Burma’s dictatorship turns 50

This week a lot of people are marking two important anniversaries on the calendar of historic events in Burma.

For one, it is the first anniversary of the 2007 protests that began after an as yet unexplained dramatic fuel price hike and ended with a nationwide crackdown on tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of monk-led demonstrators. It is also 20 years since the extinguishing of the 1988 uprising by a newly comprised and utterly ruthless junta, which has since reincarnated itself a number of times over.

A third anniversary of perhaps even greater significance has been largely overlooked. Sep. 26, 2008 in fact marks the 50th year of military dictatorship in Burma.

Most histories begin the count from 1962, when General Ne Win (above at left) launched the executive council that was to rule the country by decree for the next dozen years. But his reign effectively began in 1958.

That was when a part of the army carried out a coup by stealth against the elected government of U Nu, apparently to head off one from another part. An agreed transfer of power to the armed forces commander prevented possible bloodshed but also gave him the cover he needed. Instead of acting as a usurper, Ne Win could claim a constitutional mandate to rule even though he had no commitment to the Constitution or its values.

Throughout 1959 the army accustomed not only itself but also everyone else to its new national leadership role. It paid lip service to established values and institutions while laying the groundwork for a very different future.

Observers at home and abroad lauded Ne Win for stepping down as promised in 1960, misunderstanding the move in moral and legal terms, rather than the strategic ones that determine soldiers’ behavior. He waited for two years before intervening again, without further pretences or niceties.

Although the manner of the second takeover was markedly different from the first, it was premised on the same contempt for constitutionalism and popular politics, this time expressed openly. Superficially different, it was fundamentally a continuance of the earlier agenda. In hindsight, the interim period of civilian rule ended up as little more than a bump on the road to a half-century of dictatorship.

Despite changes to the form of military control over the last 50 years, what has remained constant throughout has been the systematic demolishing and deliberate confusing of any other parts of state that could pose some threat to the new power-holders.

Among those parts, there has been quite a lot of study about how the military overthrew Parliament and political parties and also how it sought to smother public protest, particularly from dissidents among the monks and students.

In contrast, there have been very few critical studies of how other parts of the national apparatus were brought under effective control for sustained despotic rule: how the judiciary, bureaucracy and police were infiltrated, weakened and absorbed so that today when generals talk about the work of one or another of these there is practically nothing to differentiate them.

It is this collapsing of the state into a single unit that has had the most profoundly negative effects on the people of Burma over the last few decades, and which is the cause of the greatest difficulties for opponents of the regime seeking to organize and resist it.

A new study from the Asian Legal Resource Centre examines some aspects of this half-century project through ten cases of persons detained during and after last year’s rallies.

The features of abuse found in these cases “are not issues that suddenly arose with the military takeover in 1988,” the editors write in their introduction. “On the contrary, they are the consequence of a deliberate program for the perverting of law that was begun around a quarter of a century before that time … further embedded under the current regime.”

The editors also observe that the current junta “has done nothing unique at all so far as the un-rule of law is concerned” other than to press on with the project of their dictatorial forebears, a fact borne out by the contents of the ten cases.

And, they warn in closing, the experiences of Burma should not be misunderstood as exclusive to it. “The story of Burma’s judiciary in the last 50 years,” they write, “offers a sober lesson for persons in other countries who may be mistaken for thinking that a judicial system once established to some extent cannot be pulled to pieces again within a short time.”

In terms of history, half a century may be a short time, but for most people in Burma it is a lifetime. Dictatorship is now all that they have ever known. It will take more than one lifetime to recover.

Source: Burma’s dictatorship turns 50

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