In Myanmar, It's 1988 All Over Again

If a Buddhist monk falls in the jungle and nobody but the junta is there, does he make a sound? Or, more to the point, how many dead monks does it take to change a junta?

Trust me, I’m not being glib or somehow making light of what has been taking place in Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the ruling military junta) over the past weeks. I had the opportunity to reside in and around Burma for a few years during the last period of major unrest. It was an exciting, challenging and optimistic time, and ultimately ended in thousands of deaths, crushed ambitions and international indifference.

I made many good friends in Rangoon (changed to Yangon in 1989, again by the powers that be) and have watched the military junta consolidate control and define the words corruption, oppression and despotism over the past 17 years. So I am dead serious in wondering how many monks the regime thinks it can dispose of before the gentle people of Burma will decide that, Buddhism or no, it’s time to get seriously aggressive and say goodbye to the military leaders who have spent the past couple of decades running the country into the ground.

A brief synopsis of Burmese history might be in order... and since the motto here at the Peoples Weekly Brief is “Keep it Simple Stupid” (not to be confused with our patented logo “What a Load of Crap” ™), we’ll endeavor to cover the key bits in a paragraph or two:

Early History (which as any good student knows, means anything prior to, I dunno? 1960?)… Dynasties, warfare, peaceful rulers, trade with China and India… eventual wars with the British who coveted the natural resources and ports (and what the hell, they were right next door in India anyway) and eventually British colonial rule. Because the PWB is also an educational site, please make a note to one day read George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Seriously.

Moving on, we come to the period of time after the stuff mentioned above (known as the Post-Other-Stuffazoid Era)… WWII Japanese rumblings, internal cooperation with Japanese by dissatisfied Burmese student leaders and early government authorities, communist organizing involving Aung San Suu Kyi’s daddy and others head-faked into believing communism is a really clever idea, takeover by the Japanese and placement of caretaker Burmese government, return of the British and here come the Americans to assist, removal of the Japanese in July 1945, British rule leading to independence in 1948, chaos as various factions fight for supremacy, pseudo democracy featuring more chaos, government eventually collapses and Army Chief General Ne Win takes over to restore order in 1962. At least, that’s what he told folks.

And finally, our lesson brings us to the period of 1962 to the present, which we call, “Hey, you, think the previous 11,000 years here sucked?” As it turned out, Ne Win decided to build a new Socialist Order in Burma. It went like this:

Step One: Suppress any political opposition

Step Two: Reward the military leaders with booty from the land and sea

Step Three: Kiss the collective Chinese tush... constantly and with great vigor

Step Four: Remind the gentle Burmese Buddhist citizens that, while life may indeed be crappy (in this life), if they just shut up and suffer politely, by all means the next life will bring its own rewards.

And so Ne Win successfully kept Burma under his boot till 1988 when he stepped aside in the middle of a severe bout of economic and political instability. Students saw an opportunity to protest, the military saw an opportunity to kill protesters and after a few thousand deaths, the military took over the country from Ne Win’s ruling party. The military formed the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) and immediately got busy building the death star.

After declaring martial law, the SLORC had the crazy idea of holding elections in 1990. Oddly, the general population voted for democracy and freedom, rather than fall for the SLORC’s campaign slogan, “Your next life is bound to be better”.

Unfortunately, the military reacted poorly when they discovered that the opposition party, The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi and others, won the vast majority of seats in the newly created Peoples Assembly. This really cheesed off the SLORC, which called the elections silly and not at all interesting, and went back to the business of being a repressive military junta up until the present day.

Oh. I forgot to mention that about 10 years ago, the SLORC met and decided it was high time to improve their image. As a result, they renamed the ruling organization The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which sounds far less evil and threatening. For their excellent work at suppressing democracy and raping and pillaging the country’s natural resources, the SPDC managed to get Burma admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in mid 1997. Hurrah.

And lest I forget, just last year the military leadership decided to move the capital from Rangoon (nee Yangon) to somewhere near the old city of Pyinmana. They named the new capital city Naypyidaw, which means "No westerners allowed and that means you buster."

So that gets us up to speed with the history. The burst of interest that we’ve seen over the past week or two in Burma is due to a series of protests that began quietly in April of this year in response to out-of-control consumer prices. One could argue that there is also some pent-up frustration over having lived under the military boot for so long, but that’s just speculation.

What sparked the most interest in these protests is the role of the monks in standing front and center, and importantly, seeming to turn against the military by withdrawing spiritual services from them. The military at first appeared to be tolerating the growing protests. From some circles, those not particularly familiar with the long cycles of oppression, followed by protest, violence and more oppression, there were thoughts that perhaps we would be witnessing a revolution and the overthrow of the SPDC. Right. I don’t want to sound negative, but good luck with that.

Sure enough, at the end of September, the military did what they do best: kill protesters and suppress the people. Only this time, it appears that they were willing to do away with monks as well as the pesky pro-democracy protesters. The SPDC read the tea leaves from the international community and decided that, other than some handwringing from the United Nations and some vocal protest from the U.S. administration, they could pretty much get away with business as usual. They may not be book smart, but those boys in the SPDC know how to read the international community.

And so, it’s 1988 all over again. The SPDC claims perhaps 10 people were killed. Sources outside the military say that the death toll, including monks, is much higher. A former Burmese military intelligence officer who defected claims that thousands died and groups of monks were massacred. Neither the government’s nor the opposition’s claims have been proven. But if the truth lies somewhere in the middle, that middle ground is fairly littered with bodies.

Everyone got their knickers in a knot for a brief moment. Lots and lots of excitement that the monks, students and pro-democracy supporters might be able to finally force change in a country that has been screwed for a very long time. The U.N., the European Union, Australia and others condemned the military’s violent smackdown on the protesters. Additional sanctions have been considered and efforts have been made through ASEAN to influence Burma’s actions.

At the end of the day, the only nation that the SPDC cares about is China. So in order for the situation to improve in Burma and for the SPDC to begin an actual dialogue with pro-democracy elements, the international community needs to convince China to exert serious influence on its neighbor. Now I don’t know the Burmese word for "hosed," but I’ll betcha’ it applies in this instance.

China did offer up a suggestion to Burmese leaders that they "… should exercise restraint and properly handle the current issue so as to ensure the situation there does not escalate and get complicated." However, China, as well as Russia and South Africa (huh?) refused to go along with a U.N. resolution condemning the Burmese government for its use of violence against the monks and protesters. Yeah, I can see where that would be a tough call.

Okay, bad things happen all over. Look at Darfur. How ugly is that and how many bodies need to pile up before it forces action from the international community. Or how about the slow extermination of anti-Syrian politicians and dignitaries in the Lebanon. Although that’ll sort itself out pretty soon since there won’t be any left to whack. But these and other areas facing various hardships tend to stay on the radar screen.

Unfortunately, Burma rarely garners any press or serious attention. It pops up like the 17 year locust. Every couple of decades the people gain enough courage and suffer enough to make a brief attempt at something better. Then, it's back underground. Another cycle ending in thousands of deaths, crushed ambitions and international indifference. Déjà vu all over again.

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Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.