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Paula Green investigates Buddhists against Buddhists in troubled Burma.
Following World War II the Burmese elected Aung San and his party to lead their first parliamentary democracy. In 1947, three months after the election, Aung San was assassinated.
The nation grieved for its promising young leader, whose daughter Aung San Suu Kyi would develop into a leading political figure. On October 14, 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "because of her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights."
AUNG SAN'S SUCCESSOR, U Nu, a deeply religious Buddhist, administered Burma for fourteen years. He developed a form of social democracy by means of which he attempted to govern a splintered and factionalized country, balancing pressures from disaffected minority groups and the increasingly powerful military.
Monk reading newspaper outside Burmese wat
(Bruno Barbey (c) Magnum)
The rule of U Nu came to an abrupt end in 1962 with an overnight coup staged by General Ne Win and his military. Since then, Ne Win has controlled Burma. His rule, both authoritarian and inept, has led a once prosperous Burma to political chaos and the brink of bankruptcy. Several times during the past thirty years groups of students and monks organized protests against the regime, never succeeding and often sacrificing their lives in the process. Finally, in 1988, the people mobilized and nearly brought the government down.
By 1988 conditions in Burma were unendurable. Ne Win had mandated several demonetizations that obliterated life savings. He had so mismanaged the economy that he reduced a once prosperous and proud nation to number four on the United Nations' list of the world's ten "least-developed" nations. He mis-allocated monies earned from selling natural resources in order to create military privilege and elitism. In a country that had never known hunger, food and jobs became scarce; it is estimated that today forty percent of the population live in poverty. Opportunities for educated professionals ceased to exist despite the strong emphasis in traditional culture on higher education. The ethnic minorities faced obliteration by a government hungry for their land and its riches.
DEMONSTRATIONS BEGAN AFTER a student incident in 1988 provoked excessive military response. Protest spread rapidly. Between March and September millions of people took to the streets to demand freedom.
In a move that prefigured the military violence in China's Tiananmen Square in 1990, Ne Win responded swiftly. Witnesses saw thousands of citizens, including large numbers of children, monks, and university students, murdered in the streets or bludgeoned and dragged off to prison. Rivers in Rangoon ran red with the blood of protesters. Week after week for half a year, nonviolent demonstrators, Buddhist and Burmese, faced a brutally violent military, who were also Buddhist and Burmese.
Urban Monks seeking refuge in jungles along Thai border (Christopher Coughlin)
On September 18, 1988, the military reasserted control over the nation in revolt and formed itself into the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to establish emergency measures that restricted every movement and initiative of the people. Universities and medical schools were shut down, and all foreign observers were ordered to leave the country. Government control of the people became absolute.
IN THE YEARS SINCE 1988, civil liberties in Burma have deteriorated still further. Nineteen centers for torture now exist throughout the country and Amnesty International names Burma as having one of the worst human-rights records in the world. Universities and medical schools remain closed, or open only under severe restrictions. Public meetings, or gatherings of more than five people, are forbidden. Neighborhoods where protests occurred have been destroyed, the residents forcibly evacuated to isolated, malaria-infested swamp. Armed soldiers surround monasteries and pagodas. The only press is controlled by the SLORC. The regime has even renamed the country Myanmar, but since this was done over the objections of its citizens, foreigners sympathetic to the oppressed demonstrators do not acknowledge the new name. Civilian courts have been replaced by military tribunals that sentence thousands to prison, or worse, without trial. Even overseas Burmese are not immune; many living in the West dare not speak out for fear of reprisals to relatives inside Burma.
On the peripheries of Burma, the military recently escalated its war against the ethnic minorities. Using money earned from the sale of natural resources, the government buys high technology jungle weaponry, thus destroying the indigenous peoples with weapons purchased from the bounty of their own land. Soldiers pillage and burn ethnic villages, raping and capturing females for sale to prostitution rings and enslaving males as porters and human mine sweeps for the military.
LIVING IN THE JUNGLES along with the ethnic minorities are thousands of Burmese university students, who fled certain extermination by the military for an uncertain fate as exiles in an alien environment. Approximately ten thousand of them made their way to border areas, most commonly to the border between Burma and Thailand. In this inhospitable environment, the majority died of malaria, starvation, or military attack. Some made their way across borders to other countries, and three thousand remain hidden in the jungle, where they learn survival techniques from the indigenous peoples. In turn, students organize schools and health clinics. Given the hostile history between Burmans and the minority peoples, these bonds will be important for Burma's future if the students and their hosts can outlive the present military regime.