Behold, beware Myanmar's fourth empire
By Bertil Lintner
BANGKOK - Myanmar's government has announced democratic elections will be held
on November 7 and Western pundits are busy speculating whether the polls will
lead to a new, more open era in the troubled country's modern history. A far
more important and potentially sinister plan is unfolding as the country's
military rulers seek to consolidate a vision of empire that affords them a
permanent grip on the country and its many nationalities.
A new nation is being built, one that military leaders view as the coming of
the Fourth Myanmar Empire. In line with that vision, two decades ago the
military gave the country a new name, changing
it from Burma to Myanmar. Now, a grand new capital known as Naypyidaw, or
"Abode of Kings", has been erected in what used to be wasteland in the central
part of the country.
Myanmar's armed forces are among Southeast Asia's largest, and, if their empire
dream is ever realized, they will be equipped with missiles and perhaps even
nuclear devices. The creation of a new parliament, which will be housed in a
gigantic edifice built in traditional Myanmar style in the new capital, is also
part of the grand plan. Sharing power with pro-democracy parties, even
"moderate" ones, however, is not.
Significantly, the upcoming election has been used to pressure nearly a dozen
former rebel groups, which for the past two decades have had ceasefire
agreements with the government, to finally give up their autonomous status and
convert their respective armies into "Border Guard Forces" under the command of
the Myanmar army. Their political wings may then be recognized as political
parties, which will be allowed to participate in the November election, but on
the same terms as all other parties that have registered for the polls.
Registration, a cumbersome process that involves paying a 50,000 kyat
registration fee for each candidate, must be completed by August 30. That fee
equals US$500 per head, a huge sum for most ordinary Myanmar citizens. Only the
junta's own political mass organization, the Union Solidarity and Development
Party and its affiliated National Unity Party, have had the resources to field
candidates for all seats nationwide.
The way forward for Myanmar first became clear on Armed Forces Day 2006.
Traditionally held each year on March 27, the holiday was originally meant to
commemorate the day in 1945 when the country's nationalists, led by Aung San,
shifted sides to join the Allied powers and turned their weapons against their
former patron and benefactor, the Imperial Japanese Army.
The 2006 event represented the first time the parade was held at Naypyidaw, to
where the government was formally moved in 2005. Addressing a crowd of 12,000
soldiers, junta leader Gen Than Shwe proclaimed: "Our tatmadaw [armed forces]
should be a worthy heir to the traditions of the capable tatmadaws established
by noble kings Anawratha, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya."
None of those kings had fought against the Imperial Japanese Army, but
Anawratha had in 1044 founded the First Myanmar, or Burmese, Empire and
established his capital at the temple city of Pagan on the banks of the
Irrawaddy river, southwest of today's Mandalay. He conquered Thaton, the
capital of the Mon - major rivals of the Burmans for control of the central
plains - and expanded his empire down to the Andaman Sea.
Bayinnaung was the country's most celebrated warrior king. He reigned from 1551
to 1581 and conquered territories north of Pagan, parts of the Shan plateau in
the east, and pushed as far east as Chiang Mai, in today's northern Thailand,
and Vientiane in Laos. He was the most prominent ruler of the Second Myanmar
Empire and ruled from Pegu in the central plains.
Alaungpaya reigned in the 18th century and was the first king of the Konbaung
Dynasty, or the third and last of the Myanmar empires.
Alaungpaya also fought the Mon, and his successor, Hsinbyushin, sacked the Thai
capital of Ayutthaya in 1767, a deed for which the Thais, judging by their
history books, have never forgiven the Burmese.
The Konbaung kings were defeated by the British in the three Anglo-Myanmar wars
of the 19th century and the country became a British colony. In 1885, Mandalay,
the last of several capitals of the Konbaung Dynasty fell and its king, Thibaw,
was led away by the British in front of the mourning and wailing crowd who had
come to take farewell of the last monarch of an independent Myanmar state. He
was sent, with his once-powerful wife, Supayalat, and their children into exile
in Ratanagiri in India, where he died in 1916.
Fast forward to the present and standing at Naypyidaw's parade ground are newly
erected, larger-than-life statues of the three warrior kings, who Than Shwe
evidently sees as his empire-building role models. He has also bid to form a
unitary state that is fundamentally different in nature from Aung San's concept
of ''unity in diversity'', federalism and some kind of parliamentary democracy.
In Than Shwe's ''Myanmar'' everybody is a ''Myanmar'' and subjects of the
Notably there are no portraits of independence hero Aung San in Naypyidaw. But
building a new capital has always been a major prerogative of the rulers of all
three previous Myanmar empires - and the founders of the Fourth Empire are no
exception. The size of the new capital's buildings and width of its streets and
avenues reflect their vision of grandeur.
The November election, assimilation of rebel groups and subjugation of other
opposition forces are together the final stage in a transformative process that
arguably began in 1989, when the junta changed the name of the country. The
generals insisted that Myanmar is the correct name for the country because it
includes both Burmans and minorities.
That argument, however, has caused confusion in academic circles. An official
history of the country's nationalist movement, published by the government in
1976, stated that ''Myanmar'' meant only the old kingdom of Mandalay, while
''Burma'' (bama in Burmese) is ''the country where different nationalities such
as the Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Chin, Pa-O, Palaung, Mon, Myanma, Rakhine, Shan
reside reside.'' Significantly, Aung San and his comrades called their movement
Dohbama Asiayone, ''Our Burma Association'', and not Dohmyanmar Asiayone.
Now the ruling military junta claims that the opposite is true. The official
mouthpiece Working People's Daily, now known as the New Light of Myanmar,
stated on May 27, 1989, the day the name change was made official: "Bama ... is
one of the national groups of the Union only … myanma means all the national
racial groups who are resident of the union such as Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin,
Mon, Rakhine, Bama and Shan."
At the same time, place names, especially in Shan State, were changed to sound
more ''Myanmar'': Pang Tara, Kengtung, Lai-Hka, Hsenwi and Hsipaw - place names
that have a meaning in the Shan language - were renamed Pindaya, Kyaington,
Laycha, Theinli and Thibaw, which sound Burmese but have no meaning in any
Dutch Burma scholar Gustaaf Houtman calls this development the ''Myanmafication
of Burma'', which he describes as a move away from the original idea of a
multiethnic federation - agreed to by Aung San and the leaders of the ethnic
minorities before independence in 1948 - to the new ''Myanmar'' identity
propagated by the military. The 1989 name changes marked the beginning of this
cultural revolution, which included a military-appointed commission tasked with
rewriting the country's history to better suit the agenda of the present
New museums have been built across the country to educate the public about the
central role the military purportedly has played throughout centuries of
Myanmar history. School textbooks are continuously rewritten to serve the same
purpose. Many TV soap operas have the same theme, where the country's many
ethnic groups unite under the leadership of a militaristic 19th century king to
oppose the onslaught of Western colonialists.
Soon 330 elected members of parliament, along with 110 non-elected
representatives of the armed forces, will soon take their seats in the enormous
new building that has been erected in Naypyidaw to practice
''discipline-flourishing democracy'', as the generals have termed their unique
vision of the country's future political system.
If the May 2008 referendum for the new constitution, on which the country's new
political system is based, is anything to go by, the outcome of the November
election is preordained. The new constitution was approved in a referendum by
more than 90% of the electorate, the authorities announced. No campaigning was
allowed and the press was forbidden to report on the barely 10% who voted
On August 19, Myanmar's tightly controlled media published an official
notification stating that candidates wishing to address the public must apply
for permission at least seven days in advance. Candidates are also prohibited
from ''causing any disturbances in public places and disrupting traffic".
In case lawmakers cause trouble after they have been elected, Article 396 of
the new constitution ensures that they can be dismissed for ''misbehavior''.
And if the ''democratic'' situation really gets out of hand, Article 413 gives
the president the right to hand over executive as well as judicial powers to
the commander-in-chief of the Defense Services.
All is thus set for the rise of the Fourth Myanmar Empire. According to a
report released this month by the US-based non-governmental organization the
National Democratic Institute, Myanmar's new constitution has established "a
structure designed to perpetuate military rule", not to change it. Than Shwe
may retire, but that is no guarantee for a new democratic or any less
So far, no credible outside observer has been able to identify any ''young
Turks'' bent on enacting genuine democratic reforms lurking in the wings. And
despite much wishful thinking by foreign analysts and commentators, Than Shwe
biographer Benedict Rogers argues that all the structures that have been put in
place signal that the military is geared to remain in power for the foreseeable
When Myanmar's old strongman, Gen Ne Win, was alive, several analysts and
experts predicted that the country would change for the better once he passed
from the scene. He retired from direct power in 1988 and indeed Myanmar did
change after Ne Win. But the next generation of military leaders led by Than
Shwe turned out to be even more repressive - and obsessed with the role of
historical kings. Not even Ne Win shifted the site of the national capital and
sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Nor did he divine to revive and
reinvent the glory and power of bygone Myanmar empires.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review and currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.