The opposition movement in Burma

Wednesday, July 24, 1996

MUANG MUANG THAN, a student in 1988, joined a million other Burmese in the pro-democracy uprisings that year which were drowned in blood by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Than then joined 10,000 other students to form a student army in the jungle, but later had to seek refuge in Thailand. There, he was thrown into jail three times, locked up for 17 months, by the Thai government for his political activities. He came to Australia two years ago and is active in the solidarity campaign for Burma. He talked to EVA CHENG about the opposition movement.

Question: Which countries are supplying arms to SLORC?

Mainly China, Singapore — high tech military hardware — Poland, Portugal and, lately, Russia. Too bad, especially for Poland which came out of a democratic uprising but is now supporting the military regime.

Question: What groups are involved in the opposition? What political perspectives do they hold?

In 1948, Burma gained independence. In 1962, the military staged a coup against the democratic civilian government. The military regime abolished the constitution and ran the country by decree.

In 1974, they organised an assembly and enacted a constitution which endorsed a totalitarian one-party system. They called themselves Burmese Socialist Program Party, leading the Burmese way to "socialism". They are the only party, owner of everything.

Then the country collapsed, everything collapsed. So much corruption, mismanagement, repression everywhere: it was a total failure. So students took to the streets, once in 1987. In 1988, students launched a national underground campaign, and protested in March, June and July. Finally, in August, the whole country rose up.

After a month, the military staged another coup and shot everybody who protested against it. Roughly 10,000 students were killed in that period. Then the SLORC was formed. The students were divided into three groups: one went underground, one set up a political party, one went to the jungle. I was in the group which went to the jungle and started an armed struggle, joining the ethnic groups which are fighting for self-determination.

The politicians at the same time announced their own programs, set up political parties — NLD [National League for Democracy] and others. We have over 200 political parties! After the coup the new military regime promised a democratic system, multiparty elections, and allowed formation of political parties. They just wanted to diffuse tension. But groups mushroomed all of a sudden.

Question: What kind of parties are they?

So many colours, so many backgrounds. SLORC continued the crackdown after the military coup, arresting suspects. They targeted student activists, underground student unions, so we had to set up the student party. The political dissidents and activists were also a target. They had to form their own party; otherwise they would be put to the suspect list and would be arrested.

Question: So organisation as a political party will bring some protection?

Yes. You can meet openly. It was a tactical move. Many groups formed a party without any intention to run in the election. NLD was established by Aung San Suu Kyi and two other leaders, with three different factions.

NLD was popular because the students supported it. The students were trying to keep the votes focused. In 1990, there was an election in which NLD won 82%. It became very clear after 1990 that NLD is the dominant party. Many other parties were at the same time abolished by the regime.

The student groups are independent from NLD, but we support Aung San Suu Kyi. We started in 1988. Then and now, we still uphold the demand for democracy, peace, human rights.

Question: Is the existence of three student groups a result of political differences or is it merely a division of labour?

It's merely a division of labour. We worked together during the uprising. Shortly after we launched the new struggle after the 1988 coup, we began the three ways. The group that set up the political party was organising the people, mobilising the votes for the NLD. But later the political party was abolished by the regime, but it is still operating underground.

The armed struggle group went to the jungle. We have 27,000 students, of which 10,000 set up the student army. But many were arrested. Others went overseas and launched campaigns. The group in the middle of all this is the students in the jungle. They have their network, have communication with the underground group still operating in the country. They spread the news. Then we continue to campaign.

The students are part of the movement struggling hand in hand with NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The umbrella group is called All Burma Federation of Students. The students in the jungle are called All Burma Student Democratic Front. My organisation is All Burma Student Democratic Organisation, which is the overseas name.

Question: The Communist Party of Burma and different ethnic groups had been in armed struggle against Rangoon for decades. What role are they playing in the current struggle?

Some ethnic groups — with over 100 in total in Burma — have been in discussion with the students since 1988. For a long time, they aspired to a one-party system but have changed since talking to the students. We, the students, now support their rights for self-determination and now they support our demands for democracy and human rights.

The Communist Party was very strong, one of the main parties in the struggle for independence. It took up armed struggle shortly after independence. They were supported by the poor and rural people, and were very strong among trade unions in the '40s and '50s. One of their founders was the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, but he later left it for another one.

The CP gradually retreated to the border of China and launched military campaigns. The Chinese government began to reduce its support. Most of the arms came from China, until the early 1980s. In 1989, the party collapsed. It's difficult to say whether it still exists; it doesn't engage in any strong campaign. But many of its leaders are still in the jungle. Others took refuge in China.

I've learned that the CP has changed its demand from a one-party system to a multiparty system, but it's obvious that many of its leaders are still attached to the one-party system and thinking of a totalitarian state. They are Maoist in their political outlook. China was the main supplier before — arms, financial support — but is no longer their ideological strength. China switched to the ruling regime, to profits.

We support the idea of the legalisation of the CP as well as for any political parties. All ideological groups should be allowed to run in elections, expressing their political agenda.

How big is the student army? What role does armed struggle play in the current struggle? How big is NLD?

We started with 10,000 students, but 2000 left the jungle since. In 1990, there were 22 different armed groups with about 20,000 people in the jungle, which included 12 ethnic groups. Only about 10,000 are still there, partly because many ethnic groups were forced into cease-fire deals with SLORC.

The ethnic groups have always depended on China and Thailand for arms, medicines and basic necessities, but they have been cutting supplies to the ethnic groups due to pressure from SLORC. They now form the bulk of the 90,000 refugees scattered along the Thai-Burmese border, in 20 camps.

NLD is the biggest political party. It has 2 million. There is no formal relationship between NLD and the student groups or the ethnic groups. But after the 1990 crackdown is the first time in the history of Burma that every group in the struggle unites. Now we all support Aung San Suu Kyi.

This includes the ethnic groups. Usually they suspect any political parties, but they changed after 1990 election and more recently after the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Now they clearly state that they support her leadership. The whole country is now under her leadership.

The regime doesn't have an idea how to manage. Aung San Suu Kyi repeatedly challenged the regime. They banned gatherings of NLD. They banned political rallies in front of Aung San Suu Kyi's residence. They arrested 261 people in May when NLD wanted to hold its congress; this is on top of the 3000 or so students still in detention, out of the 5000 arrested since 1988.

This time, they clearly targeted the MPs, who accounted for 233 of those arrested. They wanted to make sure there wouldn't be enough MPs to form a quorum for parliament. Because of the arrests, we didn't have the number to hold a parliamentary session, but we did hold a congress.