Downtown Rangoon is a largely British creation, built on an east–west grid after Burma was subjugated by Britain in the late nineteenth century. The Japanese occupation and the British counterattack during World War II, which devastated large parts of Burma, did relatively little damage to Rangoon, the country’s former capital and largest city. Not much new construction occurred after independence in 1948, a period in which the civilian government that had emerged from the war tried to build a united Burmese nation in the face of opposition from Communist insurgents and a variety of ethnic groups.

That government ended too quickly with a military coup in 1962. For more than four decades, Burma’s military rulers have occupied the extravagantly styled colonial buildings that were originally meant to intimidate the natives—Indian and Chinese immigrants as well as the Burmans, the country’s mainly Buddhist ethnic-linguistic majority, and the Shans, Kachin, Karens, Mons, and other minorities who make up the most diverse population in Southeast Asia.

The real center of Rangoon, however, is still the Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s holiest site, whose gilded spire is visible from much of the low-rise city. More than a millennium old, the Buddhist temple is not only an enduring symbol of the principal Burmese faith. Standing on a hill in the middle of the colonial city, it also appears to be a higher court of appeal than the modern government buildings that signify, to most Burmese, the state’s brutal and arbitrary power.

It was at the pagoda that university students gathered on December 4, 1920, the day subsequently celebrated as Burma’s National Day, to demand from the British rulers that education be reformed to produce a modern, independent nation. In 1936, anticolonial sentiment, which was then fiercer in Rangoon than in any other Asian city, provoked thousands of students to declare a strike at the pagoda. Burma’s first generation of leaders would emerge from among these students, who were inspired variously by Marx, Nietzsche, the Buddha, and Sinn Fein.

One of the student activists of 1936, General Aung San, who had collaborated with the Japanese occupiers before turning against them, stood at the pagoda in January 1946 to demand unconditional freedom from Britain. Aung San was assassinated in 1947, just months before his independence agreement with the British was put into effect. Forty-two years later, in 1988, his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi came to Rangoon to exhort over a half a million people to take part in a new freedom movement—this time aimed at the country’s own military rulers. In the crackdown that followed, over three thousand pro-democracy activists lost their lives. The military junta continued to rule the country; it allowed elections in 1990, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won with a landslide even though she had been put under house arrest in 1989, but then the junta ignored the results.

In September 2007, monks and civilian demonstrators gathered often at the pagoda, enlarging the protests that had erupted following a decision in late summer by Burma’s military regime, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), to end most subsidies on fuel and gas prices, among other items. (The decision was part of the regime’s attempt to “rationalize” economic policy and crack down on corruption.) Activists who had led the demonstrations in 1988—known in Burma as the ’88 Generation students—were among the first to protest the resulting dramatic increase—up to 500 percent—in the price of essential commodities. But they were quickly detained by the police, or roughed up by the Swan Arr Shin (“Masters of Force”), a disciplined group in civilian clothes trained by the government to beat up demonstrators, and members of the government-controlled party, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), who mostly work as neighborhood spies.

These harsh measures seemed at first to have defused the protests, but on September 5 hundreds of Buddhist monks with placards appeared on the streets of Pakokku, a town near Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city, some three hundred miles from Rangoon. This demonstration, cheered on by civilians, was, as a recent Human Rights Watch report points out, “of deep significance, as monks have a unique moral standing in Burma.” The military regime itself is avowedly Buddhist, and is usually careful to keep the monks pacified with generous donations to monasteries and pagodas. Nevertheless, “the army reacted brutally, beating the monks and the bystanders with bamboo sticks.”

According to the HRW report, the most thoroughly documented account yet of the regime’s violent crushing of the protests, the army’s behavior “caused revulsion and anger throughout the country.” A new organization called the All Burma Monks Alliance issued an ultimatum to the government, giving it until September 17 to apologize for the assault on monks in Pakokku, reduce fuel, rice, and cooking oil prices, and release all political prisoners.


When the regime predictably ignored these demands, the monks’ alliance excommunicated the leadership of the SPDC from the Buddhist faith and called for more protests. Monks across the country responded, and the number and size of demonstrations rapidly grew. On September 22, hundreds of monks broke through security barriers around the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been under house arrest for most of the last seventeen years. Tearfully, she held her hands together in the traditional gesture of obeisance as the monks shouted prayers for her.

The protests drew more and more people—including not only monks and democracy activists but also everyday citizens—reaching 20,000 in Rangoon on September 23, the most since 1988. The next morning two of Burma’s most popular entertainers offered, in a gesture of support, alms to monks before they set off from Shwedagon Pagoda, accompanied by thousands of civilians shouting boldly antigovernment slogans such as “Free Aung San Suu Kyi” and “Free All Political Prisoners.” Similarly large demonstrations were also reported in cities and towns across the country.

The regime had been relatively restrained after the army’s attack on monks in Pakokku. On September 24 it officially denounced the protests as the work of “internal and external destructionists, who are jealous of national development and stability.” The general in charge of religious affairs ordered monks to stick to Buddhist studies and meditation and to stay away from “secular affairs.” Ignoring official warnings, demonstrators continued to gather in larger numbers on Rangoon’s streets. The Bar Association of Burma, which represents the country’s lawyers, joined the monks and the group called ’88 Generation students in calling for a “peaceful political solution.”

On the evening of September 25, trucks with loudspeakers went around Rangoon, announcing a night curfew. Security forces arrested some of the more prominent protesters as military convoys moved into the city under the cover of night. The SPDC, which was previously known by the sinister acronym SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), had finally resolved to quash the protests, setting aside all traditional beliefs about the sanctity of monks.

Drawing on many eyewitness accounts, the HRW report observes that “when monks and civilians started gathering as usual at the Shwedagon Pagoda on the morning of September 26, they found a heavy deployment of riot police and soldiers.” Trapped by troops and barricades, the protesters could neither march nor visit the pagoda. Resistance to heavy-handed security forces soon collapsed into chaos and violence. A witness described to HRW how the riot police bludgeoned a monk to death:

I don’t know who that monk was, but I could clearly see the three riot police who were beating the monk. Some held rubber batons and others held thick bamboo sticks for the beatings…. At first the riot police didn’t notice or do anything about him…they never said anything to him, just started beating him. It happened very fast. One hit him at [the base] of his head, another hit him in the front of the knees. The third one…hit him continuously in the throat with his baton.

After the monk died, the “riot police took his body to their truck,” carrying him like a “dead animal.” Later, “the fire brigade came and cleaned the blood.”

This was only the beginning of the regime’s assault, during which soldiers repeatedly fired into crowds. The HRW report describes how, near a Rangoon high school, soldiers

drove a military vehicle directly into the crowd, knocking down and killing three protesters. When the soldiers got out of the truck, they opened fire on the fleeing crowd…. Soldiers shot in the back and killed a student climbing over the wall of his school and shot down three young men who fled into a neighboring construction site by the National Library. As they tracked down protesters, they fired into a ditch filled with fleeing people, and deliberately shot dead a protester hiding inside an empty water barrel.

Over the next few days, security forces acting with plainclothed members of the USDA and Swan Arr Shin arrested thousands of monks, banning them from returning to their monasteries and expelling them to their native villages. Monasteries were occupied by security forces and then closed. Thousands of monks (it is not clear how many) remain in detention, exposed to torture as well as unsanitary prison conditions. HRW documents report that seven monks have died in custody. Paolo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, believes that at least thirty-one people were killed during the junta’s crackdown.

According to Human Rights Watch, China, India, Japan, and the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) have responded tepidly to the military’s brutal crackdown, by contrast with the United States, which strengthened its long-standing ban on private investment and direct imports from Burma with sanctions preventing members and allies of the Burmese regime from making transactions through American banks. Human Rights Watch recommends sanctions aimed at individual members of the Burmese military and business elite, to prevent them from sending money abroad. It also proposes a ban on “imports, exports, and new investment in sectors of Burma’s economy that substantially benefit the military and/or are associated with serious human rights abuses.”


The Human Rights Watch report does not go much into the political and economic background of last year’s protests. It does, however, give a clear account of the techniques of totalitarian control used by the Burmese regime. For instance, all households in Burma have to provide local officials with a list of all persons residing in the household. Visitors staying overnight have to be registered in advance in order to avoid malevolent officials who regularly subject private households to “midnight checks.”

“Mass-based” quasi-civilian organizations such as the USDA help the military maintain its stranglehold over everyday life. The state radio and television frequently broadcast the USDA’s rallies and demonstrations, showing neat rows of thousands of white-shirted men and women pumping their fists in the air when a leader shouts a particularly stirring slogan or denunciation of “internal or external destructive elements and axe-handle[s]” such as Aung San Suu Kyi, ethnic resistance groups, and the United States.

Why has Burma been tightly controlled by a crudely xenophobic regime for more than four decades? It is true that dictatorships and authoritarian regimes were the rule rather than the exception in much of Asia during the cold war. A military despot ruled Indonesia until as late as 1998. However, undemocratic regimes in Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea derived much of their legitimacy from their economic performance. More recently, China’s  Communist rulers have postponed multiparty democracy while promising Western-style consumerism to middle-class Chinese. But as Singapore’s ex-strongman Lee Kuan Yew recently pointed out, Burma has had “rather dumb generals when it comes to the economy.”1

Burma’s fertile lowlands made it the world’s largest exporter of rice in 1940. The “Burmese way to socialism,” inaugurated by General Ne Win after he assumed power in the military coup in 1962, soon reduced the country to destitution. In 1987 Ne Win replaced currency notes of 35 and 75 kyats with notes of 45 and 90 kyats because he believed the number nine to be astrologically auspicious. (The official exchange rate today is 6.4 kyats to the dollar, which is more than two hundred times lower than the black market rate). The chaotic demonetization wiped out savings and fueled the protests in 1988.

The generals who replaced Ne Win in 1988 (and changed the country’s name to Myanmar in 1989) have not been much more successful with their experiments in a market economy. Military officials and their families dominate many private businesses, preventing the emergence of an entrepreneurial middle class (though the regime seems to tolerate expatriate Chinese businessmen), while ethnic insurgent groups carry on an illicit trade in narcotics, gems, and timber. Revenues from natural gas exports—Burma’s major earner—have gone into extravagant building projects, such as the relocation in late 2005 of the capital, from Rangoon to Naypyidaw in the relatively underdeveloped center of the country.

The regime’s willingness and ability to suppress all challenges to its authority with extreme force obviously helps it to remain in power. But the larger explanation of its strength and longevity lies in a much-ignored fact: that Burma has been in a state of uninterrupted civil war since independence in 1948, with dozens of ethnic-minority insurgent groups, which operate in or control between one quarter and one third of the country, ranged against a Burman-dominated state.

Reports from Burma in recent years have tended to focus on the dramatic standoff between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military regime, currently headed by General Than Shwe. But Suu Kyi, who, as the daughter of the assassinated Aung San, was drawn into antimilitary protests while on a private visit to Rangoon in 1988, is a relatively late arrival in Burmese politics, which were fraught with ethnic divisions even before independence.2

Burma, which is larger in land area than England and France combined, was a patchwork of loosely demarcated states when in 1886 the British destroyed the Burmese monarchy and annexed the country to their Indian Empire. Concerned above all to maintain law and order and advance commerce, Burma’s British overlords recruited the country’s ethnic minorities—such as the Kachins, Shans, and Karens—into their army, ignoring and alienating the Burmans, who traditionally dominated Burma, and who today make up an estimated two thirds of the country’s population of 55 million. Almost the entire military leadership today is Burman; so are Aung San Suu Kyi and her political allies, whose leaders are mostly former military men.3

As they did in India’s North-West Frontier, the British granted a high degree of autonomy to ethnic and tribal chieftains in Burma’s so-called Frontier States. The British encouraged, too, mostly at the expense of the Burmans, immigration from India. Half of Rangoon’s population in the 1930s consisted of Indian laborers and businessmen—many of whom left after the Japanese invasion.

Thus, Burmese nationalism, as it developed in Rangoon in the 1920s and 1930s, drew upon antiminority as well as anticolonial feeling among Burmans.4 Feeling themselves humiliated by the British, the Burmans aspired, too, to regain the militarist fervor that in the sixteenth century had made the Burmese state the scourge of its Indian, Siamese, and Chinese neighbors. The Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation of Burma in 1942 gave them their opportunity.

Trained by the Japanese military on Hainan Island, Aung San and other Burman nationalists returned to Burma to lead the Burma Independence Army against the fleeing British and their allies among ethnic minorities. At an opportune moment in the war—in early 1945—Aung San organized an anti-Japanese resistance movement, staking his claim to be the postcolonial leader of united Burma.

Imposing a European model of the linguistically and ethnically homogenous nation-state upon such a diverse country as Burma would have been difficult in any circumstances. It was made more arduous by Japan’s prolonged occupation and its ferocious battles with the British, which dispersed the authority of the old colonial state, leaving the country awash with political and ethnic groups with postcolonial ambitions—and guns—of their own. The assassination of the popular Aung San by a political rival in 1947 further complicated the transition to independence.

A Burmese Communist faction that had rejected collaboration with the Japanese, along with well-armed ethnic groups such as the Karens, revolted against the Burman-dominated state soon after the British left in early 1948.5 Initially outnumbering the ragtag Burmese army, they almost overthrew the civilian government in Rangoon in early 1949. Struggling to assert the new state’s authority in the late 1940s, the army faced an even bigger challenge as the cold war arrived in the region.

In 1950 more than ten thousand soldiers of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese Nationalist Army (KMT) retreating before the Communist People’s Liberation Army entrenched themselves in Burma’s Shan State, which borders China, Laos, and Thailand. Assisted by the CIA and Taiwan, and funded by a trade in drugs, the KMT prepared itself for a final assault on Communist China while Burma appealed futilely to the United States and United Nations to remove the Nationalist Chinese forces. In the 1960s Mao’s China armed a major guerrilla insurgency led by Burmese Communists, which was not contained until the late 1980s.

Grappling with these internal and external threats to Burma’s hard-won sovereignty, the Burmese army grew from five thousand in 1948 to one hundred thousand in the late 1950s. Led by General Ne Win, it finally drove the KMT out of Burma into Laos and Thailand in 1961. By then Rangoon’s civilian government, challenged repeatedly by ethnic groups, Communists, and the KMT, and ignored by the international community, had eroded to the point where it could be easily overthrown. In retrospect, the military takeover in 1962 seems inevitable; it was followed by self-imposed isolation during which General Ne Win nationalized the economy, expelled foreigners, imprisoned political activists, and intensified the military’s campaign against ethnic and Communist insurgencies.6

Mary P. Callahan, an American scholar who fortuitously got access to the Burmese regime’s archives, provides a striking account in a recent book, Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma, of how, during the 1950s, the military establishment, increasingly centralized and bureaucratized, steadily took over all functions of the state from an enfeebled civilian government. Callahan avoids facile theories—for instance, that the Burmese Buddhists are prone to defer to authority. She describes the background of the prolonged wars against Burmese Communists and against ethnic minorities—in which the Burmese army grew to be the dominant political as well as military force in the country.7

David I. Steinberg, a leading historian of Burma who has met members of the military leadership, confirms that the Burmese generals continue to see themselves as the sole guardians of the country’s sovereignty. They react with particular hostility to foreign interference. “All neighbors of Burma and the major powers,” Steinberg points out,

have at one time or another, most around the middle of the 20th century, supported or encouraged ethnic or political rebellions. The Burmese leadership has not forgotten this period—indeed seem transfixed by it and do not believe that times have changed.

Scorched-earth campaigns against remaining insurgents have resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, and Thailand in addition to over a million internally displaced Burmese. Desertion rates are high in the Burmese army, which has resorted to conscripting children as young as eleven.8 Its vicious suppression of monks this autumn is certain to have made it more unpopular among ordinary Burmese. Nevertheless, Steinberg seems convincing when he argues that “the military will continue to play a critical role in any post-transitional political accommodation that may be reached in the coming years.”

In 2003 the military regime announced a seven-step “roadmap” toward “disciplined democracy”; the steps include the drafting of a new constitution and a national referendum followed by elections. The roadmap, which has been accompanied by much rhetoric about national unity and development, lacks credibility with the Burmese opposition; and it is probably no more than a way for the military government to adopt a civilian guise.

Meanwhile, the Burmese population remains largely poor, suffering from inflation rates as high as 35 percent.9 One third of all children under the age of five are malnourished. Risks of infection from HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis are among the highest in the world, even threatening neighboring India, China, and Thailand.10 There is still a surplus of rice but corruption and poor roads ensure that many people go hungry, especially in the border areas where many ethnic minorities live, while some continue to leave the country.11 According to Refugees International, “more than 150,000 Burmese live in the nine refugee camps in Thailand”—most of them from the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups. Most refugees in Thailand live outside the camps, and there are many more people in need of humanitarian assistance in areas away from the Thai border—in many parts of rural Burma, for instance, where the military cease-fire with insurgent groups is fragile.

It might seem that nothing, barring a democratic revolution, could release the Burmese from their present misery. The United States and Europe have decided to break the political deadlock in Burma by deepening the country’s isolation through a policy of tough sanctions; however, Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian and author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, argues that

sanctions really only mean Western sanctions. In the years since 1988, Burmese trade with China and several other neighbouring countries has grown considerably, and tens of billions of dollars’ worth of natural gas have been discovered offshore. To believe that China would impose sanctions and cut off [its] access to Burma’s energy supplies in order to push the country towards democracy is naive. Sanctions going beyond those already in place would mean in effect increased influence for China; not something likely to lead to democratic change.12

Burma’s more democratic neighbor, India, has largely ignored the regime’s recent brutality, sending its petroleum minister to Burma in the midst of the crackdown in September 2007 to sign a deal for deep-water exploration. India, which has sold tanks, helicopters, and artillery to the Burmese military, regrets its previous support for Aung San Suu Kyi, a move that appears to have pushed the Burmese generals closer to China.13 Thailand, Burma’s largest trading partner, can meet its growing energy needs only by purchasing gas and hydroelectric power from the Burmese generals.

In view of the regional scramble for Burma’s resources, the West’s policy of sanctions seems unlikely to succeed. Indeed, the ban on Western investment and aid imposed during the last decade may have further entrenched the Burmese generals. Thant Myint-U speculates that

if, over the last fifteen years, there had been aid and investment (as there has been in Vietnam), rather than a half-hearted “regime-change” strategy from the West, there could have been real economic growth and social change. The isolation on which the regime depends would have diminished and it would have become increasingly clear to the officer corps that proper government is too complex for the army to manage. And this in turn would have created a better situation for Burma’s democrats and more leverage for Western governments. As it is, Western leverage is close to zero.

Nonetheless, the Bush administration has taken a hard line on Burma, and it is unlikely in its remaining months in office to move toward a more nuanced position, such as a carefully prepared negotiation with Burmese generals that Myint-U along with many other close observers of Burma argue is the plausible—indeed, the only—way out of a failed policy.14 Sergio Pinheiro, the UN human rights official who was barred from visiting Burma for almost four years, prefers talking to the Burmese generals rather than ostracizing them.15 Still, “constructive engagement” of the kind Asian countries claim to be pursuing with Burma has merely provided a moral cover for cynical business deals. What kind of dialogue is possible with a repressive regime that discarded, during last year’s crackdown on religious protesters, even the fig-leaf of Buddhism?

An engagement with the Burmese government is likely to work only if it proceeds gradually, through offers to the Burmese generals that are generous as well as conditional. To mention only two possible examples: full diplomatic relations could be established and financial loans offered in exchange for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, with a guarantee that she can take part in political opposition. Economic aid could be provided in return for a genuine cease-fire in the military’s campaign against ethnic insurgents. It would be important for foreign governments to avoid, as David I. Steinberg points out, “the embarrassment of publicly ‘dictating’ terms of assistance, as this is interpreted as an infringement on national sovereignty.” Burma urgently needs fresh investments in its infrastructure—roads, water systems, and communications, for example—before the regime can use revenues from gas exports to achieve its own stated aims, such as increasing the inadequate food supply and improving public health and education. But “the need for economic transformation,” Steinberg asserts, “should not be presented in ideological, confrontational, or moralistic modes.”

Better economic management won’t necessarily lead to democracy. Rising fuel prices, which have put a high new value on Burma’s natural resources, will not help the Burmese people acquire the right to determine their fate. Even if engagement by foreign governments succeeds, Burma may at best evolve into an authoritarian state with a somewhat efficient economy based on resource extraction, such as now exists in Angola, where newly discovered oil helps the reconstruction of the country after one of the most destructive conflicts of the cold war.

This prospect can only be discouraging to the Burmese who elected Aung San Suu Kyi as their leader in 1990 and who bravely demonstrated last year against the military regime, many of them hoping for a turn toward democracy. But Burma at present confronts the more disturbing—and likely—prospect of turning into an Asian counterpart of Congo, where militias facilitate the plunder by foreign businessmen of the country’s riches by terrorizing a steadily impoverished population. Damaged by ethnic conflict and cold war rivalry early in its postcolonial existence, Burma has been dealt a particularly bad hand by its neighbors and other major powers. A considered international response—as distinct from a reflexive policy of imposing sanctions—could still relieve the Burmese from their uniquely long and cruel solitude.

January 16, 2008

This Issue

February 14, 2008