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What next for Burma's generals?

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Buddhist Monks protest in Rangoon on 24 September 2007
These protests echo unrest in 1988, also sparked by economic woes
Will Burma's military rulers listen to the endless pleas for restraint and dialogue? Could the regime crumble under the weight of popular anger, or through splits in the ranks of the armed forces?

Or will they succeed in terrorising the population into submission again through mass killings, as they did in 1988?

We simply do not know which of these scenarios is more plausible, because it is impossible to know the thinking of the tight clique of generals who run the country.

But there are "end-of-regime" scenarios we can look at in other countries; specifically Indonesia, a fellow member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).

Military role

The Burmese junta, the SPDC, makes no secret of its admiration for the pseudo-democracy run by President Suharto, the former Indonesian strongman, so perhaps it is instructive to look at how the Suharto regime was overthrown.

Soldiers are taught that they are an elite class, entitled to special respect - and that anyone who opposes them is an enemy bent on returning the country to chaos and civil war

The parallels between the two countries are striking. They are both large, tropical countries comprising many diverse ethnic groups and cultures that won independence from colonial rule in the chaotic aftermath of the Second World War.

In both countries, nation-building was hampered by strong separatist movements in their outlying regions.

In both the army became the dominant political force in the 1960s, arguing it was the only institution that could hold the country together.

Both countries' officer classes involved themselves heavily in business and politics.

Both Gen Suharto and Gen Ne Win, Burma's military strongman until the 1990s, were from humble, superstitious backgrounds, but had their worldviews profoundly altered when they were members of Japanese paramilitary units as young men during the Japanese occupations of their countries.

It instilled in both men a belief in martial values and the central role of the military in political life.

But there the similarities end.

'Tiger' economy

Perhaps timing was the reason - Indonesia nearly fell apart under its mercurial founding father Sukarno in the 1960s.

Suharto took advantage, after a failed coup, but needed rapid economic development to restore the government's legitimacy.

Burma's leader, Senior General Than Shwe, in March 2007
Burmese soldiers have fierce loyalty drilled into them

It was a time when Western governments needed Cold War allies - they were willing to overlook Suharto's horrific human rights abuses, and offered aid and investment.

At the time, Ne Win had taken Burma along what he called the "Burmese way" of socialism, a bizarre form of isolation.

As a result, by the 1980s Indonesia was being hailed as one of the successful "tiger" economies of South-East Asia with spectacular growth rates. Burma was a basket case. That led to two very different results.

In Burma, economic misery provoked massive anti-government protests in 1988, which were savagely put down by the army over a period of three months. Thousands died.

The regime tried to adapt itself. It held elections, but miscalculated disastrously, losing by a huge margin to Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party.

It refused to recognise the results, but tried to win the population over by encouraging foreign investment in an attempt to stimulate Indonesian-style development.

But it was no longer the 1960s; it was the post-Cold War 1990s.

Western governments were no longer willing to overlook human rights abuses. They were charmed by the dignity of Aung San Suu Kyi, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and imposed increasingly tough sanctions.

But President Suharto's successful development strategy came back to haunt him. When people began tiring of his corrupt and authoritarian ways in the 1990s, he reverted back to type, banning newspapers and locking up or intimidating his opponents.

In Burma, complete isolation means the generals have little to lose from international sanctions

He had skilfully managed promotions in the army to keep it loyal, and gave it a large slice of the economy to manage.

He created pseudo-parties guaranteed to win pseudo-elections to a pseudo parliament - all tactics now being copied by Burma's generals.

But rapid development had created a powerful new class of people who became rich through trade with the rest of the world, who sent their children to be educated in America, Europe or Australia.

Even some army officers enjoyed foreign contact and training.

'Elite' class

When the charms of the aging Suharto and his clique began to fade, this group was not prepared to risk international isolation; it didn't have the stomach for massive repression. Instead, it told Suharto to go.

In Burma, complete isolation means the generals have little to lose from international sanctions. Nor is there a large and powerful middle class with a lot to lose. There is only the military - the most powerful institution in the country - with its fingers in every aspect of daily life.

It suffers little from isolation, except in the increasingly narrow view of its officers.

Soldiers are taught that they are an elite class, entitled to special respect - and that anyone who opposes them is an enemy bent on returning the country to chaos and civil war.

That will almost certainly be the warped instruction given now to the troops who have shot at unarmed monks and civilians in Rangoon.

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The lavish lifestyles of Burma's military leaders




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