5. Burma’s Struggle for Democracy: The Army Against the People

Josef Silverstein


Since 1948 Burma has struggled, both to establish a modern democratic political system, and to unite the people under its rule. So far, it has failed on both counts.

The author outlines democracy and its roots in Burma before moving on to describe the military’s roots and to give an overview of the three phases of military rule: from 1962 to 1974; from 1974 to 1988, and from 1988 to 1993. Also covered are the opposition to military rule between 1962 and 1988, and the unity of the army from 1948 to 1988.

The author concludes that finally military rule has convinced even the most sceptical that a true democracy is the only way to domestic peace, freedom and personal safety.

The decade of the 1990s opened with the people cautiously hoping for change in the future of Burma. After twenty-eight years of military rule, in one guise or another, many were optimistic that the 1990 scheduled elections would begin a process by which they would recover power and restore democracy.

Almost from the day they regained their independence from British rule in 1948, their nation has been torn by civil war, which persists to this day, foreign invasion and slow economic recovery from the devastation wrought by World War II. The people were sorely tested in 1988 when they demonstrated for freedom and change but were met with the guns and bullets of the army as it suppressed their peaceful revolution. And even though they complied with martial law, and participated in the election of May 1990 to vote for members of a national assembly as a first step toward the restoration of democracy, their patience went unrewarded as the military found one excuse after another to delay change. All real hopes for peaceful change were dashed in September 1991, when Major-General Tin U said, ‘We cannot say how long we will be in charge of the state administration. It might be five or ten years’ (South China Morning Mail 11 September 1991).

On 23 April 1992 the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) began a series of actions which were intended to signal that political change was beginning. Under a new leader, SLORC started to release political prisoners and took the first steps toward writing a new constitution. These and other changes provide a preview of the future political system which the military rulers in Burma are trying to establish, a system where the military will play the leading role and the people will be the approving chorus. The model the soldiers-in-power have in mind derives from the present Indonesian system (The New Light of Myanmar 24, 25 June 1993). This is the political burden the people carry as they continue to struggle to free themselves from tyranny and dictatorship.