Asia Regional Consultation on Social Cohesion and Conflict Prevention

March 16-17, 2000



The Problems of Myanmar and Myanmar’s Problems


David I. Steinberg

Georgetown University






I           Introduction: The Contextuality of Social Cleavages

II          Cohesion and National Unity: Cleavages, Tensions, and Confrontations

1. Nationalism and Ethnicity: The Unity of the Union of Burma/Myanmar

2. The Military-Civil Nexus

3. Globalization and Nationalism

4. Centralism and Pluralism

5. On Orthodoxy

6. Religious Tension

7. Geo-Political Issues

III          State-Sponsored Attempts at Cohesion

1. Nationalism

2. Burman Control

3. Buddhism

4. Socialism

5. The Military

IV         The Tatmadaw: Cohesion and Division?

V          Past Approaches to, and Perceptions of, the Myanmar Miasma

VI         Possibilities for Change

VII        Lessons Learned

VIII       Possibilities for Future Action

IX         Coda





The Problems of Myanmar and Myanmar’s Problems


David I. Steinberg

Georgetown University


I     Introduction–The Contextuality of Social Cleavages


Myanmar[1] is an ‘imagined community’–a state that is not yet a cohesive nation, an entity created sequentially through three 19th century wars evolving out of colonial economic and geo-political interests.[2]  The internal bonds that seemed to cement that country before independence in 1948 were based on the exercise of colonial power, serving both to force an artificial internal cohesion while simultaneously creating detached and separate ethnic groups, some of which were governed under a different British administration.  Governments since independence in 1948 have, sometimes unintentionally, exacerbated existing cleavages and created new ones, thus reducing national cohesiveness even as it was titularly strengthened under a unitary state and creating divisive forces that will be difficult to re-meld.  The rhetoric of national cohesion must be analytically  examined in the light of the reality of its attempted enforcement.

Although this paper will focus on ethnic and religious cleavages, these issues cannot be separated from a complex of other problems facing the societies, each of which contributes to enhancing the intensity of the forces for divisiveness.  The dilemmas facing the peoples of Burma/Myanmar are multiple, as are those the state must address, as well as the issues connected with the potential roles of foreign observers, analysts, and potential donors.   

The cleavages within the country since independence have not been by class or rank, contrary to those in other societies, for the Burman area of the state were perhaps the only place in Asia where pre-colonial elites did not re-emerge in some form after independence.  Economic differences in Burman regions were more a product of ethnic status and access to capital than inherited levels of income or a rigid hierarchical structure of class or caste (which did not exist in Burma except among Indian immigrants), and until recently income disparities were probably less than in most Asian states, although data are lacking.  State ownership of land under all regimes since independence has to date eliminated the development of a landlord class, as in the Philippines, although the number of landless are said to be rapidly rising.  Although gender issues have recently been exacerbated through exploitation of refugees, economic migrants, and internally displaced persons and corvee labor, traditionally the status of Burman women in theory and practice has been high.  In the nineteenth century, European observers noted that their position was higher than women in Europe.[3] 

Since independence in 1948, a series of cleavages have developed or become more acute based on a complex of historical and attitudinal perceptions that profoundly affect the present and future of the state.  The Union of Burma that was created in 1948 was politically highly delicate.            The fragility of the Union was evident from the beginning, and was built into the compromise for the first constitution (in 1947) which allowed the large Shan State and the smaller Kayah State (the latter having its independence recognized by both the Burmese and the British in 1876) to secede from the Union after a ten-year trial period and a plebiscite.  This was an unrealistic option, but the perceived threat that this might happen and that the Union of Burma might in effect be partly dissolved was the excuse for the 1962 coup. 

The tenuous Union of Burma (later named the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, and still later the Union of Myanmar, its present official designation) was always contentious.  Pasted together in a compromise brought together less than a year before independence by the charismatic General Aung San (assassinated in July 1947 and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi), some form of union was necessary to satisfy the British so that they would release power.  What evolved was a theoretical union with some local powers given to a number of minority areas, and ethnic representation in a bicameral legislature, but with essential power at the center lodged within the Burman majority of two-thirds of the population.

Important fissures developed in the civilian period.  Some were political, such as that between the government and the above-ground and legal leftist-oriented party, the National Unity Front, and two underground communist insurrections.  The left wing believed that the moderate socialism of the new regime was insufficient to resolve the economic plight of the poor.  Muslims in the Arakan and the Karen, perhaps one-third of whom were Christian,  were soon in rebellion, and other minorities became restive because they felt that they contributed more to the central government through the exploitation of their extensive natural resources than they received in return, and the Burma army often behaved with arrogance in those regions, a major problem that continues.

Starting in 1962, this modest autonomy was demolished by the military junta that ruled centrally by decree, and in 1974 was legalized and made permanent under a new unitary state constitution run by the military with a single-party political mobilization system reminiscent of some of the Eastern European nations.  There was a fictive balance between the seven minority ‘states’ (provinces) and the seven Burman ‘divisions’ (also provinces).  Power rested at the center titularly with the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), but actually with the military, whose high command was Burman, and which controlled the party.  That system was again changed in 1988 after the third military coup (the first was in 1958 and was constitutionally approved by the civilian government, and after eighteen months governance was returned to civilian rule in a free election; the second was in 1962 and ended with the third coup in 1988 to shore up the previous collapsing military regime).  Since 1988, government has been by decree from the military high command–the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and its reincarnation in 1997, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), both military with the same top leadership.  Of the 52 years of Burmese independence, 40 have been under military rule.

Ethnicity was likely less important in the pre-colonial period than it is today; for as state nationalism has developed so ethnic nationalism has arisen.  The population then was sparse in an extensive land, and an increased population of any ethnicity was desirable for economic and political reasons as enhancing military capacity, the labor force, and the tax base.  Such expansionist policies over diverse ethnic groups also demonstrated the political efficacy of the ruler.  Ethnic nationalism is a more modern phenomenon.

All colonial powers in Southeast Asia established strict administrative boundaries where none previously existed, and extended the authority of the center out laterally to the arbitrarily designated borders that ignored ethnicity, language, cultural patterns and unities, sometimes watersheds or other geographic features, and often complex systems of multiple tributary relationships that were deemed under European dominance to have no place in the modern world.  The colonial power created a Burmese state (first governed from Calcutta and then from Delhi until 1937) that reflected traditional Burman domination of the central valleys of the region for almost a millennium, and disparate hill areas inhabited by diverse peoples.  This arbitrary arrangement had within it the seeds of discontent. 

The indigenous ethnic  problems were exacerbated by the British through induced and tolerated immigration.  They encouraged (and sometimes subsidized) immigration of Indians (all those from the subcontinent) to assist in governance and in staffing some lower and intermediate professional positions and certain occupations.  Rangoon became an Indian city, and the Burma Army until World War II was composed of only 13 percent Burmans, while 37 percent were Indians, the remainder recruited in ethnically based regiments from the ‘martial [minority] races’ along the periphery, on the model established by the British in India.  Two groups of Chinese entered: one from Yunnan Province as a result of the Panthay Muslim rebellion, and the other by sea from south China.  The economy was in British, Indian, and Chinese hands, with the Burmans essentially relegated to rice agriculture, the bazaars, and petty trading.  By instituting a monetized economy, they marginalized much of traditional Burma, and deprived the Burmans of control over their own economic fate, creating divisions and antipathies that still resonate in that society.  Chettyar moneylenders from Madras had an effective monopoly over non-institutional credit, and the Great Depression and its aftermath forced the foreclosure and alienation of land to foreigners, or greatly increased debt.  The retrieval of Burman domination of the economy has been a central, legitimizing theme of all Burmese regimes.

II     Cohesion and National Unity: Cleavages, Tensions, and Confrontations


A variety of cleavages have led to tensions and confrontations within this state that affect its capacity to create national unity and the equitable sharing of the fruits of development, should that opportunity arise.  Indeed, the argument is circular, for these very cleavages and tensions are among the major causes of the lack of development and the continuing poverty that has become virtually the hallmark of the modern Burmese state.  Poor economic policies have certainly retarded economic development; they have had a profound effect on an entity that should have been the richest country in mainland Southeast Asia.[4] Whatever dire consequences they may have caused, however, and they have been numerous and severe and continue, they have been superficial compared to more basic issues because they are more easily corrected and resolved.

For analytical purposes, these cleavages, tensions, and confrontations are separated into a series of broad categories, but in fact they intertwine in complex patterns so that no single one can be separate from any other.  Ironically, as these cleavages create tensions for cohesion at a variety of different social and regional levels, they also create a degree of commonality at  more restricted levels.  As the government stressed ‘Burmanization,’ thereby splitting off the minorities, minority ethnic nationalism and identity has increased.  There have also been attempts by the governments of Burma/Myanmar to create or foster forces for national unity and cohesion as well (see Section III).  As the divisive forces have within themselves limited unifying themes, the attempts to create unifying themes have also inherently within themselves the elements of divisiveness.  Thus, the complexity of the social forces facing the state and its peoples are various and profound.

More basic, however, and complicating further the problems facing resolution of societal ills is a more abstract and fundamental, but nonetheless critical, element in considering social cohesion and conflict prevention: the concept of the finite nature of power and its personalization.[5]  As in many traditional societies, power is considered finite, not infinite, and personal--neither institutional nor ideological.  This reluctance to share power occurs at governmental, institutional, and personal levels.  Central governments are uneasy in transferring authority to local or regional entities.  Organizations are run from the top.  From the Pagan period (1044-1298), loyalty was personalized to focus on the individual monarch, not to the monarchy.  Personal loyalties have remained the defining characteristic of power in Burma/ Myanmar under all political regimes.  This inchoate concept creates problems of the sharing of power, which then becomes a zero-sum game with those who share always losing.[6]  Political and power-sharing compromises, and even negotiations, become more difficult, but in extremis not impossible.  All of these create profound problems for social cohesion and conflict resolution. 

The personalization of power then results in factionalism, with resulting entourages around key leaders, which has been an obvious and continuous component of Burmese politics and leadership in general.  Factionalism within the ruling Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), the coalition that governed Burma from 1948 to 1958, led to the first military (but constitutional) coup of 1958.  The ultimate faction, however, was led by General Ne Win (Commander of the Burma Army, President, Chairman of the BSPP, etc., and the most important, if not efficacious, individual in contemporary Burma), who appointed many former members of the unit he commanded, the 4th Burma Rifles, to high positions of authority.[7]  Such attitudes toward power are capable of change, no doubt, and no  society is static, but such evolution is likely to be slow, and politically and socially painful.

The cleavages and tensions within contemporary Myanmar may be conceptualized as follows; Those:

1.  Between Burman nationalism and a relatively new and diverse ethnic nationalism, which is a component of center-periphery issues and relates to the issue of national unity;[8]

2.  Between civil and military sectors of the society;

3.  Between globalization and nationalism;

4.  Between centralism and pluralism;

5.  Between orthodoxy and competing views of the role of state and society;

6.  Among religious groups; and

7.  New geo-political, international  rivalries that affect the internal attitudes of those in authority. 

The two most critical issues related to social disharmony at the national level in the contemporary period have been, and continue to be, first, ethnic relations, and second, the rise of a dual society–the latter not the usual definition of the dichotomy between a modern and traditional economy, but rather between the military and civilian sectors of society. The latter has exacerbated the former.


1.               Nationalism and Ethnicity: The Unity of the Union of Burma/Myanmar


Since the second military coup of 1962, the constant and overarching theme of the two military administrations (the Burmese Socialist Programme Party, 1962-1988; the SLORC and SPDC, 1988–present) has been national unity, a unity that the military themselves feel is fragile and is under constant internal and external threat.  Only they, they believe, as the most cohesive organization in the country, can hold the state together.[9]  The divisive forces are, in their view, first ethnic, but exacerbated by foreign elements and states.  The continuing, explicit goals of the military include national unity and national sovereignty. These forces for centrifugal change were real, and the military concentration on national unity as their guiding goal was not irrational in the past, as there was ample evidence of internal demands for independence by some ethnic minorities and external support of ethnic and other insurrections designed either to split from the center or take it over.  Today, such charges have become irrelevant as independence has been abandoned by all minorities, although they persist and guide much of military thinking, exacerbating some tensions already extant, and creating new ones.[10]

Although the ethnic problems are real, since 1962 the military have used the issue as a means to delay or diminish the transfer of any form of state power to peripheral groups, no matter how large.  The military government of Myanmar now claims that there are 135 ‘races’ in that country, although the previous military regime played down ethnicity in international fora when it suited their purposes.  The figure purporting to list ‘races’ in fact is a British calculation from the 1930s of the number of linguistic divisions within the state.  The number of ethnic or linguistic distinctions beyond dialectic differences is far less–some two dozen or so languages (see appendix), although this does not diminish the complexity of the problems facing the state in attempting to forge national cohesion.  Ethnic diversity has been used by the military to perpetuate direct rule.

            The present military junta and government, designated as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has charged that the British divided and ruled, destroying the cohesion that existed among various ethnic groups in the pre-colonial period.  Divided they were, as the colonial authorities separated ‘Burma Proper’ (or Ministerial Burma, governed directly by the British and composed of the heartland of the state of Burmans and the Arakanese, Mon, and some Karen) from the highlands, which were separately governed, some under local and traditional administrations.[11] 

Although such charges are accurate, unarticulated are the policies of the governments of the past two generations that have contributed to the decay of social and ethnic cohesion and exacerbated conflicts.  Although the government probably sincerely believes in the need for social cohesion, it is a cohesion that they have attempted to define in their own interests, to forge under their own leadership, to coerce the population into accepting, and that reinforces their own superior position in society.  These motives have gone publicly unadmitted by all these regimes, and although the coercive power of the state is probably the greatest it has been since independence, the military has built into its approach the virus of discontent and enmity.  Instead, the tatmadaw (armed forces) have claimed that they have acted toward the minorities with cetana (a Buddhist concept of good will to which no proper-minded person could disagree), and to demonstrate the efficacy of their own policies, the military have claimed, by dubious techniques and with a major intellectual leap of faith, that as early as the stone age in what is now Myanmar different ‘races’ lived together in harmony, that this tradition was destroyed by the British, and that only the military is capable of bringing the peoples together.

The single most important and enduring problem facing Burma/Myanmar is that of the role of minorities, which affects social cohesion, permeates conflicts, and is destructive of dispute resolution.  These internal issues have been exacerbated by external involvement.

The history of internal conflict and external collusion in some of those conflicts began with independence and continues today on a reduced scale with a number of cease fires established, but which may be ephemeral unless structural changes are made in the distribution of power.  On and shortly after independence, two separate communist party rebellions (the ‘Red Flag’ and the ‘White Flag’) broke out, supplemented by the desertion of a significant number of the militia (‘People’s Volunteer Organization’-PVO).  A large number of the Karen armed forces and ethnic group went into revolt; the result in the early 1950s was that the appellation of the Rangoon government was both figurative and literal.  From the 1960s, there was no major ethnic group that did not have a significant number of its population in active revolt or in sympathy with some rebel group; the government perhaps controlled forty percent of the countryside at night, but 90 percent of the population.

The major foreign powers aided and abetted some of these rebellions for their own purposes.  The People’s Republic of China supported the Burma Communist Party[12], Teng Hsiao-ping explicitly claiming that party-to-party relations were different from those state-to-state.  The United States covertly assisted the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang troops, which retreated into Burma from the communists (as did troops of the Ming Dynasty fleeing the new Ch’ing Dynasty forces in 1644), in the hope that they might attack and regain the mainland.  Some British gave the Karen reason to believe they supported independence for that group. [13]  Muslims in East Pakistan/Bangladesh (with Middle Eastern funding) backed Muslims in the Arakan, while the Thai aided a variety of the rebellions along their western littoral, in effect creating buffer states between the perceived radical regime in Rangoon and the conservative Bangkok government.[14]  The Indians assisted some of the Kachin, Naga, and Chin groups as well.  Although all foreign governments have changed their policies and wish to see the unity of Myanmar retained, suspicions linger among the Burmese military that foreign states and organizations are bent on the destruction of Burmese unity; these charges constantly reappear in the state-controlled media.


2.               The Military-Civil Nexus


The military in Myanmar have become a state within a state.  They are in absolute control of all components of state power, and they have created institutions that have effectively both isolated the military from the civilian society and yet ironically created an institutions with such internal perquisites that it attracts the sons and daughters of significant elements of the civilian population to join to partake of these advantages.  The military have their own schools and health services, not to mention housing, not only for its members, but for their dependents.  While the civilian population is forced to rely on fragmented, poor, and inadequate academic opportunities and health facilities, those of the military are far superior.

As the military has controlled power, it has controlled budgets as well.  The real spending of the state on the military is closely guarded, but the published figures of approximately one-third of the budget are clearly understated, and observers believe that perhaps half the annual  government budget is devoted to the military.  In the impoverished state, the social services are grossly underfunded, and official figures of increases in spending in local currency in these categories are misleading; they in fact are diminished expenditures considering inflation and increases in population.  This situation is likely to become worse because the introduction of higher technological military equipment from China and other sources is likely to result in the demand for greater funding for maintenance and training.  As the military has tripled its size from 1962, it has transformed the former multi-ethnic leadership of the military into a Burman preserve, thus increasing ethnic tension.

     The military has assured itself of its continuing control of a critical portion of the economy.  Through military run corporations, such as the Union of Myanmar Holding Corporation, a wholly-owned military group initially capitalized at K. 10 billion (about US$1.4 billion, or about 20 percent of GNP at the time and at the unrealistic rate of exchange), they will remain in economic control no matter what government comes to power.  The military have commandeered much of the foreign investment though joint ventures with military groups.


3.               Globalization and Nationalism


As nationalism continues to be a pervasive force in the society (see below), the need for foreign investment, trade, and tourism has created a major dilemma for the regime.  At the same time as they appeal to nationalism to legitimate their government and criticize foreign support to the opposition, they recognize the need to generate foreign exchange, and have gone to extreme lengths to do so.[15]

Vitriolic attacks on foreigners have been prevalent in the controlled media.  They concentrate on past injustices, present support to the NLD, and charges that foreigners want to destroy Burmese culture.  This results in many potential foreign investors rethinking their interests in that society, which remains attractive because of low wages and a controlled labor force.  Foreign investment approvals totaled over six billion dollars (small compared to Vietnam which opened at about the same time), but perhaps only one third has actually been invested.  The financial crisis has dried up ASEAN investment, and today foreign direct investment has virtually ceased.  But no matter how much the regime needs foreign exchange, to think that it will collapse may be a Western assumption unwarranted in a society of some 65,000 self-sufficient villages.

The need for foreign exchange has resulted in the realization that tourism could be an important economic force.[16]  Extensive investments in hotels have produced little compared to goals of ‘Visit Myanmar’ year (500,000 tourists a year, but the actuality was about half that goal), but tourism, even on the modest scale that has resulted, has brought with it social dislocations decried by the state.  The opposition NLD has decried tourism and foreign investment as economically strengthening the military regime.


4.               On Centralism and Pluralism


The state in Burma has conceptually been centrist, however much it was fragmented in reality.  The Burmese monarchs controlled the operation of the state, but never developed the administrative capacity, as did the Chinese over a millennium ago, to evolve a professional civil service.  The elite indigenous service first introduced by the British was eliminated by the military, and replaced with officers who regarded loyalty as more important than competence.  The taut military command system has reinforced the power of the center, but the development and rise in the hierarchy of the regional military commanders to become a direct part of the SPDC has resulted in a type of regional military warlordism that, even as it strengthens the center, has elements of localism included. 

Yet it is evident that minorities and even Burmans in local areas want a greater say in their local affairs.  Some local autonomy will likely be introduced, but power will remain with the military–either at the local level or at the center.

Pluralism has been denied, not only administratively, but in civil society.  The command structure brooks no independence of administration or intellectual thought.  Yet at the same time the diverse nature of the state, the growth of population, and the more complex economy means that this centralism is likely to be both increasingly ineffective and eventually destructive of the very goals intended.


5.               On Orthodoxy


Pluralism of ideas or institutions in Myanmar has been anathema to the military government.  The rigid control of all media and publishing, the suppression and elimination of all elements of civil society, the incessant indoctrination courses that civil servants and even professors must attend all indicate that the state is intent on pursuing a ideological course from which there will be no tolerated deviation.  A board of censors controls all publications, even of literature, and the import of any foreign books or journals into the state.   Debate in the National Convention on the new constitution is carefully controlled and no spontaneous questions have been permitted.

The question of orthodoxy has developed to be an important aspect of the power struggle.  As the military has demanded adherence to their stated positions, the NLD has done the same.  When some 25 members of the NLD were critical of a decision by the leadership to create a new  opposition committee to act as a National Assembly, they were branded as ‘traitors.’  When some years earlier, an insurgent student group charged that some members were informers or disloyal, they were summarily executed.  The demands for ideological rigidity are related closely to the personalization of power, where a leader’s decisions are not to be questioned.  This has been apparent under the leadership of General Ne Win, and is deeply rooted in the society.


6.               Religious Tension


There is apparent religious toleration in Myanmar.  Any visitor to the capital will note the numbers of churches, mosques, and Hindu temples that abound.  This is indeed the case.  But in fact, the identification of legitimacy, nationalism, and power with the Burman Buddhist population has meant that under the military there are subtle pressures on other religions.  These pressures are related to the issue of ethnicity, for although the Burman population is essentially Buddhist, many of the minorities, such as the Karen, Kachin, and Chin have substantial percentages of their populations who are Christian.  These groups, especially the Karen, have been charged as being pro-British, and thus unpatriotic in the past.  A significant segment of that population is still in rebellion.  As the regional military commanders have virtual complete autonomy of power over their respective regions, some have been accused of forcibly discriminating against Christian communities, , forcing them to build Buddhist pagodas.  This is reported to be evident in the Chin State, and has so been deported in the U.S. Department of State report on religious freedom.

The most important religious issue, however, relates to the Muslim community, which is extensive in the Arakan along the Bangladesh border.  There have been charges of intimidation and worse among this population, and in harassment because of the lack of identity cards, forcing about 200,00 to flee into Bangladesh in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s.  Most have returned under UN auspices, but the issues have not been resolved.  There continues to be a strong anti-Muslim prejudice in Myanmar, fostered by some higher-level Burmans who spread scurrilous rumors of attempts to infiltrate Burman society and seduce Burman women.

In the past, as regimes have economically faltered, they have sometimes provoked anti-Muslim rioting to take pressures of the government.  The possibility of this reoccurring (or being directed against an increasingly obvious Chinese minority as in 1967) should not be dismissed.


7.               Geo-Political Issues


Although social cohesion and conflict prevention would normally be seen to be internal affairs of the state, they are affected in multiple ways by the foreign community.  These include both immediate practical issues as well as longer-range conceptual ones.  Conflict in Burma/ Myanmar has sent hundreds of thousands of refugees to neighboring countries to escape the ravages of war, exploitation, or harassment.  In both the 1970s and again in the 1990s, about 200,000 Muslim refugees have fled into Bangladesh to escape the Burma army.  They have only been repatriated under UN auspices, but some tens of thousands are still inside the Bangladesh border.  In Thailand there are about 110,000 Karen, Kayah, and Mon refugees in camps close to the border, and there are tens of thousands of Shan who wander through Northern Thailand eking out livings in the most marginal jobs and taking refuge in Buddhist monasteries and pagodas.  There are no camps for the Shan.  In addition, there are said to be one million illegal workers in Thailand, of whom about 700,000 are Burmese (with a total of 106,000 legal jobs for them, according to the Thai authorities).  They found economic opportunities throughout the country during the Thai economic boom because the Thai increasingly did not want to perform the menial jobs associated with economic growth, and there were few economic opportunities within Myanmar.  At the time of the Asian financial crisis in July 1997, there were suggestions that these illegal workers would be forced back across the border.  Some have been repatriated, but most remain.  Pressures for their return have lessened as the Thai economy stabilized and began to recover, although the demands to deal with activist dissidents has increased after the seizure of the Burmese Embassy by Burmese students in the fall of 1999, and the holding of hostages in the Thai hospital at Ratchaburi by ‘God’s Army’ in January 2000.  At the same time, prostitution and drug trafficking, and a marked and dangerous increase in the prevalence of AIDS/HIV infections,  is rampant along the borders of the state, and large numbers of the minorities in Burma are involved in both as exploiters (in the drug trade) and exploited (especially among women)..

In addition, in Myanmar there are said to be between one and three million internally displaced persons.  Some have been resettled from urban areas (several hundred thousand from Rangoon alone[17]), but many more to create ‘free fire’ zones for military operations in some of the minority areas (in retribution for attacks on Burmese troops).  In one case (among the Wa), there is an officially sponsored movement of peoples to expand their ethnic boundaries within the Shan State to create a larger area that will qualify for some localized autonomy.  This movement of peoples in the Shan State has been a contributing factor in the flow of refugees to Thailand.

 Myanmar has also lost about one percent of its total population in addition to those in refugee camps and the illegal workers aborad in Thailand, and it is an educated one percent, through political repression, ethnic discrimination, and a lack of economic opportunities.  These emigrating individuals created a brain drain where one did not exist before.  Burma before 1962 had no appreciable exodus of talent.  After 1962, surreptitious exits were necessary as the military essentially cut off both exit and entry.  But after the student demonstrations of 1974 connected with the burial of former UN Secretary General U Thant that resulted in a large, unofficial number of student deaths, the government believed it desirable to allow malcontents to leave, and later they recognized that external labor flows brought back into Burma considerable  foreign exchange, and so eased restrictions on work abroad.

At a more abstract level, foreign contacts are still important.  The Burman ethnic group is the only major ethnic group that exists solely within the present borders of the state.  All major  minorities have extensive populations in neighboring states. (There are, for example, more Kachin in China than in the Kachin State, the Shan have a major autonomous area in China’s Yunnan Province-Sipsong Banna.)  This has meant that the Burmans feel the minorities have greater contact with the outside world, and this creates considerable apprehension among the Burmans.  That some of the minorities are Christian gives them an added international connection and sympathetic supporters.  It should also be remembered that the Shan are close relatives of the Thai, that the Muslims in the Arakan have co-religionists across the Naaf River in Bangladesh, and that the Chin (Zo) and Naga groups have been advocating greater autonomy in their own states in India.  It is only the Burmans who are internationally ethnically isolated, and thus their apprehension regarding foreign intervention is increased.

To complicate further the picture and increase the insecurity of the military authorities purportedly caused by foreigners, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has kept up an extensive and successful campaign to solicit international sympathy for her democracy movement.  As the military have attempted the slow castration of the NLD, the NLD has responded by relying on foreign moral support for their sustenance.   Over the past two years, the NLD has done this by creating a series of confrontations with the military authorities.  What effect these have had internally is not clear to this writer, but it is evident that the international press reports on them have garnered considerable positive publicity for the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, and have thus been successful in those terms, and have kept the opposition alive in the world’s view.  The picture of a beleaguered, intelligent, attractive woman standing up to military oppression has been an important international rallying symbol for human rights and advocates of Burmese liberalization.  The military counter that she is an ‘axe handle’ or tool of the foreign imperialists who are out to split up the country and destroy Myanmar culture, and that the funding for her party and for anti-military activities on Thai soil and in cross-border activities has come from foreign sources.  Because she was married to a foreigner (who died in March 1999), and has ‘mixed blood’ children, she is considered both inappropriate (by the military) as a Burman and ineligible for public office under rules that are likely to be introduced by the military under a new constitution, which they are interminably drafting under a National Convention that has not met in two years but that started in 1993.

Foreign influences are more than simply suspect.  They, and their internal supporters and external progenitors, have systematically and constantly been vilified in the press at the same time that foreign investment has been encouraged and tourists enticed.  The tension in state policies between nationalism, invoked to provide legitimacy for the military, and globalization, is pronounced.  This tension is exacerbated because, should the government appear publicly to be supportive of globalization and things foreign, their central argument against the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi is undercut, and indeed the NLD then acquires greater legitimacy.

The extended influence of China has prompted concerns by India over being outflanked on its eastern borders, and to Thailand as well, which does not welcome a strong Chinese presence that both undercuts Thai trade with Myanmar, and raises security concerns as well.


III     State-Sponsored Attempts at Cohesion


Each government directly and indirectly has advocated some form of ideological focus–a common emotional and intellectual bond--by which to hold the state together and create that sense of community.[18]  Such efforts not only attempt to create cohesiveness when none existed before, but also to provide political legitimacy for the regime in power, whether that be military or civilian.  Some of these themes have been constant, although their relative emphases may have shifted. These are:

1.  Nationalism

2.  Burman dominance

3.  Buddhism

4.  Socialism, and

5.  The military. 

Nationalism, Burman control, and Buddhism have continued to be essential elements of political legitimacy and the endeavor to create national identity under all regimes.  


1. Nationalism


All governments have drawn upon strong nationalistic, or xenophobic, tendencies in a Burman population that has continuously felt under siege internally and externally, and that feels that its culture has been threatened.  These themes are constantly replayed in the media and have continuously struck a responsive chord among all Burmese governments.  The Burmese are constantly reminded in the controlled media that foreigners do not ‘love’ them, and that preoccupation with foreign ideas, clothes, dress, music, food, or other factors is wrong and ‘un-Myanmar,’ Performers have been jailed for performing in too Western a manner.




2. Burman Dominance


All governments also since independence have been Burman dominated, and it is the Burman ethnic group that has considered that they have the inherent right to govern both because of historical precedent and because they number two-thirds of the total population of 47 million. To succeed in Burma/Myanmar under any government was to play by Burman rules, speaking Burmese (education in minority languages has not been allowed in public schools) even if the constitutions provided the fig leaf of ethnic cultural diversity rights as a cover for internal Burman hegemonic power and cultural domination.


3. Buddhism


The support of Buddhism has also been a critical element in political legitimacy, even if its aggressiveness (or rather the aggressiveness of the state in fostering it among non-Buddhist minority peoples)  fomented some rebellions along the borders, and no regime could long survive that did not take into account the importance of that religion and make proper obeisance to it and its sangha (monkhood).  Prime Minister U Nu’s attempt to make it the state religion in 1960 (it always had a special role, and all civilian heads of state who rotated among ethnic groups had to be Buddhist) encouraged ethnic rebellions among minorities that were heavily Christian or Muslim.  It was not until 1980 that the military succeeded in controlling and registering the Buddhist sangha, the official hierarchy of which is firmly under military domination.[19]  Yet all leaders of Burma/Myanmar from the monarchy to the present have adhered to Buddhist practices both because of personal beliefs and to ensure political legitimacy.  U Nu, General Ne Win, General Than Shwe have all built important pagodas, and in1999 General Khin Nyunt (Secretary-1 of the SPDC and head of intelligence) supervised the refurbishing of the most illustrious Buddhist shrine in Burma, the Shwedagon Pagoda, with a ton of new gold leaf.  All leaders are pictured in the press as paying obeisance to the monks, and Aung San Suu Kyi in April 1999 gave a Buddhist memorial service for her husband.


4. Socialism


Socialism, under the auspices of the military-led BSPP, was for one-third of the independence period the secular banner under which the state was to come together.  A moderate socialist policy had been the hallmark of the previous civilian administration, but after 1962 it became virulent with the complete nationalization of most of the large and small manufacturing base.[20]  This ill-conceived effort failed because of an incompetent administration that had been so weakened by the military that it could not be effective, as the military replaced professionals with military officers who had enthusiasm and loyalty but not the required skills to manage even a rather simple socialist economy. Very highly placed authorities of that period have confided that they believed it was not socialism as an economic concept that failed; rather, it was an inoperable and elaborate feedback system under which local complaints and problems could (theoretically) be brought up the chain of political command to the top authorities for resolution.  This system, according to commentators, did not work because of the climate of fear in the society–a fear that has been and still is endemic, with civilians fearing the military, and lower-level military fearing the high command, and even those in the cabinet fearing the top leaders.  Chairman of the BSPP Ne Win in 1987 publicly recognized the problem, stating that the regime had to stop lying with statistics to please those in authority.  It did not work.  Even the modest economic reforms proposed by the World Bank in the 1970s and 1980s that were designed to give the State Economic Enterprises (the public sector) more authority to set prices and hire and fire personnel also failed because lower level officials were afraid to invoke the wrath of the higher authorities by making local decisions and being innovative.

It was the Japanese in 1988 that prompted the military in the last days of the BSPP to reform their economic system and abandon socialist ideology and open the state to a more market, although still highly dirigiste, economy.  Under the SLORC, the foreign and indigenous private sectors were encouraged, although the military has retained direct and indirect control over substantial portions of the the economy.


5. The Military


 Finally, under the present military administration, socialism has been replaced not with capitalism, but  with the adulation of the military as the only cohesive force in the country, as the savior of the state, and as the idealistic force fighting for the common good.  A new mythology has selectively been instituted, new revisionist books written, and institutions created (historical commissions and museums) designed to perpetuate the new orthodoxy.  Although the private sector is encouraged within bounds, capitalism has not been seen to be in harmony with some Buddhist ideals.  But Buddhism, nationalism, and anti-foreign sentiment (even as the state encourages foreign investment and tourism) are constantly put in the service of the state’s extensive propaganda mechanisms that are ubiquitous under the stringent control by the military of all media, publishing, and distribution of information.  This pervasive emphasis on the military in its present ‘efficacious’ role and past ‘accomplishments’ is a marked change from previous ideological formulations around which the population was supposed to rally.  Now, instead, it is the military itself that is the focus for legitimacy, efficacy, honor, and prestige, relegating to the civilian population (and to the minorities who no longer hold high military positions) secondary status and exacerbating the problem of social fragmentation.

This focus on the military itself creates obvious problems for amelioration of social and political cleavages, for one party (the military) holds itself up as the ultimate unifying force, thus denying to the other party (the opposition) in any potential negotiations any legitimacy and any neutral ground that could provide a common basis for compromise.


IV     The Tatmadaw: Cohesion and Division?


The Tatmadaw (armed forces) of Myanmar claim to be the force for social cohesion in the society. Through their vigilance, they believe, the state has been kept intact and foreign and internal fissiparous elements held at bay.  They claim to have done so through a variety of actions, and to represent the whole country.  They have negotiated a dozen and a half or so cease fires with insurgent minority groups since 1988 (see Appendix).  They have destroyed the power of the Burma Communist Party in rebellion along the China frontier, or more accurately the party collapsed under factional disputes.  They have mobilized the society under their banner through the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a mass mobilization organization of over 11 million members (about one-third of the adult population) designed to serve the military’s goals and under their direction, and even to act as a para-military or control force that will receive some military training and education in the use of arms.[21]  It has been used to harass the NLD, and to demonstrate in mass meetings against it.  Their intelligence networks permeate every element of the state that they control.

In addition, they have formed a unitary state which creates the administrative fact of cohesion even as it fosters the elements conducive to its own destruction.  First, the military ruled by decree from 1962 to 1974; then they created a unitary state with all power in the army and the center through the BSPP, which was a single-party, military-dominated, mobilization system.  Then, following the coup of 1988, they have again ruled by decree until the present, and the future system they are likely to install under a new constitution will be one in which power will still reside in military hands.  It is apparent that the military have no intention of giving up essential power under the multi-party political system that they claim will be ‘democratic’ or a kind of ‘disciplined democracy’ toward which they continuously say to be moving, although the pace is glacial.

  They will point to many of these accomplishments with pride, including major road, bridge, and infrastructure construction (many of the major undertakings with Chinese assistance), claiming that all of these actions induce national cohesion.  In a sense this is accurate, but it is a cohesion that is forced on a society reluctant to be so subjugated, and this cohesion is likely to be unstable.[22]   At the same time they have built a bifurcated society–military and civilian-- in which separate is not equal. 

Burma was once a highly mobile society through four avenues in the civilian period.  Advancement was through a free, Burman-dominated education system, which did reach the poor and remote areas.  One might also rise from poverty through a university-level Buddhist education, in the sangha and leave at will with enhanced respect.  The military was a desired career, and in spite of a universal draft law for men and women (passed in1959 on an Israeli model) it was never implemented because volunteers outpaced needs until the vast expansion of the military.  From an armed force of 125,000 at the time of the 1962 coup, the military grew to 186,000 in 1988, and since then has more than doubled.  One could, in addition, rise through the political mass organizations that proliferated in the civilian period. And even the minorities were in positions of some prominence and power–in the cabinet and in the upper reaches of the armed forces.

All this has changed.  Two societies have been created–military and civilian, and even the civilian society is controlled by the military.  The military now dominate all avenues to mobility and advancement– not only through the military itself, but through control of higher education, the Buddhist sangha hierarchy, and through mass organizations all of which are under military sponsorship and domination. The military is still a desired career.  With it comes the access to schools and medical facilities (properly equipped and of a much higher standard) when these are closed or not available to the civilian population.  They also have access to the necessities of living through their commissaries and other shops that sell goods at reduced prices, and receive rations that means that their modest incomes go further.  They have access to power, and mistrust the civilian bureaucrats.    Perhaps half the government’s budget is surreptitiously devoted to the military (about one-third is overt), and in addition at local levels the military units often live off neighborhood villages, increasing the already widespread poverty and further marginalizing the peasantry.

The dominant role of the military and the opening of the economy to the indigenous and foreign private sectors after the coup of 1988, a move that might have been the most important reform in the state since 1962, has created a further dichotomy.  This is the possibility of corruption, which was once rampant but at a relatively low and inconspicuous level, but has since mushroomed.  State salaries are so low (a director-general of a ministry makes about $400 per month at the official, but unrealistic, rate of exchange, or about $8 at the curb market rate) that virtually no one in the public sector can live on their salaries.  This not only invites, but demands, corruption in a number of forms and multiple sources of family income.  Thus there is an increasing discrepancy in incomes between those who are poor, and about 50 percent of the population are either below the poverty line or just above it), and those who have access to either power or capital.  Income differentials are rapidly expanding.  The domineering role of the Chinese, who now are seen to control a major portion of the economy of Northern Burma, creates another area of potential conflict.  In 1967, the military redirected economic and political frustration from themselves against the Chinese community, resulting in mass looting of shops and a number of deaths.  Should the economy seem once again to be slipping out of Burman hands, spontaneous or directed anti-Chinese riots (or those against other minorities, such as the Muslim community) could be possible.

The minorities have been cut off from access to power.  They are no longer in the upper reaches of the military, nor in the higher levels of the subordinate civilian bureaucracy.  As they are on the geographic periphery, they are have been relegated to the power periphery, and under present military plans are likely to remain in this position.

The dichotomy facing the state has been exacerbated because of the lack of meaningful dialogue between a military that is intent on remaining in power, and a civilian opposition, led by the NLD (one of 10 legal parties, but the others are inconsequential), that has been denied power even though they overwhelmingly won the elections of May 1990.  In Burma, because loyalties are so personalized, a ‘loyal opposition’ is an oxymoron; thus negotiations between such groups are more difficult than in some other societies.

As a condition for the cease fires along the periphery, the minority groups and armies are allowed to keep their arms and engage in their traditional agricultural pursuits.[23]  The administration is supposed to deliver to them increased educational opportunities, better health care, and improved agricultural facilities.  The military will likely be hard pressed, given the state of the economy, to do so.  The crisis may occur when, as the military demand, all arms be turned in after a new constitution is promulgated and before elections take place.  It is unlikely that the minorities will be willing to do so.  The problem is further complicated by the issue of opium production.  The central government may be trying to eliminate opium production and the resultant heroin and related narcotics that flow from that practice.[24]  The state’s interest in this is disputed by others, but in any case it is predictable that the lucrative trade is so important that there will be tensions between any central government bent on opium eradication and local producers who yet have no economically viable other way to earn incomes beyond subsistence, and local officials (military or otherwise) who can ‘tax’ the narcotics trade or otherwise profit from its continuation.  In the past the government could claim a lack of responsibility for this production because they did not control these regions, but with the cease fires this will no longer be possible.

This paper, as a matter of rhetorical convenience rather than as an analytical fact, discusses the military in the singular.  Although the military is more cohesive than other institutions, it has elements of possible fission built into its current organization and size.  The expansion of the military under the BSPP and the SLORC-SPDC regimes has created a duality within the military of line officers who are involved in either fighting or managing the peripheral areas, and those who are more administrative.  The change from the SLORC to the SPDC may not have changed policies, for the four top military figures held their posts, but the SPDC added all the regional military commanders who now have assumed a greater role than heretofore.  They were virtual warlords over their regional areas, especially those far removed from the Burman centers of population, but they now also have authority in the critical arena of decision-making.  There are also said to be personal and policy differences between the commander of the army, General Maung Aye, and the head of intelligence, General Khin Nyunt.  No overt split is yet apparent, and there are a number of reasons why the military would want to appear to have a united front, not the least of which is the fear of what might happen if the military should split.  Should the military leave power, the fears of retribution are real, and the example of General Pinochet of Chile probably did not go unnoticed.  We will return to this issue later.

One of the central cleavages that has developed between many of the minorities and the Burman population is because the Burma Army has acted like, and been perceived to be, an almost foreign military force occupying a subjugated area.  Until there are reforms of the military occupation performance, these antipathies are likely to continue, increasing ethnic tension.


V      Past Approaches to, and Perceptions of, the Myanmar Miasma


It is a tautology to say that Burmese problems must be resolved by the Burmese themselves and bama-lo, in a Burmese manner. Yet the foreign community has numerous roles to play in assisting a process by which resolution may be accomplished.  One of the most important, to be played by the multilateral aid agencies and the academic community, is the development of analyses that will present alternative perspectives and scenarios on the situation and its amelioration, and to break though the cloud of partisan cant that now epitomizes the polarized statements emanating from various sources within and without the country. The climate of fear that is so pervasive within Myanmar often prevents alternatives from reaching those who hold the ultimate decision-making responsibility; thus foreign roles in suggesting alternatives and providing analyses are important.

If we are so concerned with the current, dire situation in Myanmar, as indeed we should be, then we should be asking ourselves why we were not concerned with the military regime under the Burma Socialist Programme Party (1962-1988)?  That was a militarized government perhaps even more authoritarian than the present military, where there was a single party mobilization regime that did not even allow a titular opposition, where the military were in command, where intelligence agencies were ubiquitous, and where the minorities were in even a greater state of rebellion, and social cohesion equally threatened.  Yet that regime received foreign assistance (approximately $400 million annually toward its close) from all multilateral and bilateral donors, under a closed economic system that was even more disastrous than the present, partly open, one.

A variety of forces have created what seem to be a new set of lenses for our focus on Myanmar.  These include: a ‘wave’ of Asian liberalization, beginning with the people’s revolution in the Philippines in 1986 and the Korean liberalization of June 1987; the massive killings of 1988 in which thousands died–a situation although not on Western television that was more brutal and severe than Tienanmen in Beijing a year  later; the elections of May 1990 that the military has ignored (although this is not unique in world politics); the greater emphasis on human rights and the enhanced administrative capacities of public and private organizations worldwide to monitor those situations; the increase in communications technology allowing foreign groups to mobilize in support of or against regime practices; the lure of markets, and a low-paid literate, controlled labor force; potential access to the extensive raw materials of Myanmar as foreign investment is encouraged; strategic concerns over the dominant economic position of China in the Burmese economy and the Burmese reliance on Chinese military materiel; and the symbol of Aung San Suu Kyi who is seen to encapsulate the democratic spirit and resistance to authoritarian rule.

If the reality of a lack of freedom within Myanmar has not changed from its Burma days, the external environment has evolved to make observers more sensitive to human rights issues, even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which most countries have signed, dates from 1948.  If one single event were to be pinpointed as the genesis of the intense international reaction against the Burmese regime, it was probably not the killings of 1988, as horrible as they were, nor was it the continuing plight of some of the minorities, some of whom had been in rebellion for two generations.  It was also not the falling standard of living, one of the lowest of the major Asian states.  Simply put, it was the regime’s ignoring of the May 1990 elections, which hardened positions both internally toward the distribution of power, and externally toward the leaders of the state.[25]

There is evidence that before the election the military did not see themselves as remaining in direct power for a long period, although it is my belief that they would have retained power behind the scenes for the indefinite future.  They specifically eschewed longer term economic planning because they viewed themselves as a transitional government (although not perhaps the military as transitional).  There are even suggestions that if the election had not been so lopsidedly won by the NLD, the military might have been willing to deal with a divided opposition they believed they could manipulate or control.  But with their ignominious defeat, or that of the party they quietly backed, they began to make long-range plans to control the political process and remain in power.  Thus, longer-term economic planning was instituted, preparations for a new constitution were begun, and the formation of a mass mobilization organization among the population as a whole inaugurated that would service the military’s efforts for control. 

The NLD, for its part, became firmly entrenched and not willing to compromise, believing that by the modern criteria of elections they had the legal mandate to govern, while the military constantly played up their adherence to Burmese culture, tradition, and values.  When the military appeared intransigent, the NLD held a rump session of their elected delegates in Mandalay, and secretly sent off a group overseas to become the new National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB)–essentially a government-in-exile. 

Foreign governments, especially the United States, which previously had called for the opening of Myanmar and the participation of that state in international fora to enlighten a regime that had for too many years been isolated, hardened its attitude, prompting the imposition of sanctions on all new U.S. investments, denying the appointment of a new ambassador (but having the U.S. Embassy run by a charge’), and attempting, unsuccessfully, to keep Myanmar out of ASEAN. 

At present, various governments and organizations have approached Myanmar through the full spectrum from engagement to isolation.  The United States has called for the isolation of the regime until it recognizes the results of the May 1990 elections and allows the NLD to take power.[26]  This is tantamount to arguing that a regime should give up power and then there would be negotiations.  The European Community, along with the United States, has prohibited the travel of high-ranking government officials to their areas.  Japan, on the other hand and in a quiet policy dispute with the United States, has indicated its interest in restarting its aid program in a rather major way if there are some (perhaps cosmetic) concessions made toward liberalization and democracy, which are part of the Japanese aid charter.  The Japanese government is under pressure from the economic ministries and Keidanren to resume Japanese programs because of the extensive economic, emotional, and strategic interests in Myanmar.  ASEAN began its relationship with Myanmar by calling for ‘constructive engagement,’ which, to the cynical outsider, seemed to be little more than a screen for foreign investment and the exploitation of Burmese natural resources.  More recently, as there have been no signs of political progress and as the economic situation in Myanmar seemed to decline, they have turned to ‘active engagement,’ which means the possibility of commenting on the internal political affairs within the ASEAN states, something that was anathema in ASEAN before. International NGOs have been providing some humanitarian assistance, and about seventeen now are resident within Myanmar.

None of these tactics has worked.  Myanmar’s isolation has not affected the political process in that country, and the economic impact of sanctions is questionable since instability, incompetence, perceived insecurity of investments, and the Asian financial crisis of 1997 all may have played a more important role in drying up foreign investment.[27]  Engagement in ASEAN has produced no effects to date.  The ‘collapse’ of the economy, as some Westerners refer to its decline, is a misnomer because most of the country is at subsistence levels and can continue to exist at marginal rates of growth, or even decline, for substantial periods.

The question then must be asked: why have none of these tactics induced change?  And the answer is complex and disconcerting to those who hope for reform and progress.  Although some of the activists promoting liberalization have invoked the analogy of South Africa as the model for dealing with Myanmar (i.e., isolation and sanctions), this is not apt.  All the nations surrounding South Africa supported sanctions, and the South African elite and economy were oriented toward the West.  None of these conditions apply in the case of Myanmar, while the only comparable relationship is that of two attractive, charismatic Nobel Peace laureates.[28]

This writer believes that there are fundamental aspects of the structure of power and attitudes toward power that must be understood if we are to consider appropriate paths. These attitudes shape negotiations, exacerbate tensions, create confrontations, and diminish the possibilities of conflict prevention.  These are as follows:[29]    

These elite, strongly held military views that affect negotiations may be divided into those internally and externally focused. 


Burmese military views--Internal Assumptions:


*           The military believe that they are the only present and future institution capable of keeping Myanmar united as a single country, and that pluralism is destructive of national unity.  This assumption is true at present because they have effectively destroyed every other institution that might have played that role.  It will be true in the future insofar as the military prevents the rise of pluralism within the governmental structure and the growth of civil society.  This is why they have essentially replaced earlier state ideologies (including socialism under the military-led BSPP regime and Buddhism under U Nu) with an ideology that effectively focuses on the military itself and its comprehensive societal role and, in part, on its mythic history.  Where under the military's Burma Socialist Programme Party period (1962-1988) the military were portrayed as the keepers of the socialist flame, today it is the military itself that is the ideological nexus of society.[30]

*           The tatmadaw consider past political leaders as venal, corrupt, ineffective, and incapable of running the state and assuring its unity.

*           The military believe that the minorities are inherently inferior (culturally/socially) and would split from Burman authority if given the chance.  The military also believe the minorities are distrustful of the Burman majority (including the military) and fear Burman domination.  They provide only lip-service respect for minority culture through ritualized holidays and propaganda efforts.  They equate Burman Buddhist culture with the state and want some form of central (Burman) control.  Advocacy of Buddhism, association with the sangha, building or repairing of Buddhist shrines (including adding one ton of gold to the Shwedagon Pagoda in 1999), are part of the search both for political legitimacy and personal religious merit.  The state goes to great and continuous lengths to demonstrate its reverence for the sangha, and the leadership is continuously depicted in the media as supportive of Buddhism.  Buddhism is intimately associated with political legitimacy.[31]

*           The military view economic progress, reform, or liberalization as secondary to maintenance of political control, or indeed as a means to such control.  The primary function of an improved economy is greater military power, general political acquiescence of the population to military control through military delivery of greater economic rewards for loyalty, and improved political legitimacy, and not directly the betterment of the human condition.  To this end, the military believe they must control the economy and have set up direct (Myanmar Economic Holdings Co., military-run factories, Myanmar Economic Corporation, etc.) and many indirect mechanisms (‘private’ banks, USDA businesses, etc.) to do so.

*       The military view any form of pluralism within the administration at any level, in the dissemination of information, and among non-governmental organizations as a threat to the state and their control.

*           The military have no intention of giving up essential power even though a civilian facade for their control is likely eventually to be established.

*          The military have no intention of granting to minority groups any significant degree of power at the national level, although some modest local self-government will be given to some groups with which cease fires have been arranged.

*          The military (at least as long as Ne Win is alive) have no intention of allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to play any significant role in any new government.


Burmese Military views--External Assumptions:


*           The Burmese regime believes that the country is surrounded by enemies–real and potential.  These threats no longer take the form of territorial aggrandizement, but economic domination and the possibility of encouraging minority separatism.  This fear is based on a reality once extant, but now completely outmoded.  These past instances of such foreign support are well documented, and include American assistance to KMT forces in Burma, Pakistani-Bangladeshi support for Muslim insurgents, Thai help to a variety of insurgent groups (both ethnic and Burman), Indian backing of anti-SLORC groups, some British support for the Karen, Chinese aid to the Burma Communist Party, the inclusion of northen Burma in early KMT and PRC Chinese maps, and a general perception that Christian minorities have closer support and contact with foreigners than do the Burman Buddhist minority.  

*           These fears include China as potentially (or perhaps even presently) having undue influence in Burma.[32]

*           The military regard the United States as highly significant to them because of its international influence, but distrust U.S. motives and influence, believing that if sufficiently provoked the U.S. might intervene militarily in Burma.[33]

*           Foreign public criticism of the SPDC simply forces a nationalistic response, and foreign pressures for reform are viewed as infringements of Burmese sovereignty, and foreign support for the NLD undercuts the NLD’s potential legitimacy (in their view).


NLD Assumptions


*         The military is out to destroy the party.

*         The military is intent on splitting Aung San Suu Kyi from the party.

*        There is a potential role for the military under a truly civilian (NLD) government, but one under civilian control and review.

*           The immediate needs are to maintain the NLD as an entity and seek to continue international support, including sanctions.

*         Deny the military any possible avenues leading to increasing their public legitimacy internally or externally.  This includes opposing any humanitarian assistance that benefits the SPDC or its agencies (e.g., USDA), and the operations of foreign NGOs in Myanmar, as well as denying to the government the foreign exchange generated by business, investment, or tourism.

Because of the world role of the United States, its influence with other potential bilateral donors, and with the multilateral institutions of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the IMF, it is important to consider under what assumptions and constraints it operates, as well as its policies toward Burma.

*           Burma is low on the list of U.S. priority foreign policy concerns even though the Secretary of State has taken a personal interest in the human rights and political problems in that society.

*           The U.S. has residual anti-narcotics interests that are important but not sufficient alone to drive policy change.  Although anti-narcotics priorities were more important to the U.S. in the BSPP period, when considerable U.S. assistance was provided, since the SLORC/SPDC period, and largely in response to internal U.S. public pressures, human rights have become more significant in policy formulation than anti-narcotics activities.

*           There is a significant lobby within the Congress and in the U.S./international non-governmental community insisting (minimally) on greater political and civil rights, and more comprehensively that the military relinquish its authority as a result of the May 1990 elections and for Aung San Suu Kyi to assume the reins of government.

*         The Executive Branch in the U.S. in the year 2000 is domestically weak because it is ending its tenure and preoccupied with elections.  In foreign policy, the U.S. is absorbed with the Balkans, the Middle East, China, North Korea, and with Japan.  Little attention will be paid to Myanmar.

*           Although the executive and legislative branches are in formal agreement at this juncture, should this administration desire to shift its present policies, it will not be prepared to use up any political capital it still might have on confronting the Congress, or individual legislators, on Burma issues.

*           U.S. policy--including lifting sanctions, the presence of a U.S. ambassador, etc. --is unlikely to change to any considerable degree without major internal reforms in Burma because it would be seen as a reward and be politically indefensible within the U.S.

*           This policy will limit the capacity of any U.S. administration in the near future in agreeing to multilateral donor assistance beyond most humanitarian aid to Burma without clear quid pro quos.

*           If such amelioration were to take place in the near term, it would be opposed by Aung San  Suu Kyi unless it were accompanied by the release of political prisoners and the freedom of the NLD to operate as a real political party.

*           Other more important policy issues with China (trade, human rights, influence on North Korea, etc.) mean that Myanmar is low on the priority list for U.S.-China bilateral discussions.  The same applies in Japanese-U.S. relations.  Yet both are important for Myanmar dialogue.

*           Individual congressmen or women believe they cannot be seen to be supporting a pariah regime, and thus will follow a minority strongly opposed to amelioration of present U.S. policies.

*           At the same time, there is a significant body of businessmen or women who, perhaps for either intellectual or financial reasons, believe that private sector activity will bring (perhaps eventually) democracy.[34]

*           Japan desires to resume major foreign assistance and has only been prevented from doing so by U.S., pressure.  It is likely that they will restart at least a portion of their program.

*           Japanese potential assistance is important to the country.  Its past role has been essential to survival of previous Burmese governments and it has strongly influenced positive change (the shift to the private sector) in the past.

*           China could be influential in influencing change if it were convinced to play such a role, in spite of Burmese concerns about their already considerably exposed position. China believes that a stable, friendly, pliant regime in Rangoon is in its national interests, and China would support the present government in the face of induced change.  China is, however, concerned about increased narcotics activities and AIDS/HIV rates in Yunnan but emanating from Myanmar. 

*           Although Indian relations with the Burmese regime have improved since Rajiv Gandhi, India views with suspicion a Chinese presence and influence on its undemarcated northeast frontier, which was the scene of fighting in the Sino-Indian War of 1962, as outflanking its unstable northeastern states, and Chinese access to the Bay of Bengal.


VI     Possibilities for Change


The prospects for alleviation of the present political stasis seem bleak.  That does not mean, however, that change is impossible.  What are possible avenues or opportunities for change?

It is, of course, conceivable that the economic distress in which the country is mired may cause the state to agree to make more than superficial accommodations in both the economic and political sectors.  Since, however, economics has been considered as subordinate to political issues, it seems unlikely that the regime would agree to more than cosmetic changes that would affect the structure of power in the society and heal social and political cleavages.

A highly controversial question is whether the military would remain relatively solid upon the death of General Ne Win, who is now 89.  There are those, including this author, who believe he has been an important glue holding the military together through the force of his personality and history even after he retired as chairman of the BSPP in July 1988.  He became, in the view of this author, the Burmese equivalent of a Cardinal Richelieu, operating behinds the scenes on only important policy issues, but out of the direct, prosaic power line.  When he passes to his karmic reward, will this change? Will the fragmentation of the military occur based on personal power issues rather than ideology?  This cannot be definitively answered, but it is a distinct possibility that should not be ignored.  If this were to happen, then we might find one element of the military seeking political accommodations with the opposition or with some minorities that might allow reform to take place under various guarantees for military security and the unity of the state.  Now, fears of retribution may be a critical force in ostensible military cohesiveness.

Will the cease fires with the minorities hold?  If they do, the center is strengthened.  If not, then there could be further divisions within the state and the military.  What about the younger military themselves.  Are they in agreement with the senior commanders, and could they rise against their own military colleagues who perhaps appear to be corrupt or destructive of the prestige of the military?  This is a possibility, but it does not seem likely in the near term.  The military educational institutions are in large part catering to the sons of those in, or retired from, the military.

And what about the people?  Could they rise once again and try to complete the people’s revolution that almost succeeded in 1988 but eventually failed?  All evidence at the present time  is that this seems unlikely, although not impossible.  Authoritarian regimes often have had some of their lower functionaries make mistakes while trying to please their higher command, and it is possible that some egregious act might set forth a revolution.  The price of rice, the surrogate indicator of well being in the region, is an important indicator to watch, as are other prices of necessities, such as cooking oil.

What will the NLD do now that there is this concerted, quiet, governmental effort to marginalize it and its leadership?  Can it hold together over time?  In the shorter term, time seems on the side of the military, but over the longer period regime change and liberalization seems inevitable.  The military have attempted to picture the NLD as rigid and uncaring, as well as foreign controlled.  How effective this is within Myanmar is unclear, but it is a constant theme.  The initial stance of the NLD against humanitarian assistance and foreign NGO activities, which try to alleviate poverty, because such actions tended both to legitimate the government and would be used to benefit it, has been modified somewhat because the military played up the NLD intransigence as against the well being of the people.

In additional to fundamental issues connected with internal political dynamics, discussed above, the new World Bank report on Myanmar of 1999, sets forth a set of problems and priorities and requested a written response from Myanmar authorities on whether the government was interested in serious negotiations on any of these issues.  It links economic reforms to political changes, but does not specify the latter.  The Burmese government has now responded, but the reply lacked the specificity that the Bank had stipulated.

There are at present a number of basic possibilities for change assuming at this stage the singularity of today’s Burmese military leadership.  At one end of the potential spectrum is that  the military will be intransigent and will make no moves to satisfy the World Bank or potential bilateral donors, such as the Japanese, on either fundamental economic restructuring or major political reforms.  At the other end, the military will agree to both reform of the political power structure and major economic restructuring.  The former option seems the most likely response at the present time, and the latter the least likely.

But there are intermediate possibilities: the military might  agree to major economic reforms in accordance with the World Bank recommendations, or some minor economic reforms (such as those connected with certain public sector industries) but no essential political liberalization.  It is unlikely that they would agree to political reforms while neglecting the economic issues, if the analysis is correct that politics, not economics, are in command.  There is the possibility that the tatmadaw might pursue political dialogue with the NLD as a cosmetic move to placate the foreign community with no real intention of moderating their position on essential power.

Even remembering that Dante said that soothsayers go to a lower circle of hell, let me hazard the following possibilities:

·                   It is least likely that the military will agree with comprehensive political and economic reform–unless there is a change in present command positions.

·                   The next least likely possibility is major political reforms but not major economic reforms.  I believe the military view economics as an integral part of political power, and thus do not envisage economic reforms unless they are perceived to be supportive of their conception of power politics.

·                   The possibility of major economic reforms but no political change seems marginally plausible, but still unlikely, but modest economic changes but no political changes  is more possible, if not probable. 

The most likely eventuality is for the military in effect to deny major political or economic changes.  They may do so believing that the donors will block assistance without substantial changes which might threaten the power base of the government.  If it is true that the regional commanders play a greater role than heretofore, their insulation from the outside world may seem to make the option of ‘going it alone’ more plausible.  If this were to be true, then the donors options might concentrate on the slow building of civil society and pluralism, together with training of a future bureaucratic and business class for some, one hopes, more liberal future regime, through non-threatening humanitarian assistance and the operation of NGOs. This may be about all that can be done by external powers under these circumstances.  This approach, the building of civil society, has been denounced by the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma as being ‘well meaning’ but essentially misguided.[35]  Yet the other alternatives appear to be more bleak.

These predictions, which are art, not science (and we all know what we like in art but on which there will be fundamental disagreements), are based on my perceptions of how the military view their own position in the society.  That is:

·                   The present military (again, assuming they are in the singular at the present time because to assume otherwise would be imprudent without more evidence, but noting that this situation is likely not to hold over time) have no intention of giving up effective power.

·                   They view economic change as subordinate to political power.

·                   They may be ready to engage in cosmetic changes, such as political dialogue, but with no intention of letting that dialogue change the structure of power.  They would do this to placate the Japanese and ASEAN, with the goal of inducing Japanese aid and rejuvenating ASEAN investment.

·                   The military have no intention of engaging in any sort of dialogue with the minorities that would produce a federal system, although they will allow a degree of local autonomy for selected groups (Wa, etc.) but without national power.

·                   The military fundamentally distrust all foreign countries and organizations, and thus would only agree to foreign-induced changes or programs if they felt such changes, support, or funding could be manipulated in their own interests.  This they were able to do in the 1970s and 1980s.  Thus any foreign aid plans should consider what in foreign assistance are called the ‘unintended consequences’–that is, what happens if foreign plans produce results other than what was anticipated; e.g., a strengthening of a repressive regime through the building up of certain institutions or individuals, etc., rather than growing economic capacity to assist the poor, or minorities, or pluralism.  The military have demonstrated a capacity to underestimate the possibility of reforms through indirect channels, such as the building of civil society, so there may be opportunities for modest progress there.[36]


VII     Lessons Learned


The past dozen of years since the coup of 1988 were not created de novo.  Much of what has transpired have their precedents, if not their origins, in previous actions of the earlier military governments, some in the civilian period, and some are ingrained from pre-colonial times.

We should have learned that coercion will not work.  It creates a backlash based on nationalism and xenophobia that instead of accomplishing the goals set by foreigners, in fact reinforces the policy positions of those whom we hope to change, and also increases their legitimacy in the eyes of their own people and will be employed by the regime to do just this.  Further, we should note from the 1970s and 1980s that the simple provision of economic or other assistance in the hope that this will bring changes in attitudes and policies is erroneous.  Indiscriminate giving just reinforces the status quo and is destructive of reform.  We should know by now that assistance must have strings attached, but they must be appropriate strings.

It is also evident that negotiations with the Burmese authorities since independence are better carried out in private, avoiding the media.  Statements for the foreign press will be countered with statements from the controlled indigenous press.  Negotiations of a serious nature should be held in private.  Whether democratic regimes operating under conditions of relative transparency are capable of such quiet negotiations is another, important question, but it is subordinate to the need to allow the other party to the negotiations to retain the dignity of an equal, no matter what economic or military disparities may exist.  Dangling money in front of the regime alone will not work, for they will respond that they cannot be bought (as they have said).

Recognize as well that the attention span of the Burmese in dealing with issues within their own boundaries is going to be far longer than that of foreigners.  Foreign governments and even NGOs will be redirected to other crises while the Burmese authorities will hunker down to protect what they regard as their rights.  It seems evident to this observer that this is what is presently occurring in Myanmar.  The authorities at the highest level are newly stressing import-substitution industries and rice self-sufficiency and the ability of ‘going it alone,’ at which in the past they have been quite successful no matter how much the people may have suffered.  They seem prepared to emasculate slowly the NLD and marginalize Daw Suu Kyi, and then move to approve a new constitution that will enfief them for an indefinite period.

It also seems evident that the threat of retribution at very high levels if they relinquish control is probably an important reason for the military to want continued power.  Any accommodation with the military must somehow take this into account and establish rules under which any future government will operate.  This is likely to be a contentious issue, as it evident in Latin America, South Africa, and other places.  It is not, however, insolvable.


VIII     Possibilities for Future Actions


The alternatives for foreigner well-wishers of the state and its people are limited.  It may be necessary to recognize that the military will be there, will be important, and must somehow become a part of both  the negotiating process and the end product.  This was true in the civilian period as well as at the present time, although this is sometimes overlooked.  It should be completely clear that this in no way endorses the concepts of ‘Asian values,’ which have been patently used to subordinate populations to governments less than democratic.  They have been so used in Myanmar as well as elsewhere. 

Democracy may be an ultimate goal, but it may be important not to push for the ultimate change (democracy, however defined), but incremental changes (pluralism, the building of civil society, etc.) that would be less threatening, but in the long run accomplish more than the strident stance that may be as morally satisfying as it is ineffective.  It may be better to move toward liberalization and pluralism that to demand a full-blown democracy born from the forehead  of a military Zeus.

In a sense, the status quo as perceived by outsiders may not be perceived that same way inside Myanmar.  It might be useful, for example, to have the surrounding states of Myanmar specifically support the unity of the Burmese state, as the military goals have stipulated, and reaffirm the territorial integrity of Myanmar, and indicating that they would not countenance any attempts to form independent states along the Burmese littorals.  At the same time, the Burmese military could be assured that they would support the improvement in the socio-economic conditions within these areas in their own interests–to discourage refugee movements or illegal labor migration.  On their part, the military would have to make efforts to stop acting as an occupying army in enemy territory.  The regional military commanders, who now wield significant power both in their areas and in Rangoon, need to become part of the effort and to perceive that it is in their own interests.

At this time, the resumption of traditional foreign assistance programs (beyond humanitarian aid) would accomplish little, and could even have negative effects on the population, although such effects might be positive for the military.

There are dangers to the state, to the military, and to the people that privately the military might be made to recognize.  Although they deny, for example, that there is an AIDS/HIV crisis, neutral observers agree that this is the case, and no matter how many times the authorities stridently maintain that such a crisis is impossible in Myanmar because of ‘traditional Myanmar values,’ this is patently false.  It is also evident that should the authorities recognize that they have a crisis, they neither have the technical training nor the funds to carry out an educational program against the spread of the disease.  Thailand, which has stopped the epidemic spread of  AIDS (not cured it) spends about $200 million annually to do so; Myanmar spends $2 million.  If the case quietly could be made to the military that AIDS is decimating the military (as seems to be the case), and that the costs to the state will be enormous, perhaps it is possible for the SPDC and the NLD to agree to a joint education program funded from foreign sources, both to stop the epidemic and as a ‘confidence-building measure.’  Both would claim that such a program would legitimate and strengthen the other, which is true for both, but it is an approach that might be essayed.

Could a counter-narcotics program contribute to alleviating some of the tensions in the society and lead to more cohesion?  Certainly the narcotics issue has to be addressed.  The experience in the region, however, has not been effective.  Previous support for anti-narcotics activities by the U.S. were more effective as theater than reality.  The important areas were those the state did not control.  Now, however, there are some changes, with the Rangoon regime in titular authority through the cease fires.  But to expect that the central government has effective control (the minorities still hold their guns), and that the lucrative trade will disappear with the usual crop-substitution programs is unrealistic.  In Thailand, it was the creation of new infrastructure, markets, employment opportunities, education and other factors that all eventually contributed to control of opium production.  But that took about a generation to succeed.  An important change in Myanmar has been the shift to chemically based narcotics production, which has become highly significant and will not be affected by crop substitution programs.

It was once argued that anti-narcotics programs put the foreign advisors in close contact with segments of the Burmese military with whom contacts were otherwise difficult.  This is unlikely to be a sufficient justification for such a program.  But it raises a further important consideration: if engagement with the regime is appropriate, then is engagement with the military appropriate? Is military training something that should be considered?  Would such training and exposure to more humane and responsible military establishments be effective, or would such efforts further legitimate the regime?  Although there is a theoretical argument in favor of increasing the contacts of the military with the outside world, the U.S. experience does not make one sanguine that it would be effective.  In the balance it would likely be viewed as too great support for an oppressive government, even though training did take place in the BSPP period, and in Indonesia, for example.  


IX     Coda


The outlook for improvement in Myanmar seems bleak.  All parties now seem to have too much to lose to compromise, which in the political culture of Burma is complex at best.[37]  Egos, even legitimacy, are at stake.  The foreign role is limited, and funds alone are not the only, or main, issue.  Each side looks on the situation in terms of its own survival.  The NLD has elements that want compromise, although Daw Suu Kyi has not agreed to do so.  The military may envision the Pinochet syndrome, so to speak, and fear retribution.  The situation is not helped by proponents on either side; some opposition supporters want the military reduced to one-tenth of its present size and want officials tried for crimes.  Under those circumstances, the military will attempt to continue domination of power in the state.  Some among the military probably want the NLD dissolved and Aung San Suu Kyi exiled or worse.  This dichotomy is difficult to bridge as long as the propaganda and cant on both sides is conveyed to the public.  These political difficulties negatively affect the interest and capacities of any of the actors in fostering social cohesion and preventing conflict.

The multilateral donor community should insist that if they are to be involved in anything more than technical training for some new, unknown, and more liberal government, that some economic reforms are essential, and some political moderation and compromise are required.  The alternative, so that the poor in Myanmar are not abandoned both by their own government and the outside world, is for the international NGO community  to proffer limited humanitarian assistance if they are allowed to conduct legitimate humanitarian programs in accordance with their charters and that they would have the responsibility for careful monitoring and evaluation of their assistance.          The outlook is still dim, but it seems imperative to attempt to influence positively changes for the well-being of the diverse peoples of Burma/Myanmar, and to begin the slow process of minimizing and then eliminating the cleavages so evident and disastrous for the society.


Bethesda, Maryland

The writer is Director of Asian Studies, Georgetown University, and a Senior Consultant to The Asia Foundation.

Appendix A


Linguistic Groups of Burma/Myanmar









Nakhi (Moso)

Kachin (Chingpaw), including Atsi, Lashi, Maru, etc.









Naga (divided into many subgroups)

Karen (including Pwo, Sgaw, Bre, Karenni, Padaung, Pa-O)


Malayo-Polynesian: Malay





Miao (Hmong)










Hkamti Shan

























Appendix B

Ethnically Related Rebel Groups in Burma (1983-84)


Abi Group (Lahu)

Arakan Liberation Party (Rakhine Liberation Army)

Arakan National Liberation Party (Rakhine Muslim Liberation Party, Mujahids)

Kachin National Union (successor to the Karen National Defense Organization)

Karen Liberation Army

Karenni National progressive Party

Karenni State Nationalities Liberation Front

Kayah New Land Revolutionary Council

Lahu National Unity Party

National Democratic Front (umbrella organization)

Muslim Liberation Front

National Socialist Council of Nagaland

New Mon State Party

Palaung Patriotic Army

Palaung State Liberation organization

Pa-O National Organization

Rohingya Patriotic Front

Shan State Army

Shan State Nationalities Liberation Group

Shan State Volunteer organization

Shan United Army

Shan United Revolutionary Army

Wa National Army

(unnamed) Chin group


Other Rebel Organizations

Burma Communist Party

Arakanese Communist Party (Rakhine Communist Party)

Yang Hwe-Kang group (Chinese Irregular Forces)

Appendix C


Ethnic Cease Fires (July 1998) [38]


Main Cease Fire Organizations                                                                                        Date


Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Party                                                                       1989

United Wa State Party (or Myanmar National Solidarity Party) 1989

National Democratic Alliance Party                                                                                      1989

Shan State Army/Shan State progress Party                                                                       1989

New Democratic Army                                                                                                          1989

Kachin Defence Army (KIO 4th Brigade)                                                                               1991

Pao National Organization                                                                                                    1991

Palaung State Liberation Party                                                                                             1991

Kayan National Guard                                                                                                          1992

Kachin Independence Organization                                                                                      1994

Karenni State Nationalities Liberation Front                                                                         1994

Kayan New Land Party                                                                                                         1994

Shan State Nationalities Liberation Organization                                                                 1994

New Mon State Party                                                                                                           1995

Other Cease Fire Forces

Democratic Karen Buddhist Army                                                                                         1995

Mongko Region Defence Army                                                                                             1995

Shan State National Army                                                                                                    1995

Mong Tai Army                                                                                                                     1996

Karenni National Defence Army                                                                                           1996

Karen Peace Force (ex-KNU, 16th Battalion)                                                                        1997

Communist Party of Burma (Arakan Province)                                                                     1997

Mergui Mon Army                                                                                                                 1997

Appendix D


Forces in Revolt (July 1998) [39]


Arakan Liberation Party

Chin National Front

Karen National Union (1995-96 talks broke down)

Karen National progressive Party (1995 cease fire broke down)

Lahu National Organization

Mergui-Tavoy United Front (ex-BCP)

National Socialist Council of Nagaland


Main Faction

National Unity Party (Front) of Arakan

Rohingya National Alliance

Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front

Rohingya Solidarity Organization

Shan United Revolutionary Army (reformed 1996)

Wa National Organization (1997 talks broke down)













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[1]. The use of the name of the state, ‘Myanmar’ or ‘Burma,’ with the military government mandating ‘Myanmar’ for all of of that country’s history and the opposition insisting on ‘Burma,’  indicates more than political alignment, although that is immediately evident as well. This country may be the only such one in the world today where even its name places one in a political camp.  But the disputes over changes in names, and the military designation of ‘Bamar’ for the principal ethnic group, are dramatically indicative of the lack of social and ethnic cohesion within the state, the present military government stating that the name change increases inter-ethnic cooperation while the opposition disagrees.  The uses of the names in this paper implies no political bias– ‘Myanmar’ will be used for the regime since 1988 (the name was changed in 1989), ‘Burma’ for the earlier period, both together to indicate historical continuity, ‘Burman’ for a member of the major ethnic group, ‘Burmese’ for a citizen of that country, and as an adjective and for the language of the majority ethnic entity.

[2] The term ‘imagined community’ comes from  Anderson, Benedict, R. O'G. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991. 


[3]. ‘Burmese women are not only among the freest in Asia, but until the relatively recent emancipation of women in the West, they enjoyed much greater freedom and equality with men than did Western women.  Today, as we shall see, they control not only the family economy but most of the retail trade as well–village hawkers–and the proprietors of the stalls and shops in the town and city bazaars are predominantly women.  Women are well represented, too, in large business enterprises.  Moreover, except for engineering, women are liberally represented in the professions.  In the villages, women participate in the productive phases of the agricultural economy, and they receive the same wages as men for the same work...Finally, women enjoy social equality with men.  Such customs as the veil, purdah, child betrothal, foot binding, widow immolation–these, and all other disabilities suffered by the women or India, on one side of Burma and China, on the other, have always been absent from Burma.’  Melford Spiro, Kinship and Marriage in Burma: A Cultural and Psychodynamic Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. Pp.257-58.

[4].  For a discussion of the comparative rise of South Korea, Thailand, and Burma, see David I. Steinberg, ‘Myanmar: The Anomalies of Politics and Economics,’ in James Morley, ed. Driven by Growth. Political Change in the Asia-Pacific Region.  New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2nd edition, 1998,

[5] In Benedict Anderson, ‘The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture, in Claire Holt, ed. Culture and Politics in Indonesia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972.              .

[6]. For a discussion of these issues, see David I. Steinberg, ‘The State, Power, and Civil Society in Burma/Myanmar: The Status and Prospects for Pluralism,’ in Burma-Myanmar. Strong Regime, Weak State? Bathurst (Australia): Crawford House, 2000. In many modern societies, power is considered infinite, so that sharing becomes a ‘win-win’ situation.

[7]. In 1983, when the director of the intelligence services, General Tin Oo, was considered by Ne Win to be a political threat because he was so popular, he was purged from that position, along with all those in that organization associated with him–his entourage.  The resulting disintegration of Burma’s intelligence capacity led to North Korea’s almost successful assassination of President Chun Doo Hwan of South Korea, who was on a state visit, but killing seventeen high Korean officials and three Burmese.  It is doubtful that this attempt would have gone undetected if the ubiquitous intelligence services had been intact.

[8].  This is evident in the elections of May 1990.  Of the 93 political parties that eventually contested the elections, 36 had minority nationality names,

[9]. The military is in fact the most cohesive institution in the country, but this is true because they first destroyed, and then have not allowed to develop, any other institution that might play a similar role.  The most heinous crime in Myanmar, according to the military, is attempting to split the military, of which Aung San Suu Kyi was first accused.

[10]. Previously some groups in the Shan State had sought UN trusteeship for that area, and some drug czars have masked their lucrative trade under the guise of being ethnic nationalists and seeking independence or autonomy.

[11].  This was based on the model of the Indian states within the British Empire.

[12]. The Burma Communist Party before its collapse along the China border in the late 1980s had Sin-Burma leadership and large numbers of the Wa ethnic group.

[13]. The problem was exacerbated because in World War II the Karen sided with the British, and the Burmans at first jointed with the Japanese.  There were massacres by the Burmans of the Karen in the Irrawaddy delta in 1942.

[14].  The Thai were most concerned about the perceived Vietnamese threat on their ‘Eastern front,’ and wanted to ensure that their Western borders remained protected.

[15].  The most recent (March 2000) example is a decree that all Burmese overseas must remit 50 percent of their overseas earnings to their families.  No mention is made of those without families, and severe hardships will result, thus further isolating the regime from its citizenry. Shortly after this decree was issued, it was said to have been recinded.

[16]. In 1988, Burma had 40,000 visitors, compared to 400,000 in Nepal and 4,000,000 in Thailand.  In fiscal year 1998-99, there were 286,882 tourists.  Selected Economic Indicators, Myanmar Times and Business Review, March 6-12, 2000. Vol. 1, No. 1.

[17]. This pattern of forced urban resettlement was begun by the military in Rangoon in 1958, when almost 200,000 people were essentially dumped into inhospitable areas, which have since remained poor areas and were the scenes of some of the most virulent anti-military demonstrations of 1988.

[18]. Although Suharto’s Indonesia has been a model for much of the military’s recent thinking of its civilianized future role, the Burmese military have not attempted to introduce a national ideology, such as the Indonesian Panjasila.  One of the tragedies of Burma was the lack of a cohesive national concept.  The monarchy in Thailand and the King as defender of the faith perform this function there, and even South Korea, lacking a positive concept that was credible (since there was little democracy until recently for much of the independence period), used anti-communism as a rallying cry.

[19]. Although the hierarchy, and thus the Buddhists as a national power force, are controlled, individual village Buddhist monasteries are one of the few elements left of civil society–groups not under state domination or control, and where people gather together to pursue common goals.

[20].  Some 15,000 firms were nationalized in beginning in 1963.  Land ownership had been vested in the state since independence, and it remained in private hands even though the government had plans for large-scale management of agricultural land through producer cooperatives and eventually communes, but this never came to pass.

[21].  See David I. Steinberg, ‘Myanmar and the Requirements of Mobilization and Orthodoxy: The Union Solidarity and Development Association.’  Burma Debate, February 1997.

[22].  The opposition overwhelmingly won the May 1990 election, which the military have refused to recognize.  The voting may have been as much against military control over the society as it was a positive vote for the National league for Democracy (NLD), for earlier in 1960 the population essentially voted against the military’s continuing role in direct governance. A distinction should be made between the military as individuals, as a national defense force, and as a national administration.  It is the latter that is deplored.  The May 1990 elections, for example, were not a repudiation of the military per se.  Forty-two of those elected were retired military officers, and 145 retired service personnel, along with 54 lawyers and advocates and 50 doctors.  Working People’s Daily, 9-12-90).

[23].  This is not new.  The military attempted to end the insurgencies in the 1960s by forming local rebel groups into the KKY, which was a kind of local militia.  They held their arms, and as long as they did not shoot at the government troops, they could engage in their traditional pursuits, which included opium production.

[24]. Opium production was said to be about 2500 tons in 1998, but has decreased to about 1750 tons the following year, partly because of bad weather but also because of government surveillance.

[25].  As President Marcos in the Philippines did when he called for a snap election he thought he could control, so the SLORC made an immense error in judgement by agreeing to the election of 1990.  Each undercut their own interests.

[26]. It should be understood that the U.S. is not necessarily acting with unanimity.  There are internal divisions within the executive branch, and some members of Congress and their staffs who can prevent a liberalization of policies because no one wants to be seen to be voting for a pariah regime.  Some think tanks (CSIS, Cato Institute) have come out against sanctions, and some human rights groups have called for a change in U.S. policy that has been perceived to be ineffective.

[27]. In a survey in 1995 (before US sanctions), a survey of 193 Japanese firms in Myanmar (102 responding), indicated the top problems facing these firms (in order of priority) were: the dual exchange rate (71.3%), lack of infrastructure for transportation and distribution(60.4%), the political situation (50.5%), the ban on ODA from Japan (43.6%), insufficient information on Myanmar (43.6%), undeveloped laws and systems (25.7%), shortages of electric power (21,8%).  Of 467 local manufacturing firms in and around Rangoon, in 1996 most complained about shortages of electricity, troubles in financing, and shortages of materials and spare parts.  Tokyo: Ministry of Finance, Institute of Fiscal and Monetary Policy, Study Group on the Myanmar Economy,’Current Situation of the Myanmar Economy and Its Future Development Strategy.’. pp. 93-94.

[28]. His Majesty the King of Thailand spoke quite strongly against sanctions toward Myanmar and for a more engaged approach to it.  Personal audience, 1993.

[29]. The following is from David I. Steinberg, Burma: Myanmar’s Decade of Turmoil: Authority and Legitimacy in a Troubled State.  Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000 (in press).

[30]. Socialism, the hallmark of political legitimacy in the early years of the Union and in the independence struggle was effectively demolished as an ideology not because it was felt to be inappropriate, but because it failed so miserably.  Some argue that it was not an ideology of Ne Win, who simply used it to gain power.

[31]. Yet in 1990, the military entered monasteries and pagodas in Mandalay and suppressed dissident Buddhist monks.  In part, the tatmadaw may be attempting to assuage the anger generated by this poor and politically disastrous image.

[32]. Some influential Chinese officials realize the potential danger.  One was quoted as having said, ‘We [Chinese] are walking on eggshells [in Myanmar].’

[33]. However farfetched this may sound to Americans, it was viewed as a real possibility in 1988 when a U.S. aircraft carrier was reported to have been stationed off the coast to enable the evacuation of U.S. personnel if chaos had ensued in the demonstrations.  Later, the SLORC conducted an informal survey among key individuals to ascertain their reaction if the U.S. were to intervene.  This was after the U.S. invasion in Haiti.  A senior military official also said that the government had no faith in official statistics on U.S. congressional aid levels related to Burmese refugees.  ‘They say it is five million [dollars] but it could be fifty.’ Personal interview.

[34]. Although the evidence for this in Asia alone over any reasonable time is highly suspect; e.g. Korea (1961-1987), Taiwan (1949-1992); China, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, etc.

[35]. Speech by Prime Minister Sein Win, NCGUB, American University, Washington, D.C., January 2000.

[36]. One might argue that because the NLD and NCGUB oppose NGO activity in building civil society, then the military might agree to it.

[37].In February 2000, the military has allowed the publication of a new newspaper, with an Australian as editor, that is purported to be autonomous.  At the same time, it has officially ‘published’ via internet a comparatively moderate set of articles by one ‘SA’ that is more compromising in tone, although still severely critical of the NLD.  Do these events indicate an oblique signal?  Military intelligence officials have been aware of the shortcomings of the official press, jokingly ascribing it to Chinese training. It seems likely that any public amelioration of the rigidity of the regime will not affect its conception of its power role.  It is significant that the weekly newspaper will be subject to self-censorship, as the editor indicated.  These articles by ‘SA’ were not internally distributed within Myanmar.

[38]. From Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity.  London: Zed Books, 2nd edition, 1998.

[39]. From Martin Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity.  London: Zed Books, 2nd edition, 1998.