On the day before the 1988 coup, the minister of Defence ordered all members of the armed forces to resign from the BSPP and resume performing their ‘original duties’, working for the perpetuation of the state, for national unity and for the consolidation and strengthening of sovereignty. This was the first step towards ending party control, dismantling the constitutional dictatorship and reasserting the army’s determination to rule directly. Immediately following their seizure of power, the coup leaders explained their action as halting the deteriorating conditions in the country and announced three immediate goals: (1) restoring law, order, peace and tranquility; (2) easing the people’s food, clothing and shelter needs; and (3) holding democratic multi-party elections, once the first two goals were established. It also declared that all parties and organisations willing to accept and practise genuine democracy could make preparations and form parties. It abolished the state institutions and, in their place, created a State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) comprising nineteen senior military officers under the leadership of General Saw Maung, the former minister of Defence and army chief of staff.
Also following the coup, the army dropped the original ethnic names of its military units. This was the last step in erasing its original federal structure.
Under martial law and arbitrary decrees, parties were able to form, but they were limited in their access to the media, and in their ability to hold rallies and communicate with their constituents. During the period of registration, 234 parties formed and all but one went onto the electoral rolls. Only a few were genuinely national, with leaders who attracted a wide following and offered some sort of program if they came to power.
The electoral law was highly restrictive and limited the ability of the parties to campaign and get their messages to potential supporters. Yet, despite the impediments to free and open campaigning established in the electoral law, the people took full advantage of the free election and voted overwhelmingly for the party which was recognised by all as being anti-military and pro-democracy. The National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and former General Tin U gained 392 of the 485 seats in the new People’s Assembly, even though its leaders were either under house or direct arrest and the party was harassed in its efforts to reach its supporters.
Despite the coup leaders’ promises to return power to the people and permit the People’s Assembly to convene, the military had no real intention of doing that if the party and leaders it favoured did not win.
On 27 July 1990 they tore away their democratic mask and revealed their true authoritarian character. In their Announcement 1/90 they declared that SLORC was not bound by any constitution; it ruled by martial law and gained legitimacy from international recognition both by the United Nations and individual states. It declared that while it continued to rule, the elected members were responsible only for drafting ‘a constitution for the future democratic state’. Nearly a month later, General Saw Maung said in a press conference that all previous constitutions ceased to be effective after the coup leaders seized power in 1988 (International Human Rights Law Group 1990:26-27).
While the elected members of the People’s Assembly wait to assemble, SLORC continues its abuse of human rights by arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of the electees as well as citizens at large. Under Martial Law Order 1/89, military courts were established with power to severely punish, including issuing the death penalty for violators of SLORC decrees and pre-existing laws. In November 1989 Amnesty International reported that thousands of people had been arrested and convicted; other sources reported that more than 100 had received the death penalty (Amnesty International 1990a:1).
In the hill areas, the military pursues a dual policy to bring the civil wars to an end. Since 1989, it has offered individual ceasefire agreements that allow ethnic insurgents to retain their weapons and control local administration and economy in exchange for halting their wars against the state. All political issues remain unresolved until a new constitution and elected government are in place. For those who refuse the offer, war continues. By 1996, fourteen opposition groups had signed. Only the Karens have refused; the Karenni resumed warfare after the Burma army broke the agreement.
A key tactic of the military to force acceptance of an agreement is the persecution, torture, rape and murder of non-combatant old men, women and children of the minorities. By using innocent villagers as forced labour both in warfare and behind the lines, the army violates the human rights of civilians. These abuses are widely documented and reported by government agencies and non-governmental organisations.
Since 1989 the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva has pursued the issue of human rights violations in Burma. After listening to the reports of its special rapporteur and the testimony of representatives from various countries and non-governmental organisations, beginning in 1991 and continuing through its 1996 sessions the Commission adopted strong resolutions. Initially the Commission acted under a rule of secrecy, but the failure of Burma’s military rulers to give full cooperation to its special rapporteurs and to make appreciable progress in correcting identified abuses led the Commission, in 1993, to make public its proceedings and reports.
SLORC’s rule in Burma has drawn the continuous attention of the UN General Assembly since 1992. Following discussions in its Third Committee, it unanimously adopted strong resolutions calling on Burma’s military regime to release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate, and other political prisoners, to halt human rights violations, and to restore democracy.
Faced with growing hostility from the world community, and in need of foreign aid, investment and technical assistance, on 23 April 1992 SLORC began a series of steps it hoped would indicate that political change was in progress and that the military’s iron grip was relaxing. Change began at the top, with General Than Shwe, the minister of Defence and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, replacing General Saw Maung as leader of SLORC. At the same time, SLORC announced that political prisoners who no longer were a threat to the regime would begin to be released. It also announced that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could receive visits from her immediate family, and that if she promised to end her involvement in national politics she was free to leave the country.
Earlier in the same year, Muslims of Indian origin living in Arakan, many of whom are citizens of Burma, harassed and under pressure from the Burma army, began fleeing the country and seeking refuge in Bangladesh. The outflow led to a border incident between the two states and the mobilisation of tens of thousands of troops on both sides of the border. But tensions began to relax following the change in SLORC leadership and on 28 April the two countries agreed to an orderly return of the refugees if they could prove their citizenship or right to be in Burma.
Also, about the same time, General Than Shwe announced a halt to the military campaigns against the Karen, although he did not declare a ceasefire or take steps to halt fighting against other minorities.
But the change that attracted most attention was SLORC’s announcement that it would shortly begin a protracted process of writing a new constitution as the first step towards transfer of political power. On 23 June 1992 it convened a preconvention assembly of forty-three selected individuals, including candidates elected in 1990 to the parliament which they were never allowed to form, and fifteen representatives of the military. Their assignment was to decide who should be invited to the next stage of constitution-making, the drafting of principles and agreeing on chapter headings (Silverstein 1992).
To prepare for this second stage, SLORC promulgated Order 13/92 which set forth the six principles which the military rulers wanted the delegates to adopt as the basis of the new constitution: the unity of the territory, the people and the state; a multi-party democratic system; the incorporation of the principles of justice, liberty and equality, and ‘the participation of the Tatmadaw [army] in the leading role of national politics of the State in future’.
With these and other instructions, the national convention of SLORC-selected delegates assembled in January 1993. From the start it did not go as planned. The military managers were forced to adjourn after two days when some of the delegates wanted to talk against the sixth principle and about other topics. The meeting reassembled but adjourned four times during the first six months of the year. By 1994, the national convention had adopted more than 100 principles. On the future rule of the military in government, it agreed that one-quarter of the representatives in parliament would come from the military. They would be named by and responsible to the Commander-in-Chief; he would also name the ministers of defence, interior and border affairs, as well as have absolute power in times of emergency (New Light of Myanmar, 9 April 1994). The president must have long military experience. The armed forces budget would not be reviewed by the parliament.
More than four years have passed since SLORC announced its intention to oversee the writing of a new constitution. The people have yet to have a say. Their elected representatives were screened by SLORC, and when any of them refused to go along with the military representatives and spoke out they were disqualified; some left of their own accord, fearing that their outspokenness might land them in jail. On the basis of progress made thus far, General Tin U’s prediction about the length of time that might pass before the SLORC gives way to some other ruling body may not be too far from the mark. And when the soldiers-in-power get the signatures of their hand-picked delegates on the document they are readying for them, and have the document ratified by the public, they will have the legal basis for a new constitutional dictatorship under which they can rule indefinitely.