Ten years ago today, Myanmar had a brief taste of democracy. It was a heady experience: Prodemocracy activists decisively rejected the military junta that had ruled for 28 years. Stunned, the cabal then rejected that verdict, imprisoned its opponents and shut down the country. And so things stand today. The military holds the country in a vicelike grip, refusing to compromise, determined to stay in power no matter what the cost. And the cost grows higher with every passing day.
The military first seized power in 1962, ending the brief period of democratic rule that had begun when the country won its independence from Britain in 1948. Violent protest brought that junta down in 1988, but it was replaced by another generation of generals. Efforts to restore order failed, and in a bid to gain international legitimacy — and confident that the military would win — elections were held in 1990.
The results were unequivocal. Nearly three-quarters of the voters turned out to reject the junta. Instead, the prodemocracy National League for Democracy won 392 of the 485 parliamentary seats. The military-sponsored National United Party won just 10 places.
The military may have been stunned, but it wasted no time in overturning the results. Mass arrests of NLD leaders followed. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of independence leader Aung San and head of the prodemocracy movement, was put under house arrest until 1995. Her unwavering commitment to democracy and to a peaceful transition of power in Myanmar won her the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and the junta’s unwavering hostility.
The government in Myanmar is easy to dislike. Its rejection of democracy, its corruption and its brutal violations of human rights have made it a pariah state. But geopolitical considerations — notably fear that Myanmar would fall under China’s influence — obliged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to offer membership. In addition, ASEAN governments, as well as Japan, have tried to engage Myanmar’s leaders in an attempt to moderate their behavior. They have had little effect.
The military has not wavered. It still refuses to speak with Ms. Suu Kyi and considers her a traitor for calling upon foreign governments to isolate the junta. It continues to pressure NLD members to leave the party. It is steadfast in its belief that only it can speak for the nation. The government, now named the State Peace and Development Council (although it offers neither peace nor development), demands that the Parliament convene to ratify a constitution that would legitimate military rule. Reportedly, the document is modeled after the one that propped up the Suharto regime in Indonesia. That alone should speak for its merit.
The bitter fruits of this lost decade will last long beyond the junta that squandered Myanmar’s riches. Burma was one of the richest countries in Asia; Myanmar is one of the poorest. In addition to the lost economic opportunities, the corruption and the poverty, the leadership’s fear of unrest has forced it to virtually close down the country’s educational system. Unrest has typically taken root in the universities; to cut off the possibility of future protest, these have been closed on a sporadic basis since the summer of 1988. The government bans large gatherings. That makes classes difficult. Two-thirds of students attend only correspondence courses.
Just as damaging is the loss of democratic values. Although the military has ruled Myanmar since 1962, for a 14-year span before that the country enjoyed a parliamentary democracy. That experience is a distant memory now.
The military hopes that its obstinacy will wear out its opponents at home and abroad. But neither seems to be weakening. This week, the International Labor Organization sent a delegation to the country after an investigation found the government had resorted to forced labor or “modern-day slavery.” There are reports that up to 800,000 Myanmar citizens have been conscripted for forced labor with little or no pay.
After the ILO threatened to urge condemnation at its annual conference this month, the junta agreed to talks with ILO representatives. The Japanese government, which recently offered Yangon an aid package, said it would support the government in Yangon if the junta continued a dialogue with the ILO to avoid possible sanctions.
But the government followed that move with another to show its true intentions. There are reports of a new crackdown against the opposition: Several dozen prodemocracy activists have been arrested, as well as a number of monks who were protesting the junta. If the government hopes that it will outlast its opponents, it is mistaken. But being wrong does not seem to bother the generals in Yangon.
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