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The Modern Nation, Rebellion and Military Restoration

Khun Sa, Myanmar military, Maung Maung, bilateral aid, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Following Ne Winís retirement in July 1988, Myanmar endured three months of political turmoil. The head of the riot police took control of the government and the resulting protesting, looting, and police response left an estimated 500 to 1,000 people dead in Yangon and several thousand dead elsewhere in the country. Leadership then shifted to a civilian associate of the military, Maung Maung, who tried to both appease and restrain the growing, but peaceful, opposition to military rule, which included groups ranging from the Yangon Bar Council to nurses and dock workers. Some shape was given to this movement by an alliance of Brigadier Aung Gyi with General Tin U, a former defense minister, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of U Aung San, whose portrait was carried by protesters. When it appeared that parts of the armed forces might join in, the military staged a coup against the government that it had created. On September 18, 1988, Defense Minister General Saw Maung announced the formation of a State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) that pledged to restore law and order; repair transportation and communication; meet the food and shelter needs of the people; and hold free and fair multiparty elections. Meeting the first goal required several months and cost 560 lives according to government reports, although outside sources estimated the loss at more than 1,000 lives.

Campaigning was restricted and the two top leaders of the main opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were taken off the scene; in July 1989 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest and General Tin U was put in prison. The NLD won the May 1990 elections in a landslide, taking 80 percent of the seats with 60 percent of the vote in contrast to the parties favored by SLORC, which received 2 percent of the seats with 25 percent of the vote. When the winners of the election made moves to organize a government, the SLORC responded by arresting many of them and declaring that there could be no civilian government until after a new constitution had been written. Some of the elected representatives fled to the Thai border and set up an alternative National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma at the base camp of the Karen resistance movement.

International pressure on the SLORC intensified in October 1991, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to nonviolent change. Many Western nations imposed sanctions and suspended bilateral aid as well as high-level government visits to the country in response to UN reports of human rights violations by the government of Myanmar. General Than Shwe replaced General Saw Maung as SLORC chairman, prime minister, and minister of defense in the spring of 1992. The last democratically elected prime minister of Myanmar, U Nu, was released from prison, as were a number of other political prisoners. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was permitted visits by family members in 1992 and two years later by a U.S. congressman, a UN official, and an American reporter. By the autumn of 1994 she was having discussions with the top two SLORC leaders, generals Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt. Because she refused to accept exile from Myanmar, however, her detention continued beyond the legal limit, which the government then changed. In August 1995 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest but was banned from leaving Yangon. She held weekly public conversations outside her front gate with gatherings of several thousand citizens and foreigners.

The SLORCís relations with the Buddhist Sangha (monkhood) have been uneasy, as pongyis (monks) had played a role in the 1988 rebellion and even helped administer the town of Mandalay. Several years later, pongyis in Mandalay protested military rule by refusing to accept alms from military households. The SLORC responded by pressing the Sangha authorities to discipline the young monks. The SLORC also had to contend with continuing ethnic insurgencies on Myanmarís borders. General Khin Nyunt negotiated separate cease-fire agreements first with the smaller, largely Chinese, hill tribes and then with the Kachin, adopting their armed forces as an autonomous militia and offering economic development aid along with tolerance of their border trading activities (including commerce in opium). The Karen gradually lost the informal support that Thailand had given their independence movement (which had long acted as a buffer for the historic hostility between Myanmar and Thailand). As a result, the Myanmar Army was able to take the Karenís main base at Mannerplaw in the spring of 1995. Since then the parties have made several attempts at negotiating a peace settlement, but in early 1998 active fighting continued between the Karen rebels and the Myanmar military. The major opium warlord, Khun Sa, remained in control of a key section of the eastern Shan state until December 1995, when, faced with a U.S. drug indictment and reduced business connections through Thailand, he surrendered to Myanmar troops. Khun reportedly reached an agreement with the SLORC and retired to Yangon.

Meanwhile, a national convention selected by the SLORC to draft a new constitution began meeting in January 1993. The convention received instructions from the SLORC to grant the military a dominant role in any future government, along the lines of the Indonesian constitution. The work of the convention was occasionally suspended. In late 1995 Daw Aung San Suu Kyiís NLD party walked out of the convention, asserting that it was not being conducted on democratic principles. The convention was adjourned in March 1996 without producing a constitution.

Tensions between the SLORC and the NLD heightened in May 1996 when the SLORC arrested more than 200 delegates headed toward an NLD party congress. A similar crackdown occurred in May 1997, when the SLORC again arrested NLD members to thwart a meeting intended to commemorate the 1990 elections. In November the SLORC was dissolved and immediately replaced by the newly formed State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), although the top leadership remained the same. In response to UN reports of human rights violations in Myanmar, issued annually since 1991, and boycotts against corporations doing business in the country, the United States increased sanctions against Myanmar in 1997. The member nations of the European Union (EU) also increased sanctions in April 2000.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was again put under house arrest in September 2000. A UN envoy to Myanmar began brokering negotiations for national reconciliation between Suu Kyiís democracy movement and the ruling junta. The closed-door talks between the two sides led to the release of about 250 of an estimated 1,500 political prisoners. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in May 2002, with the understanding that no restrictions would be placed on her movements or political activities. Although her unconditional release was one of the main demands of Western nations that had imposed sanctions on the country, Western leaders stated that substantive political reforms would be necessary before sanctions could be lifted.

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