Some background information about Burma
In 1948, Burma, a South East Asian country with 48 million
multi-ethnic people, won independence from Britain after more than 60 years
as a colony. A new constitution established a system of government based on
a democratically elected parliament.
However, almost immediately the government was challenged by
ethnic groups, who had been promised more autonomy within ten years in the
new constitution, and communists. Periods of intense civil war ensued.
In 1962, a group of military officers, led by army
chief-of-staff General Ne Win, staged a coup and a military junta has, in one
guise or another, ruled the country with ruthlessness and absolute impunity
The military junta suspended the constitution and
instituted authoritarian rule under the Revolutionary Council (RC).
Government ministers and ethnic leaders were jailed and parliamentary
democracy came to an end.
The military junta adopted an isolationist policy (which
was to last for 26 years) and introduced state control of the economy (by
nationalizing private enterprises and controlling prices). Both measures
would prove to be disastrous for the country in the following years.
In 1974, a new constitution, which people were forced to
approve, established a one-party (the Burma Socialist Programme Party or
BSPP) government with a 451 member People's National Congress;
and the name of the country was changed to the Socialist Republic of the
Union of Burma. A one-party election was held and Revolutionary Council
Chairman General Ne Win became Chairman of the State Council and
President of Burma U Ne Win. The military junta was still firmly in control.
Over the years, the army had become more involved in
counterinsurgency campaigns against ethnic rebels who would eventually
join to form the National Democratic Front in 1975.
Also over the years, discontent with the state of the economy
had given rise to anti-government demonstrations, food riots and an attempted
coup [in 1976] by junior military officers. Ne Win resigned as President in
1981, but retained his hold on the leadership by remaining chairman of the
By 1987, Burma's economy had sunk to a level verging on
bankruptcy and the UN had conferred its 'least-developed nation' status on
the country. The decision of Ne Win to declare that 80 percent of the money
in circulation in Burma had no value instantly wiped out the savings of thousands and provoked more unrest.
Finally in 1988, Burma erupted into a series of demonstrations
and strikes protesting the existing extreme political oppression and
economic hardships. The government initially responded with arrests,
detentions, and excessive force resulting in some deaths.
The demonstrations of 1988 culminated in a massive nation-wide
show of People Power on August 8 in which hundreds
of thousands of people marched to demand a change in government. These
peaceful demonstrations were violently crushed by army troops who fired
relentlessly on the unarmed crowds in Rangoon and other cities killing more than 10,000 student, civilian and Buddhist monk
protesters throughout the country. Thousands were arrested.
Then on September 18 1988, army chief-of-staff General Saw
Maung "staged" another military coup which imposed martial law
and transferred control of the country to the State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC).
In the midst of the unrest in mid-1988, a civilian, Dr.
Maung Maung, had been appointed President and he had promised free and fair
multi-party elections. Now, in the face of international condemnation
following the massacre of 8-8-88, the SLORC allowed
political parties to be formed and called a multi-party election. However, they
hampered the ability of the new parties to campaign by arresting leaders
and limiting access to the news media.
In 1989, the SLORC changed the name of the country to
Myanmar (and also changed the names of several cities) claiming that the
new names were for the benefit of the minority, non-Burman segments of the
One of the significant political parties, of the more than
200 that emerged in 1988 and 1989, was the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by the Burmese human rights activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the daughter of
Burma's national hero, General Aung San. Alarmed by her popularity, the
SLORC put her under house arrest in July 1989. [She was to remain under
house arrest for six years, during which time she was awarded the Nobel
Peace Prize in December of 1991 for her peaceful struggle for freedom for
her country and herself.]
In the free and fair multi-party election held in May 1990,
the NLD won a landslide victory
sweeping 392 of 485 parliamentary seats (or 80% of the seats) despite
having a leader under house arrest and very little access to the media.
However, the SLORC refused to transfer power to the NLD claiming
that transfer of power to a civilian government could not happen until a new
constitution is brought into effect something that has yet to happen.
Later in 1990, the elected representatives formed the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) the democratically elected government of Burma in exile.
The martial law, declared in September 1988, was finally
repealed in September 1992.
The military junta continued to mount military offensives
against various ethnic rebel groups and hundreds of thousands of Karen,
Shan, Karenni, and others were forced to take refuge in Thailand,
Bangladesh and India. The offensives involved executions, forced labour and
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in July
of 1995, but again in 1999 the military junta imposed restrictions on
her movements about the country.
In 1997, the SLORC was dissolved and replaced by the State
Peace and Development Council (SPDC) which continues to rule today.
The people of Burma have been intimidated since 1962 through
various forms of human rights abuses inflicted upon them by the military
junta in its many guises.
Religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, forced relocations of indigenous
communities, summary executions, arbitrary arrests, the use of civilians
as human mine sweepers, slave labor and gang-rapes have been documented by
Amnesty International and the
U.N. Human Rights Commission.
As a result of these abuses, more than 800,000 refugees have
been driven out of Burma into neighboring Thailand, Bangladesh and India.
Two additional sources of good information about Burma are:
Visit the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma Web site for up-to-date information.
- The U.S. Department of State's report "2009 Human Rights Report: Burma".
Although written from an American perspective, this report provides a frank
assessment of the current economic, social and human rights situation in Burma.
It was prepared by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
- The Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre's report "View on Myanmar/Burma written September 2004.
Although written from an Australian perspective, this report provides a thorough summary of Burma's
history and its political and human rights situation. However,
its assessment of the current political situation in Burma is out of date.