Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Tracking the Politics of Burma (Myanmar) After the Flawed 1990 Elections


While democratic elections were held in Burma (Myanmar) by the military-led government in 1990, the elected parliament was never allowed to meet. Even before the elections were held, Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of one of the founders of Burma and leader of the National League of Democracy) was detained and subsequently put under house arrest by the military junta. The ensuing environment in Burma was considered quite “grim” by employees at the U.S. Embassy—the fear of being persecuted and detained by the government was a constant cause of distress for the Burmese people. Douglas Wake, a Political Officer assigned to Rangoon (Yangon) at the time, talks in depth about how the environment in Burma following the 1990 “elections” made it difficult for him to make foreign contacts. In an effort to gain information, Wake would often simply walk around and hope to see or overhear something noteworthy.  Wake was interviewed by Charles Stuart ‘Stu’ Kennedy in April 2014.

Read Douglas Wake’s full oral history HERE.

Excerpts:
“People were extremely reluctant to speak to foreign diplomats, particularly American diplomats, because of their reasonable fear that . . . our conversations would be followed up by military intelligence.”

The challenges of reporting in Burma during the conflict: “The situation [in Burma] was fairly grim. Of course the military or military-led government had been in place for decades by that time; but in 1988 there had been a huge pro-democracy movement which came to be led by the daughter of one of the revolutionary founders of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had gone back to tend to her sick mother and ended up in the front of demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people. After some fits and starts the government had cracked down and killed hundreds of people…”

 

“The military junta said they were interested in a return to democracy, held elections in 1990 which were won by the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, but the parliament chosen in those elections was never allowed to meet. Aung San Suu Kyi even before those elections had been put under house arrest; she was a few hundred meters, a few hundred yards away from the American embassy’s residential compound. We drove past her house at least twice every day and never saw her during the two years we were there. She was behind barbed wire and machine-gun-toting guards the entire time. While in later eras she was allowed to receive some visitors including diplomatic visitors, in that two-year period to my knowledge the only outside visitor she was allowed to receive was her husband who was a British academic (who has since died).”

 

“By 1991 things had, I don’t even want to say loosened up or liberalized, but they had moderated to the extent that it seemed possible to count more elected members of parliament being released from prison or detention than being taken in during my period. And I’m not sure we had any who died during my period but there had been a couple of deaths in detention already in that year between ‘90 and ‘91. People were extremely reluctant to speak to foreign diplomats, particularly American diplomats, because of their reasonable fear that we would be followed and that our conversations would be followed up by military intelligence and visits, so contacts were tough. There were a few contacts that we were able to find as political-economic officers. As the economic officer, my wife had a little bit easier time dealing with some very noncontroversial issues with parts of the government. I had very few official contacts at all, with not much more than protocol contacts in the ministry of foreign affairs. So trying to collect information was more a matter of triangulating between third country diplomats, older Burmese who didn’t have anything to lose because they didn’t work for the government or didn’t have any debts of any kind to the government and a very few brave people who would meet us on a street corner and tell us something. A lot of your reporting had to be based on what you could see and hear as you walked around.”

 

Drafted by Tyler Ventura

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education

     BA in History, Columbia College                                                                                                 1976-1979

     MA in International Affairs, Columbia College School of International Affairs                1979-1980


Entered Foreign Service                                                                                                         1981

     Leningrad, Soviet Union—Political Officer                                                                                1988-1990

     Rangoon, Burma—Political Officer                                                                                             1991-1993

     Riga, Latvia—Deputy Chief of Mission                                                                                       1995-1997

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