I arrived in Burma in late April of this year, as the nation eagerly awaited the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the nation‘s democracy movement and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. [1] Whether or not “the Lady” would be freed and when this might take place was the main topic of conversation within the diplomatic community and among those working for the handful of international organizations allowed to operate by the governing State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

    Though political issues are not generally a subject for open discussion in Burma, virtually everyone I met wanted to talk about Aung San Suu Kyi‘s impending release. Occasionally, people I hardly knew—taxi drivers, restaurant workers, young monks— would ask me about new developments as if my status as a foreigner promised some special knowledge of the military regime‘s intricate and often mysterious workings. Soon, dozens of international journalists arrived in Rangoon, awaiting a story that would make Burma, however briefly, the focus of global attention.

    After a few additional days of uncertainty and shifting rumors, Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to leave her home. Within hours the story made its way around the world through television and radio broadcasts, and soon after, in countless newspapers and magazines. The negotiated end of her latest house arrest was widely hailed as an important step in a process of political change possibly leading to a long awaited transition from military rule to democracy.

    Yet, within Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi‘s newly won freedom was never mentioned in any of the state-controlled media. This official silence was both strange and telling, especially since almost everyone in Rangoon knew of her release the day it occurred and the information was rapidly disseminated, by informal means, throughout the country. The unwillingness of the regime to formally recognize one of the nation‘s biggest political stories revealed their deep-seated fear of both the subversive power of information and the open exchange of ideas, providing a window into the profound challenges of imagining democratic change in Burma following four decades of repressive military rule.

    Burma is a poor, agrarian country with a multiethnic population of 50 million living under one of the world‘s most authoritarian regimes. Since 1962, the nation has been run by a military government favoring nationalistic policies that have isolated Burma from the global community.

    The SPDC relies on a complex and widespread system of surveillance, censors all published material and exercises a near total ban on outside information with almost any political content. There are few cell phones in Burma, e-mail is highly limited and closely monitored and there is virtually no Internet access. The regime severely punishes anyone who publicly voices dissent, often through lengthy jail terms. The state also has a well-documented record of human rights violations, including extra-judicial killings, torture and forced labor, particularly in rural areas dominated by ethnic minorities, some of whom are engaged in armed opposition to the state and seek their own independence.

    In 1988, Burma experienced a popular uprising that was violently repressed by the military regime. The government later agreed to hold democratic elections in 1990 that were overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the main oppositional party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, an exceptionally articulate, highly popular leader and the daughter of Burma‘s most important hero of the struggle for independence. The regime refused to honor the election and jailed over a thousand members of the opposition. These actions prompted widespread criticism and led to a situation in which Burma has become an international pariah state. In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her heroic efforts to bring democracy to Burma, though she was unable to accept the prize for fear that if she left the country she would be prevented from returning home. The world community continues to pressure the regime to engage in a process of democratization through United Nations resolutions, economic sanctions from United States and the European Union and a more conciliatory approach on the part of ASEAN countries.

    Over the last several years, Burma has gradually opened itself up to limited scrutiny, allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit prisons, accepting a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and allowing for inquiries into the use of forced labor by the International Labor Organization. For the past 18 months, the SPDC and Aung San Suu Kyi have been involved in a series of private meetings. While the exact subject of these discussions has remained secret, her release is generally interpreted as an indication that the talks are progressing.

    I traveled to Burma to learn about the status of a possible democratic transition. This was my second trip, having visited the country a year earlier to present a series of lectures on political transitions in Latin America. After dozens of conversations with democracy activists, diplomats, writers, aid workers and others, I found the mood in Burma both more tense and more hopeful than during the previous year. There is widespread consensus that military rule has impoverished the nation, especially as compared to other Asian nations, and that the country suffers from a crisis of governability and a profoundly deteriorating economy. The situation is difficult, uncertain and anxious, yet the possibility of real change is tantalizing to all, even those who doubt that a transformation will arrive any time soon.


    “I am an old man, sad, frustrated and angry. I only hope that before I die I will see some real change in my country.”

    Sitting in a rare air-conditioned office, the retired ambassador paused to think, leaned forward and continued, “Those of us in our sixties and seventies know what‘s wrong with the current system because we know what things were like before the military regime came to power. Forty years ago we were the most advanced country in the region. Where was Thailand in the 1960s? Where was South Korea? Where was Singapore? Back then, we had the most educated people, Rangoon University was the best school in the region and everyone thought that we were the tiger. Now, look at us.”

    The voices of older, educated Burmese reveal the uncertainty of past predictions, the severe impact of decades of poor governance and the essential sadness of facing a nation‘s unrealized dreams. For the generation who came to political maturity with the country‘s independence, Burma‘s current crisis is the result of having missed one opportunity after another.

    Perhaps this is the central tragedy of modern Burma. Forty years ago the nation was poised to play a major leadership role within the region and was among the most likely candidates for rapid economic and social development. Burma was rich in natural resources, capable of feeding its population and generally more advanced than many of its neighboring countries. While the country faced complex challenges in negotiating post-colonial independence, key elements of basic governance, such as the legal and educational system, were among the best in Southeast Asia. At the time, the nation was widely respected internationally, in part for its non-aligned status, as reflected in the choice of a Burmese diplomat as the second Secretary General of the United Nations.

    Today, Burma is one of the poorest and most isolated nations in Southeast Asia. The per capita income is around $300 per year and the country is plagued by high infant and childhood mortality rates, low primary school completion (especially in rural areas), a collapsing infrastructure and a growing AIDS problem. In every sense, Burma at the dawn of the 21st century is a nation plagued by the classic problems of the developing world.


    “For the next five years I was held in solitary confinement.” “Then they took me to prison for three years.” “After that I was charged with, ‘endangering the security of the state‘ and imprisoned like everyone else.”

    Virtually every democracy activist I met, including many who won parliamentary positions in the 1990 elections, had been jailed, often for many years. The interviews I conducted typically included detailed descriptions of imprisonment presented in a manner that revealed just how typical the experience is for members of the small, though committed, democratic opposition. Currently it is estimated that there are about one thousand political prisoners in Burma, though many have been released over the past year.

    Today, Burma is one of the few nations in the world in which the state exercises near constant, ever-present control over most aspects of daily life. Through a combination of institutions and policies, Burmese society is carefully organized to enable state control. For example, Burmese live under the supervision of a multi-tiered system of Peace and Development Councils (PDC). The PDCs begin at a local level covering every ten houses in a community and move upwards to represent wards, townships and regions, all of which fall under the direct control of a central council. Individual Burmese are required to carry identification cards and all households must be registered. When Burmese plan to spend the night away from their designated residences, they are required to inform local officials, whose formal recommendations and support are also necessary for obtaining jobs and successfully negotiating a variety of bureaucratic processes.

    The SPDC invests an enormous amount of money and resources in controlling its population. Since the 1988 uprising, the armed forces have almost tripled in size to 400,000 soldiers, representing one of the largest standing armies in the region. The state responds harshly to virtually any act of political opposition, jailing all perceived opponents from writers to street performers. As one former government official explains, “The military has come to believe that oppression really works. After all, the hard line position has been effective at maintaining power, though it has failed in governance.”

    While the Burmese government may be successful in repressing political opposition, the system is in disarray. Many state employees – from teachers to clerical workers to physicians – are unable to survive on their official salaries and seek alternate means of making a living, largely by demanding bribes and gifts or by selling private services. For example, while public education is free, schools typically require “donations” to receive a student, or create other mechanisms of special payment such as requiring parents to “buy” their children‘s desks. Often teachers earn the majority of their living by providing private tutoring sessions and it is common to hear of those who fail to show up at their official school jobs. Bribes, payments, gifts and donations are similarly required in health clinics and at virtually every state office where documents are processed or services offered.

    The majority of economic and social activity takes place on the margins of the official system, operating in a parallel, informal market. Many products sold in the streets and in stores are smuggled across the border where bribes rather than taxes are paid. Those who receive state credits for items such as gasoline often sell what they receive on the black market, while others survive by buying and selling goods and services in whatever way they can.

    A Burmese economist explained, “We have a non-market system run by a bureaucracy in which the real economy is based on unofficial, informal trade. The people see the state as irrelevant. The formal economy has collapsed and the lives of Burmese rest almost entirely on the informal economy. Look, the local police here sell electricity from their station.”

    While the regime has successfully repressed open political dissent, the desire for change—especially economic change—is almost visceral. One businessman claimed the real question facing Burmese society is not whether things will change, but at what point the crisis will become too much to bear, “It is hard to know when the breaking point will come.” I heard such statements over and over again, testament to the brewing anger and deep-seated frustration of those who dream of change yet struggle daily to simply survive.

    Despite the dysfunction of many elements of the Burmese state, the military controls the country and does so through a system that invests enormous authority in top levels of government. In this way, the decisions of a handful of key individuals determine the nation‘s future and there is a great deal of continual speculation regarding the attitudes, opinions and beliefs of the SPDC‘s top leaders.

    In Burma, there is a marked divide between the civilian world and that of the military. Unfortunately, none of the people I met were members of the armed forces and they struggled to make sense, to me and to themselves, of the regime‘s understanding of the current situation. One academic described the SPDC as a victim of its own isolation, “The regime has come to believe their own propaganda. They have a mindset and it is almost impenetrable.” Others see the regime as obsessed with national unity and unwilling to open the political process to any challenge to its vision of firm, centralized control, particularly as regards to the demands of ethnic minorities. For still others, the government seeks to protect its position at all costs, caring little for the general population and allowing those with close connections to the regime to grow wealthy while the situation continues to deteriorate.

    Even as the nation suffers the ravages of worsening poverty and an ever more uncertain future, the Burmese regime holds firm to its claims of progress, development and modernization, using a language reminiscent of classic Soviet-era propaganda. Alongside these pronouncements are accompanying rituals—elaborate inspections, tours and public presentations—that one lawyer described as, “illusions of grandeur.” Yet, underlying the strident tone of these events and the SPDC‘s continual celebration of its success lies a clear unwillingness to face the harsh reality of the present.

    In this sense, one can understand the SPDC‘s refusal to publicly acknowledge Aung San Suu Kyi‘s release as a sign of how the government conceptualizes the political landscape. The regime suppressed one of the nation‘s most important news stories, not to prevent the information from being known, but as an expression of its control over public discourse and as a means of avoiding any sign of weakness.

    A local businessman with strong ties to the West described the situation in this manner, “The regime does not operate by discussing an issue. What dominates is a system of superiors and inferiors, where one issues the order and the other follows. This is a part of every aspect of government and this system has been internalized by so many people.” Or, as another Burmese explained, “The military has changed the dialogue culture to a zero-sum game. They view a negotiation as a contest that they must win, a situation where one side triumphs and the other side surrenders.”

    A political transition in Burma rests on a paradox born of decades of isolation. That is, while a meaningful political shift requires an honest accounting with the nation‘s current situation, the regime is likely to understand public revelations of Burma‘s uncomfortable truths – increasing poverty, crumbling infrastructure, troubling health statistics – as fundamentally threatening, not only to its power base but also to its vision of reality. So, even where the presentation of these issues is oriented towards the creation of improved policy, the regime may respond negatively, or as an older Burmese politician explained, “The regime does not fight ideas with better ideas. Instead it feels as though it is being attacked and reacts as such.”

    The continuing negotiations between the SPDC and Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD are necessary steps for any process of governmental reform leading to the nation‘s reintegration into the global community. Despite the potential benefits of such a process for a suffering society, the regime reacts poorly to criticism and remains deeply invested in avoiding an open recognition of the country‘s current problems. One of the central challenges of Burma‘s transitional process, then, involves defining the situation in a manner that recognizes the severity of the crisis while allowing the military to save face and understand itself as an active partner in a complex process of change.

    Driving to the Rangoon airport on my way back to Bangkok, I passed under an arch stretching across the main road with the words, “Towards a New Modern Developed Nation.” This statement, like many of the regime‘s claims, rings hollow since its vision of good governance stands in stark opposition to the reality of daily life. While political transformation in Burma may well be imminent, the nature of such change is highly uncertain, deeply contested and voiced now with care and trepidation. One can only hope that the recent release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the continuing negotiations will lead the regime to understand that facing the truth of the nation‘s crisis is not a sign of weakness but rather a necessary step towards a process of political change that can provide the Burmese people with the better life they so clearly deserve.


    Daniel Rothenberg is a senior fellow at the Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School. Until recently, he was a fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows and assistant professor of anthropology at the U-M.

      1. The military regime changed the country‘s name from Burma to Myanmar though those allied with the democracy movement and various nations opposed to the current regime (including the United States) continue to refer to the country by its earlier name. return to text