Opposition to Military Rule: 1962–1988

Despite having complete political power and the backing of the armed forces, military rule in its various guises was never free of opposition. The civil war between the minorities and the government persisted even though the armed forces increased in both size and strength. In the heartland, Buddhist monks and university students resisted openly at various times. As the military was fashioning its dictatorship in 1962, the monks refused to register and carry identification cards; and in the Mandalay area some monasteries resisted with force. Eventually, in 1980 Ne Win was successful in bringing the monks and the various sects under government control and marked the event by holding a national celebration, granting amnesty to dissidents and imprisoned felons.

The opposition of the university students lasted longer and was more influential in bringing the constitutional dictatorship to an end. It began in June 1962, with resistance to harsh new university regulations and the killing of an unknown number of students as the army dislodged them from their barricades on the campus and blew up the Student Union Building – the historic centre of student resistance during the British period. Skirmishes between the military and students erupted over the next several years, with the most serious occurring in 1974. When the remains of U Thant, the third secretary-general of the United Nations, were returned to Burma, students and monks seized the coffin because the government did not intend to properly honour his remains. They took them to the university where, after a few days, the army used force, and killed more than a hundred students and monks in recovering the coffin (Selth 1989).

In 1987 the students, most of whom lived on the cash in their pockets, demonstrated against the demonitisation. A few months later, a minor fight between students and townfolk grew into large-scale student-army clashes and a major demonstration in Rangoon, which was suppressed by force, with forty-one students known to have died of suffocation in a police van; others were killed or jailed in the conflict.

The demonstrations of March did not end, despite the closing of the universities. When the universities were reopened in June, the students demanded an accounting of the missing and the arrest of those who inflicted injury upon them; this provoked new demonstrations. At the time, there were rice shortages and skyrocketing prices of basic goods in the cities; there also was large-scale unemployment. These and other issues finally brought the people onto the streets to join the student-led demonstrations. Martial law had been declared in several urban areas outside Rangoon. With the students at the head of the demonstrations and demanding real change in the political system – a return to democracy and constitutional government – the situation slipped out of the control of the military and threatened to bring down the nearly three-decade-old dictatorship (Lintner 1989).