For too long the people of Burma have deserved a better existence—to live lives under a democratic government that would allow for them to enjoy liberty, peace and prosperity. These are things much of the world takes for granted but which have, for Burmese people, remained out of reach through successive eras of hardship and sacrifice for the democratic cause.
Many people, including this year’s parliamentary hopefuls and the international community, see the upcoming Nov. 8 election as a huge opportunity for Burma. Yet history through the decades serves as a cautionary tale, ensuring that no one in this country dares say with any certainty that the outcome of the vote will fulfill people’s democratic aspirations.
Beginning in the early 20th century, Burmese people poured blood, sweat and tears into the struggle for independence from Britain. The toll, in lives lost, was steep.
In 1931, Sayar San, who led a peasant uprising against British troops, was hanged with fellow rebels by the British government. Bo Aung Kyaw, a student leader, was beaten to death by British cavalrymen seven years later. These martyrs for the cause were preceded in 1929 by U Wisara, a Buddhist monk who died after having protested by fasting for 166 days in prison.
While these men represent the ultimate sacrifice, many more were “fortunate” only to have gone to prison for their opposition to British colonial rule.
The decades-long struggle paid off on Jan. 4, 1948, when Burma officially gained its independence, but even this moment of achievement was not without sorrow; Gen. Aung San, the architect of independence, and several members of his cabinet were assassinated by a political rival less than six months earlier. The general never got to see the free Burma that he had worked so hard to make a reality.
In the end, independence was not enough to bring about peace and stability for the people. Just a year later, civil war broke out due to a failure to create the inclusive federal nation that Aung San had promised to the country’s ethnic minority groups.
As ethnic rebels and government troops came to blows, soldiers on both sides and civilians were killed or otherwise suffered through the ravages of war.
In 1962, the Burmese people entered another phase of woe as the military, led by dictator Gen. Ne Win, staged a coup and seized power. What followed was nearly 50 years of oppression under the military boot; companies were nationalized, private newspapers were shut down and the country was forced to accept an authoritarian economic model quaintly described as the “Burmese Way to Socialism.”
As the door to the outside world began to close for most Burmese people, authoritarianism began to close in.
Ethnic leaders and dissidents became political targets of the Ne Win regime, and were imprisoned or forced into exile. Rangoon University’s student union building was dynamited in 1962 as campus protests gained momentum, and more lives were lost when the demonstration was quashed by the regime.
Anti-government movements in 1974 and 1976 were also crushed and hundreds of activists were thrown behind bars. An ethnic Chin student leader, Salai Tin Maung Oo, was hanged by Ne Win’s regime for his leading role in anti-government protests in 1976.
For 26 years, Ne Win’s socialist regime ruled the country with an iron fist.
Then in 1988, a brief glimmer of hope, as a nationwide pro-democracy uprising toppled the dictator. This achievement, too, was not without sacrifice. Phone Maw, a university student, was shot dead by riot police in March 1988. A 16-year-old high school student, Win Maw Oo, was also shot fatally by soldiers near Rangoon’s Sule Pagoda.
They were some of the first among several thousand students and other demonstrators who were gunned down that year before and after the military stepped in to retake power in September 1988. Many more thousands of political activists and politicians were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. About 200 political prisoners died behind bars in the years that followed the 1988 uprising.
After a brief spell of democratic optimism, political upheaval and bloodshed, the country was under the military boot again.
Economically and politically, Burma was a rising star in Asia when it gained independence, but the managerial incompetence and corruption of consecutive regimes sent Burma into the abyss.
The country’s economy, education system and health sector tanked, and with this deterioration, almost no one was spared. Everyone was negatively affected, that is, except a small circle of military rulers, cronies and other privileged few.
After the ’88 uprising was crushed, the military regime promised to hold an election in accordance with the will of the people. The election was held in 1990 and millions of people turned out to cast their votes. The election turned out to be free and fair, and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, secured a landslide victory. Burmese people had nearly achieved that for which they had sacrificed—an elected government.
But instead, they got a naked lie, or duplicity at best, from the military regime, which nullified the election outcome. The will of the people was cast aside when it turned out to be against the interests of the powerful military establishment. Of all the indignities that the Burmese people have suffered at the hands of successive military regimes, the 1990 debacle was perhaps most galling.
In 2008, a Constitution drafted by the regime’s handpicked delegates was approved in a referendum that many boycotted on the grounds that the charter was undemocratic and perpetuated military preeminence in the machinery of government. That Constitution served as a foundation for setting in motion a 2010 general election, which was also boycotted by many—including Suu Kyi’s NLD—on the basis that the vote would be rigged in favor of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). When the party won more than 75 percent of elected of seats, many saw in the election result a confirmation of their suspicions.
Not surprisingly, the results of the vote five years ago were honored by the military, which in effect maintained its grip on power behind a veneer of civilian legitimacy.
So after decades of democratic struggle, where is Burma today?
The current government is inarguably distinct from its predecessor, a pure military dictatorship.
But it is highly unlikely that a government comprised largely of ex-military generals is what the ballot box would have returned if the 2010 vote had been credible.
Hopefully, we’ll all find out soon enough.
As Burmese people prepare to go to polling stations again on Sunday, the 25 years since the last free and fair poll will weigh heavily on election day and its aftermath.
The expectations of the electorate and the sacrifice of generations past could very well again run up against a military establishment that still appears reluctant to accept that Burma is, and always has been, ready for democracy.
For too long, the notion that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” as late Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong once said, has rung true in Burma.
The leaders of the current government and the military may be faced with a choice when the election dust settles, and a chance to prove that political power, in fact, grows out of a free and fair election.