Myanmar: The Agony of a People

views updated

Myanmar: The Agony of a People

The Conflict

Rebel groups have been battling the government of Myanmar, formerly Burma. The government has been criticized for its harsh suppression of rebels and protestors.


  • The government of Myanmar has been criticized for denying human and civil rights and for violently suppressing protestors, including lengthy imprisonment and torture.
  • Rebel groups have used kidnapping and hostage taking to protest the government.


• Many of the minority ethnic and religious groups in Myanmar feel marginalized and oppressed.

Myanmar, better known to the rest of the world as Burma, is a strategically important country situated in Southeast Asia. For well over a decade, especially since 1988, the country has been in the news because of the military government's ruthless suppression of the democracy movement and its disregard for basic human rights. Politics, however, is not the only source of conflict in this land of Buddhist pagodas. Ethnic, linguistic, racial, economic, religious, and, perhaps, ideological reasons complicate the political situation there. Trafficking in illicit drugs through what is called the Golden Triangle—an area where the borders of three southeast Asian countries, Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet—adds another dimension to the Burmese problem. As a result, Myanmar, once a prosperous, agriculturally self-sufficient country, has become one of the poorest countries in the world today.

The conflict in Myanmar has manifested itself in different forms at different times and places. In October 1999, a group of students, exiled from Myanmar, took over the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, and held forty people hostage. Thai officials described them as "student activists" and did not treat them as terrorists. Moreover, Thais, in order to secure the release of hostages, arranged safe passage for these students to an area of Myanmar border controlled by rebel groups. In response, Myanmar temporarily closed its borders with Thailand.

In February 2000, two ethnic Karen boys, Johnny and Luther Htoo, made international headlines. (Karen is one of the minority ethnic groups in Myanmar.) These twelve-year-old, cigar-smoking boys are the "generals" of God's Army, a Karen Christian guerrilla group fighting for independence from Myanmar. A group from the guerrilla organization took control of a hospital in neighboring Thailand. They held eight hundred patients and hospital employees as hostages for twenty-two hours. Thai security forces stormed the hospital and killed all ten members of the guerrilla organization. According to reports, some of the guerrillas had earlier participated in the take-over of the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. The Myanmar forces have since then raided and destroyed their bases. In a recent filmed interview with Reuters (July 2000) the Htoos have denied any responsibility for this attack on the hospital. They maintained that the Burmese government soldiers, not the Thais, were their enemies.

Johnny and Luther Htoo represent one aspect of the conflict in Myanmar: that of ethnic minorities fighting for autonomy from the government in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). The Htoos represent one faction of the Karen rebels who have been fighting against the national government for more than five decades. The Htoos began their campaign as a reaction to a government raid of their village. The armed forces raped the women, killed men in front of their families, and then burnt the houses in the village. According to an Amnesty International report, government forces regularly mis-treat people in rebel areas.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the revered national hero Aung San, has been in the news ever since she returned home to Myanmar from London in 1988. Her struggle against the military government has resulted in her being placed under house arrest for more than six years. After her release, when she tried to visit her party's offices outside Yangon, in July and August of 1998, the government prevented her from going there. In July Burmese soldiers stopped her on a bridge outside Yangon. She sat inside her car for six days. Finally, unable to starve her into submission, one of the soldiers took control of the car and drove her back to Yangon. In August 1998 when she set out to go to Bassein to visit supporters of her party she was prepared to stay in the car for a while. The military government saw it as a calculated attempt on the part of Suu Kyi to embarrass it in the eyes of the international community. According to diplomatic sources the soldiers towed her van to the same bridge where she spent six days in July and later forced her to return to Yangon. The government was criticized for its handling of the situation. In April 1999 Dr. Michael Aris, Suu Kyi's husband, died of prostate cancer. The military authorities did not allow him to visit her in Yangon, and she could not go to London to see him for fear that the government would not let her back into Myanmar. When Dr. Aris died, he had not seen his wife since 1995.

Although the Internet and e-mail are the means of communication and information in many parts of the world, in Myanmar these media are prohibited for ordinary citizens. Owning a modem is illegal and can result in a jail sentence of fifteen years. A Burmese man, James Nichols, was imprisoned for illegally operating telephone and fax lines; he later died in jail. Today, modems are restricted to use only by foreigners, top government officials, and business people with close contact with the military government. In December 1999 the government banned private e-mail providers. The Ministry of Post and Telegraph is the only agency authorized to provide e-mail service in Myanmar. The military junta is afraid that the Internet and e-mail will become dangerous tools in the hand of dissidents.

This continued repression of the people, their leaders and the opposition political parties caused U.S. President Bill Clinton on May 4, 2000 to suspend all economic aid to Myanmar. The president declared that Myanmar was ineligible for American trade and investment programs. He prohibited the sale of weapons to the country and declared his intention to block economic aid to Myanmar from international organizations. The United States would also downgrade its diplomatic representation in Yangon to chargé d'affaires level and restrict visas for senior Burmese officials and their families.

Historical Background

Geography and Climate

Between the two Asian giants of India and China, Myanmar is also bordered by Bangladesh in the west and Laos and Thailand in the east. The Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea form the southern and southwestern boundaries. Its situation on the main Indian Ocean shipping lines (ex-tending from Australia to the Middle East), make Myanmar a strategically important nation. Almost the size of the state of Texas (768,500 square kilometers) or a little smaller than Namibia, Myanmar, according to 1999 estimates, has a population of more than forty-eight million.

The eastern coastal areas constitute lower Myanmar and the interior region to the north is called upper Myanmar. Its long coastline (1930 kilometers) is blessed with many excellent natural harbors. The Irravady is the most important river in the country. It originates in the Himalayan mountains and runs through the middle of the country. Most of the ancient cities and the capital of Myanmar are on the eastern side of the river. The mountainous regions in the west and the north form Myanmar's natural boundaries. The Arakan Yoma Range separates the country from the Indian subcontinent. The highest mountain peak, Mt. Hkakabo Razi (19,296 feet) is in the north.

Monsoons bring rains to Myanmar. Some areas receive up to two hundred inches of rainfall annually. Most of the monsoons come between May and September. During monsoon season, landslides, cyclones, and flooding are common. The hot, humid summer season lasts from March to May.

Geography has placed Myanmar and Thailand in the same region. The historic rivalry between the two is a source of continuing conflict and tension. The movie Anna and the King mentions this rivalry and shows how one domestic faction used it against the king and the country. In the north, China borders the country and the Mongols from China once attacked Myanmar. It shares a long border with India and that border is another area of concern for the Burmese authorities.

Ethnic Groups

Ethnic diversity is a source of conflict in Myanmar. It is the most ethnically diverse country in mainland Southeast Asia. Complicating this diversity is the fact that each ethnic group has its own language. People have lived in Myanmar since the Stone Age. The Mons were one of the first people to come to the country. They came from western China. Some scholars suggest that Indian emperor Ashoka had sent a Buddhist mission to the Mons. By the beginning of the Christian era, however, Mons were well established in lower Myanmar. It was during this period that the Indian religious, commercial and political influence began to take hold in Myanmar. Gradually there occurred a harmonious blending of Indian and Mon cultural elements.

The Pyus occupied the western side of Irravady. By the eighth century a. d. the Pyus were overrun by invaders. The descendants of these invaders are the modern day Karens. The Burmans migrated to Myanmar and established themselves in the country by the ninth century a. d. They conquered the Mons and drove the Karens to the east of the river. The Mons introduced the Burmans to Indian culture, which the Burmans gradually adopted.

Burmans now constitute the dominant majority population in the country. The most important ethnic minorities are the Shans, Karens, Mons, Chins, Kachins, and the Arakanese. The Karens live in lower Myanmar in the Kayah state. The Shans are found on the hills along the Thai border. The Mons can be found in the delta region of Myanmar. The Chins inhabit the mountainous regions in the northwest. Along the Chinese border live the Kachin people. Most Burmese people are related to the Chinese and the Tibetans. In addition, there are other ethnic groups of varying size and strength living in Burma, including large numbers of Chinese and Indians.


Complicating the problem of ethnic and linguistic diversity is the religious factor. Most Burmese are Buddhists. They follow mostly the Theravada branch of Buddhism, also known as Hinayana or the Lesser Vehicle. Theravada Buddhism is conservative and fundamentalist and uses Buddhist scriptures written in Pali, an ancient Indian language used by Gautama Buddha. In Theravada tradition, the individual is responsible for his/her own salvation. Good deeds make one an arhat or a perfect saint. In the other main branch of Buddhism, the Mahayana tradition, the person who becomes a saint or bodhisattva is ready for salvation or nirvana. However, the saint, rather than achieving nirvana, postpones it to help others to become bodhisattvas.

Buddhism entered Myanmar from India, its land of origin. Although Burmese tradition suggests that Buddha himself had visited the region, Buddhism probably took root in the land only in the seventh century a. d. Compared to Hinduism, with its strict caste system, many gods, rituals, and Brahmin dominance, Buddhism was a much simpler religion. Buddhism was easy to join and practice.

Theravada Buddhism came from Sri Lanka and south India. Burmese Buddhism does not completely follow Buddhist scriptures. Elements of the Burmese animistic past are readily mixed with Buddhist teachings and practices in modern Burma. The mixing and mingling were not necessarily planned, but are also not easily noticed.

While an overwhelming majority (eighty-nine percent) follow Buddhism, there are other religions such as Christianity and Islam that are practiced by the ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Christianity and Islam each constitute about 4 percent of the total religious make-up of the population. While the Karens and the Shans are mostly Christian, the Arakanese are Buddhists and Muslims. During the British colonial rule, Christian missionaries converted large number of ethnic minorities to their faith.

Islam came to Myanmar during the fourteenth century, probably through Indian merchants who had already accepted the Islamic faith. It was relatively quick and simple to become a Muslim and the democratic and egalitarian nature of Islam was also attractive. Like other religions of Myanmar, Islam also contains elements from other religions and ancient practices of Myanmar. This religious diversity has caused serious problems for Myanmar. The fact that different ethnic groups practice different religions has greatly contributed to the intensity of conflict in Myanmar.


People have lived in Myanmar since the prehistoric times. The Mons, Pyus, and Burmans who came at different periods settled mostly in the delta regions (near the water). It was here that they built cities and kingdoms. These early kingdoms were greatly influenced by Indian Buddhist and Hindu ideas. Political unification, however, came only in the eleventh century a. d. Unification was achieved by the rulers of Pagan (Bagan) who conquered the Mons of lower Irrawady. The new Burmese rulers maintained close contact with the Ceylonese (now Sri Lankans) and the Indians from southern India. During the thirteenth century Mongols under Kublai Khan invaded and destroyed the Pagan kingdom. Two centuries later, the Burmese were reunited under the Toungoo dynasty (1546). Nevertheless, unhappy with their life under the majority, minorities were already setting up their own kingdoms within Burma. During this time, Europeans began to enter the country as traders.

During the middle of the eighteenth century, Burma was, once again, reunited. This unification was under the Konbaung dynasty (1756), which conquered the Shans and attacked Thailand. Having defeated the Thais, the Burmese enslaved thousands of them. Toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, Konbaug power began to decline. The British were a colonial power in India, and under Burmese king Bagyidaw, relations between the Burmese and the British in India worsened. Consequently, the two countries—Burma and British India—fought three wars between 1824 and 1885. As a result, Burma was gradually absorbed into the British Indian Empire; the absorption was completed in 1886.

The majority of Burmans were under direct colonial British rule and Burmese socio-economic and religious life suffered. The ethnic minorities, however, were allowed a certain freedom in managing local affairs and institutions. Minorities, therefore, developed a stronger sense of group identity during the colonial period. This helped to increase the rivalry between the majority Burmans and the minority groups. The British rulers recruited large number of ethnic minorities into the police and the army and these recruits were often useful in suppressing any sign of majority Burman rebellion.

In 1935 Myanmar received limited autonomy from Britain. Two years later, Myanmar was separated from the British Indian Empire. Gradually, there emerged a nationalist movement led by educated Burmans living in the cities. These nationalists emphasized Burmese language, religion, and culture; because of the lingual, religious, and cultural diversity of Burma, minority groups were uneasy about the Burman's intentions. The Burmans' nationalist movement was anti-Indian, anti-Chinese, and anti-capitalist, in response to the previous Indian and Chinese control of the economic life of the country. In addition, the movement emphasized Buddhism to the exclusion of all other religions, further offending minorities, especially the Burmese Christians.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Aung San and U Nu led the nationalist movement. Aung San had formed a group called the Thirty Comrades, who were greatly attracted by Japanese anti-colonial propaganda. Hoping that the Japanese were serious about their anti-colonial stand, the nationalists tried to secure their help against the British. During the Second World War, Aung San and his associates worked with the Japanese for a while. When they realized that the Japanese had colonial and imperialist tendencies of their own, the Burmese nationalists broke their alliance with the Japanese. Instead they formed an Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League. The Thirty Comrades provided the leadership for the country during the post-colonial, post-war Burma.

Aung San's work against Japanese imperialism made him a national hero much like George Washington in the United States or Mahatma Gandhi in India. All segments of Burmese population opposed continued British rule in the country after World War II. In January of 1947, Aung San and his associates were able to persuade England to organize a convention to prepare a constitution for Myanmar. In the elections held in April, the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League won with a clear majority. However, in July, Aung San and six of his cabinet colleagues were assassinated by their political rivals. On January 4, 1948 Myanmar became independent under the leadership of U Nu.

Independence and democracy did not bring political stability or economic recovery in Burma. Minorities, especially the Karens, were unhappy in the union and soon became rebellious. The concentration of power, with all positions in the army and police in the hands of Burman majority, caused resentment among the minorities.

The democracy experiment in Myanmar was a failure, with rebellion, instability, inflation, and corruption in government undermining it. Taking advantage of the instability and fearful that the U Nu government might allow some minorities to secede from the unified country, the army, under the leadership of general Ne Win, overthrew the democratic government and took control of the country on March 2, 1962. The army formed a revolutionary council led by General Ne Win, one of the original Thirty Comrades, and would not tolerate any opposition to its rule. Many Burmese welcomed the military take-over, though students and Buddhist monks who opposed the army were mercilessly silenced. The new rulers created a political party, the Burmese Socialist Party and proclaimed a "Burmese Way to Socialism."

The new government moved quickly to get rid of all foreign elements in society; they turned against Indian and Chinese businessmen and Indian civil servants. Moreover, the government decided to cut ties with the outside world. Myanmar withdrew from the non-aligned movement. The non-aligned movement was a foreign policy position of many of the developing countries during the Cold War that did not align with either the Western or Soviet blocs. Prime Minister U Nu was a founding member of the movement. State socialism under the military rule did not solve the country's economic problems; in fact, the economic condition of the people steadily declined under the new rulers. This prompted the United Nations in 1987 to give Myanmar the Least Developed Nation status.

Recent History and the Future

The military's attempt to keep the diverse elements in the country under control did not work. Ethnic minorities continued to revolt and the government was unable to exercise its authority in rebel areas. Moreover, a black market came into existence, which was bigger than the state-operated economy. Opposition to the military rule and the state-controlled economy grew in strength and the army quickly turned against the troublemakers. Nevertheless, in 1981, Ne Win resigned as the president of the country, though he continued to be in charge as the chairman of the Burma Socialist Program Party. A retired general, San Yu, became president of Myanmar.

The anti-military feeling among all sections of Burmese population, especially students and Buddhist monks, finally gave expression to mass protests and violence in March 1988. The protests started as a dispute between some students and a teashop owner, though it soon it became a national movement. The government's efforts to stop the riots failed. The confrontation between the government and the protesters lasted several months, until the military coup d'état (violent overthrow) of September 1988.

In April 1988, while the anti-government protest was growing in strength, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the martyred national hero Aung San, returned to Myanmar to tend to her ailing mother. She soon became a strong critic of the government and its human rights violations. In July 1988, Ne Win resigned as the chairman of the party. On September 18, 1988 the military under the army chief-of-staff General Saw Maung took control of the government, though it was widely believed that Ne Win continued to be the real power behind the army takeover. Between September 18 and 21 the army killed several hundreds of civilians, including students and Buddhist monks, to stop the rebellion.

The military now formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The new government abandoned socialism and adopted a free market economy. It encouraged foreign investments in the country. The junta also changed the name of the country to Myanmar, a change many countries have not yet accepted. The capital Rangoon became Yangon.

The opposition parties formed a National League for Democracy (NLD) and Aung San Suu Kyi became one of the most important leaders of the movement. Suu Kyi, a charismatic leader and orator, drew large crowds to NLD meetings. Her role in leading the non-violent demonstrations made the military nervous. Finally, in July 1989, the government placed her under house arrest and thousands of NLD supporters and leaders throughout the nation also were arrested. The arrest only helped increase the fame and influence of Suu Kyi.

The international criticism of the junta continued. In response, the junta decided to hold elections in May 1990. The junta was confident that it could control the outcome of the elections. Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest and her deputy, retired general Tin Oon, was in jail. However, the election results would be a surprise for the junta. The NLD got more than two-thirds of the seats in the parliament, winning 392 of the 485 seats. The military-backed National Union Party (formerly, the Burma Socialist Program party) managed to win only ten seats.

The military leadership was stunned by its defeat at the polls but was eager to blunt international criticism; at first, it welcomed the results. The government spokesman had at the time even invited the elected representatives to take power as soon as they could. Two months later, when the NLD tried to form the new government, the military government changed its mind and refused to hand over power to the elected representatives. The military decided that it would continue to rule under martial law until a strong and pro-military constitution could be put in place. The parliament was never convened. The NLD continued its demonstrations. In 1991 while still under house arrest, Suu Kyi won the Nobel Prize for peace. The junta, however, did not allow her to go abroad to accept the award.

The United States and other Western countries have been critical of the junta for its refusal to seat the legally elected parliament, as well as for the government's human rights violations. In April 1997, General Than Shwe replaced the ailing Saw Maung as head of the SLORC. In January 1993, the junta convened to draft a new constitution for the country. The convention consisted mostly of people selected by the military; the NLD was given only eighty-eight seats. In 1996 NLD delegates withdrew from the convention and the convention has not made much progress in drafting a constitution for the country since it began its deliberations in 1993.

On November 15, 1997 the military rulers dissolved the SLORC. They formed a new governing council called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The SPDC also created a cabinet consisting of mostly military personnel. General Than Shwe became the prime minister as well as the chairman of the SPDC. This reorganization, according to some observers, was the result of a power struggle between two top generals and followed General Ne Win's visit to Indonesia, then an authoritarian state under the control of General Suharto. According to reports this reorganization was an attempt to imitate the Indonesian political model in Myanmar.

The NLD did not see any reason for optimism in these changes as its leadership came under increasing scrutiny and harassment. Suu Kyi, although released from house arrest in 1995, is not free to move as she pleases. The generals treat her as a traitor for marrying late British academic Michael Aris and for encouraging international sanctions against Myanmar. The global community has also not been impressed by the recent political developments in Myanmar. Canada, the United States and Japan among many others have imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar. U.S. president Bill Clinton in April 1997 formally banned all new American investment in Myanmar and many foreign firms have withdrawn from Myanmar, including Apple Computer, Oshkosh B'Gosh, Eddie Bauer, Reebok, Liz Clairborne, Levi Strauss, and Pepsicola. In May 2000, President Clinton imposed additional sanctions on the Burmese military junta. However, these sanctions and the disapproval of other nations have not yet been effective in encouraging democracy.

In 1998 the NLD formed a ten-member group and declared that it was the only legitimate parliament. In retaliation the government arrested scores of NLD supporters. The standoff between the military and the NLD continues. On May 27, 2000 the NLD celebrated the tenth anniversary of 1990 election—the election it had won. Speaking on the occasion, Suu Kyi demanded that the army surrender its power to the elected representatives of the people. She asserted that NLD would not accept any sham elections or a constitution developed by the military. The police had arrested more people in anticipation of the tenth anniversary celebration, and only about three hundred people attended the meeting because of police harassment. Most NLD leaders and supporters remain jailed.

The military government, it appears, is determined to control political power in the country at least for the foreseeable future. It is more powerful than ever before, with more people in its ranks and more modern weapons in its arsenal. It is able to concentrate on its political opponents because it has arranged at least an uneasy cease-fire with its ethnic rebels, including some who have been fighting against the government for almost five decades.

Economic liberalization has not improved the lives of most of the people. There is growing Chinese influence on the economy and the continuing Chinese economic and military presence in Myanmar is a source of concern for India and Thailand. The Buddhist monks in the country remain restive. The ethnic and religious minorities are weary of Burman dominance in all aspects of the country's life. Thousands of people were forced to flee the country because of continuing repression: there are Burmese refugees in both Thailand and Bangladesh. Unless or until the military shows willingness to hand over control of the country to its popular and elected leaders, Myanmar is unlikely to improve from its ranking as one of the poorest countries in the world.


Aung-Thwin, Michael. Pagan: The Origins of Modern Burma. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawai Press, 1974.

"Burma with National Anthems, Flags, Maps and its People, Economy, Geography, Government." E-Conflict World Encyclopedia, 2000. (30 April 2000).

Cady, John Frank. Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1966.

——. Southeast Asia: Its Historical Development. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.

Central intelligence Agency. "Burma." The World Fact book 1999. (21 May 2000).

"Country Profile: Myanmar (Burma)." Facts on File World News Digest. 31 December 1997. (30 April 2000).

"Facts on Aung San Suu Kyi." Facts on File World News Digest. (17 May 2000).

"God's Guerrillas or Evil Twins?" New York Times, 28 February 2000.

Husarska, Anna, "Lady in Waiting," New Republic, 12 April 1999, 16-8.

Kamdar, Mira. "Rangoon: A Remembrance of Things Past,"World Policy Journal, Fall 1999, 89-109.

Kirshenbaum, Gayle. "Aung San Suu Kyi," Ms., January 1996, 56-7.

Markille, Paul. "Survey: Southeast Asia: The Agony of Other Lands," Economist, 12 February 2000, 11-4.

"Myanmar: Junta Reorganizes, Changes Name; and other Developments." Facts on File World News Digest. 31 December 1997. 087990.asp (17 May 2000).

Steinberg, David I. "Burma/Myanmar and the Dilemmas of U.S. Foreign Policy," Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 1999, 283-311.

Thein, Myatt, and Maung Maung Soe. "Economic Reforms and Agricultural Development in Myanmar," Asian Economic Bulletin, April 1998, 13-29.

Toolan, David S. "Burma's Gandhi," America, 8 February 1992, 84-5.

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. "Conditions in Burma and US policy towards Burma for the Period September 29, 1999 to March 27, 2000." http://www.state/go/www/regions/eap (17 May 2000).

Steinberg, David I. "Burma/Myanmar and the Dilemmas of U.S. Foreign Policy," Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 1999, 283-311.

Thein, Myatt, and Maung Maung Soe. "Economic Reforms and Agricultural Development in Myanmar," Asian Economic Bulletin, April 1998, 13-29.

Toolan, David S. "Burma's Gandhi," America, 8 February 1992, 84-5.

U.S. Department of State, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. "Conditions in Burma and US policy towards Burma for the Period September 29, 1999 to March 27, 2000." http://www.state/go/www/regions/eap (3 May 2000).

Williams, Lea E. Southeast Asia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.



1886 Burma becomes a province of British India.

1937 Burma is separated from India.

1942 Japan invades Burma.

1945 The Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League, led by nationalist hero Aung San, turns against the Japanese and helps the Allies to reoccupy Burma.

1947 The Burmese win independence. Aung San wins the first election, but is assassinated before taking office.

1948 U Nu becomes the first prime minister. The Karen ethnic group begins its struggle for autonomy.

1976 Ethnic liberation groups continue to rebel, ultimately controlling much of the countryside.

1988 Thousands are killed by the military following student protests. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, becomes a leader in the resistance movement and is ultimately imprisoned.

1991 Aung San Suu Kyi is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but is not permitted to travel to receive it.

2000 Protests persist. Sanctions against the military junta in Myanmar continue. God's Army, an ethnic Karen rebel group led by Johnny and Luther Htoo, take control of a hospital in neighboring Thailand.

U Aung San

1916-1947 Aung San was born in 1916 in Natmuak, Burma, into a family active in anti-colonial resistance. As a student at Rangoon University in 1936, he joined the nationalist student group Thankin ("Master," the term Burmese were required to use when addressing the British), and led a student strike. After graduating from the university in 1938, he joined the Dobaya Asi-ayone (We-Burmans Association), becoming its secretary-general in 1939.

During World War II, Aung San allied with the Japanese against the British. He was appointed secretary of defense, and raised the Burmese Independence Army, which took over local administration of Japanese-occupied territories. As the war progressed, Aung San grew to distrust Japanese motives, and in March 1945 joined the Allies (the United States, Britain, Soviet Union, and France).

After World War II, Aung San founded the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League. When the British returned, Aung San was imprisoned as a traitor. The Burmese revolted, and he was released and given a cabinet position. In 1946 he traveled to London and negotiated Burmese independence. In 1947 Aung San's AFPFL party won 196 of 202 seats in the elections. On July 19, 1947, as the constitution was being drafted, Prime Minister Aung San and most of his cabinet were assassinated by political rivals.

The Internet: "A Platform for Troublemakers"

The Myanmar Computer Federation estimates that there are more than fifty thousand computers currently in operation in Myanmar. However, they are not networked and do not have access to the Internet, which officials have declared a "platform for troublemakers." The few hundred people in Myanmar who are allowed e-mail and Internet access must go through the server established in January 2000 by the government's information ministry. Among the ministry rules are prohibitions against posting any writing "detrimental to the state of the Union" and instructions on how to obtain permission to create Web pages. These regulations are likely to remain in effect as long as sites like Burma Net and its accompanying e-mail listserv burmanet-l remain online. Created in 1995 by the Free Burma Coalition, BurmaNet has members in twenty-eight countries and is considered to be one of the most successful cyber-activist organizations currently in operation. It collects and distributes information from exile groups located in Myanmar's border regions and actively campaigns for international economic sanctions, selective purchasing laws, and tourism boycotts. Organizers credit their success to the power of the Internet, which allowed them the ability to rapidly create a community out of exiles scattered worldwide and to disseminate information to them quickly and cheaply.

Political activism on the Internet has blossomed in the last decade. Lauded in news accounts as "the greatest democratizer the world has ever seen" because it is "nonhierarchical, interactive, and global," the Internet has web sites for anyone and any organization with electronic access and an issue to publicize. This freedom, which has allowed for groups such as the Free Burma Coalition to lobby international organizations successfully, has also spawned cyber-hactivists. Also dedicated to social protest, hactivists target government and institutional Web sites for virtual sit-ins. One group, the Electronic Disturbance Theater of New York City, let users download software that repeatedly phone their Web target and then search on the word truth, actions which seriously hampered a site's ability to function. Scorned by more traditional cyber-activists, who criticize such conduct as bad netiquette that could justify government censorship of the Internet, hactivists' future plans include more interactive programs that will permit users to virtually march on their targets.

These types of Internet protests and campaigns have caused many governments to impose Internet restrictions similar to those enforced in Myanmar. China established the Internet Information Management Bureau to stop the "infiltration of harmful information" to its nearly nine million Internet users. Its security certification process is aimed at cyber news services and other content providers and strives to insure that information published has the "correct orientation for public opinions." Internet use in Singapore, a country trying to exploit the commercial applications of the Internet, is monitored by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority, which searches for content published by individuals or organizations that would "tend to bring the Government into hatred or contempt." E-mail is regularly censored in Bahrain with offenders receiving jail time for e-mailing information considered to be politically sensitive to dissidents living outside the country. Cyber activists are concerned that any type of censorship will eventually hurt their causes and they worry about the growing trend of many governments, including the United States and Great Britain, to legislate the use of encryption technology. For governments interested in the e-mail of its citizens, encryption programs that allow for the private transmission of data such as credit card numbers can complicate interceptions.

In the meanwhile, Myanmar has gone on the Internet offensive. While it still restricts Internet use to a select few, it now sends daily propaganda sheets and newspaper summaries to the BurmaNet listserv.

Aung San Suu Kyi

1945- Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, was born July 19, 1945 in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). Her mother, Khin Kyi, was a diplomat. Suu Kyi's father, Aung San (Burma's first prime minister), was assassinated when she was two. Suu Kyi (pronounced Sue Chee) lived in Myanmar until her mother became the ambassador to India in 1960.

In the mid-1960s, Suu Kyi moved to England to study at Oxford. She married, had two children, and lived in the United Kingdom. In 1988 Suu Kyi's mother suffered a stroke, which prompted Suu Kyi to return to Myanmar. While in Myanmar, the slaughter of protesters by Myanmar's military dictatorship impelled her to speak out. She was chosen to lead the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Threatened by Suu Kyi's writings and activism, the military junta placed her under house arrest in 1989. In the 1990 elections, the NLD won a vast majority; but the junta refused to allow the elected parliament to take power. "Daw" (Lady) Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest in July 1995, although her communication and movements continue to be restricted. In September 1995, she provided the keynote address, via smuggled videotape, to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. She continues her work for democracy and administers basic food and medicine services from her Yangon (Rangoon) headquarters.