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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Burma/Myanmar: a country blessed by Gods and cursed for men

Guy Lubeigt

Texte intégral

1December 2007

2The Union of Burma, which encompasses hundreds of ethnic minorities, is both the sole Indochinese country of Indochina and the largest one measuring 578,000 km². It is not only a geographical link between the East and the Far East, but it is also referred to as the “Land of Gold” by the older generation as it conceals a wealth of natural resources from precious stones and jade to teak and non-ferrous metals. In addition, Burma harbours the potential to generate a substantial amount of hydro-energy and has a large reserve of hydrocarbons and fertile lands. Moreover, with 2,800 km of coastline along the Indian Ocean and its oil route, Burma boasts an exceptional position strategically, which is of interest to China.

3After having visited Burma several years ago, a prominent member of our Asia Network commented that whilst “religion is the opium of the people, Burmese Buddhism is the pipe to smoke it”. Surprising as it may seem, this statement although intended as a joke does bear some elements of truth. Respect for the basic concepts of Buddhist philosophy (Dâna, donation; Sîla, virtue; Bhâvanâ, meditation) remains ingrained in the lives of 70% of the Burmese population, who claim to have Buddhist roots. Their daily lives are marked by the practice of virtues such as modesty, austerity and frugality. There is a sense of calm in Burma; people live without being excessive and feel protected by the pagodas and monasteries lining the countryside.

  • 1 Pongyi refers to a monk of the Theravada School. It must not be confused with the Bonze, who is a (...)

4A few days after the National Convention had been held, convened by the junta to draw up a Constitution intended to legitimise and extend its power in office, a procession of monks (pongyis1) clad in red-orange robes, took to the streets of Burma’s major cities. On 24th September, thousands of monks chanting the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s famous words on the subject of love and universal peace, left the Shwedagon Pagoda, to march peacefully in the heart of Rangoon. The Canon permitted the monks to demonstrate; firstly to demand an apology from the army for having used violence against monks during a peaceful demonstration in central Pakokku and secondly, to demand that the sky-high prices of oil fuel and food, imposed since 15th August, be scrapped.

5Three days later, thanks to the attention of the international media, people witnessed the Burmese Armed Forces shooting at protesting monks and civilians who had joined them and killing a Japanese photographer in the process. On 28th September, in the dark of the night, disbelief turned to terror as soldiers ransacked and plundered a number of Rangoon monasteries, beating their occupants and kidnapping them. This was the first time that the Burmese Armed Forces and police had targeted the monks directly.

6Burma has already had previous experience of demonstrations; in 1988, both students and civilians protested against an inept military dictatorship. The dictator, General Ne Win, had been in power since 2nd March 1962 and strived for a “Burmese path towards socialism”. The protest, however, soon became a blood bath; the official number of deaths was given as 502, but estimates suggest that the death toll was nearer the 3,000 mark. This technique of restoring order was replicated in China eight months later in response to the protests at Tiananmen. Having no ideological origin and attaching itself to Buddhism, the new junta was bound by duty to seek the moral authority it lacked. This role was played by the “Council of the Great Masters of the State” (State Sangha Maha Nayaka), formed in 1980 and comprising 47 monks subservient to the military. The State Sangha Maha Nayaka, a gerontocratic organisation led by old and bedridden monks, preached obedience to the Burmese supporters. Through both their sermons and their silence, they have contributed in maintaining the grip of the dictatorship that holds Burma, having helped to keep military leaders in power three times already (August 1988, 1990 and 2007). In recognition of their faithful service, the junta awards them each year with dozens of prestigious honorary titles. The most widely known, Bhaddanta, is awarded to all the monks who closely support the military regime. As part of this, the monks receive a monthly allowance in addition to other payments. The Burmese people mockingly nickname these monks Bhaddanta Toyota or Bhaddanta Toshiba. The Bhaddanta receive their titles from generals during endless ceremonies broadcasted on television (TV-pagodas). This provokes the Burmese audience to comment on the colours of the uniforms and monastic robes, saying that “in our country the television has only two colours, green and orange.”

7The nineteen years following the coup d’état on 18th September 1988 were marked by the incompetence of the military that was responsible public affairs, the economic and financial turmoil, an increase in the amount of corruption and a series of decisions that led the country to the brink of totalitarianism. By increasing the number of soldiers to 400,000, as well as the number of police and secret service personnel and refusing to acknowledge the “open and fair” election results that the dictatorship had itself organised in May 1990, the military dictatorship had made it difficult for onlookers to empathise with them. Furthermore, the creation of a National Convention consisting of 1,075 members appointed to prevent the meeting of 588 elected ministers (492 from the National League for Democracy founded by Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi), together with the creation of the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) whose 23 million members were entrusted with supporting all activities of the regime (for example, organising support demonstrations), meant that Burma had become a tightly controlled country. A back-up paramilitary organisation, the Swan arr shin, meaning “all powerful”, was even put in place. These bullies were the reincarnation of a royal institution brought back into modern times; that of “ringed cheeks” (named after the ring tattooed onto their cheeks). In the past, the recruits of this organisation were criminals in charge of executions, torture or keeping the king’s prisoners in check. For the past two years, the Swann arr shin has been responsible for physically attacking individuals in favour of democracy.

8From 1989, the junta began to create “new towns” in all Burmese provinces, built on the outskirts of old cities. These towns have enabled the junta to reduce the overpopulation of areas within the old cities and divert the oppositions’ resources from reaching them. Many public infrastructures such as bridges, railways, roads, canals and dams were constructed near the new towns and in order for these to be built the junta used forced labour. In the provinces, military leaders would ask village chiefs to nominate volunteers who would then provide the required manpower for three days to a month, to work at various construction sites. In the countryside, whenever military leaders decided that they wanted land, the upheaval of whole villages and the relocation of their inhabitants, was not uncommon. In the mountains, however, especially in the state of Karen, the non-Burmese populations did not always have the chance to be “relocated”, especially those who lived close to forests full of profitable teak and those near to the Salween river basin whose hydroelectric energy potential was coveted by the Chinese to feed the Yunnan industries. The 150,000 people, who once lived in the state of Karen, testify that their villages were burnt down, forcing them to seek shelter either in the jungle or to find refuge at the Thai border.

9Yet, these revelations are not surprising. The history of Indochina shows that the Burmese, Thai and Khmer sovereigns all committed exactly the same acts of greed. After the capture of Syriam in the 17th century, thousands of Portuguese people were deported to villages in central Burma where their descendants, Christians with blue eyes, still live. The Khmers Rouges, on the other hand, deported city dwellers to make them work in the countryside. In Burma, in 1988, the junta defeated its enemies and conquered what was once their territory. This “victory” has provided the Burmese military with an excuse to call itself the real owner of Burmese soil and leader of its inhabitants, using it as justification for exploiting whoever and whatever according to its needs. Consequently, according to the junta, “the state is the army”, and vice versa. Throughout the Union, the monopolising of lands by the military is a product of this concept.

10Since 1988, the army has been able to rent or sell plots of land to anyone, but they prioritise military leaders, civilians or monks who serve the regime. For nearly two decades, the military government has widely favoured the monks by selling them land where they can construct monasteries and other religious buildings. The junta believed that it had acquired the recognition of monks who oversaw the moral order. Recent events have shown that this was not always the case as the military now seeks its revenge. To punish alleged traitors, the junta sometimes tries to recover the plots of land sold by its intermediaries, claiming that those who had sold the plots did not have the right to do so. In this way, the monasteries could be seized without any consideration for the monks that once occupied them. What the monks lost, soon became the gain of the military regime’s supporters.

11None of the members of the “Council of Grand Masters” have participated in the protests organised by the “Alliance of all monks in Burma”. The Alliance of all monks in Burma is a clandestine organisation founded by a young 29-year-old monk, named U Gambiya, who was the victim of numerous police raids. Having managed to successfully escape, he was then arrested on 4th November. Accused of treason, Gambiya faces the death penalty. The junta’s “victory”, however, is in fact a Pyrrhic one. There is a divide within the Sangha (the community of monks) between young monks hoping for democracy and old monks of the regime (the government’s monks). The Council of the Grand Masters, which did nothing to help the people, nor the young monks, has finally lost its moral authority. For a Buddhist, to kill a monk is the worst of all sins. Consequently, the military regime in Burma cannot pride itself anymore on being based on a Buddhist ideology, for it has purposely attacked the most important concepts of Buddhism.

12To have seen an elderly monk amongst the protesting demonstrators would have been a rare sight as the majority of monks were mainly young or novice. The protests reflected a society where 70% of the population is under 35 years of age. This youthful majority holds no power over the leaders of Burma who are a small and aged minority. General Than Shwe, Chairman of the junta, is 74 years old and his close collaborators are of a similar age. Looking back, it was ironic that young people had founded the Union of Burm (Aung San was 32 years old when he negotiated the independence of Burma with the British). Nowadays, it would be unthinkable for a young person to adopt even the most minor political responsibility or to become a military leader. Conversely, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi (62 years old), who is still under house arrest, has united the Burmese youth in her cause for liberating Burma. Before long, the country will have to contend with the problem of who and what will succeed this unfavourable regime.

13Confronted with this, “the Generals will not be able to survive for much longer”, according to Lee Kwan Yew, last 10th October. “These Generals are rather foolish. How can they manage the economy so badly and let the country get into this state when it has so many natural resources to offer?” The families of military elites are perfectly aware of the decline of the regime. They have already safeguarded their vast amounts of wealth in offshore accounts, having accumulated it through corruption. These families have the means to travel, can afford the best hospital care abroad and send their children to study anywhere in the world. The son of a wealthy Burmese opportunist recently hit the headlines of a Singapore tabloid following contemptuous statements he had made about his country. One can imagine that the generals educate their children abroad to prepare them for their succession. However, in what state will the generals leave the country?

14In the meantime, criticism of and demands for freedom do not seem to affect the junta at all. The junta receive unfailing support from the Chinese government, both as Burma’s leading business partner and leading arms supplier. China, in return, wants to get its hands on all the natural resources that it needs to open up Yunnan and access the shores of the Gulf of Bengal, to guarantee regular fuel provisions. Surpassing India, Petrochina has already signed contracts to construct gas and oil pipelines that will transport petroleum products from Arakan to Yunnan in China. To achieve this, China will do everything in its power to maintain the stability of the Union. Its influence is fundamental in supporting all the changes that the junta have made.

15International pressure and the threat of boycotting the 2008 Olympic Games pushed Beijing to encourage Naypyidaw, the capital of Burma, to make certain gestures to help accelerate the democratisation process. In order to avoid criticism from the international community, the Chinese have also pushed the junta to welcome Mr. Gambari, a special envoy from the United Nations, to allow him to meet Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and to appoint a “Liaison Minister” as a binding process for negotiation. This visit was of Mr. Pinheiro, sent by the Commission of the United Nations for Human Rights followed by that. During his visit, Mr. Pinheiro was able to meet certain political opponents in the Insein prison. Unsurprisingly, the President-General was not present on either of the two visits. On the other hand, the Chinese Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Wang Yi, who happened to be in Burma at the same time, was able to meet the Senior General and all the members of the junta. Concerning human rights, no serious progress has been made to date; Mrs. Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. It appears that the junta, which do not want to negotiate, and the Chinese, who are prioritising their Olympic Games, are trying to manipulate the international community to buy time. The Chinese have no interest in precipitating the fall of such an accommodating neighbour because under a more democratic leadership, the Chinese would not gain access so easily to the resources it needs.

16As for the future of Burma, there are two possible outcomes. In the first case, one fears that the hard-line generals would not shy away from the prospect of a civil war amongst the Burmese people even though such a conflict could lead to the collapse of the Union. One wonders in this context whether the generals are in the process of preparing for this by aggravating tensions in society. As for the second scenario, one can imagine that certain military leaders, wary of the pressures weighing on their country, will open up to the external world, and unleash the opportunity for negotiations to take place between democratic supporters of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and themselves. Ideally, the conflict between the military and democrats could end in a political coalition whereby the power is shared and the nation reconciled. Nevertheless, it is clear that it will take more than one generation to save a country that is blessed by the Gods and cursed by men, whose internal confines prevent it from making progress and from escaping from half a century of dictatorship.


1 Pongyi refers to a monk of the Theravada School. It must not be confused with the Bonze, who is a monk belonging to the Japanese Buddhist sect, Zen, affiliated with the Mahayana School (Big Vehicle). The Pongyi practises celibacy while the Bonze generally marry.

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