Myanmar: The Stand-Off Continues

1998

Ian Wilson

The Myanmar military remain in power; the National League for Democracy (NLD) which won overwhelmingly in the 1990 election, is still excluded from office; and its high-profile leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under virtual house arrest. In these terms, little has changed since the election took place. In fact, since the middle of this year, the nature of the stalemate has altered, even though the outcome is still uncertain.

Firstly, the generals are showing signs of strain in the face of current economic and political crises. Most of them are highly conservative and needed persuasion to agree to even a partial opening of the economy. Enhanced foreign trade was attractive because it provided the funds for the purchase of more weapons, and increasing the supply of consumer goods promised to damp down public demonstrations. These considerations had forced the generals to creat the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and agree to elections in the first place. The same sentiments led them to accept membership of ASEAN.

Changes in the regional environment have impacted on Myanmar in unwelcome ways. The hopes of sharing in Southeast Asian prosperity faded as first the Thai Baht and then other currencies weakended, and as prospective ASEAN markets for Myanmar gas, oil, and timber dried up. As if these problems were not enough, Thailand, the Philippines and even Singapore began to move away from their non-interventionist position on human rights and the denial of democracy, to lend their voices to those of the European Union, the United States, and Australia. 'Constructive engagement' was seen to have produced no meaningful changes within Myanmar, and a new formula, 'enhanced interaction', gained currency. Some were quick to sense this shift, as leadership came under threat in other ASEAN countries.

The generals reacted by battening down the hatches. Foreign trade and currency dealings were sharply cut and a new period of repression of the NLD began. Over 800 League officials and surviving MPs were arrested, and Daw Suu Kyi was subjected to humiliating and inhumane treatment by the military. This was at the risk of her health but it resulted only in strengthening her image at home and abroad.

The second major change in recent months has been a subtle shift in NLD tactics. Aware that merely to occupy the high moral ground and trust in the efficacy of reason and justice was not enough, the NLD called for the elected parliament to be convened by 21 August. This was ignored. But the regime's attempts to split Daw Suu Kyi from the leadership were blocked and it was agreed that no meaningful talks with the military would take place without her. Effective student demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience, matched with increasing popular dissatisfaction in the face of rising food prices and unemployment, are putting the regime under severe pressure.

Some observers now see signs of a split in the army. The choice is not yet one between 'tough cop' and 'soft cop', but rather between 'tough cop and very tough cop'. As the generals bunker down, the fear is that they may react with violence, as in 1988. The real test of Daw Suu Kyi's leadership and her message of non-violence and reason will be in avoiding such an outcome. For this her people must face new sacrifices. Outsiders will need to think through what is meant by 'enhanced interaction' in the context of Myanmar.

WATCHPOINT: The NLD will have to decide between crackdowns and concessions in an increasingly unstable situation.

 

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