The resignation of Htin Kyaw, Myanmar’s symbolic head of state and ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, comes as the country marks 70 years of independence. But more significant, writes Nicholas Nugent, is the 30th anniversary of the protest movement against military rule
Myanmar, so long a country of despotic military rule and economic chaos, has little to celebrate.The hopes that accompanied the restoration of democratic rule have been overtaken by concerns that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is less well equipped to tackle the country’s myriad problems than the military cabal that preceded her. Just as the economy was starting to take off, helped by foreign investors reacting to the lifting of international sanctions, the delicate ethnic mix that makes up the Union of Myanmar has exploded, notably in western Rakhine state, home of the Muslim Rohingya minority.
It is 70 years since Burma, as the country was then called, gained independence from Britain, onJanuary 41948, a few months after India and Pakistan and shortly before Britain’s other South Asian colony, Ceylon, gained its freedom. Elections the previous year had given power with an overwhelming majority to the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League led by General Aung San, a Second World War hero who helped the British-ledallies to oust the conquering Japanese army. General Aung San is credited with preparing Burma for independence and had been due to become its first prime minister.
Five months before the date set for independence, General Aung San and six members of his provisional government were assassinated in downtown Rangoon as they prepared foroffice. It was a blow as harsh as any for a new nation on the eve of its freedom. General Aung San was the founder of Burma’s fledgling armed forces, known now as the Tatmadaw, as well as the political party which had won power. He also played a leading role in engaging with the country’s many minority ethnic groups, which resulted in the 1947 Panglong Agreement, one of the foundations of the multi-ethnic Union of Burma.
Had Aung San lived, the Karen (or Kayin) rebellion that broke out a few months after independence might have been averted; the 1962 overthrow of civilian democratic rule by the Tatmadaw under General Ne Win may never have happened. Had Aung San succeeded with his strategy of bringing the country’s many minority peoples, his daughter, Suu Kyi – who was aged two when her father was killed – might not have had to confront the Rohingya crisis which has brought her own two-year-old government to an international low ebb. International observers who had previously heaped awards on Aung San Suu Kyi, including the Nobel Peace Prize, have been surprised by her inability to address in any satisfactory way the problem of the forced expulsion of 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine state, which the United Nations says ‘bears the hallmarks of genocide’.
I first visited Burma in the dark days of the mid-1970s. The lights had almost literally been turned off by the military government and the economy was in ruins. Once prosperous Burma, a regional ‘rice bowl’ and source of teak and other hardwoodsand gemstones, including rubies and sapphires, had been almost totally cut off from the outside world in an effort to defeat the ethnic ‘armies’resentful at the way the ‘Burman’or ‘Bamar’ majority had monopolised power.
In theory, the Kachin, Kayah, Kayin,Chin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan peoples enjoy autonomy within their own dedicated states. In practice, they felt like second-class citizens alongside the nearly 70 per cent Burmans as government policy pursued what it called the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’, under which all non-agricultural production was taken into state ownership.Burmese people of all ethnicities grew poorer as the problems worsened. In 1987, what had been one of South Asia’s most thrivingcountries at the time of independence joined the UN’s list of ‘least developed nations’.
On a later visit in 1988, reporting undercover for the BBC, I witnessed the start of the big changes that were eventually to lead Burma out of its darkness and isolation. The government had demonetised high value notes, for the third time, with no compensation. Many citizens lost large amounts of money, giving rise to an angry mood among the people. This flared up at a student demonstration in March 1988 at which protestors were arrested. Many suffocated after being forced into overcrowded police vehicles.
That summer 30 years ago, General Ne Win resigned as leader of the Burmese Socialist Programme Party, effectively president of the one-party state, but harsher generals took his place. Later that year a huge popular protest on the streets of Rangoon on a date regarded as auspicious by Burmese – August 8, or 8-8-88 – was brutally suppressed by the army. This was the beginning of Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to power. Returning from domicile in Britain to care for her dying mother, she formed the National League of Democracy (NLD) to fight military oppression and campaign for civilian rule. Her first electoral success, in 1990, was not accepted by the military, who retained their hold on power.
Eventually, after she endured years of house arrest, Suu Kyi’s NLD triumphed again, in 2015. Suu Kyi finally came to power as State Counsellor – roughly equivalent to Prime Minister –two years ago (April 2016).Burma – renamed Myanmar in 1989 to embrace Burmans and non-Burmans alike – has enjoyed democratic rule for just 18 of its 70 years as an independent nation, so it is easy to see why the events of 1988 – which will be marked later this year –hold such significance for the country and its people.
Suu Kyi’s power is not untrammelled. She shares itwith the armed forces, who occupy a quarter of parliamentary seats and have the right to appoint the interior and defence ministers under the same military devised constitution which bars her from assuming the position of president because her children hold British citizenship.
The government has been unable to prevent the forced expulsion of Muslims. It banned a UN rapporteur from the country because ofSuu Kyi’s insistence on calling the affected community ‘Rohingya’. Officials instead call them ‘Bengalis’. They say a mere 100,000 of the estimated 1.1 million strong community of people of Bengali Muslim descent have Myanmar citizenship, hence most have no right to live there. Yet most were born in Myanmar.
The Rohingya crisis was precipitated in August 2017 when the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked army posts, yet the alleged discrimination against the community by the army dates back many years. (Arakan is the former name of Rakhine state.) Suu Kyi’s father was trying to tackle such minority issues when he was assassinated.
Two factors seem to tie Suu Kyi’s hands. Though she is portrayed as having fought and won her own victory over the military (who nowsupport her civilian government),she cannot escape her heritage. Her father was co-founder of the Tatmadaw, the ‘vehicle’ on which Burma rode to independence. Since before the military coup of 1962, the Tatmadaw has been the backbone of the state.
The second factor is the extent of Buddhist nationalism, which in recent years has grown in militancy. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), the activities of groups like the Buddhist cleric-led Association for the Protection of Race and Religion – known in Myanmar by its acronym Ma-Ba-Tha and implicated in the persecution of Rohingyas– have caused ‘a spike in anti-Muslim sentiment, raising anew the spectre of communal violence that could imperil the country’s transition’.It goes on: ‘Myanmar has been troubled by an upsurge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and deadly communal violence, not only in Rakhine state but across the country.’
According to the ICG, this militant Buddhist group is the main offender. But its philosophy is widely adhered to, with even educated Myanmar citizens telling you: ‘This is a Buddhist country and Muslims do not belong here.’General Aung San was no Buddhist nationalist, hence his attempt to give a place to all ethnicities and religious communities. His own wife, Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother, was Christian. Yet a frequently voiced argument asserts that Suu Kyi risks losing popular support if she doesn’t ‘stand up for Buddhist rights’.
If Myanmar’s armed forces are the ‘devil’ for Suu Kyi’s administration, it seems that Buddhist nationalism is the ‘deep blue sea’.