Military Rule: Second Phase, 1974–1988

Despite the fanfare, the military did not return power to the people. The constitution institutionalised the power of the BSPP. It was directed to lead the nation; no other parties were allowed. It selected all candidates for seats in the national assembly, the Pyithu Hluttaw, and the deliberative bodies at the three lower levels; and it was empowered to give advice and suggestions to government. If there was any doubt that the new system was a continuation of its predecessor, Article 200 declared that when the People’s Assembly interpreted the constitution, it had to do so in accordance with the General Clauses Law promulgated by the preceding government.

Like the army, government was centralised and hierarchical. The various levels of administration were tied together by the principle of democratic centralism. The people were given rights and duties. They had the right to stand for election and to recall their representative; they had the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the right to freedom of speech, expression and publication ‘to the extent that the enjoyment of such freedom is not contrary to the interests of the working people and of socialism’ (author’s emphasis). In carrying out one’s rights, the constitution declared that persons ‘shall be under a duty … to abstain from undermining any of the following: (l) sovereignty and security of the State; (2) the essence of the socialist system; (3) unity and solidarity of the national races; (4) public peace and tranquility; (5) public morality’.

With no right to organise a political party to express legal opposition to the ruling party and the government it controlled, with the requirement to report the speech of others as well as one’s own conversations with outsiders, with police informers everywhere, the rights were nominal, at best, and meaningless in this constitutional dictatorship.

The system remained intact, with relatively little change until 1988. At the Fourth Party Congress (August 1981) Ne Win announced his intention to give up the office of president of the nation, but to continue to serve as head of the party. As this was where real power was located, it did not represent any real change. His potential successor, U San Yu, was a former subordinate officer from the time he served under Ne Win in the 4th Burma Rifles. Other nominal changes were made but, as always, power remained in the hands of serving or retired military officers under Ne Win’s leadership (Silverstein 1982).

The first sign of real change came in August 1987, when Ne Win startled the nation by admitting ‘failure and faults’ in the management of the economy and called for open discussion about the past and change. Within weeks the heavy hand of socialist economic control was partially lifted as the government removed restrictions on the sale, purchase, transport, and storage of foodstuffs. This was followed by demonitisation of three units of currency, which was intended to disrupt the black market but in fact had a devastating effect upon the general population because most did their business in cash and kept their reserves at home instead of in a bank.

Developments came to a climax in July 1988 while the nation was in turmoil and an emergency party congress was in session. Ne Win announced his resignation as party head and urged the leaders to consider the creation of a multiparty system, among other changes. He also warned the nation not to demonstrate, for if they did, the army would not shoot over their heads.

Although the party permitted Ne Win to resign, it did not adopt his recommendations. Instead, it appointed as its new leader General Sein Lwin, another protégé of Ne Win. He had the reputation of having led his military unit in suppressing dissent on the university campus in 1962, and again in 1974 where hundreds of students were killed or wounded. To put down the growing national unrest, which had been building up during the year and was about to culminate in a national strike on 8 August, Sein Lwin ordered the military to suppress the strike of unarmed civilians; it resulted in the death of thousands.

The resignation of Sein Lwin brought the first true civilian to leadership. Dr Maung Maung, a legal scholar and strong supporter of Ne Win, became head of state and sought to end popular unrest by promising elections for a multi-party system and other reforms. But his offer came too late as dissent grew and threatened to topple his government; more important, defections from the air force and the navy to the side of the people were a prelude to defections from the army. During this period, the government released criminals from jail and crime rose; at the same time, it spread rumors that the water was poisoned and the city was unsafe. Instead of drawing the people back to BSPP rule, this only hardened their resolve to continue peaceful demonstrations for immediate change to a democratic multiparty system.

At this critical stage, when the people felt that they were on the verge of victory, General Saw Maung, the head of the army, organised a coup and on 18 September seized power and ordered the armed forces to suppress all dissent. Again, the number killed and wounded is unknown, but is reported to have reached 3000 or more.

Thus, within a year, from Ne Win’s 1987 announcement to the Saw Maung coup, the military’s carefully constructed constitutional dictatorship crumbled and the army found it necessary to abandon the façade of constitutional government in favour of naked power to restore its leadership. As in 1962, it abandoned all pretences of legality and democracy to create a new dictatorship based on martial law and backed by soldiers and guns.