What is Happening in Myanmar? (Pt. 3)

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 3

Myanmar under SLORC and SPDC

In the first year of SLORC’s rule over Myanmar, the junta imprisoned thousands of people, many of whom had taken part in the 8888 Uprising or who were otherwise protesting for human rights and democracy.[1] Aung San Suu Kyi was the head of the opposition political party National League for Democracy, which won a massive and overwhelming victory in the 1990 general elections. [2] Because SLORC had taken over, the Socialist Programme Party was no longer the only organized party in the nation. However, the military junta elected to ignore the results of the election and Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest until 1995.

During Suu Kyi’s imprisonment, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her continued efforts to fight for human rights.[3] Her sons, who are British citizens, accepted the award on her behalf. In 2008, the State Peace and Development Council, which was SLORC’s successor organization, drafted a constitution which forbade any citizen with foreign national immediate relatives from becoming president. [4] Because Suu Kyi was married to a British national and has two British sons, she is ineligible to hold that office unless the constitution is amended. Another clause in the constitution gives the military veto power over any attempts to change the constitution, making that amendment implausible. However, Suu Kyi and her followers would find a loophole to elevate her to leadership after the dissolution of the SPDC.

Under the SPDC, the military and police would continue to arrest members of Suu Kyi’s party and other opposition groups. Suu Kyi herself would be imprisoned and placed under house arrest several more times, eventually serving approximately 15 years in total. She would also hold several secret and semi-secret talks with the ruling council at different points in the regime, continuing to push for reforms with qualified successes.[5]

In 1997, SLORC officially changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council and was admitted into ASEAN, a powerful regional body of nations, which was a huge boost in international legitimacy.[6] A few years later, in 2001, the Burmese Army and rebels clashed near the Thai border. As Thailand is another member of ASEAN, this incident threatened to derail their cooperation but the Thai government signaled a few months later that their relations were normalizing. That same year, China signaled their support for the Burmese government, which was another boon to the SPDC.

Aung San Suu Kyi with Edgardo Boeninger, Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile

2003 and 2004 were pivotal years in Myanmar’s political evolution. Many political prisoners and protesters were freed in those years, including Min Ko Naing, who was a student leader in the 8888 Uprising.[7] The prime minister also signaled that he would convene a constitutional convention as Myanmar had been without one since 1988. Unfortunately, the NDL boycotted the convention as Suu Kyi was again under house arrest and the convention failed to produce a constitution for ratification. By the end of 2004, the prime minister had been ousted in a power struggle and was placed under house arrest.

Even while Myanmar was attempting some political reforms and was gathering international support in the region, many armed groups continued to resist the government. One of the most significant groups was, and in fact remains, the Karen National Liberation Army. The Karen people are an ethnic minority group in Myanmar and the KNLA has been fighting for the group’s autonomy since 1949.[8] Some attempts had been made to make peace, such as the 2004 ceasefire agreement, but nothing has lasted and the KNLA continues to resist government control as does the political party associated with them, the Karen National Union. Another major group, the United Wa State Army, was formed in 1989 and fought SLORC and the SPDC for the entirety of the regime.[9] The United Wa State Army remains active today and has a unique working relationship with the government as, while the UWSA claims to be independent from Myanmar, they have coordinated military responses against Shan rebels in the past. The Shan are the largest ethnic minority group in Myanmar, though they also live in other Southeast Asian nations.[10] There have been several Shan armed groups that have resisted the Burmese government, though the most significant one in recent years seems to be the still-active Shan State Army- South (SSA-S).[11] There are other armed groups that have fought against the Burmese government that have not been organized based solely on ethnicity, including several communist rebel groups throughout the nation’s history. The presence of so many armed groups perhaps explains why it is difficult for people who have not studied the country in depth to follow the chain of events that leads from one incident to another.

In 2007, the UN Security Council was blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes from issuing a condemnation of Myanmar’s repression of minority groups but a separate condemnation of attacks on peaceful protestors succeeded later that year.[12] The International Committee of the Red Cross released a public condemnation of Myanmar’s human rights record the same year. 2007 also saw a popular uprising against the government due to its handling of the economy and fluctuating gas prices.[13] This protest was led largely by Buddhist monks who also called for Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest. The protest movement was called the Saffron Revolution due to the color of the monks’ robes.

2008 led to even more instability. Frequent bombings occured early in the year and a cyclone in May led to massive displacement and a humanitarian crisis.[14] Further, the government finally introduced a new constitution, which included the previously discussed clause that barred Suu Kyi from presidential office. The military was also granted 25% of the seats in parliament with this constitution and was given the veto power over any amendments to the constitution, solidifying their hold on power. Another power-centralizing move by the government was to reject foreign aid in the aftermath of the cyclone, which only exacerbated the humanitarian crisis. A series of political trials ended the year, with some political protesters receiving 65-year sentences.

In the final years of the SPDC’s reign, Suu Kyi had varying success in dealing with the government. Her house arrest was extended due to her allowing a trespassing American to rest at her compound, though she reported the incident the next day, but she was able to meet with government leaders and foreign dignitaries including Hillary Clinton.[15] The NLD initially offered to participate in upcoming elections if conditions were met, including freeing political prisoners, changing the constitution, and inviting international observers, but ultimately decided to protest the elections by not participating. A breakaway faction known as the National Democratic Front became a splinter group and stood for election instead. The military-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, won the 2010 elections, though many opponents claimed fraud, and the presidential candidate, Thein Sein took office. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest shortly after the elections and Thein Sein dissolved the SPDC in March 2011. The government was now, at least in name, civilian-controlled for the first time since 1962.

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

[2] "Myanmar Profile - Timeline." BBC News. September 03, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12992883.

[3]"Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Democracy Icon Who Fell from Grace." BBC News. March 05, 2021. Accessed April 08, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-11685977.

[4] Banyan. "What Is Wrong with Myanmar's Constitution?" The Economist. March 4, 2014. Accessed April 08, 2021. https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2014/03/04/what-is-wrong-with-myanmars-constitution.

[5] "Myanmar Profile - Timeline." BBC News. September 03, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12992883.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8]"Myanmar's Ethnic Armed Groups, and Why the Crisis Could Worsen." South China Morning Post. March 31, 2021. Accessed April 08, 2021. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/explained/article/3127646/myanmars-ethnic-armed-groups-and-why-their-threats-against.

[9] “Myanmar Profile - Timeline”

[10] “Myanmar’s Ethnic Armed Groups”

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Myanmar Profile - Timeline”

[13] Freeman, Joe. "The Saffron Revolution and The 'Good Monk' Myth." The Atlantic. September 29, 2017. Accessed April 08, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/saffron-revolution-good-monk-myth/541116/.

[14] “Myanmar Profile - Timeline”

[15] “Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Democracy Icon Who Fell from Grace”

Gain Experience with the United Nations