What next for Burma's generals?
by Jonathan Head
Will Burma's military rulers listen to
the endless pleas for restraint and dialogue? Could the regime
crumble under the weight of popular anger, or through splits in
the ranks of the armed forces?
Or will they succeed in terrorising the
population into submission again through mass killings, as they
did in 1988?
We simply do not know which of these scenarios
is more plausible, because it is impossible to know the thinking
of the tight clique of generals who run the country.
But there are "end-of-regime"
scenarios we can look at in other countries; specifically Indonesia,
a fellow member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations
The Burmese junta, the SPDC, makes no
secret of its admiration for the pseudo-democracy run by President
Suharto, the former Indonesian strongman, so perhaps it is instructive
to look at how the Suharto regime was overthrown.
The parallels between the two countries
are striking. They are both large, tropical countries comprising
many diverse ethnic groups and cultures that won independence
from colonial rule in the chaotic aftermath of the Second World
In both countries, nation-building was
hampered by strong separatist movements in their outlying regions.
In both the army became the dominant political
force in the 1960s, arguing it was the only institution that could
hold the country together.
Both countries' officer classes involved
themselves heavily in business and politics.
Both Gen Suharto and Gen Ne Win, Burma's
military strongman until the 1990s, were from humble, superstitious
backgrounds, but had their worldviews profoundly altered when
they were members of Japanese paramilitary units as young men
during the Japanese occupations of their countries.
It instilled in both men a belief in martial
values and the central role of the military in political life.
But there the similarities end.
Perhaps timing was the reason - Indonesia
nearly fell apart under its mercurial founding father Sukarno
in the 1960s.
Suharto took advantage, after a failed
coup, but needed rapid economic development to restore the government's
It was a time when Western governments
needed Cold War allies - they were willing to overlook Suharto's
horrific human rights abuses, and offered aid and investment.
At the time, Ne Win had taken Burma along
what he called the "Burmese way" of socialism, a bizarre
form of isolation.
As a result, by the 1980s Indonesia was
being hailed as one of the successful "tiger" economies
of South-East Asia with spectacular growth rates. Burma was a
basket case. That led to two very different results.
In Burma, economic misery provoked massive
anti-government protests in 1988, which were savagely put down
by the army over a period of three months. Thousands died.
The regime tried to adapt itself. It held
elections, but miscalculated disastrously, losing by a huge margin
to Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party.
It refused to recognise the results, but
tried to win the population over by encouraging foreign investment
in an attempt to stimulate Indonesian-style development.
But it was no longer the 1960s; it was
the post-Cold War 1990s.
Western governments were no longer willing
to overlook human rights abuses. They were charmed by the dignity
of Aung San Suu Kyi, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991,
and imposed increasingly tough sanctions.
But President Suharto's successful development
strategy came back to haunt him. When people began tiring of his
corrupt and authoritarian ways in the 1990s, he reverted back
to type, banning newspapers and locking up or intimidating his
He had skilfully managed promotions in
the army to keep it loyal, and gave it a large slice of the economy
He created pseudo-parties guaranteed to
win pseudo-elections to a pseudo parliament - all tactics now
being copied by Burma's generals.
But rapid development had created a powerful
new class of people who became rich through trade with the rest
of the world, who sent their children to be educated in America,
Europe or Australia.
Even some army officers enjoyed foreign
contact and training.
When the charms of the aging Suharto and
his clique began to fade, this group was not prepared to risk
international isolation; it didn't have the stomach for massive
repression. Instead, it told Suharto to go.
In Burma, complete isolation means the
generals have little to lose from international sanctions. Nor
is there a large and powerful middle class with a lot to lose.
There is only the military - the most powerful institution in
the country - with its fingers in every aspect of daily life.
It suffers little from isolation, except
in the increasingly narrow view of its officers.
Soldiers are taught that they are an elite
class, entitled to special respect - and that anyone who opposes
them is an enemy bent on returning the country to chaos and civil
That will almost certainly be the warped
instruction given now to the troops who have shot at unarmed monks
and civilians in Rangoon.