The rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004)

Published on May 29, 2004

By Nehginpao Kipgen


May 30, 2004


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

    * Burma at a glance: Facts and Figures
    * Map of Burma
    * General background of the conflicts
    * Nature of conflicts


2. Factors causing the rise of political conflicts

    * Panglong Agreement
    * The 1962 military coup’de’tat
    * 8888 Democracy Uprising
    * The 1990 General Elections
    * Depeyin Massacre

3. International community’s role
    * USA, EU and United Nations’ pressure
    * Media’s role in political struggle

4. Consequences of the conflicts

    * Socio-political
    * Economic
    * Education

5. Solution of the conflicts
    * Some positive developments

6. Conclusion
    * Political solution to ethnic problems
    * Co-operation for peaceful solution



Country name: Union of Burma (1948), Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma (1974), Union of Myanmar (1989)
Government: State Peace and Development Council
System of Government: Military Dictatorship
Area: 261,228 sq miles or 678,500 sq kilometers
Coastline: 1,760 miles
Population: 50 million (approximately)
Population growth rate: 0.56%
Refugees from Burma: approximately 300,000 in Thailand, 12,000 in China and India, 20,000 in Bangladesh
Internally displaced people: approximately two million people
Birth rate: 19.65 births/1,000 population
Death rate: 12.25 deaths/1,000 population
Life expectancy: 53.85 yrs for males, 57.07 yrs for females
Number of T.V’s per 1,000 people: 7
Number of doctors per 10,000 people: 2.96
Languages: Arakanese, Burmese, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, Wa, English and more than 100 minority dialects
Religions: Buddhist (89.3%), Animist (0.2%), Christian (5.6%), Muslim (3.8%), Hindu (0.5%)
Burmese Border Refugees: Karenni camps- 20,091
(December 2001) Karen camps – 125,118
Mon-Resettlement Sites- 138,117
Maneeloy Student Centre- 1,767
Inflation CPI: 11.5%
GDP spending: 3. 1 % on military (non-SPDC figures: over 50%) 2.2% education, 0.8% health.
LDC status: since 1987
Natural resources: tin, plutonium, zinc, copper, cobalt, gold, rubies, jade, limestone, lead, coal, tungsten, teak (80% of world’s reserves), fish (704 metric ton/year), gas, oil, rice, sesame, groundnuts
Agriculture: 68% of workforce employed in agriculture; 15% of arable land; less than 50% of potentially productive land under cultivation
Opium production: 1,300 tons (1988), 2,800 tons (1997), 1,800 tons (1998) (70% of US market)
Administrative areas: Seven States (Arakan, Chin, Mon, Shan, Kachin, Karen, Kayah), Seven Divisions (Irrawaddy, Magwe, Mandalay, Pegu, Rangoon, Sagaing, Tenasserim)
Last election: May 27, 1990. NLD won 392 of the 485 seats contested

[There is a caveat on the facts and figures as accurate data is not readily available, even in official publications. Most of the facts and figures contained herein are drawn from SPDC’s sources including their publication Myanmar Facts and Figures 2002, published by the Ministry of Information Union of Myanmar 2002]

Source: Burma Human Rights Yearbook (2002-03)


Burma is a country situated in Southeast Asia and is surrounded by the Republic of China in the North, India in the West, Vietnam in the East and Indian Ocean in the South. After being invaded three times by the British, Burma was finally defeated in 1886, after which, the country was ruled directly by the Queen of England. At present, Burma has seven states and seven divisions. Shan state is the largest state in the country. During the Second World War, the Japanese forces secretly promised the Burmans to help them free themselves from the clutches of the British rulers, and, therefore, trained about 30 Burmese youths, under the aegis of Burma Independence Army (BIA) led by Aung San, who is considered the father of nation by many. The Japanese were successful in driving out the British forces from the Burman soil, and governed the country (Burma) under military rule till August 1, 1943, when the country was granted independence under Japanese protection. However, after a couple of years, on March 27, 1945, the Burmese army revolted against the Japanese forces and joined the Allied Army (British forces).

The Burmese Army along with the underground civilian group formed the “Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL),” which was led by Aung San. But, not long after its formation, General Aung San and six of his colleague counselors, including his elder brother U Ba Win, were assassinated on July 19, 1947 by his political opponents while the Assembly writing the constitution was in recess. U Saw, the former Prime Minister and a nationalist rival of Aungsan, was found guilty in this killing, and, therefore, was later executed. This sudden development compelled U Nu, a civilian ruler to lead Burma till the country gained complete independence from the British on January 4, 1948. U Nu served as a foreign minister during Ba Maw’s government, which ruled Burma under the Japanese occupation. He (U Nu) was also a forerunner in the formation of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) together with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indonesian President Sukarno, Yugoslav President Tito, and Egyptian President Nasser.

Burma is a land of diverse ethnic groups having composite cultures and religions. Due to successive political conflicts and military dictatorships, the country is heading toward the worst stage in its history. There have been a number of cycles in the history of modern Burma that has led to the rise of political conflicts in the country. They may be broadly classified under the following headings- (1) the panglong Agreement & its subsequent events, (2) the 1962 military coup & its aftermath, (3) the 8888 democracy uprising (4) the 1990 general elections, and (5) the Depeyin massacre. Modern Burma in this paper refers to the period from 1947 A.D. onwards. Unlike conflicts in country such as the former Yugoslavia, conflicts in Burma are mainly between the major Burman ethnic dominated government and other ethnic groups of the country. However, as time goes on, more dissident ethnic Burmans also join the movement against its own government. The battle is now mainly between the military junta and the democracy activists of multi-ethnic groups.

Nature of conflicts

The wavering political environment and the subsequent chaos engendered ethnic, religious, and political conflicts. Generally speaking, the major Burman ethnic group always has a feeling of chauvinism over the other ethnic groups. However, in my interview to Dr. Tint Swe, a Minister for Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)-Western Region of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) on March 19, 2004 (ref. said, “It is the political egoism of leaders those who are in power.” NCGUB is an exile Burmese government. Meanwhile, although the government does not ban the practice of other religions totally, there are persecutions, discrimination and hatred on ethnic and religious grounds. Moreover, they (the military government) want to prolong their regime indefinitely, ignoring the grievances and demands of other ethnic groups. Keeping in mind the different events that led to political turmoil in the country; let us now study the depth of its intensity and the affects.

As mentioned in the beginning, there has been ethnic hatred for a long time, and dates back to as early as the country’s independence. In fact, the majority Burmans have a concept of chauvinism. It is their intention to dominate over the other minority groups of the country. It has been evident from the various stages of the government formations that leaders from minority groups were neither invited nor included. One of the reasons of the rise of insurgency problems in the country is due to hatred and discrimination on the basis of ethnicity. For example, in the mid 1940s, the Chins, the Karens and the Mons were looked down by the Burmans as if they were little better than the barbarians or cheap animals. The Karens were particularly despised by the Burmans, who called them uneducated people, eating small animals such as snakes, frogs, monkeys, wild yams, etc. Such awkward attitude ignited ethnic hatred particularly between the Burmans and the Karens. It is interesting to note that the Karens did not participate in the Panglong Conference and the subsequent agreement signed between the British government and the frontier leaders with the participation of some ethnic groups’ representatives. Through times, the Karens and other ethnic groups have doubted the sincerity of the Burmans. The Karens were also one of the foremost ethnic groups to go underground and fight the Burmese regime.

Although Burma is not officially declared a theocratic state, there has been persecution and restriction on minorities, belonging to religions other than Buddhism, which is the religion of the majority Burman population. For instance, a church has to seek prior permission for Christmas celebration or any other important religious festivals. If permission is denied, it is not allowed to do anything against the authority’s order under any circumstances, or else, one could either be fined or arrested and imprisoned.

In one gruesome incident, a Kuki ethnic village called Nung Kam, a Christian village in Sagaing Division, was bulldozed in the beginning of 1993, as the villagers refused to convert to Buddhism. After it was bulldozed, a new Burman village known as Saya San Ywo was set up with a military platoon guarding the village. It was very unfortunate to see that the neighboring Kuki villages were ordered to supply labor and other basic necessities for the newly arrived Burman slum dwellers. If resisted, the villagers could have faced dire consequences. This very incident was mentioned by P.S. Haokip, in his book “The Kuki Nation (p288),” and the Kuki Students’ Democratic Front’s (KSDF) memorandum submitted to Amnesty International on October 18, 2000 (ref.

Meanwhile, an armed group of the Kukis, the Kuki National Army (KNA), which is the armed wing of the Kuki National Organization (KNO), is active in Kabaw Valley of Sagaing Division. The group is committed to achieving its political goal, demanding the restoration of their land, which was annexed by the British in the early 20th century. The acclaimed land is now occupied by mixed ethnic groups. It is important to take into account that more than 20,000 Kukis were driven out from their land in 1967 under the so called “Khadawmi Operation.” The indigenous Kuki people were charged with holding bogus national registration cards, which were issued by none other than the Burmese government itself. In this regard, on the 36th anniversary of the operation, the global Kuki Forum, the Kuki International Forum, made a strong statement under the caption, “KIF remembers victims of 1967 Khadawmi Operation,” (ref. There are several other reports of similar cases in the ethnic minority populated areas of the country.


Panglong Agreement

The first conflict was as a result of the pre-and post-historic 1947 Panglong Agreement and its subsequent events. A year before the official declaration of Burma’s independence, there were hectic days in which the Burman leader, General Aung San, tried to convince both the leadership of different ethnic groups of the country and the British for establishing the union of Burma. Only after giving assurances to the British government that there will be equal treatment and equal opportunity among all ethnic groups of Burma under the new democratic government, Burma was granted independence by the British. Having doubts on the Burmans’ leadership, most of the ethnic groups of the country did not participate in the proceedings of the Panglong agreement. Panglong is the name of a town in Shan State where the agreement was signed. This historic event came to be known as the Panglong Agreement, bearing the name of the town where the agreement was signed. The agreement was signed on February 12, 1947, in the presence of 23 representatives from the Shan State, the Kachin Hills and the Chin Hills, who agreed to form an interim government. It is important to note that prior to the agreement, the Burman leader, Aung San, promised ethnic groups of Burma by saying “If Burma receives one kyat, you will also get one kyat.” A kyat is the term given to Burmese currency. As a result of this historic agreement, till today, February 12 is observed as the Union Day of Burma.

Ethnic groups including Arakan, Karen, Karenni, Kuki, Naga, Pa-O, Palaung, Rohingya, Wa, etc., did not sign the agreement because of either not invited or doubting the sincerity of the majority Burman ethnic group. Unsatisfied with the agreement, the ethnic group like the Karen armed themselves against the Burmese government. Even the ethnic groups who signed the agreement also later on withdrew from the agreement as the new government was lacking federalism, which means the major Burman ethnic leaders were obsessed with chauvinistic ideas with a lion’s share. This was the beginning of political conflicts in the history of modern Burma. Although the 1947 constitution did not make any specific mention about federalism, the aim of the agreement was to have a federal government in which every individual state would have to take responsibility for its own government. Clement Attlee was the British Prime Minister at that time. Prior to this consultation, the British colonial powers ruled the country under two administrative units- the valley area and the hill area states. During this period, many people from the hill areas converted to Christianity after being convinced by the English Christian missionaries. Education and health care facilities were provided to the people by the colonizers.

One important point is that Burma was in a form of Union government for years since the country’s independence. U Nu, a leader of the Anti Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), was the first Prime Minister of independent Burma. There were frequent disturbances and political instability in the country as minority ethnic groups revolted against the Burman government. With almost all ethnic groups going to rebellion, there had been unending fights between the government forces and the ethnic rebel groups. In 1958, the ruling AFPFL party split and the government collapsed, but U Nu faction won a landslide victory in the February 1960 general elections. With the government’s split, the Chief of Army staff, General Newin, acted swiftly as a caretaker government. The failure of a true democratic government, absence of multi-party system and factional infighting within the party leadership in the government were the factors mainly responsible for the collapsing of U Nu’s government.

The 1962 Military Coup

Ethnic unrest was going on in the country. Insurgent groups like the Karen National Union (KNU), the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), and an insurgent group from the Shan State became very active. The ethnic groups other than the majority Burmans were demanding a political dialogue based on federalism. This political unrest all over the country worried General Ne Win and his colleagues in the army. After immense pressure and demands from the federal movement groups, U Nu, the first Prime Minister, agreed to meet leaders who were demanding federalism in a so-called “federal seminar” in mid-February 1962. Taking advantage of the political instability in the country, General Ne Win and his fellow army commanders surrounded all important key points in Rangoon city and seized power on March 2, 1962. It was a bloodless coup. Since then, military dictatorship came to exist in Burma for the first time in its modern history. The military leaders were said to be disappointed by U Nu’s promotion of Buddhism as state religion and tolerance on separatist groups as branded by the military leaders.

The new military government was established under the name of “Revolutionary Council” in which Ne Win was the chairman. He abolished federal system and started Burmese way of socialism and banned independent newspapers. However, after ruling the country for 26 years, this Iron man died at the age of 91 on December 5, 2002, at his residence in Rangoon. He ended his life in house arrest after his children were found guilty of plotting to overthrow the State Peace and Development (SPDC) government. Under the Revolutionary Council’s rule, the country had gone down to the UN status of Least Developed Country (LDC) in 1987. One interesting thing is that Burma was once known as the “Rice Bowl of Asia” before the military took over power in the country.

Ne Win led the Revolutionary Council government which created its own party called the “Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP)” in July 1962. There had been unrest and sporadic protests throughout the country ever since the military took power. To cite one example, workers staged violent strikes in 1974 and 1975. There was confrontation between the government and the students over the proper burial of U Thant, the third General Secretary (1961 – 1971) of the United Nations. Buddhist monks and students had demonstrations on the ground that the government was refusing to give appropriate honor to the late UN General Secretary, who served for two terms with dignity. They also demanded the end of “One party Dictatorship.” In this ensuing encounter, at least nine people were killed, and some 1800 were arrested in Rangoon alone. Civil war continued throughout the country as the government continued to launch aggressive campaigns against the forces of ethnic nationalities and the Burma Communist Party (BCP). Every protest and demonstration was responded to with guns. However, in 1981, Ne Win stepped down from the government’s presidency and was succeeded by San Yu, a retired general, but continued to head the BSPP.

In another unusual maneuver in the country’s history, the government on September 5, 1987, made an official nationwide announcement of the sudden demonetization of 25, 35, and 75 kyats currency notes issued by the Union of Burma. The sudden announcement of this order without any prior notification shocked the entire nation. On hearing this news, people from across the country came out to the streets to protest the government’s order. The announcement made approximately 60 to 80% of the currency used in the country become worthless. A hundred (100) kyat currency note had been demonetized before. Demonstration and agitation was seen from university students that turned violent. The students of Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) smashed traffic lights and destroyed government vehicles in protest against the government’s actions. The announcement came by the time the students had to clear their fees. The government immediately closed down universities, although they were reopened after two months. In this particular incident, more than 21 students were killed and other hundreds of students were arrested. As the situation worsened, the government declared martial law throughout the country.

After a few days, the government clarified that the sudden demonetization of currency notes was aimed at insurgents and black marketers. On the contrary, neither the insurgents nor the black marketers were much affected. The worst sufferers were the common people who made almost all of their savings in those demonetized currency notes. The author’s family was also greatly affected by this sudden demonetization. Almost 90% of the money that we saved was in those demonetized currency notes. It was learnt that the insurgent groups did keep safe their money in either Thai or Chinese currency. Even though almost the entire country’s wealth was devalued, the government neither came up with any program or measures nor any compensation to heal the wounds of many.

8888 Democracy Uprising

The beginning of 8888 democracy uprising was indeed very simple. The reason why it is known as 8888 popular uprising is that the gruesome massacre took place on August 8, 1988, i.e., 8/8/1988. It was the very day in which hundreds of demonstrators were mercilessly struck down with tanks and rifle butts. The whole episode started in a local teashop where a scuffle broke out between drunken local youths and the students of Rangoon Institute of Technology. One of the drunkards involved in the scuffle was the son of a local leader of the People’s Council of Burma Socialist Program Party, the party which was in control of the military government. When students of Rangoon Institute of Technology protested the incident, they were not listened to by the council chairman; instead, a 500-strong riot police unit and soldiers armed with clubs and G-3 rifles were sent to confront the agitated students. Min Ko Naing, a student activist, pleaded that the students pass freely. Instead of accepting his plea, the soldiers shouted saying “Don’t let them escape and kill them.” Infuriated by the situation, stones were hurled at the policemen, in turn; the riot police retaliated with bullets, so that several students fell down on the streets with profuse bleeding. That very particular incident led to the death of three students, one in the hostel and the two others succumbed to their injuries in the hospital.

On August 8 at 8:08 a.m. local time, thousands of people took to the streets to protest the soldiers’ actions and the economic crisis in the country. Students from different parts of the country took part in the demonstrations. Hundreds of high school students, wearing their school uniforms-white shirt and green longyis had valiantly confronted the rifles and bayonets of the soldiers. It was a very well organized walkout by people from all walks of life. Students showed their bared chests to the soldiers to either shoot them or bayonet them. On seeing the sentiments of the students, some soldiers hesitated to use their weapons against the demonstrators. On the contrary, there were many soldiers who cared not about the rationale of the demonstration, and started spraying their bullets indiscriminately toward the demonstrators. Many soldiers were brought from remote areas by the authority to smash the demonstrators with a convincing story that the students were communist sympathizers who wanted to disintegrate the Union of Burma.  Moe Thee Zun (meaning Moe-Rain, Thee-Hailstorm, Zun-June) was one of the pioneer and prominent leading organizers of the demonstration.

Demonstrations were also heard from several places throughout the country. In Mandalay, the country’s old capital, both students and monks from monasteries participated together to denounce the injustices of the military personnel who were butchering thousands of students at the behest of their commanders. Several other forms of demonstrations were also held in some schools demanding the immediate release of arrested students and for the end of one party system in the country. Between 8 to 12 August, several hundred people were killed in Rangoon alone. Students took up their fighting-peacock flags, a flag which was banned by the military regime since 1962, and the portraits of General Aung San. The demonstrators were later joined by teachers’ unions, workers’ unions, the health workers’ union and the lawyers’ union. Although it was emphasized to use non-violent means, many people, especially from the remote areas, did not really understand the effectiveness of non-violence. Instead, they surrounded and killed suspected military intelligence personnel. Some civilians even armed with swords, daggers, sharpened arrows, umbrella and bicycle spokes confronted the enemy forces.

As opposition and violence erupted frequently against the regime’s leadership, on July 23, 1988, the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) held its crucial conference and General Ne Win resigned as leader of the regime. He stressed the need for a referendum on whether to remain in a one-party system or replace it with a multi-party system. The sudden resignation of General Ne Win surprised everyone, while many doubted his sincerity. Before the conference was ended, General Sein Lwin, the man who had only four years of education and was known to be loyal to General Ne Win, was appointed as the latter’s successor.

Again, on August 12, 1988, General Sein Lwin was removed from his presidency, and Dr. Maung Maung, a legal scholar with a senior position in the BSPP, was appointed Sein Lwin’s successor on August 19. The frequent change in the leadership of the ruling military regime had proved the instability of the country’s political system. Five days after Maung Maung’s appointment, the soldiers were called back to their base, and as a result, the shooting stopped. Thousands of people, who were afraid of being killed during the violence, now came out to the street to denounce the brutality of the military government. People from the rural areas of Shan and Karen states came down to cities to participate in demonstrations. As strikes and demonstrations continued, the military on September 18, 1988, crushed the peaceful student-led demonstrations and made another bloody coup and established a new type of dictatorship called “State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).” This bloody coup resulted in the deaths and arrests of thousands of people. The approximate number of deaths was said to be more than three thousands.

As a result of the gruesome massacre and its subsequent consequences, thousands of people belonging to different ethnic groups fled the country for their safety. In the meantime, hundreds of students went underground; started taking up arms to overthrow the merciless military regime. Insurgent groups belonging to minority ethnic groups did not involve much in the demonstrations considering that it was the battle between the Burmans’ themselves. Some analysts said, “Had all the revolutionary groups been united, the outcome of the conflict could have been different.” Underground organizations like Karen National Union, New Mon State Party (NMSP), and Communist Party of Burma (CPB) did not take active part in the general strikes. At that time, KNU and NMSP were fighting each other over a disputed territory. There was also lack of leadership and coordination among the public.

1990 General Elections

Before the general elections, there were numerous stages that led to the development of multi-party general elections in the country for the first time under military regime. During the SLORC’s time, similar to the days of former military regime, there was political instability and public unrest throughout the country. Demonstrations and mass meetings were held, especially with the initiation of university students. Seeing the political chaos and mass unrest in the country, the leadership of the BSPP decided to conduct multi-party elections, ignoring the first promise that they would hold a referendum to see whether people supported a one-party system or multi-party rule. In the meantime, the former Prime Minister, U Nu, on September 9 announced that he had formed a government himself, appointing cabinets from his old friends and relatives. On the one hand, student leaders worked whole-heartedly for the formation of an interim government, after getting positive responses from various political leaders and the embassies they had approached.

Veteran politicians and other leaders could not come together to a common stand on the formation of an interim government. At this point, Aung San Suu Kyi had not yet taken an active role in politics. Aung San Suu Kyi attended Oxford University in England where she married a British scholar, Michael Aris. She is the daughter of Burma’s national hero, General Aung San, who died when she was two. Daw Suu Kyi was the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient for her commitment to a peaceful change of Burma political problems. Although she used to visit her country, she spent most of her life in overseas. During the 8888 demonstrations in Rangoon, she was at home to serve her ailing mother. Seeing the need and also being urged by others, she delivered a speech on August 26, 1988, the day the student organizers called for a nationwide strike. As she was the daughter of a national hero, her speech attracted many people, and, therefore, had a great impact on the people. In her speech, Aung San Suu Kyi urged the people not to turn to the army, but rather focus on finding democracy in a peaceful and unified way. The points she made caught the attention of half a million people who gathered there. This was a turning point in her life and for the establishment of a multi-party system in modern Burma.

With the introduction of the new military regime called the State Law and Order Restoration Council, General Saw Maung was appointed chairman of the regime. Although the former dictator General Ne Win was not included in the cabinet, all top leaders in the SLORC, including the chairman, were known to be loyal to Newin. General Newin acted as the trigger puller behind the screen. Just days after the formation of SLORC, its chairman announced for the registration of new political parties. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin Oo and U Aung Gyi, was one of the first to register on September 27.  On the other hand, the National Unity Party (NUP), primarily comprised of former military men and members of the BSPP, was formed to confront the NLD. NUP was the reformed name of former BSPP, which was dismantled during 1988 mass demonstrations. The All Burma Federation of Students’ Union (ABFSU), primarily composed of students and the Democratic Party for New Society (DPNS) were also formed. Fearing the rapid popularity of NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested on July 20, 1989, and placed under house arrest for six years and was released in 1995. U Tin Oo was also arrested the same day at his house. Later, the two NLD leaders were disqualified from running election. One of the pioneers of the students’ movement, Moe Thee Zun, escaped to Thailand, where he joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), which was formed in late 1988.

As promised by the military regime, general election was held in May 1990 in which the NLD secured a landslide victory, winning 392, out of 485 parliamentary seats, including all fifty-nine seats in the Rangoon Division. Despite ruling Burma for 26 years, the military-backed NUP won only ten seats.  The Shan National League for Democracy won twenty-three seats, while eleven seats went to the Arakan League for Democracy. The remaining seats were distributed among ethnic minority parties. Before the election, the military regime, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), promised to respect the outcome of the general elections which was conducted under their supervision. They (SLORC) thought that the elections would go in favor of them. However, instead of transferring powers to the democratically elected members, the military regime deliberated ways to delay the transfer process. The SLORC arrested several elected Members of Parliament and other student activists who organized to form a parallel government when the regime refused to hand over power. Including Dr. Sein Win, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s cousin, a number of elected leaders, political activists, and thousands of students fled to the Thai-Burma, Indo-Burma borders and to other neighboring countries.

After fleeing the country, Dr. Sein Win and eleven other Members of Parliament formed the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), with the aim of continuing the democracy movement in exile. In the meantime, the military regime was criticized by the international community for not respecting the verdict of the people. There have also been frequent leadership changes. For example, in 1992, the collective leadership of the regime sacked General Ne Win, the chairman of the regime, who was replaced by General Than Shwe. Although he (General Ne Win) was not given a position in the new government, he constantly remained as the policy maker behind the screen until he died in February 2003. The regime changed its name from SLORC to SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) on November 15, 1997, when it joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The SPDC changed the country’s capital from Rangoon to Yangon, and the country’s name, Burma to Myanmar in 1989.

It was sad to see that even religious institutions were not spared during the violent actions of the soldiers. In the ensuing confrontations, several monks were either beaten up or even got killed. For months, monasteries boycotted the regime, and as a result, did not receive alms from the military personnel and their families. The monks did not even attend important services, such as funerals. According to Buddhists belief, if the monks are not present at the funeral, the spirit of the dead person would become ghosts rather than moving on to a higher form of status. The monks, particularly the junior ones, joined the fights a long with the student activists against the government soldiers. Stone pelting and slingshots were commonly used by the monks and the students in their attacks against the advancing soldiers. Seeing human rights violations and the atrocities committed on its people by the military junta, thousands of people belonging to minority ethnic groups, and other disgruntled people including monks, vowed to fight the illegitimate government with all their available resources.

Depeyin Massacre

The Depeyin massacre is the most recent event that brought political chaos into the country. The cause of the incident was interpreted into two different conclusions; the international community and the opposition parties in the country termed as an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, by deploying volunteers of Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), while the ruling military regime publicized as the clash between the supporters and members of NLD and USDA volunteers. The incident took place at Depeyin on the 30th of May 2003. Meanwhile, according to eye witnesses, the whole episode was a well-planned attack on leaders and supporters of NLD in order to terrorize them by using well trained thugs and criminals from prisons. An exile Member of Parliament and minister for the Prime Minister’s Office (West) of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) Dr. Tint Swe said, “Depeyin incident was a premeditated attack; it was a political massacre.” The writer had an extensive one-on-one interview with the minister on March 19, 2004 in Ball State University campus.

With prior permission from the authority and election commissions, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had tours to several places across the country after her release from house arrest on May 6, 2002. Taking the opportunity of her tour, Aung San Suu Kyi revamped her party by reopening offices and putting up signboards, which  had been banned. As scheduled, on May 6, 2003, she started her entourage from Rangoon to Mandalay, and then proceeded to Shwe Bo, Khin U, Kaw Lin, Wun Tho, Indaw, Katha, Mohnyin, Mogaung, Pa Kan, Tanaing, Namti, Myitkyina, Waingmaw, Bamaw, Shwe Gu, Momeik, Mogok, Thabeikkyin, Singu, Madaya, Mandalay, Myintmu, Monywa, Butalin, and to Depeyin. At every stop, Aung San Suu Kyi was given open arms welcome by well-wishers and supporters across the country. Her movement was also closely monitored by military intelligent and faced harassments from the USDA volunteers. In one instance on May 16, 2003 when they were entering Myitkyina Township, people numbering about 300 carrying 2″x 1″ clubs, catapults and short choppers surrounded the motorcade of Daw Aung San Suu kyi and her colleagues with hostility.Undaunted by the harassments, Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of NLD headed with their scheduled tours. On the fateful morning of May 30th, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was in Monywa Township NLD office, putting up office signboard and forming the party youth wing. At about 10 a.m., departure was made for Butalin town through the circular road of Monywa.
When Daw Suu and party arrived at Butalin, ceremonies of installing signboard, opening of Butalin Township NLD office and formation of Butalin Township NLD youths were performed. At about 4:30 p.m., the entourage left Butalin for Depayin Town.

Upon arriving at Saingpyin village, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi went to the house of U Win Myint Aung, who was an MP-elect and had been in prison, and gave words of encouragement to family members and other NLD members of the village. Then, the entourage continued the journey, and reached Kyi village at about 7:30 – 8:00 p.m., where the massacre took place. From there, Depeyin was only about 2 miles away. At Kyi village, the villagers and local population came out to welcome Daw Suu and the NLD members. After passing Kyi village for about a hundred yards, by blocking the way in the front, two monks stopped Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car. When central youth’s security officer Ko Tun Zaw Zaw got off the car and asked the reason, the two monks said, “We have been waiting for a long time. Ask Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to give a speech.” In reply, Ko Tun Zaw Zaw explained that it was not possible due to time constraint. At that moment, attackers on 2 Dyna trucks and 2 Torlagi cars, which had been tailing the convoy, repeatedly shouted, “Relying on external forces, axe handles; people with negative views, we don’t want!” So shouting, they alighted from their vehicles. In response to that, Kyi villagers, who had come out to welcome Daw Suu and the NLD members, shouted back, “We the people, in turn, don’t want you!” At that point, the USDA members, their mercenaries, and the faked monks, who had got off from the Dyna and Torlagi asked, “What are you saying?” So asking, they started attacking the Kyi villagers with pointed iron rods, iron bars, bamboo sticks and wooden bats, which they had brought in advance with them.

As one of the attackers’ Dyna truck attempted to run over the people seen in the light of the cars, the villagers fled the scene in disorder to escape. Then the attackers approached the convoy of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. About three thousand thugs who were waiting beside the road joined the previous perpetrators and attacked the occupants of the convoy systematically. The faked monks with red arm band and people in civilian clothes with white arm band while beating the women, they shouted, “Race destroying women; you want to be wives of Kala (a derogatory word for Indians and Westerners); before you make yourselves wives of Kala, become our wives.” Shouting such unspeakable abuses, they beat them up violently. From the women victims who had fallen to the ground, the attackers pulled their NLD uniform jackets and sarongs, and they wrapped the hair around their hands and bumped the faces against the tar road. They rudely and savagely attacked until causing fatal injuries. They looted ornaments and cash from the victims. The attackers concentrated their savage assault on the right side of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car, where members of the youths responsible for security stood, with linked hands, in tiers. Many members of the youth security detail were seriously injured. As they hit violently and repeatedly on the head, NLD photographer Tin Maung Oo and Ko Thein Toe died on the spot.

To terrorize the victims, the attackers violently struck the cars with iron bars and broke car windows by stabbing with pointed iron rods. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s car had to rush out while members of the youth security detail, giving close protection to Daw Suu’s car, came under intense and violent attack. At the same time, the attackers launched a violent assault on the car of NLD Vice-Chairman U Tin Oo and seized U Tin Oo at the spot of attack and took him away. U Tin Oo was then taken to Kalay prison. He, however, was shifted from prison to house arrest on February 14, 2004. Both Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo are presently placed under house arrest in their respective residences.

The victims who escaped from the first killing field near Kyi village and fled toward Depeyin were attacked again by more than 1,000 attackers, who were waiting ready on the two sides of the road, at a place near the compound of local Irrigation Department. It was a second killing field. It could also be seen with the spot lights already installed in the big rain trees beside the road and in the light of many Dyna Trucks that had been positioned by the authorities. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Dr. Hla Soe Nyunt narrowly escaped the attacks at the second killing field, because their cars rushed through the waiting crowd at high speed. Sources indicate that the authorities gathered and trained about 5,000 attackers comprising the USDA members and other criminals from prisons. [New Light of Myanmar, June 1, 2003 (SPDC, May 31 press conference)]

On the morning of May 31, an emergency police station was set up near the compound of the Irrigation Department not far from the place of the incident. In order to eliminate all evidences, water was brought in with municipal trucks and bloodstains and other marks were washed away by the policemen, using brooms. Although the exact number of deaths is not ascertained, it is believed that more than 70 people were massacred in this incident.


USA, EU and United Nation’s pressure

International community including the United States of America, the European Union, and the United Nations have been pressing the military regime to hold a pragmatic dialogue with the opposition groups and respect the outcome of the 1990 general elections. So far, these repeated pressures have been ignored by the military junta. As a result, the country has faced economic crises, and one such notable example was the closing down of all national banks in the country due to bankruptcy in February 2003. The brunt of this economic crisis has immensely affected the lives of people from all walks of life.

The intervention of the international community in Burma is still very limited. The military regime is under economic sanctions by the international community such as the European Union, International Labor Organization (ILO) and the United States for their excessive human rights violations. Imposing of economic sanctions is also one of the effective ways of the international community’s involvement. Entry visas for leading figures of the military junta have been banned by the United States government. Meanwhile, there are several opinions that unless the international community comes up with some sort of harder intervention, the regime will continue with its traditional policy of aggression against its own people, particularly against the ethnic minority groups.

The United Nations is working hard to come up with a positive solution. A UN special envoy, Mr. Razali Ismail and Mr. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) on Burma, have been trying their best to convince the military junta to hold dialogue with the opposition party, National League for Democracy (NLD) and with representatives of ethnic groups. In a number of occasions, these leaders have visited the country and had discussions with both the ruling military regime and the opposition groups. Although there has not been any significant change in the country’s political situation, little progress has been made. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from six years (1989 – 1995) house arrest in 1995. It was during her house arrest that she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 because of her commitment to democracy with non-violent means. However, throughout the late 1990s, Suu Kyi was sporadically arrested and placed under house arrest. She was neither allowed to meet her supporters and party members nor allowed to travel freely throughout the country. She was also awarded the Presidential Medal in 2000 by the US government. She was again held under house arrest in September 2000 and later released on May 6, 2002. After her freedom from house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to travel throughout the country, which she had been denied for years. One sad story is that she was not allowed to be visited by her husband, Michel Aris, before he passed away on March 27, 1999. She was afraid to visit her husband on the ground that the military government would not allow her to return back once she leaves the country.

Media’s role in political struggle

Different Radio programs in Burmese such as Radio Free Asia (RFA), Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), and British Broad Casting Corporation (BBC) and Voice of America (VOA) are run with the assistance from the international community. These programs are routinely broadcasting the injustices and crimes perpetrated by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), besides other news from Burma. Through these programs, people from around the world are kept informed about the happening in inside Burma. As media and press are censored inside the country, the people will have to rely on the news broadcasts from the overseas stations. Freedom of speech is denied in the country. In conjunction with that, on June 7, 1996, SLORC issued a law that anyone who expresses political views publicly could be given up to 20 years imprisonment. In many places inside Burma, people could be arrested if found listening to the overseas radio programs that broadcast the weaknesses of the military junta.

The involvement of the international community has so far resulted in the release of some political prisoners. But still, there are hundreds who are languishing in different jails in the country. Most prisoners are carried to places where they are not familiar with and are confined to hazardous works, with chains hanging down from their waist to ankles. They are treated as if they were wild animals; prisoners are given unhygienic foods, no medication, and, at times, they are lashed mercilessly. Most of the prisoners would either die in their camps or work places. Sometimes, they are beaten to death by the soldiers who look after them. The writer himself, before leaving Burma, witnessed the harsh treatments meted out to prisoners.


The conflicts have turned the country, which was once known to be one of the richest countries in Southeast Asia, into one of the poorest countries of the world. Burma was once known as the rice bowl of the Southeast Asian Nations before the military seized power. I will broadly elaborate the consequences of the conflicts under three main categories – socio-political, economic and education.


The consequences in the socio-political areas are one of the serious ones. The political situation of the country is in chaos with no definite pattern. The worst form of government has affected the lives of about 50 million people. Due to the Burmese military policy of chauvinism, many underground groups have revolted against the brutal military regime. The political leadership of the country has deprived the fundamental rights of the people. The commoners are politically suppressed so that whoever raises a voice against the military regime is in trouble. As a result of the conflicts, thousands of pints of blood have been shed, and lives have been lost. The number of internally displaced persons and exodus of refugees is steadily rising year after year. Neighboring countries like India and China are taking advantage of the situation and are now trying to make their strong bases in the country by working together with the military junta. As indicated by the Human Rights Yearbook 2002-03, there are approximately 300,000 refugees in Thailand, 12,000 in China and India, and 20,000 in Bangladesh. Due to the continuous inflow of refugees, the number of refugees is said to be very much higher than the official record published in this Human Rights Year Book.

One very shocking news is that there are hundreds of people who are disabled or crippled by the landmines planted by the Burmese soldiers in ethnic minority war-torn areas. Many of ethnic minority-inhabited areas are filled with bombs and mines so that living in these areas are very risky. The landmines are planted by the regime’s forces in their battle against the ethnic insurgent groups. It is very sad to see that forcibly recruited soldiers from the ethnic minority groups are placed in the front lines whenever the army is in gun battle with the insurgents. This clearly indicates racial discrimination practiced by the military junta.

In a significant development in August 30, 2003, the newly sworn-in Prime Minister, General Khin Kyunt, presented the military regime’s seven steps “democracy road map.” The speech was its first time on policy matters given at Parliament building, and was addressed to military junta’s cabinet ministers, military commanders, and organizations under the regime’s command. The seven steps include; reconvening of the National Convention(NC) that has been adjourned since 1996, step by step implementation of the process necessary for the emergence of a genuine and disciplined democratic system, drafting of a new constitution (based on NC), adoption of the constitution through national referendum, holding of free and fair elections for Pyithu Hluttaws (legislative bodies) according to the new constitution, convening of Hluttaws, and government and other central organs formed by the Hluttaw.

The plan was denounced by many opposition parties terming that it is an idea of legitimizing the junta and an attempt to prolonging the regime. “It is nothing more than a political ploy to ease mounting international pressure and prolong military rule,” said the August 31, 2003 Press Release of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the Burmese exile government. Meanwhile, diplomats and observers in Rangoon have also said that the general is just making the old idea new. Prime Minister of the exile government Dr Sein Win said, “We cannot accept any political process which excludes the role of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. A common course of action has to be sought through a tripartite dialogue. SPDC has neither the legitimacy nor the support of the people to dictate or impose a political process, particularly on a political party like the NLD which has the mandate of the people through the 1990 elections.” It may be noted that the NLD secured 392 seats out of 485 total parliamentary seats in the 1990 elections. The government of Burma’s proposed seven-steps road map to democracy does not include the opinions expressed by several parties in the country and has not shown that the process will be participatory and transparent, the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan says in a human rights report. So far, this road map seems to be unwelcome to many opposition groups, including ethnic party such as the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), which won 23 seats (the second largest parliamentary seats).


The economic situation of the country has been deteriorating since the military took over the country’s administration in 1962 military coup. As the country’s resources are diverted to the pockets of a few top army generals, the country is now facing severe economic crisis. The inflation rate is rapidly soaring. About two-thirds of the country’s revenue is spent on military purposes, which in turn has immensely increased the economic hardships of the people. In the meantime, the prices of all essential commodities are rising rapidly, although the daily wages and salaries of the government employees remain very low. This unbalanced income and expenditure has forced almost every government servant to a life of corruption. We could not simply blame the government employees for taking bribes and other donations. It is the circumstances that compel them to do so for their survival.

Besides its domestic hardships, economic sanction is imposed by most wealthy nations, and, therefore, no major investments or any financial and other assistance is flowing into Burma. This adds to the woes of the country’s economic hardships. The country’s natural resources are exploited by the military regime. Burma’s neighboring countries, China and India, are taking advantage of the economic crisis by sending their businessmen and women to extract the wealth of Burma. The country’s economy is now indirectly controlled by China and other neighboring Asian countries. If there is no economic revolution or economic policy changes in the near future, Burma could be facing disastrous economic depression.


The conflicts in Burma do not have an impact only on the socio-political and economic, but also on the education system of the country. Today, Burma has one of the lowest standards of education system. Quality education is very less to be seen. It is important to remember that most of the educated youths had left the country during and after the political crisis in the country, particularly after the 8888 democracy uprising. Not only students, but skilled professionals and many other scholars of the country have been leaving the country because of the overall deteriorating situation of the country. They are looking for better jobs and better environment where they can peacefully utilize their knowledge for living.

In the absence of young and capable educationists, the quality of education in Burma has been diminishing. For example, there have been frequent closing down of educational institutions throughout the country. As universities and other educational institutions were the centers of democracy uprisings, the military regime would close any institutions at any time when they see any impending dangers. This frequent closing down of educational institutions has brought great impacts on the lives of millions of students. At times, many students who are frustrated with these maneuvers would permanently give up their studies.

Proper and quality education could only be established if the government gives importance to education. The present military regime, always keeping busy with arms and ammunitions in order to consolidate their positions, has no enough time and infrastructures for the improvement of education system in the country. In order to redress the overall situation of the country, the country needs a government which supports and participates for the promotion of the country’s welfare.


Some positive developments

So far, the conflict has no substantive solutions. If the present government, comprised mainly of the Burman ethnic group, is sincere, problems in the country could be solved even without the intervention of any third country. The government should either hand over power to the democratically elected government or formulate a program that could mutually be accepted by the regime, the opposition parties, and leaders of respective ethnic groups. Meanwhile, in this regard, the government has so far made positive developments by bringing some of the ethnic insurgent groups including the dominant ones to negotiating table and even made formal ceasefire agreements with them. The rebel groups include; Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Army in Kokang District of Shan State, United Wa State Army, the Shan/Akha/Wa National Democratic Alliance Army, the newly reconstituted Shan State Army and the New Democratic Army, which was Kachin, United Wa State Army (1989), Kachin Independence Army 4th Brigade (1991), and the Kachin Independence Organization (1993). In all, 22 armed groups, some quite small, either made ceasefires with or surrendered to Rangoon between 1989 and 1997. One significant achievement for the Junta in recent years is that it could bring the strongest and longest ethnic rebel group, Karen National Union (KNU), to the negotiating table. As I write this paper, a verbal ceasefire has been reached between the two in December 2003, albeit, the formal agreement is yet to be signed.

The government should show sincerity in its attempt to solving the decades’ old problems with ethnic groups. There should be political equality, liberty, and a sense of peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding. Even if democracy is restored as demanded by all opposition groups and the international community, the decades’ old conflicts will not subside as long as the government ignores the grievances of the minority ethnic groups. In that case, democracy will be restored, but problems will still exist. The long lasting solution will be achieved if both the minority ethnic groups and the majority Burmans could build mutual trust among themselves. The government should give up pursuing the policy of aggression against the insurgent groups; instead, they should invite them all to participate in a meaningful dialogue to find political solution. If the demands of ethnic groups are resisted with force, the Union of Burma could even break up into pieces in the years ahead.

In the meantime, the demands of ethnic groups such as Kuki, Lahu, Naga, Palaung, Rohingya, Wa, etc. who are not having their own states, and yet suppressed, are also to be given due consideration. Development and prosperity could be achieved only if there is peace and mutual trust among the people.


Political solution to ethnic problems

The conflicts in Burma have a long history. Some of the ethnic insurgent groups have been fighting against the successive governments ever since the country gained independence from the British, while some of the ethnic insurgent groups were formed in the late 1980s and in the early 1990s. Of the many underground groups, the Karen National Union has been one of the fiercest groups in the country. The group fights for the establishment of a genuine Federal Union of Burma with all the states having equal rights and the right to self-determination. Since the 8888 uprising and the subsequent events, a number of ethnic insurgent groups have been pushing for the restoration of democracy in the country and the establishment of a true federal democratic government. Whatever the causes are, one thing is clear that the stalemate between the Burman government and the ethnic insurgent groups will continue if the government ignores the doctrines of equality, liberty and fraternity at the national level.

At present, almost all insurgent groups give their focus on the restoration of democracy, and the safeguarding of human rights in the country. It is hard to predict whether these ethnic insurgency problems will end once democracy is restored in the country. The country’s future will certainly depend on the leaders of the future democratic Burma. The contemporary political situation shows that even a large section of the Burmans themselves got involved in waging war against the leadership of the military regime. Among others, insurgent groups such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), and the Wa ethnic group that have entered into a ceasefire agreement with the military regime, weakening the strength of the collective opposition forces. The military regime has been trying its best to persuade different ethnic insurgent groups to lay down their arms. Although some insurgent groups so far refuse to hold dialogue, quite a good number of groups have decided to work together with the military junta.

There has been steady progress on the part of the government in bringing several armed groups into ceasefire table. Till very recently, several armed groups made ceasefire with the military regime. Although there is no complete silence, there has been a tremendous drop in arms conflicts across the country since 10 years back. As I write this paper, the government is holding rounds of talks with the longest armed group in the country, the Karen National Union (KNU). However, there has not been any formal ceasefire agreement signed by the two parties. Other armed groups such as Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and Chin National Front (CNF) have also expressed their willingness for a formal and complete ceasefire with the government. KNPP once signed a ceasefire agreement with the military government in 1995, but collapsed within weeks.

Co-operation for peaceful solution

In the meantime, there are some other ethnic groups such as the Rohingyas in Arakan state, Pa- O, Lahu and Wa ethnic groups in Shan state, who are fighting for autonomy. It is sometime difficult to predict what the future of Burma will look like, whether the status-quo of the existing seven states and seven divisions will remain intact or be broken down into different smaller states. The Kukis in upper Sagaing Division are also consistently demanding for the restoration of their land, which is now occupied by mixed ethnic groups. It is important to note that the successive military regimes have been following a policy of Burmanization where they transplant Burmese immigrants in minority ethnic dominated areas. Fundamental rights are said to be totally absent. Laws of the land are in the hands of a few Burmese top army generals. Forced labor and human rights violations are largely practiced in minority ethnic populated areas. Child soldiers are also very common in Burma. Many young children are kidnapped and threatened with dire consequences if they refuse to join military. This practice has ruined the lives of thousands of the younger generation. Due to the excessive use of forced labors, human rights violations, and crimes against humanity, Burma is isolated from the international community, particularly from the western countries.

To bring a long lasting solution to the decades’ old conflicts in Burma, it needs the sincerity, honesty and the participation of all ethnic groups. Different ethnic groups should be brought into confidence, and their legitimate demands should be looked into.  The country needs changes and improvements in all fields – political, socio-economic, education, and so on and so forth. Political problems should be solved by political means. At present, all opposition forces, including ethnic insurgent groups are fighting for a common cause i.e., the restoration of democracy in the country. In the process of restructuring the devastated country, all ethnic groups should be invited to participate.

Last but not the least; the international community should step up their pressures against the military regime in order to bring a significant change in the country. The international community should evaluate the effectiveness of economic sanctions. If not effective, they should come up with an alternative method to do the job better. The day will come when justice prevails. The day is drawing nearer for the downfall of the Burman ethnic group dominated military dictatorship.  To achieve the above said goals, the people need unity, patience, endurance and concerted efforts. Different ethnic minorities and the majority Burman ethnic group should set aside their differences in order to achieve their common objectives.


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