Brief History of Burma
By Thomas R. Lansner

Traditional kingships and other local governments that evolved among Burma's peoples over many centuries were largely stripped of their authority after Britain's 19th century conquest of Burma. Colonial administration continued with limited local self-government until the Union of Burma achieved independence in 1948. The new state came into being as a parliamentary democracy and, although beset by ethnic strife as minority peoples demanded autonomy from the Burman majority, survived as a representative government until an army coup in 1962.

A military-dominated regime led by the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) held power for the next 26 years. There were no free elections, and freedom of expression and association were almost entirely denied. Resistance to the regime occasionally flared, and student and worker demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s were brutally crushed. Torture, political imprisonment, and other human rights abuses were common. Throughout this period, costly guerrilla wars with ethnic opposition groups along the country's frontiers continued.

Under the BSPP's isolationist "Burmese Way to Socialism," the country's economy steadily deteriorated, and by mid-1988, rice shortages and popular discontent reached crisis proportions. The police slaying of a student sparked demonstrations by university students that were soon joined by monks, civil servants, workers, and even policemen and soldiers in cities and towns all over Burma. On the eighth of August - "8-8-88''- hundreds of thousands of people nationwide marched to demand the BSPP regime be replaced by an elected civilian government. Soldiers fired on crowds of unarmed protesters, killing thousands.

On 18 September 1988, the army finally responded to calls for democracy by announcing a coup by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) (renamed the State Peace and Development Council in November 1997). The junta's next action was to open fire with machine guns on demonstrators in Rangoon and other cities. The carnage was immense. While the exact number will never be known, it is estimated that as many as 10,000 people were killed. Thousands more were arrested. Many were tortured. Amnesty International reported in December 2000 that about 1,700 political prisoners still remain jailed under harsh conditions, and that torture "has become an institution" in Burma. The SLORC pledged that elections would be held after "peace and tranquility" were restored in Burma.

But the run-up to the elections inspired little confidence in the process. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the most popular opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was placed under house arrest in July 1989. Many other senior NLD officials were jailed. The NLD had little access to media and few resources compared to the SLORC-backed National Unity Party (NUP).