Burma Policy Briefing | 3
THE CHANGING SOCIO-POLITICALLANDSCAPE
From 1988 to 1991 Burmese politics under-went a major transformation that persisted inmost organisational aspects for the next twodecades. In 2010, however, the imminence ofpolitical change is forcing all groups andparties to reconsider their positions. Inessence, to take part in Burma’s new politicalsystem, all parties have to register with theauthorities and transform.Under Ne Win’s BSPP government, no ethnicparties were recognised by the constitution.Instead, ethnic opposition was represented bya diversity of militant groups in two majorblocks: the nine-party National DemocraticFront (NDF), formed 1976, that sought a fed-eral union; and allies of the Communist Partyof Burma (CPB), which had remained thecountry’s largest insurgent force since 1948.This pattern of three-cornered conflictbetween the BSPP, NDF and CPB was thenshattered by the 1988 upheavals that causednew groups and alignments to emerge. Fourevents stood out:
The BSPP was replaced by a new systemof military government under theSLORC-SPDC.
In 1989 the new government introducedan ethnic ceasefire policy following mu-tinies that caused the collapse of the CPBand formation of new ethnic forces innortheast Burma. Several ethnic forces,led by the United Wa State Army(UWSA), quickly agreed to peace terms.
The 1990 general election was over-whelmingly won by the National Leaguefor Democracy (NLD) and allied ethnicparties that gained the second largestblock of seats.
Over a dozen MPs-elect went under-ground to escape arrest for having tried
to convene a parliament and govern-ment.
They subsequently joined up withother democracy activists, thousands ofwhom had fled into NDF-controlled ter-ritories in the borderlands since 1988.The most important transformation in politi-cal movements was taking place since inde-pendence. A major test of wills thus devel-oped as to who would control Burma’s transi-tion: the Tatmadaw, the NLD or ethnicgroups in the borderlands who hoped that thepolitical pendulum could be swinging theirway. For the next two decades, there wouldbe frequent calls in Burma and abroad for“tripartite” dialogue as the most appropriatemethod to resolve the country’s politicalcrises.Ultimately, it was the Tatmadaw governmentthat maintained – and increased – nationalcontrol through a combination of measures.These included the repression of the NLDand other opposition groups, the drawing upof a new constitution by a hand-pickedNational Convention (1993-2008), and thegrowth of the pro-military Union Solidarityand Development Association (USDA,formed 1993) to over 21 million members. Inparticular, Senior General Than Shwe and theTatmadaw leaders consistently rejected tri-partite dialogue and United Nations or otherinternational initiatives seeking to bringBurma’s different parties together around thesame table.Ethnic politics thus continued in complexand uncertain form. In private, there weremany links between the different ethnicparties and alliances, with a common deter-mination to be influential in the country’stransition. But there was little agreementabout how this should be achieved. Followingthe 1988-91 upheavals, three new andimportantly different groupings emerged:electoral, ceasefire and non-ceasefireorganisations.
On the electoral front, 19 ethnic nationalityparties won seats in the 1990 election, spear-headed by the Shan Nationalities League forDemocracy (SNLD). Subsequently, mostparties allied with the NLD through suchinitiatives as the 1998 Committee Represent-ing the People’s Parliament. But differentstrategies also emerged. From 1995, protest-ing restrictions on freedom of expression, theSNLD and allied parties joined the NLD inboycotting the National Convention to draw