5 February 2021
The history of Burma was that it was colonised by the British, who had colonial wars with increasing control from 1824 to 1885. It was occupied by the Japanese in WW2, which helped its independence movement and it achieved independence from Britain with some struggle by General Aung San in 1948.
It had not been a united country, having a lot of tribal and ethnic wars and tensions. General Aung San negotiated a ‘Union of Burma’, but he was assassinated by conservative forces before the new country came into being.
It had relatively unstable governments until a military coup in 1962 under General Ne Win and has been under military junta control since. An uprising of the people in 1988 was brutally suppressed and n 1989 the junta changed the country’s name to Myanmar. They held elections under a new Constitution in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was the daughter of General Aung San, who had defeated the British and who had been educated in Britain and who had returned in 1988 won a landslide victory with her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The junta seemed completely surprised by this, but did not allow her party to take control. She was placed under house arrest. The world was highly critical of this and she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”
In 2003 the junta claimed it had a ‘roadmap to democracy’ but nothing much changed, with Aung San Suu Kyi still in house arrest. In 2005 the national capital was moved out of Yangon (which had been called Rangoon) to get it further from the population centres to a hilly area 370km away in Naypyidaw.
There were major protests in 2007. In 2010, the junta, recognising that they were unpopular, but also that the world’s sanctions were biting, released Aung San Suu Kyi and held some elections, but the NLD boycotted these as a farce. In new election in 2012 the NLD won in a landslide with 41 of the 44 contested seats, but the junta had stopped Aung San Suu Kyi from being President and kept a number of seats and key Cabinet posts for themselves.
Now the military has had a coup. The people are not happy, but are aware that the military will deal with any uprising brutally and ruthlessly. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has been arrested for the trivial crime of having 6 unauthorised walkie talkies. Presumably she wanted to be able to talk to her immediate staff without the junta hearing every word. In a sense that is a symbol of her situation and the power of the junta.
I have taken an interests in Burma/Myanmar because when I was in Parliament the elected NLD members who should have been the legitimate leaders of Myanmar came to Parliaments around the world and were photographed with groups of MPs to show that their legitimacy was universally recognised outside Myanmar. I kept in touch with NLD contacts and visited Myanmar in late 2017. It is a third world country which was trying to use rapid growth in tourism to bring itself up. There were quite new tourist buses, but a shortage of accommodation, and this was expensive for a third world country and for its standard. Aung San Suu Kyi was nominally in charge as ‘State Counsellor’, with the NLD supposedly doing her bidding. In reality, she was something of a powerless figurehead with the SLORC junta keeping real power. She was doing what she could and it was hoped that democracy would gradually win and the junta would gradually fade, but this was certainly not happening quickly. The local people were not well educated, and most had poor English, but as my contacts pointed out, they were not game to talk about politics anyway- they supported ‘the Lady’ as Aung San Suu Kyi is known, but the military were very much in control and it seemed that there was no love lost between them and the people.
I travelled to Mandalay, the second city, in a modern tourist bus of Chinese origin. The Chinese had been helping the junta in exchange for economic concessions. In a way this bus was reassuring. Most of the cars in Myanmar are right hand drive, either old British or relatively new Japanese, but in 1989 the junta had decided that the country, which had driven one the left, should drive on the right as most other countries did. So it was safer in one of the buses where at least the driver could see when overtaking on the fairly basic roads.
Mandalay has a large fortified palace in its centre, complete with moat. It has been taken over as a military base. Tourists are allowed in through a military checkpoint, but can only walk up the central path to the royal building and temples, and the greetings are not warm.
I was advised not to bother to go to the capital, Naypyidaw as it was sterile and there was ‘nothing there’. I went anyway. It was a complete contrast to Yangon, which is crowded and dirty, with little access to the banks of its polluted river. Naypyidaw had an 8 lane highway through its centre with trees and gardens reminiscent of Canberra. The Parliament was modern, though it could not be accessed and the National Library was modern also, and about the size of Wollongong’s. There were no buses to get there- Naypyidaw needs taxis to go everywhere, so there was almost no one in the library. The librarian who spoke excellent English told us that this was the normal number of people. There was a hotel precinct that had a number of very large hotels that were modern, extremely cheap and built by the Chinese. We noted at night that there were only half dozen lights on in the hotel that had had hundreds of rooms and there were few people at breakfast. There were no local people apart from hotel staff near the precinct, and they told us that the local people lived a suburb away and it was not really a walking distance.
Aung San Suu Kyi was much criticised for not acting on behalf of the Rohingya Muslims, but there is a lot of prejudice against this group historically, as they were felt to have no right to have come, which related to a border skirmish a long time ago. Even with its ethnic divisions Myanmar is 88% Buddhist. Had Suu Kyi spoken up for the Rohingyas, she would have had lost much local support and, as my contacts pointed out, she had enough trouble as it was.
The situation looked untenable. The NLD government was not allowed to govern. The military were obviously undemocratic, unpopular and unprogressive, but supported by Chinese money and trade deals. The loosening that was hoped for had not happened and did not look likely. Here we are 3 years later.
The NLD had another landslide in the November 2020 elections. More proof of the unpopularity of the junta, and still they do not want to move. A re-run of the 1987 and 2007 brutally suppressed revolts does look likely. Myanmar is unlikely to shift the junta without a lot of blood being spilled.
Here is Kevin Rudd’s opinion- and he was ex-Foreign Minister.