Historical Background


Constitutional Period (1947-62)

On January 4, 1948, Burma gained its independence from the British who, in the nineteenth century, had fought three wars against the Burman Empire and finally conquered it in 1886. On the eve of the Second World War, the Japanese secretly promised to help Burma recover its freedom by training 30 Burmese youths led by Aung San who then formed the nucleus of a national army. During the war, the Japanese drove the British out of Burma and governed the country directly under military rule until August 1, 1943, when it was granted independence under its protection.

The Burmese army, on March 27, 1945, revolted against the Japanese and joined the Allies. Also during the war period, the leaders of the new Burmese army, together with an underground civilian group, formed a broad anti-Japanese coalition, "the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League" (AFPFL). The AFPFL and the army were led by General Aung San. On July 19, 1947, General Aung San and some of his colleagues were assassinated while the constituent assembly that was writing a new constitution was in recess. U Nu, a civilian, and close colleague of Aung San, was able to lead Burma to gain its independence on January 4, 1948. A parliamentary federal union system was introduced as the basis of the system of government.

Independence did not bring peace and progress to Burma. Within three months of independence, the Communists revolted, taking two army battalions with them. In January 1949, following growing hostility between the Karens and Burmans, the Karens also revolted. Several other ethnic and political groups also took up arms against the state. The multiple insurgencies nearly caused the Union of Burma to collapse. Prime Minister U Nu managed to keep his government in power. His government gradually recovered control of the people and territories, though it was unable to effect peace.

During this tumultuous period democracy took root and began to grow. However in 1958 unity among the leaders of the ruling AFPFL dissolved. Prime Minister U Nu proposed that the parliament decide which group should govern the country. U Nu won by such a small margin that within a few months he resigned and recommended that General Ne Win the head of the army replace him and conduct new elections.

General Ne Win’s caretaker government, comprising senior military officers, was short-lived, lasting only 16 months. When the promised elections were held, an U Nu-led faction won. After he resumed leadership U Nu called a meeting for February 1962 where he planned to discuss with all ethnic leaders a way to find a solution to their grievances through peaceful and frank discussions. However before U Nu could announce his own recommendations for peace the military led by General Ne Win seized power on March 2, 1962. General Ne Win established a Revolutionary Council comprised of 17 senior officers, effectively ending the constitutional period.

Military Rule (1962-74)

The Revolutionary Council established a military dictatorship replacing the parliamentary federal system enshrined in the constitution. In July 1962 the Revolutionary Council created its own party, the "Burma Socialist Program Party" (BSPP) after having failed to win the backing of the established political parties. The Revolutionary Council published its first ideological statement entitled, "The Burmese Way to Socialism" at the end of April 1962. A year later it moved to a policy of rapid nationalization and assumed direct control of the economy. In 1971 the BSPP transformed itself into a civilian government, though it retained the same military rulers many of whom had retired from the armed forces. In 1974 a new constitution was adopted with additional centralized powers and further entrenched BSPP’s position as the only legal political party in the country.

Military Rule (1974-1988)

The second constitution of independent Burma differed markedly from its predecessor. The highest level of government was the Pyithu Hluttaw or People’s Assembly, a single chamber legislature. Under the new laws U Ne Win as he was then called was selected as President of the country and head of the BSPP. During this period of military rule the government faced popular unrest with workers staging violent strikes in 1974 and 1975. Students also protested throughout this period with the most serious protest in 1974. It resulted from a struggle between the students and the government over the proper burial of the remains of U Thant, the third Secretary General of the United Nations. Civil wars continued with the military launching regular campaigns against the forces of the ethnic nationalities and the Burma Communist Party (BCP). Freedom of association, press, and assembly were severely repressed under the one-party government. In 1981 Ne Win abdicated the presidency but continued to head the BSPP.

In 1987 Ne Win suddenly began criticizing government reporting and management and called for economic reforms. A few weeks later, the government without warning, demonetized three currency bank-notes and offered no reimbursement. Nearly 70 percent of the currency in circulation became worthless.

In March 1988 students and local people were involved in a fracas at a tea shop and a major brawl ensued. The intervention of riot police led to the death of a student from the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT). RIT students began protesting daily. The protest spread to other universities. After twelve days of violent clashes with police that caused many deaths, the government closed the universities and promised to investigate the student deaths. When the students returned to the universities in June they demanded an account of the still-missing students and called for the arrest of those responsible for student deaths and injuries. Again the police and military responded to the student protests with force, killing at least 20 students and arresting hundreds of others. And once again the universities were closed. The wave of social unrest spread. The resistance movement became stronger as the people called for political change. The military declared martial law.

On July 23, 1988, the BSPP appointed reviled General Sein Lwin as the new party head and later president. A general strike took place on August 8, 1988 and in response to it the police and army attacked the demonstrators, killing an unknown number estimated to be thousands.

On August 12, 1988, General Sein Lwin resigned and was replaced by a civilian lawyer Dr. Maung Maung. During this period the jails were opened and thousands of criminals released causing fear as crime rose. Rumors were also spread by government agents that the water supply was poisoned and that other heinous acts were being committed.

Peaceful student-led demonstrations were snuffed out on September 18, 1988, as the military staged a bloody coup and established a new dictatorship under martial law, called the "State Law and Order Restoration Council" (SLORC). It brutally put down the popular movement resulting in thousands of deaths and arrests. Many students left the cities and their homes and fled to border areas. The SLORC suspended the 1974 constitution.

SLORC’s Military Rule (1988-1997)

On September 23, 1988, having established himself as Burma’s leader General Saw Maung head of the SLORC assured the public that the sole aim of his military intervention was to restore law and order, improve the economic condition of the people, and organize multiparty elections as soon as possible. He insisted that it was not his intention to "cling to State power for long."

Within months parties began to register with the advent of a new election law. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the national hero General Aung San quickly emerged as the leading opposition party. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi traveled widely and attracted large crowds, despite the SLORC decrees that public gatherings be limited to four persons. As she gained an ever wider following the military tried to discredit her for not having "pure" motives, being the wife of a foreigner, by implication therefore a traitor. SLORC announced that she was being manipulated by Communists in her party and that she considered herself above the law when she called meetings in violation of the SLORC decree against public gatherings. Indeed, in July 1989, SLORC placed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and disqualified her from participating in the elections. In spite of these tactics the NLD achieved a stunning victory in the elections held on May 27, 1990, winning 392 of the 485 seats contested. The SLORC backed National Unity Party (NUP) won 10 seats.

Having been rejected at the elections SLORC began systematically to eliminate its opposition. It refused to allow the Pyithu Hluttaw (People’s Assembly) to convene, claiming that the actual purpose of the election had been to form a constituent assembly. On July 27, 1990, SLORC promulgated Declaration 1/90 confirming this and it also said among other things that "[the SLORC] is not an organization that observes any constitution; it is an organization that is governing the nation under Martial Law." Following this announcement SLORC began to arrest and intimidate NLD members as well as members of other political parties.

Meanwhile SLORC continued waging war against the ethnic nationalities. Having won Thailand’s support by granting timber and fishing concessions in the border area and the along the Tenasserim coast, SLORC was able to mount a major campaign against the Karens and Mons with new weapons purchased from Singapore, China, and Pakistan. The SLORC even crossed the river frontier and launched attacks from Thai territory. During the offensive, the army forced innocent villagers to serve as porters in the war zones and killed many who collapsed from exhaustion or injury.

In 1989 the army achieved an unplanned victory of sorts in the north, along the Burma-China border. A minority group turned against the Burma Communist Party (BCP), driving its leaders across the border and declaring themselves free and independent of their former BCP leaders. The SLORC quickly entered into agreements with the leaders of the minority BCP cadres in Kokang and the Wa State, promising to allow their former enemies to keep their weapons, retain power in their traditional areas, and pursue local trade (mostly in opium) in exchange for ending their wars against the SLORC and even fighting on SLORC’s side against other ethnic nationalities.

As time progressed the SLORC persistently refused to allow the newly elected NLD-led parliament to assemble. Some elected MPs fled to liberated areas on the Thai-Burma border. In December 1990, the Parliament members met and elected the "National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma" (NCGUB) with the support of all major ethnic groups struggling to assert themselves within Burma.

On April 24, 1992, two years after the elections, SLORC issued Order No. 11/92 titled the "Convening of a National Convention." It indicated that a national convention would be convened "in order to lay down basic principles to draft a firm constitution." In January 1993, the convention finally assembled with 702 delegates of whom only 106 were elected representatives. The remaining delegates were either hand-picked by the SLORC to "represent" workers, peasants, intellectuals, national races, and service personnel, or were "specially invited persons." The SLORC stated that the convention would only be drawing up the "principles" of a new constitution and the final draft would still be written as promised, by the elected representatives. Moreover, SLORC stated, the principles discussed by the delegates had to conform to the "objectives" of the convention as defined by the SLORC, which included the "participation of the Tatmadaw (armed forces) in the national political leadership role of the State in the future." Despite repeated calls in UN resolutions for the SLORC to give a timetable for the convention there is no sign that the convention has been able to achieve a constitutional settlement or is near any conclusion.

On July 10, 1995, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from almost six years house arrest. Although her release initially raised hopes for an improvement in the human rights situation in Burma, nothing changed. Indeed, the pace of political arrests and persecution accelerated dramatically after November 1995 when the NLD withdrew from the SLORC-controlled national convention due to its undemocratic processes. SLORC responded to the NLD withdrawal by expelling the NLD permanently from the convention. A call from the NLD to begin a dialogue with the SLORC in order to start a process of national reconciliation was refused by the SLORC.

Political turmoil in Burma has increased significantly since the NLD announced that it would hold a meeting in late May 1996 to commemorate the sixth anniversary of its 1990 election victory. The SLORC reacted by arresting hundreds of NLD MPs and other supporters in an effort to prevent the meeting. In addition on June 7, 1996, SLORC issued Order No. 5/96 containing sweeping provisions that allows for up to 20 years imprisonment for anyone who expresses political views and notably discusses constitution processes; despite everyone being reminded in the SPDC daily newspapers that it is their duty to be involved in such processes.

On November 9, 1996, a group of about 200 young men attacked Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade with iron bars and sticks. The men were thought to be members of the "Union Solidarity Development Association" (USDA), a SLORC sponsored organisation. In December 1996, more than 2,000 people including hundreds of students involved in peaceful student demonstrations were arrested for calling for human rights reforms. Public gatherings on weekends in front of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s home have been banned since the end of 1996. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was repeatedly refused permission to leave her compound and effectively confined to her house for long periods.

Since 1989 the SLORC has sought a military cease-fire with some of the ethnic forces, bringing a kind of peace to the areas under their control. In December 1994, a renewed offensive against the Karen National Union (KNU) was launched following a split within the KNU and the formation of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which was supported by the SLORC. In February 1995, the KNU retreated from its headquarters in Manerplaw. Since then the offensive has taken a new turn as DKBA and SLORC troops launched the first of several raids into refugee camps in Thailand. DKBA and SLORC troops have had easy access to refugees in Thailand. The raids which were intended to terrify the refugees into returning to Burma have continued. The KNU has made several offers to the SLORC to engage in ceasefire talks. However, while there have been meetings between the two sides there is no sign of any progress.

In the Karenni State the Karenni Nationalities Progressive Party (KNPP) signed a ceasefire agreement at a ceremony in Loikaw in March 1995. In June of that year the KNPP issued a statement claiming that the SLORC had broken the terms of the agreement. Intermittent fighting continues between the SLORC troops and the KNPP in Karenni State. SLORC undertook massive relocation operations in Karenni State, Shan State, and Tenasserim division during 1995 and 1996, causing a mass influx of refugees into Thailand.

In mid-February 1997, SLORC launched two new major offensives against the KNU. SLORC’s 1997 offensive against the KNU resulted in more than 7,000 new refugees entering Thailand.

SPDC’s Military Rule (1997-Present)

On November 15, 1997, the SLORC was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Although the three most senior members of the regime retained their posts in the SPDC, 14 former members – all senior military officers – were replaced and a four - member SPDC advisory group was established. In late November three members of this advisory group were placed under house arrest. The three were former Tourism Minister Lieutenant-General Kyaw Ba; the former Commerce Minister Lieutenant-General Tun Kyi; the former Agriculture Minister Lieutenant-General Myint Aung. A number of their aides and staff at other ministries were also placed under investigation. Following the detention, the advisory group was dissolved on December 10, 1997, less than one month after its formation. Officials said the members of the advisory group no longer held their military posts. The changes did not stop there. On December 20, there was an unexpected reshuffle within the second tier of the military regime’s cabinet. Another eight posts in the cabinet were reshuffled and one new member was added.

SPDC leaders conducted another reshuffle of top generals in November 2001, and in March 2002 arrested four relatives of former top general Ne Win. The four were accused of plotting to overthrow the current government in a military coup, and were sentenced to death for treason in September 2002.

The Committee Representing the People’s Parliament (CRPP) was formed on the September 16th 1998 in response to the military regime’s failure to cede power thus enabling the elected representatives to form a parliament and the NLD to form government. Two hundred and fifty-one elected MPs (52% of MPs elected in 1990) gave their authority to the ten founding members to form the CRPP. This was based on the principle articulated in the 1974 Pyithu Hluttaw Law that requires State Authorities to convene parliament if 34% or more of the members of parliament so desire. The CRPP’s objective was to convene the Parliament until all MPs elected were able to do so. The CRPP’s first act was to issue a proclamation that repealed all SLORC & SPDC orders, decrees, notifications, rules and laws. The SPDC declared the CRPP to be illegal. However, despite serious restrictions and the almost immediate arrest and imprisonment of Chairman Dr Saw Mra Aung, the CRPP survived and on September 16th 2002 held a ceremony at NLD headquarters to celebrate its fourth anniversary

In September 2000, there was a major crackdown by the SPDC on NLD leaders, during which Chairman U Aung Shwe, and Vice-Chairman U Tin Oo were detained and General Secretary Daw Aung San Suu Kyi placed under house arrest. This act appeared to be the catalyst for the initiation of UN brokered ‘talks’ between the regime and Daw Suu. On the January 9th 2001 the UN Secretary-General’s Spokesman announced that there had been ongoing dialogue between the SPDC and the NLD since October 2000. While the content of the talks remained secret, this news was hailed as a significant breakthrough and a positive step towards democratic transition. In the following months, the SPDC allowed a number of NLD offices to reopen and released substantial numbers of political prisoners, acts which were hailed by the international community as a sign of the regime’s sincerity towards pursuing change.

By the end of 2002 the regime had released approximately 550 political prisoners. However, throughout the year the SPDC continued to arrest individuals engaged in peaceful political activities. Moreover, the vast majority of the political prisoners released had already completed their prison sentences, and were also made to sign pledges that they would refrain from any further involvement in politics. These releases were usually timed to coincide with visits to Burma by UN representatives or other high level international delegations. At the end of 2002, approximately 1,300 political prisoners remained incarcerated. (Source: US State Dept)

In 2002 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continued to monitor the conditions of thousands of prisoners, and was able to establish offices in Kengtung in Shan state, Pa-an in Karen state, and Moulmein in Mon state to begin to monitor the condition of civilians in eastern Burma.

The ongoing dialogue between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the SPDC had little impact on the war-affected areas of eastern Burma, where the SPDC continued to commit gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law against ethnic minority villagers. There, the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and Karen National Union (KNU), as well as some other smaller groups, continued their refusal to agree to a cease-fire with the government, as other insurgent forces had done, but they were no longer able to hold significant territory. As a result of ongoing offensives by the SPDC army which targeted civilians as well as armed opposition group, tens of thousands of villagers in the contested zones remained in forced relocation sites or internally displaced within the region.

On 6 May 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from 19 months of house arrest, though Burmese intelligence continued to monitor NLD leaders and attend many NLD meetings in Rangoon. Following her release, the junta allowed Daw Suu and the NLD a greater measure of freedom to travel around the country and to meet with representatives of foreign governments and international organizations. The regime recognized the NLD as a legal entity and permitted the party to reopen approximately 90 out of 300 offices throughout the country. However, to a lesser degree the SPDC continued to monitor and restrict the activities of the NLD and Daw Suu through harassment and threats. Other political and ethnic opposition groups remained banned.

Throughout 2002 the United Nations was particularly active in Burma. Special Representative Razali Ismail visited the country in January, June, and August to facilitate the dialogue between the SPDC and the NLD. However Razali was unsuccessful in increasing the pace of the talks or pressuring the regime to declare a general amnesty for all political prisoners. For the first time since 1995, the government permitted a visit by the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar. The new rapporteur, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, made a brief visit in April and met with SPDC representatives, Aung San Suu Kyi, and local aid workers. In a report to the U.N. in August, he welcomed the talks and prisoner releases but pointed to the need to address other important rights issues, including the need for a humanitarian space to relieve villagers affected by conflict. He made a second visit Burma in October and presented his conclusions to the U.N. General Assembly (Third Committee) in early November.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) sent a high-level mission to Burma in February; however the regime prevented the mission from meeting with Daw Suu. In March the SPDC agreed to allow the ILO to appoint a liaison officer to monitor Burma’s pledges to eradicate forced labor. This followed the ILO’s 2000 recommendation that ILO members review their economic ties with Burma and take action to ensure that they were not supporting the widespread forced labor perpetuated by the regime.

By the end of 2002 the dialogue had ground to a halt, and the economic situation inside the country had worsened. It had become increasingly evident that the regime lacked the will to pursue substantive reforms, and was using the dialogue as a tool to deflect international criticism and garner increased aid and investment. Laws restricting civil and political freedoms remained in place, while political activist and members of ethnic minority groups continued to suffer oppression and violence at the hands of the SPDC.