Elections in History

A Poll, a Senior General and the Demise of His Promise of a New Democratic Era in Myanmar

By Wei Yan Aung 17 September 2020

YANGON—A general election—the country’s first multi-party poll since 1960—was held in 1990, organized by Senior General Saw Maung, who took over from one-party dictator Ne Win.

Before the poll, Snr-Gen Saw Maung, who was serving as the commander-in-chief of defense services and chairman of its State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) government, promised repeatedly in his speeches that he would hand over power to the winning party and would have the army return to the barracks where, in his own words, they “rightfully belonged”.

However, even before the election could be held, senior leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo were detained and placed under house arrest under the State Protection Act.

A total of 93 parties contested the election held on May 27. The NLD won over 90 percent of the seats, securing victory in 392 of 447 constituencies as Myanmar’s people, who had suffered under a single-party dictatorship for decades, voted overwhelmingly for the party. The National Unity Party, the proxy of the Burma Socialist Programme Party, secured just 10 seats.

“The election was free and fair. And it was obvious that our Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] which has a fine tradition [of protecting the national interest] did not bias, help, support or disturb any side,” Snr-Gen Saw Maung said proudly.

The NLD sent letters twice, in June and July, to Snr-Gen Saw Maung to discuss the political process for summoning the parliament. But he did not reply.

Two months after the election, on July 28-29, over 500 elected NLD candidates and party members held a conference at Gandhi Hall on Bo Aung Kyaw Street in Yangon. The event was attended by over 10,000 people.

Then General Than Shwe (second row, left) and ministers see off Senior General Saw Maung (front) at Yangon’s Mingalardon Airport before his trip to China in August 1991. / Government Press

The conference issued a declaration famously known as the “Gandhi Declaration,” which asked the SLORC government to convene the Lower House for the transfer of power. It also called for talks with SLORC leaders and the release of political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo.

One day prior to the Gandhi Conference, Secretary-1 of the SLORC government Major General Khin Nyunt issued Announcement No. 1/1990 of the military regime, warning of harsh actions against any attempt to convene the parliament and take over power without the approval of the military regime.

Shortly after, Maj-Gen Khin Nyunt sent a 13-page letter to NLD chair U Kyi Maung, saying that the military regime would neither summon the parliament nor release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The letter warned that the party would be crushed if it refused to agree to follow Announcement No. 1/1990.

Due to the repression of the regime, elected candidates, who should have been in legislative assemblies, had to spend years behind bars. Many others were exiled, and their relatives had their livelihoods stolen by the junta.

At the same time, 64-year-old Snr-Gen Saw Maung became paranoid and suffered from a nervous breakdown. Junta Secretary-1 Major General Khin Nyunt would later write in his autobiography that he reported the daily activities and health status of Snr-Gen Saw Maung to the latter’s deputy, SLORC vice chairman General Than Shwe, on a daily basis.

The leadership role of Snr-Gen Saw Maung, who organized the 1990 poll, came to an end on April 23, 1992 with the announcement signed by his deputy, Gen. Than Shwe that he was retiring due to ill health.

There was much speculation that other military leaders pre-empted this by purging Snr-Gen Saw Maung. It is not clear what disputes they had.

After news of the senior general’s retirement was aired on the state broadcaster in the evening, Daw Aye Aye Yi, the ailing chairman’s wife, stormed into the War Office and angrily complained that her husband had been mistreated and that she would go and talk to retired General Ne Win, writes ex-general and former Mandalay Region Commander U Tun Kyi, who was at the War Office at the time, in his memoir “50 Years of Personal Experiences.”

Some nervous commanders wondered aloud what would happen if Snr-Gen Saw Maung came into the office brandishing his pistol. To their relief, the military spy chief, the now General Khin Nyunt, assured them that the bullets in the chairman’s gun were blanks, U Tun Kyi wrote.

Ex-Snr-Gen Saw Maung died at the age of 68 in 1996, four years after he was overthrown. Than Shwe, by now senior general, took over from Snr-Gen Saw Maung, and convened the National Convention, which took 14 years to design a new charter. The Constitution was ratified in a national referendum in 2008, and multi-party democratic elections, the first since 1990, were held in 2010. The Union Solidarity and Development Party, the proxy of the Myanmar military, won the election as it was boycotted by the NLD.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko