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 a British anthropologist, Michael Aris, a specialist on Tibet who had died in 1989 of cancer. Aung San Suu Kyi represented a new spirit in Burmese politics, because she had lived most of her life outside Burma and was not linked to existing political compromises.
Her father, Aung San, who died when Aung San Suu Kyi was two years old, was one of the original “Thirty Comrades” – student nationlists who were inspired by Second World War Japanese propaganda which appealed for a common Asian struggle against Western imperialism. Aung San went to Tokyo to assist the Japanese conquest of Burma.
However, by 1944, the “Thirty Comrades” had decided that the Japanese were not liberators, that the occupation of Burma was carried out for Japanese rather than Burmese ains, and that the Japanese might lose the war. In the last year of the war, the “Thirty Comrades” cooperated with Lord Mountbatten.
The Legend of her father.
Thus, on 27 January 1947, the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Aung San signed an agreement for full independence of Burma within a year. On 19 July 1947, Aung San was assassinated by a political rival. He became a legend of Burmese independence.
Aung San Suu Kyi was educated in India (where her mother served as ambassador of Burma) and then at Oxford University. She only retured to Burma in 1988 in order to care for her dying mother. Her dynamism, combined with the legend of her father, led her to being named secretary of the National League for Democracy.
The Ethnic Minorities.
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. Since the military junta has taken power, he has intensified the struggle against the ethnic minorities – the Mon, Kachin, Karen, Shan, Wa, the Arakan Muslims 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.
The sign the Geneva conventions of 12 August 1947.
While we are critical of the repressive actions of the military Junta, we must not idealize the forces of the 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 the time.
Leadership by personal interests.
Burma, now renamed Myanmar after 1988, faces two basic and related issues: the installation of democratic government and a constitutional system which grants rea lautonomy 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.
René Wadlow, Association of World Citizens.