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Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar (also known as Burma) occupies a geographically strategic position where south, southeast, and northeast Asia meet. It shares borders with the world's two largest nations—China and India—and shares a long border with Thailand and smaller ones with Laos and Bangladesh. In terms of land mass, Myanmar is slightly smaller than Texas, making it the largest nation on mainland Southeast Asia. Myanmar is also strategically located near major Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian shipping lanes through which almost one-half of the world's trade passes. Myanmar has magnificent geography consisting of mountains, a long seacoast, fertile valleys, and picturesque cities and towns, but it is susceptible to destructive earthquakes, cyclones, flooding, and landslides during the rainy season (June to September) as well as periodic droughts.

The government of Myanmar has reported the country's population at just over 50 million people. However, other estimates suggest that the population is more accurately estimated at 47 or 48 million due to the government's failure to take into account the effects of excess mortality caused by the AIDS epidemic. The ethnic breakdown of Burma's population is Burman, 68 percent; Shan, 9 percent; Karen, 7 percent; Rakhine, 4 percent; Chinese, 3 percent; Mon, 2 percent; and other, 5 percent. However, it has been decades since a census in Myanmar was last taken; therefore, the number of minorities as part of Myanmar's total population may understate the non-Burmese proportion of the country's population.

Approximately 89 percent of Myanmar's population practices some form of Buddhism. Smaller segments of the population practice Christianity (4%) and Islam (4%), with the remainder practicing Hinduism or animism. However, given the nebulous nature of statistics in Myanmar, these statistics may be inaccurate and potentially understate the non-Buddhist proportion of the population. Although Myanmar has no state religion, governments since independence have shown a preference for Theravada Buddhism. History has shown that being a conspicuous supporter of Buddhism has helped ensure the legitimacy of both military and civilian governments.


Burma (as Myanmar was then known) was colonized by Britain in 1824 and accorded a limited form of self-government only in the late 1930s, when it was separated from the administration of India against the background of a nationalist challenge. Burma was occupied by the Japanese during World War II (1939–1945) with the support of Burmese nationalists, who in 1943 were accorded a nominal independence. When it became apparent that Japan was going to lose the war, the Burma National Army rebelled against its Japanese mentors in support of the Allied cause. Burma attained full independence in 1948, after Great Britain had revised its timetable in light of the support enjoyed by the Anti-Fascist Freedom People's League, the nationalist movement headed by Aung San (1915–1947). But in 1947, just before independence, Aung San was assassinated along with six cabinet colleagues in a plot mounted by a political rival. Removed from the political scene at the zenith of his influence, Aung San became a legend and a martyr for Burmese independence.

From independence, ethnic peoples in Myanmar have fought or are still fighting for various degrees of autonomy ranging from maintenance of their own states within a federal union to outright independence. Since 1989, the military government has signed fifteen cease-fire agreements with ethnic groups. Despite this perceived accomplishment, these cease-fires are fragile as they are not formal settlements and are contingent on the Myanmar government's ability to provide social services such as health care and education. Three ethnic groups—the Karen, Karenni, and Shan—remained in rebellion against Myanmar's government into the twenty-first century.

From 1948 to 1958, Burma's parliamentary government was headed by U Nu (1907–1995). By 1958 the political condition of Burma was so chaotic that U Nu voluntarily turned the nation's administration over to a caretaker military government led by General Ne Win (1911–2002), who once worked for Aung San during the independence movement. Ne Win's government restored a semblance of law and order, reorganized the bureaucracy to make it more efficient, and stabilized the cost of living. In 1960 the electorate chose to return U Nu to leadership, but the government was weak and ineffective. On March 2, 1962, Ne Win led a coup d'etat that deposed U Nu and began an era of military rule, which continued into the early 2000s.

major political leaders and socioeconomic conditions

Myanmar has been ruled since September 18, 1988 by a military junta that succeeded the brutal and autocratic 26-year rule of General (later President) Ne Win. The junta, originally named the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), declared martial law and suppressed pro-democracy demonstrators, killing thousands of people, but on May 27, 1990, held the first multi-party election in three decades. The country's main opposition party—the National League for Democracy, which was established one year earlier—won 392 (82%) of the parliament's 485 seats. SLORC nullified the results, saying the military was the only institution able to keep the country together, maintain order, and promote economic development. Since the 1990 elections, the government has suppressed civil liberties and jailed thousands of political prisoners. Burma's most prominent political dissident, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi (b. 1945), the daughter of Aung San, has been either under house arrest or otherwise restricted in her movements since the early 1990s. As of July 2005, Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest where she has been since 2003.

In 1997 SLORC dissolved itself and announced the country would be ruled by a State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The change in the junta's name was in many respects reflective of the military's refusal to cede power. Whereas restoring law and order is a temporary assignment, promoting peace and development are permanent duties. Despite the SPDC's unpopularity at home and condemnation by Western nations, Myanmar's military finds itself as strong as any time in the country's history. The junta dominates the nation's politics and economy. Meanwhile Myanmar's relations with China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the countries of Southeast Asia have been either strengthened or expanded.

When Burma achieved independence, it was the most well-endowed nation in Southeast Asia in terms of natural resources and human capital. Unfortunately, economic mismanagement and political oppression under a succession of military governments since 1962 have denied the peoples of Myanmar the quality of life they deserve. Initially this was due to a set of political and economic policies called the "Burmese Way to Socialism," which effectively isolated Burma from the rest of the world and destroyed the country's economy. In 1988 and 1989, Myanmar's military leaders discarded these policies, pursued an open-door policy, and introduced economic reforms with the hope of lifting the country out of its economic morass by enticing foreign investment.

Despite such reform, political stagnation in Myanmar has left the country in a dire state as the economic growth Myanmar has achieved has not translated into improvements in employment, human development, and poverty reduction that are needed if the country is to ever reach its potential. Myanmar has been unable to achieve monetary or fiscal stability, resulting in an economy that suffers from serious macro-economic imbalances, including a high inflation rate and an official exchange rate that overvalues the Burmese currency (kyat) by more than 150 times the market rate. In addition, most overseas development assistance ceased after the SLORC refused to recognize the results of the 1990 election. Economic sanctions against Myanmar by the United States and the European Union have contributed to the weakening of the economy.

Myanmar's gross national product per capita is approximately $300 per year, making it one of the world's "least developed countries," according to the United Nations and World Bank. World Bank surveys show approximately 25 percent of the population live below the subsistence levels (less than $1 per day). Life expectancy is short (sixty years), and little is invested in the country's health care and educational systems. The government spends only 50 cents per person, per year on health care, and malnutrition affects four out of every ten children under five years of age. Thirty percent of children never attend school, despite compulsory education (kindergarten to fourth grade). From 1988 to 2000, universities were closed for nine of the twelve years to preempt student protest. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of former university-age students did not receive their degrees.

nature of government

Myanmar's government is a military regime that controls the entire political and economic apparatus of the country. The country's largest company, the Myanmar Holdings Company, Ltd., is owned by the military. The administration of the nation is divided into seven divisions (Ayeyarwady, Bago, Magway, Mandalay, Sagaing, Tanintharyi, and Yangon) and seven states, where the great majority of Myanmar's ethnic minorities live (Chin State, Kachin State, Kayin State, Kayah State, Mon State, Rakhine State, and Shan State).

On September 18, 1988, when SLORC (later the SPDC) came to power, Burma's 1974 constitution was abrogated. Since then the military has ruled by decree. On January 9, 1993 a national convention was convened and tasked with writing a new constitution. Opposition groups including the National League for Democracy boycotted the convention due to the ongoing detention of Aung San Suu Kyi as well as other dissidents. A largely on-again, off-again process, the convention was scheduled to reconvene in May 2005 after adjourning in March of the same year but was then postponed to the end of 2005. However, any constitution that might be drafted will lack legitimacy both within and outside of Myanmar as it lacks representative government and a modicum of protection for self-expression. The SPDC tries to give the impression that some sort of transition is in process to help spur the country on a democratic path, but any such process is largely invisible.

The legislature in Myanmar is a unicameral body known as the Pyithu Hluttaw (People's Assembly), but it has never convened since SLORC came to power in 1988. Ostensibly, members of the People's Assembly are elected by popular vote to serve for four-year terms. The SPDC has said once the new constitution is passed a new election for the People's Assembly will be held. There is no timetable for the next election.

Myanmar's legal system and judiciary are remnants of the British legal system, but the judiciary is not independent of the executive branch (i.e., the military), and no guarantees for a fair and public trial are in place.

political life: who governs?

Myanmar's military (tatmadaw) permeates the country's political, economic, and social life. Defense spending over the years has increased in real terms as a share of legal (nondrug related) gross domestic product and central government expenditures. The World Bank estimates that 40 percent of Myanmar's government budget is spent on the military. Including support for inefficient state enterprises (many run by the military), this accounts for 75 percent of total government expenditures. Since 1989, no official public record has provided details on how the government of Myanmar is spending its citizens' money.

Because the military controls all avenues of social mobility, the tatmadaw itself has become the only real avenue of opportunity in Burma. Although the universities were closed for much of the 1990s, educational and medical institutes run by the military never shut their doors. The health-care system for soldiers and their dependents is considered the best in the country whereas the nation's health-care system overall is ranked one of the world's worst by the World Health Organization.

elections and political parties

Only one free, fair, democratic election has been held in Myanmar since 1960, that of May 27, 1990. Despite formidable impediments to free campaigning erected by SLORC, voting procedures went smoothly and the National League for Democracy, Myanmar's major opposition party, won 392 of the 485 seats in the People's Assembly. The political party most closely aligned with SLORC, the National Unity Party, took only ten seats. Nevertheless, SLORC and the SPDC adamantly refused to relinquish government control. The refusal by Myanmar's military leaders not to acknowledge the results of the 1990 election has been widely condemned by Western nations, particularly the United States. In 1997 and 2003 the United States imposed broad economic sanctions that ban the United States from trading with and investing in Myanmar.

what to call the country: burma or myanmar?

In 1989, Burma's military government, then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, a written form of the official name in Burmese. Burma's political opposition and some countries, including the United States, do not recognize this name change because of the military government's human rights abuses and its refusal to hand over power to an elected civilian government. The official name of the country at the United Nations is Myanmar. Thus, the use of either term for the country has taken on political connotations.

The military's iron-grip rule has rendered institutions (i.e., the legislature, judiciary) that have the propensity to be democratic and independent largely dysfunctional. The SPDC's strategy has been to marginalize and destroy the National League for Democracy's party structure and its supporters through detention, intimidation, and, in a number of instances, torture, despite international condemnation of the regime's abuses.

participation, interest groups, and civil society

Civil society in Myanmar is largely nonexistent. The government refers to organizations such as the Maternal Health and Childcare Association as non-government organizations (NGOs), but they mostly receive funding from the government. In many instances, these organizations are headed by relatives and close associates of senior military leaders. Moreover, the junta has created and sanctioned its own "civic" organization known as the United Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Created in 1993, the USDA is a social organization under the Ministry of

Home Affairs but is not considered a political party. Civil servants and military personnel are not prohibited from joining the USDA; to the contrary, government workers are expected to join. The USDA's patron is Senior General Than Shwe (b. 1933), chairman of the SPDC and head of the country. The USDA has approximately 17 million members, or 38 percent of Myanmar's population. In essence, every family in state-controlled areas has been touched by the central government through this organization.

International NGOs do very good work in Myanmar. However, there are fewer than 50 in total, and they work under very difficult circumstances as the SPDC views all international NGOs with suspicion. Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi does not favor international NGOs working in Myanmar because seeking approval from the SPDC only serves to legitimize an illegitimate regime in her eyes. This hurdle serves as an additional impediment for international NGOs that consider undertaking projects in Myanmar.

personal security and human rights

By all accounts, Myanmar has one of the world's worst human rights records. It has forced civilians (including children) into military service as porters and was suspended from the International Labor Organization in November 2000 for its failure to cease its policy of forcing civilians to work on economic projects without compensation. Freedom House has annually given Myanmar its lowest possible rating for denying citizens their political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and movement. Both the print and electronic media are tightly controlled by the government and are unable to serve as channels to express popular opinion. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both declared that human rights violations in Myanmar are systematic and widespread.

See also: Aung San Suu Kyi.


Brandon, John, ed. Burma Myanmar in the Twenty-First Century: The Dynamics of Continuity and Change. Bangkok, Thailand: Open Society Institute, 1997

Falco, Mathea. Burma: Time for Change. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2003.

International Human Rights Law Group. Report on the Myanmar Election. Washington, DC: International Human Rights Law Group, 1990.

Owen, Norman G., ed. The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2005.

Rotberg, Robert, ed. Burma: Prospects for a Democratic Future. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998.

Selth, Andrew. Burma's Armed Forces: Power Without Glory. Norwalk, CT: East Bridge, 2002.

Silverstein, Josef. Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Steinberg, David I. Burma: The State of Myanmar. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2001.

John J. Brandon

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