Mission Failure
By Min Zin Wednesday, September 18, 2002

September 18, 2002 — Today marks the anniversary of the bloody Sept 18, 1988 coup when the democratic aspirations of the people of Burma were violently crushed by the military junta. Since then, Burma has traveled through 14 years of darkness with no discernable light at the end of the tunnel. Unspeakable miseries and daily economic hardships remain as much a fact of life as political stalemate. When the announcement was made that afternoon that the military had taken over the country, soldiers proceeded to ruthlessly massacre peaceful democracy protestors, and within a few days, between 500 to 1,000 lay dead in the streets of Rangoon with many more casualties across the country. The leader of the coup, the late Gen Saw Maung, outlined the junta’s four missions on the same day in the first official announcement from Burma’s new rulers. The first tasks the generals vowed to accomplish were "to restore law, order, peace and tranquility" and "to do the utmost to ease the people’s food, clothing and shelter needs". They managed to keep their promise on the first objective—quelling the peaceful protestors with bloodshed, but providing fundamental needs to the people cannot be achieved by the barrel of the gun. Basic commodity prices have risen steadily over the past 14 years under military rule: A basket of ordinary rice that cost 15 kyat in 1988 now costs 360 kyat. Problems have been exacerbated by the plummeting value of the currency. In 1989, the exchange rate was 60 kyat to the US dollar. In recent weeks that rate had dropped to 1,300 kyat. Many Rangoon residents are now queuing up Soviet-style to get their tiny rations of cooking oil with some spending the whole night in line to ensure they get their shares. In fact, hunger-related crime has become so widespread that the generals have been unable to bring it under control. Even rank-and-file soldiers, who loot and rape with impunity, particularly in the ethnic areas, have become demoralized victims of the junta’s ineptitude. Social cohesion has become so unglued that the generals themselves live in a climate of fear and insecurity. The generals boast of achieving ceasefire agreements with 22 ethnic insurgent groups through tactics of divide and conquer. But this has done less to achieve lasting peace and social harmony than to drive a wedge between, and within, ethnic groups and has earned the junta the reputation as a "narco-dictatorship". The final task, as promised by Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, was for political change: "Once the elections are successfully completed, the Defense Forces will systematically hand over state power to the victorious party". But the overwhelming victory in 1990 for the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has not yet been honored, and the generals have scarcely demonstrated the political will to do so anytime soon. Expectations that Burma’s political crisis will be resolved through the mediation of UN Special Envoy to Burma Razali Ismail, and the subsequent intervention of Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad, are beginning to wane. Dialogue with Suu Kyi seems no more of a reality today than it did four months ago before she was released from house arrest for the second time since her party won the elections. The military junta has cleverly used Suu Kyi since her release as a buffer against the impatient international community and angry and frustrated Burmese people. There is growing speculation that the regime will undertake some token political change before the United Nations General Assembly resolution later this year in order to fend off any criticisms directed at them. Of course, this will only be window-dressing unless clear signs of a move towards substantive political reform emerge. Despite their bold proclamations 14 years ago, the mission of the generals today appears to be nothing more than ensuring that tomorrow will be the same as today.

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