Burmese Days

General Ne Win.

Burma's brief bid for democracy appears to have subsided as abruptly as it began. While it lasted, for a few hot weeks in August and September 1988, the world caught a glimpse of the deep cleavages rending this remarkably long-suffering Buddhist society, driven to revolt against a military dictatorship controlled by General Ne Win, who originally took power in 1962 in the name of national unity.

The country had never seen anything like the summer of 1988: hundreds of thousands of ocher-robed monks, young children, university students, housewives, doctors-even some police and civil servants-took to the streets of Burma's major cities in an unprecedented public display of disgust. Alarmed, Burma's defense force, the Tatmadaw, threw out a few carrots of promised reforms. But the concessions were too little, too late, serving only to harden the marchers' determination.

Sporadic looting and violence, provoked in many instances by the military, tinged the primarily peaceful demonstrations. Eventually, the Tatmadaw found enough justification to crack down and forcibly quell the uprising. Diplomats in Rangoon estimate that at least 1,000 civilians died in mid-September, when the army resumed control of city streets by gunning down unarmed protestors-thus once again, in its own view, saving the union.

General Saw Maung, one of Ne Win's closest disciples, restored Tatmadaw rule on September 18 by staging a nominal coup d'état, not against an opposition government but to reassert the army's rule after a failed attempt to refurbish its civilian facade. For the sullen populace forced to acquiesce in the face of guns, it meant martial law with a nightly curfew, closure of all schools and universities, and prohibition of assembly by more than five persons.

This crackdown prompted around 7,000 student dissidents, along with some monks and laborers, to flee and take refuge with antigovernment insurgent groups in bases mainly located along the country's malarious jungle border with Thailand. About half of the dissidents have since returned home, some voluntarily, others pressured by intense lobbying and possible coercion by the Burmese and Thai governments.

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