeed, we know that in the last 20 years, even among the better developed ASEAN states, when they stood “wrongly accused,” foreign media did not allow them time and space for a rebuttal even when they wanted to pay for it. Also it is well documented that in the case of another ASEAN member state which saw a change in Government by popular civil disobedience revolt (People Power) one of the leaders, a well-educated and foreign-trained military general, when asked what he felt accounted for the success, attributed this, among other objective reasons, to ‘. . .the intervention of a Divine Commander-in-Chief’ up there,’ pointing to the sky. Whether this is attribution to religion or superstition, I have not had the opportunity to ask him.”
“Second, at this point in time, fighting especially the ‘foreign tangential forces’ trying to force change in Myanmar through the medium of students, is pragmatically an unequal contest. In any event we had to stop the Conflagration and we will continue in a ‘gradualist’ manner to bring about change consistent with our production of the ‘economic good’ for the people. Do you think no scholar/ analyst of Myanmar, both local and foreign, is aware of some of the facts behind the 8888 Movement; that the 8888 Conflagration is a creation of external elements? If not, why were the naval vessels around at that precise time? Yet, has any party written to clarify our position? In your very extensive research have you read any such clarification even though we do not generally let too much information out? Yes, times were hard, but on our own, the Conflagration would never have occurred.”
“Now the reason, I am narrating these anecdotes,” continued Brother, “is to dispel misconceptions created by various parties either ignorant of the true raison d’etre for the Conflagration or for certain actions the Government embarked on and certain decisions the Government took or because of certain hidden agendas of their own. And for all the decisions made, there are reasonable considerations even if culture and mind-sets take a long long time to change and any reasonable person will understand this. For this reason, if our learning curve is not steep enough and we appear slow on the off-take towards change, it is only because change must be compatible with ground conditions and for all this, I feel we need not make any apologies.”
The foregoing explanation was given to clarify the decisive move made to stymie the Conflagration Movement. Brother noted how it was the Government’s timely action that caused the demonstrators to react in the exact opposite way to the September and August massacres. This time, instead of regrouping, many students decided that their best hope against the SLORC was armed struggle and they subsequently fled to the jungle. Student leader Aung Myint uttered:
[W]e fled because we realized that this time it was different, not a random massacre as in August. It was meticulously planned and the targets, well selected. Because everything had been out in the open in the August-September demonstrations, all the leading activists were known - and the armies were looking for us, specifically—and since the military had chosen to seize power and not give in to our demands for an interim government, we realized that, there was nothing more we could do in the urban areas. Our only choice was armed struggle.43
Brother’s analysis was that the students, as presumably with the Americans, who knew their Senators and others had been discussing the failed takeover of power by the ASSK clique, concluded that the revolt was not ending; it was just entering a new stage. ”From their intelligence, the rioters were expecting to receive arms from foreigners and support from the ethnic insurgents, once they reached the border. This was a miscalculation of gross proportions, as it never happened, and the students and the ethnic insurgents were not able to join forces. This spelled the end of the students’ armed struggle,” Brother explained.
To reiterate, students who had participated in the movements refer to the events in Myanmar in 198844 as a “revolution”45. Theda Skocpol46 and other theorists of revolution may find this view contradictory to their findings, as according to them, a “revolution” must cause some fundamental change in society, which is absent in the case at hand. Therefore, reference to this sequence of events as a “revolt” or conflagration of sorts may safely be the case because as Cousin commented, “there is indisputable evidence of massive excursions but not massive social change.” “What difference could you make of that?” I asked in curiosity. He said: “The people had only reacted to the country’s socio-economic status, just as ‘professional/ frequent protesters’ do, and not that they wanted to actually effect massive change in this regard, so they simply fell short of making a widespread national social change.”
In fact, after the SLORC imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi the following July and annulled, without inciting riots, the democratically-held Multiparty Constitution Assembly elections, in spite of the Government’s Party losing an astounding 85 percent of the seats to ASSK’s party, the “revolt” was essentially over. There was no more hope for what foreign scholars and/or analysts termed “a transition to a civil society.” Cousin commented, “By the way, if civil society is, as has been widely accepted, the ‘interface between public and private domains,’ then indeed, there are abundant civil society organizations in Myanmar since time immemorial - the monasteries and temples. And if the aim was indeed to establish some form of ‘civil society’ as envisaged by Western states, then the method employed was profoundly wrong.” Or, at least, this method of endeavoring to achieve the transition made it more difficult to achieve, from what I could see what he was driving at.
Reminiscing, it does occur to me that it is true that a revolution comes about when people from various sectors of society try to resolve the conundrum of, on the one hand, rationality, and on the other, of being so fed up with, in the words of Vaclav Havel, “living within a lie” and of desiring to “live within the truth.”47 In the case of Myanmar’s 1988 Conflagration, after in excess of a dozen years dealing and talking to public and private sector individuals and the general man in the street in Myanmar, it is abundantly clear that the Conflagration was the result of the "non–fulfillment of rationality.” It was simply inconceivable, according to one of my local Hotel supervisors, that “we who grow so much rice found it hard to have enough rice to eat. Yet we have always heard that we were exporting rice. The Government has not told the truth. Indeed the biggest problem is, he continued “that the Government has never told – truth or lie.” A business associate felt in this context that, “the Government was too autocratic, egocentric and paternalistic to have felt the need to do so,” said this more western orientated or exposed private sector individual who was oddly enough rather “pro-government.” People simply assumed that rice would be readily available partly because of the fear to ask because of the Government’s attitude until they could not take it anymore. The “truth” and rationality in the case of Myanmar lie in the pragmatism and existentialism of finding it difficult to have enough to live and of the total uncertainty of the future. No one knew what exactly was happening and people were living in limbo. Floating rudderlessly and the fear of empty stomachs were part of the trigger for the Conflagration. It was not a battle for ideology, as I see it.
Conflagration: The Role of the Universities and the Religious Sector
It is imperative at this point of the research to highlight what in the informants’ assessment is the crucial role of the two central coordinating units, that is, the students from universities and the religious sector, especially the Sangha as represented by the pongyis. Such structures, according to Sir, facilitate information dissemination and make it easier to mobilize people into the Movement. I had pointed out to the Group that the problem with such types of organization and mobilization is that it works both ways. While it is easy to organize from a centralized base, centralized organizations are also easier targets for government to “demolish” – as the Myanmar military showed by shutting down schools in September 198748. The question I posed initially for the role of the universities was: “Does the student body of universities in Myanmar represent the microcosm of the entire Myanmar nation to titillate progressive/ liberal movements or did the student body allow such progressive [liberal] thinking to thrive, reinforcing the Movement which was taking place outside the campus realms? Brother views the role of the universities this way:
If the Myanmar Government has been [then] absolutely autocratic, then it could have interjected in university affairs and thereby halted any attempts of uprising. Either that or the Government has overlooked the role and the “disruptor” potential of the universities. The latter, however, is preposterous as we [Generals] are well-versed with the world situation, knowing fully the role of universities in successful revolutions in other states. [It] goes to show that the Myanmar Government, though autocratic is not so “closed” as to prevent liberal thinking from its roots.
More importantly, Sir noted, one must not overlook the important role of the Sangha in a nation where religion is an important social institution. As with many other revolts such as, for example, in the Philippines, it helps to have the religious community at the front of the Movement. Religious communities are often already organized to some extent and states often loathe cracking down on religious institutions, particularly since newspapers are always hungry to publish photographs of the military arresting religious figures and the general public is often particularly swayed by reports of such crackdowns. Sir went on to say that in Myanmar, the Sangha does hold a certain sway over its “flock,” who not only resort to them whenever there is a problem but also look to the pongyis for their blessings over virtually every thing. In point of fact, even for death - if, for example, monks in the area refuse to pray or do not pray on behalf of the family, neighbors would immediately draw an adverse inference on the family. And the pongyis are aware of this.
I then drew the “Session” back to the “Opposition,” the most important structural issue to which Sir commented: “Fortuitously for the Government, while the State was weakened by the continuous conflict with the ethnic minorities, the student leaders had the same problem.” I noted that the revolt was led for the most part by ethnic Myanmas and by the ethnic Minorities who were lucky enough to be attending universities, but Sir interjected: “They were never able to build a large-scale support base throughout the Country.” “Most critically for the State,” Sir continued, “students who fled to the jungle in September were unable to coalesce with the Minorities to build a unified opposition.” According to him, “the Minorities just wanted to use the students to help them with their struggles; the students just wanted to use the Minorities as part of their struggle for democracy.” However, there was an obvious communication gap between the protagonists, so that, instead of a synergy of forces, it appeared that each was merely trying to have a “free ride on the other”49 - hardly the best sort of association it was clear to me. A student activist, Htun Gyi, reportedly said, “We try to cooperate with the ethnic rebels but they still do not trust us [and we were] not allowed to cross their territory without permission and all operations were tightly controlled by them.”50
Editor’s Note: Chapter 4 has been divided into two segments, the first of which has been presented above; the second and final segment of Chapter 4 will be published in the following issue of this Journal. - JP
1 Most input from this discussion also come from the gathering/discussion held together with Brig. Gen. Myo Thant and others including the Lord Mayor of Yangon which administers the whole of Yangon, the Capital. I have decided to separate this theme, slightly annexed to Theme Three: Independence First and Last, a discussion of the views of Myanmar governing elites on the SLORC immediately after its formation and the role of the Tatmadaw. This is part of the key informants’ self-evaluation.
2 A source from the Ministry of Information in the SLORC Government intimated this testimony to me. Also there were a number of occasions when chats could not be had with me because of the ngyachaung.
2 Naw Angelena, p.213.
3 Michael Aung-Thwin, p.483.
4 Taylor, “Disaster or Release? J. S. Furnivall and the Bankruptcy of Burma,” Modern Asian Studies
Vol. 29 No. 1 (February 1995), p.45-63.
5 Dorman-Smith, Civil Government Under Invasion Conditions cited in Dorothy Hess Guyot. “The Political Impact of the Japanese Occupation of Burma” (Diss., Yale University, 1966), p.245-246.
6 An autarky is an economy that limits trade with the outside world, or an ecosystem not affected by influences from the outside, and relies entirely on its own resources. In the economic meaning, it is also referred to as a closed economy.
7 “Higher Authorities.” Though explained earlier, this element is rather “amorphous” and even at ministerial level, it is not exactly known whether it is mortal or “something else.” Suffice to say, all must defer to “higher authorities.” – ahtet lugyi.
8 “Reichstage fire was started by the SS (Schutzstaffel - Protection Squadrons under SS Chief Himmler) to provoke fear of communism and to allow Adolf Hitler to take over the Government under emergency powers so that those who opposed could be imprisoned and arrested anytime.
9 Robert H. Taylor, “Disaster or Release? J. S. Furnivall and the Bankruptcy of Burma,” Modern Asian Studies Vol. 29 No. 1 (February 1995), p. 45-63
10 Maung Kyaw Thet, New Directions in the International Relations of Southeast Asia: The Great Powers and Southeast Asia ed. Lau Teik Soon, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore University Press, 1973, p.146-155.
11 Alex M. Mutebi, “Myanmar, Beyond Politics to Societal Imperatives,” Muddling Through Past Legacies: Myanmar’s Civil Bureaucracy and the Need for Reform ed. Kyaw Yin Hlaing, Robert H. Taylor, Tin Maung Maung Than, (Singapore: ISEAS Publications 2005), p.140-141.
12 Ibid, p. 47
13 Ne Win himself was a dropout from the University and was working as a postal clerk before he joined the 30 Comrades, the first batch of Burmese trained by Imperial Japanese army with Major Gen Aung San as its leader during WWII from which the Burma army was formed. He nevertheless held the Country together for some quarter of a century.
14 Naw Angelene, Aung san and The Struggle for Burmese Independence, Silkworm Books, 2001, p.207.
15 This bit also appear in Col. Hla Min, Political situation of the U or M and its Role in the Region Department of International Affairs and Research, Ministry of Defence, Myanmar.
17 Vineya: The religious code of monks which specify what constitutes a sacrilegious practice e.g. in the collection and consumption of alms, material things etc, e.g. out of the daily alms collected, a monk is permitted to eat five handfuls (i.e. what the fingers and thumbs can pick up of it). Any more than this would constitute a “breach/sacrilege” of the Rule. Likewise the handling of money is not permitted.
18 The 1974 uprising was the result of students protesting against the funeral arrangements (devoid of state honours) made for the relics of the former UN Secretary-General, U Thant. In this episode, students stole the coffin and interred it at the site of the Students’ Union that had been razed during the rioting of 1962- Michael Fred Holm, Myanmar: Ethnicity and Insurgency (Westport CT: Praeger, 1993), p.51.
19 Tun Myint in a personal note to a “foreign colleague” and this “insight” was provided by a retired government official, Tun Myint an activist who participated in the revolt of 1988, fled to the United States and studied at the
University of Indiana.
20 As a brief note, however, just as they have ill-conceived, perturbed or varying notions of the term, “democracy”, the term “totalitarian regime/totalitarianism” was somehow unclear to them; speaking to many general workers who were graduates and were then employed in the public and private sectors, their interpretation of such a term ranges from “fierce, total, commanding, powerful, autocratic, communistic, etc.”
21 Lucien Pye and Mary Pye, Asian Power and Politics; The Cultural Diversion of Authority, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, London, 1985, p.98.
22 This is an admittedly broad statement. However, this view appears in most of the work analyzing modern Myanmar and was also expressed to me in multiple conversations that I had with Myanmar students inside Myanmar and citizens. A general sentiment expressed by a number of students, both in Myanmar and overseas, whom I spoke to.
23 Bertil Linter, Outrage (Hong Kong: Review Publishing, 1989), 94. As already discussed earlier, the "Burmese Way to Socialism" was the policy of fascist, isolationist, supposed socialism that Prime Minister Gen. Ne Win had implemented when circumstances forced him to seize control of the government in what was erroneously described as a “1962 coup”.
24 Roger Matthews, “Myanmar Hopes for Past Economic Glory,” The Financial Times, 03 November 1988, p.6
25 Bertil Lintner, Outrage (Hong Kong: Review Publishing, 1989), p. 94.
26 State Law and Order Restoration Council, ‘The Conspiracy of Treasonous Minions Within the Myanmar Naing-Ngan and Traitorous Cohorts Abroad’, Kyemon Daily, Yangon 1989, p. 1.
27 Sein Lwin earned this title because of his brutal role in the suppression of student protests in both 1962 and 1974.
28 Bertil Lintner, Myanmar in Revolt, Boulder (Westview Press,1994) p.276.
29 Chief Engineer, Mandalay Swan Hotel, interviewed by author.
30 Christopher Guinness, is a Briton and BBC news reporter. Apparently he started broadcasting news of a brawl between some students of the Yangon Institute of Technology and some locals lads, which occurred in March 1988. Subsequently he claimed that a general strike would occur on 8th August 1988. This got the ball rolling for the “Conflagration.”
31 Reminiscent of the techniques used by Czech students in their country where students sent press releases to the BBC announcing protests and the BBC reported that a protest was going to occur so that thousands of people would show up. This being so, there was no need to distribute pamphlets or have a centralized organization to coordinate the protests.
32 Chief Engineer, Mandalay Swan Hotel, interview by author.
33 Monks play a critical role in protests both because they are respected and because an arrested monk has high visual impact. (Same tactic used by students in the United States demonstrating against corporate support of the Junta.)
34 The ethnic situation in Myanmar is extremely complex. There are approximately 100 different languages spoken and there may be as many as 200 different ethnic groups. (Smith, p. 23). The bulk of the population is Myanma (60%) and they live in the central valleys, plains and the major cities of Yangon and Mandalay. The Karen is the second largest group (ca. 10%) of the population. They live in the Irrawady Delta as well as the mountain areas bordering Thailand. The Shan (ca. 8%) live mostly in the Northeast. The Mon, 5-6% of the population, live along the coast of the Andaman sea. The Arakhan slightly less than the Mon, live in the western part, on the coastal border with Bangladesh. The Chins (ca. 2%), live near the Arakhan on the border with India. The Kachins live in the north and is about the same population size as the Chins. The rest of the various ethnic groups live in the mountain ranges that surround the country (ca. 4%). There are Indian and Chinese nationals; these make up a small percentage. The government is made up mostly of ethnic Myanmas and there have been constant conflicts between many of the ethnic groups and the government ever since the assassination of Aung San in 1947. In Michael Fredholm, Myanmar Ethnicity and Insurgency (Westport CT, Praeger, 1993), p.13.
35 Even the Communist party of Myanmar (traditionally one of the most powerful insurgent groups) was supporting democracy at this point; a “strategic move” presumably to prop up any “anti-government force” to bring about its downfall according to at least two retired government officials from the Ministries of Information and National Planning, hoping that if the government did indeed fall, they would be able to out- manoeuvre the democratic elements.
36 Viss is measure of weight. One viss is equal to 1.633kg.
37 According to Sir, ASSK (Aung San Suu Kyi) who was living in Oxford (U.K.) with her husband, Michael.
38 9/18 - note the number “9” again. In the case of September 18, “September” is obviously “9” whereas according to Cherio’s system of numerology, “18” is also “9” because the system goes in series of “9s” and “18” is “9”. The indulgence and belief in numerology is that 1 + 8 = 9! Widespread in Myanmar and indeed in certain parts of the country, the use of “9” is taboo because “9” is the number of a Nat (spirit) which is said to control that territory and any use of it brings grief. On the other hand, popular belief has it that Gen. Ne Win’s favourite number is “9” and it accounts for the Kyat currency denominational demonetization/remonetization exercises.
39 Maureen Aung Thwin, Burmese Days, Foreign Affairs, Spring 1989, p. 143
40 Dorothy Hess Guyot, “The Burma Independency Army: A Political Movement in Military Garb,” in Josef Silverstein, ed, Southeast Asia in World War II, p.51-56.
41 This is a big battle at Mong Yuang which was started by the Burmese Communist Party (BCP). The Myanmar Army (88th Division/11th Battalion) engaged then to ensure they did not grab the Country.
42 Some bureaucrats I spoke to on this subject asserted that culturally Myanmas indulge in “Yadanache” which in essence is that if there seems to have been an unfavorable flow of events, a small change in the environment would assist in improving the circumstances. In the case of traffic flow, driving on the left side represented socialism (leftist) which was not working as well as expected, hence a small change in traffic flow to the right might offset the unfavorable circumstances. In the last few years it is known that Yadanache was applied (though in a more Faustian way by such practitioners (Auklan Sayas)on country leaders, to effect a change in Government. Ridiculous, this may seem to Westerners, this is treated seriously in Asia.
43 Bertil Lintner,p.197.
44 Students who participated in the events of 1988 in Myanmar refer to this event as a “revolution.” However, I share Skocpol’s view and as such I would refer to the 1988 rioting as a “revolt” or mere “Conflagration.”
45 Many, like Mary Callahan, have referred to this as a “pro-democracy movement/revolution” but this is far from the fact as already demonstrated earlier in this Thesis. Generally those rioting had little or no conception of “democracy.” It was more a case of reaction to the decrepit economy and perhaps also the very Orwellian state of governance.
46 Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
47 Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless, New York: Palach Press, 1990, p.31.
48 Whenever there have been student demonstrations since 1988, the SLORC immediately closed schools. There is the accusation that the SLORC built rifle barracks near the main universities so that the army can shoot student protesters, if need be, but according to Brother, this is unfounded and the move is unnecessary.
49 The refugee camps in Thailand today are split up by ethnicity, even as everyone in the camps claims he is fighting for the same ultimate goal.
50 Pwint Htun, interview by the British Broadcasting Corporation, 03 March 1997.
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