Burma: Free At Last?

9 December 2002

Burma: Free At Last?

By Gwynne Dyer

One should not speak ill of the dead, but an exception is justified in the case of Burma’s late dictator Ne Win. He was responsible for almost forty years of tyranny and poverty in his country, and most Burmese would gladly dance on his ashes if it were allowed. By the time he died at 91 on 5 December, however, the process of undoing his malignant legacy was well underway.

Last May, Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who is as much the symbol of democracy in Burma as Nelson Mandela was in apartheid South Africa, was freed from house arrest by the generals who are Ne Win’s successors. “My release should not be looked on as a major breakthrough for democracy,” Suu Kyi warned — but she added: “I would cautiously say that where we are is better than where we have ever been.”

Even as he neared death, Ne Win tried to kill the hope for democracy in Burma: his son-in-law and three grandsons were arrested last March while trying to organise a coup that would have unseated his successors and aborted the talks for Suu Kyi’s freedom. They were sentenced to be hanged, and Ne Win died a lonely and unhonoured death this month under house arrest at his home on a lake in central Rangoon — just across the lake, in fact, from the house where Suu Kyi had been confined for so long. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Other South-East-Asian countries also had liberation heroes who turned into monsters and blighted their people’s lives — Indonesia’s Sukarno and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh spring to mind — but none lasted so long or did as much damage as General Ne Win. One of the legendary ‘Thirty Comrades’ who began Burma’s war for freedom from Britain, he overthrew the country’s shaky democracy in 1962 and ruled with an iron hand for the next 28 years.

Ne Win was so superstitious that he once replaced the country’s existing paper currency with 45-kyat and 90-kyat notes because nine was his lucky number. He was so suspicious of foreigners that he walled Burma off from almost all outside contact, imposing an erratic ‘Burmese Road to Socialism’ that turned the region’s richest country into its poorest in only three decades. And then, when popular protests broke out in 1988, he abruptly resigned.

A new kind of non-violent democratic revolution was toppling dictators all across Asia in the late 80s — in the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, South Korea — and Burma was swept along. So was Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s greatest independence hero Aung San.

Long settled in Britain with her English husband and their two sons, Suu Kyi just happened to go home that year to nurse her dying mother. To most Burmese her father, who had been assassinated when she was just two, was still the most powerful symbol of the future that had been betrayed, and so she suddenly found herself leading a democratic revolution. Then the frightened generals massacred thousands of citizens in the streets of Rangoon to save their power, Ne Win came back to power in another coup, and Suu Kyi discovered her destiny.

Ne Win’s new junta opened the country to foreign investment in an attempt to revive the devastated economy, and so much oil and timber money poured in that the regime was emboldened to hold an election in 1990. But the brief burst of prosperity changed nobody’s mind: 82 percent of the voters backed Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy against the generals. So Ne Win simply refused to accept the election’s outcome, jailed most of the NLD’s elected members, and embarked on a long duel with Suu Kyi (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991) over the future of Burma.

Knowing she would never be allowed back into Burma if she left, she remained in Rangoon, mostly under house arrest, while her children grew up without her. Her husband eventually died of cancer without even being allowed a visit to say goodbye. The military regime’s propaganda called her a “foreign stooge” and a “genocidal prostitute”, but most ordinary Burmese know her simply as ‘The Lady’, and trust her completely.

The ageing Ne Win eventually withdrew from power, leaving three lesser generals to carry on the struggle against democracy. But Burma’s economic plight grew ever worse as a trade embargo by democratic countries tightened during the later 90s, and early this year the junta decided to seek a deal with Suu Kyi. Ne Win, in character to the end, tried one last coup to stop it, but Suu Kyi was released seven months ago, and Burma began to emerge from the long darkness.

What is going on now is a delicate and secretive process in which the repressive regime negotiates a safe exit from power and an indemnity for its past crimes — rather like the first year after Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in South Africa. As General Khin Nyunt put it in August, “The democracy that we seek to build…will surely be based on universal principles of liberty, justice and equality…(but) such a transition cannot be done in haste and in a haphazard manner.”

Aung San Suu Kyi concedes that after all this time it cannot simply be a matter of handing power over to the NLD government that was legally elected in 1990. But, she adds, “who’s to say we won’t get a bigger majority this time?”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Knowing…darkness”)

NOTE that the country’s proper name in English is Burma. ‘Myanmar’ was imposed by the military junta in an attempt to wrap themselves in the flag, and is shunned by the democratic opposition.