Burma’s Crumbling Junta

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 19 Feb 2024

René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

15 Feb 2024 – February first marked the anniversary of the military coup which overthrew the government of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2021.  She was in practice the leader of the government but could not take the title of “President”.  An earlier military junta had passed a law with her in mind saying that a person married to a foreigner could not become president. Aung San Suu Kyi had married British anthropologist, Michael Aris, a specialist on Tibet who died of cancer in 1989.

Aung San Suu Kyi represented a new spirit in Burmese politics, partly because she had lived most of her life outside Burma and was not linked to existing political compromises.  Aung San Suu Kyi was educated in India (where her mother served as ambassador of Burma) and then at Oxford University. She only returned to Burma in 1988 in order to care for her dying mother.  Her dynamism, combined with the legend of her father, Aung San, a hero of the struggle for independence, assassinated by a political rival in July 1947, led her to being named secretary of the National League for Democracy.

The new military Junta is led by General Min Aung Hlaing, known for his leading vast killing of Muslim Rohingya and pushing them to Bangladesh.  He has intensified the struggle against the ethnic minorities – the Mon, Kachen, Karen, Shan, Wa and others.  The ethnic minorities represent some 40 percent of the population, the Burman, some 60 percent.  However, population statistics are not based on real population surveys.  Decades of self-imposed isolation, fabricated statistics and an absence of social and economic research have left even the authorities without an accurate appreciation of the distribution of the population.

The ethnic minorities live in zones on the frontiers of Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh.  The ethnic insurgencies are often close to the frontiers, and some move in and out of the neighboring countries, especially Thailand. Thus, the governments of Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh are all worried although for different reasons.  In addition to the ethnic insurgencies, there are criminal gangs operating along the frontiers, dealing with prostitution, gambling and the traffic of gems.  These governments are increasingly worried as the Junta is crumbling and the ethnic insurgencies are taking over ever larger areas.  The Junta has turned to Russia for support and arms sales.  Russia  prevents any action in the U.N. Security Council. However, Russian arms are in limited supply as they are needed in Ukraine.

While we are critical of the repressive actions of the military Junta, we must not idealize the forces of the opposition ethnic insurgencies.   In 1992-1993 I was involved in getting the National Council of the Union of Burma – created by the insurgencies and democratic Burman who had taken refuge in the ethnic minority zones – to sign the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1947 and the protocols additional which provide the basic rules of international humanitarian law in armed conflict.  The Union President, General Saw Bo Myn of the Karen National Union and the three Vice Presidents signed in January 1993.  While the signature is symbolic – only governments may sign the Geneva Conventions – the signature was widely noted.  Thus, the Burmese government signed the Conventions which they had always refused to do until then. The signature led to a mutual release of war prisoners – but not to a formal exchange as the two sides in the conflict refused direct contact at that time.

Burma, now renamed Myanmar after 1988, faces two basic and related issues: the installation of a democratic government and a constitutional system which grants real autonomy to the minority peoples.  Both tasks are difficult.  There is little democratic tradition or ethos upon which to structure a democratic government.  While a federal or con-federal system would be the most suited for a pluri-ethnic state, the leadership of the Junta and also the insurgencies is motivated by personal and clan interests.  The leaders recruit allies similarly motivated.  Only peace will allow new leadership to emerge with broader motivations and allow all citizens to participate in a renewed political process.

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René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.


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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Feb 2024.

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