Myanmar: Facing New Problems While The Old Ones Remain


Ian Wilson

1998 was to have been a great year for the military regime in Myanmar. Tourism was to boost government coffers, energy exports were to help solve balance of payments problems, and police harassment of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy assembly members was to discredit the opposition.

Instead, the Year to Visit Myanmar failed; the Asian economic crisis put back Thailand's development plans and thus the market for natural gas; and other exports to the region (some 80 percent of Myanmar's total) fell off as the ASEAN economies reeled. Then, unable to meet World Bank repayments, Myanmar was ruled ineligible for further loans, destroying its international credit rating in the process.

The stature of Daw Suu Kyi was strengthened rather than diminished by her treatment. ASEAN membership produced few benefits and exposed Myanmar to trenchant criticism from some members on human rights and democratic grounds. A worrying political sign for the regime was the emergence of new underground student and youth opposition groups about which the intelligence services knew very little.

The new leadership, recycled from the old as the State Peace and Development Council, had managed to get rid of a number of senior military officers who made up the old SLORC. It must have been a disappointment when the younger and supposedly better educated officers brought in to replace them made the same sorts of mistakes, and showed no better reading of either the domestic political situation or the regional environment.

Some of the alliances forged with individual minority groups are now beginning to unravel. At the same time, the new youth opposition has been able to harass the regime in a way that is no longer possible for the NLD members, all of whom are under constant surveillance when not actually in prison or at government 'guest houses' for re-education. Some of the representatives elected in 1990 have been forced to leave the League. But the real 'maggots in the flesh', as the regime describes them, are a new opposition which is mobile, challenging and not afraid to stage lightning demonstrations and protests. They have some links with the NLD and with some ethnic groups, while accepting Daw Suu Kyi as a national leader. If they can form effective alliances with other groups across Myanmar, they will be a potent force. Already the regime is falling back on old techniques of violent repression, but it lacks intelligence on the movements of the opposition forces. 1999 threatens to be another bad year for the generals.

WATCHPOINT: The emergence of new, young, opposition forces.


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