Analysis: Myanmar Still Living with Legacy of 1988 Military Coup
By Kyaw Phyo Tha 18 September 2020
On the morning of Sept. 18, 1988, as pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Myanmar’s cities in their thousands, the recently resigned—but still powerful—dictator General Ne Win summoned a group of senior government and military officials to his home to ask them, “Can you take care of the country?” At 4 p.m., military leaders took to the airwaves to announce they had assumed control of the country. On the 32nd anniversary of the coup, The Irrawaddy revisits this analysis published two years ago today.
YANGON — Shortly before nightfall on Sept. 17, 1988, the fortified gate of Yangon’s War Office was flung open to allow an Army convoy to stream out. The city was wearily silent, as if exhausted from witnessing the pro-democracy demonstrations, occasionally bloody, that had been raging across the country since August. In an armored vehicle within the convoy sat the then Military Intelligence director, Colonel Khin Nyunt, and military Commander-in-Chief General Saw Maung. Their destination was a leafy neighborhood near Inya Lake—the residence of their former leader, General Ne Win, the freshly retired dictator of Socialist Myanmar who still wielded power over his subordinates.
Their mission was to “report directly” to their former boss about the current situation in the country; as President Dr. Maung Maung put it at the time, “Hazards to life and limb and property” had risen “beyond tolerable limits” due to what he characterized as violence, anarchy and mass looting by hooligans and thugs. The government was unable to effectively maintain law and order in the wake of the nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations known as the ’88 Uprising that had brought the country to a standstill.
Upon their arrival, Col. Khin Nyunt and Gen. Saw Maung briefed the retired general, who replied, “I hadn’t realized the situation was that bad,” according to the spy chief’s 2015 memoir, “Lives I Have Been Through.”
According to Khin Nyunt’s account, the meeting was prompted by a discussion earlier that day between himself and then Deputy Minister of Defense Lieutenant-General Than Shwe; the Military Intelligence director was angered by the events unfolding in the streets. The two explained the situation to Gen. Saw Maung, who responded, “We need to see Chairman U Ne Win.”
The following morning, Sept. 18, the dictator summoned six senior government officials, including President Dr. Maung Maung, the prime minister and foreign minister, to his office to ask them, “Can you take care of the country?” Col. Khin Nyunt and Gen. Saw Maung were also present.
“We can’t, sir. We will follow your instructions,” was the reply from the government ministers.
Turning to Gen. Saw Maung, U Ne Win ordered him to protect the country in accordance with the laws, saying that no one else could handle the situation.
“Only the military can do this. It is obliged to do so,” said the chairman, according to the memoir.
When Gen. Saw Maung complained that he had no idea how to proceed, U Ne Win ordered Dr. Maung Maung, a former chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court, to help the general legalize the takeover. The president dictated four orders and notifications to Col. Khin Nyunt, who jotted them down in order to make a public announcement in the afternoon.
At 4:00 pm, a male announcer proclaimed on the state-run Burma Broadcasting Service that “In order to bring a timely halt to deteriorating conditions all over the country and in the interests of the people, the defense forces have assumed all power in the state, effective from today.” The broadcaster’s regular programs were then interrupted by strident martial music before other announcements were heard, such as the formation of the 19-member military government, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Gen. Saw Maung was appointed chairman of the SLORC, whose members included Lt-Gen. Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt, who was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and occupied the position of Secretary (1) in the new regime. (U Khin Nyunt was later promoted to general and was one of the most powerful men in the junta until his arrest in 2004 for corruption.)
Later that evening, the phone rang at the Bangkok home of Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, who was then the Myanmar correspondent for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. Lintner picked up the receiver and recognized the voice of Denis Gray, The Associated Press’ Bangkok bureau chief. Gray said, “Gen. Saw Maung has taken over. There’s been a coup in Rangoon.”
Having already received information about the military’s “counteroffensive” against the pro-democracy demonstrators—since Sept. 12, unusual troop movements had been reported, with soldiers coming into the then capital Rangoon (now Yangon) from various parts of the country—Lintner had sensed that the Army was gearing up for a major showdown, one that he knew could lead to a bloodbath. He had written about the possibility in a cover story for the Review three days before the coup.
“So I wasn’t surprised, but I was shocked by the brutality of the crackdown that followed on the 18th and immediately afterwards,” he told The Irrawaddy, referring to the Army’s indiscriminate shooting of nearly 1,000 unarmed people who turned out in Yangon to protest the coup on Sept. 19.
“It wasn’t random shooting, as in August. More people were killed in August, possibly around 3,000, but the September massacre was carried out with military precision,” said Lintner, who documented the carnage in his 1989 book “Outrage”, which recalls the ’88 Uprising and its aftermath.
The radio proclamations announcing the military takeover on the afternoon of Sept. 18, 1988 marked the beginning of 23 years of military dictatorship, an era in which the men in uniform were involved in running every sector of the country from banks to bus lines. The economy was shattered and job prospects were so poor that people would joke about living in a country where soldiers ran the nation while university graduates drove taxis.
In 2011, the military ceded power to a quasi-civilian government led by former generals under the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. The charter has been criticized as undemocratic by many, including the current government, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which came to power after a landslide electoral victory in 2015. It reserves 25 percent of parliamentary seats for military representatives and places control of three security-related ministries in the hands of the military.
Thirty years on, Lintner identifies two main legacies of the 1988 coup.
He points out that while the movement didn’t cause the fall of the regime, it did force it to end the “Burmese Way to Socialism”. And although repression was harsh—it was not until 2011 that some fundamental freedoms and civil rights were introduced—the movement never died.
“It survived through underground groups, in the border areas, and in exile. It gave birth to a new generation of Burmese who are determined to defend their democratic rights,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, the coup established a culture of military power that has shown no signs of disappearing. People enjoy more freedoms than before, but Myanmar is not yet a democracy. Despite the fact that there is an elected Parliament and government in Naypyitaw, the military remains the country’s most powerful institution.
“The military was determined not to give up power in 1988, and that mindset hasn’t changed,” he said.
Of course, the generals see things differently. Writing about the events of Sept. 18, 1988 in his autobiography 27 years later, Gen. Khin Nyunt insisted that there was no military coup.
“The military,” he wrote, “just intervened for the safety of the people, stability of the country, rule of law and resurrection of the governing mechanism.”
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