Guest Column

Uprisings in Myanmar—Then and Now

By Bertil Lintner 8 May 2023

It was hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu when the military stepped in to assume absolute power in February two years ago. It was like 1988 all over again. Demonstrators staged initially peaceful protests in the streets of cities and towns all over the country and were met with bullets from the military. Many were killed, and activists of various kinds fled to the border areas where they linked up with the ethnic rebel armies, which have been resisting central government control for decades. A government truly representing the people was set up and became active mostly in exile. A broader front including some of the ethnic armed groups was formed. And the struggle to topple an immensely unpopular military regime continued without anyone seeming to win the war. Those are the most common superficial observations—because there are fundamental differences between what happened after 1988 and now. As a journalist who has covered Myanmar affairs for more than 40 years—including the 1988 uprising and its aftermath—I have been approached by some close friends who have asked me to explain why the current uprising is not just a repeat of what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

First of all, mobile phones and the internet, with their associated digital media and email, did not exist in the 1980s. I was banned from visiting the country at that time, but managed with extreme difficulty to get news through a confidential network of raspy telephone lines and occasional letters, which were hand-delivered to me in Bangkok by trusted contacts. I would not have been able to write my articles for the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review without the help of those contacts inside the country, and I am forever grateful to them for providing me with up-to-date information, often at great risk to themselves. Photos had to be taken by cumbersome cameras with film, and the rolls smuggled out of the country and developed in Thailand or elsewhere. Some grainy video recordings also made it to safety outside Myanmar, as did printed material ranging from flyers and posters to independently produced newspapers and journals. What has been preserved constitutes important historical material, but it is limited and cannot be compared with what is available online today. Now, nothing happens inside Myanmar—a protest, a gun battle, an assassination or an atrocity—without the outside world getting to know about it within a day or two, or even hours. Young people in Myanmar are very cyber savvy and continue to outsmart the military, which is much less adept at using online technology.

At the same time, it is important to remember that the brutality the military unleashed on the protests in the cities and towns in 1988 was far worse than what was witnessed after the 2021 coup. When people took to the streets on Aug. 8, soldiers sprayed automatic rifle fire into crowds of unarmed people not only in Yangon, where even armored vehicles equipped with Bren machine guns were used to crush the demonstrations, but also in Bago, Sagaing, Taunggyi and many other places. An especially bloody and virtually unpublicized event took place in Sagaing on Aug. 11 when troops and policemen commanded by Kyaw Zwa, an army veteran and the local head of the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party as well as chairman of the Sagaing Division’s People’s Council, gunned down at least 100 demonstrators, among them many Buddhist monks. According to estimates by local medical personnel, thousands of civilians—not hundreds as often mentioned in later writings about the uprising—were gunned down by the military in 1988. It would have been 3,000 countrywide in August, and another 1,000 when the military stepped in to reassert their grip on power on Sept. 18, which was also when a new junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), was formed.

The carnage prompted about 10,000 mostly young, urban activists to leave their homes and trek through the jungle and over the mountains to remote border areas controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the Karenni Army, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Only a handful made it to areas in northeastern Shan State where the Communist Party of Burma had its strongholds, and no one went to the area on the Thai border controlled by the drug lord Khun Sa because they knew that he had a tacit business arrangement with the Myanmar military. In January 1996, Khun Sa also surrendered, dissolved his army and moved with his closest business associates to Yangon.

The flight to the border led to the formation of a number of alliances and fronts. On Nov. 5, 1988, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) was set up at a meeting in Kawmorrah, a KNU camp on the Thai border (which now, incidentally, is called Shwe Kokko, a new town under the control of a junta-allied Border Guard Force—and where many of the newly built casinos are located). Two weeks later, the ethnic Burman resistance and several ethnic armed groups formed the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB). Then came the May 18, 1990 election, which resulted in a resounding victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD). But the assembly that was elected was never convened. Instead, the SLORC began arresting elected MPs—and more pro-democracy activists fled to the border. On Dec. 18 that year, they formed the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), which in turn led to the formation of a broader front including NLD exiles, members of the NCGUB and the ethnic armed groups called the National Council of the Union of Burma, or NCUB. After the NCGUB was formed, I wrote a then-much-criticized article for the Far Eastern Economic Review titled “Cry of Desperation”. I stressed that no foreign country was likely to recognize the border-based “cabinet” and it was unlikely that it would have any impact on the situation inside Myanmar. The resistance was holed up in camps along Myanmar’s borders and the plethora of groups and acronyms also made sympathizers outside the country confused; who should they listen to and cooperate with? Who was who in the alphabet soup of armies and fronts?

I visited the resistance camps on the Myanmar side of the border with Thailand several times and also went to Mangshi and Ruili in Yunnan, China, where I met activists based in Kachin State. It was, to be absolutely frank, not an encouraging sight. I had no reason to doubt the sincerity of the young ABSDF activists who had given up everything to fight for what they believed in. But the way in which they bore uniforms adorned with flashes and insignia, and had their organization structured into numbered military units, made them no different from other armed groups fighting in the jungle-clad frontier areas. And it did not last long. The ABSDF soon split into competing factions and, for a while, there were even two ABSDFs. The activists in Kachin State even turned against each other; one group accused another of being government agents and killed them in a grisly massacre. The DAB collapsed when several of the ethnic armed groups entered into ceasefire agreements with the military. The NCGUB never became more than an acronym.

An anti-regime protest in Yangon in February 2021 / The Irrawaddy

In the mid-1990s, I visited Dr. Cynthia Maung, an ethnic Karen doctor who ran—and still runs—a clinic in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. I asked her what kind of patients from the ABSDF she had received over the years, and she summed it up succinctly: “Well, the first year, it was mostly malaria cases. Then came those with gunshot wounds. Now it’s mostly deliveries.” The activists were young people from urban areas who were not used to the hard life in the jungle, and became sick from malaria and other diseases. Those who were determined to fight and still had some strength left ventured out onto the battlefield, and were often wounded. In the end, many settled down in Mae Sot and other border towns, had children and raised families. Many former activists also ended up in exile, primarily in Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States.

What remained of the ABSDF finally gave up the armed struggle and decided to focus on disseminating information about the dictatorship and networking with international NGOs. But that, curiously, did not prevent the ABSDF from being one of eight “armed groups” which signed a so-called “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement” (NCA) with the military in October 2015. Needless to say, of the signatories, only two—the KNU and the Restoration Council of Shan State—had armies worth the name. On Feb. 18, 2018, the government proudly announced that two more groups, the Lahu Democratic Union and the NMSP, had signed the NCA. But the Lahu outfit is little more than an NGO based in Thailand, and today’s Mon army is tiny compared to what it once was. The NMSP had, in any event, entered into a ceasefire agreement with the military in June 1995, so it was unclear what difference it would make. Although the NCA is a signed agreement and those struck in the late 1980s and 1990s were not (the sole exception being the ceasefire with the KIA, which insisted on having it formalized in writing), there is no reason—and there never was one—to believe that the military would be seriously interested in finding a peaceful, political solution to Myanmar’s civil wars. The KIA came under attack in June 2011 and fighting broke out between the military and the KNU as well as the Chin National Front, another NCA signatory, shortly after the February 2021 coup.

It is true that there are some striking similarities between the situation after the 1988 uprising and today. The National Unity Government (NUG), set up by elected MPs and others in April 2021, seems to mirror the NCGUB, and the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which combines Burman and ethnic armies, looks like a contemporary version of the NCUB. But a closer look at today’s resistance reveals that the most obvious difference between then and now, access to the internet, is not the only one.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the activists actually believed that some foreign “uncles” would come and support them. After all, the US Congress had issued statements condemning the dictatorship, and so had the European Union, Australia, and other democracies around the world. Today’s fighters for democracy seem to have no such illusions. They know that Myanmar is not Ukraine and no weapons or other material support will come from abroad. Relying on their own resources, they are fighting with home-made guns and weapons captured from the military and the police, and they have also brought the war to the Myanmar heartland. Although many of the resistance fighters were trained by the Karen or Kachin armies and did get some weapons from them as well, it’s no longer a jungle-based insurgency. Financial support for the struggle comes from the many Myanmar nationals living in exile, including through some imaginative methods like a popular online video game, which also serves as a propaganda tool. It’s now or never.

The resistance in the heartland is often lumped together as the “People’s Defense Forces”, or PDFs, but that doesn’t mean that they are under any effective central command. Nor do they necessarily take orders from the NUG. But that also makes them harder to crush, because the military can’t find out who the leaders are, and how and where they operate. There are dozens of local resistance armies that depend on popular support in their respective areas and given the nationwide, deep-rooted hatred of the military, it is not difficult for the activists to mingle with crowds anywhere. It is obvious that the generals messed with the wrong generation when they staged their ill-fated coup.

Another important difference is that the economy was in a shambles after the 1988 uprising but, to the surprise of many, the SLORC (renamed the State Peace and Development Council in 1997) managed to not only rebuild but, by attracting foreign investment, also create a fledgling capitalist system to replace the old “socialism” that had prevailed from 1962 to 1988. The economic fallout of the 2021 coup is a severe crisis. Foreign investors are leaving and those who remain are reeling under the effects of boycotts and sanctions. In this area, digital media have made a decisive impact. The true extent of the 1988 massacres was little known outside the country, and although some sanctions were imposed even then, they were limited and had little or no effect. Today, the viciousness of the military is well documented, and anyone doing business with them is named and shamed on the internet.

The adversary the pro-democracy forces are facing is also not the same as before. Junta leader and self-appointed prime minister Senior General Min Aung Hlaing lacks the capabilities and military skills of his predecessors. Moreover, he is uncharismatic and every time he appears in public or on the TV, he appears nervous and unsure of himself. But if he is replaced, it would most likely be by someone who is more hardline than he is, such as Vice Senior General Soe Win, who often oversees operations, including devastating air strikes, against any identifiable resistance stronghold; more often than not, these turn out to be villages and entire towns. The military may be more isolated from the public at large than ever before and it has become the country’s most hated institution. There is also little doubt that the various resistance forces continue to enjoy popular support, and two years after the coup they have not given up. Rather, fighting across the country is intensifying.

But there is a huge problem facing the resistance forces: They do not today have the weaponry that is needed to defeat the well-armed military with all the firepower it has at its disposal, the most devastating being air power. The military may not win the war, but they also cannot lose. And mediation efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have failed and even backfired on the bloc as it has exposed its weaknesses. Guided by two cardinal principles, noninterference and consensus, there is actually nothing it can do when there is a crisis in a member country. International peacemakers and conflict-resolutionists have time and again shown that their efforts have been a waste of time and money; the generals simply won’t listen and, even if they pretend to, they won’t take any advice from such outsiders. That brings us to the sad reality: the military has been in power under different guises since General Ne Win’s coup in 1962, and nothing is likely to change unless and until there is a split at the top or a mutiny within the ranks. That was true in the late 1980s and remains so today. But such a development could also lead to an even bloodier civil war, a potentially devastating scenario for which the outside world and all those involved in Myanmar must be prepared. Nevertheless, if the military remains united, the decades-long civil wars will continue to bleed the country for years to come—and the main victims will be the people of Myanmar, who are suffering under the brutal rule of a power-obsessed clique of men in green.