Burma — A Brief Introduction

I coauthored the essay below for the website of Assembly Journal.   It can serve as a brief introduction for those readers who are just beginning to learn about the country.


web feature | essay by Neil Miller and R. A. Feld

January 6, 2011

On November 7, 2010 Burma held its first election since 1990. As expected by the international community, it was a study in farce. Draconian registration restrictions drastically limited participation in the election and parties allied with the current military dictatorship were overwhelmingly victorious. These predictable but disappointing results were only the last in a series of tragic events that have befallen this country, once considered a beacon of democratic hope in Southeast Asia.

Though under the thumb of one of the globe’s most oppressive governments, the streets of Burma’s cities and towns lack obvious signs of authoritarian rule. Burma’s people, and particularly the children, are especially friendly; street markets bustle, children play soccer, music plays from stalls selling bootleg CDs near beautiful pagodas, which serve as both religious and community centers. Even the checkpoints between towns inspire chills only if one is familiar with the country’s political history.

Burma achieved its independence from British colonial rule in 1948. Problems began almost immediately as General Aung San, the father of Burmese independence, was assassinated before he could take the helm as Burma’s first president. Democracy survived in the country until 1962, when a military coup brought to power the first in a series of ruthless dictators that have controlled it since. In 1989, the military government changed the country’s name to Myanmar, though the United States and much of the exile population continues to use the name Burma in protest of the ruling government.

Observers had high hopes for Burma after its independence. It was, and remains, a primarily agrarian country with abundant natural resources. At one time, it was one of the world’s leading exporters of rice. Its rubies are regarded as the best, and it is one of only four countries where teak grows naturally—though its supply is currently being ravaged by unbridled harvesting. All this and more now largely enriches the military junta and its coterie without trickling down to the average citizen, so many of whom whisper stories of frustrated aspirations, forced labor or violence.

Abominable mismanagement of the land and the economy has left Burma near the bottom of all major indicia of development. While the elite live in splendor, the government spends practically nothing on basic infrastructure. When natural gas deposits were found by the regime, they quickly began the process of building pipelines to sell the gas to neighboring countries, leaving the majority of Burmese to live with electricity that is intermittent at best. Rice is still harvested throughout Burma, often by smiling young children doing backbreaking work for less than a dollar a day. But now there is barely enough rice to feed the country, much less export it. Moreover, the government often requires farmers to sell rice to the military at a huge discount, forcing farmers to purchase rice for their own use on the market.

The ruling generals and their allies in Burma’s highly concentrated business community have appropriated resources for their own gain, often using the forced labor of citizens to do the work. When a village gets in the way of harvesting resources, the military will not hesitate to force the relocation of people off their land or even burn villages to the ground. Incompetence can wreak havoc as well: the nation’s currency was once suddenly devalued at the whim of a superstitious general with a penchant for numerology.

Government corruption does not end with the misappropriation of resources. Minor government officials and police officers are so poorly paid that many earn their living by shaking down citizens for real or imagined legal violations. Motorists find themselves slipping money into the shirt pockets of soldiers at fabricated checkpoints when told, “I want to get something to eat.” An initially poor, sufficiently corrupt soldier may find a way to wealth, however, through side businesses he is allowed to open once he makes rank.

The Burmese, comprised of over 100 ethnic groups, are a devout people. Theravada Buddhism is the primary religion, and golden pagodas looked after by some 500,000 monks dot the lush landscape. The pagodas also centers of community life, where Burmese congregate, pray, picnic, and even cuddle with their significant others. Take an Italian duomo and turn it inside out in the piazza, and you may have the closest Western equivalent. The grand Shwedagon Pagoda, which rises above the largest city of Yangon, is plated with many pounds of gold leaf and wears a jewel-filled crown. It is the most prominent of the pagodas and has at various points served the Burmese as a center of protest.

On August 8, 1988, in response to a series of government actions, widespread protests broke out throughout Burma. These protests led to a brutal crackdown by the military and the emergence of a new leader in the Burmese democracy movement. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, had been living in England and was in Burma caring for her sick mother. On August 26, 1988, she spoke to a massive gathering of Burmese in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda, calling for democracy and cementing her role as the face of the Burmese people’s struggle. Shortly after her speech, Aung San Suu Kyi became the general secretary of the fledgling National League for Democracy (NLD), the main opposition group to the ruling junta. In July of 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and spent over 20 years in and out of home confinement.

In response to the protests, elections were held in 1990, with the NLD winning an overwhelming majority of seats. However, the junta refused to relinquish control. Even while under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi remained the leading symbol of Burmese democracy, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

On August 15, 2007, the Burmese government announced an immediate massive fuel price increase. Overnight, the price of transportation doubled, which became the catalyst for protests around the country. Like those of 1988, they began with pro-democracy leaders leading the charge, but that was soon to change. On August 28, Buddhist monks, clad in saffron robes, joined protests in the western city of Sitwe. In such a devout nation, the inclusion of monks brought an entirely new dimension to the protests. Slowly, more and more monks joined the protests, eventually leading over 100,000 protestors in a march through Yangon on September 24 that culminated in new rallies at the Shwedagon Pagoda and the Sule Pagoda, in the center of downtown Yangon. For the first time, monks marched as a group to demonstrate their disapproval of the military junta, highlighted by overturning their alms bowls, signifying a refusal to accept alms from members of the military regime who sponsor the building of pagodas to redeem their souls.

Unfortunately, the 500,000 monks of Burma are matched by 500,000 members of the Burmese military. Despite the monks’ peaceful march, the fact that they were not shouting pro-democracy or anti-regime slogans, and that they are respected and revered throughout Burma, the predictable military crackdown began on September 26. Earlier, smaller incidences of violence had exploded as the military and police were deployed to monasteries around the country, but when things ultimately got heated, crowds were fired upon, and monks and civilians alike were beaten and hauled off to prison. The highest death toll estimates number over 100. For many around the world, the events of August and September 2007, which came to be known as the Saffron Revolution, were the first glimpse of both the bravery and resilience of the Burmese people and the brutality of the regime that governs them.

Since Burma’s independence, the military junta has been at war with many of the larger ethnic groups. Members of the minority ethnic groups live primarily in the border areas of Burma, while the ethnic Burman majority is concentrated in the center. The largest ethnic groups in the east and north include the Shan, Karen, Kachin, Karenni and Mon, while the west is home to the Chin and Rakhine. As a condition of accepting a united Myanmar, several of the ethnic groups had made agreements with the Burmans for semi-autonomous control of their regions and the right to secede from the new union if the arrangement did not work. However, the ruling governments of Burma have never given full rights to the ethnic groups, which has resulted in continuous fighting for over 40 years. Ethnic peoples are often driven from their homes by fighting or land reclamation, and flee over the borders to Thaland, India, Bangladesh, and China. In Thailand alone, border camps hold over 150,000 refugees, most of whom are ethnic minorities.

Refugees on the border face an undeniable humanitarian crisis, but the UN and many nongovernmental organizations, though underfunded, have the ability to provide some relief. The situation inside Burma is quite different. Government interference makes the provision of humanitarian assistance extraordinarily difficult. Plus, economic sanctions from the West, even though they do not bar humanitarian aid, provide a roadblock for getting aid funds into the country. These failures were spotlighted in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis bombarded Burma, resulting in the death of almost 100,000 and impacting 2.4 million people. Because of government restrictions, the international community was unable to provide aid in a quick and efficient manner. By the time the UN and some international groups were eventually allowed to the disaster site, many lives had been lost. As a result of the failure of the Burmese government to provide adequate infrastructure, parts of the country are still feeling Nargis’ effects.

Though heavily burdened, Burma remains a country with enormous potential. Speak to anyone who has visited the country and they will tell stories that are almost uniform in their description of acts of kindness. In the face of poverty and a brutal military regime, the people remain hopeful and wonderfully welcoming to foreigners. Burma is not North Korea. The people know and love the West. Bars and tea shops are filled beyond capacity during English Premier League matches, and the city of Yangon was positively electric during the World Cup. Gmail and Facebook accounts are ubiquitous. When walking down the streets of Yangon, the hum of generators in front of internet cafes is a constant companion.

Even more noteworthy is the degree to which civil society is flourishing in Burma. Burma gets only a small fraction of the international aid that is spent on countries in a similar state of development and humanitarian distress, yet local organizations focus on environmental projects or helping the disabled. More quietly, students talk about democracy and the meaning of human rights. Even the latest election has sparked a new hope. Although the results themselves will not result in any real change, newly founded political parties have seen an increase in members, and there is new dialogue about what might be.

Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, after the elections were over and the NLD was forced to disband. Although Burma’s most visible opposition leader has been released, over 2000 political prisoners remain captive in Burma’s notoriously brutal prisons. Among those being held include many of Aung San Suu Kyi’s former colleagues within the NLD, as well as leaders from several of Burma’s ethnic groups.

Burma represents unfulfilled opportunity. It is a beautiful country populated with beautiful, hopeful people. With a little bit of love (and money) from the international community, and the final departure of those who have misruled the country for 40 years, it could yet emerge as a jewel of the world.





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