Culture: Political Science: Misunderstood Myanmar:
Chapter III: The Milieu Interieur (Part II)
By Koh Kim Seng, Ph.D.
International Business Executive, Political Scientist
Editor’s Note: This paper is the fifth of a series of chapters excerpted from Dr. Koh’s book, ‘Misunderstood Myanmar: An Introspective Study of a Southeast Asian State in Transition’. With years of experience operating a business in Myanmar (Burma), Dr. Koh has first-hand knowledge and a deeply practical understanding of the economic and administrative opportunities and challenges currently existing in the country. This segment explains Myanmar’s internal affairs scenario. -JP
Addendum Notation: Chapter 3 has been divided into three segments, the second of which is presented here; the first segment of Chapter 3 was published in the preceding issue of this Journal. - JP
A Perspective from the General’s Aide
Having heard some of the Sayamagyi’s “reminiscences” on “Burma’s Marshal Tito,” as some have labeled General Ne Win, and bearing in mind what I have, over the course of years, heard about some of the reasons for Myanmar’s “downturn,” I thought it prudent to pursue the subject further as Sayamagyi had suggested. This I did with my other key respondents who were aware of the goings on at the “power center” at the time. At this chat session, I raised the point of the attribution by many, that some of Myanmar’s problems lie in the disaffected, disenfranchised and disgruntled (the “3-D”) Myanmas. “Would this be fair comment?” I asked.
Brother, who had sat in as my “chairperson” rather quietly and disinterestedly, responded thus: “I am not surprised over this. Part of the problem is that our past experience has perforce taught us not to release information too freely. The end result is that especially foreign Myanmar watchers/analysts depend on the rumor mill, often enough propagating and perpetuating misinformation, disinformation, half truths and to be impolite, lies. Let me just illustrate a couple of instances where such people (and subsequently their beneficiaries) have been at the Government for many years. Let me try to explain and you be the judge!”
“Let us consider the case of U Aung Gyi. He was sent as Chief Negotiator, by Gen. Ne Win to Japan in September 1963 to discuss Japanese Reparation payments. The amount mooted was US$3.0 billion but he settled for US$300 million without reference to the home Government as he had been instructed to do so by Gen. Ne Win before his departure, for which reason all communications facilities were made available to ‘report-back on discussions at all times.’ He failed to do so, until after his return. Gen. Ne Win was upset for two reasons, namely, apparently the settlement amount was ‘unreasonable’ and was not even in cash but in kind, by way of equipment and other such moveable assets like buses, railways etc., left over in Myanmar by Japan. This naturally constituted “disobedience,” which is a very serious offence with the Military. Consequently, towards the end of 1963 / early 1964, Aung Gyi was removed from office and exiled to the Northern Kachin State (Puta-O).”
“In 1972 for the Yangon University blasting of students on campus, Col. Sein Lwin who was Permanent Secretary in the Home Affairs Ministry gave the order to have the paramilitary police force (Lon Htein) eject the students off the campus resulting in a number of deaths. He thus became known as the ‘Butcher.’ Apparently, on the side lines Aung Gyi made comments that those responsible, the “culprits,” ought to be held responsible for the deaths and be punished but Gen. Ne Win had said that considering the situation at the time, it could not be helped. It seemed that the feeling was that Aung Gyi ought to have known better than to have made such comments and this caused unhappiness between the two.”
“Furthermore, it appeared that in May 1987, in the absence of Gen. Ne Win who was traveling overseas, U Aung Gyi wrote a 43-page Open Letter criticizing the Government for the slackening GDP, the demonetization exercise, the application of the LDC status. This was circulated by U Aung Gyi to all foreign embassies, foreign and local newspapers, the UN, etc., etc.. When Gen. Ne Win returned he found this out to his consternation, since Aung Gyi was one of the “architects” of the LDC application. The LDC application had been sanctioned by the Prime Minister, Maung Maung Kha as well as the Cabinet. This naturally was considered a non-kosher practice and U Aung Gyi was made to do time.”
“After his release from jail at 1.00pm on 16th June 1988, U Aung Gyi made a Speech in Sanchaung / Yangon – highlighting the ‘blunders’ of the Government but rather cleverly advising / warning people ‘not to touch the Tatmadaw; not even with the mind,’ that is, not even contemplate or to think of such a move.” I quickly interjected, “this seems odd because if by the time he had been so disillusioned and disgruntled with Gen. Ne Win and therefore with the Tatmadaw, why was he trying to support the Tatmadaw again?” Brother explained that “at the time it was generally felt and rumored that there was going to be a coup d’état and the general feeling or belief was apparently that U Aung Gyi felt that there was a chance for him to emerge as Number 1 in which event he should need to give his backing to the Tatmadaw.”
I then remarked, naively, “but U Aung Gyi was, as you said, very close to and was indeed one of Gen. Ne Win’s advisors, so how could this happen?” The patient reply from Brother was: “[That’s just the point. A long time ago, in one of our chats, I said that one of our problems is that there are too many disgruntled, disaffected, disenfranchised Myanmas. This is only one case; there are many others. But if it is of any consolation in this special case, according to Col. Khin Maung Than, the then Military Attaché in London who arranged for the return to Yangon of U Aung Gyi’s wife after her demise in London after unsuccessfully seeking medical treatment there, in 1972 (and Brother knew both the people), his assessment was that ‘Ne Win and Aung Gyi are as different as day and night’ and that ‘not even Jesus can reconcile the two.’ “But why so, is the question,” I wondered aloud.
To pursue the matter further, I queried, “You said this is ‘only one case.’ Can you cite some other significant case?” “This is not a problem,” Brother replied, “because albeit not a terribly significant figure at the time, I had the opportunity to have worked close enough to the powers that be. So, the other ‘significant figure/case’ is that of Gen. Tin Oo who was in his time Chief of Staff/Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. In 1963, Gen. Tin Oo’s second son was in London for treatment against Leukemia but unfortunately he did not make it and expired. Gen. Tin Oo then unilaterally chartered an aircraft to bring the corpse back to Yangon without permission/authorization of the Ministry of Defense or any “higher ups.” This was disallowed as being “irregular” because the normal practice is to have the corpse properly dressed/packed and returned to Yangon by normal airfreight/flight and thus it sparked off disagreement with Gen. Ne Win.”
“Furthermore around 1972/1973, the Government had a stage performance in the State Guest House. As a result, musical instruments had to be brought in and for the purpose the person assigned to supervise this was the Personal Assistant of Gen. Tin Oo. Fortunately or unfortunately inspection was made of every crate which was supposed to hold the musical instruments. Apparently what was found in some crates were various arms. This fell on the shoulders of Gen. Tin Oo, who was apparently ‘linked’ to the episode - so you can understand.”
Brother continued, “both U Aung Gyi and Gen. Tin Oo subsequently hooked up with Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and became Central Committee Members of the NLD with U Aung Gyi leaving the group later on because he disagreed with ASSK’s approach towards the Country and the Government. Also, in this connection there is yet another significant player, namely U Aung Shwe who became the Chairman of the NLD, of which ASSK is Secretary General.
And so, Brother concluded, “what you have heard is correct. You should know of the primary actors of Myanmar’s recent history and you can draw your own conclusions as to whether or not the Country’s position/situation would have been different without such ‘disgruntled, tangential forces’ acting, and whether or not the Government has utilized such people as expedient excuses for the measured rate of development and for always being careful and skeptical.”
Independence First and Last
I made arrangements for another “casual” dinner cum thesis research session for the purpose of ascertaining the state of play as far as infrastructural and other developments go. For this, the general sense, as stated earlier in this Thesis, is that Myanmar is caught in a “time warp” and that developments thus far have been merely “cosmetic.”
After the usual “niceties,” I remarked that, “you know the usual allegations about Myanmar having been caught in a time warp and developments taking place in Myanmar being merely cosmetic. Is this fact or fiction?”
The response of BG. Myo Thant, former Minister of Information, was that “there have been ups and downs in Myanmar history since our Independence. Then we launched into self dependence in the early 60s and actually we were cut off from the world, virtually. We bothered no one and likewise no one bothered us. We were at peace with ourselves and we managed. However, expectedly, without foreign finance, technology and interaction we slipped. When we opened up post-1988 and foreigners of all hues came, naturally they were understandably shocked to see the state of repair of our infrastructure. This is particularly true of foreigners who have visited or lived or in one way or another worked with, on or in Myanmar in the 1950s when we were well ahead of other Southeast Asian countries. Hence the reason for the comment on our ‘time warp.’ It was an ‘experiment’ we tried out with the obvious consequence that the world passed us by.”
“But what about the ‘cosmetic’ part?” I interrupted. Brother responded, saying, “You have been here for nearly 20 years and you have seen for yourself, so what is there for us to say. In any case I feel that this is another mistaken notion. In the early days post 1988 naturally, we had to tidy up the urban areas – sprucing up of buildings, road repairs, removing shanty towns, improving telecommunications and public utilities, etc etc, so visitors concluded that developments were ‘cosmetic.’ We had to start somewhere but of course, especially for Myanmar, there are many ‘detractors’ who are usually foreigners abetted by their local “satellites.”
“To tell you objectively, by the first half 1990s, foreign business interests were ‘shocked’ by the progress we had made – in our economic, political and social fronts. Foreign Direct Investments were pouring in, trade with our neighbors had become so important to them, that every time our trading borders were closed, for one reason or another, they felt the pinch. This to the extent that for the year 2000 we were ranked 4th in the world for economic growth or GDP (Gross Domestic Product) by Asiaweek.26 Furthermore with our 1996 ‘Visit Myanmar Year’ Sports Event held at the Aung San Stadium in 1996 when all members of the Diplomatic Corps and other foreign direct investors were invited and attended, that same evening the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Voice of America (VOA), Australia Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) etc. were shocked over the scale and display with parachutists dropping into the Stadium with colored smoke signals etc., etc., that they commented on it. This also applied to the Trade Expositions we held at the Tatmadaw Hall. These were attended by the foreign and diplomatic community and they could not believe that these were of such an international standard. One of our Ministers making opening speeches at various expositions gave figures on trade and other Foreign Direct Investments received. The foreigners were shocked!”
“In retrospect, perhaps we have been a little too “loud.” Perhaps we should have kept a low profile and not revealed our progress. The wonder must have been, when and how did this sleepy and sleeping country wake up?”
“You mean to say these foreigners did not know what had been happening over the period 1988 – 1996?” I enquired. Brother responded, “of course those involved directly in oil and gas, forestry, gemstones, knew well. They had been prospecting/dealing, but this does not imply that the others, including foreign diplomatic representatives and foreign businessmen (not in these trades), knew. Certainly they did not have gross/cumulative trade statistics as we do not normally issue them, but these were trade expositions and we had to reveal some figures. If you will only recount, you will see that trade sanctions came about only after 1996 (and the Asian Financial Crisis occurred in 1997). Do you think that this is a mere accident? This is in part, because the US feels that we are a ‘China surrogate’ as well; we know the problem!”
At this juncture BG. Myo Thant chipped in: “I cannot contribute to the analyses just made by Brother, but I can tell you my own observations. Having had to visit many places throughout the Country over the years, the changes I saw in the landscape in Heho in the early 1990s compared to changes over a 5-year period, were just amazing. Everything became so beautiful and well planned. In the Northern Shan State, roads which were not tarred a few years earlier were now paved and there was heavy traffic flowing – surprisingly, trucks, container semi-trailers, motor cars, motor-cycles, etc. The only bad thing I would say is that there were toll-stations set up and one had to pay. It is amazing how quickly our Transport Minister caught up with the developed world, collecting toll!” What a “bad habit,” he commented facetiously.
“To put it in simple terms,” BG. Myo Thant concluded, “infrastructural developments were so rapid that I hope the people do not expect the same rate of development because if we are unable to keep up with their expectations, there might be trouble for us.”
Personally, over a 10 – 15 year period of 4 – 6 weekly visits to Yangon and Mandalay, flying as well as by road transport, I could not help seeing the tremendous infrastructural and social developments which had taken place in the Country – roads, bridges, housing development, schools, universities, hospitals, new townships, the greening of what used to be vast exposed barren lateritic soil (seen from my flights) and indeed even the change in weather in Mandalay. Mandalay used to be extremely hot with hardly any rain being in the “arid zone,” but in the last few years, rain fell now and then and indeed there had even been floods periodically in more recent years!”
Personal observations aside, I found this session to be of special interest because clearly it turned out to be a collective, honest self-assessment of sorts or even an evaluation of the SLORC / SPDC Government’s performance, in general.
Considering this I tried to probe their reticence to speak up in the open when, among close friends, they were so analytical. I therefore remarked, “you know the general feeling outside is that Myanmar Generals in particular and the bureaucrats in general are a bunch of goons or oafs.” Indeed it has been alleged that Myanmar Generals are knuckle heads and that if one were to ‘put 4 Generals together, their educational level would not add up to standard 3’ as already mentioned. Yet I have known all of you for many years now and I know your capabilities. Why don’t you make a rebuttal to such allegations?”
BG. Myo Thant’s response was, “We are not, under our military regulations, permitted to reveal such personal details.27 But you know all of us here today have been trained academically and professionally overseas. But do not fret because what you have said is nothing. We have had worse names hurled at us. We know you must have come across in your research, how as early as 1796 – 1798 Captain Hiram Cox, the British Resident in Rangoon labeled our Burmese Court ‘an assembly of clowns and their followers (as an) ungrateful, rapacious, cruel, treacherous, avaricious and lazy lot’ according to Dr. G.T. Bayfield. This caricature was finally debunked by Dr. DGE Hall as being ‘full of blemishes.’29 Further, one Captain Michael Symes based in Yangon (1802) considered our King Bodawpaya, ‘a half mad bigot’ with little regard for the laws of the nation in spite of his having admitted that he enjoyed ‘unlimited freedom,’ and had attention paid to his every representation and subject.”30
With the ‘moderns,’ I can tell you that people like Josef Silverstein writing on the 1988 Riots referred to the ‘brutal suppression of the people’ and of the use of unbridled violence. Then at a UN General Assembly Meeting held in Rome in 1988, it was known that an international criminal court was mooted to try states as individuals involved in ‘genocide,’ implying that Myanmar ought to face the music.”31
“Precisely,” I interrupted, “so why do you not do some thing about it?” BG. Myo Thant replied, “the fact is that it is a waste of time trying to debate such topics publicly. It is expensive in terms of money and time. Issues may be brought up in Cabinet and debated but there is no certainty that decisions will be taken. All depends on the ‘higher ups’ (Ahted Lugyi).32 Generally we are a military government and this being the case we do not as a rule try to climb over our superior’s head.”
I commented, “although currently this is not done, what happens when you are forced to make a decision with an investor, for example, and the terms breach the Laws of the State?” BG. Myo Thant replied, “this depends on the individual minister in charge. There are other ways around the problem. It depends on the power, grit, determination and imagination of the particular Minister but obviously some solution has to be found or he is stuck.” I admitted frankly that I had a friend who had a sticky problem with his contract conditions once, but it was finally solved.33 B.G. Myo Thant then queried, “so how did your friend solve it? Use the same method then. Your friend is clever and he clearly knows our early fight for Independence, history.” He said that Myanmas have over the decades inherited and perpetuated what is generally known as the “larmei kyar mei” (On its way but may take a long while), malope machauk mapyoke (One cannot go wrong if one did nothing) syndrome. He intimated that delays came about because people tended to drag their feet and they drag their feet because they are not sure of what to do. Thus to prevent committing any errors they suspend things because if one did not make decisions, one could not go wrong. It was said that at ministerial level, however, they did not see such conduct directly. However, it appeared that they knew about this. It had become a “culture” in the bureaucracy practically. But they are aware of it and had been correcting this since they had complaints from Foreign Direct Investors. “The situation has improved considerably. I hope you have experienced this yourself,” BG. Myo Thant ended.
Having (cleared) some of the “niggling past,” I then moved the dialogue on by asking if there were “ups” in Myanmar’s (recent) past,34 rather vaguely to allow any good man to utilize his own standard and assessment be that economic, political, sociological or whatever. Having heard their analyses of their past problems and after their new found “Plaque Spring” of 1988, I was interested to ascertain where they were headed.
BG. Myo Thant commenced: “With our new found ‘Second Independence – 1988,’ the SLORC Government’s move may be summed up in three rhymes: increase in the export of rice, diversification of cultivated crops—rice and other agricultural products, including multiple cropping of rice – and the adoption of new methods and technologies in agriculture.” “This is not to mention,” he added, to their agreement, “the advent of private commercial farming propelled by incentives offered through the promotion of border trade with neighboring countries and improved internal infrastructure, as well as the growth of private trucking business.” The financial sector, Brother clarified, was “relaxed, including most importantly the plan to solve the problem of locals handling/possessing foreign currency for which some “intermediate exchange mechanisms” (use of Foreign Exchange Certificate – “FEC” subsequently) were implemented to facilitate local or foreign trade/business. This had been a complaint raised by many locals and foreigners. Locals were not permitted to hold foreign currencies, prior to this and this impeded business, especially trading.”
“Most importantly” Brother emphasized, “was the movement away from our long held dirigisme. In our macro–economy we instituted market economy, the invitation of foreign direct investments (FDI’s) and the opening up of the border trade with China and Thailand.” “These moves greatly changed the general state of affairs in the Country,” BG. Myo Thant chipped in, as Brother continued, “and the stimulant was the move to enhance the centripetal forces holding the Country together by trying to nullify the centrifugal forces made up of the secession seeking Minority/National Races, insurgents, narcotics groups and even the straggling communists, by inviting them back to the legal fold. Secondary to this, after delivering the ‘economic good,’ was to attend to the local political tangential forces which were being egged on by their external paymasters with their own agendas.”
I was pleasantly surprised to see that they knew, in my estimation, where they were headed and that within their ambit of control, they were indeed prepared to make amendments and changes. This is with the caveat that their egos are not bruised, that is, if they feel changes are brought about by their own volition and not that they are pushed into the change – a very important factor in my estimation from my 20 years experience, for all parties pushing for change in Myanmar to bear in mind.
In the context, as an aside, I might comment, in the tradition of the “father” of history, Herodotus, that one must remember that history must have a soul! From the way the international community has been pushing for change in Myanmar, it is to my mind a case of the soul of history having been left on the backburner with nothing learned from it. The pearls of wisdom of the past colonialists, their bureaucrats, arising from their very acute observations of Myanmas have either been completely forgotten, overlooked or simply neglected, not to say that of the observations of the more modern, objective, analysts / scholars.
Indeed just to recall as a matter of expediency a couple of observations, Myanmas held, even from the days of the Kongbuang dynasty (and unfortunately seem to hold even now,) namely the Ptolemaic view as opposed to the more modern Copernican one that the world is made up of four continents with Mt. Mor (Mt. Meru) as the axis of the sun and the centre of the continents and the Myanmar Throne / King as the cosmic center, so that the place of the Throne is designated “mandalay” signifying/implying it is a Mandala state.35 It is also known that the SLORC / SPDC does not desire to have foreigners “play the role of financiers of the production” especially if it is not allowed to direct the drama according to its “own artistic political preferences.”36
Yet another example, which amazingly the group of key respondents seems to recall well is that, as Brother stated, “it was the crumbling of the resolve of the Bureaucrats / Government that caused the problems.” Brother narrated the case of student riots, which were started because Aung San was expelled because of his criticism of the Bursar and Principal of Rangoon University when he was studying there. On remonstrating, the Government backed down and he was reinstated. “This was a signal to the students of their possibilities,” Brother noted.
In the case of the well known Oil-Field Workers’ strike arising out of a worker having been suspended when he was absent without leave, the Suspension Order was removed because “it appeared that the Government ‘feared’ the workers,” according to Brother.
The moral of these lessons is that the Government must always stay firm as demonstrated in history and these have been recorded by others. Thus in my estimation taking a hard ball approach in pushing for change will have very little chance of success, if at all. The government knows all too well from experience that it cannot and must not be “soft.” Which brings us to the way the 1988 Conflagration was dealt with – armored vehicles, tanks, guns etc. “How did the Government manage to contain it so quickly?” I asked. Brother was quick to reply: “One of the reasons the Conflagration stopped so quickly and the students defected to the jungles is that some one had ‘deviously’ or ‘cleverly’ let out the word to the market that the beheadings, arson, looting and total loss of law and order were considered ‘uncivilized behavior,’ so that it must be stopped at all and any costs to save the Country.” This was reminiscent, he added, “of Gen. Ne Win’s earlier reminder that if there was any trouble, their teams of army would not shoot into the air but directly (on the offenders/rioters).”
“But,” I interjected, “Declaration 1/88 for the formation of the SLORC and Declaration 2/88 covering the Dissolution of the formal State Organs were made on 18th September 1988 whereas Gen. Ne Win retired on 7th July 1987 and by 10th July 1988 signs of trouble were already very much in the air. For example, as I recall, you mentioned once that posters were already stuck on the walls of the Kyaiksan grounds denouncing the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP) as ‘fakes’ and by 14th July the Yangon Institute of technology students started rioting. So what happened in between this date till the 18th September 1988?”
Brother replied, “Oh plenty. On 18th July student demonstrations started in Sanchaung Township and this escalated to full force by 8th August 1988.” Brother provided me with the following list he made of the major events:
9th August: Tatmadaw took strategic positions in Country.
10th August: 6 men of war vessels (US), sighted in the Andaman Sea
11th August: US Ambassador summoned by Government and ordered vessels out; Battle at Mong Yaung with Burma Communist Party (BCP) forces (big battle for BCP to capture ground).
12th August: Rumors floated in Yangon that Burma Navy and Air Force chiefs had “defected,” joining forces with rioters controlled by Aung San Suu Kyi. Navy / Air Force was going to shell Parliament House where the BSPP Congress was being held. Myanmar Air Force / Navy would be shelling / bombing all key installations.
13th August: Congress still on, but no shelling. Rear. Adm. Maung Maung Khin (Chief of Navy) and Gen. Tin Tun (Chief of Air Force,) confirmed reports untrue and were solidly behind government. They would protect the Country. They then went on air to announce this.
14th August: Conclusion and dissolution of the BSPP (Declaration 2/88.)
“So you see,” Brother explained, “many senior government members, (a number of whom later decided to assist with my research) were all huddled in Parliament having discussions and meanwhile the Tatmadaw was fighting big battles and containing the Conflagration.”37
The above notwithstanding, in the aftermath of the 1988 Conflagration the new military-administered Government headed by Gen. Saw Maung assumed power, following which a new grand strategy consisting of three cardinal national aims, namely: non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of National Solidarity and perpetuation of the nation’s sovereignty, were emphasized. For the attainment of these goals, it was envisaged that the SLORC, officially formed on September 18, 1988, would proceed by way of what was labeled ‘The Four Main Tasks,’ to wit:
1. Ensuring law and order, peace and tranquility;
2. Smooth and safe transportation;
3. Adequacy of public livelihood; and
4. Holding of multi-party democratic general election, in the interest of the State and People.
The tenor was thus set for succession from the single-party system, in what was envisaged would be a smooth transition, after some two years of active “revamp” of economic condition/system by the Government, to a multi-party democratic system through the “restoration of law and order,” to achieve peace, tranquility and progress.
According to BG. Myo Thant, “post the Conflagration no stone was left unturned to confront and apprehend the western-bankrolled local forces and even the communist-manipulated political activists of all hues; the secessionists, communists, drug dealers, the armed insurgents, the last posing as refugees in neighboring countries; to try to put a stop to the intervention of foreign political forces - the USA / EU in particular - and even to deal with some neighboring states - enemies of the state - in order to move ahead.” The SLORC, in view of the very extenuating chaotic condition earlier, inter alia, put into effect Martial Law. Subsequent control, it was said, was then implemented with SLORC insiders’ perception of what was the “proper democratic delineation” of the State’s powers “in the exigency of the situation,” at the time.
According to BG Myo Thant, “the Legislature has the right and duty to formulate or promulgate laws, and this right is lodged with the SLORC; and of course the SLORC had to assume Executive powers.” To this my retort was, “Isn’t it that ‘democratic governance’ must be such that no single primary governmental branch, e.g., executive, judiciary, or legislative, overlaps [in power] with other branches of Government?” This query was raised by me because it is an open secret that practically everybody held the Myanmar Government to be totalitarian (not just autocratic) and a number of my Singaporean/Malaysian friends, who were senior bureaucrats or businessmen involved in external relations and business in the Myanmar sector, had enquired what laws formed the basis of public administration in Myanmar and whether or not there was a separation of functions in the various limbs of governance.
Bearing in mind the “apprehension” especially of bureaucrats involved in foreign affairs and of foreign business people conducting business in Myanmar as just stated, I mentioned that scholars like Robert Taylor had said that at one time, after some ten years under Gen. Ne Win, the latter tried to “withdraw” and attempted to pass authority or delegate to subordinates but found that both policy development as well as its implementation became lax. In Taylor’s words Myanmar became an UNCTAD (Under No Circumstances Take Any Decision)38 country, seeming to imply that the whole bureaucracy had lapsed into atrophy because the government had been run on a somewhat “totalitarian/autocratic” manner for too long, although there must have been other reasons.
The response from Brother to this observation was that, “the new [SLORC] Government, although military, adapts the democratic system. There is a clear separation of governmental functions into the legislative, judiciary and executive limbs responsible to the Cabinet which is chaired by the Hon. Senior General. This is why we have various ministries. SLORC is not precluded from delegating powers to States and Divisions by Regional/Divisional Commanders, some of whom are SLORC members and such powers are executed at State or Division, District, Township, and Ward or Village and Tract levels as well as by the local Law and Order Restoration Councils.”
“While it is good to be assured that there is a clear separation of functions, it seems a rather complex and circuitous way of administration. Why not control directly from the center?” I asked.
One of the objectives of this arrangement, Brother replied, “is to have the administrative / governing functions undertaken through a form of ‘collective leadership.’ Additionally, this serves as a means of training service personnel to perform such functions by freeing them from party politics and departmental work. Because of the clear separation of functions in Government, taking the example of the judiciary, though the Chief Justice, Attorney General and the High Court are located in Yangon, in practice courts of Law in different States/Divisions right down to Townships located in such areas in the Country are operative and these handle civil and criminal cases to ensure that due process is followed with full judicial independence as the circumstances allow.”
Brother added, “it is because of this delegation, decentralization of functions/duties that it was admitted by someone at one of our ‘Sessions’ that the Government had no illusions that because of this ‘judicial independence,’ being placed at a distance from the locus of control and poor communications some ‘hanky panky’ might occur but that those involved do meet their ‘nemesis’ when found out; this same system is applied to all the other ministries as well.39 So you can see that although control by and large lies in Yangon, decentralization and delegation in a democratic and rule/law based system occurs, you might say in a rather tough, military-like top down way. In a sense we appreciate that if at all ‘hanky panky’ occurs it is caused by the relatively low public sector salaries, but we are also looking into this area and as soon as we can strengthen our economic base, something will be done!”
“If you are still wondering, for example whether the judiciary is independent and you have any doubts whether civil and criminal cases are handled independently in different parts of the Country, judicial independence is total and I might recommend you read our SLORC Declaration No. 1/90 of July 27th 1989 para 19, on Law courts, judicial independence etc. In the context, you will recall that the son of one of our Brothers, a General, was involved in a motor accident. He was sent to jail where he had to sit for his final medical examination. There was no getting around the problem. Luckily he passed his exams and today he is full fledged foreign-trained cardiologist. Furthermore you are yourself aware that a Director General of a Ministry was dismissed because he approved the application for one piece of land on the basis the applicant was the daughter of one of our ahted lugyis. Even in your own case, in both your projects you could not get land leases of more than 30 years, even though you tried. You know yourself perhaps, how the facts differ from the usual foreign media reports.40 In the context of course there is some measure of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, etc., but such malpractices are being monitored all the time and if established beyond doubt the culprit is made to face the music.”
One weekend, I arranged another chat and meal with my key respondents because this is quite convenient. Ministers have their personal assistants even on weekends, whereas certain weekdays like Thursdays are “hopeless” because it is “Cabinet Day.” At this session, I commented that SLORC is in place as we know, but I asked, “is the de jure status accepted by the people, really?”
In general terms, there was consensus by those present including Brother, Sir, Cousin and others at this Session that after the 1988 Conflagration, SLORC is not an organization which observes any prior Constitution, but that SLORC never intended to govern the nation under Martial Law as a military administered government, initially. However circumstances were such that there was, according to Brother, “no other organization which had the wherewithal to run the country and SLORC, encompassing the Tatmadaw, was thrust with the problem. As it turned out, within a relatively short period of time, the de jure status of the SLORC government was recognized by the UN and the world at large as a duly constituted government.” BG. Myo Thant added that “the military administered government, SLORC, was, ipso facto, recognized as the de facto, and the de jure government of the Union of Myanmar.”
Quite apart from the generally held and reckoned view of the military Junta being “repressive” although it is accepted as the de jure government of Myanmar by the world at large, M.S. Dobbs-Higginson’s piece quoted below presents a rather different picture from the popularly held belief that the SLORC/SPDC government is totalitarian and as some may think, that the leaders are “bigoted” and resistant to change. According to Dobbs-Higginson:
It is interesting to note that since SLORC was formed, there has been no military dictator. There has been no Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, no General Park Chung Hee, and no President Ferdinand Marcos figure. Rather, SLORC has been, and still is, a collective leadership and thus is more balanced and reasonable in approach. The top members of SLORC realized that jointly, they must bring about change, albeit gradually.41
Unquestionably, this opinion runs contrary to the popular view that the Regime is totalitarian. My own empirical observations as well as that of “small talk” with some of the Generals point in the same direction as that of Dobbs-Higginson. Simply put, the SLORC/SPDC realizes that change is inevitable. Those in charge are constantly grappling with this problem but it is the modality or pathway to bring about this change and the rate of change (especially when it seems that it is really the milieu exterieur that is pushing for it), which annoys the Government.
The historical baggage of having been taken for a ride by past colonialists is the cause of the Junta Generals’ fear and skepticism, especially when the British are involved. The quarter century of “closeting” under NeWinism and the worry of making yet another wrong move in advancing precipitously, weigh down heavily on the Junta members, from what I could gather over the years. They seem to be haunted by the past.
In the above context, these words of Brother, who was deeply involved in policy planning were particularly eloquent: “It is easy to change but history has shown that we have been deceived politically, economically, and socially by the West and the other colonialists. We have changed more than once, from the Stone Age to the Feudal Age. But change has been gradual with perhaps unfortunately power being the doctrine of success and stability. In our modern history change has too often been done too quickly. The question is who will underwrite the damage if the change is wrong? Let us get our basic infrastructure right, first – micro and macro-economic - food, shelter, transport, communications, removal of the problem of the secessionists elements, insurgents, drug lords, communists, trade and investments, etc., etc., before we can talk of the political position and international relations - no thanks to our colonial masters. Given time, change will yet come but it will be from within and the armed forces will play a crucial role.”
Having heard my key respondents out and looking at events post the 1997 joining of ASEAN, it is obvious that change can still occur with the Myanmar Government. The Junta’s participation in regionalism clearly demonstrates that not having any particular “fear” or “prejudice” in dealing with Southeast Asian states, there is no question that the Junta can change – they have indeed become quite “Asianphile,” which is a very far cry from the early days pre – 1988. To quote, BG. Myo Thant, “you know that from time to time, we have had problems with our neighbors but at the end of it all, we can and do reconcile and change because they do not interfere with our internal problems but only with a particular problem, mainly, for example, boundary.”
On my request to the Group to “elaborate on the Tatmadaw,” Brother Myo Thant commented with, “The Tatmadaw is the pivotal institution on and around which practically all of Myanmar’s governance hinges, internally. While on the one hand the populace is cognizant that it was the Tatmadaw members which secured independence for the country and ensured its overall survival and integrity whenever there was a crisis, paradoxically on the other, externally, it has been viewed that as the vehicle running the government it is repressive, totalitarian, guilty of human rights abuses, etc. Indeed the fact is that even from the very early days, “all matters” no matter how trivial had to be referred to the Cabinet42 and the Cabinet is the Tatmadaw members. This sentiment is strong enough for journalist Dominic Faulder to report what one of the NLD leaders, U Kyi Maung said in mid – 1990, namely, that “some personalities of the Tatmadaw should be sent to the Nuremburg Trials,”43 implying that the Generals are responsible for all the alleged human rights abuses.
The foregoing notwithstanding, the role of the Tatmadaw traditionally and historically is probably best encapsulated by Dr. Maung Maung, a legal scholar and the last President of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Myanmar, when he wrote in his magnum opus The Tatmadaw and its Role in the National Politics, inter alia, that : “the Tatmadaw was conceived … in national liberation struggles … in anti-fascist movement.” Its policy at the time was “Freedom” throughout – this policy and concept being consistent with the aspirations of (the) “national political forces.” Later, when the Tatmadaw had to “wage anti-fascist resistance” its policy under the Tatmadaw leadership changed to “Independence … Democracy … Socialism,” in order of priority and to “have an alliance with democratic forces to wage an anti-fascist (resistance) struggle.” The Communist and Socialist Parties on the other hand wanted socialism.44
Coming from one no less than Dr. Maung Maung, a highly considered individual, it is patently clear that the Tatmadaw has a pivotal role to play in national affairs. Nevertheless he does not provide any insight into the whyfores of how the Tatmadaw got into such a pivotal position in the national political, sociological and economic architecture. This is particularly true when considered in the light of the oft repeated assertion that the Tatmadaw is the savior of the Country firstly and secondly of the claim that the military Junta of SLORC/SPDC are “superior people” who hold sway not only over “this worldly” matters but also the “other worldly” affairs. In short, Myanmar cannot do without the Tatmadaw and the Generals are omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient – both on earth and even when pertaining to “extra terrestrial” matters, it appears. The impression I get talking to the public and private sector individuals is that there is general acceptance that the Tatmadaw did indeed fight for independence, got the Union going and continue to maintain autonomy and sovereignty of the State because they are people of high karma. However the negative aspect is that power is utilized all the time and that they have total monopoly of this even as many people hope that this might change.
Considering what turned out in my research, I decided to call upon my key respondents, who are mainly Tatmadaw generals, to see their take on how they succeeded so well in creating and holding such a nodal position in all spheres of Myanmar life and living. At this get together with my key respondents, after the usual exchange of pleasantries, I raised the question of how it is that, within the ASEAN states, it is patently clear that only in Myanmar does the military, the Tatmadaw, virtually run the whole country even though in the other States, technically, civilians run and form the Government and run the country even if these civilian leaders are most of the time backed fully by the military. “What an enviable position to be in. What is the secret?” I queried.
Brother’s retort was, “I am not sure whether it is an envious or unenvious position to be in, in the first place. It is hard work and even in terms of human casualties, the Tatmadaw suffers heavily fighting insurgents, secessionists (this has in recent years been a lot better), communists, drug armies, not to mention discontented citizens, militant students, external hegemons and their local nominees / ‘axe handles,’ uncoupling and demolishing the vestiges of unsuited and incongruent western political philosophies of overly enthusiastic practitioners of liberalism, and so forth.”
“The result is that as part of the Government and as members of the Tatmadaw we have to keep our eyes open and ears peeled all the time. Most trying and it appears sometimes to be a thankless job, but the milieu exterieur gets the impression we are having a whale of a time. This is not to say generals do not take some advantage of their position. Some do, but any non kosher practices only leads one to his nemesis.”
“I quite understand,” I remarked, “having seen how you Generals had to work virtually 18-20 hours a day in the first few years post the 1988 Conflagration. But quite apart from this, how did you get to such a nodal position controlling the whole country?”
Brother continued, “I am glad you asked this because we note most people draw conclusions without fully knowing the history, political development, culture, phenomenology, psyche, morass, etc., of the people/country as well as the Tatmadaw. Hence let me say that from the analyses, criticism and perception of even so called experts on Myanmar, I must say, with respect that some of these are overly simplistic and some are written in vacuo, for two main reasons. The first is the Tatmadaw and Myanmar cannot be analyzed by the occasional or short term visits nor, secondly, by secondary source materials, though understandably primary source material on Myanmar is extremely difficult to come by, no thanks to our former colonialists – we have been played out too many times to let information out too freely. Secondary source material tends to suffer the defect that if the initial assumptions/analyses are wrong, the error gets perpetuated. Hence we are pleased that after 10 – 20 years you who are familiar with the whole picture are attempting to write a thesis on Myanmar.”
At this stage of the discussion, judging from the analyses, language and flow of Brother’s delivery and of the others present listening intently and some nodding in agreement with the narrative, I could not help sensing the members’ sense of “frustration” over inaccurate reports of foreign authors, journalists, etc, and I wished that some of the foreign Myanmar authors, scholars and journalist could have been around to see and hear for themselves, the level of education and the actual quality of some of the Generals from their analyses of problems.
Considering my own sense of the direction the chat was going, I remarked: “So why do you not, as I have suggested before, run seminars to explode some of these ‘disinformation and misinformation’ as Brother Myo Thant has called it?” BG. Myo Thant’s reply was that, “really we are not permitted to, and frankly our worry is that what we say may be distorted and sensationalized and we do not have the resources to fight or rebut thereafter. By the way, have you ever read the book Straight and Crooked Thinking? If you have, you would get a good idea of how even though scholars are supposed to be objective, stories are written and slanted to suit their own agendas. The funny thing that all of us realize is that the Myanmar story – past, present, though we hope not the future – has been one of the vicious circle of ‘torsion – distortion – contortion’ brought about by denials – normal or artificially self induced – by all the actors, including ourselves in so far that we do not provide the basic information; others have to double guess and draw their own (false) conclusions!”
I thought it prudent to seize the opportunity to ensure there are no distortions and so I suggested, “Let me try to put some of the distortions right. What about the Tatmadaw and what it was, is and will be doing?” Brother replied: “Now for the political history of the Tatmadaw. Even for the anti-Tatmadaw faction of the population, they are perfectly aware of the fact that throughout the hundred odd years of colonialism, the colonialists created only two classes of people in Myanmar, which incidentally is made up of some 80 percent of Bamars. These are the Ruling Class – a negligible number - and the Working Class the latter of which, to call a spade a spade, is nothing but serfs. They never cultivated an educated Middle Class. Imagine in over 100 years, we had only one university. Indeed, whatever little squires we had were converted to landless proletariat by the Thosaung Kalas (British) and also the money lending (chettiar) kalas, so the dilemma was how do we get out of this poverty trap (and incidentally to ensure that our cultural practices are respected and not destroyed)?” By getting rid of the colonialists. Thus a number of social groups were formed to fight for independence but because of the educational level, leadership was lacking and no cohesive force could be formed between and among such groups, until the military group of the Thirty Thakins was formed.”
“It was this Thakin group which was able to galvanize and mobilize the nation to finally fight for and gain independence. It is this group which was the germ of the Tatmadaw. And the people know this and even those who have for some reason felt disenfranchised, disillusioned, disaffected would not deny this. It is just that in more recent history, foreign interference has raised doubts in the minds of some people.”
“This is not new for Myanmar because for a number of reasons Myanmar does not seem to be able to be politically unified. This is evidenced by the fact that even the AFPFL which was thought to be the strongest association, politically, finally split.”
“Also, throughout the history of Myanmar there has always been strong external interference and influence in the internal affairs of the country. Further evidence to this can be gleaned if you were to read the “Glass Chronicles”45 from which you will see that foreign interference from outside brought about three wars each for Myanmar: with China, Thailand and the British, not to mention feuding with the French, Portuguese. Internally there were many incursions into various states and regions, e.g., the Arakan Uprising, the Shan Uprising, etc.”
“Also, the notion to form separate independent states existed even from the early days (no thanks to the British carving out the country) and finally how and who solved these problems? – the members of the Tatmadaw by way of the Panglong Agreement, the abolition of the Sawbwas (Shan Chieftains), the Duwas (Kachins) as well as the Karens, Chins, etc., etc., – all Minority peoples. All these were achieved by the Government which essentially is the Tatmadaw.”
“In spite of all, including the Panglong Agreement and the toning down of the Minorities, there were still attempts at breakaways from the Union, in 1950–51, 1958–60, 1962-88, even to date.”
“It was, considering the problems, only in 1958, that the Tatmadaw published the first Military Doctrine spelling out Democracy as the first political priority; open economy as the second and an independent Legislature as the third. And you might hazard a guess as to who was responsible for keeping the Burma Communist Party (BCP), the Karen National Democratic Organization (KNDO) which subsequently became the Karen National Union (KNU), the Shan State Independence Army (SSIA), the drug lords and their armies in the Kokang and Wa States, the fleeing Kuomintang Divisions etc., etc., in check? It was the Armed Forces that saved the Country from all these disruptive elements and prevented the total disintegration of the Country.”
“However, what is true is that after the formation of the BSPP post 1962 and the emergence of the 1974 Constitution, a single-chambered parliament and a uniparty political system was put in place and this left democracy out in the cold and people had to live with this till the Conflagration of 1988 because it appeared (especially with foreign egging) as though the Government and hence the Tatmadaw had “fooled” them,” Brother concluded.
Editor’s Note: Chapter 3 has been divided into three segments, the second of which has been presented above; the final segment of Chapter 3 will be published in the following issue of this Journal. - JP
26 Michael Aung-Thwin, “Parochial Universalism, Democracy Jihad, and the Orientalist Image of Burma: the
New Evangelism.” Pacific Affairs Vol.74, No. 4, p.500
27 Over the 20 years experience to members of government/bureaucracy, I discovered that under military rules they are not permitted to reveal their qualifications. However with good quanxi, I was able to ascertain that most are very well schooled, read and opinionated. This is the reason I always enjoyed our tetes-a-tete which ranged from government, economics, politics, sociology, history etc etc. Indeed objectively out of 10 each of Generals /Ministers/bureaucrats/administrators in the medical/engineering/professional fields, I know personally, many are foreign trained and educated and if not, they are graduates of the Defense Services Academy (DSA) or the Officer Training School (OTS) which provides tertiary education.
29 Dorothy Woodman, The Making or Burma, The Cresset Press London, 1966, p.44.
30 Ibid, p.50.
31 Silverstein, Burma and the World, p.120.
32 I have been fascinated by the fact that the general public and even generals are bound consciously, subconsciously or culturally by their believe in pon, awza and ana so that in a group one does not generally speak up unless one is No. 1. This means in practice that in policy formulation/implementation, the decision invariably lies in the “higher up/higher authority” – “ahted lugyi.” Who the “higher ups/higher authorities” are, is unclear and not even at Ministerial level is this precisely known. It appears to me to something quite vague and amorphous and yet omnipotent.
33 The Government is usually very sticky when it comes to contract with foreign parties. However as with the Panglong Agreement when there was a dispute among various ethnic groups about the 10 – year secession Clause, the problem was resolved using a confidential “Side Letter.” This kept the Agreement “clean” and yet satisfied all parties.
34 At an early stage, the premise, i.e., that Myanmar seems to have had pitfalls leading to its vicissitudes, was hinted at to the key respondents, to gauge the response.
35 Sarkisyanz, Buddhist Background of the Burmese Revolution, 1965, p.101.
36 David Steinberg, The Road to political recovery, the salience of politics in economics, The World Peace Foundation and Harvard Institute for International Development, Cambridge Massachusetts, Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C. p.272
37 Should Mr Barak Obama be elected President one wonders if pressure on Myanmar would be increased as his Vice-Presidential running mate, Mr Joe Biden is one of the 19 Senators (including Senator Jesse Helms (the architect of the US Sanctions on Myanmar) – House Representative, Mr Stephen Solarz (Chairman, House of Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs) who wrote as the United States Congress, to the Chairman SLORC Sr.Gen.Saw Maung on 3rd August 1989 to release Aung San Suu Kyi from House Arrest, inter alia, accusing Myanmar of human rights abuse. See U Tin Htwe – The Conspiracy of Treasonous Minions within the Myanmar Naing-Ngan and Traitorous Cohorts Abroad – News and Periodicals Enterprise, Ministry of Information of Government of the Union of Myanmar, p.235.
38 Taylor, “UNCTAD,” Asian Affairs, February 1998, p.7.
39 At the Yangon City Development Committee because of such “non kosher practices,” at one go, practically half a dozen senior officers including some colonels were removed; likewise at one time, a number of senior officers from the Mandalay Electricity Department (MEPE) were removed from office.
40 This is a case I can confirm because I was in Yangon at the time and the Hon. Minister was keeping a close tab on the condition of the victim. The General happens to be an internationally renowned Medico and has contributed one chapter on Internal Medicine, in an Oxford University, Textbook on the subject. The case of the Director General who was dismissed, is also a friend. I am aware of the case.
41 M.S. Dobbs-Higginson, “Myanmar (Burma), Previously a Tragic Exercise in Futility-Real Change now appears Possible,” The New Light of Myanmar 06 August 1997, p. 3.
42 R.H. Taylor, Myanmar: Army Politics and the Prospects for Democratization, Asian Affairs Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, London, p.7.
43 Union of Burma, State of Law and Order Restoration Council, Gen. Khin Myunt, The Spin 110th Press Conference, p.41.
44 Dr Maung Maung (Min Maung Maung) Burmese Nationalist Movements, 1940-1948 (Scotland Kiseadale Publication, 1989), p.164/165.
45 P e Maung Tin and G.H. Luce, The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, New York, AMS Press, 1976.
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