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New Left Review 60, November-December 2009


mary callahan

MYANMAR’S PERPETUAL JUNTA

Solving the Riddle of the Tatmadaw’s Long Reign

The imminent fall of Myanmar’s brutal and kleptocratic military dictatorship has been proclaimed on numerous occasions over the past twenty years. The mass protests of 1988, which saw the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as the figurehead of the pro-reform forces, came just two years after the success of ‘people power’ in ousting the Marcos regime in the Philippines, and seemed at first destined for similar success; but within twelve months the movement had succumbed to splits and repression. Suu Kyi’s arrest in July 1989 came on the eve of the Hungarian border opening, prelude to the velvet revolutions of the ex-Soviet bloc; but ‘third wave’ democracy swept by, leaving Myanmar untouched. In 1996–98 when, after sustained lobbying by human-rights groups, the eu and us imposed formal economic sanctions on General Than Shwe’s regime, the move was hailed as another turning point: it was hoped that sustained international pressure might succeed where popular mobilization had failed, with South Africa considered a template for forcing reform in Myanmar. But by then, the junta was reaping massive profits from teak, jade and ruby deals with its neighbours, and shrugged the sanctions off. Well-funded attempts by George Soros, the National Endowment for Democracy and others to build an opposition movement among Burmese exiles produced scant internal effects. The dictatorship survived one well-documented human-rights report after another, as well as denunciations by world leaders, Nobel laureates and Hollywood celebrities. [1] I use the terms Burma/Burmese and Myanmar interchangeably for the country/population. The former, which probably dates back to the last dynasty before colonial rule, derives from the majority ethnic group, the Burmans; the latter, a literary form, first appears in 12th-century inscriptions. In 1989 the toponym’s romanization was changed to Myanmar by the ruling junta, with corresponding revisions for cities and ethnic groups (a move comparable to China’s introduction of the pinyin system). Usage of pre-1989 names became a litmus test for certain exile and advocacy groups in the 1990s. Today the new names are widely used inside the country and some minority leaders prefer Myanmar, as less associated with the Burmans (now renamed ‘Bamars’). Currently, the us, uk, Canada and Australia insist on ‘Burma’, while much of Europe, Russia, Japan and all the country’s near neighbours—India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos—use Myanmar.




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