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What is Happening in Myanmar? (Pt. 2)

Disclaimer: Due to the size of this article, this post is part of a 5-part series to be published over the course of this week. To read the entirety of the article at once, visit our Medium page.

Part 2

Modern History of Burma

In the 1950s, Burma’s prime minister, U Nu, became one of the leading figures in the Non-Aligned Movement, which was an important voting block in the UN in addition to being a remarkable case study of power balancing during the Cold War.[1] By the end of the 1950s though, U Nu and the AFPFL were experiencing a rather large rift in the party structure and a “caretaker government” led by the army chief of staff took power. In 1960, U Nu won a decisive electoral victory but that same chief of staff, General Ne Win, ousted his government two years later in a particularly repressive coup. [2] Shortly before this coup occurred, U Thant had become the UN Secretary General, and while he did not play a significant role in the events discussed here, he was a particularly influential Secretary General and it would not be fair to discuss the history of Burma and its leaders without mentioning the man who was probably the most significant Burmese statesman in history.

U Nu on Time Magazine, August 30, 1954

General Ne Win’s regime ruled by martial law for twelve years and had a difficult relationship with the elected prime minister U Nu. Briefly, U Nu was imprisoned in “protective custody” for four years, was released, wrote a report suggesting Ne Win return the parliament to power so they might name Ne Win as President, fled the country, allied with a former CIA operative to raise an opposition force, was defeated by Ne Win’s army, and eventually was offered amnesty and was allowed to return to Burma.[3] U Nu would later try to resist the Burmese government again, claiming he was the legitimate leader, but was again defeated, partly due to lack of support from other leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, and was again imprisoned.[4] He was eventually released again in the early 1990s during another government transition but never took office again. [5]

In 1974, Ne Win’s military junta created a new constitution and handed over power to elected officials.[6] The constitution had made Burma a one-party political system, however, which meant that only members of Ne Win’s party held power and he continued as head of the People’s Assembly until 1981. In 1981, he relinquished his position to another general, San Yu, but continued serving as chairman for the Socialist Programme Party. [7] A year after the constitution went into effect, the National Democratic Front was formed by regional opposition groups who waged guerrilla insurgencies against the government for many years.

San Yu’s government was not any less repressive than Ne Win’s. In fact, this regime designated non-indigenous peoples as “associate citizens,” which barred them from certain aspects of public life like holding office. [8] This act was one of the many factors that eventually led to the (alleged) government-sanctioned acts of genocide against the Rohingya Muslims in recent years. Rohingya are not one of the legal ethnic groups of Myanmar, meaning that the government does not recognize them as their own citizens. The impact of this will be explored later in this article.

San Yu’s regime continued until 1988.[9] It was this year that U Nu’s second attempt to regain power reached its peak. A popular uprising against the government, partially fuelled by U Nu’s movement and partially by the actions of leaders of opposition groups like Aung San’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, came to a head on August 8 of that year. [10] That date, 8-8-88 gave rise to the common name of this movement, the 8888 Uprising. A student uprising occurred in one of Myanmar’s largest universities on August 8 and spread to other groups across the nation. A little over one month later, a group of military officers known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council put down the rebellions and overthrew the government in a violent coup. [11] SLORC is the group mentioned earlier that imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi and renamed Burma to Myanmar. SLORC also imprisoned U Nu for the second time.

[1] "Myanmar Profile - Timeline." BBC News. September 03, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2021.

[2] Pike, John. "1962 Military Coup in Burma." Global Security. Accessed April 08, 2021.

[3]"U Nu." Encyclopædia Britannica. February 10, 2021. Accessed April 08, 2021.

[4]Prager-Nyein, Susanne. "Aung San Suu Kyi between Biographical Myth and Hard Realities." Journal of Contemporary Asia 43, no. 3 (February 2013): 546-54. doi:10.1080/00472336.2013.771942.

[5] Pace, Eric. "U Nu, First Premier of Independent Burma and Democracy Advocate, Dies at 87." New York Times, February 15, 1995.

[6] “Myanmar Profile- Timeline”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Htike Nanda Win. "Citizens of Myanmar." The Myanmar Times. September 22, 2017. Accessed April 08, 2021.

[9] “Myanmar Profile - Timeline”

[10] Meixler, Eli. "How a Failed Democracy Uprising Set the Stage For Myanmar's Future." Time. August 08, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2021.

[11]"...formerly Known as SLORC." The Economist. November 22, 1997. Accessed April 08, 2021.


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