Understanding Myanmar

Author: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer

2.Limited International Influence
3.Political History
4.The State and Society in Myanmar
5.The Role of Buddhist Monks
6.The Troubled Way Forward

Myanmar’s repressive military regime faces new scrutiny by the international community and competing calls for sanctions and greater engagement with the regime. In September 2009, the United States decided to abandon its policy of isolating the regime in favor of direct talks with the leaders. The new policy was the result of a seven-month review after formal acknowledgement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Washington’s policy of sanctions against Myanmar (also known as Burma) had failed. The sanctions remain in place. After nearly twenty years of staying mostly out of the international spotlight, the southeast Asian country grabbed headlines in September 2007 following wide-spread protests by Buddhist monks, the so-called “Saffron revolution.” The ruling junta’s slow response and its initial blockade of international aid efforts for the victims of a deadly cyclone in May 2008, which killed over 140,000 people, led some Western leaders and rights groups to call for forced humanitarian intervention. The country’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest and faces ever more pressure from the regime. The junta has decided to hold elections in 2010 under a new 2008 constitution that has been widely criticized for further entrenching military rule. The government refused to uphold the results of the last elections in 1990 in which Suu Kyi’s party garnered a majority of the vote.

Limited International Influence
International policy towards Myanmar is varied, the Economist notes–it runs the gamut from harsh U.S. sanctions to milder sanctions by Europe and Japan to full commercial engagement by neighbors China, India, and the member states of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The United States imposed sanctions after the 1988 brutal crackdown by the military on protests spearheaded by monks and students, including a ban on the export of financial services and a freeze on the assets of certain institutions. Washington announced new sanctions in October 2007 after the junta moved again to crush dissent. Since 2000, the United Nations has sent special envoys several times to promote political dialogue with the government and the opposition towards democratic reform but has made little progress. According to analysts, real influence lies with Myanmar’s neighbors, Thailand, China, and India.

“Myanmar does not have a civil society,” says Mathea Falco.
Myanmar is “essentially a client state of China,” says Mathea Falco, president of the Washington-based research institution Drug Strategies and chair of a 2003 CFR Independent Task Force on Myanmar. Bilateral trade between China and Myanmar exceeds $1.5 billion and China is one of the major suppliers of arms to the junta. China, along with Russia, has consistently defended the government against efforts by mainly Western states to press UN sanctions; in January 2007 they vetoed a Security Council resolution calling for democratic reform in the country. India, competing with China for Myanmar’s oil and natural gas resources, shares extensive bilateral relations with the junta that include supplying it arms and conducting joint security operations.

Analysts still believe that ASEAN–which accepted Myanmar as a member in 1997–may be able to put pressure on the junta to change its ways. Following the May 2008 cyclone, the regional bloc was widely praised for its role in convincing the junta to finally allow international aid into the country. CFR’s Senior Fellow Sheila Smith says while ASEAN “didn’t quite condemn” Myanmar’s government, it nonetheless went further than it “ever had in the past in being critical of the internal affairs of a member state.” But as this Backgrounder points out, human rights issues remain a sticking point with member countries, some of whom have less than perfect human rights records of their own and do not welcome interference in their internal affairs anymore than Myanmar does.

Political History
A colony of the British Empire for more than a century, Myanmar achieved independence in 1948. The Union of Burma, as the newly independent country was called, started as a parliamentary democracy like most of its neighbors in the subcontinent that had recently gained freedom from colonial rule. It was beset by ethnic strife from the start. British authorities had been able to bring the different ethnic groups under some central administration. Soon after independence, however, the different groups began to resist domination by the Burman, the majority ethnic group. Burmans formed around 60 percent to 70 percent of the population in Burma; the remaining 30 percent to 40 percent was comprised of 135 different ethnic groups, with Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Chinese, Mon, and Indian among the largest.

Despite constitutional disputes, representative democracy survived in Burma until the military coup of 1962 led by General Ne Win. His regime, known as the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), held power for the next twenty-six years. Throughout this period, there were no free elections, and freedom of expression and association were almost entirely denied. Ne Win abolished the constitution and framed a new one in 1974 based on an isolationist policy, “Burmese Way to Socialism,” and the economy deteriorated significantly.

By mid-1988, food shortages and economic discontent led to mass protests, often spearheaded by monks and students. The army seized power in a coup, abolished the 1974 constitution and silenced the protests by opening fire on unarmed dissidents, leaving more than three thousand dead, according to official figures. A year later in 1989, this new military regime changed the country’s name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar and the capital Rangoon was renamed Yangon. While the change in names has been accepted by the United Nations, countries such as the United States and Britain still refer to it as Burma. The junta also relocated the capital from the largest city Yangon to a remote mountainous town, Nay Pyi Taw, citing security reasons.

Analysts say real influence lies with Myanmar’s neighbors, Thailand, China, and India.
During the 1988 protests, Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence as the leader of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). In 1990, the junta held elections in which Suu Kyi’s party garnered 82 percent of the vote despite Suu Kyi’s house arrest. The military government refused to acknowledge the results, imprisoned many NLD politicians, forced others to flee, and continued to clamp down on dissent, closing the country to the outside world.

The junta renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council in November 1997 and continues under this name to the present day. It drafted a new constitution (PDF) and put it to vote in May 2008 amid the humanitarian crisis from the cyclone. According to the junta the constitutional referendum won an overwhelming majority, but rights groups called the vote “a fraud.” A March 2009 report (PDF) by the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins investigated the junta’s response to the cyclone and recommended the international community to reject the results of the constitutional referendum. The military rulers have called for elections in 2010 under the new constitution but opposition leaders have instead called for a review of the charter which guarantees a quarter of the parliamentary seats to the military and bars Suu Kyi from office. Amnesty International also notes that the constitution contains “discriminatory” provisions such as barring members of religious orders and “destitute” persons from voting.

The State and Society in Myanmar
Myanmar, a country of estimated 56 million people, has abundant natural resources such as oil, natural gas, timber, and minerals. Once known as the rice bowl of the world, it was the richest country in the region at the time it gained independence from colonial rule in 1948. But decades of military rule have ravaged the country. In 2007, according to the United Nations Statistics Division, Myanmar’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was only $379, making it one of the twenty poorest countries in the world.

Largely a Buddhist country (90 percent of the population are devout followers of Buddha), Myanmar has around four-hundred thousand monks and as many army personnel. The army has doubled in size since the 1988 uprising and now consumes over 40 percent of the government’s annual budget. The military has extensive economic interests and its members occupy top positions in almost every government agency. Only military personnel are allowed to own shares in the military-run corporations that form a significant part of the economy. The junta has failed to deliver basic services to the people. Even with hundreds of thousands of people living with HIV in Myanmar, (making it one of the highest HIV- infected countries in Asia) the junta spent only 2.3 percent of GDP on health in 2006. According to the World Health Organization, Myanmar’s health system is the world’s second worst. UNICEF says more than 25 percent of the population lacks access to safe drinking water and malaria continues to be a national priority.

The army now consumes over 40 percent of the government’s annual budget.
Falco of Drug Strategies says, “Myanmar does not have a civil society.” Thaung Htun, a pro-democracy activist in exile in United States, says that many self-help groups work clandestinely in communities to offer relief and humanitarian assistance. Htun says members of such groups are often arrested and beaten by the military.

Human-rights monitors report abuses by the military junta are commonplace, including the following:

■Labor. Forced labor remains widespread (PDF), according to the International Labor Organization. Experts say it is targeted particularly at the ethnic minorities living in the border regions such as Karen, Mon, Shan, and Karenni. The International Committee of the Red Cross says there are about ninety prisons and labor camps in the country.

■Population flight. A 2006 report by Refugees International estimates that around one million people have fled due to military excesses and fear of persecution and around five hundred thousand are internally displaced in the eastern part of the country.

■Sexual Violence. The military’s use of sexual violence against women has dramatically escalated in recent years, especially in dissident ethnic areas. The U.S. State Department’s 2008 report on human rights also notes widespread reports of rape by the army in rural areas and among displaced persons.

■Child soldiers. Myanmar has the world’s largest number of child soldiers (under the age of 18) and the number is growing. Human Rights Watch said there were about seventy thousand child soldiers as of 2002, most of them forcibly recruited by the country’s army.

■Ethnic groups. Human Rights Watch, in its 2009 world report, describes the military’s abuse of ethnic minorities through forced labor, sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, torture, and beatings, and notes confiscation of land and property is widespread.
The junta has repeatedly denied any human-rights violations and condemns efforts by the United Nations to place it on the discussion agenda of the Security Council. By mid-2009, there were over 2,100 political dissidents in jail.

The Role of Buddhist Monks
Monks in Myanmar have had a history of political activism dating back to colonial times. Monks enjoy the highest moral authority in Myanmar and monasteries play a prominent role in society, filling the gap in social services created by the government. Many poor families enlist their sons into monasteries where they are provided free food and education. In Buddhist tradition, laymen earn spiritual credit by offering alms to the monks and it is their route towards achieving Nirvana-freedom from the cycle of rebirth.

Monks participated in the 1988 protests; in the 2007 demonstrations, they came to symbolize the voice of dissent against the junta. Htun says the political consciousness of the monks is in keeping with Buddha’s teachings. “Buddha lays down a code of conduct for the rulers,” says Htun, “and if the rulers fail to follow it, it is then the responsibility of the monks to bring them back to the right path.”

The Troubled Way Forward
The international community, including the United Nations, frequently expresses its support for Suu Kyi and urges the junta to release her. Experts and pro-democracy activists hope that through international pressure and multilateral diplomatic approaches (such as the approach taken with North Korea on its nuclear program), Myanmar’s junta can be brought to the table to talk to other stakeholders, including political parties and various ethnic groups, and to embark on a path towards national reconciliation.

An October 2008 report by the International Crisis Group calls for more international aid saying: “Twenty years of aid restrictions–which see Myanmar receiving twenty times less assistance per capita than other least-developed countries–have weakened, not strengthened, the forces for change.” Many argue otherwise, however. South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes (WashPost) that the junta “would probably interpret an easing of sanctions as an acknowledgment that it has won the struggle with its people and proved its right to rule.” He says diplomatic engagement will only work if the sanctions hit their mark.

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