The political upheaval of 1988 and its aftermath occasioned violent excesses committed by both the military-backed one-party state and its direct-military rule successor, as well as by groups of angry citizens. As a result of actions of the government, while feelings ran high, a retaliatory international response was demanded. The United States, Japan and other donor countries either terminated or cut back their aid programmes, and an arms embargo was imposed.
At the same time foreign governments adopted a wait-and-see attitude with regard to the expected changeover to a democratic political system. General elections were held in May 1990, although without any previous provisions for a transfer of power. The outcome of those elections led to expectations, unrealistic in the end, of a swift end to military government.
Two intertwined issues need to be looked at — the transition to democracy and the international measures deployed to bring about this change. More specifically, the intention is to gauge how skilfully or unskilfully various actors have gone about achieving both outcomes. It should be noted that broad sanctions were not applied until much later, by which time things in the domestic political scene had deteriorated quite badly in terms of a quick handover of power. It is very much the case of a long, slow slide to failure and stalemate.
Against the backdrop of uncertainty, misery and hope that pervades this period, a closer analysis of events, actions and attitudes reveals a number of significant portents that presaged the present breakdown in relations between the military regime and the democratic opposition, particularly the National League for Democracy (NLD). In September 1988 then-president Dr Maung Maung had announced that all state employees were required to resign from the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), the only legal party at that time. This act meant that not only the carpet but the very floor beneath that party was removed — in fact, sounding the death knell to the organization.