Engaging with the military regime

Sep 23, 2008 (DVB), Twenty years after the military coup which ended the 8888 uprising, DVB spoke to three former Burmese army officers about the outlook for the pro-democracy struggle against the military regime.

Major Aung Lin Htut, captain Sai Win Kyaw and lieutenant-colonel Aye Myint discussed the reasons for the coup, why the pro-democracy opposition was unable to take power following the elections and the role of the military in Burma's future.

Major Aung Lin Htut, who served as the junta's deputy ambassador in Washington before he sought asylum in the US in 2005, was an intelligence officer at the time of the coup.

Aung Lin Htut: "Before the coup, on the evening of the 16th, military intelligence and groups from the army were all summoned by general Khin Nyunt at about 10pm. On the orders of senior leadership, we were to arrest prominent politicians such as U Nu, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Aung Gyi, former members of the 30 Comrades such as Bo Yeh Htut, Thakhin Tin Mya , 33 in all.

"One MI official and two army units in five cars were allocated for the arrests. There were bamboo barriers, jingli and so on in Rangoon at that time, and people were carrying machetes for security. As the situation was likely to become complicated and there was a possibility of bloodshed if we carried out the arrests, we were ordered to retreat. When the military trucks parked, civilians shone their torches at the soldiers’ faces and pointed jingli and machetes at them. It was very tense. If we had gone in, the problem could have become more complicated."

By then, some soldiers had already joined protestors. Captain Sai Win Kyaw, who had come to Rangoon with the notorious Brigade 22's Light Infantry Battalion 208 to crush the demonstrations, was shocked by the army's treatment of civilians.

Sai Win Kyaw: "At Meilamu pagoda in North Okkalapa, the crowds were marching, waving flags and wearing bandanas, towards the town centre. There were at least 20 or 30 thousand people. The area between the North Okkalapa flyover and Meilamu pagoda was filled with people. The commander of battle zone 4 who was supervising the area, colonel Loon Maung, gave the direct order and the shooting and bloodshed began. When I saw the schoolchildren marching in front die before my very eyes, that incident really touched my heart , to the point where I joined the people in the end."

Lieutenant-colonel Aye Myint, who had just retired from the army when the coup occurred and now lives in Australia, said most soldiers were too caught up in the military structures to rebel.

Aye Myint: "Only one officer, Sai Win Kyaw came from the army. None of the others left. They are promoted when the time comes and looked after and fed; they are wallowing in that and the wait their turn. That’s how it happens. Look at it now, when their time comes, they dance to the junta's tune. The people coming up through the ranks will dance in the same way. It is also the nature of the army; it is tightly controlled at every level with military rules, order and responsibility, they dare not revolt. They know that it is not good. They know it is wrong. But as they want to enjoy life when they get to the top so they wait their turn, and it will keep drifting on like this, my friend."

But Aung Lin Htut said the lack of political structure and direction had made it difficult for soldiers to know what to do.

Aung Lin Htut: "Rather than proclaiming one blood, one voice, one order system, after 8888 they opened strike camps. It is not enough just to open strike camps, there has to be a political strategy. Only a small number [of soldiers] came out to demonstrate; we were thinking: what is the attitude towards the army? At the time, even general Saw Maung himself was not sure who was giving orders to whom, we were in a position where we were not sure whether Dr Maung Maung or U Ne Win was giving the orders.

"As for the opposition, they thought they were winning because the people rose up, we all know that. U Nu, U Aung Gyi, even Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, thought that they had won. In my opinion, all the officers, me included, were waiting to see what the opposition would do. Then, U Nu said that he was the prime minister and the rest criticised him. Even at the time, the oppositions were squabbling for power among themselves. As far as I know, no one made contact with us to take the army by the hand and tell us to work for democracy. There was no one to come and compromise with the army."

Sai Win Kyaw: "Had the senior leaders Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin Oo, U Nu and U Aung Gyi been decisive at the time and decided to stage a successful and controlled coup, the situation of Burma could have changed. And many soldiers would have defected and joined the people decisively. But the path chosen by our senior leaders was to make political demands using non-violent, gentle means. In the end, the army used violence to gain power and the situation became more complicated and drawn out.

"In my view, I have seen no change of opinion from the army. They are preparing for the last stage. And the way they prepare is different from ours. The path most of us opposition groups, pro-democracy groups are following is calling for pressure from the international community. Within the country, people are encouraged to stage a big uprising of people and monks like the 2007 Saffron revolution. But as for the SPDC, since the 8888 coup it has been preparing for this day. I am not talking about the strength of the army because I was a soldier. The main problem of Burma is [military] might. We especially need to focus again on armed struggle."

DVB: Is this approach pragmatic in Burma today? Is focusing on dialogue a more practical alternative? How successful has this been in the past 20 years?

Aye Myint: "The SLORC/SPDC has been appropriating power for 20 years. [These questions] are asked because people want to know when power will be transferred, I think. My view is that it won't just be 20 years, they won’t hand over power within 40 years or 60 years. Than Shwe will take that power to the next life. Therefore, stop hoping , you won’t get power through discussion or pleading. You will only get it when you seize it back. Try to seize it back, that’s the only way. Whether you have the strength or not is not the issue. You can only regain that power by responding in kind, that’s what I believe. Try to take it, that’s it. There is no other way."

DVB: But who is going to carry out this armed struggle, when people like Aye Myint, who used to train student fighters, are now living in other countries far from Burma? Who is going to fight and how?

Sai Win Kyaw: "In our situation, the political line is not clear. Some people want to take help from western groups while other groups don’t want to. We have a mishmash of ideas. What I would advise is this: people who want to get western help should do it. Currently all help is in the form of humanitarian assistance through the NGOs. There is no direct help from governments. In this situation, we should be trying to get robust help from governments. There are many reasons why the armed struggle has not been successful after 20 years. The main one is that we do not get effective help.

"The reason for that depends very much on our policies and the path we walk. And it also depends very much on our talent. As I said before, the rebel is not behaving like a rebel. They are stuck in front of computers and laptops and cell phones. We are acting as if we are researchers or experts. Moreover, some people became experts from the lives of students and returned to Burma. The SPDC is doing its job. It is our people who are not stable. Our people are going about it in the wrong way. What I want to say is that if we are rebels, we should do the work of rebels properly. If we are undecided and uncertain, we are likely to remain on the receiving end. That is not a problem for us as we are living in ‘bullet-free areas’ [outside Burma]. The people who will certainly suffer are the people of Burma, for years. We don’t want the people of Burma to bear the consequences of the wrong policies for years.

Aung Lin Htut: "Based on my experience, my view is that general Than Shwe can’t bear pressure. Although there is some pressure, we are not in a position to use it effectively. I have said before that general Than Shwe needs sticks, not carrots. When there is effective pressure; from everyone, including the UN and the international community, all at the same time [, ], his trump card will be to release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and a few political prisoners for show.

"As soon as they are released, the international pressure will be reduced. As for Burmese politics, [the generals] know very well that nothing can be done without Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. So when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is free, if there is systematic support from people inside and outside, they will inevitably have to hold a dialogue. Even here, I want to talk about the role of the army. In the army, it is not how people think it is, not all soldiers [are against democracy]. There are many people in the army who want the country to prosper, there are many people who want the country to progress.

"I would say that at least the level below major-general , if the situation favours it, if there is trust , would not hesitate to join hands with pro-democracy people. Therefore, we have to think how we are going to entice soldiers and officers below the rank of major-general."

Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw

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