The military coup of 1988 brutally ended the opposition's dream of democracy, it seemed. Today there is evidence of democratization in Myanmar. But experts continue to speculate over the reasons and motives behind this.
After the military took power in Myanmar on September 18, 1988, the opposition had to re-orientate itself. It had two choices: it could latch onto other newly created parties or it could go underground - either in the middle of the country or somewhere in the border areas.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Tin Oo and Aung Gyi founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) on September 27. The party attracted a good portion of the opposition and was thus able to create the strongest political alternative to the then governing State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which had been created by the military.
At the turn of the year 1988-89, over 200 new parties were created. But most of them were so-called "telephone and petrol" parties, as a result of the new party regulation law that allotted four telephone lines and 250 liters of petrol monthly to each party, items which were otherwise hard to come by. Today still, the NLD has a large part of the opposition on its side. It could become the strongest party after the next elections in 2015.
The most well-known student leader Min Ko Naing (his nom de guerre means "Conqueror of the King" or "I will defeat you"), whose real name is Baw Oo Tun, took the movement underground. He went into hiding in Yangon but was arrested in March 1989. In 2005 he and other former members of the student movement founded the "88 Generation," which refers to itself as a civil society organization that tries to influence the process of democratization.
For most of the time after gaining independence from the British in 1948, Myanmar has been in a state of civil war. The country is ethnically diverse, the majority of Burmese, however, are of Bamar ethnicity. There are a number of various ethnic minorities living in border areas. For decades, these minorities have been fighting for more self-determination. Some of them have well-trained militias, such as the Shan State Army, the Kachin Independent Army and the Karen National Union, to name a few.
The consequence is that the government actively rules in the central, but not in the border areas. Around 10,000 members of opposition groups joined the resistance forces. Others founded their own student army, the All Burmese Students Defense Force (ABSDF). Many of them, though, left the jungles fairly soon and went to Chiang Mai in Thailand, New Delhi or Oslo to promote awareness of their situation.
Constant state of emergency
The military, after assuming power in September 1988, imposed martial law in a bid to bring the country under control and install order. After elections in 1990, in which the opposition NLD received 59 percent of the votes, the military government refused to hand over power, arguing that there first had to be a new constitution. The military has always considered itself an interim government in charge of administering the transition. The 2003 Roadmap to a Disciplined Democracy played a central role. It mapped out a seven-step process for democratic development, implemented by the regime.
Although the opposition and Western nations had been exerting pressure on the military since 1988, it was not until 2011 that something started to change. The military government released Aung San Suu Kyi after spending 15 years in house arrest.Her party, the NLD; participated in the parliamentary by-elections of April 2012. Political prisoners were released. Rigid press censorship laws were relaxed and the central government started offering olive branches to ethnic minority resistance groups.
Reasons for change
Although most people in Myanmar agree that the democracy movement started in 1988, opinions differ as to why there were signs the country was opening up in 2011. Author Ma Thida sees an array of outside factors: "Everything – the 88-Generation, the sanctions – had a cumulative effect. We can be grateful to this effect for the opening up of the country."
Journalist Thiha Saw says the change can be largely attributed to the developments in the Arab World. When the autocratic systems in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya started to falter, those in power in Myanmar hesitated no longer. "The reason for the change is that they wanted to avoid such a violent transition as in the Arab Spring," according to Thiha Saw.
Thiha Saw and his colleague Zeyar Thu also believe that a further reason lies in the economy and the country's neighbors. "The military felt the country had to catch up to its neighbors." Myanmar's economy lags far behind that of Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. The military, which also controlled the economy, wanted a piece of the Southeast Asian cake. Both journalists believe the country will greatly benefit from the lifting of the sanctions as well as from foreign investments.
Staying the course
The new emphasis placed on the economy, however, has worried the opposition somewhat, Nyan Win of the NLD says. "The government says the development of our country is the most important thing, the first priority. But, in our view, democracy and development have to be even."
Min Ko Naing says there is an urgent need for political reform. "We need a parliamentary system and development there. Second, and equally important, we need a civil society to promote awareness of democratization and democracy."
Khin Maung Gyi, general secretary of the National Unity Party (NUP), and former member of the ousted BSPP in 1988, fears that a party, namely the NLD; could dominate the country's politics. "We have to build our economy and in order to do so we need political stability. To achieve that, we need a national unity government, not one party dominating the political scene."
For the country to truly open up, it will have to rethink its treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. However, former political prisoner The Oo, sees great shortcomings: "Muslims and members of other religions or ethnic minorities are not safe in Myanmar. And the conditions are worsening. That is because there is no equality and no rule of law."
Rule of law is not the only problem; the government also oftentimes seems to lack any concrete vision as to how to govern the country democratically. According to journalist Thiha Saw, there are not only shortcomings in how people view democracy, there are also many false hopes. "Democracy is not heaven. It is hard work. There are rules and responsibilities and challenges."