Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Road To Mandalay

The Road To Mandalay

Look down the barrel of a gun
And feel the Moon replace the Sun

(Robbie Williams)

How lucky is Robert Mugabe? There he is, strutting his stuff at the UN, chatting with his old pal from Iran (the nutcase in the dodgy suit and equally dodgy beard) and the monks in Burma decide that after nearly 20 years, since they last caused a rumpus, they gonna have another go.

I watched the unfolding reports on TV with quite some interest. Unlike the majority of westerners, who would have a problem finding the place on a map, or for that matter take a moment to find out where Mandalay is, I did quite a bit of research 12 months ago about the place.

This was because I was forced too, whilst doing an Open University course. I couldn’t help spotting an amazing amount of similarities between the situation in Zimbabwe and in Burma. However, I doubt very much there will be any kind of up-rising in Zim, as much as I doubt that what is happening in Burma at this moment will come to much more than another failed coup by the populace.

What does amaze me is the complete lack of background detail offered on the news. It is logical, I suppose. Pictures of happy clapping monks getting the shit kicked or shot out of them makes great prime time TV. We don’t want to tell the average viewer that actually, they are a serious bunch of shit stirrers and are more than happy to give out their fair share of hung drawn and quartered.

Below is some serious stuff I wrote. It is not normally my style, but for obvious reasons, taking the piss wasn’t exactly going to guarantee me a pass. It is my attempt at a bit of academic writing, but I think you will spot my sneering attitude throughout…

However, if you make the effort to read it all, I would like to draw your attention to a BRILLIANT piece of satire which sums it all up. Sadly, I didn’t write it, but found it via the web site South Africa Sucks. I have supplied the link to the article at the end of the serious stuff.

Part 1

Burma, created in the 19th century with total disregard to the historical autonomies of ethnic groups, had independence granted in 1948 from its last colonial master, Great Britain. The various tribal groups were forced to live together in unnatural boundaries, and had been temporarily unified under their Nationalist leader Aung San. His assassination in 1947 set the precedence for future clashes between a majority Burman tribe and diverse ethnic minorities over autonomy, ideology, religion and natural resources

Since 1962 to present times, the peoples of Burma have been under the control of a military dictatorship to combat the ethnic minorities’ violent attempts at autonomy with moderate success either by coercion or detente. The deeply entrenched political power along with its associated lucrative life style for the ruling elite financed by rampant corruption (Khin Ma Ma Myo. 2006) would use any ways possible to stay in control.

By the late 1980’s what could have been a thriving economy had become an international pariah. Initiation of disastrous social economic policies, along with the cost of maintaining a massive military force in an attempt to control the countries minorities, either through coercion or an uneasy d├ętente, had reduced the average citizen to abject poverty.

Disgruntlement finally came to a head and it was the student led protests from September ’87 till June ’88, that were to create for the junta the biggest problem. The military reacted with extreme brutality to quash this serious threat to its authority. In state prisons, murder, torture and gang rape along with the riot polices’ shoot to kill and fatal clubbing of protesters, returned the country to its former status quo. The long contained dissent finally erupted on August 8, 1988. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators held peaceful rallies demanding the release of political prisoners, end of human rights violations and the installation of a democratically elected government. Retribution was swift with over 3000 dead, 1000 injured and the detention of at least 2000 demonstrators. The ‘rebels’ switched tactics and moved their rallies to areas less accessible to the army and secondly exacted revenge against the better equipped military by fighting back. Students, Monks and ordinary citizens overran police stations and government buildings, torched party officials living quarters and murdered state agents, their decapitated heads frequently proudly paraded in the streets of Rangoon. (Smith 1999, Steinberg 1990, Lintner 1999.)

By the end of the summer of 1988 it had been incorrectly concluded that the government image was of irremediable breakdown. Confused signals such as a change of leadership and the promise by the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) to end one-party rule motivated the opposition which had now restructured itself into the National League for Democracy (NLD) with new leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi.

The choice of the daughter of the father of Burmese nationalism as the de facto leader of the opposition gave the movement a huge amount of support. Married to an English university lecturer and having spent a large part of her life in the United Kingdom, she became an attractive and powerful orator with her attempted style of non-violence resistance against the junta. With her Ghandi like celebrity status, the plight of Burma received international coverage putting increased pressure on the embattled military. (Baugh et al. 2006.)

The end of martial law and the release of over 2000 political detainees made the cost of participating in further demonstrations tolerable as the army retreated to its barracks and allowed hundreds of cities and townships to be controlled by dissidents under a hastily created General Strike Committee. (GSC.) The government had made an almost fatal mistake, for as Tocqueville (1856) wrote,experience has shown that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is usually when it enters upon the work of reform. Nothing short of great political genius can save a sovereign who undertakes to relieve his subjects after a long period of oppression. The abuses which are removed seem to lay bare those which remain and to render the sense of them more acute.”

The embattled regime countered and announced the escape (mostly release) of nearly 5 thousand common criminals many of them dangerous. Their presence in the GSC areas resulted in chaos. By withdrawing it’s troops and promoting rioting and destruction during protests, the regime according to Smith (1999) executed a plan to “crush the opposition,” create a fracture within the dissident movement, separate students and activists from ordinary people and then “annihilate student leaders and hardliners.” This effectively crushed the rebels’ grass roots support. The population was presented with a 20th century version of Hobbes’s state of nature, (see Hobbes 1651) either anarchy, (as lack of government and law enforcement allowed a free for all of theft, looting and personal vendetta) or accept more military control and repression. Olsen (1993) maintains “The monopolization of theft and the protection of tax-generating subjects thereby eliminate anarchy.”

By the end of September, lawlessness led to massive increase of crime and looting. The “carnival atmosphere” gave way to “fear, paranoia, and anger” (Lintner 1999). Public executions, lynchings (presided over by Buddhist monks) and hacking to death any suspected state agents became “an almost daily occurrence” (Lintner 1990).

With the opposition in disarray the military instigated a third cosmetic face lift, created the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and returning the army to the streets systematically crushed those that still attempted to oppose them and the majority weakened by lack of income and driven by fear defected from the democratic movement. This left the regime with a relatively easy mop up operation of the major players and mindful of Suu Kyi’s international prestige, placed her in 1989 under house arrest.

The generals are clearly more concerned about political reform throwing them out of work than they are about the wrath of the West, and therefore it is a matter of pragmatism, not ideology, philosophy or even short-term economics (Simmons 2003.) Suu Kyi’s ability to arouse the passions of the general populace into collective action once more, with the possibility of a repeat of the anarchy preceding the uprisings of the late ‘80s, is the reason that she remains contained.


Baugh, Tim, Brickley, Peter, Perryman, Leigh-Anne. (2006) Making sense of the arts. The Open University.

De Tocqueville, Alexis. (1856) The Old Regime and the Revolution.

Ferrara, Federico. (2003) Why Regimes Create Disorder. Journal of Conflict Resolution. Sage Publications.

Hobbes, Thomas. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Khin Ma Ma Myo. (2006) Corruption in Burma: How the cause and consequences reflect the current situation. Burma digest.

Lintner, Bertil. (1990) Outrage: Burma’s struggle for democracy. Bangkok, Thailand; White Lotus.

Chiang Mai (1999) Burma in revolt: Opium and insurgency since 1948. , Thailand: Silkworm Press.

Olsen, Mancur. (1965) The logic of collective action: Public goods and the theory of groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Simmons, David. (2003) Myanmar problem needs Asian solution. Asia Times

Smith, Martin. (1999) Burma: Insurgency and the politics of ethnicity. Dhaka, Bangladesh: University Press.

Steinberg, David. (1990) The future of Burma. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Part 2

A coup d'etat in 1962 ended a short-lived, tumultuous, democracy following Burmese independence from Britain in 1948. General Ne Win and the military then waged decades of war with many of the 21 major ethnic minorities in the state (pop. 55 million 2004). In 1988 organised protests led by Buddhist monks, students and workers against the disastrous socialist economic policies of Gen. Ne Win provoked a panicked military response resulting in an estimated 3000 deaths. Gen. Ne Win subsequently allowed multi-party elections which were convincingly won by the National League for Democracy (NLD), an umbrella group of unified ethnic political parties under the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The military’s response was to ‘retire’ Ne Win, place Daw Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and perpetrate the torture, murder and imprisonment of more than 1300 affiliated NLD members (Baugh et al, 2006). In the 1990s the 19-head military junta lead by Senior General Than Shwe started to solve the internal struggles their own way. Cease-fire accords were signed with 17 ethnic groups by the end of the 90’s whereby they agreed to turn a blind eye to the military’s style of dictatorship in exchange for advantageous concessions e.g retention of weapons, exploitation of teak forests, mining of precious stones and control of the opium trade. (Maha Bandula, 2006) Those that resisted were violently dealt with, resulting in a widespread humanitarian crisis.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a recipient of many international human-rights awards, including the 1991 Nobel peace prize, and is also a British citizen (she is the widow of a Cambridge University lecturer with whom she had two children). This may explain why the junta chose house arrest as a more ‘moderate’ way of controlling her particular political activities. Whilst Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s philosophy of non-violence is based around her Buddhist beliefs and Ghandian principles of non-confrontational civil disobedience, it has attracted support from all Burmese ethnicities. Her father Gen Aung San (assassinated in 1947) was a Burmese nationalist leader, which further legitimises her position as leader of the alliance and puts her in a strong position to call for democratic change. (Mallic, K, 2004)

However, corruption is now so entrenched in the Burmese infrastructure that most senior positions in the badly-paid civil service are dispensed to the families of military officials operating under the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)
(Nangmone, F, 2006). The members of this council are selected from the majority (Burman) ethnic group and their incomes are supplemented by bribes (Khin Ma Ma Myo, 2006).

The establishment in 1989 of an open market economy has produced a growing number of indigenous tycoons and entrepreneurs: many have close links with the ruling junta and provide sizeable kickbacks for services rendered. (Aung Zaw. 2005) The health service is almost non-existent and the education system achieves only second year primary school qualifications for 60% of the population. Funding is side-lined by military expenditure to maintain the biggest army in Southeast Asia- reaching as much as 50% of the US$ 9.6 billion GDP. (ASEAN website. 2004)

Should the NLD gain control of the country, the consequences for the ruling elite would be significant. The prospect of the losing privileged positions, accusations of human rights violations and the possibility of lengthy prison sentences (along with repossession of ill-gotten gains) is a strong motivation for the ruling hierarchy to hang on to power at all costs. Recent high profile cases: Pinochet of Chile, Taylor of Liberia, Milosovic of Serbia, provide fine examples. But to stay in power the SPDC need money- where does it come from and where does it go?

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have had only partial success in lobbying the European Union and the United States to impose economic sanctions on Burma- Britain and France lead the list of foreign investors. The junta has also sourced revenue from states with non-political reform conditions. In 1997 Burma joined the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). China’s trade is almost a billion US$ annually, with approx. US$ 150 million in illegal logging. By 2000, Singapore had invested over a billion US$, and Japan had asserted its regional interests and began investments.
(Kumara, S 2000)
Total Oil of France (protected by its country's veto against further sanctions) has a partnership in the Yadana gas project, bringing in yearly revenue between US$200m to $450m. US$ 150 million annually comes from CIA and US congressional money for ‘poppy field destruction’ (Hanson, J 2002). This massive purchasing power buys weapons from China and, more recently, India. The junta are also attempting to purchase nuclear weapons/technology from North Korea (Sheridan, G, 2006). Russia recently supplied 10 MIG jets (The Burma Campaign UK 2005).

World opinion and the NLD oppose outside military intervention. Nevertheless the junta are suspicious of the present US government's aggressive foreign policies, including those of its allies- especially in the Middle East. Daw Aung Suu Kyi’s antagonism to a pro-business approach to engagement (including tourism), effectively confounds her attempts to achieve democracy. Should Western businesses (with established ethical principles) work with local tycoons over a long period of time to improve the financial lot of the average citizen, a climate of political, civil, and economic freedom would be promoted in Burma
(Hadar, L 1998). This may gradually dislodge the military from power, instead of pushing them further into the arms of the East with alienating sanctions.


1. Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) web site.

2. Aung Zaw. (2005) Tycoon Turf : Burma’s business czars tread a wary path.

3. Hadar, T. (1998) U.S. Sanctions against Burma: A failure on all fronts.

4. Hanson, Jon. (2002) The State of the Union of the Golden Land. A road to Paradise:

5. Human rights in Myanmar

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

6. Khin Ma Ma Myo. (2006) Corruption in Burma: How the cause and consequences reflect the current situation.

Burma digest

7.Kumara, S. (2000) Japan makes overtures to the military junta in Burma.

World Socialist Web Site.

8. Maha Bandula. (2006) Warning to all universities around the world.

Burma digest.

9. Mallick, K. (2004) Aung San Suu Kyi: the lady of Burma,

Fellowship Magazine, Nov-Dec, Fellowship of Reconciliation.

10. Nangmone, F. (2006) SPDC Corruption. Burma Digest.

11. National Coalition Government of Union of Burma (NCGUB) web site. (2006)

12. Sheridan. G. (2006) Burma seeks nuclear weapons alliance with N Korea. The Australian News.,20867,19689419-601,00.html

13. TOTAL Oil & Burma New Report & Campaign. The Burma Campaign UK website. (2005)

14. US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. World Refugee Survey 2003 Country Report.

If you have got this far, here is the fun…

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