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The 1990 Election: Sorting Fact from Fiction

As election day approaches, it is worth remembering what happened the last time Burma had a free and fair poll, says Bertil Lintner.


As election day approaches, it is worth remembering what happened 25 years ago, the last time Burma had a free and fair poll—and by regional standards, that election was astonishingly free and fair. But the euphoria of May 27, 1990, when the National League for Democracy (NLD) scored a landslide victory, turned into dismay and frustration when, exactly two months later, on July 27, 1990, the then ruling junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), issued “Announcement 1/90” declaring that only the junta “has the right to legislative power”—and that “the representatives elected by the people” would merely be “responsible for drafting a new constitution for a future democratic state.” I and other journalists who covered events in Burma remember the disbelief we felt at the time. Could that really be true? Among the Burmese people inside the country who we contacted, there was outright anger. “1/90” contradicted earlier promises by the SLORC and what was a very clear election result.

As early as on Sept. 22, 1988— four days after the military had formed SLORC and brutally put an end to more than a month of daily demonstrations for democracy—Burma’s powerful intelligence chief and Secretary-1 in the new junta, (then) Brig.-Gen. Khin Nyunt had pledged before a meeting with foreign military attachés in Rangoon: “Elections will be held as soon as law and order has been restored and the Defence Services would then systematically hand over power to the party which wins.” (quoted from SWB, FE/0265 1, 24 Sep 1988) He did not say a word about the need to draft a new constitution.

On May 31, 1989, so about a year before the election, the SLORC passed “Law 14/89” which, according to the announcement “shall be called the Pyithu Hluttaw Election Law.” A Pyithu Hluttaw in Burmese is a “people’s assembly”, in other words, a parliament. According to the 1974 Constitution, which had been promulgated by a previous military regime, “The Pyithu Hluttaw is the highest organ of state power. It exercises sovereign powers of the State on behalf of the people.” A constituent assembly, on the other hand, is not a Pyithu Hluttaw but a Thaing Pyi Pyu Hluttaw, as in the Myanma naing-ngan Thaing Pyi Pyu Hluttaw, the body that drafted Burma’s first constitution in 1947. That term was never used before the May 1990 election.

But this has not prevented many foreign observers from claiming otherwise in more recent times, thus distorting the whole purpose of the 1990 election. Most recently, Geoffrey Goddard, an Australian journalist and a former editor at the Myanmar Times, wrote in the April 2015 issue of the Mizzima Weekly that the 1990 election was not for “a parliament. It was an election for a constituent assembly.” And who were the sources Goddard referred to? Derek Tonkin, a retired British diplomat who more than anybody else has been busy rewriting history, and Robert Taylor, a well-known defender of successive authoritarian regimes in Burma.

An even more extreme view is held by Kristoffer Rønneberg, a Norwegian journalist, who stated in his recent book Veien to Mandalay: En reise fra Burma til Myanmar (“The Road to Mandalay: A Journey from Burma to Myanmar”) that “there are many people today who believe that the election was about a new government…this myth has been used by activists and oppositionists since 1990…the election was about a constituent assembly…this was known by everyone who took part in the election.”

Michael Lidauer, a German academic, writes in Burma/Myanmar: Where Now?, a book published last year by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies: “Immediately prior to the polls, SLORC announced that it would only hand over power to a civilian government after a new constitution had been written. This process lasted for two decades.” His source? Derek Tonkin. Hans-Berndt Zöllner, another German writer, states in his The Beast and the Beauty that “material” from the time “clearly supports Tonkin’s conclusion.”

This falsified version of history has even found its way into Wikipedia: “The elections were not meant to form a parliamentary government, but rather to form a parliament sized constitutional committee to draft a new constitution.” The reference here is to pages 90-93 in Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know, a well-written book by American Burma scholar David Steinberg. But on those pages Steinberg writes only that “the junta had publicly stated almost a year before the election that those elected could not form a government until there was a new constitution.” Steinberg is not more precise than that and it is uncertain when and how the SLORC stated such a thing, which would be contrary to everything else that was said at the time.

On Jan. 18, 1989, I and several other Bangkok-based journalists were flown to Burma on a trip organized by Burma’s military authorities, and on that day we had a meeting with Col. Ye Htut from the SLORC’s information committee (not to be confused with the current minister of information with the same name). He stated clearly and unambiguously that “as soon as elections have been held, we will hand over power to the party that wins and return to the barracks.” I asked him if they would do so even in the event of an NLD victory. The colonel replied: “Of course, we are soldiers and keep our word. We will return to the barracks.” Present at that time was, apart from myself, the regional bureau chief of the Associated Press and other foreign correspondents.

Khin Nyunt, as head of intelligence, probably knew more about public sentiments than any of the other members of SLORC. He had begun to realize that the NLD was going to win.”

Gen. Saw Maung, the SLORC chairman, said on Jan. 9, 1990 at a meeting between the central junta and its local divisions held “at the office of the Commander-in-Chief”: “We have spoken about the matter of State power. As soon as the election is held, form a government according to law and then take power. An election has to be held to bring forth a government. That is our responsibility. But the actual work of forming a legal government after the election is not the duty of the Tatmadaw [the military]. We are saying it very clearly and candidly right now.” That speech was reproduced in full in the Jan. 10, 1990 issue of the official organ, The Working People’s Daily.

Drafting a new constitution was not an issue before the election. On the contrary, Gen. Saw Maung even lashed out against the NLD for raising the issue of a constitution—which some of its activists were doing at the time. In a speech on May 10, 1990—two weeks prior to the election—Gen. Saw Maung stated: “A dignitary who was once an Attorney-General talked about the importance of the constitution. As our current aim is to hold the election as scheduled we cannot as yet concern ourselves with the Constitution as mentioned by that person. Furthermore it is not our concern. A new Constitution can be drafted. An old Constitution can also be used after some amendments.” (sic., Working People’s Daily, May 11, 1990).

“That person” was former Attorney-General U Hla Aung, who was close to the NLD and, at the time, researching constitutional issues for the pro-democracy movement. I met him in Rangoon in February 1989 and spent a whole afternoon with him. He showed me how the 1947 Constitution could be used with certain amendments, and I remember the huge chart he put on the table in his home in a Rangoon suburb. It was impressive—but the SLORC didn’t think so. They told him to shut up.

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So what statement could Steinberg possibly be referring to in his book, which was quoted by Wikipedia? Burma’s then powerful intelligence chief, Maj-Gen Khin Nyunt, made a curious statement, not “almost a year before the election”, but on April 13, 1990, so just over a month before the election. According to him: “The Cabinet cannot be formed just after the election…the Cabinet is to be formed in accordance with the constitution.” That day, Reuters quoted a diplomat in Rangoon as describing the statement as “the first categorically saying that the military won’t hand over power until a constitution is in place…it is the fist showing through the velvet glove.”

Khin Nyunt, as head of intelligence, probably knew more about public sentiments than any of the other members of SLORC. He had begun to realize that the NLD was going to win—and this was the way out of the looming predicament. Not much attention was paid to Khin Nyunt’s statement, which clearly contradicted what he had said in 1988. But we in the media who were following events in Burma concluded that this would be the excuse if the NLD won. Our suspicions, which we wrote about at the time, have in more recent years been used by Tonkin to “prove” that the election was for a constituent assembly and not a parliament. The diplomat quoted by Reuters remarked that drafting a new constitution could delay the process by “months, perhaps years,” and Suu Kyi had already expressed similar fears the previous year, in an interview with Asiaweek before she was placed under house arrest in July 1989.

At the same time, it is worth remembering what Robert Taylor said before, as opposed to after, the 1990 election when he also began writing about a “constituent assembly”. In a lengthy article in the March 1990 issue of Current History, Taylor wrote: “The elections are to select a new national assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) but it is not clear how and when the military will pass power to a government formed under the elected legislature…but no one familiar with Burma’s political history expects the military to abandon all its administrative and political functions after the formation of a new government.”

So, according to Taylor, the elections was definitely for a Pyithu Hluttaw, a legislature”, and not a constituent assembly. The only question was when the new government would be formed. Taylor could safely write what he did because he also stated this about the military-backed National Unity Party, the successor to the Burma Socialist Program Party, the only legally permitted party from after the military takeover in 1962 until 1988: “Many observers feel that it will do well in the election.” The argument at the time was that the NLD may be strong in urban areas, whereas in the countryside people would vote for “the devil they know”.

Taylor could not have been more wrong. When the votes were counted after the 1990 election, the NLD captured 392 out of 485 contested seats—all over the country, in urban as well as rural areas. By comparison, the NUP secured only 10 seats. It may be argued that the NUP, after all, got a bit over 20 per cent of the popular vote, but only a tiny fraction of the seats because Burmese elections are not proportional. But no matter how one looks at it, the NUP was routed—and the military had to create an entirely new political platform, that, in 1993, became the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which was renamed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in 2010.

The issue at stake, of course, is that Khin Nyunt was right: the NLD had massive support, the “wrong” party had won, so the rules had to change. Within days of his July 27, 1990 announcement, his military intelligence—which was more of secret police than an actual intelligence service—launched a massive campaign against elected NLD MPs. By the end of the year, 65 had been arrested, nearly a dozen had fled to neighboring countries such as Thailand and India, and many resigned voluntarily. Does anyone seriously believe that all this would have happened if the NUP had won the election? The elected Pyithu Hluttaw would no doubt have been convened within days and a new government formed, an interim one awaiting the drafting of a new constitution.

But now, the elected Pyithu Hluttaw was never convened and, in the end, the elected assembly wasn’t even a Thaing Pyi Pyu Hluttaw. About 100 of the 485 MPs elected were to sit in a “National Convention” together with 600 other, non-elected representatives who had been handpicked by the military. And even if one accepts the notion that a new constitution would have to be drafted before the military could return to the barracks, the new legislature would have been vested with that task, not some obscure 700-person “National Convention”. Not even Tonkin and Taylor have the audacity to claim that anything like that was announced by Burma’s military authorities before the election. And contrary to what writers like Rønneberg believe, no one who took part in the 1990 election expected that to happen when they went to the polls 25 years ago.

On his Network Myanmar website, Tonkin suggests that in October 1990, when “Daw Myint Myint Khin, a senior official of the NLD, signed on behalf of the NLD an undertaking to attend a National Convention to draft a new Constitution, the NLD had effectively surrendered its claim to have secured a mandate to govern at the May 1990 Elections.” But he fails to mention that Daw Myint Myint Khin, who had been a very principled pro-democracy activist during the 1988 uprising, had come under immense pressure to sign that statement, and that she subsequently resigned her position as member of the NLD’s Central Executive Committee.

So what are the lessons we can draw from events before and after the 1990 election? The first would be that promises and pledges mean next to nothing when an election result is not to the liking of Burma’s military authorities. And if there are manipulations and threats, and the rules are changed at the whim of those in power, it is not unlikely that some time in the future we will find the same or another cabal of assorted apologists and sycophants telling us that the 2015 election actually wasn’t about what we thought it was, but something totally different.