Burma Update: Urban Uprising and Frontier Rebellion


From August to October 1988, mass uprisings in Burma's towns and cities brought Burma to world attention. Millions of city dwellers from every stratum of society marched in the streets. Led by students and Buddhist monks, they called for democracy after 26 years of one-man, one-party misrule. These protests came as a shock to much of the outside world, which had long regarded Burma as a tranquil, peaceful land with a docile population content to forgo the luxury of democracy.

In actuality, "peaceful" Burma has been in a state of civil war since it independence just after World War II; tens of thousands have died in the frontier zones with democracy as their battle cry. Ethnic minorities, including such tribal peoples as the Karen, Karenni, Pa-O, Palaung, Lahu, Wa and Kachin, had long been in open revolt. Burmese Army campaigns to quell the insurgency concentrated on ethnic minority civilians and were characterized by strategic use of torture, plunder and slavery.

The Formation of the NDF

By 1988 most ethnic minority resistance forces in Burma had formed a coalition called the National Democratic Front (NDF). The NDF favored a multiparty political system with free elections, free market economic development, crop substitution to eliminate narcotics production and local, cultural autonomy with equal rights for all ethnic groups. In recent years, extensive negotiations among the NDF members had reduced factionalism and ethnic infighting, giving the rebellion a fairly stable political power base.

The NDF had announced its willingness to negotiate with the Burmese government for a settlement to the war, and had appealed for international mediation. With Burmese dictator Ne Win firmly in control of the cities and towns, there seemed little chance of military victory for the NDF. There was hope, however, that outside interest might break the stalemate and bring an end to the long war.

While civilians suffered horribly because of the war, and a third generation of young soldiers was sacrificed to it, some of the older rebel leaders appeared to have become comfortable in their insurgent roles. Black market operations (in commodities ranging from teak and rubies to rice) that supported the resistance often became an end in themselves, and an unfortunate commercial aura overrode strategic considerations as the armies became hostage to trade deals for black market weaponry. Groups in the north of Burma that were involved even slightly in narcotics trafficking were tarnished and corrupted by it. Burma's proxy forces such as Khun Sa's Tailand Revolutionary Army, which worked for Ne Win while touting themselves as freedom fighters, unfairly lent all the rebel groups an unsavory warlord image.

Much talk circulated in the NDF of wanting some form of Burmese participation, but there was also deep, ancient mistrust of the Burmese (also called "Burman") ethnic group, which forms almost two-thirds of Burma's population. Most ethnic minorities perceived the Burmese as having a "Master Race" complex and a cruel, duplicitous nature. Even so, Burmese as well as Karen and Karenni students were welcomed at NDF camps after students rioted in September 1987 in response to Ne Win's arbitrary demonetization of banknotes. A small number of students underwent political and military training and returned to their campuses. Similar training probably occurred in territory controlled by communist insurgents as well, and an underground network was also being organized by students at that time.

Unrest Escalates in Burma

Students unrest reignited in March 1988, and then in June. As police killed hundreds of student demonstrators, provoking widespread protesters in all major towns, the rest of the urban population, particularly Buddhist monks, joined the fight. Demonstrations continued in July when Ne Win resigned as chairman of Burma's only political party and his henchman, Sein Lwin, famed for his brutality in suppressing dissent, stepped in.

Despite Sein Lwin's imposition of martial law, protests engulfed Burma's cities in August, accompanied by a massive general strike. In response, security forces massacred unarmed protesters. After 17 turbulent days in office, Sein Lwin resigned and Maung Maung took his place. Martial law was lifted, and millions marched to demand democracy. Although free expression flourished briefly, behind the scenes Ne Win was manipulating events to create an instability that would conclude in a military takeover to "maintain law and order." During this period, due to extensive international press coverage of the protests and diplomats' outrage at brutal suppression measures, Burma's aid donors suspended all funds.

As the uprising raged, the NDF forces were remarkably restrained. Challenged as to why they did not take advantage of the Burmese Army's preoccupation with the protests despite appeals to do so from students and residents of frontier towns (many of whom, in places like Taunggyi, Pegu and Moulmein, were members of ethnic minorities themselves), some NDF leaders insisted they were wary of provoking the government claims that the uprising was an insurgent plot, which might spur the army to use counterinsurgency tactics against the demonstrators. The NDF's real reasons for holding back may have simply been the logistics of the monsoon season (mud prevents easy transit; soldiers suffer from malaria) and its leaders' inability to react quickly, since they were accustomed to a bogged-down war of attrition.

Although the insurgents did not come to the urban uprising, the uprising did eventually come to them. Ever shadow playing, Ne Win unleashed his military, and on 18 September Saw Maung staged a coup d'etat (against a military government of which he was a member, which had itself come into power in a coup in 1962). The Burmese Army quelled demonstrations with ruthless efficiency, in what Newsweek termed a "frenzy of bloodletting" and a "reign of terror". As workers were purged and suspected activists summarily executed, Rangoon took on the Orwellian tone of 1984 rather than Burmese Days. Student leaders and intellectuals were hunted down and killed in the streets while loudspeakers blared messages urging surrender sand obedience.

By October, the monsoon rains had wanted and the NDF forces were well into their annual fall offensives, waging them with a new vengeance. Karen troops, with some Burmese students fighting alongside, captured the strategic base of Mae Taw Waw from the Burmese Army. By November, as many as 10,000 people from cities and towns - students, monks, teachers and other dissidents - had fled to NDF territory, seeking refuge from persecution and in many cases hoping to get military training and weapons from the rebels.

Public Perception of Ethnic Groups

Most people in the cities had only sketchy knowledge of the ethnic minority resistance groups, of what they represented and how strong they were. Portrayed by the government-controlled media as dacoits ("bandits"), they appeared as sinister denizens of the forest, with dragon's-lair hoards of gems and arms. When students instead found the rebels struggling to make ends meet in the gritty reality of their ramshackle jungle hideouts, they became disillusioned. The previous spring, Pa-O tribal soldiers on the Thai border, dependent on expensive Thai rice, had been on the verge of starvation, and only a hundred or so remained. Now there were thousands of new mouths to feed in the rebel zone.

A new Thai government, led by Prime Minister Chatichai Choohavan, had assumed office in August 1988 and appeared to be implementing a trade policy based on improving relations with economically decrepit socialist neighbors such as Laos and Burma. This policy proved detrimental to the NDF groups on the border, and their black market arms supplies were disrupted. Burmese student leaders, in Thailand to address rallies of supportive Thai students, were arrested by Thai police, and refugees from Burma were pushed back over the border. The Burmese government offered rewards to Thai bounty hunters for delivering Burmese students to their embassy for forced repatriation.

At the time of the urban uprising, the Karen and Mon forces in Burma had disgraced themselves by breaking into fierce combat with each other over the Three Pagodas Pass trade route. Brandishing ancient maps of the Mon Empire on one side and Karen population charts on the other, each sought to make a political cause of a desperately petty turf quarrel. They ended up obliterating the Three Pagodas bazaar and destroyed what had possibly been the NDF's most lucrative trade route. This gave the Thai authorities an excuse to discourage border access, and Thai police blockaded food supplies donated to refugees in the Mon camp at There Pagodas by sympathetic Thai Buddhists.

Relations between the new arrivals and the battle-hardened ethnic minorities were somewhat uneasy at first. The "textbook ideology" of many left-leaning students did not sit well with staunchly anti-communist groups such as the Karen. The students and others had arrived without supplies and unschooled in the rigors and diet of the jungle. Malaria instantly debilitated thousands; no medicines were available for it or for other diseases and injuries.

Eventually, the Karen's traditional tribal hospitality and the Buddhist links with the Mon helped to overcome suspicions, and some outside aid filled some refugee needs. The All Burma Students Democratic Front was formed to overcome some of the factionalism among the new arrivals. The NDF encouraged the group to have its own organization and its own camps in order to prevent any suspicion of them becoming a "childrens' crusade" for the ethnic minorities. In November, a conference of the NDF and other ethnic minority groups, overseas organizations, monks and students formed a broad alliance called the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB), with the Karen general, Bo Mya, as chairman. The DAB was to coordinate military, economic and foreign policy.

More than 150 political parties had been registered in government-controlled Burma. The foremost party had splintered, and the promised elections appeared to be nothing more than a meaningless charade - if they were to be held at all. At the beginning of 1989, little talk of negotiation exists among the rebels. Although they perceive the Burmese Army as fatally wounded by the cutoff in international aid, they have real fears that the Soviet Union will fill that vacuum (the first countries to recognize Saw Maung's regime were Malaysia, Laos, Colombia and the USSR) and that arms trade with neighbors that have few human rights scruples will continue. The United States has given moral support to Burma's opposition, particularly through Congress's forceful condemnation of the regime's human rights abuses and through the cutoff of aid (which included the controversial 2, 4-D herbicide spraying program). The DAB hopes for more, even direct assistance to the rebellion.

A New Stage in the War

Hoping for but lacking outside aid, the rebel forces have been attacking with a newly aggressive spirit, concentrating on seizing Burmese weapons and sabotaging supply lines. The Burmese students give the NDF forces improved infiltration capabilities. The war has entered a new stage: in November, Karenni tribal guerrillas attacked a power plant in the Loikaw area with rockets, and the damage shut off the lights in Rangoon, more than 200 miles away. Rebel forces have been reported operating in central Burma for the first time in many years.

The Rangoon regime is trying to impose a veneer of normalcy. Daily announcements of economic reforms, the visit of a Thai general, new coats of paint and fortifications for government buildings or the resumption of screened and limited group tours are all attempts to erase bloodstains and democracy graffiti. Ne Win, a mad but wise man, knows the world has a short memory and an even shorter attention span. The years of Burma's slaughter of ethnic minority people were politely ignored, and a few thousand murdered Burmese can be, too. Business as usual (but perhaps more profitable, with some new trading partners) resumes.

The ethnic minorities, finding Burmese in the same boat, have become more sympathetic, if not more trusting. The new arrivals, recovering from "jungle shock," have been gathering strength, not disappearing. They will not transform into instant commandos, but they may serve as the inspiration for new strategies. When all is said and done, the Burmese and ethnic minorities share goals of democracy, economic freedom, basic human rights and peace. Fro the frontier rebels, unity and equal rights may be only a dream, but the rebellion has run on dreams for 41 years. The question now is, Are dreams fuel enough?

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: