The five-decade-long history of independent Burma is one of struggle both to establish a modern democratic political system and to unite the people under its rule. Thus far, it has failed on both counts. But the struggle has not been in vain. Military rule has convinced even the most sceptical that a true democracy is the only way domestic peace, freedom and personal safety can be restored. If democracy failed in its first trial, most people in Burma are more than ready to give it a second trial.

Military dictatorship and human rights violations have destroyed the myth of the unity between the soldiers and the people; today, the army is the most hated and feared organisation in the country. And while the military has fashioned a jail out of the once free country, the people, as demonstrated in the 1990 election, will do what they can to recover the freedom they thought they achieved when Burma became independent in 1948.

The minorities, too, have concluded that their future lies in a union with the Burmans and not outside. They are willing to lay down their weapons and join the Burmans in forming a viable federal state, based on equality, autonomy and self-determination. They want modernisation and development to come to their areas and people, but on terms they can accept and live with.

Six years ago a handful of elected representatives fled to Manerplaw, the Karen headquarters on the Burma-Thai border, and with the backing of the Democratic Alliance of Burma – a political front of minority and Burman groups – established the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) as a rival to SLORC. The leader, Dr Sien Win, is the cousin of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Although it has not received formal international recognition, its members travel widely and speak often to parliaments, political leaders and the press; they have a headquarters in the US and lobby at the UN, keeping the issue of Burma before them. Both the Burmans and the minorities want to see the military return to the barracks, leaving politics to civilian elected representatives. Until democracy is re-established, there will be disunity, warfare and economic decline in Burma.