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. Reports of torture and killings of some of the returnees are difficult to confirm, but political repression is hardly new to Burma. For over 26 years this hapless land has endured a government exercising tight control over everything from the press to the ability of Burmese citizens to travel abroad.

Last summer's initially euphoric—and ultimately violent—uprising against Burma's authoritarian regime was long overdue. Yet it is still too early to predict what fruit the short-lived "democracy movement" will bear.

For as long as he lives, Ne Win, 78, a superstitious and short-tempered ruler who relies both on astrologers and the intense loyalty of subordinates, is likely to control Burmese political developments, no matter who is titularly at the helm of government. In the chaos of last year's uprising, Burma ran through three successive leaders in as many months, but it was Ne Win who dominated events. The general's call for economic and political reform and his unexpected resignation as chairman of Burma's sole party helped fuel the protests. And his threat that the army would "shoot to kill" those disobeying its commands was carried out to bring a newly vociferous populace almost instantly to heel. It is difficult to say how many changes in the system—or bullets—will be necessary to keep people from returning to the streets. That the Tatmadaw will remain in power for the foreseeable future, however, is much easier to predict, for radical students and other opposition groups are no match for the soldiers' monopoly on information and arms.


Since the end of British colonial rule in Burma 41 years ago, the country has been lost in a time warp, wrestling with its domestic demons while much of the rest of Asia found its stride in a rapidly modernizing and interdependent world. With Japan leading the way, some of Burma's neighbors have become what has been called "the most successful collection of developing countries ever known."[1] Despite all the anguish expended over Vietnam, Asia's dominoes now seem to be tumbling America's way. China, the communist giant, has rediscovered supply and demand. Formerly authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, South Korea and Pakistan have been replaced by democratically elected governments. Burma is one of the rare exceptions: as even one Asia-watching Soviet official has remarked, "It is impossible in the world today to have progress without democracy, so why deny it to Burma?"

An understanding of why such widely accepted notions of development have eluded Burma so far, and may endure for the near future, requires examination of the complex set of unresolved attitudes toward historical events and cultural circumstances that remain embedded in the nation's collective psyche. Over two decades ago a prescient student of Burmese society suggested that if Burma, with its embarrassment of natural riches, relatively sparse population and plentiful land could not develop a viable modern economic, political and social structure, it would be due to "a failure of human effort, a matter of social and cultural variables, a case of organizational and ideological inadequacy."[2]

Burma, nearly as large as Texas, possesses a geographic location, natural resources and an enviably low ratio of population to arable land unmatched in Southeast Asia. The diamond-shaped nation stretches for a thousand miles from the Himalayan peaks along the border with eastern Tibet in the north to the lush tropical swamps of Tenasserim state in the south. Burma's 1,400-mile coastline boasts 86,000 square miles of continental shelf, where fisheries could annually yield an estimated 600,000 tons. Kipling's famous "Road to Mandalay," the Irrawaddy River, is only the longest of many navigable rivers that crisscross the country for some 5,000 miles. Burma's population is almost as diverse as its geography, with roughly two-thirds belonging to the dominant Burmese-speaking Burman ethnic group and the remaining one-third comprising a dozen or so minority groups which among them speak nearly a hundred languages.

The culture of the Burmans, who entered central Burma before the ninth century, contains elements of the ancient Pyu civilization they absorbed and the sophisticated Buddhist culture of the Mon kingdom they conquered. Burman kings ruled for approximately one thousand years, a period marked by cycles of power-dispersal and consolidation under various min laung, or charismatic savior-kings, who built royal temples and forged symbolic links with heroes of past dynasties to legitimize their rule. The Burman monarch did not even attempt to provide the country's highly autonomous minority groups with direct leadership. These groups—which ranged from the Shans in the eastern hills, with their Buddhist culture and system of tribal chieftains, to the animistic Karens, to the head-hunting Naga tribesmen along India's border—lived for the most part outside a horseshoe-shaped range of mountains that encircles the plains of central Burma, where the Burmans settled. This natural buffer enabled the ethnic groups to continue their traditional ways while acknowledging Burman suzerainty.

Britain's abolition of the Burmese monarchy in 1885 exacerbated latent tensions between the Burmans and the minority groups, which increased with the advent of Burman-led nationalism. The Christian colonials also displaced the Buddhist hierarchy, encouraging Burman nationalists to equate Buddhism—and, later, socialist ideas—with nationalism, and Christianity with colonialism and capitalism. Since the 1930s Buddhism, socialism and nationalism have been intertwined, with Marxist concepts easily translated into Buddhist terms.

In 1947, following the bitter colonial experience and the devastation of World War II, Aung San, the charismatic young Burman independence leader who is considered the father of modern Burma, convinced all but one of the major ethnic groups to sign the historic Panglong Agreement, by which they promised to join a union with the majority Burmans.

The new nation, however, was instantly convulsed by a baptism of fire that logically should have destroyed it. A series of traumas that befell Burma between 1947 and into 1949 continue to haunt the nation: the assassination in 1947 of Aung San, who was expected to be Burma's first head of state; the launching of Southeast Asia's longest running Marxist insurgency by the Burmese communists, who had been the political mentors of Burma's pre-independence nationalist movement; and the beginning of armed rebellions by factions of Karen and Mon ethnic groups, who lacked faith in the autonomy guaranteed in Burma's first constitution of 1947.

Although Burma remained a parliamentary democracy for a decade, and though the first constitution was written to allow some groups to consider secession after a period of ten years, communist and ethnic insurgencies continually threatened national unity. Factionalism within the governing Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League forced Prime Minister U Nu to resign in 1958 in favor of a caretaker regime headed by Ne Win, Aung San's former military subordinate and commander in chief of the armed forces. Although U Nu was reelected to the prime minister's office in 1960, political division soon recurred. Ne Win, assuming the symbolic role of one of Burma's savior-kings, finally ended civilian government with a virtually bloodless coup on March 2, 1962, under the pretext that an impending federal conference on secession might break up the union.

From its origins as an anti-British nationalist army, described by one scholar as a "political movement in military garb,"[3] the Tatmadaw had come to regard itself as both the embodiment and protector of national unity. Ne Win, through his long domination of the Tatmadaw, gradually became synonymous with it, garnering more fearful respect and charismatic power, known in Burma as awza, than any of his rivals.

After four decades of nationhood the cold fact is that the central government is still engaged to varying degrees in protracted civil wars with elements of some dozen assorted ethnic groups, which only in the past few years have seriously begun to consolidate their efforts. Informed sources say that Burma in recent years has been spending at least 50 percent of its limited budget, twice the official figure, for defense, mostly for "internal security"—which means fighting the Burmese communists and the various ethnic insurgencies. (Burma has not had an external threat since an anticipated invasion in the early 1950s by the newly established People's Republic of China.)

Today the Burmese Communist Party (BCP), numbering an estimated 10,000 adherents at most,[4] is a shadow of its former self, a fractious and fairly unthreatening group of aging ideologues plagued by recruiting and budgetary headaches that have driven them to dealing in drugs with such implausible allies as the remnants of the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) troops still roaming the Burmese hillsides.

Recently the BCP has participated in another unlikely alliance, this with the National Democratic Front. The NDF, formed in 1986, is composed of ten major anticommunist ethnic groups (including Karens, Kachins, Shans and Mons) in opposition to the Burmese central government. The most potent of these groups, the 8,000-member Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and Army (KIA), is led by Brang Seng, an articulate and politically savvy former principal of a Christian school in the northern town of Myikyina. Waging separate wars against the central government had kept these ethnic groups isolated from one another, and more significantly from the Burman majority that has been led by the Ne Win regime to regard the rebellious groups as terrorist insurgents instead of ethnic nationalists desiring a genuine federal union.


The events of last summer in the cities of Burma reveal the failure of the Ne Win-led Tatmadaw to meet basic human needs by means of a socialism that would not compromise the country's traditional values. "The Burmese Way to Socialism," which could be considered an ideological symbol of unity, succeeded only in transforming a country that once was the world's top exporter of rice (and still contains 80 percent of global teak reserves, among other riches) into a "least developed country," alongside Bangladesh and Chad.

"The Burmese Way to Socialism" is the title of an unassuming seven-page pamphlet that outlines a quasi-Marxist, semi-Buddhistic means of liberating man from social evils caused by "pernicious economic systems in which man exploits man." But the document is less a dogma than an attempt to rationalize Tatmadaw rule within a Burmese context.

The impact on the average Burmese citizen of the army's monopoly of political power and its centralized economic planning depends on where he lives. Although the limited rural participation in last year's uprising does not necessarily reflect the lack of a countrywide consensus for reform, the "democracy movement" was primarily an urban phenomenon, for the the city dweller has borne the full brunt of Ne Win's mismanagement.

In a sense, Burmese society probably has coped better than many peoples whose governments practice a purer Marxist socialism. Burma sometimes only seems to be at odds with itself because the nation is impossible to describe accurately in quantitative terms. Even its estimated population of 38 million is a guess based on the last complete countrywide census in 1931 and the more recent head counts of 1973 and 1983, which of course excluded members of minority groups still in rebellion against the central government.

According to the World Bank, Burma's official income per capita today is supposedly around $200; the growth rate of the country's gross domestic product averaged a commendable 6.4 percent in 1977-82, then dropped to one percent in 1986-87 and turned negative in 1988. But statistics, especially Burmese government figures, only reflect the ever-shrinking portion of the economy that is measurable. They are misleading indicators of a country that cannot be captured on paper, as Burton Levin, U.S. ambassador to Burma, discovered soon after his arrival in Rangoon in 1987:

There is a huge black market out there which is not reflected in statistics, and as bad as things were, the level of the standard of living that I encountered was higher than that when I first went to Taiwan in 1954, higher than I encountered when I went to Indonesia from 1960 to 1963, and certainly higher than one frequently still encounters in China and Pakistan. In other words, the endemic malnutrition, the matchstick limbs, the swollen bellies, the people in rags—they just weren't there.

Burma's unofficial trade may cover as much as 80 percent of the economy. The shadow economy (which Burmese jokingly refer to as "State Corporation Number One," or as the most successful of the official "SEEs," or State Economic Enterprises) acts as a safety valve for what would otherwise be an intolerable situation. This huge free market within socialist Burma, which provides consumers with everything from Chinese tricycles to UNICEF-donated pharmaceuticals from Bangladesh, helped check the people's desperation.

Rice, the staple food in Burma, as elsewhere in Asia, has a significance within the society extending beyond mere economics: a typical greeting used by Burmese of all income levels and ages is a simple, "Have you eaten your rice yet?" Farmers and residents of the countryside who grow their own food, 85 percent of the population, have been more protected than those who depend on an urban cash economy from the ravages of Burmese socialism. After all, the government in Rangoon could not force farmers to do much except sell it annual quotas of rice at less than market prices.

Nevertheless, farmers also had longstanding complaints against the Ne Win regime. Even the U Nu government, with a large number of foreign advisers, had allocated a disproportionately small amount of the national budget to agriculture, although its post-World War II recovery lagged dangerously behind other less crucial sectors of the economy. In the early 1950s Burma controlled 28 percent of the world rice trade; by 1970, a measly two percent.[5] Under Ne Win, the industrial sector continued to receive most development attention; a temporary shift in development priorities during the early 1970s from heavy industry to agriculture was only partially successful.

The most profitable commodity exported from Burma, of course, is opium. The central government can never hope to regulate the illegal drug trade because opium poppies are grown in remote territory controlled by the Burmese Communist Party, and to a lesser extent by Shan and Wa ethnic rebels. A bumper opium crop of around 1,300 tons was projected for 1989, even before the United States suspended payment of $12 million in bilateral aid to Burma, most of it for eradicating opium crops by aerial spraying of chemicals.


Given the longstanding instability of Burma's domestic situation, why did the uprising of 1988 not occur sooner? Any answer must be tentative, given the highly speculative nature of Burma-watching, made no simpler by Burma's isolation, the secretive nature of Ne Win and the Tatmadaw, and the resulting uncheckable rumors that must serve as a leading source of information about the country.

Last summer's crisis began with a sudden rise in expectations. After years during which agricultural development was neglected as a government objective, Ne Win announced on September 1, 1987, a sweeping decontrol of the production and trading of rice and basic foodstuffs. In a nation where at least 80 percent of the economy is agricultural, the decontrol was extremely welcome news, not only for farmers—who in any case usually found ways to circumvent official quotas and prices—but also for the remainder of the populace, urban consumers mostly, with little leverage in the straitjacketed economy.

Announcements by Ne Win, considered by many Burmese to possess a powerful aura, carry inordinate weight. The enigmatic Ne Win, whose name means "bright sun," has eschewed a personality cult and arduously shuns publicity. But Ne Win, known as "Number One" to most Burmese, enjoys a mystique that one American diplomat in Rangoon describes as reminiscent of an ancient Chinese emperor—he has even, in the tradition of Burmese kings, built a pagoda to commemorate his reign. No one dares second-guess the mercurial general, resulting in a bureaucracy brimming with impotent sycophants. Ne Win's virtual invisibility has also served to deflect direct blame for the country's ills, sometimes causing even his harshest critics to ponder wistfully, "if only Number One knew . . ."

Whatever Number One knew, he failed to anticipate the uproar over his second surprise pronouncement: days after raising everyone's expectations for agricultural reform, Ne Win declared valueless 80 percent of the kyats (the Burmese currency) in circulation. Any note over $1.60 in value became instantly worthless. This was his regime's third demonetization and the first without the promise of some compensation. Undertaken ostensibly to combat inflationary pressures, demonetization was also justified as a measure to undermine black marketeers (including, practically speaking, the entire population). The rash action caught students right in the middle of their final exams at Rangoon University and propelled them protesting into the streets. In a flash the students' meager savings had disappeared; their money for everything from lunch to passage home was gone.

Education is highly regarded in Burma, even though there are virtually no jobs for university graduates once they leave school. Ironically, Burma's high literacy rate—85 percent in the cities—nearly cost it the least-developed-country status the government sought, with great secrecy and humiliation, to help in servicing the nation's debt.

Under the Ne Win regime, student activism had been sporadic. The last big rebellion against authority was in 1974, when it appeared that former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant would be given a funeral the young people considered inappropriate to his world status. The students knew U Thant only by his global reputation, for he had not been a part of Burmese domestic politics and had lived abroad for decades. But U Thant symbolized a freer era and, as a former teacher, was a natural rallying point for the frustrated youngsters.

The long-smoldering campus tinderbox, close to explosion after years of political repression and aggravated by the economic policy shock in September 1987, was fully ignited the following March by a seemingly innocuous "town-gown" clash. In a tea shop near the Rangoon Institute of Technology, students and locals quarreled and finally came to blows over the choice of music tapes being played. The police were summoned to break up the brawl, and their actions resulted in the death of a student. Thousands of his schoolmates later returned to the scene and fought the hated lon-htein, or security police, who retaliated with weapons and tear gas. The impact of the incident spread city-wide when it became known that 41 young men and women suffocated to death after being arrested and crammed for hours in an overpacked police van, and reports circulated that some young women rioters had been raped.

In a rare display of public accountability—perhaps because the local police, not the army, had overreacted—the Tatmadaw announced an investigation into the incident. The sensitive atmosphere was further charged by reports that children of senior military officers had been among the protesters.

Enter ex-Brigadier General Aung Gyi, 70, formerly Ne Win's comrade and heir apparent, who had been running an empire of popular coffee shops since his ouster from power in 1963 by the army's more radical left-wingers. Most probably with Ne Win's knowledge, Aung Gyi wrote and distributed "open" letters to his former colleagues—the first public criticism of government policies in a quarter-century by a leading figure other than Ne Win. The letters, one almost 50 pages, were extraordinary for their candor and derision of a system that had turned Burma, "once so outstanding and rich," into a "beggar." Never directly critical of Ne Win, Aung Gyi wrote that "we cannot cover up our failures and weaknesses, our inability to achieve quality standards, and our lack of skills, and ignorance of world trade practices. Progress cannot be made through arrogance and falsification of accounts." Change must come, he pleaded: "There is no precedence in the world where continued authority is given to those who fail in their jobs."[6] Surprisingly, Aung Gyi was not thrown into jail until much later, and then only briefly.

On July 23, Ne Win, seeking to deflect popular wrath from the army, took personal responsibility for the student deaths the previous March, though he had been in Europe at the time. At an Extraordinary Party Congress of the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), the political arm of the Tatmadaw, Ne Win submitted his resignation as party chairman, along with those of four close associates. He further astonished everyone by advocating a popular referendum for a multiparty system, implicitly admitting the failure of the Burmese socialist experiment while time remained to try a new course that might assure him a positive place in Burmese history.

Whether the BSPP's decision to reject the referendum while accepting the resignations meant that Ne Win temporarily had lost control of the party, or whether the BSPP reacted as Ne Win expected (and thus reconfirmed his authority), is open to interpretation. Either by twist of fate or sleight of hand—only Ne Win's closest associates know which—the man who took over the regime was Sein Lwin, head of the hated security police who had mismanaged the March incident. Sein Lwin, "the Butcher," as he is often called, had also been involved in breaking up earlier student riots-in 1962, when the Rangoon University student union building was dynamited, and again in 1974.

Sheer outrage at the ascension of Sein Lwin, once Ne Win's military "batman,"[7] galvanized the previously improvised crowds of protestors into a formidable potential challenge to military rule—nearly half a million thronged one demonstration in August. Soldiers patrolling the cities had until this time refrained from violence, occasionally even fraternizing with protestors. During Sein Lwin's short reign, however, the army stunned the nation by firing into the crowds. Then, inexplicably, on August 10 soldiers shot at a group of nurses and doctors outside Rangoon General Hospital, killing five of them and triggering an immense backlash of anger. On August 12, after only 17 days in power, Sein Lwin was hurriedly replaced by Ne Win's biographer, Dr. Maung Maung, a civilian and Western-educated lawyer who appeared to have substantial sympathy with the protestors' demands. But it was too late.

In an atmosphere of growing anarchy, sparked by isolated incidents of atrocities committed by both sides, the protestors were joined by some police, air force and navy personnel; although from the least important branches of the Tatmadaw, those defections served to awaken the proud armed forces to their desperate position. Finally, the soldiers were tremendously humiliated when the protestors almost succeeded in storming the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Trade in what would surely have been a bloodbath for the small number of troops guarding the premises.

That set off the September 18 coup that allowed the Tatmadaw to once again "rescue" the nation from disintegration. Chief of Staff General Saw Maung, seeing the Tatmadaw lose control of the situation, ended the protests by turning sheer firepower against the unarmed population. He later told Asia-week: "If we had waited for two more days, we would be in big trouble. [The opposition] had worked out who would take which portfolio or responsibility . . . I believe that I saved the country from an abyss."[8]

Despite Saw Maung's fears, the political opposition in Burma was not a threat to the Tatmadaw during last summer's upheaval. After the triumph of "people power" in the Philippines and the ballot in South Korea, the world watched with disappointment the sudden and violent quelling of Burma's spontaneous and short-lived "democracy movement." The Burmese students lacked organization and were unable to produce a leader who could harness the powerful momentum of the demonstrations. The most prominent symbol of defiance was the portrait of independence leader Aung San, martyred before most of the marchers were born. The leading dissidents who spoke at rallies between July and September, calling for an interim government to replace the military, included 82-year-old U Nu, two former military colleagues of Ne Win and the Britain-based daughter of Aung San—none of them, at the time at least, capable of facing down the Tatmadaw.


No one believes for a moment that Saw Maung is not acting in concert with Ne Win, who now more than ever must draw on his considerable Machiavellian talents to save his country—and his beloved Tatmadaw.

Traditional Burmese concepts of authority, which are directed toward individuals rather than institutions, plus strongly held belief in the Buddhist notion of karma, help explain the stoic acceptance by the people of their lot. The lack of a genuine charismatic military alternative to Ne Win may also explain the "wait-and-see" attitude of the potential source of a future, more significant, coup: the second generation of military men, especially those at the divisional commander level. Better educated than the aging current leaders, the younger members of the Tatmadaw are not paralyzed by perceived obligations to the memory of the independence struggle or to Ne Win's patronage. How much power these younger military officers are willing to relinquish, and whether they would entertain the idea of a genuine multiparty system, is questionable; possibly they are split among themselves, never before having exercised direct authority over their country or shared power.

Whispers of dynastic ambitions already surround second-generation Brigadier General Khin Nyunt, first secretary of the State Law and Order Restoration Council and head of the ubiquitous Military Intelligence Services. Khin Nyunt, 51, was a colonel only last August and is closely connected to Sanda Win, Ne Win's daughter and confidante.

Regardless of Ne Win's fate, the Burmese military will continue to have a say in the country's political development for the foreseeable future. No one doubts that the 190,000-member Tatmadaw, the only credibly unified force in the country, must be the basis for a viable solution to the present political and economic impasse.

The Tatmadaw, ironically, has given the biggest boost in three decades to Burma's democratic process, simply by promising an election (currently scheduled for the spring of 1990) and allowing political parties to register over the past half-year. While it is not certain an election will actually occur, especially a free and fair one, no fewer than 233 political parties—many of them probably fronting for the officially disbanded BSPP—registered to contest the elections.

After a quarter-century of military dictatorship, Burmese from all walks of life—pensioners, peasants, members of ethnic groups, artists, even those too young to know anything but military rule—are banding together to articulate their private visions of democracy as they compose the goals of their new parties. Many of these new groupings, with wonderfully evocative names like "League for Mother Democracy," "New Ideology Improvement Party," and "Esprit de Corps Restoration Party," are insisting on a democratic and representative system of government. No one mentions a return to socialism—though many are using the opportunity to push more parochial objectives, such as "to develop astrological science and indigenous medicine," or "to make good use of the experiences and knowledge of retired personnel and pensioners," and even the seemingly self-contradictory "to provide religious freedom and to seek advice of the senior abbots . . . regarding the propagation of the Buddhist religion."[9]

By all accounts, the most formidable challenge to the Tatmadaw is the National League for Democracy party, headed, in an eerie twist, by the daughter of the military's own patron saint, Aung San. Blessed with relative youth, charisma and ambition, Aung San Suu Kyi, 43, who was two years old when her father was assassinated, has spent her adult life abroad, mostly in England where she married a British scholar. A visit to her dying mother in Rangoon last year coincided with the beginnings of the "democracy period" in Burma. Burmese history dictates the rise of a charismatic leader in times of crises, but it is difficult to predict whether the necessary political accommodation could be reached between the present or future leadership of the Tatmadaw and its mentor's daughter.


The Saw Maung regime is hoping with time to establish legitimacy in the eyes of an outside world that is notoriously short on memory and long on political expediency. Sighs one Burmese journalist, who requested anonymity, "How long can the world stand on its principles?"

Burma's major international donors—the United States, West Germany and Japan—have, as an expression of their moral indignation, suspended foreign bilateral assistance totaling $400 million, most of it Japanese. This situation will be somewhat eased, however, by Japan's decision, announced in February 1989, to recognize the Saw Maung regime. Although it insisted that no new economic cooperation with Burma would take place until "the stability of the people's livelihood" is assured, Tokyo also decided to resume aid already in the pipeline, probably pressured by the private Japanese corporations involved in construction projects.

Burma's external debt is nearly $5 billion, negligible perhaps compared in aggregate to Brazil's, but indicating a dangerously high debt-service ratio of at least 80 percent, perhaps higher. Moreover, the public sector and official economy suffer from a kyat that is grossly overvalued (by as much as 500 percent).

Burma's big debt will no doubt reinforce its traditional fear of foreigners. Largely as a reaction to colonial rule, when much of its economy was in the hands of foreigners, Burma equates the outside world with exploitation, and foreign economic systems as antithetical to nationalism and self-reliance. Negative attitudes persist toward ethnic Indians and Chinese, both of which groups are still active in the economy. Such antipathy was forged in the days when Rangoon was an overseas Indian city, controlled by moneylenders and traders from the subcontinent whose influence extended well into the rural sector. (Anti-Chinese riots came much later, in the 1960s, at the time of the Cultural Revolution.) These racial tensions endure despite the fact that many prominent citizens are "tainted" with foreign blood—for example Ne Win, born Shu Maung, who is thought to be part Chinese.

Burma seems to be willing to let one foreign nation act as mentor on the slow road to modernity—Japan, which has a unique opportunity to use its enormous economic clout to encourage political and economic reform in a country that has devoured billions of yen with little accountability. Coincidentally, last spring, before the uprising began, Japan had just advised visiting Burmese government officials to start reassessing their economic policies. Japan's relationship with Burma is complex, however, partly emotional and not entirely yen-based. Both countries seem to cherish memories of the Japanese-sponsored training of Burma's early nationalist group, the legendary "Thirty Comrades" who included both Aung San and Ne Win. Although the Japanese were largely responsible for the devastation of Burma during World War II—in Asia, the severity of the wartime destruction in Burma was perhaps second only to that which occurred in Japan itself—the Burmese have not displayed toward their former enemies the ambivalence that they harbor toward the West and Western culture. Only a few years ago Burma received the single biggest share of Japanese technical foreign aid, indicating the special concern of the Japanese.

What of the other major donors, West Germany and the United States? Many of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Rangoon were held in front of the U.S. embassy, though this probably reflected more concern for personal safety and enhanced international publicity than a larger political significance. Nevertheless, the United States doubtlessly symbolized the protesters' inchoate demands for democratic change. Says U.S. Ambassador Levin, "When you get crowds in front of an American embassy, you don't think of people necessarily having positive feelings, let me assure you. This time the United States was the first government to come out publicly and deplore the shooting incident in front of the hospital. We were on the record, we were first, we were strong on the subject."

The apparent pro-Western sentiment was reinforced by daily broadcasts in Burmese by the Voice of America, which, along with the British Broadcasting Corporation, kept the Burmese nation abreast of developments. (The usually state-controlled Burmese press was unbridled for only about a month during the summer.) Unfortunately, much of the reportage was broadcast from outside Burma; if international television, radio and print reporters could have chronicled the uprisings from within Burma, as happened in the Philippines, things might conceivably have taken a different course.

The U.S. government, however, has not had to formulate a real Burma policy for many years, since its substantive interest in the nation peaked in the 1950s. World War II turned northern Burma into an experimental training ground for the anti-Japanese espionage teams of Wild Bill Donovan's nascent Force 101. Its parent institution, the Office of Strategic Services, returned a decade later as the Central Intelligence Agency to help the KMT's doomed efforts to rid mainland China of the Communists, though Burma was the first neutral country to recognize the People's Republic.

Under Ne Win, Burma has pursued a strict (and probably farsighted) policy of nonalignment in foreign affairs. In 1979 Burma, true to its own principles, quit the Non-Aligned Movement because it perceived a Soviet tilt. This won the country many admirers, among them the United States. Strict neutralism also kept Burma out of the Vietnam conflict and may explain the country's reluctance to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

With no military bases, business investments and limited political interests in Burma, the United States is in a rare position to exercise what an American diplomat in Rangoon calls "the luxury of living up to our principles." Promoting democracy is certainly easier than dealing with Washington's only other concern regarding Burma: its illicit narcotics exports, which will reach a record high this year.

Still, U.S. policy in Burma should not be dictated by drugs. Although Burma is the world's largest supplier of opium, most of the poppies are grown in areas not controlled by the central government by poor farmers who might, given adequate incentives, substitute alternative cash crops. It is useless, therefore, to attempt even a temporary solution to the opium-heroin network without trying to help bring about a lasting political settlement between the Burmese central government and the rebel groups that control the poppy crop.

Moreover, the United States must keep up the pressure on Thailand to monitor more effectively its notoriously porous borders with Burma, through which pass 90 percent of the drugs bound for the United States and Europe. Thailand, which has been internationally acclaimed for getting its own opium farmers to switch to other cash crops, seems far less interested in curbing the corrupt, but extremely lucrative, links between Burmese drug lords and their Thai-based distributors.

The United States could further demonstrate its principles by helping to keep the international spotlight focused on the publicity-shy Burmese regime. The U.S. Senate and House passed resolutions last summer, sponsored, respectively, by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan and Representative Stephen Solarz, Democrats of New York, condemning Burmese government violence against its citizens. Such actions cannot but help deter internal repression. In addition, visible expressions of global concern—exemplified in a joint statement by the 12 nations of the European Community condemning human rights abuses in Burma—are welcome.

The Burmese military seems to have no problem finding suppliers for replenishing its arms and weapons arsenal, including nations that have publicly denounced Burma and ostensibly cut off aid. Burma's sole foreign joint venture is with the West German firm Fritz Werner Industrie-Ausrüstungen, which among many other things, manufactures and exports arms and chemicals. Significantly, 88 percent of Fritz Werner Industrie-Ausrüstungen shares are indirectly controlled by the West German government, and some of the company's directors are West German government officials. Bonn was the second-largest donor of foreign aid to Burma until it suspended aid last year, and its apparent role in supplying arms to a land engaged in a civil war seems hypocritical.

Since 90 percent of Burma's foreign exchange comes from foreign grants and aid, the wisdom of bartering for arms with gems, minerals and other exportable commodities rather than using revenue from these natural resources for national development is highly questionable.

If Burma had erupted 25 years earlier the reaction of neighboring nations and the superpowers would have been totally different. But the region's geopolitics have shifted, due to China's modernization drive and India's self-appointed role as protector of democracy and stability in the subcontinent, and will likely shift further in light of an impending Sino-Soviet rapprochement.

Historically introverted Thailand, meanwhile, has taken a surprisingly aggressive approach toward its western neighbor. The Thip Tharn Thong Company is only one of several Thai firms that have rushed in to strike business deals, worth millions of dollars, for fishing, hotel and logging concessions. The latter is particularly troubling after Thailand's passage of a strict new antideforestation law. While India has reacted with hostility to the "new" Burmese regime, closing off trade routes between the two countries, Thailand is making a concerted effort to be friends with the Saw Maung government in order to launch—with a view to dominating—a regional "Golden Arc" of developing nations, including Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.


The Saw Maung regime, eager to project stability and openness, has announced a number of quick fixes, such as giving back to the nation its original name of the Union of Burma and renaming the Burma Socialist Program Party a less threatening "National Unity Party." The border trade between Burma and China's Yunnan province, estimated to be around $1 billion annually both ways, has been legitimized. A liberal code regulating foreign investment was hastily drawn up last November, followed by an announcement lifting the prohibition of onshore oil exploration.

Much of the country's riches, however, lie in remote areas made inaccessible by lack of basic infrastructure and civil war. Despite the promise of economic reform, without a realistic political solution to the draining ethnic wars, there can be no long-term prospects for peace and prosperous stability in Burma.

No one, certainly not the patient Burmese people, has ever been served by underestimating Ne Win. Thirty years ago, when he was still considered something of a hero, having voluntarily relinquished his 18-month caretaker government and turned down a nomination for the Magsaysay Award, Asia's Nobel Prize, Ne Win made a hardly original, but nonetheless chilling remark. On the occasion of what turned out to be the country's last free elections, he declared: "Let the country make its own choice. It will get the government it deserves."[10]

What the country really deserves is free and fair elections for all people in Burma, including the ethnic groups who have indicated a willingness to discuss reconciliation with Rangoon. The Tatmadaw must risk a fair contest if it wants to legitimize its claim as a true defender of the union. Whatever form of government eventually evolves from Burma's belated brush with democracy (a constitutional dictatorship?) will be the result of a totally and uniquely Burmese solution to the challenge.

1 The Economist, Dec. 24, 1988, p. 31. In the 1950s Burma, Thailand and S. Korea had similarly low GNPs; by the late 1980s, Burma's GNP per capita was $200, Thailand's $800, and South Korea's $3,000.

2 Manning Nash, The Golden Road to Modernity: Village Life in Contemporary Burma, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965, p. 1.

3 Dorothy Guyot, "The Burma Independence Army: A Political Movement in Military Garb," in Josef Silverstein (ed.), Southeast Asia in World War II, New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Program Monograph Series, 1967, p. 51.

4 Charles Smith, 1989 Yearbook on International Communist Affairs, Stanford (Calif.): Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University, forthcoming.

5 David I. Steinberg, Burma's Road to Development: Growth and Ideology under Military Rule, Boulder (Colo): Westview Press, 1981, p. 110.

6 Aung Gyi, letter to his former military comrades, May 9, 1988.

7 The "batman," a combination of orderly and protégé, is an institution drawn from the British army. In the Burmese military being a batman is a traditional means for rising through the ranks on the coattails of an ambitious officer.

8 Asiaweek, Jan. 27, 1989, p. 25.

9 Foreign Broadcast Information Service Daily Report (FBIS-East Asia), December-January, 1988-89.

10 The Nation (Burma), Dec. 22, 1959.

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  • Maureen Aung-Thwin is a Burmese-born writer based in New York and a trustee of the Burma Studies Foundation, a non-profit organization that oversees the Center for Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University at De Kalb. This article reflects the author's own views.
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