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The Burma question: is reform possible after 50 years of military control?

Burma’s military junta has held on to power through violence and intimidation for 50 years. EPA/Rungroj Yongrit

Today marks the 50th anniversary of military control over the Burmese state, marking half a century of the Junta’s tight, often brutal grip on power. But within the last year, there have been shifts towards a more liberal Burma with national elections, the release of the pro-democracy leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi from house arrest, amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners, as well as the creation of a Myanmar Human Rights Commission and moves towards a free press.

It’s an ignoble milestone, but it prompts us to look at the drivers behind such extended military control over the country, as well as the prospects for substantial change in the face of recent encouraging reform.

A dark history

General Ne Win seized power in a coup d'état on 2nd March 1962, installing a Revolutionary Council and setting up the armed forces to emerge as Burma’s preeminent institution.

The triggers for the coup are not hard to find. Burma plunged into civil war almost immediately upon independence from Britain in 1948, as leaders who stood to lose influence in the independent state resorted to force. Conflict was further fuelled by ethnic animosities that had been accentuated by colonial racial policies and ethnic clashes during World War II.

Then, just as the military re-established control over the majority of the country, a split in the ruling coalition mired parliamentary debate, threatened government stability, and reignited fears of ethnic secession.

The two great fears of the Burmese military and nationalist leaders loyal to the then democratic government were the potential for the break-up of the state, and for foreign powers to gain neo-colonial control. Indeed, Ne Win justified his 1962 coup on both these grounds, and his fears were grounded in reality. Most rebel groups had foreign allies, and by the 1970s two major alliances of rebel armies emerged as another proxy frontline in the Cold War, backed by China and the US respectively.

Total control

After 15 years of house arrest, pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi greets supporters upon her release. EPA/Mizzima News

Given the chaos in the Burmese economy and politics of the time, he was welcomed by most internal and international observers as an efficient leader not corrupted by the vested interests of the politicians.

Whatever his initial motives, Ne Win consolidated his position politically by arresting opponents, banning political parties and suppressing demonstrations, often violently. Burmese nationalist leaders had long been drawn to socialism in reaction to the excesses of British laissez-faire economic policy, but had been reticent to implement drastic change.

Ne Win implemented the “Burmese Way to Socialism”, nationalising the economy and withdrawing the state into the self-imposed political isolation and economic autarky that eventually impoverished the nation. A constitution was implemented in 1974, leading to a military-controlled one-party state. However, Ne Win remained firmly in command.

False starts

Economic mismanagement and failed policies compounded, until stagnant agricultural production, uncompetitive public companies, high inflation, a booming black-market and massive debt culminated in the virtual bankruptcy of the state in 1987-88. The economic crisis triggered mass demonstrations.

Ne Win resigned in defeat, recommending liberal economic reform and multi-party democracy. Mass demonstrations rapidly escalated until the infamous 8.8.88 massacre, in which at least 3,000 demonstrators were killed. In the aftermath, General Saw Maung assumed power and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council, ostensibly to save the country from chaos and foreign subjugation.

The new regime tried to get off to a good start, quickly pledging to liberalise the economy, open international trade and turn power over to a multi-party democratic parliament. Foreign commentators noted they embarked on a reform agenda with dynamism and enthusiasm, even (controversially) changing the country name to Myanmar in 1989 to dissociate the country from its historic colonial subjugation.

However, many saw the regime as too closely associated with previous failure and violent suppression, and international outrage mounted. Together with their immense fear that the hugely popular Aung San Suu Kyi was vulnerable to foreign manipulation, they quickly began feeling surrounded.

With old memories and fears provoked, attitudes hardened. Suu Kyi was arrested as a risk to state security, and when her National League for Democracy (NLD) unexpectedly won the 1990 elections, the regime quickly adopted the position that they could not relinquish power until a new constitution was instituted that could ensure continued unity and sovereignty.

The tragic domestic and international political impasse of the past two decades has been the result.

Real change?

Elections in 2010 were marred by controversy and allegations of vote-rigging. EPA/Nyein Chan Naing

After ASEAN membership in 1997, the Burmese released a seven-step roadmap to democracy which, while it did take an agonising seven years, culminated in the multiparty democratic elections in November 2010.

But the country’s constitution is heavily flawed, with a quarter of parliamentary seats reserved for military appointees. Vote-rigging, an NLD boycott, and obstructionism of campaigning by opposition groups resulting in a government which is far from representative.

This government continues to be very sensitive to dissent that could threaten the unity of the state and to the threat of foreign interference or control. Old fears remain at the forefront, driving many of the responses to international demands on reform and human rights. Too much pressure or offers of support from the international community could hamper reform. Reconciliation, not recrimination, appears to be the most likely path toward sustaining change.

There is potential for the increasingly impressive reform of the past year to grow into real political and economic transition. But for now vested interests, old fears, and hardline elements within the ruling elite mean reform must be incremental, and is very fragile.

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