History & Current Events
1990-2010: Military Rule
_Second, the regime worked to break up the organizational structure of the pro-democracy movement, particularly the NLD. By keeping Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and the top party strategists in prison, they ensured that the party leadership was in disarray.
Third, the regime tried to neutralize the ethnic armed resistance movements by making ceasefire agreements with many of the armed groups, such as the Wa and Kachin, on its borders. The Karen, however, would not negotiate, and while the Burmese military - the Tatmadaw - finally captured the main Karen base in the spring of 1995, there still has been no final peace settlement. In 1996 Khun Sa, an armed opposition leader and opium warlord who nominally controlled parts of Shan State, made a deal with the SLORC, who allowed him to make property and transportation investments near the Thai border. By 2000, only pockets of resistance remained.
_ The Than Shwe Years
In 1992 the regime replaced General Saw Maung with Senior General Than Shwe, who would stay in power until the 2010 election, while General Ne Win still possibly exerted influence behind the scenes. Than Shwe relaxed some of the restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest, finally releasing her in July 1995, although she was forbidden to leave Rangoon. Than Shwe also finally allowed a National Convention to meet in January 1993, to draft a new constitution, but insisted that the assembly preserve a major role for the military in any future government, and suspended the convention from time to time. The NLD, fed up with the interference, walked out in late 1995, and the Convention was finally dismissed in March 1996 without producing a constitution.
After the failure of the National Convention to create a new constitution, tensions between the government and the NLD increased, resulting in two major crackdowns on the NLD in 1996 and 1997. The SLORC faced challenges as it struggled with a weakening economy and pressure form domestic political groups, foreign organizations and governments and in November 1997 renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, and General Maung Aye, who both had leading roles in policy making, used the occasion to strengthen their own positions by promoting younger, more loyal men to second-line leadership positions. Than Shwe also tried to woo the masses and secure his own base of support through the establishment of the Union solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Supposedly a social organization, the USDA was often used to defend the interests of the regime. The authorities also gave military training to some USDA youth and used them to intimidate and attack Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters.
Continuing reports of human rights violations in Burma led the US to intensify sanctions in 1997, and the EU followed suit in 2000. In September 2000 the SPDC again placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, after she and members of the NLD tried to travel from Rangoon to Mandalay. When she was released in May 2002, reconciliation talks were held but ended when Aung San Suu Kyi was once again put under house arrest in May 2003 after an ambush on her motorcade by a pro-military mob not far from Depayin town, an event known as the ‘Depayin massacre’. The junta also carried out another large-scale crackdown on the NLD, arresting many of its leaders and closing down most of its offices.
In an effort to deflect attention from the Depayin Massacre, Kyin Nyunt announced a seven-step “Roadmap to Democracy” in August 2003. No time-frame was provided, giving the regime the opportunity to speed up or draw out any steps of the process as they wished. In May 2004, the regime reconvened the National Convention for the first time since March 1996 in an attempt to rewrite the Constitution. The NLD was invited but, since the regime refused to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, boycotted, as did many ethnic parties when it was clear that the regime would not remove the principle that the military must play the leading role in politics. The Convention was adjourned again in January 2006 without having written a constitution.
_In November 2005 the junta moved the capital from Rangoon to a formerly underdeveloped area in Central Burma. The official reason was because of concerns about a potential US invasion, but more likely the move was to avoid a repetition of 1988, since demonstrations in Rangoon would no longer directly threaten the regime’s security. The new capital was named Naypyidaw, which means ‘royal abode’, and cost $4-5 billion to build. Meanwhile, in 2004/05, the regime spent only 458 Burmese Kyat (less than half US$1) per person on healthcare.
_After the Saffron Revolution the regime moved quickly ahead with the Roadmap to Democracy. It closed the National Convention and set up a committee to write the Constitution, which was finalized in February 2008. The regime then announced it would hold a referendum on the Constitution in May 2008, saying that ‘To approve the state Constitution is a national duty of the entire people today.’
Copies of the Constitution were, however, hard to find, especially outside Rangoon, and the regime made almost no effort to educate people about its contents. Anyone campaigning for people to vote 'No' could be sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, and the domestic media were not allowed to cover the 'Vote No' campaign.
The Constitution allows a degree of civilian participation in politics, as there will be an elected national parliament and state/regional legislatures. However, 25% of the seats in each legislative body are reserved for the military and the president must have a military background. The Tatmadaw has the right to manage military affairs without any civilian interference and the military can take power if they believe that national security is threatened. Moreover, Chapter VII, Article 4 states: “The Tatmadaw must play a leading role in safeguarding the Union of Myanmar against all internal and external dangers.” Also, citizens who are married to foreigners may not be President, and persons who have served a prison sentence or have been convicted in court may not be elected to Parliament. This is clearly to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners from taking part in politics.
*Update: The 2010 Political Parties Registration Law, which prevented any group with members who had been imprisoned from operating as a political party, was revised by Thein Sein in November 2011 in order to allow the National League for Democracy (NLD) - Aung San Suu Kyi's party - and other parties to participate in politics. In December 2011 the NLD officially registered as a political party and its candidates, including Daw Suu, won all 43 seats they contested in the April 1st 2012 by-elections. Despite a huge victory in the by-elections, a testament to the immense popularity still enjoyed by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the NLD controls only 43 out of 664 seats in Parliament, of which 25% are reserved for the military. Consequently the NLD's real influence will probably be marginal, and it may be difficult for the party to really influence the country's politics.