Myanmar - Politics - Background
Since 1962 active-duty military officers have occupied the most important positions in the central government and in local governments, and the regime placed active-duty or retired military officers in senior-level positions in almost every ministry. As of 2011 active-duty or retired military officers occupied 30 of 33 ministerial-level posts, including prime minister and the mayoral posts in Rangoon, Mandalay, and the administrative capital Nay Pyi Taw. The government maintained tight control over the operations of political parties and political opponents' rights to organize and publicize their views. Persons who opposed the government were subjected to imprisonment, violence, and harassment.
The 8.8.88 People's Uprising (August 8, 1988) for restoration of democracy and human rights was followed by the killing of hundreds of protesters on the streets of Rangoon and other cities and a military coup led by the Burmese army. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader who heads the National League for Democracy (NLD), is also a Nobel Peace laureate. At the 1990 general elections, the NLD scored an outright landslide victory. It was Suu Kyi's personal sacrifice and her defence of human rights that made her an iconic symbol for the Burmese people in their struggle for freedom. Her father was Burma's independence hero, Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947, when Suu Kyi was just two years old.
Suu Kyi spent her early years studying in Burma and India, and it was during her student years in Oxford University, that she met her husband, Michael Aris, the Tibet Scholar. When she came home to Burma in 1988 to nurse her sick mother, she became involved in her nation's struggle for democracy. She witnessed the military regime quell the famous 8-8-88 uprising by the Burmese people, when 5,000 demonstrators were killed. The NLD was formed after the military coup in September 1988 and Suu Kyi was appointed its General Secretary. She travelled the country giving numerous speeches demanding freedom and democracy but attracted the attention of the authorities and her freedom was curtailed. She spent over 15 years incarcerated, most of it under house arrest under laws which allow for detention without charge or trial. The NLD was triumphant in the general election of 1990 but victory was brushed aside by the military junta.
Since late 2000, the military government that ruled Burma held sporadic talks with Suu Kyi, allowed the party she heads to reopen offices, and released dozens of political prisoners. At the same time, the army, which has held power in one form or another for four decades, showed no real sign that it planned to stand down.
During the period of March 2001 to September 2001, Burma's military regime continued the policy of discussion with the NLD's General Secretary, Aung San Suu Kyi, which it had adopted in October 2000 on the advice of UN Special Representative Razali Ismail. This process has contributed to some mutual understanding. While none of the substance of the talks was revealed by either side, a series of confidence building gestures has resulted in the release of approximately 180 political prisoners, including all of the NLD's Central Executive Committee member. The regime also halted its virulent attacks on Aung San Suu Kyi and the NL, which had become a staple of newspaper coverage in Burma. In addition, the military government allowed the NLD to reopen 21 party offices in Rangoon Division and to resume some normal party activities. These included a public meeting held on September 27, 2001 to commemorate the founding of the NLD, which was attended by Ambassadors and Chiefs of Mission from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Norway and other countries. The NLD, for its part,moderated its public criticism of the regime.
Suu Kyi's release on 6 May 2002 after 19 months of house arrest followed months of talks between her and the SPDC that began in late 2000, prodded by UN special envoy Razali Ismail. Following her release, Suu Kyi called for an immediate dialogue with the government on Burma's political future, with an initial focus on getting more political prisoners freed. The highly-publicized release from house arrest of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in May 2002 was only the most visible of a series of changes that have created a tiny opening in Burma's political space.
After barely 15 months in office, Prime Minister and the long-powerful intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt was sacked in mid-October 2004, and put under house arrest on corruption charges following seizure of large quantities of gold, jade and currency from his agents at Muse checkpoint on the China-Burma border. Since Khin Nyunt was the chief architect of closer China-Burma strategic ties during the 1990s, his sudden removal has been interpreted as a major setback for China's strategic goals in Burma. The Chinese had been trying to bolster his position through generous mega business deals and soft loan packages. Since becoming prime minister in August 2003, he had also outlined a "road map to democracy" in UN-brokered contacts between the government and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) that favored limited role for civilian politicians.
Khin Nyunt's replacement with Lt. Gen. Soe Win, a hardliner known for his opposition to transferring power to Suu Kyi's NLD, was seen as another setback to the long-awaited political reconciliation process within the country. Furthermore, the regime shake-up has the potential to endanger ceasefires with ethnic minority rebel groups, and further sour Rangoon's relations with the West. The regime shake-up was in large part a result of internal power struggle and a bid to curtail Khin Nyunt's growing clout by factions that had long accused his National Intelligence Bureau (now dismantled) of running "a state within the state". While General Than Shwe, Chairman of the military junta, also known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), was the key figure in the power structure, a new triumvirate of traditional Burmese nationalists comprising General Maung Aye, General Thura Shwe Mann and Lt. Gen. Soe Win was emerging to run the country.
Following a sharp increase in fuel prices on August 15, 2007, pro-democracy groups began a series of peaceful marches and demonstrations to protest the deteriorating economic situation in Burma. The regime responded by arbitrarily detaining over 150 pro-democracy activists in August and September 2007, including Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, both previously-imprisoned key figures in the 1988 demonstrations. On August 28, 2007, as popular dissatisfaction spread, Buddhist monks began leading peaceful marches. The All Burma Monks Alliance was instrumental in getting monks onto the streets during the so-called "Saffron Revolution" phase of protests in September 2007. On September 5, 2007, security forces in the town of Pakkoku violently broke up demonstrations by monks, resulting in injuries and triggering calls for a nationwide response and a government apology for the incident.
Beginning on September 18, 2007, monks resumed their peaceful protests in several cities throughout the country. These marches grew quickly to include ordinary citizens, culminating in a large gathering of protestors in Rangoon on September 24. On September 26 and 27, the regime renewed its violent crackdown, shooting, beating, and arbitrarily detaining thousands of monks, pro-democracy activists, and onlookers. During the repression of peaceful demonstrations from 26 to 29 September 2007, the security forces, including the army and the riot police, as well as members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association and the Swan Ah Shin militia, used excessive force against civilians, including unnecessary and disproportionate lethal force, including killings, severe beatings, arrests, torture and deaths incustody.
The regime confirmed the deaths of only 10 protestors. However, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) estimated the number of casualties to be much higher, and in his December 7, 2007, report to the UN General Assembly, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro stated that there were over 30 fatalities in Rangoon associated with the September 2007 protests. There were solid grounds to believe that at least 31 persons had died, and that some 3,000 to 4,000 people had been arrested as a result of the crackdown on the demonstrations of September and October. In retribution for leading protest marches, monks were beaten and arrested, many monks were disrobed, and several monasteries were raided, ransacked, and closed. In addition to the more than 1,100 political prisoners whose arrests predate the crackdown, another thousand or more were detained due to their participation in the September 2007 protests.
The Burma army remained firmly in control throughout most of the country, with Senior General Than Shwe retaining almost absolute power. He had the final word on all significant political and economic decisions. While outsiders may portray him as an uneducated, crass, and blundering man, he had successfully consolidated and held onto power for several years, while at the same time building lucrative relationships with his energy hungry neighbors that undermine Western efforts to cripple his regime.
The generals kept their power through a vast system of economic patronage, not unlike a Western style Mafia. Military-owned enterprises control every profit-making natural resource and industry in the country. Economic prosperity can only be enjoyed by rising thorough the ranks of the Army, or having extremely close ties to the senior generals. This is why China's urging to the generals to begin reforming Burma's economy fell on deaf ears. Economic liberalization and reform would require the generals to dismantle the very system that ensures their power. Dismantling this system would be one of the biggest challenges for any future democratic leader of Burma.
Rumors of splits at the top of the regime were the result of uninformed analysis and wishful thinking of the exiles and outside observers. While the senior generals may disagree from time-to-time among themselves, they followed the orders of Than Shwe. The senior generals are keenly aware that if they do not stand together, they will fall together. True democratic change would not likely happen until the top two generals, Than Shwe and Maung Aye, are off the scene. Both were extremely concerned for the safety and financial security of themselves and their families. Third-ranking general Thura Shwe Mann was rumored to be Than Shwe's pick for Burma's President in 2010, but if Than Shwe and Maung Aye were still alive, they will likely pull his strings from behind the scenes. Thura Shwe Mann was smart, sophisticated, and well-aware of Burma's problems. However, he was intimately involved in Burma's corruption, primarily through his sons' business interests.
Starting in November 2008, the government imposed harsh sentences on large numbers of political prisoners it had arrested over the course of the previous year, including Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi. The trials were closed and did not appear to meet minimum standards of due process. The imprisoned activists were convicted, mainly in closed-door hearings, of unlawful association, illegally distributing print and video media, or generally destabilizing public security and the security of the state and were given lengthy sentences, some as long as 68 years.
On May 14, 2009, security forces took Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest to Insein prison and charged her and her two assistants with baseless crimes related to an uninvited U.S. citizen who swam to her home. Following a trial that was widely viewed as unfair, on August 11, 2009, Aung San Suu Kyi and her two assistants were convicted of violating the terms of her house arrest. The international community criticized her conviction and subsequent sentence to an additional 18 months of house arrest. The SPDC government released Aung San Suu Kyi on November 13, 2010, after more than 7 years' continuous detention. However, the government continues to hold an estimated 2,100 other political prisoners.
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