Feb 14th, 2008
Special Lecture by a Burma Expert
Lessons from the Past; Problems in the Present; Thoughts about the Future
by Dr. Josef Silverstein (Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University)
All Ethnic International Open University (AEIOU) in conjunction with Chiang Mai University presented this special lecture by one of our visiting faculty members, on 9th Feb. at UNISERVE, (Fai Kham Hall) Chiang Mai University, from 9 am to 12 noon.
|BIO of the Speaker:Professor Silverstein earned his BA with honors in Political Science and History at U.C.L.A. in 1952. In 1960, he was awarded Ph.D. in Government and Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell University.In 1958, he began his teaching career as an instructor in Government at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; and in the next year, was promoted to Assistant Professor. In 1961, he accepted a Fulbright lectureship at the University of Mandalay. In 1964, he was appointed to the faculty at Rutgers University as an Associate Professor and promoted to a full Professor in 1967.During his career at Rutgers, he served as a chairman of department and director of Asian Studies. In 1978, he was promoted to the rank of Professor II, and retired as Professor Emeritus in 1992. During his years at Rutgers, he took leave to accept a second Fulbright lectureship; this time at the University of Malaya, from 1967-68. In 1970, he took a two year leave to serve as a Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Since his retirement from Rutgers, he had taught at the University of Pittsburgh in its Semester at Sea Program, once in 1994 and again in 1998. In the fall of 2002, he taught in the East Asian Studies Program at Princeton University. Throughout the past decade, he continued to serve as an occasional lecturer at the Foreign Services Institute, Department of State.
His publication record began in 1956 with an essay on the Burma election of that year, which appeared in Far Eastern Survey. He has published more than 50 scholarly articles and numerous essays which appeared in various newspapers and journals on issues of Burma.
Of the seven books and monographs he had written or edited, two reflect his central interest in Burmese politics; Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1977, and Burmese Politics: The Dilemma of National Unity, New Brunswick, Rutgers University, 1980.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE TALK
What I’m going to talk today is about the central political problem in Burma, for centuries, where it was, where things may be heading. Why did the previous constitutions fail in uniting the ethnic groups and the country? In 1960, several assessments were made, and the Burmese University produced some of the leading world leaders in several subjects. What happened?
In World War II, Japanese liberated Burma from the British, and then the British liberated Burma from the Japanese. The country was in recovery, in many areas such as rice production. In 1960, Burma, for the first time, exported millions of tons of rice to the rest of the world—even 3 million tons at one time. How do we explain how things fell to the situation at this time of the day, as it is one of the greatest tragedies?
Now, we’ll go back to 1945, at the end of the war, and 1947, where there was a rapid move towards independence. The Burmese people know that they must recover from Independence, and they can no longer stay as a previous colonial state. The Burmese, under no condition, want to accept colonialism, and they want freedom and independence.
In 1936, there was a nationalist movement where a young man named Aung San, who was a student leader, joined Dr. Ba Maw and formed a united front. The country was not unified—at least 8 major ethnic groups were ruling their own territories. The British inherited this structure from the Burmese king, where several ethnic groups led their own areas on their own. The central political power was in the South, in the Irrawaddy valley, in Rangoon. This led to isolation of other ethnic groups in the rest of the country.
On the eve of the meeting between Aung San and Clement Atlee, they formed AFPFL—Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League. The key statement of AFPFL is: It is our policy, in regard to the frontier areas of the people (those outside of Rangoon), in our relation to the people of the frontier system, form a Federation of Burma to include and unite several people and bring them together for the first time. It is not the intention to impose anything that the ethnic groups do not want, but to give them the autonomy as they need. Their policy is to invite others to join them to this assembly, under mutual conditions, where the Burmans and the non-Burmans agree upon.
Aung San, a general at that time, was going to take off his uniform to become U Aung San, to become the leader of AFPFL. The area of concern was the concerns of the people of the frontier. The Hill People would be allowed to administer their own areas in any ways they please, without any imposition of policy from the Burmans. There will be equality and everyone will get their equal share of resources. There will be autonomy based on the needs of the diverse groups. That was the bedrock of AFPFL, where between the two levels (the state and union governments), there will be interaction in Burmese and English, in learning about one another, slowly absorbing each others’ cultures; creating a multi-racial society.
In reality, AFPFL did not work. The reason this didn’t work was there wasn’t enough time for this idea to work out. In their meeting, Aung San and Atlee demanded independence within a year. The people in the frontier areas weren’t sure how they would work with the people in Rangoon. The Burmese Communist party, whose members were mostly Burmans, challenged this united front. It was a Socialist idea and Burma was to become a leftist country. Aung San himself was once a member of the communist party, but left the party, with the idea of AFPFL leading the country. Aung San removed Than Tun from the position of the secretary, and appointed John Yeng. This was a move towards the British way of Socialism instead of adopting the Soviet Socialism.
In 1948, three months after Burma achieved independence, civil war broke out. But where was the Burmese Army at this time? Admiral Mountbatten invited Aung San, Than Tun and others to see what kind of Independence the Burmese would want. They agreed to form a single army that includes all the people of Burma. By the end of 1948, Burma was deeply entrenched in war. It has been 60 years to date. Karen leader Bo Mya agreed a total cease fire with the Burma Army. They began by declaring end to fighting. The military rejected Bo Mya’s statement. Others, such as Shans, Chins, Kachins, Arakans all got problems as the military ceased to coerce them.
The constitution formed in Burma at that time, was the most controversial in the 1947constitution. Even though it no longer exists as the doctrine, it continues to be in the discussion of the law of the country. It focuses on the right to succession, and the right of withdrawal of troops. What if we joined this union, and we don’t like it, so how do we get out of it? The issue was raised with Aung San at the very first meeting and discussion with the minorities at the Ping Long conference in the Shan State. The idea was, if the minorities are not happy with the AFPFL union, any ethnic group can get out. Aung San wants the right of succession to be guaranteed in the constitution. It was in the article 201 of the original constitution.
The idea was, if you have been a member for 10 years of the state of the union, and you are dissatisfied, you can withdraw from the agreement. The procedure to withdraw is not easy, but doable. It was necessary for the member of the group to make a petition to the president that they wish to succeed. The president is obligated by law to hold an election, on the condition to vote, if others agree, they can withdraw. Drawbacks are, the constitution did not say what percent the majority would have to be. That information is missing. Instead of spelling out the percentage required to agree on succession, it simply states that the “majority” would have to agree on the succession.
The second flaw in the doctrine, as far as the people are concerned. When Aung San spoke of the right of succession, he had given a number of talks about what constitutes a member of a state, and what constitutes a state in itself. And he gave out 8 points that he took from Stalin’s ideas. First he said a state has to be large enough to be called a state. Not only it is a sizable population, it must also be economically viable. There must also be a community of people who are similar in language, culture and way of life. When he laid out his 8 principles, he said there are only 2 groups that qualify this standard: the Burmans and the Shans. These two groups have advanced economically and socially, that if they wanted to succeed, they could survive by themselves, if they were to lead.
When the constitution was written, there was a controversy: The document said that it is the basic right of the people that they have the right of succession, unequivocally. But there are states that would be denied of this right. First and foremost, the Karens have no right to succeed, but without any reason why it was stated as such. At that time, the Karens did not protest, as they were never interested to unite with other ethnic groups. They wanted a state of their own. The Kachins were also denied of that right. The Kachin state was artificially created. The historical area of Burma where the Kachins lived and in Ba Maw Northwest to that area, there were Burmans who aren’t Kachins, but were identified more with Western civilization. However, the people of Ba Maw were combined with Kachins to form the Kachin state. They said there must be a head of state who is a Kachin. Kachins and non-Kachins have lived together peacefully. The constitution said that the Kachin state would not have a right of succession. The Chins, on the other hand, do not have a state. They wanted to be a part of Burma proper, and they want their territory integrated with Burma itself. However, the constitution wanted the Chins to have their own state. So they are not eligible for a right of succession. The state most likely to succeed was the Shan state. Shans were much more politically mature. They have achieved a great deal of experience from 1922-1948, when the British let them govern their state and interact with Europeans successfully, so they were ready to govern their own state if they want to become independent.
The other state that was given its right to succeed was the Kayahs/Karennis who had a unique history. In the 1850s, there was unrest amongst the Karenni people, and King Min Don sent his army to the area and forced them to change some things. The Karenni appealed to the British to preserve their identity. The British made a treaty with King Min Don, and they had their own identity. This was documented in the Etison-Etison (sp) treaty. They always argued that they were never under King Min Don, and they should be able to rule their own state. Aung San talked about it at 3 diffent times, and finally agreed that the Karenni people are free people and he invited them to join the union. They didn’t quite answer first, and at the last moment, their leaders agreed to join in the union. So, the Karenni, the only independent group, voluntarily agreed to join the union, and had the right to withdraw legally if they aren’t happy with the union.
This has been the most disturbing thing in the constitution, that right of succession after 10 years of forming the Union, will be in 1958. There was unrest in the Shan state, and the Shans had a slow movement to succession. There wasn’t a point where even a state that had a right to succeed could act, due to undefined majority vote for this to happen.
In 1958, the military became an outspoken critic of this right of the Karennis. General Ne Win and other officers think that they did not tolerate the idea of anyone leaving the constitution. They warned from the beginning that if the Shans might succeed, the military may violate the constitution. The constitution allowed people to voluntarily join or leave the union. The military, however, was created in 1945 with the help of the British, and it was integrated with half Burmans and half minorities. Between 1958 and 1962, there was rumblings from all sides, so U Nu, the Prime Minister, sought to resolved it in a peaceful and democratic way. He called a seminar and invited minority groups to come to Rangoon and at the Federal Seminar, work to come to an agreement. U Nu did not promise an independence, but the goal was to hash out the problems and to come to a solution. Everyone came, and had an open and honest meeting. All delegates had an open meeting, but the press was barred from it, as they would not want the information to leak out before a resolution. There were honest discussions, and the Shans and other minorities spoke freely about their discontent.
All this came to an end in 1962, March 2nd, when there was a visiting a ballet team from China, and most people who are interested in culture, including General Ne Win were in attendance. People enjoyed the show and went home, and at night the army struck. General Ne Win called 600 troops from Meikhtila, and ordered a military coup to seize power, arrested all leaders of the government, and put an end to all the work done by the constitutional group. He didn’t trust the Rangoon cantonment, but ordered the troops from Meikhtila to help him with the coup. At that time, there were a few newspapers that reported the events. In the mean time, the government disappeared, the constitution disappeared, and General Ne Win had formed a revolutionary council to act for the government. General Ne Win began to issue decrees illegally, and the military has operated illegally until 1974, when the military government wrote a second constitution.
So the question of succession that hung like clouds over the society for 10 years finally disappeared in 1962, with democracy disappearing in Burma, and in its place you have military dictatorship. Ne Win changed the constitution by getting rid of it and formed a centralized government, or a unitary state. The center of the unitary state was a revolutionary council with 19 military officers and 1 civilian, and it took to itself the right to decree with the power of the law. There’s nothing legal in what the military did, but that they held power through the use of the gun.
The 1962 coup was a clean coup, with just one person killed by accident, the son of Sao Shwe Thaik, the Shan who was the president of the Union of Burma. So there was no succession. In its place there was coup-de-tas, with the one party rule and military dictatorship. Sadly, for the Burmese, the military was incompetent in managing the economy of the country. Very quickly the economy, the quality of life, and the beginning of development came to an end. Rice business fell, and Burma went from a country exporting millions of tons of rice to a rice-deficit country.
In 1974, the military created a political party, very much different from AFPFL, but a party that gives Socialism to the Burmese: the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP). General Ne Win led the party with his fellow military officers. They are incompetent in managing the economy. They set the price of rice without really knowing the cost to farmers. They force the price on the farmer, so farmers stop growing rice for selling, except for their own use. 40 years later, these incompetent military officers are still running the country. Socialist way is the state owns it, the state distributes it, and everyone will have to put up with it.
So in 1974, the BSPP attempted another constitution, which isn’t much different from the revolutionary council. All power still stays with the central government, and they created a hierarchy of committees. The socialist argument of democratic centralism that was widely used in Eastern Europe was implemented. Power, decisions, and leadership remained in the hands of the military, at the very top. They created 2 mass groups: workers and farmers. All people were categorized as belonging to such groups. There were mass meetings, thousands of people assembled, and nothing gets accomplished. The new Burma had 2 large parties, the workers’ party and the agriculturalists’ party. Obviously, it didn’t work. And Burma created the largest black market in the world. Burma‘s goods were sold across the frontiers. The frontier people became the gatekeepers, and they charge 5% to have the goods go across the border. With that money, they buy arms to fight against the military. There were new civil wars. They controlled the border, and many ethnic groups revolt against the military. There were new civil wars.
Finally, in 1987, General Ne Win, not unlike the comic figure Rick Van Winkle, woke up after a long nap, seemed surprised, and was unable to understand why things are going so badly and Burma was falling so far behind. So, he blamed the black market, saying they are the ones with all the money. Overnight, he said certain units of money are no longer being accepted. They came up with new notes: 90 Kyat, 45 kyat, etc. Suddenly, the money belonging to the people is no longer worth any. The demonetization of the old notes left the citizens of Burma in extreme poverty.
This led to the first student revolt, as they no longer have money to spend—all their belongings were no longer valid. The military beat the students up, and in 1988, there was a dispute in a tea shop outside the Institute of Technology, and a student got killed. The army quickly came to seize the body of the student, but other students didn’t give up the body. The next day, the military cracks the students as they were crossing the famous white bridge next to Inya Lake, and many students died in this massacre. It marks the beginning of the students in revolt against the military. Later on, there was a large protest in downtown Rangoon, by the Sule pagoda. The students gathered and will not disperse. The military brought in black trucks and arrested the students to take them to jail. There weren’t enough room in jails to put them all in, and they left the students to suffocate and die in the trucks, due to the heat outside. About 45 students died in the heated trucks that day.
This started a nationwide march against the military, with people and government workers from all walks of life joining for a change. Even the air force personnel joined in the marches with the students, to bring back democracy in Burma. The military, on September 18th, attacked the students on the streets of Rangoon. For 3 days, they shot and killed anything that moved on the streets of Rangoon. There’s no accounting for all the people who died, as the dead bodies were took to the crematoria and the evidence destroyed. The families never saw their loved ones. That was the summer of 1988 when the military seized power completely.
General Saw Maung, the acting president at that time, promised an election. Everyone believed him. About 233 parties were formed from all walks of life. There was a hidden party called “National Unity Party”, morphed from members of BSPP. There was also a new party that emerges, the party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD). She wasn’t widely known, but stepped forward in Shwedagon Pagoda march, where she stepped forward and talked about how she wanted democracy for Burma that her father dreamt of. She began to be the leader of the people, and it became apparent that the majority of the people of Burma want her to guide them in democratizing the country.
However, the military made certain that she cannot lead the party, as she’s married to a European, so she wasn’t allowed to stand for election. She was, however, clearly the speaker of the people. The people believe in her and trust her, and it became evident that there clearly were just 2 parties competing in the national elections, the NLD and the NUP. But the military tried to prevent her party from winning. At the general elections, NLD won a landslide victory, stunning NUP and the military backing that party.
In 1960, after the 3rd elections, and U Nu had resumed the role of the Prime Minister, he was going to leave the position and there began a contest on who will succeed him. The possible successors were more interested in their futures than the country’s future. U Nu stepped aside from the role of the prime minister and called on Ne Win to take that role. Ne Win accepted this position. Some believed that this was a plot behind Ne Win and U Nu. General Ne Win, according to the constitution, cannot be a Prime Minister, as he wasn’t elected. However, there was a clause that said it is possible for anyone who has served in the government to hold the office without elections, but only for 6 months. Ne Win and U Nu used that article to elect him. Ne Win gave a moving speech as a Prime Minister at that time, as to how he planned to serve the country.
However, after 2 months of becoming the Prime Minister, he went to the parliament to amend the constitution, so that he can serve indefinitely, beyond the 6 months that he was legally allowed to. As soon as he took the office, this law disappeared. Parliament, listening to their Prime Minister, changed the law, saying that as long as he remained the Prime Minister, he can stay in this position indefinitely. Basically, he changed the law with the gun, not legally. When he finished his term as a Prime Minister, and allowed the 3rd election to be held, when U Nu came back, there was no way to remove Ne Win from the position.
So the point I’m making in all of this is, history is crucial and important. Things do not happen by accident, they happen over time. One has to study and understand history, and we need to question why things happened the way they happened? Could they happen again? Is there a way out?
The democratic forces in Burma today stand ready to write a democratic constitution. The military, on the other hand has determined that they shall not allow that to happen. The military wants to perpetuate in the new constitution they want to write. This constitution is to secure their power, and Burma, as we all know, will go backwards.
The final question is: If this government is so bad, why do other governments all seek to favor from this? The answer is: Burma is rich of natural resources. In a time when there’s energy crisis in the world, we have China, India, Russia, all wanting the natural gases and energy resources from Burma. Look at India! It was the only country to support the students in 1988, and not recognizing the Saw Maung government. That was when Rajiv Gandhi was the PM. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, the new leadership in India changed their policy to support the current Burmese military, as they all want a hand in the pot.
So, don’t measure the security, the strength, the intelligence, by how the outside world looks. Ask yourselves the question: What is the world getting out of this by catering to the most cruel and incompetent government in existence in the world today? Thank you!
_ Recorded by Mona T Han