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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why Burma's Leaders Are Inward-looking and Obstructive


History never dies. It is reborn every minute of every day.

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Hugh Graham, Toronto, May 12, 2008.

The Alice in Wonderland world of Burma’s rulers never ceases to astonish: for example, the generals’ rather relaxed view, from their inland capital, of the cyclone’s arrival; and an astrologer’s advice that the capital be built in a wilderness, safely isolated from any demands made on a capital city. Then there’s the pleasure taken by the junta in leisurely signing individual foreign aid packages for cyclone victims before allowing them to go on with their blessing. And , of course, their frantic denial of Buddhist-led protests against energy prices, followed by frantic repression.

The fog of mystical immobility was already there when the British invaded in 1824. The king was held to be the most powerful in the world and Burma itself the world’s sole superpower. When the British defeated the Burmese and penetrated to the heart of the country at Mandalay, Burma's royal chroniclers concluded the king had simply allowed the British to travel that far and when they made mass requisitions for supplies, the British were portrayed as exhausted foreign beggars arriving on his doorstep- and, rather like the signing of aid packages by the present elite- the king was seen to be magnanimous, allowing them to have what they asked for, patting them on the head and sending them on their way.

For sheer control and exploitation, of course, the boringly practical methods of Britain and the west have been far more effective. Some of Burma’s subsequent kings, reigning under the auspices of British colonial rule, suffered bouts of terrible depression verging on insanity as grubby reality gradually burgled its way into the museum of dreams of the royal place.

But why has the Burmese elite been living more or less in the same looking-glass world almost two centuries later? Cultural historian Lucian W. Pye says that after colonial rule ended, the successors to Burma’s first and greatest president, Aung Sang, were overwhelmed by the problem of holding the multi-ethnic nation in one piece. (The traditional ruling class is of the Burmese ethnic group). U Nu and his successor, U Ne Win tried Marxism. Like today’s care packages, ideology was always been seen as the leadership’s effortless gift to the people. As Marxism failed, a more specific ‘Burmese way to Socialism’ was concocted. As that failed, the elite reached back into the past and cobbled together a more or less traditional Buddhist ideology. Enclosed, consciously or not, were ancient ideas of Burmese kingship.

In traditional Burma, the mystique of the ruler was imbued with Hindu concepts of magic and exclusive connection to the cosmos along with Buddhist ideas of otherworldly detachment, which today can be read as avoidance of conflict. There’s a perennial discomfort and ambivalence about power. In traditional Burma it is terrible to be without power, since subordinates are never appreciated or respected; and terrible to have power because you can’t trust your subordinates or anyone else- only your immediate entourage. The solution for the ruler is to become detached from all things smelling of politics, alliances, coalitions, decisions or anything so perilous and foolhardy as trust, cooperation and action. Rule is considered unpleasant and the daily dirty work is left to minions, astrologers etc. without any change in policy. A system which is known as ‘immobilism’.

Small wonder that the leaders don’t want international aid workers to see the neglect and chaos inside the country. Small wonder too, that there’s a healthy, if wounded, democracy movement. Democracy activist and leader Aung San Syu Ki, and the Buddhists and other thousands who follow her have been trying to release Burma not just from the grip of its catatonic leadership, but from the deadly dream of Burma’s own cultural leadership tradition.

One consequence of the mystique of the ruler is to give all action from the top the antiseptic glimmer of gesture and symbol. There’s a great deal of smiling and going through the motions- such as signing aid packages and cheering up cyclone victims by holding last Saturday’s constitutional referendum on time, a vote in which the displaced, the dying, the lost, the cut off and dead are all welcome to participate “because the Burmese people love to vote”. And the new constitution, which has doubtless been passed, will mention democracy often enough to guarantee that the country will remain, in the minds of its rulers, under the spell of the 18th century superpower and its kingship- even as bodies continue to be washed out to sea.

The Storming of one of the principle Stockades on its inside on the 8th of July 1824 - Artist J Moore

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Ancient Pagan.

-culturally, medieval Burma and the surrounding region are an extension of India.

849- the founding state of Pagan emerges where the Irrawaddy River bends east.

1044-1077- Pagan unified for the first time Anawratha, annexing territory to the north and the south on the Gulf of Martaban and the isthmus of Kra.

1057-1059- Anawratha repels attempts at invasion by the Khmer.

-Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka takes root in Pagan.

-Pagan will become noted for its extraordinary temples of which 2,000 still stand.

1250 (cirica) with the surrounding region, Pagan shares the Indian Dejarava temple state system which places an immense burden on the center of power: the state’s heavy religious donations for temple artisans and rice field irrigation weakens its ability to rule.

Fall of Pagan to the Mongols.

1252- the Thai Shan people of upper Burma and Thailand become vassals of the Mongols.

-Thais fleeing southward bring Thai Warlords who set up in Pagan

-Burmese and Thai warlords adopt Theravada Buddhism.

1287- invasions by the Shan and by Kublai Khan end in the collapse of Pagan.

Burma Barely Restored.

1486- second Burmese dynasty established.

1500- internal dissension and wars with Siam will last throughout the 16th century.

Auanghpaya Founds Modern Burma

1752- fall of the restored Toungoo dynasty. Konbaung dynasty founded by King Aluanghpaya (1714-1760)

-through great resourcefulness, Auanghpaya restores the state from rival groups and powers of the old order.

1757- the last point of resistance, Pegu, falls to forces led by Auanghpaya

1760- Burma's Auanghaya fails in an attempted attack on the Thai capital of Ayudhya, to the east. He dies of wounds incurred during the assault.

The Arrival of the British: the Anglo-Burmese Wars,

1824-1826- First Anglo-Burmese War brings Arakan and Tehnasserim under control of the British.

1824-1885- the Anglo-Burmese wars.

1852-1853- Second Anglo-Burmese War results in British occupation of Pego.

1885- Third Anglo-Burmese War ends in British occupation of Upper Burma.

1886- Britain annexes Province of Burma to British India.

Reaction Against the British Opposition to Buddhism.

1906- the Young Men’s Buddhist Association is formed in reaction to British opposition to the prominence of Buddhism on Burmese society.

1920- the Buddhist Association is succeeded by the General Council of Burmese Associations.

1920- just after the foundation of the University of Rangoon, student opposition to British increases into a student strike.

1930s- U Ne Win a nationalist, anti-British activist.

1935- the British form the Government of Burma Act- in principle. Aung San enrolls in Rangoon University.

1936- strike by the anti-British student opposition. All Burma Studnets Union is led by Aung San.

Rejection of Britain’s ‘Government of Burma Act’. The Rise of Burmese Nationalism

1937- the British bring the Government of Burma Act into force, governing Burma as a colony separate from India with a bicameral legislature.

1937- Burma separates from the British Empire.

1938-40- Aung San becomes secretary of the nationalist Dobama Asiayone movement.

1938- strike by the anti-British student opposition.

-1939 -strike by oil workers leads to the foundation of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB)

The British Exile Nationalist Leader Aung San.

1939-40- Aung San is president of the Communist Party of Burma.

-the larger part of the nationalist movement is led by the Burmese Revolutionary Party (BRP)

1940- Un Nu imprisoned for sedition by British. Aung San is sent into exile. He undergoes military training with the Japanese.

World War Two: Nationalist Collaboration with the Japanese Occupation.

1942-45- World War Two- Burma is occupied by the Japanese. The British fight the Burma Campaign against the Japanese and their Burma Army allies.

-Aung San (1915-1947) collaborates with Japanese agents to form the anti-British Burma Independence Army.

1942- BRP collaborates with Japanese.

1942- March 8- General Aung San’s Burma Independence Army enters Rangoon Burma with the Japanese occupation, capturing the capital from the British.

-Nu is freed by the Japanese and serves along with Aung San as a minister in the Japan-imposed Baw Maw government.

1943- Aung San makes Ne Win chief of his Burma National Army.

With Japan Losing, the Nationalists Defect to the Allies.

1944- Aung San contacts Viscount Mountbatten. In March- Aung San, the BRP and the Communists turn against the Japanese as the anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL). San then becomes president.

-U Ne Win- goes over to the allies.

-AFPFL foments uprising against the Japanese which brings back the British.

1945- January-- the British, supported by Chinese and US troops, open the Burma Roas.

May 17- Burma recaptured by the allies.

1946- Un Nu becomes president of the Burmese Constituent Assembly

The Allied Victory: Aung San heads a Liberated Burma.

-Aung San become Prime Minister in the Governor’s Executive Council.

1947- in London, Aung San negotiates Burma’s independence and coinceives the new Burmese Constitution.

Aung San Assassinated

-July 19- Aung San is assassinated with 5 other government memebers by U Saw, a political rival- removing the one uniting figure from Brumese politics.

1948- Jan 4- Burma formally attain indepndence.

U Nu succeeds as Prime Minister.

1948-56- U (Thakin) Nu of AFPFL is Prime Minister- (1907-1995) U Ne Win holds senior military and cabinet posts.

-government is challenged by the Communists (CPB) and various ethnic insurgencies.

-Ne Win retains his position as chief of the new Burmese Army.

1957-58 and 1958-62-- U Nu re-eelcted.

1958- U Nu resigns after a split in the AFPFL.

1958-1960- General U Ne Win becomes caretaker prime minister.

1960- U Nu re-elected..

U Nu Overthrown in a Coup by U Ne Win.

1962- U Ne Win overthrows Prime Minister U Nu. U Ne Win becomes chairman of the revolutionary Council, bans parliament. Ne Win pursues isolationism and a Burmese ideology- “the Burmese Way to Socialism’, a combination of Buddhism, Marxism and nationalism. Burma maintains relations solely with China.

-government forced to deal with Karen guerillas and a large domestic opposition.

The Tyranny of U Ne Win.

-General U Ne Win expropriates the Chinese and Indian merchant classes, fixes prices and nationalizes businesses.

-with lack of export revenues, Burma is strapped for paying its foreign debt.

Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, works at UN.

1969- Aung San Suu Kyi, (b. 1945) daughter of General Aung San, works at UN in New York.

1974- Burma becomes a single-party socialist Republic. U Ne Win becomes President.

1981- U Ne Win leaves office but continues to exert control as chairman of the Burmese Socialist Program Party which still holds the power.

-military crackdowns result in over a million refugees. 200,000 are crowded into camps in Thailand and India.

1988 Economic Crisis. Aung San Suu Kyi Returns to Burma, heads Opposition.

1988- riots due to an economic crisis in Rangoon, centred around Sule Pagoda. Security Forces kill 3000 protestors.

-Aung San Suu Kyi reuturns to Burma to care for her dying mother. She co-founds the National League for Democracy and becomes its General Secretary. She makes it into a mass movement for non-violent change.

-Saw Maung Overthrows Nu Win, Establishes new Dictatorship; Renames country Myanmar.

-General Saw Maung overthrows Nu Win in a military coup and imposes martial law.

-the government’s State Law and order Restoration Council imposes martial law and imprisonment without trial, bans public meetings and prohibits Aung Suu Kyi from holding office.

1989 - former Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was changed to the Union of Myanmar out of deference to several ethnic groups..

Aung San Suu Kyi Campaigns for Democracy; her NLD wins elections.

-Aung San Suu Kyi defies the government and tours the country, giving talks.

- the military junta places Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.

1990- Suu Ky’s National league for Democracy wins 80 % of the vote in elections. Many new MPs are jailed. The military’s own party gains only 10 seats.

1991- Aun San Suu Kyi is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Government Inores NLD Victory; repression continues.

1992- Maung’s deputy, General Than Shwe, replaces Maung as ruler. Shwe makes ceasefires with several guerilla groups.

-the government continues to be opposed by Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy party.

-clashes develop between several insurgent factions. Occasional rioting and pro-democracy demonstrations continue during the 1990s.

Aung San Suu Kyi granted limited freedom from house arrest.

1995- 10 July- Aun San Suu Kyi is released. But she is not allowed to move outside the capital, Rangoon.

Oct.- Suu Kyi resumes as General Secretary of the NLD. Her movements are resitrcted and she is watched closely.

Aung San Suu Kyi in and out of House Arrest.

2000- Aun San Suu Kyi is put back under house arrest.

2001- the government relaxes some restrictions.

2002- Ne Win, charged with plotting a coup, is placed under house arrest.

- Aun San Suu Kyi is put under house arrest again.

2003- May- Aun San Suu Kyi taken into protective custody after clashes between her NLD and the government.

Prime Minister Khin Nyunt’s Plan for Democracy.

August – Khin Nyunt becomes Prime Minister. He proposes a convention for a road map to democracy.

2004- peace is made between the government and the Karen guerilla group.

-Nyunt Placed under House Arrest.

2004- October- Prime Minister Nyunt is placed under house arrest after a power struggle.

November- Min Lo Naing , 1988 democracy leader and other dissidents released in mass amnesty.

2005- February- Constitutional talks last the whole year without respresentation from opposition groups. There is no result.

2006- March --the capital of Burma is moved By General Than Shwe to a remote region- May Pyi Taw, in the town of Pyinmana, 200 miles to the north, apparently on the advice of an astrologer.

2007- January- China and Russia veto a US draft resolution aimed at stopping political persecution in Burma.

April- Burma restores relations with North Korea- after 27 years.

May- another year is added to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.

Mass Protests led by Buddhist Monks after Government raises fuel prices.

August- mass public demonstrations and protests after the government raises fuel prices
September- the government ends the Constitutional Convention after declaring constitutional talks complete.

-Budhist monks (whom the military treat with kid gloves due to the monks’ great prestige in Burma stage peaceful mass demonstations, asking the government to open dialogue. Aung San Suu Kyi, not seen in public since 2003 is allowed to leave her house to greet the monks.
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