Myanmar’s Military Dictatorship and the Rise of Aung San Suu Kyi
Dinner presentation by Ambassador Burton Levin, Former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar
A half-century of rule by military dictators has brought misery to the people of Myanmar. Incompetent generals have mismanaged affairs to the extent that a once-abundant agrarian economy has been reduced to subsistence levels. Health and educational services have been starved of resources while an overwhelming percentage of the nation's limited wealth has been dedicated to an ever-growing military. Tight controls and censorship have crippled cultural life and created an atmosphere of fear and suspicion among the populace.
A popular uprising in 1988 which thrust Aung San Suu Kyi into a leading role came close to overthrowing the regime, but was suppressed by lethal force. Surprisingly, free elections were held in 1990 which resulted in a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party. The regime thereupon effectively nullified the election results and soon placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she languished for almost two decades. In 2007 the regime weathered a sizable protest led by Buddhist monks. Its prestige was further diminished by an ineffectual response to a cyclone in 2008 which caused an estimated 138,000 deaths.
Since the March 2011 installation of a nominal civilian government headed by former General Thein Sein, the regime has unexpectedly carried out reforms which have allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to resume political activity and freed hundreds of political prisoners. How sustainable and how far-reaching Myanmar's movement towards a more open society really is, remains to be seen.
Burton Levin served as U.S. Ambassador to Burma from 1987 to 1990. He entered the Foreign Service in 1954, and has served in Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, and as Consul-General in Hong Kong from 1981 to 1986. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1990 to head the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, and retired in 1995 to become Sit Investment Visiting Professor of Asian Affairs at Carleton College. Ambassador Levin graduated from Brooklyn College and earned his Master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University.