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Burmese scholar drops integrity to rewrite country's history

By Bertil Lintner

A close friend of the country's ruling junta, academic and former president of Burma Maung Maung has written a revisionist take on the 1988 uprising that rocked the world.

The 1988 Uprising in Burma by Dr Maung Maung (foreword by Franklin Mark Osanka). Monograph 49, 1999, Yale Southeast Asia Studies, New Haven, Connecticut. 285 pages.

In August 1988, millions of people took to the streets of Burma's capital Rangoon (now called Myanmar and Yangon by its military regime), and every town and major village across the country.

They demanded an end to 26 years of military-dominated dictatorship, and to a disastrous economic policy called "The Burmese Way to Socialism," which had turned what used to be Southeast Asia's most prosperous country into an economic and social wreck.

What had begun as peaceful demonstrations turned into a bloodbath when the military stepped in, first to crush the demonstrations in early August and, when that failed, again on Sept.18 to reassert power.

On both occasions, thousands of unarmed demonstrators were gunned down in massacres far bloodier than China's more publicized crackdown on its pro-democracy movement a year later.

Dr Maung Maung, who served as Burma's president for a month during the upheaval of August-September 1988, purports to chronicle these dramatic events in this book.

But it is more an attempt to rewrite history, a white-wash of one of the most brutal massacres in modern Asian history. More precisely, it is a blind eulogy to Burma's ageing strongman Ne Win, and Maung Maung's reverence for the "Old Man" is extended even to his children and grandchildren. For these reasons alone, Maung Maung's book is worth reading because it shows how far an academic sycophant is prepared to go to please his mentor.

One of the worst examples of a deliberate distortion of history is Maung Maung's version of Ne Win's infamous warning in July 1988 to the increasingly restless people of Burma, who by then had begun to protest against the old order: "As for the control of civil disturbances, I have to inform the people that when the army shoots, it shoots to hit, it doesn't fire into the air to scare. Therefore, I warn those causing disturbances that they will not be spared if in the future the army is brought in." However, Maung Maung quotes Ne Win as saying: "Soldiers are trained to shoot straight on order, not overhead into the air. Let those inclined to anarchy be duly warned: if they have to face the troops it will be no laughing matter."

But then the army didn't use violence at all. In Maung Maung's bizarre interpretation of what happened in Rangoon 12 years ago, some Buddhist monks opened fire on "looters." The president at that time and Maung Maung's predecessor as head of state, Sein Lwin, who became universally known as "the Butcher of Rangoon" for his role in the killings, was "as soft as soft could be."

The people of all ages who in 1988 risked their lives to demand political and economic change are called "hooligans, looters, arsonists, headhunters" and the only reason why the world paid any attention to the upheavals was because "sensational news was not breaking out elsewhere in the world in 1988."

But despite such far-fetched interpretations, the book contains precious little about the events of 1988. Nearly three quarters of the text is a glowing account of Ne Win and his efforts to build up Burma's armed forces to a formidable and "responsible" institution. It is even questionable whether the title of the book, "The 1988 Uprising in Burma," is Maung Maung's own. Nowhere in the text does he call the events of 1988 an "uprising." Instead, he uses "the disturbances" and similar terms to describe the events of 1988, echoing the military regime's own description of the popular uprising.

It is far more likely that the title was given by the American scholar, Franklin Mark Osanka, who met Maung Maung in Burma in the mid-1990s and then obtained the original manuscript. Osanka's foreword to the book also reveals some astonishing ignorance about Burma and Maung Maung. Osanka, for instance, believes that Maung Maung was elected President of the Union of Burma on Aug. 18, 1988. Maung Maung was appointed -- not elected -- president on Aug. 19 by the inner circle of the then besieged ruling party, the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP).

This is a very sad book. Under different circumstances, an obviously intelligent and well-educated person such as Maung Maung could have been an outstanding scholar. But he decided to adjust his scholarship to please one of Asia's cruelest dictators and, in the process, to become a defender of mass murder. It is perhaps even more astonishing that Yale University's Southeast Asia Program, a respectable institution, chose to publish this book without a serious and objective commentary.

This review first appeared in the Taipei Times, November 5, 2000

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