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Department of History, National University of Singapore

Civil War and Rebellion in Burma

Author(s): Josef Silverstein
Source: Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Mar., 1990), pp. 114-134
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of Department of History, National
University of Singapore
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Vol. XXI, No. 1 Journal of Southeast Asian Studies March 1990
pp. 114-134 ? 1990 National University of Singapore

Civil War and Rebellion in Burma


1988 was unlike any other year in Burma's short history as an independent nation.
It began quietly, but erupted into a revolution for democracy and change which
failed when the army violently restored its dictatorship; it ended quietly, but with the
people living in fear under a military determined not to be challenged openly again.
During this same period, while the world focused on Rangoon, the minorities con
tinued to pursue a civil war which some have been fighting for the past forty years,
hopeful that the changing situation in Burma's heartland would effect their struggles
because both they, and the Burmans who rose in revolt, have the same enemy and
seek the same ends ? a peaceful and democratic Burma. Both looked to and sought
help from the free nations of the world who spoke out vigorously when the rebellion
began but whose voices either have been lowered or even stilled since the military
made clear that it would decide the time and degree of change; only the U.S. con
tinued to hold the high moral ground in support of the rebellion but its actions
hardly matched its rhetoric
Since achieving independence in 1948, Burma has known neither peace nor na
tional unity.1 The nation recovered its sovereignty and joined the family of nations
before it solved its internal problems. Neither the constitutional democratic leaders
nor the authoritarian military rulers who replaced them, found solutions to the
problems existing before independence and continue to the present.
Today, many of the original parties in the civil war are still in revolt with their
numbers increasing over the years, as other minority groups took up arms when no
other solution seemed viable. So long as the fighting was kept out of the Irrawaddy
valley ? the heartland of Burma ? and most of the ethnic Burmans supported the
government in Rangoon, the situation was tolerated, even though it prevented com
plete administration of the land and economic and social development. However,
when revolt erupted in 1988, there was a curious absence of linkage between the

This is a revised version of a paper originally presented at a U.S. Defense Intelligence College-U.S. Pacific
Command Conference, February-March 1989, Honolulu, Hawaii. The author acknowledges with thanks
permission from the conference sponsors to publish this version and to thank the Lee Foundation,
Singapore for having provided travel grants in the past which made it possible to gather information and
material used in the preparation of this and other papers. The information, conclusions and interpretations
in this paper are those of the author and in no way reflect the interest or activity of the Conference, the
Foundation or any individual connected with either.

'For discussions of the preindependence period to the late 1970s see, Josef Silverstein, Burma: Military
Rule and the Politics of Stagnation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977). For a different point of view
see, Robert Taylor, The State in Burma (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987).


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Civil War and Rebellion in Burma 115

Burmans and the minorities, despite the fact that both faced the same enemy ? the
military rulers. While the people in Rangoon called for democracy, the establishment
of a multiparty system based on free elections and changes in the economy, there was
no open call for an end to the forty year civil war against the minorities and their
participation in the construction of a new political system. Thus, the two struggles
remained separate, even though the minorities, at year's end, took steps to join with
the people in the Burma heartland while a few emerging leaders in Rangoon began
to speak out on the problems of how to achieve peace and unity.

The Civil War: The Preindependence Background

When World War II ended, the British sought to rebuild the economy while taking
steps to advance Burma to full membership in the Commonwealth.2 In the prewar
years they governed Ministerial Burma ? the Irrawaddy Valley and the delta ?
separate from the hill areas which surround it. Under the White Paper of May 1945,
it was their intention to continue the separation until the minorities in the hill areas
were politically advanced and indicated that they wished to join with the Burmans
in the future state of Burma. The Burman-led nationalist movement ? Anti Fascist
Peoples' Freedom League (AFPFL) ? which arose during the war, opposed this and
demanded the immediate unification of all the peoples in the common march to in
Amongst the minorities where historic lands were both in the hill areas and the
delta were the Karens. They saw the Burmans as their enemies; during the 19th cen
tury wars of conquest, they helped the British and were rewarded with places in the
colonial system. As early as the 1880s, the Karens called for the creation of a Karen
state, apart from the rest of Burma.
A second group, the Karenni or Kayah ? a kin group to the Karens ? had a
history of being a recognized independent group before the British conquered Burma,
and while their area was included in the colonial configuration because they had
entered into a protective alliance with Great Britain, they believed that if the British
left Burma, they would recover their independence. The other large minorities ?
the Shans, Kachins, Chins ? were willing to discuss their future with the Burman
nationalists and came to trust the leader, Aung San.3 In Ministerial Burma, the
Arakanese and Mons were viewed by the British and the Burmans as part of the
latter group because they lived intermingled, there was widespread intermarriage and
all shared a common faith, Buddhism. The Mons and Arakanese thought of them
selves differently and some members of the two communities formed independence
In January 1947, Aung San and leaders of the AFPFL were called to London
where they entered into an agreement with the British government outlining the

2For a Burmese nationalist point of view see, AFPFL, From Fascist Bondage to New Democracy: The
New Burma in the New World (Rangoon: Nay Win Kyi Press, no date). For documents of this period,
see H. Tinker (ed.), Burma: The Struggle for Independence, 1944-48, 2 vols. (London: Her Majesty's
Stationery Office, 1983, 1984).
3"Aung San Attlee Agreement", Government of Burma, Burma's Fight for Freedom: Independence
Commemoration (1948), pp. 44-48.

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116 Josef Silverstein

steps to be taken to achieve independence.4 Among them was the condition that the
minorities would be free to decide whether or not to advance with the Burmans.
The Shans protested being excluded from the negotiations and the Karens openly
sought British support for the establishment of an independent Karen state.
Within weeks of his return to Burma, Aung San met with the Shans, Kachins
and Chins at Panglong, in the Shan States, and all agreed to work together for in
dependence; Aung San promised the minorities that they could participate in the
interim government he was heading and that in a future independent Burma they
would enjoy equality and autonomy. This is the landmark agreement upon which
many of the minorities base their present claims.5
But the 1947 constitution produced a flawed union of unequal states; two ? Shan
and Karenni ? were granted the right of secession after 10 years, while the others
were not.6 All states were dependent on the central government because they had little
or no economic and taxation powers; the Prime Minister had authority to interfere
in local politics through his right to name the head of each State. The Karens refused
the state offered to them and the constitution came into effect with that issue un
resolved. The Karenni, at the last moment, participated and agreed to the basic law.
To compensate for these inequalities, the AFPFL chose a Shan as the nation's first
President, allowed a Karen to head the army and let it remain organized on racial
lines, and included various provisions in the constitution which nominally gave the
minorities local autonomy. Although most of the minorities tried to make the system
work, it would not.
The civil war had a second dimension. The BCP (Burma Communist Party), a
key group during World War II in the formation of the army and the AFPFL, was
outmanoeuvred by Aung San and the Socialist Party in 1946 and expelled from the
nationalist coalition. Only after the assassination of Aung San in July 1947 and a
change in the international communist line ? from peaceful cooperation to violent
revolution ? did the party alter its strategy and prepare for war.7
Thus, when Burma became an independent nation in January 1948, it had in
completely defined states, dissatisfaction over the inequality of the states, a minority
preparing to defend its people against the Burman majority and a communist party
preparing for revolution.

4For further information about Aung San, see Josef Silverstein (ed. and contributor), The Political
Legacy of Aung San (Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Data Paper no. 72, 1972). For
the view of the Shans, on the Panglong meeting, see Sao Saimong Mangrai, The Shan State and the British
Annexation (Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Data Paper no. 57, 1965), pp. 307-311.
5 "The Panglong Agreement", Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry, 1947. Part I: Report (Rangoon:
Supdt. Government Printing and Stationery, Burma, 1947), pp. 16-17.
Constituent Assembly of Burma, The Constitution of the Union of Burma (Rangoon: Government
Printing and Stationery, 1948).
7For a very useful collection of documents and commentary, including the Goshal Thesis ? the docu
ment which is the intellectual basis for the BCP's change from a peaceful to a militant line in 1947-48,
see Thakin Ba Tin, "On the Present Political Situation in Burma and Our Tasks", in Klaus Fleishmann
(ed.), Documents on Communism in Burma 1945-47 (Hamburg: Mitteilungen des Instituts fur Asienkunde,

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Civil War and Rebellion in Burma 117

The Civil War: Stage One

On 28 March 1948, less than three months after the declaration of independence,
the BCP went into open revolt. It was followed by units of the AFPFL paramilitary
force, the People's Volunteer Organization (PVO), and by year's end, the Karens.
In addition, a Mon force rose, as did an Arakanese and a Muslim group living in
Arakan. In the face of this, Burma's young army was weakened by defections; first,
by the 1st and then the 3rd Burma Rifles ? all-Burman units ? to the BCP and,
second, by the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Karen Rifles ? all-Karen units ? to the Karens. At
this point, Ne Win, a Burman, replaced General Kya Doe as the army's head and
reorganized it with Burman officers and men dominating all units, regardless of their
ethnic names.8
The new army, under officers personally loyal to Ne Win, became the vehicle
which drove the insurrectionary forces out of the Irrawaddy Valley and, in so doing,
gained a reputation for brutality and lawlessness while occupying minority areas
under martial law.
During the 1950s the insurrections diminished as supporters of the various groups
in revolt drifted home under government amnesty programs and the nation began
to make some economic progress. However, in 1958, a split occurred in the governing
party which threatened to rekindle the civil war. U Nu turned to the army to form
a Caretaker Government and create conditions for an election by which the two
factions could peacefully resolve their differences.9
In the same year, there were growing demands amongst some of the Shans and
Karenni to exercise their rights of secession. Others in the two communities began
to call for modifications in the constitution which would give them greater autonomy
in their areas and equality with the Burmans in national affairs. Resistance to these
changes provoked some of the younger members among the Shans and Kachins to
form resistance groups and go into revolt. The Caretaker Government forced the Shan
and Karenni princes to surrender their historic rights to their states and appealed to
the peasants and non-nobility to end feudalism and establish democracy in its place.
While the army gained some support for its objectives, the manner in which it carried
out its program neither won popular approval nor ended the threat of secession. The
Caretaker Government made no overtures to the Communists; believing that their
threat had so diminished, it was unnecessary to make any concessions.10
When U Nu returned to power, following an election in 1960, he sought to address
the minority concerns and demands, first by meeting with individual leaders and
groups and, later, by promising to hold a "federal seminar" where all would be
invited and, hopefully, a lasting solution would be found. But the seminar, begun

8For good brief discussions of the early days of the uprising, see H. Tinker, The Union of Burma
(London: Oxford University Press, 1961 [3rd ed.]), Chap. II. Also, Frank N. Tr?ger, Burma: From Kingdom
to Republic (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), pp. 95-139. For the government's view at the time,
see Burma and the Insurrections (Rangoon: Government of the Union of Burma Publication, 1949).
9For a good account of the origins of the Caretaker Government from a military point of view, see
Sein Win, The Split Story (Rangoon: The Guardian Ltd., 1959). For U Nu's version, see U Nu, U Nu ?
Saturday's Son (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), pp. 323-29.
10For the military's assessment of their rule under the Caretaker Government, see Ministry of Infor
mation, Is Trust Vindicated? (Rangoon: Director of Information, Government of the Union of Burma,

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118 Josef Silverstein

in mid-February 1962, never concluded; the military seized power on 2 March and
arrested all government members and minority leaders attending the meeting, dis
placed the democratic system with a Revolutionary Council and ruled by decree11

The Civil War: Stage Two ? Failed Negotiations and the

Emergence of the National Democratic Front (NDF)
In 1963, the military rulers of Burma attempted to end the civil war through nego
tiations. Ne Win invited all in revolt to come to Rangoon and seek lasting solutions.
The Communists, Karens, Mons, Kayahs and Kachins participated, but only a small
faction of the Karens accepted the government offer and the civil war resumed. Six
years later, U Nu, following his release from jail, launched a revolution from the Thai
border. Allied with the Mons and the Karens, he formed the United National Libera
tion Front, but the effort failed and his revolt collapsed. In 1975, the army launched
a major attack against the BCP and drove it from the Burma heartland to the China
border where it remained in power until 1989. In 1980-81, the government again tried
to negotiate an end to the civil war by meeting independently with the BCP and the
Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). Nothing came of the meetings as the one
sided terms offered by the military rulers were rejected.
A new phase in the civil war began in 1976 when eight minority groups in revolt
joined together to form the NDF. Headed by Bo Mya, the leader of the Karen National
Union (KNU) ? the successor to the Karen National Defence Organization (KNDO)
? it united groups in revolt amongst the Arakanese, Kachins, Karennis, Lahus,
Palaungs, Shans and Pa-Os.12 Later it added groups from the Was, Mons and Chins.
The military goal of the NDF was to unite all who were fighting against the govern
ment.13 Each group remained in control of its own armed force and was responsible
for its own security. All agreed to assist one another if under government attack.
At the outset, the NDF had no precise political goal as many of its members
were divided on the issue ? some wanted independence while others were willing to
accept an autonomous state in a weak union. However, by 1984, the NDF adopted
a common stand ? to remain a part of Burma in a new federation based on the
principles of equality, autonomy, liberty and self-determination. All those who
previously wanted independent states renounced that goal.
The BCP never sought membership in the NDF even though it attempted to unite
some of the minorities under its leadership. Bo Mya strongly opposed its ideology
and it, in turn, rejected the principles and goals of the NDF. Despite differences with
the NDF, the BCP cooperated with individual minority groups in its area, providing
them with weapons and leadership in order to win and hold their support.
The government in Rangoon refused to recognize the NDF and persisted in referr
ing to its members as bandits, malcontents and opium traders who either could

11 For a fuller discussion, see Josef Silverstein, "From Democracy to Dictatorship", Current History
46 (1964): 83-88.
12A fuller treatment of this can be found in Josef Silverstein, "National Unity In Burma: Is It Possible?"
in Durable Stability in Southeast Asia, ed. Kusuma Snitwongse and Sukhumbhand Paribatra (Singapore:
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1987), pp. 75-95.
13Most of the material used in this and later portions of the paper was gathered by the author during
several research trips made to the minority areas between 1984 and 1988.

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Civil War and Rebellion in Burma 119

surrender or be eliminated through battle. A typical editorial from the Working

People's Daily (English) suggests the tone and content of endless references to those
in revolt:

In some regions on the border areas of northern Shan State, the BCPs, in collabora
tion with local insurgents, had dominated and oppressed the indigenous people.
Owing to their minority, their drug trafficking and extortion of money, the people
have come to loath them.14

Repeatedly, the leader of the Kachins, Brang Seng, is referred to as an "assassin" or

as the "devil incarnate" while Bo Mya is always identified as "Nga" Mya. As far
as the government was concerned, the issue of federalism was settled in the 1974
constitution and was no longer debatable.15
Until 1984, the army's military strategy was to launch a series of campaigns during
the dry season and retreat when the rains began in order to keep the minority armies
out of the Burma heartland. But in that year, it adopted a new policy. Beginning
with a sustained campaign against the Karens ? the strongest group in the NDF ?
it used heavy artillery and reinformed ground troops to mount attacks which lasted
all year. Although it only captured one Karen strongpoint on the Moei River ? the
Burma-Thai boundary in that area ? it succeeded in disrupting the blackmarket trade
which, for years, passed through the area and provided the KNU with a sizeable in
come from taxation. In addition, it launched other campaigns against NDF members;
however, while it could inflict punishment the army could not permanently defeat
any of its foes.
Two years later (1986) the civil war took a new turn. The NDF entered into an
agreement with the BCP to cooperate militarily against the Burma army while keeping
their political activities separate. This agreement, worked out by Brang Seng, was
opposed by Bo Mya. However, the members of the NDF voted to support it. In 1987,
the Burma army scored major successes by capturing an important BCP stronghold
on the Burma-China border and seizing the headquarters of the Kachins. Although
these victories were important psychologically, the BCP held the rest of the Burma
China border and the areas east of the Salween River, while the Kachins continued
to hold most of their State and the armed forces of both remained intact.
The fighting between the army and the NDF was marked by serious violations of
human rights. The army forced villagers to serve as porters and walk through mine
fields ahead of troops; it raped, looted and burned villages suspected of aiding its
enemies. In April 1988, Amnesty International issued two long reports documenting
these violations and published bulletins of further crimes, which the military rulers
of Burma either ignored or dismissed as interference in its internal affairs.16
The NDF held its Second Congress in May 1987. Although it met against the
background of disagreement over the previous decision to cooperate with the BCP,
its members remained united and chose a new leader, Saw Maw Reh, a Karenni. The
Congress reaffirmed its support for the creation of a true federal union in Burma

l4The Working People's Daily, 1 June 1987.

15For a discussion of the 1974 constitution see Silverstein, op. cit., pp. 121-34, for one interpretation
and Robert H. Taylor, op. cit., pp. 300-372.
16Amnesty International, Burma: Extrajudicial Execution and Torture of Members of Ethnic Minorities
(London: Amnesty International Publications, 1988).

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120 Josef Silverstein

and called for cooperation with any group in opposition to the army so long as it
did not oppose the NDF program and organization: "It is the firm conviction of the
NDF that true unity of all the nationalities and genuine peace can be gained only
by solving political problems by political means and giving democratic freedom to
the people."17
As 1988 opened, the minorities were more closely united than ever, while the govern
ment had little to show for its casualties and cost of war. It continued its propaganda
campaign in the press against its enemies and with no independent sources of news,
the Burman population in the heartland had no real knowledge of the civil war and
why it persisted. Many people in the heartland believed that the minorities posed a
threat to the safety and security of the nation. With no counter information from
the minorities who were without a press or radio transmitter, the majority of Bur
mans accepted the descriptions and analysis offered by the government, and the gulf
between the majority and minorities remained broad and unbridged.

Burma Communist Party and the Civil War

As the first group to go into revolt and remain there until 1989, the BCP goals
differed with those of the minorities. From the outset it was intent upon creating a
Marxist government in Burma. As a Stalinist party initially, it became Maoist in the
early 1950s and never deviated. It drew its original leaders and followers from the
Burman population and, until it was driven from the Burma heartland, it offered the
most direct challenge to both the civilian and military governments.
Unlike the minorities, the BCP wanted a united and centrally controlled Burma,
not an ethnically divided federal union. Early in the civil war, the BCP fought against
the minorities as well as with them against the army, making its true objectives
toward the minorities difficult to discern. When, in 1967, the BCP began to receive
direct aid from China, it used its largesse of weapons as a means of attracting the
minorities to unite with it and accept its leadership. For a while, the BCP succeeded
in winning the support of elements from the Shans, Kachins and Karens living close
by. But its alliances with minority groups were never permanent, as the latter would
not give up their ethnic causes.
It was not until 1978 that the BCP dropped its stand on a Marxist unitary state
in favour of a federation and called for a grand coalition of opposition groups under
its leadership.18 It promised to allow each group to have its own state or autonomous
area in its version of federalism. The BCP leaders reasoned that at this stage of the
revolution, while agriculture formed the basis of the economy, local loyalties and
identities were dominant and that a coalition of opposition groups seeking a multi
party democratic state was the way to unite the peoples of Burma and regain the
leadership of the revolution. Later, as the base of the economy changed and the

17National Democratic Front (NDF) (Burma) Statement of the Second Congress, Karen National Union
(KNU) Bulletin, no. 12, August 1987, pp. 1-2.
18The BCP position on the minorities has been articulated in several documents. Beginning in the
Report to the Central Committee by Chairman Ba Thein Tin on 1 November 1978 and in speeches and
published documents, the line of the party has been to recognize minority autonomy as a way of winning
wider backing from the peoples amongst whom it resided.

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Civil War and Rebellion in Burma 121

people became more aware of the true nature of the struggle ? as the Marxists saw
it ? they would move toward and support the BCP revolutionary goals.
When the BCP was driven from its base in the Pegu Yoma to the China border,
it became isolated from the Burman population. With an aging Burman leadership
devoted to Maoist ideas and rejecting the changes taking place in China and elsewhere
in the world, the BCP came to depend upon the local minorities, amongst whom it
lived, to fill its ranks and waited impatiently to reunite with the Burman population
and win its war against the military rulers of Burma.
In 1979-80, the People's Republic of China cut off the funds and weapons it for
merly gave to the BCP as it abandoned its revolutionary line and sought to strengthen
its relations with Burma on the basis of "peaceful coexistence". This forced the BCP
to turn to opium sale and taxation to make up for the loss. The border area it con
trolled, especially east of the Salween River, produced nearly 50 per cent of all the
opium grown in Burma and provided the party with ample revenues to continue its
struggle. But, if China cut off its direct aid to the BCP, it took no steps to dislodge
it from the border area or close its territories to Burma party members. This situation
continued until March 1989.

Opium and the Civil War

Opium plays an important role in the civil war. It is a traditional crop in the east
ern Shan and southeast region of the Kachin State. Until the 1950s, it was mainly
produced and used locally; things changed after elements of the Kuomintang (KMT)
escaped from China following their defeat by Communist Party forces and took refuge
in the Shan State. Once it became clear that the KMT was not going to return and
liberate China, its members settled in Burma and organized opium production and
Until 1976, the Burma government considered opium an internal problem, but
growing use by young people in the Burma heartland caused the military rulers to
attempt to eradicate production with aid and advice from the United Nations and
the United States.
The problem is not easy to solve The opium fields are in rebel or contested areas.
Several of the minorities, especially in the Shan State, are involved. Various Shan
groups are united nominally to fight for an independent Shan State, but in reality,
a few are more interested in opium sales than politics and the income generated pro
vides funds for weapons and the enrichment of the leaders. Although there are many
local and foreign opium dealers in the Shan State, it is believed that one of the most
important is, Khun Sa, the leader of the Shan United Army. With 3-5,000 well
armed and trained men, his area rarely is attacked by the government because, it is
believed, he has an arrangement whereby he uses his arms against the other minorities
and the government leaves him alone His wealth and power are unchallenged in his
The Karens absolutely forbid narcotics to be grown, sold or to pass through the
territory. The Kachins eradicated opium from the western portions of their state and
encouraged the peasants to grow other cash crops. However, in the Lashio region o
the southeast Kachin and western Shan State, it continues to be grown; while t
Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) ? the organization of the Kachins in revol

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122 Josef Silverstein

? allow the peasants there to continue planting and harvesting because no other cash
crop can be grown in the difficult terrain and marketed in the absence of roads and
other infrastructure The KIO is on record as opposing opium and will eradicate it,
once the civil war ends and development comes to their state; meanwhile, it taxes opium
grown in its area, but does not market it.19
From the perspective of Rangoon, opium and rebellion are united. Thus, military
equipment, sold or given to the Burma government, was used to make war against
the minorities as well as to try to eradicate the crop. But there is widespread corrup
tion in the army, with close connections between it and Khun Sa, and vast areas and
caravans are ignored in exchange for bribes.
Convinced by the U.S. that there was a better way to destroy the crops, Burma
adopted an aerial spraying program ? the U.S. provided the spray, aircraft and pilot
training ? to eradicate the opium fields.20 For three years Burma employed this
method but, with no U.S. inspectors to monitor the mixing of the spray, to see that
proper precautions were taken to protect the farmers and that the target was opium
fields and not political enemies, reports were widespread of illness and death of
farmers and animals and destruction of their vegetable crops while opium production
rose from 900 to 1,250 tons. Part of the increase was due to new fields planted to
insure sufficient crops in the face of expected spraying.
The NDF went on record at its Second Congress as opposed to opium production
in its areas and said that, it "welcomes any organization that will cooperate with
it for narcotics suppression and looks forward to the organization of sensible and
effective activities for the purpose".

The Revolution in the Burma Heartland

In Burma's modern history, students have been at the forefront in resisting oppres
sive government, whether colonial or indigenous.21 From the student strike of 1920,
through the rise of nationalist resistance to British rule to the constitutional period
of self-rule, 1948-62, they participated as leaders and helped shape Burmese politics.
In June 1962, shortly after the military seized power, the university students openly
resisted the regime over the imposition of new regulations and the military responded
by suppressing them with loss of life, the destruction of the student union building
? the centre of student political life since the colonial period ? and the closure of
the university. A year later, the students openly supported the insurgents in the 1963
negotiations and were punished by the government for their efforts. In December
1974, they took the lead, along with the Buddhist monks, in protesting the military
rulers' plans for an ignominious burial of U Thant, the 3rd Secretary General of the
United Nations. They intended to inter the body on the site of the former student
union building but the army moved in, seized the coffin, beat and arrested the stu
dents and closed the university. Six months later, the students again protested against

19Kachin Independence Organization Opium Statement, 1988 (mimeo 5 pages).

20General Accounting Office, Report to the Honorable Daniel P. Moynihan, US. Senate: Drug Control
? Enforcement Efforts in Burma Are Not Effective (Washington, D.C: GAO/NSIAD-89-197), pp. 17-22.
21 Josef Silverstein and Julian Wohl, "University Students and Politics in Burma", Pacific Affairs 38,
no. 1 (1964): 50-65.

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Civil War and Rebellion in Burma 123

the continued imprisonment of those arrested in the December riots, the high cost
of living and the absence of jobs for graduates. This time, workers joined their pro
test and the military, once again, arrested the protestors and closed the university.
In March 1976, the students called another strike and seized a building on the
campus. Their leader was arrested, tried and sentenced to death; and, as before, the
university was closed.
If the students were the most outspoken critics of the military regime, the Bud
dhist monks and workers, on occasion, also demonstrated their discontent. The
monks fought against registering and carrying identity cards, while the workers rioted
in June 1974 over high prices and the absence of jobs.
Thus, despite the notion propagated by the military that the nation supported its
dictatorship, in fact, there has been popular opposition and demonstrations from the
beginning which failed because the participants were unarmed and unable to resist
a government willing to shoot and imprison any who opposed it.
The 1988 revolution was different; it drew upon this tradition and went beyond.
The environment for revolt was created by the economic and monetary issues of the
previous years. The economy, despite some progress in the early 1980s, was in decline.
Jobs for university graduates were nonexistent. Inflation was growing, and, because
of government incompetence, rice and other food shortages existed in the cities and
some rural areas. In August 1987, Ne Win, the unchallenged ruler since 1962, startled
the nation by admitting "failure and faults" in the management of the economy and
called for open discussion and change. On 1 September, the government suddenly
declared that the people were free to buy and sell, transport and store foodstuffs
without state interference ? thus ending the government monopoly. But a few days
later, it also declared three units of currency no longer legal tender and refused to
issue replacement, thereby confiscating nearly 80 per cent of the money in the hands
of the people. The students, living away from home and dependent on the cash
they held to meet expenses, immediately demonstrated and protested. As before, the
government closed the universities, even though the students were in the midst of
final examinations. Despite the fact that demonetization hurt everyone, the students
received no public support.
On 12 March 1988, a fight between students from Rangoon Institute of Technology
and townfolk at a tea shop triggered the revolution.22 During the next few days,
demonstrations developed on the Rangoon University campus and finally moved to
the centre of the capital. Using excessive force, the Lon Htin, the dreaded special
police and units from the 22nd Light Infantry ? an elite military unit created a year
earlier for riot control ? beat, raped, killed and arrested hundreds of students.
Although the government initially denied that there was more than one death, and
promised an official inquiry, no one believed it would be truthful and the guilty
would be punished. Finally, in July, it admitted that 41 had suffocated in a police
van because the jails were too crowded to admit them. This left hundreds unaccounted.
The unnecessary show of brutality and indifference clearly underminded whatever

22Bertil Lintner, Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy (Hong Kong: Review Publishing Co. Ltd.,
1989) is the first book on the 1988 revolution by a reporter who documented it originally on the pages
of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

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124 Josef Silverstein

confidence the public still had in government. As always in such events, the univer
sities were closed and students sent home
When they returned to the campus at the beginning of June, the students demanded
to know the fate of those arrested in March, an accounting of those who died and
the punishment of those who committed the atrocities.
New clashes arose between the university students and the police and military on
21 June. This time, high school students and members of the public joined them.
Untold numbers died during the next five days. Despite the imposition of curfews,
unrest and rioting spread nationwide.
By this time, public support began to grow. It developed, in part, from a second
source ? letters written to Ne Win by former Brigadier Aung Gyi. At one time,
Aung Gyi was one of Ne Win's closest subordinate officers from the time of his
service in the 4th Burma Rifles, after the Second World War, to his appointment as
Vice Chief of Staff in 1953; from his management of the business activities of the
Defence Services Institute, which began during the constitutional period by operating
commissary shops for the military to its creation or expansion of existing retail
business and entered banking, shipping, construction and other businesses with great
success. He also undertook important diplomatic missions to China, Japan and
elsewhere in the world. Differences with Brigadier Tin Pe over the socialization of
the economy in 1963 led to his dismissal from the military and arrest and imprison
ment. During the past decade, he was allowed to open a private business ? coffee
shop ? which thrived and expanded with several branches.
Beginning in the Spring of 1988, Aung Gyi wrote a series of letters in which he
called Ne Win's attention to economic and social conditions and placed the blame
for the current situation on Ne Win's appointees. More important, he discussed prior
events, such as the destruction of the student union building in 1962, the attacks on
the students in 1974 as well as other government acts. These letters circulated widely
and raised the stature of Aung Gyi for his courage and outspokenness. They also
helped mobilize public opinion against the government.
To calm the situation, Ne Win called a special meeting of the ruling party, the
Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP), on 23 July. There, he asked it to consider
creating a multiparty system, if parliament approved, and the people voted favourably.
He also announced his resignation as party leader and named several others to resign
with him. He closed by warning the people not to demonstrate; if they did, the army
would not shoot over their heads. Before the party acted on his requests, Aye Ko,
the General Secretary, outlined what everyone knew about the state of the economy,
but which the government, in the past, never admitted. In a second speech he out
lined economic changes which would end socialism and allow the private sector to
reemerge and take over all but a few selected areas ? weapons manufacturing, sale
of gems, timber and other resources. He also called for joint ventures and private
ownership of print media.23
The party rejected Ne Win's call for a referendum on the political system but it
accepted his resignation and dropped some of those whom he had named to retire
with him. It also dropped Aye Ko's recommended changes in the economy. Three days
later, it chose Joint Party Secretary, Sein Lwin, as its leader and new head of state.

23 Working People's Daily (Rangoon), 24 July 1988.

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Civil War and Rebellion in Burma 125

Sein Lwin was the man responsible for much of the past repression of the students.
In 1962, he led the troops in putting down the student strike and again, in 1974, it
was his forces who entered the university campus and terrorized the students while
restoring government control. In 1987, he organized the 22nd Light Infantry for riot
control. Thus by naming the "Butcher of Burma" ? as the students and others
dubbed him ? the nation's leader, the military rulers directly challenged the students
and the publie
The new leader began by declaring martial law on 3 August and imprisoning Aung
Gyi and nine others. The students defied him and called for a general strike on
8 August. In response to a massive peaceful demonstration, the military opened fire
on an unarmed publie In the course of the attacks, soldiers entered the General
Hospital and assaulted nurses and patients under treatment. Although this naked
show of violence shocked the nation, the people continued their peaceful demonstra
tions and called for an end to military dictatorship. The peaceful demonstrations and
the subsequent shooting and violence were not confined to Rangoon; they occurred
elsewhere in Burma indicating that this was a national popular revolt.
On 12 August, Sein Lwin resigned and seven days later was replaced by Dr. Maung
Maung. A civilian lawyer-scholar and close friend of Ne Win, he immediately ended
martial law, released the men arrested by his predecessor and spoke about political
changes to be carried out in a peaceful and legal manner. His apparent positive
responses to public demands were too late and the protests grew in size and number.
As government workers deserted their offices and joined the demonstrations, volunteer
groups of citizens, students and monks rose to maintain order and perform necessary
Up to this point, the revolution was without apparent leaders and organization.
While the students were in the forefront of demonstrations demanding democracy
and change, during the March demonstrations they called for the restoration of the
student union and the right of students to have their organization. On 28 August,
they formed the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) as a broad front
to coordinate student activity. Its leader was Paw U Tun, who used the alias of Min
Ko Naing. To confuse the authorities, other students also used the same alias. There
also was a second student organization, the All Burma Students' Democratic Associa
tion (ABSDA) led by Min Zeya. Its program generally was similar to that of the
ABFSU. But neither group sought to head a national political movement and be
perceived as seeking to lead the nation in the future24
Old and new leaders began to emerge from the crowd. U Nu and several leading
figures from the past formed a party. An important new voice and political leader
rose when Aung San Suu Kyi ? daughter of Aung San ? who was in Burma visiting
her sick mother, spoke out and called for moderation and the peaceful transfer of
power. She, Aung Gyi and former General Tin U joined together in September, to
call for the establishment of an interim government and they immediately became
a rallying centre for the opposition.

24Amnesty International, Myanmar (Burma) Prisoners of Conscience: A Chronicle of Developments

Since September 1988. AI Index: ASA 16/23/89. November 1989 (hereafter cited as AI Myanmar). Baw
U Tun, in this document, is the same person as Paw U Tun in Bertil Lintner, op. cit.

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126 Josef Silverstein

As the demonstrations continued and grew in size, rumours began to spread that
the jails had been opened and all criminals released, that government agents were
circulating amongst the people urging them to riot and loot and that the water was
being poisoned. But, if the intent of such rumours was to cause the people to turn
back to the government, they failed. With food in short supply, some looting took
place and some violence against suspected government provocateurs occurred; but,
generally, the people remained calm and peaceful. On 9 September, U Nu declared
that he had created an interim government and called for power to be returned to
him, as the last legally elected leader, and for elections to be held within one month.
His declaration and call attracted few followers.
Support for change grew and broadened. Airforce and navy personnel joined the
popular rallies. At the same time, rumours also began to circulate that the military
might carry out a coup, as the people watched the troops position themselves for
action. A turning point in the revolution occurred on 15 September, at a rally in
front of the Ministry of Defence There, individual soldiers and whole units began
to talk to emerging popular leaders about joining the demonstrators. At that point,
Aung Gyi addressed the crowd and called upon the people not to tamper with the
armed forces; his words seemed to have checked the movement and ended the chance
of a peaceful resolution of the revolt. Two days later, at a large demonstration before
the Ministry of Trade building, some of the soldiers on guard surrendered their
weapons voluntarily during discussions with the demonstrators.
At this point, the leaders of the army decided to act. On 18 September, Saw
Maung, the Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff, displaced the government of
Dr. Maung Maung and established a nineteen-member ? all military leaders ?
State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) which seized power "to halt the
deteriorating conditions all over the country and for the sake of the interests of the
people". It abrogated the constitution, disbanded the elected assemblies, separated
the military, police and civil servants from the BSPP and ruled by decree That night,
military units opened fire indiscriminately on unarmed civilians and, for the next two
days, used excessive force to bring the revolution to an end. In the course of its
repressions, as many as three thousand people are believed to have been killed or
injured while several thousand students and others, who previously supported the
revolution, left Rangoon for the border areas to carry on their struggle, this time with
arms and aid from the minorities.
Why did the civil war and the revolution remain separate? There is no definitive
answer. The NDF was aware of events in Rangoon and issued several statements
announcing its support for the revolution and calling upon the people to join it in
forming a truly democratic union, once popular rule was established. But militarily,
the people in Rangoon neither asked the NDF to launch an offensive nor increase
its pressure on the army; more importantly, if it had been asked it was in no position
to respond fully. Its strongest force, the Karens, was locked in battle, at that very
moment, with an NDF member, the Mons, over control of trade in the Three Pagoda
Pass area. This internal fight was only resolved on 24 August, well after the revolt
in Rangoon developed. There were reports that Brang Seng, the Kachin leader, called
for military action against the army to support the revolution, but there was no
response Only after the military coup, did the Burman students and Buddhist monks
seek direct help from the minorities in revolt.

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Civil War and Rebellion in Burma 127

The Aftermath: The Civil War and Revolution Since the Coup
Once it was clear that the military had suppressed the revolt, the minorities rose
up. The Karens launched an attack and recaptured Methawaw on 12 October ? the
army had seized it in 1984. The military responded in December with a heavy artillery
offensive and recaptured the river town on the 21st while suffering more than 1,200
casualties. The Kachins, too, attacked and their leaders said, "Previously, we did
not want to take advantage of the situation and give the army a pretext to stage a
coup.. . . Now, that has changed and we have launched attacks on government
positions all over the country."
In November, the NDF leaders met and formed the Democratic Alliance of Burma
(DAB).25 Composed of representatives of the minorities, students expatriots and
later, Buddhist monks, the new organization was truly a national coalition. Its
announced goals were, the overthrow of the military regime, establishment of a
democratic government, an end to the civil war and the restoration of peace, and the
creation of a genuinely federal union. The DAB called upon the nation to join it and
use all means possible to bring down the dictatorship in Rangoon.
The emergence of this new organization represented an important political step
by the minorities. Under the leadership of Bo Mya, it went beyond the NDF, both
in goals and tactics. The DAB did not replace the NDF; it continues to exist and
remains in control of its own territory and armed forces. Instead, the DAB was the
first step, since 1962, to create a coalition of national forces, attained once before,
under the leadership of Aung San. The DAB hoped to lead an all-parties coalition
in the restoration of democracy, peace and the writing of a new federal constitution.
On 25 May 1989 it was reported in Bangkok that the Thai General, Chaovalit,
said that General Saw Maung, the Burmese military ruler, was considering peace talks
with the DAB.26 However, within a few days, Saw Maung emphatically denied the
statement and said that the minorities in revolt either could surrender or die. At that
moment, the Burma army had recovered several Karen enclaves on the Moei River
and expected to clear the remainder; however, its campaign bogged down at Kamura
while it pursued attacks elsewhere; nine months of steady attacks on the Karens and
other minorities still had not cleared the border region or produced a clear-cut victory.
A major change took place in the civil war in March 1989 when the Kokang
Chinese, Was and other minorities in the ranks of the BCP revolted, seized the head
quarters and stores and drove the Burman leaders across the border into China. The
former rank and file of the BCP renounced their ties to communism and expressed
their opposition to the "narrow racial policies" of the old party and their dissatisfac
tion with the different standards of living between the party leaders and the rank
and file.
The once united rank and file divided along ethnic lines, with the Kokang Chinese
first and the Shans, Was and others following. The army moved quickly either to bring
the dissidents under its authority or to neutralize them. A military delegation, which
was reported to have included Aung Gyi, struck a deal with the Kokang Chinese: they

25Central Committee Democratic Alliance of Burma, Declaration of the Democratic Alliance of

Burma (mimeo), 20 November 1988.
16Bangkok Post, 25 and 26 May 1989.

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128 Josef Silverstein

would remain neutral in exchange for rice, which they desperately needed. The Was,
Shans and others, who once were united under the BCP, were wooed both by the
army and the NDF. As of November 1989, no decision had been reported; however,
if these ex-BCP forces unite with the NDF, they will increase the resistance forces by
approximately 15,000 well-armed and experienced troops. If they remain neutral or
join with the government, it will permit the army to withdraw a sizeable number of
troops it has in the area. The People's Republic of China (PRC) gave the BCP leaders
temporary asylum inside the border, on the China-side, and later, relocated them on
the Burma-side of the China-Kachin border area. The destruction of the BCP marks
its end as a political competitor and the civil war today is between two rivals, the
ethnic minorities united in the DAB and the military government in Rangoon.27
Inside of Burma, during this same period, Ne Win still appeared to be in charge
and acting indirectly through men believed to be personally loyal to him, whom he
placed in high office The massacres, carried out by Sein Lwin and Saw Maung, bore
out Ne Win's promise made when he resigned in 1988. Although denied by Saw
Maung, at a press conference on 5 July 1989, it is believed that Ne Win together
with the General Khin Nyunt, the head of the Directorate of Defence Services In
telligence and Ne Win's daughter, Sanda ? a Major in the army ? set policy which
Saw Maung's government carries out.28 Ne Win's appearance on 27 March 1989,
at the Armed Forces Day celebration hosted by Saw Maung, was interpreted as
confirmation that he still was in charge
Under the administration of Saw Maung, Burma made a number of deals which
allowed foreign private businesses to extract teak and fish in Burmese waters. For
these concessions, Burma is reported to have received large cash advances ? money
it desperately needed to keep going, but which it appears to have spent, instead, for
new arms to fight the NDF forces. On the political side, the leaders initially dropped
Socialist Republic from the official name of the country and later renamed the
nation, Myanmar Naing-Ngan (Union of Burma). To prove that things had changed,
it opened the country to foreign journalists and tourists, on a restricted basis and
then closed the country to all foreign reporters in July.29
Saw Maung said that the electoral process would take place as promised, however,
before elections could be held, the army had to establish law and order, secure smooth
transportation and communications, insure sufficient food, clothing and shelter for
the people.
To achieve law and order and start the electoral process, SLORC promulgated three
decrees, called laws.30 Under these rules, 234 parties formed and registered by the

21 Far Eastern Economic Review, 30 March and 1 June 1989.

28Ibid., October 1988, pp. 16-17. "State Law and Order Restoration Council Chairman General Saw
Maung's Statement", Working People's Daily (Rangoon), 6 July 1989.
29"The State LORC Law No. 15/89 of June 18, 1989", The Working People's Daily (Rangoon),
19 June 1989. The restrictions on foreign journalists travelling to Burma was announced on 20 July.
30Law 2/88 issued 18 September 1988 prohibited public gatherings of more than 5 persons and said
"no one is permitted to block roads or demonstrate en mass". Law 4/88, issued on 27 September allowed
parties to form and register; Law 8/88 issued 10 October 1988 declared "political parties ... must not
damage particular persons or organizations and that they were not allowed to issue any literature or make
speeches aimed at dividing the Defence Forces" and warned that "effective action would be taken against
any who violated the law".

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Civil War and Rebellion in Burma 129

deadline in February 1989. On 1 March, a draft of the new election law was pub
lished, which called for elections to be held in May 1990.31
From the outset, the military rulers kept a tight reign on the parties; arrests and
disappearance of prominent leaders and their followers increased as the months
passed. On 17 and 18 July 1989, SLORC promulgated two new Orders which gave
judicial power to certain military commanders and authorized them to hold summary
trials in order to enforce security and law and order and authorized penalties of no
less than three years and up to death for those convicted. By 30 September 1989,
SLORC reported that 1,376 persons had been arrested, while independent news
sources and international human rights groups reported that up to 6,000 may have
been arrested since the coup.32
In this environment, only a few parties emerged as potential candidates for future
leadership, for example, the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed originally
by Aung Gyi, former General Tin U and Aung San Suu Kyi. The latter was seen
as embodying the qualities of her father ? fearlessness, intelligence and straight
talking and attracted a large and devoted following. Crowds flocked to her rallies
as she defied the rules on holding meetings and attacking both Ne Win and his
successors. Although harrassed initially by local military units and by ugly personal
attacks, she ignored both the threats to her life and the personal verbal assaults. In
December 1988, she broke with Aung Gyi after he accused her of being surrounded
by Communist advisors and suggested that, as an inexperienced leader, she might be
influenced by them.
The chief rival to the NLD seemed to be the National Unity Party (NUP), the
successor to the BSPP. It remained strong in the countryside; and by occupying the
buildings of its predecessor and employing many of the same officials under the
leadership of U Chit Hlaing ? former Foreign Minister in the BSPP government ?
it is believed to be favoured by some of the military rulers, despite their protestations
of keeping their hands off politics. Behind these two is the Democracy Party (DP),
led by friends of U Nu, as a vehicle for the latter, if he decides to seek power in the
election. Finally, there is the United National Democratic Party (UNDP) of Aung
Gyi, which has yet to prove its popular base However, with the restrictions on the
leaders of the NLD, it appears that Aung Gyi may emerge as the military's favourite
in view of SLORC's adoption of his criticism of Aung San Suu Gyi and its use of
him in its meetings with one of the breakaway factions of the BCP. The remainder
of the registered parties are small or personal groups, based on ethnicity, religion,
location or personality and do not appear to be serious contenders; rather, they
probably will unite with the larger parties, once elections draw near. One possible
exception might have been the Democratic Party for a New Society (to be discussed
While all of the new parties are agreed on the goal of a democratic multiparty
Burma, an issue that initially divided some of the leading contenders was the question

31"Election Commission Notification No. 245 of March 22, 1989", announced that as of that date,
231 parties had been officially registered while 3 had been deregistered. In November 1989, the military
rulers announced that 27 May 1990 had to be fixed as the date of election.
32The extra-judicial powers of the army were established in Rule Number 1/89 and 2/89; for discus
sion of this and the arrests, see AI Myanmar, pp. 8-9.

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130 Josef Silverstein

of how to resolve the civil war and unite the nation. Aung San Suu Kyi stated publicly
that the question only can be resolved after democracy is restored and a civilian
government in its place She, and those who backed her, have said that to push the
issue before elections will antagonize the military and prevent the restoration of
democracy. She said that she saw no difficulty in arriving at a just solution, once
an elected government was in place
Aung Gyi argued differently; all groups in the nation he said in 1988, must par
ticipate in the initial elections and the writing of the constitution, if trust is to be
established and real peace and national unity are to be achieved. He did not address
the practical question of whether or not his ideas would antagonize the military.
Rather, he argued that the civil war prevented the nation from developing unity and
since the NDF stood for a peaceful resolution of the long struggle and had definite
ideas about the future political system, it must be included at the beginning or there
would be no resolution. In July 1989, he no longer mentioned that the minorities had
to participate in the elections or the writing of the constitution; now he said in a
published interview,
... the ethnic minorities should have independent autonomous states. Unless they
are free to exploit their natural resources they can't develop. For defence, they
should take care of themselves.33

Because the military holds power and can determine both who can be its successor
and the outcome of the civil war, its views are important and very clear. Since it
launched its offensive against the Karens in December 1988, Saw Maung has said
two things about ending the civil war. At his 14 December meeting with General
Chaovalit, he announced that the minorities could end their fighting, lay down their
weapons and participate in the emerging political process, knowing full well that such
terms were unacceptable As the war between the minorities and the military inten
sified during the succeeding months and General Chaovalit tried to mediate a halt
in the Burma civil war and to hold a meeting between the rivals, Saw Maung made
clear that he had no such intention and said emphatically that "we will continue to
fight them until they are eliminated".34
The bridge between the civil war and the revolution is the students. They, after
all, set the revolt in motion and it was their leaders who mobilized and directed the
protests. It was estimated that nearly 10,000 took refuge amongst the minorities on
the border and across in Thailand. As the Karen area was closest to Rangoon and
the border, most went there
The immediate goal of the students was to obtain weapons and training so that
they could return to Rangoon and resume the struggle. But they quickly learned that
the minorities were short of weapons and, as jungle fighters, had no real experience
and knowledge to give to them about urban guerrilla warfare. Some of the students
returned home disappointed. But most remained in the border areas, to take what
military training their hosts offered and participate in the battles against government
forces both as fighters and porters. In some camps, differences arose between the
students and their hosts over matters of training, goals and personal relations. But

^Asiaweek, 21 July 1989.

34See Saw Maung's news conference, 5 July 1989, Working People's Daily, 6 July 1989.

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these largely were resolved by year's end as some students returned home while the
remainder began to accept the realities and hardships of the situation.
The minorities shared what food, clothing and lodging they had; but it quickly
became apparent to the new arrivals that their hosts were not rich and did not have
a lot to share Because of the harsh conditions of living in the jungle in the cold
season, many of the students became ill, with malaria as the most serious sickness.
Without enough medication, nets, blankets and other needs, the students learned to
cope and make do with what was available
In the camps, the students organized local groups under the control of the All
Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSDF). Its primary role was to represent the
students to the outside world and, at the same time, act as a communication link
and unifying force between the students scattered along the border. It became a foun
ding member of the DAB. Thus, it was the first Burman group to unite with the
minorities and helped to define and carry out the policies of the new organization.
By mid-1989, it was estimated that between five and six thousand students were
still on the border ? healthier, better organized and as determined as ever to bring
about political change in their country.35 An unknown number had been trained and
either integrated into the army of the minority with whom they lived or had formed
their own formations; in either case they were fighting alongside their hosts. Other
students organized forays into both near and distant villages to organize the people
both for resistance and to help keep alive the fight against the army.
Those students who went to Thailand initially, found sympathy and asylum but
were not allowed to call themselves refugees because Thailand did not want to create
a problem with them similar to the one it had with the Cambodians who took refuge
earlier. However, with no papers or standing the Burma students were easily victimized
and uncertain both about their safety and their future In December 1988, General
Chaovalit made an agreement with General Saw Maung to help return any students
in Thailand who wished to go home Although the Thais denied it, pressure was
placed upon Burmese students in Thailand, either to go home voluntarily or be
pushed across the border. Both the United States and Amnesty International raised
the question in January about the disappearance of students who had returned. The
Burmese denied the charges and denounced them as meddling in the internal affairs
of Burma.
Those students who did not leave their homes following the coup, sought to con
tinue their political activity within the new framework created by the military rulers.
Under the new "laws" the ABFSU leaders organized and registered a student-led
political party, the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS) with Moe Thi Zun,
as Chairman and Moe Hein, as General Secretary. The party's objectives were to
work for genuine democracy and to help draw up a new, strong constitution which
would guarantee the realization of that goal.
It should be remembered that during the revolution, the students had expressed
no political ambitions. Their goals were democracy, freedom and peace so that they
could resume their studies and return to normal lives. There is no evidence that the

35Figures given to the author by student leaders in July 1989, during his visit to the border camps.

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132 Josef Silverstein

Student goals changed and it was believed that the leaders of the DPNS were not
seeking power but, instead, were using their organizing skills to unite their followers
so that when the election process really began they would unite their party with the
In April 1989, the military accused Moe Thi Zun of being recruited by the Com
munists ? a charge he denied. To avoid arrest, he went underground; on 17 July,
Moe Hein was reported to have been arrested and remains under detention. Thus,
the leading student party, and probably the second strongest opposition party in the
nation, became leaderless and under military scrutiny.
Amongst the students on the border, those whom the author interviewed, there
was a division about who amongst the emerging politicians they might support. While
most favoured Aung San Suu Kyi, some feared that if she won power she would share
it with the military and the soldiers would displace her and restore their dictatorship
if she did not do as they said. Most said that they would not support Aung Gyi
because they did not trust him; it was he, they said, who stopped individual soldiers
and military units from joining the people when they were on the verge of victory
in September. The students also said that the much praised letters Aung Gyi wrote
were directed against former fellow officers and not Ne Win, who, they believed, was
responsible for Burma's decline and the people's suffering.
With student organizations both on the border of Burma and inside the country
and with students willing to risk danger to reach each other and the people between
them, they are a genuine bridge between the civil war and the revolution. Probably
the most important thing those living on the border have learned and can communicate
is the truth about the minorities and the reasons for their war. All their lives the
students have heard the government's propaganda about the minorities and their un
willingness to live peacefully under Rangoon's rule Now, having lived amongst the
minorities and having shared their meager possessions, the students know what the
real situation is. Their witness may do more to unite the peoples of Burma than any
other factor.
For now, the revolution in Burma is under control and the military rulers continue
to rule by decree while holding the nation captive under martial law. But all is not
well inside of Burma. Students and monks demonstrated in March, both in Rangoon
and Mandalay, in memory of the riots and the death of their comrades a year earlier;
the army, fearing public demonstrations against its units, held its Armed Forces Day
parade to a minimum and kept the public at a distance. Citizens used the water
throwing festival in May to satirize government personalities and were arrested. A
memorial service to commemorate students killed a year earlier, held on 21 June, was
met with force and one student was killed. Anticipating ever-larger demonstrations
as each anniversary of events associated with the revolution approached, General Saw
Maung warned the nation on 5 July, in a long rambling radio address, that such
actions would no longer be tolerated and prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from in
dependently commemorating the anniversary of her father's 1947 assassination; on
the 20th she was placed under house arrest.
Despite daily slogans in the government-controlled press to love the army and
follow its direction, despite the use of terror and arrest, the people continue to find
ways to express their outrage and contempt and they show no signs of forgetting the
revolution and its suppression.

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Civil War and Rebellion in Burma 133

The International Response to the Revolution and Civil War

The international community was divided on how to react to the civil war and the
revolution. As early as April 1988, the Japanese government told the Burmese Deputy
Prime Minister that unless changes were made in the economy, it might have to
rethink its aid program. As tensions grew inside of Burma and the revolt unfolded,
the United States, West Germany and Japan cut off aid while others joined in the
call for peaceful resolution of the situation; all decried the army's violation of human
rights. Only India, among Burma's immediate neighbours, spoke out strongly against
the suppression of the people.
The importance of cutting off aid and not recognizing the government of Saw
Maung lay in the fact that Burma had almost no foreign exchange reserves, exported
very little during 1988, had an international debt of US$4 billion with a debt service
ratio estimated to be 90 per cent. Thus, it was dependent on the world community
for aid and loans after being declared a "least developed nation" by the UN in 1987.
Following the Saw Maung coup, West Germany informed the Burmese it would not
reduce its portion of the debt so long as civilian human rights violations continued.
The U.S., a small donor in comparison with Japan and West Germany, cut off all
aid. Since about half went for narcotics suppression, it meant that Burma's anti
narcotics program was halted.
But while these nations used economic and political means to try to get the
military to end its dictatorship and allow the restoration of democracy, there were
other nations which did not. Thailand sent mixed signals. The Thai Prime Minister
said that there would be no recognition of the Burma government until after election
in that country; however, as noted earlier, General Chaovalit conveyed a different
message when he led a delegation to Rangoon on 14 December 1988 and entered
into an agreement to help repatriate Burmese students while Burma granted impor
tant timber and fishing concession to Thailand as the first step toward opening
Burma's economy to foreign investment and exploitation.
In defiance of press and public criticism, Thai businesses involved in timber and
fishing in Burma went forward, paid cash advances and looked to the Burma govern
ment to open the timbering areas so that felling and transport of logs could take
place safely and efficiently. The Burma army incursions into Thailand provoked
an outcry in the Thai press and parliament and a demand for compensation. The
Burmese were quick to agree to pay in order to hold the support of their new-found
The Thais were not alone in moving toward normalizing relations with Burma. On
17 February 1989, Japan announced that it would recognize the Rangoon dictator
ship and resume aid. It argued that China, Korea and others had done so and said
it could be more effective in influencing Burma from within; it said nothing about
local repressive conditions and what it expected to do to help the people restore
democracy and get the army to end human rights violations.
The U.S. had little leverage left after cutting off aid. However, in March 1989, it
sought to get the UN Human Rights Commission, meeting in Geneva, to pass a
strong resolution demanding an accounting of violations and steps taken to end them,
but its efforts were blocked by Japan's refusal to support the resolution. A month
later, the U.S. suspended Burma from the General System of Preferences, but since
the Burmese export very little to the U.S., this too, will prove ineffective.

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134 Josef Silverstein

The struggle for democracy, the end of the civil war, national unity and economic
improvement are all linked together. They cannot be achieved without outside help.
Burma is on the brink of bankruptcy and its government knows that if the inter
national community withholds financial and military aid or blocks trade, it cannot
If the U.S., West Germany and the free states of Southeast Asia are willing to work
together to help the people of Burma achieve a government of their choice ? as
ASEAN has worked to help the Cambodian people in their political struggle ? they
may be able to convince Japan, Korea and others to halt their support for the military
dictatorship in Rangoon and join in a common effort for peace. It may not be too
difficult to achieve unity in the world community for this end, once these nations,
either with investments in Burma now, or those who may be interested in making
them in the future, realize that their interests and those of the peoples of Burma are
bound together.

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