Myanmar: Nine Years On


Ian Wilson

It is now nine years since the general election in Myanmar provided the National League for Democracy (NLD) with an overwhelming mandate to rule, and six years since Bishop Desmond Tutu called for worldwide pressure to remove the military and install Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues as the government. For him, the cause of Myanmar was to be "the South Africa of the 1990s." Yet there has been no significant response. The Army still rules under the guise of the State Peace and Development Council, the replacement for the cruder SLORC; the NLD delegates elected in 1990 are now dwindling away, the result of death, imprisonment, forced resignation and exile; and, the nation stagnates, denied outside aid and generally derided as a pariah.

Below the surface, there have been some changes, which were examined at the ANU's first Burma Update in August. A subsidised mass organisation has been formed to give the appearance popular political participation, but in the absense of any real diffusion of political power, the Union Solidarity and Development Association is not the precursor of civil society in Myanmar. Secretary One, Lt-General Kyin Nyunt, has included some civilians in his top level Political Affairs Committee, but its purpose remains to consolidate power behind the regime, not adulterate it. The same can be said of the military's efforts to portray itself as the standard bearer of nationalism in Myanmar by attempting to identify with the father of independence, General Aung San and to wrest his mantle from his daughter and her cause.

The economy will remain stagnant without a resumption of international aid and credit but it will not collapse. Sales to Thailand of natural gas come on stream within three years, and an early end to the El Nina drought cycle will improve agriculture and restore some investment, despite Myanmar's very low rating in terms of risk factors. More importantly, the underground drug industry and commercial corporations operated by the military, while quite opaque, already contribute significantly to GNP and foreign earnings.

Of great concern to outside observers is the fear that time is on the side of the military regime. Even if the next election can be held under clean conditions, without the 1990 election being declared legitimate it must be questioned whether people will again vote in such numbers for what must now appear to them a largely futile exercise and one which, if it is not fair, could carry painful consequences for the opponents of the regime. Can Daw Aung San Suu Kyi continue to hold the NLD together much longer?

WATCHPOINT: Is a younger and more militant opposition movement developing outside the NLD?


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