Burma under the boot of the army

March 27, 1991

By Andrew Nette

Aung Naing Oo is one of thousands of students who fled Burma's cities in the wake of the crushing of the nation's democracy movement in 1988. In fear of military retaliation for their central role in the opposition, they moved into jungle areas controlled by ethnic minorities fighting the central government. The students, approximately 10,000 by the end of 1988, formed the All Burma Student Democratic Front. Aung Naing is joint secretary for its Foreign Affairs Department.

He is bitter that the scale of repression in Burma is little publicised in the West. "The destruction of China's democracy movement took place mainly in one city, over a week. Our Tienanmen Square ravaged the entire country, and still it continues."

Thousands took to the streets throughout 1988 to demand an end to the 27-year rule of the Burmese Socialist Program Party and immediate democratic elections. Throughout August and September, hundreds were killed daily as soldiers fired on civilian demonstrators. Hundreds more were arrested, tortured and incarcerated in prison camps.

Just as it seemed the regime was about to crumble, on September 18, Rangoon radio announced the abolition of the government and the formation of the State Law and Order Restoration Committee, headed by the military.

This coup halted the protest movement. Harsh press restrictions meant news out of Burma was reduced to a trickle. It seemed the story was over. But in the two years since, much has happened.

Aung Naing explains, "Our initial strategy was to organise, train and obtain military supplies from the ethnic insurgents and return to Rangoon in a position to challenge and overcome the apparently weakened military government. The following crackdown reduced our capacity to return and confront the military. Instead we decided to stay, learn and form alliances with the ethnic minorities."

Ethnic minorities

Making up around one-third of the country's population, Burma's ethnic minorities are confined mainly to mountainous areas. From there, a dozen or so ethnic-based rebel armies have waged a series of long and bloody insurrections. Some, like the Karen in the north, have been fighting the Rangoon government for over 40 years.

In the early days of the student exodus, the camps were mainly in Karen-controlled territory bordering Thailand. Now there are camps in insurgent-controlled areas near the borders with Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand.

The students continue the struggle as best they can despite the hardships of life in the jungle. "Obviously the jungle was a sudden Most of the students were from the middle classes; until the unrest we had carefree lives, we went to university, we had little to worry about. Life in the jungles was unimaginably difficult. For one thing", continues Aung Naing, "the border areas we occupied were malaria-infested. There was a lack of food and medicine, and the ever present fear of attack from the military."

The students have set up their own military units, aided by groups like the Karen. But neither are a match for the security forces, with their vastly superior training, surveillance and military capabilities. "We don't have much experience in military affairs. The main objective of our struggle is political. Yet if we don't engage the regime militarily, we are likely to end up sitting ducks in the jungle."

The situation is worsened by the alliance between the Burmese military and the drug lords around the "Golden Triangle" on the Burma-Thailand-Laos border. According to Aung Naing, there are "extensive under-the-table dealings" between the drug lords and the military.

"They share intelligence, and if the security forces operate in areas occupied by drug lords, the latter often supply officers and scouts." Helicopters supplied by the United States for drug suppression activities have been used to attack the student camps.

Of the students originally fleeing to the jungle, only about 4000 remain. Many have died from disease and military attacks. About 2000 are refugees in Thailand. Perhaps 1000 have returned to Rangoon, where their fate is unknown. "It is very likely most have ended up in jail or have simply been executed by the military for their part in the 1988 democracy movement."

For those in the democracy movement who chose to remain in the cities, things have also been bad. Elections, which the military junta had promised to hold in 1988, were eventually held in May 1990. They were a spectacular victory for the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, leader of Burma's fight for independence in 1947. Although she was banned from taking a direct part in the elections, the NLD received 80% of the vote, taking 392 of the 430 seats, while many others were won by pro-NLD ethnic minorities.

The military junta refused, however, to stand down. On July 20, 1990, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. In October and early December hundreds of key NLD officials and candidates were arrested. On December 20, the NLD was outlawed.

Since then the military has not baulked at forcing its way into the British, German and US embassies to arrest opposition members taking refuge.

More recently, the junta has cracked down on the Buddhist clergy, after thousands of monks organised a demonstration in Mandalay, Burma's n August 8 to mark the anniversary of the 1988 massacres. Soldiers fired on the crowds, killing at least five people, among them one monk.

In response, monks decided to "boycott" the authorities — a revolutionary step in a country where religious beliefs are so strongly held. The junta reacted with even more ferocity. Pagodas were searched, and hundreds of monks arrested.

Aung Naing's summation of the present status of the democracy movement in Rangoon is bleak. "The front-line leaders are either dead or in prison, the second-line leaders are either dead or in prison, even the third-line leaders are gone, either imprisoned or gone underground. The opposition movement is a skeleton."

What's left of the movement has fled to the student camps. Together with 21 ethnic and opposition groups, they have formed the Burma Democratic Front, declaring themselves the legitimate government of Burma. Aung Naing says, "We have the real mandate to govern this country, and we are the only group that can stop the bloodshed and salvage the prosperity of this nation. However, we can not do this on our own. We need the help of friendly democracies to realise our aims."

It is a plea that has fallen on deaf ears. China has been an enthusiastic supplier of military hardware to the regime in Rangoon, while business interests controlled by the Thai military in Burma, such as teak and fishing, have flourished.

Foreign companies have taken advantage of the gap left by the drying up of foreign aid since 1988. The Burmese military, desperate to attract capital, has granted 20 oil concessions in isolated regions to Japanese, South Korean, US and Canadian companies, and locals have been rounded up by force to act as porters and workers for drilling operations. Agreements have also been signed with foreign hotel groups interested in Burma's tourist potential.

Australian companies appreciating a good investment opportunity include BHP, which has concluded an oil exploration contract with the regime.

Meanwhile, the repression increases. Aung San Suu Kyi has been moved, after 18 months of house arrest, to a military camp. Says Aung Naing, "We really fear for her safety now."

The military is now even clamping down on the civilian middle class, the majority of whom have little sympathy with the opposition movement. Unlike other military regimes in Asia, Burma's rulers show no desire to allow the creation of a middle-class layer of technocrats or to take advice from them.

Aung Naing concludes, "We are approaching a civil war situation. We don't want this, but if we are to avoid the complete extermination of the democracy movement, it looks unavoidable."

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