RANGOON—A short statement announced on the radio 25 years ago today signaled the start of another dark chapter of despotic rule in Burma.
At 4 pm Sept 18, 1988, a male announcer on the state-run Burma Broadcasting Service proclaimed that, “in order to bring a timely halt to the deteriorating conditions on all sides all over the country … in the interests of the people, the defense forces have assumed all power in the state, effective from today.”
The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), comprising senior generals, had taken full government control through a coup, a power that the military would not relinquish for another two decades.
Following the takeover, the military stepped up its bloody crackdown to end the pro-democracy 8888 Uprising.
The popular protests had raged for months in 1988, as Burma’s citizens tried to topple the old strongman Ne Win. With the takeover by the SLORC, the dictator’s influence quickly began to wane.
The coup and its immediate aftermath prompted a fresh outburst of street protests that were met with state-sponsored violence, which resulted in hundreds of mostly peaceful, unarmed demonstrators being killed and wounded, and thousands of people being arrested and tortured.
Estimates later put the total death of toll of the numerous 1988 protests between 3,000 and 10,000.
During the coup, Gen Saw Maung repealed the 1974 Constitution and the 19-member SLORC became the sole ruling body of Burma. It was chaired by Gen Saw Maung, Maj Gen Khin Nyunt, the head of Burma’s secret intelligence agency became Secretary-1, and Gen Than Shwe assumed the position of vice-chairman.
Now, 25 years on, only one of these three men, the 80-year-old, retired Gen Than Shwe is still considered influential. Saw Maung’s grip on power slipped several years after the coup, and he died of a heart attack in 1997.
Khin Nyunt, a protégé of Ne Win, led the powerful, feared Military Intelligence unit until he was purged in 2004. After seven years under house arrest he was released. These days, Khin Nyunt mostly attracts media attention for his apparent change from feared spy chief to patron of the arts, after he opened up his own Rangoon art gallery.
After the 1988 coup, the English-speaking general held several press conferences to denounce the protestors, and Khin Nyunt is believed to have staged numerous crackdowns on political dissidents during his years in power. The 73-year-old has denied these claims in interviews in recent years, saying, “I didn’t torture people, or put people in prison, but in the military we have to follow orders.”
Gen Than Shwe, who is thought to have orchestrated the bloody crackdown on the monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007, was Commander-in-Chief of Burma’s armed forces for 19 years, before officially resigning from his position with the dissolution of the SLORC in 2011.
He handpicked Thein Sein, a former general, to become president of a nominally-civilian government that same year, as part a military-planned seven-step roadmap to democracy. Burma’s Parliament was re-opened in January 2011, with lawmakers assembling for the first time since September 1988.
Since his retirement, Than Shwe has rarely been seen in public and he spends most his time “reading,” according to Kyaw Hsan, the ex-information minister. Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) vice-chairman Htay Oo has said the reclusive former leader “lives peacefully” at home although still remains “interested in politics.”
With a cabinet dominated by former officers, a Parliament where the majority of seats is held by former military men in the ruling USDP, and a quarter of all Parliament seats reserved for army officers, the military still retains a strong hold on political power in Burma.
The military-drafted 2008 Constitution serves to provide immunity for the SLORC’s past crimes, while it ensures parliamentary veto powers for the army.
Win Tin, a co-founder of Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, said that a quarter of a century after the 1988 coup, Burma has yet to rid itself of military control on government.
“They have constitutional immunity and Parliament is toothless to kick them out,” he said. “We can find no other way [to remove the military], until they are willingly to get out from politics through their own conscience.”
Additional reporting by Htet Naing Zaw.