INTRODUCTION OF MYANMAR
Myanmar, officially Union of Myanmar, republic in Southeast Asia, bounded on the west by Bangladesh, on the northwest by India’s Assam State, on the northeast by China’s Yunnan Province, on the east by Laos and Thailand, and on the southwest by the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The longest land border is shared with China. Myanmar was known as Burma until 1989; the country’s name was officially changed by the military government that took over in 1988. Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) is the commercial capital and largest city. The administrative capital is Naypyidaw.
LAND AND RESOURCES OF MYANMAR
The total area of Myanmar is 676,552 sq km (261,218 sq mi). From north to south, Myanmar stretches about 2,085 km (about 1,295 mi); from east to west, the distance is about 930 km (about 575 mi). The coastal region is known as Lower Myanmar, while the interior region is known as Upper Myanmar. A horseshoe-shaped mountain complex and the valley of the Irrawaddy River system are the country’s dominant topographical features. The mountains of the northern margin rise to 5,881 m (19,295 ft) atop Hkakabo Razi, the highest peak in Southeast Asia. The two other mountain systems have northern to southern axes. The Arakan Yoma range, with peaks mostly between 915 m (3,000 ft) and 1,525 m (5,000 ft), forms a barrier between Myanmar and the subcontinent of India. The Bilauktaung Range, the southern extension of the Shan Plateau, lies along the boundary between southwestern Thailand and southeastern Lower Myanmar. The Shan Plateau, originating in China, has an average elevation of about 1,215 m (about 3,986 ft).
Generally narrow and elongated in the interior, the central lowlands attain a width of about 320 km (about 200 mi) across the Irrawaddy-Sittang delta. The deltaic plains, extremely fertile and economically the most important section of the country, cover an area of about 47,000 sq km (about 18,000 sq mi). Both the Arakan (in the northwest) and the Tenasserim (in the southwest) coasts of Myanmar are rocky and fringed with islands. The country has a number of excellent natural harbors.
Plant and Animal Life in Myanmar
Forests cover 48 percent of Myanmar. In Lower Myanmar, the dense tropical forests contain extensive stands of timber and oil-bearing trees, including commercially valuable teak forests. Other trees include rubber, cinchona, acacia, bamboo, ironwood, mangrove, coconut, betel palm, and, chiefly in the northern highlands, oak, pine, and many species of rhododendron. Tropical fruits such as citrus, bananas, mangoes, and guavas grow in the coastal regions. Vegetation in the arid regions is sparse and stunted. One consequence of Myanmar’s slow economic growth has been the preservation of much of the natural environment.
Jungle animals such as the tiger and leopard are common in Myanmar. Among the larger native animals, found mainly in the highlands of Upper Myanmar, are the elephant, rhinoceros, wild buffalo, wild boar, and several species of deer and antelope. Elephants, tamed or bred in captivity, are used as work animals, particularly in the lumber industry. Smaller animals include the gibbon, which is a small species of ape that lives in trees, several species of monkey, the wildcat, the flying fox, and the tapir. Myanmar has 867 known varieties of birds, including parrots, peafowl, pheasants, crows, herons, and paddybirds. Among typical reptiles are crocodiles, geckos, cobras, pythons, and turtles. Edible species of freshwater fish are plentiful.
Natural Resources of Myanmar
The most important resources of Myanmar are agricultural. There are approximately 250 commercially useful kinds of trees, 50 of which have been exploited. The most important forest resource is teak, of which Myanmar holds the majority of the world’s remaining supply. Important mineral resources are petroleum and natural gas, along with tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, and small amounts of marble and limestone. Myanmar is an outstanding source of jade and natural rubies.
Myanmar’s richest soils are found in a narrow alluvial strip along the Bay of Bengal, where mountain streams irrigate the land in the wide Irrawaddy and Sittang river valleys. These deep deposits form a vast, fertile belt especially suitable for rice cultivation because of the abundant moisture.
Climate in Myanmar
The climate of Myanmar and other countries in South and Southeast Asia follows a monsoon pattern. During the half of the year that the sun’s rays strike directly above the equator, the land mass of Asia is heated more than is the Indian Ocean. This draws moist hot air from over the ocean onto the land, bringing the rains of the southwest monsoon. When the tilt of the earth brings the direct sun rays south of the equator, the heating of the Indian Ocean draws the cooler dry air of the northeast monsoon from the highlands of Asia across the countries of South and Southeast Asia. As a result, Myanmar has three seasons: hot and wet, warm, and very hot. During the hot, wet season, from mid-May to October, rain usually falls every day and sometimes all day. Almost all of Myanmar’s annual rainfall falls during this time. In the cooler season, which runs from late October to mid-February, the temperature for January averages 25°C (77°F) in Yangon in Lower Myanmar and 20°C (68°F) in Mandalay in Upper Myanmar. The hottest season runs from late February to early May. At the end of this season, the average monthly temperature reaches the upper 30°s C (lower 100°s F) in many parts of Myanmar. By July rains have brought the average temperature down to 29°C (84°F) in Mandalay and 27°C (81°F) in Yangon. Average annual rainfall varies from about 5,000 mm (about 200 in) on the Tenasserim Coast to about 760 mm (about 30 in) at Mandalay.
Environmental Issues in Myanmar
Although rich in natural resources, Myanmar is among the most impoverished countries in Asia. Only 80 percent (2006) of Myanmar’s citizens have access to safe water, and only 82 percent (2006) of the population is serviced by adequate sanitation systems. Waterborne infectious diseases are a significant health problem throughout Myanmar. The country has a high rate of infant mortality, with 48 (2009) infants dying out of every 1,000 born.
Myanmar is being deforested at a rate of 1.19 percent (1990–2005) every year. Teak wood is in high demand worldwide, and most of the world’s remaining teak trees are in Myanmar. Forests are also being consumed for fuel.
Only 4.2 percent (2007) of Myanmar’s land is officially protected. Myanmar is inhabited by 147 (2004) threatened animal species. Myanmar has ratified international agreements pertaining to biodiversity, tropical forests, marine pollution, and the ozone layer.
PEOPLE OF MYANMAR
The population of Myanmar (2009 estimate) is 48,137,741. The overall population density is 73 persons per sq km (190 per sq mi), one of the lowest in East Asia. The population is 69 percent rural, with almost half the urban population found in the three largest cities: Yangon, Mandalay, and Moulmein.
Population and Settlement in Myanmar
More than two-thirds of the people of Myanmar are Burman, ethnically akin to the Tibetans and the Chinese. In addition, several indigenous minorities with their own languages and cultures inhabit the country. The most important of these groups are the Karen and the Shan, each of which comprises less than 10 percent of the population. There are also several smaller groups such as the Arakanese (Rakhine), Mon, Chin, and Kachin, as well as numerous even smaller minorities. The Karen are found primarily in delta villages and along the Thailand border, the Shan throughout the vast Shan Plateau, the Mon along the Tenasserim coast (this group is largely assimilated within the Burman majority), the Arakanese along the Arakan coast next to Bangladesh, the Chin on the western border with India, the Kachin on the northern border with China, and many of the smaller groups along the Chinese border intermingled with the Shan. Large Chinese and Indian minorities dominated the urban population during the British rule of Myanmar (1826-1948); however, many of the Chinese have since assimilated as Sino-Burmans and most of the Indians have emigrated, though many Indian Muslims remain in their traditional homeland on the Arakan coast.
The borderlands in which most of the ethnic minorities live had been separately administered under British rule. Having retained many of their hereditary traditions under British rule, these groups have been restless under Burman rule in the independent Union of Myanmar. Since 1948 the Karen have been in armed rebellion, accompanied by the Kachin beginning in the 1950s and by periodic outbursts from a variety of Shan political groups.
Political Divisions of Myanmar
The nation comprises Myanmar proper and the seven states of Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan. Myanmar proper consists of seven divisions: Irrawaddy, Magwe, Mandalay, Pegu, Rangoon, Sagaing, and Tenasserim.
The largest city and principal seaport is Yangon. Mandalay, in central Myanmar, is an important trade center. Other important cities are Moulmein, on the Gulf of Martaban, and Sittwe, a major seaport on the Bay of Bengal. The administrative capital, Naypyidaw, is located in central Myanmar 320 km (200 mi) north of Yangon.
Languages spoken in Myanmar
Most of the linguistic groups of Myanmar are monosyllabic and polytonal, similar to those of Tibet and China (see Sino-Tibetan Languages). The official language of Myanmar is classified by linguists as Burmese, although government officials often call it the Myanmar language. It is spoken by the great majority of the population, including many of the non-Burman ethnic minorities. About 15 percent of the population speaks Shan and Karen. English is spoken among the educated, and the country contains a sizable number of speakers of Chinese.
Religion in Myanmar
The great majority of all the people of Myanmar are Buddhists. Most adhere to the Theravada school of Buddhism, as do Buddhists in neighboring Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia (see Theravada Buddhism). Theravada (the Way of the Elders) Buddhism is sometimes called Hinayana (the Lesser Vehicle) by contrast with Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) Buddhism, a later and more elaborate form that is practiced largely in China, Korea, and Japan. Theravada Buddhism is also quite different from the Tantric Buddhism that is found in Japan and Himalayan regions such as Tibet. Underlying the everyday practice of Buddhism is a well-developed culture of animism, the worship of spirits known as nat. This culture provides a basis for many nat festivals and for much of traditional medical practice. Muslims have also long formed a part of the population and there are a significant number of Christians (mostly Baptists) as well, particularly in the hill areas.
Education in Myanmar
Education is free and compulsory for children from the age of 5 to 9. Secondary education consists of four years of middle or vocational school and an additional two years for high school. Middle and vocational schools are also free, but fees are charged for high school. Secondary schools enroll 39 percent of the secondary school-age population. Instruction in primary and secondary schools is in Burmese; English is the second language taught in many secondary schools. The literacy rate of the adult population is reported to be 86 percent. However, the Myanmar government claimed that less than one-fifth of the population was truly literate when it was seeking United Nations (UN) status as a “least developed country” in the late 1980s.
Yangon and Mandalay have a variety of long-established universities and postsecondary educational institutes. In order to disperse the political protests by students in these two cities, regional colleges were set up in the late 1960s in a number of principal towns. Yangon University (founded in 1920) and Mandalay University (1925) are the premier institutions in arts and sciences. A bachelor’s degree is also granted by the Defense Services Academy (1955) in Maymyo. An emphasis on science and technology since the 1960s led to the expansion of the Yangon Institute of Technology (1964) and the establishment of the Mandalay Institute of Technology (1991) and an Institute of Economics (1964) in Yangon. Medical doctors are trained at two institutes of medicine in Yangon and one in Mandalay. There are numerous teacher-training institutes throughout the country. As a result of periodic political disturbances, universities have been mostly closed since 1988.
Way of Life in Myanmar
Myanmar civilization is largely an outgrowth of Indian influences. For the majority of Myanmar’s population, Buddhism is the center of individual life and the monastery (pongyi kyaung) is the center of the community. This is especially true in the villages, where most of the population lives. Wisdom is believed to reside at the pongyi kyaung and refuge may be sought there. A rite of passage for every adolescent boy is the shinphyu, in which the boy briefly relives the princely life of Gautama, who became the Buddha, and enters into the life of the monastery as a novice monk. At any later time in life he may return to the monastic life for a longer or shorter period of time. If married, he should ask his wife’s permission to do this.
The daily life of the village begins with the pongyis (monks) making their rounds in the morning with their begging bowls. By donating that day’s food, the villagers earn merit, and the monks, who are forbidden to work, are nourished. The annual cycle of life follows the seasons, with all hands put to work for rice planting when the summer monsoon brings the first rains. The time during the three months of the most intensive rain is the Buddhist lent, when such activities as marriage and hunting are put off, but nat festivals can be enjoyed. Harvest in the fall is again a busy time, followed by the cooler season when the traditional form of entertainment is the pwe, a type of folk opera. In the evenings during this season, a crowd gathers on the grounds of a temple to watch the pwe in which dancers retell tales of royal times in Myanmar or present such Indian epics as the Ramayana. Dramatic music and dance alternate with bawdy skits by clowns, who often include political satire in their acts. In the towns, movies, particularly foreign feature films, are popular.
The Myanmar orchestra that accompanies the theatrical performances in a pwe consists of a bamboo xylophone, tall bamboo clappers, many kinds of tuned gongs, a small pair of cymbals to keep time, and the hne, a six-reeded oboe that carries the theme. The hne mimics the sound of the human voice speaking in the tonal Burmese language. In cities and towns music is piped into the streets for the public’s benefit through loudspeakers located in tea shops, and video cassette recorders bring cosmopolitan musical culture to even the smallest settlements.
The core of the Myanmar diet is boiled rice, combined with a little spicy meat or fish and some vegetables. Also popular for breakfast is a hot noodle soup flavored with coconut. A favorite sauce is ngapi, which is made from fermented fish or prawns and gives off a pungent odor. Several varieties of bananas along with coconut are the main fruits, while a wide variety of more exotic fruits are also enjoyed, such as the mangosteen, the custard apple, and the durian. The common drink is weak green tea, which is taken tepid throughout the day in small cups.
A typical gesture of hospitality in Myanmar is to offer guests the materials and equipment for making a chew of betel. This chemical combination of a chopped areca nut with lime and spices, all wrapped in a betel leaf, cleans the mouth, sweetens the breath, and settles the stomach. Locally rolled cigars, called cheroots, are smoked by young and old, male and female.
In keeping with the hot climate, both men and women wear skirts, except for those in the military, who wear long trousers. The longyi is a wrap-around cylinder of cloth that is tucked in at the waist in one way by men and in another way by women. Male and female longyis also differ in the patterns printed or woven into them. On top men wear a light shirt, covered by a Chinese-style jacket on formal occasions. Women wear a long or short-sleeved blouse. On the head men may wear a gaunqbaung, which for a farmer can be a simple length of cloth twisted around the head like a turban, while a government official at a formal event will have one made of silk and stretched over a light wicker frame. Because of the hot weather and rains, sandals are worn rather than shoes. Umbrellas are carried throughout the year to keep off either sun or rain.
For much of Myanmar’s history, women played a stronger role than in traditional Western societies. From early on they could own property and were independent in economic activities. In religion, however, their place is secondary. Males can become monks and they can earn religious merit in a number of ways; the few women who become nuns and the many who offer gifts to monks usually hope at best to be born as a man in their next reincarnation. While some men in powerful social positions and others who are very poor may have multiple wives, the practice is much less common than in neighboring Thailand.
A popular form of recreation is traveling by bus or oxcart to visit a notable pagoda or attend a festival. Soccer is a prominent sport, even during heavy rains; kites are flown in season; and a frequent occurrence on any day is a local game of chinlon, in which a small circle of men keeps a ball of woven cane up in the air with gentle blows from the foot, knee, shoulder, or head. Golf is particularly favored among military leaders.
Social Problems in Myanmar
Myanmar is poor by Asian standards, and consequently suffers from a number of social problems. Inflation in the prices of consumer goods has been a continuing problem, particularly for poorer people in the cities. Since a large number of young women in the border areas have been drawn into prostitution in Thailand, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) has become a large-scale problem. For much of the period since World War II (1939-1945), poverty along with the conditions of political unrest have kept the population growth rate quite low, lower even than in neighboring Thailand, which boasts a successful family-planning program.
CULTURE OF MYANMAR
The major population groups in Myanmar migrated into the Irrawaddy River Valley from the north, bringing their spoken languages, their gender roles, and several varieties of food and medicine. From India on the west came the institutions of religion and government, but without the Indian caste system of social hierarchy. India was also the source of Pali, the sacred language, and of the devanagari script in which the popular language is written, along with astrology and some kinds of food. The firm grounding of Buddhism in Myanmar culture contributed over the years to the building of many pagodas (towering temples) throughout Myanmar.
Literature in Myanmar
The Burmese language lends itself well to poetry and puns since words are usually one syllable long, beginning and ending with consonants, while the vowel in the middle carries one of several tones—low, high, high and short, or high and falling. Classical poems of four lines with four syllables in each line followed a complex rhyme scheme. A wealth of satirical puns play on exchanging vowels. For instance, the public switched the title of a government welfare program known as pyi-daw-tha (a royal, happy land) to pya-daw-thi (a pile of royal ashes). With the end of the monarchy in the late 1800s, nationalist aspirations were carried forward in an indigenous literature. Particularly notable in the post-World War II era were the poetry and essays of Thakin Kodaw Hmaine and stories of Thakin Thein Pe Myint, whose Tet Pongyi (written from 1936-1938) ridiculed the corruption of the modern monastic orders. An outstanding critical novelist of the independent period and publisher of an independent newspaper was Ludu U Hla. In recent years the military government has exercised severe censorship, though some short-story writers in popular magazines are still published, under duress of the law.
Art and Architecture of Myanmar
Secular art is rare in Myanmar; most sculpture and painting is confined to a Buddhist context. Many large pagodas were constructed by kings and rich people seeking to earn religious merit. These pagodas consist of a massive central spire decorated with plant and animal designs and lesser shrines around the base; they are often topped by a jewel-encrusted hti, or umbrella. There are thousands of ancient pagodas in the old capital at Pagan, others in the area of the former capital at Mandalay, and the grand, gold-encased Shwedagon Pagoda atop the central hill in today’s capital, Yangon. Architecture, as well as other art forms, display a dominant Indian influence. Artisans are known for their woven silks and lacquerware (boxes and bowls made of woven bamboo frames and covered with a hard resin).
Libraries and Museums in Myanmar
Formal libraries and museums, as such, are limited in number and facilities in Myanmar. The thousands of Buddhist temples, however, serve as repositories for books and religious artifacts. The National Museum of Art and Archaeology (1952) is in Yangon, and state museums are in Kyaukpyu, Mandalay, and Moulmein.
ECONOMY OF MYANMAR
Myanmar is primarily an agricultural country. Some 63 percent of the working population is engaged in growing or processing crops, while another 12 percent works in industry. Before World War II began in 1939, Myanmar was the world’s major rice exporter. After the war ended in 1945, the area of land devoted to agriculture slowly recovered, but as the population grew the surplus available for export never reached the earlier level.
From 1962 to 1988 the government attempted to develop the economy following a “Burmese Way to Socialism,” with nationalization of most industries. The policy was a failure, however, and in the 1990s the government opened the economy to market forces, particularly inviting foreign investment. Still, many state economic enterprises continue to lose money, the black market flourishes, and the heavy government spending for the growing military budget feeds inflation. By the mid-1990s, after several years of significant growth, the levels of gross domestic product (GDP), agricultural output, consumption, and investment in Myanmar were about one-tenth higher than they had been in 1985-1986, the best year before the military coup d’état and political unrest of 1988. Since the population had grown in the interim, this means that the average person remained worse off than a decade before. In 1997 the United States imposed strong economic sanctions on Myanmar to express disapproval of the military government’s human rights record. That same year Asia suffered a regional economic downturn. These developments affected Myanmar’s economy, slowing foreign investment and raising inflation.
Labor in Myanmar
An estimated 27.9 million people were employed in the civilian economy in 2007. The largest portion, 63 percent, worked in agriculture, forestry, and fishing; 25 percent were in services; and the remaining 12 percent was employed in manufacturing, construction, and mining. A significant portion of the working-age population (those 15 to 59) was engaged in other informal economic activities, such as the black market.
Agriculture of Myanmar
Some 15 percent of the total land surface of Myanmar is suitable for farming, and only 2.8 percent is irrigated. Farmers own their own land but must sell part of their production to the government at a very low fixed price. Myanmar remains an important rice producer, based on the annually flooded paddy lands of the Irrawaddy delta and the irrigated areas in Upper Myanmar. An estimated 33 million metric tons of rice were harvested in 2007. While the greatest land area is devoted to rice, significant amounts of land are also planted with sesame, peanuts, and a variety of beans, as well as sunflower, sugar cane, corn, cotton, and wheat. Although the amount of land cultivated for most crops was increased in the late 1980s and early 1990s, productivity fell, in part because less fertilizer was used. By the beginning of the 21st century, use of fertilizers had rebounded somewhat, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN) reported food production was growing quickly. Generally, the terms of trade for Myanmar’s agricultural exports (their world price compared to the prices of manufactured goods that Myanmar imports) have been declining.
Myanmar is one of the world’s major producers of opium, a substance used in the production of heroin for illegal drug trafficking, mainly to Western countries. The drug trade within Myanmar is carried on largely by Sino-Burmese and Shan warlords in the Golden Triangle area bordering Thailand, Laos, and China. In the mid-1990s more than 60 percent of the world’s heroin supply reportedly came from Myanmar. In 1997 the government of Myanmar agreed to participate in a UN drug-control project to reduce the illegal production and trafficking of opium. Both production and area harvested for opium reportedly declined in the country in the late 1990s. In 2001 Myanmar again became the world’s top supplier of opium as the supply from Afghanistan, which had become the leading source, decreased dramatically.
Forestry and Fishing in Myanmar
The forests of Myanmar are an important source of wealth, especially in teak and natural rubber. The timber extraction in 2007 was 42.5 million cu m (1,503 million cu ft). In the early 1990s the teak harvest along the border with Thailand, which had banned its own harvest in order to preserve the future supply, greatly exceeded the sustainable yield and the government had to cancel contracts with Thai loggers. Important tree products, in addition to rubber, are a sticky gum called lac, from which lacquerware is made, quinine, and cutch, the source of a dye.
Fish, including shrimp, are caught for local consumption and are a main source of protein in the diet. Freshwater fish are preferred, but the government is now encouraging saltwater fishing. In 2007 the total catch in the Indian Ocean was estimated at 1,435,670 metric tons. Much of that catch was caught by Thai trawlers.
Mining in Myanmar
Myanmar has a rich and varied supply of minerals. Most of the mines are located in the mountainous areas in the west and along the Tenasserim coast. Such precious stones as jade, rubies, and sapphires are mined, as are copper, nickel, silver, lead, and zinc. Since some of the resources were located in rebel-controlled areas, the political stabilization of the early 1990s has increased foreign investor interest in mining these natural resources.
In the early 1900s the Burma Oil Company was a major world producer of petroleum. Because petroleum production fell during the 1980s, the government invited foreign companies to prospect for oil both on land and in the sea. Signing bonuses paid by oil companies were one of the main sources of foreign exchange for the government after the collapse of the economy following the political turmoil of 1988. So far searching on land has produced no great finds and several of the companies, along with the principal company, Amoco Corporation, have withdrawn. In 2004 some 5.5 million barrels of crude petroleum were produced. Also, after extensive natural gas resources were discovered in the Bay of Bengal, French and American companies joined in a venture to construct a pipeline from the Andaman Sea to Thailand across Myanmar’s Tenasserim region.
Manufacturing in Myanmar
Rice milling and the processing of agricultural products are the chief manufacturing enterprises. In order to spur the industrial sector of the economy, the government has started a steel reprocessing mill, a jute mill, a brick and tile factory, and other plants. Lumber mills, petroleum refineries, sugar refineries, plants for extracting vegetable oils, flour mills, cotton mills, and textile and tobacco factories are also in operation. Labor costs for export goods are estimated by foreign investors at about one-tenth those of Thailand and one-half those of Vietnam. However, in production for local consumers, Myanmar factories cannot compete in price with Chinese goods streaming across the now open northern border. Private investment under the open market system has gone more into resource extraction rather than local industry.
Energy in Myanmar
Myanmar, like Laos, has a great potential for producing hydroelectricity; in 2006 some 55 percent of its electricity (3.3 billion kilowatt-hours) was from hydroelectric plants. The remainder of Myanmar’s electricity is produced by thermal plants using natural gas, diesel fuel, or coal.
Tourism of Myanmar
The tourism industry in Myanmar has attracted funds from investors in volume second only to oil exploration. Investors from Thailand and Singapore are constructing world-class hotels and restoring airline connections. In 1989 the government loosened visa restrictions, allowing tourists on package tours to stay in the country for up to two weeks. However, the government restricts tourists to officially approved sites. In 2007, 248,000 tourists visited Myanmar, a substantial increase over the annual number of tourists that visited in the years prior to 1988. Although tourism is Myanmar’s leading source of foreign exchange, the political climate in the country has hindered any efforts to promote tourism there.
Foreign Trade in Myanmar
All foreign trade is controlled by the government, but since 1990 firms have been able to directly participate in trade. By making cross-border trade with China, Thailand, and India legal, the government has been able to collect more taxes and lessen black market trade with Thailand by rebel groups. Since the exchange rate for the official currency is high and a number of regulations remain, much illegal trade still takes place. In 2007 exports were valued at $6.49 billion. Exports typically consist of beans, rice, and teak and other hardwoods. The United States, India, China, Japan, Singapore, Germany, and France are the main purchasers.
Imports are mainly machinery, transportation equipment, chemicals, and food. In 2007 they totaled $3.1 billion. Singapore, China, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia are the primary suppliers. In 1991 the United States and the member nations of the European Union (EU) imposed trade sanctions against Myanmar in response to alleged human rights violations. Strong, additional trade sanctions were imposed by the United States in 1997, again in response to human rights abuses by Myanmar’s military government. The sanctions restricted new investment in Myanmar by U.S. companies. In 2000 the EU also increased sanctions against Myanmar. The United States again tightened sanctions following a brutal crackdown on antigovernment protesters in 2007. Meanwhile, Myanmar expanded trade with its Asian neighbors, especially member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Currency and Banking of Myanmar
The unit of currency is the kyat (5.60 kyats equal U.S.$1; 2007 average), which is divided into 100 pya. The black market rate in 1995 was 100 to 120 kyats to the U.S. dollar. A dual currency system allows foreign exchange certificates to be used for some transactions. An increase in the printing of currency to pay for urban reconstruction and beautification has contributed to a high inflation rate. In addition to the Central Bank of Myanmar (founded in 1990), the government operates a number of specialized banks. Foreign banks also operate in Myanmar in a limited capacity.
Transportation in Myanmar
The railroad system has been owned and operated by the government since British times; it includes 3,955 km (2,458 mi) of track. The railroad links Moulmein, Yangon, Pegu, Mandalay, and the other major cities but does not connect with railroads outside of Myanmar. Far more important for moving domestic passengers and cargo are the inland waterways, which total about 12,800 km (about 8,000 mi) of navigable rivers and canals, about 3,200 km (about 2,000 mi) of which are open to large commercial vessels. Most of Myanmar’s larger towns and cities are river ports; Yangon and Pegu are near the mouths of the Irrawaddy River, Bassein is on one of the mouths of the Irrawaddy, Mandalay is on the upper Irrawaddy near the branching of the Chindwin River, and Moulmein is located at the mouth of the Salween River.
There are 27,966 km (17,377 mi) of roads in Myanmar, of which 11 percent are paved, two-thirds are gravel, and the rest passable most easily by jeep or ox cart. In the 1990s the government focused considerable energy on reconstructing roads, often with volunteer or forced labor. There are extensive road links and several bridge links with Thailand and China. The Burma Road, which extended from northeast of Mandalay into China, played an important role in World War II.
Myanmar Airways, the government-owned airline, has international service from Yangon to Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Kolkata. Other international carriers provide direct flights to Mandalay and the tourist site at Pagan. Domestic flights have also been modernized by joint ventures with Singapore companies.
Communications in Myanmar
All postal, telegraph, telephone, and broadcasting systems in Myanmar are controlled by the government. In 2005 the country had 9 telephone mainlines for every 1,000 people; most of the telephones were in Yangon. There were 65 radio receivers and 7 television sets for every 1,000 inhabitants. There is one government TV channel.
GOVERNMENT OF MYANMAR
Myanmar was governed according to the provisions of the constitution of 1948 until the coup d’état of 1962, after which the existing form of government was eradicated. In 1974 a new constitution was adopted. This document served as the basis of governmental organization until its suspension after the military coup of September 1988.
The military set up a State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule Myanmar until elections could be held. When the SLORC lost overwhelmingly in elections held in 1990, it delayed turning over government to civilian control until it could write a new constitution. Many winners of that election were arrested; others were invited to join with other delegates selected by the SLORC in a constitutional convention. The convention first met in January 1993 but was adjourned in March 1996 without producing a constitution. The SLORC reconvened the constitutional convention in 2004, and it continued to meet into 2005. Unlike the previous convention, however, it did not include representatives from the country’s main opposition group, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
In 2008 the SLORC submitted a new constitution for approval in a popular referendum. The voting took place on May 10 in all parts of the country, except the Irrawaddy delta area where a powerful Category 4 cyclone, Cyclone Nargis, struck on May 2. The SLORC reported that the constitution passed by a vote of more than 92 percent, with a nearly 100 percent turnout, but this claim was disputed by human rights groups, who cited widespread voter intimidation. Under the terms of the new constitution, the military is guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in parliament, and the main opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who heads the NLD, is prohibited from holding office. New elections are scheduled to be held in 2010.
Central Government in Myanmar
The core of Myanmar’s central government is the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which was formed in 1997 when the SLORC was dissolved. The SPDC is made up of military men. It is currently headed by Senior General Than Shwe as chairman, who is assisted by a vice chairman, a first secretary, and 18 other members. General Than Shwe and about 30 ministers handle the administrative direction of the government, with responsibility for areas such as agriculture, education, foreign affairs, national planning, and religious affairs. Some ministers and deputy ministers are not from the military. In November 2005 the government began moving government offices from Yangon to a new administrative capital, later named Naypyidaw, in the central part of the country.
Judiciary in Myanmar
The administration of justice is directed by local Law and Order Restoration Councils (LORCs). A chief judge, a five-member supreme court, and an attorney general were appointed by the SLORC after it came to power. The martial law and curfew imposed since the 1988 coup have been lifted in most of the country. Public gatherings of five or more people remain illegal without a special permit.
Local Government of Myanmar
The administration of Myanmar is highly centralized, with a chain of command passing from the SLORC to the local LORCs to the village level. The country is organized into seven divisions in the central river valleys and seven states on the hilly borderlands, with large towns organized as separate administrative units.
Political Parties of Myanmar
In contrast to the period from 1962 to 1988, when the Burma Socialist Program Party was the only legitimate political party, more than 100 political parties began organizing in 1988, and 93 competed in the national election held in May 1990. The political role of competitive parties was extinguished, however, after the major opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won more than 80 percent of the seats in the 1990 election, while the parties supported by the army captured only 2 percent.
Defense of Myanmar
In 2006 the armed forces of Myanmar included 375,000 people. The army had 350,000 members, the navy had 13,000, the air force had 12,000, and the remainder were paramilitary personnel, including the People’s Police Force and the People’s Militia. Myanmar has a military conscription law but it has not been applied because of sufficient voluntary enlistments. When required by military necessity, voluntary and involuntary labor is recruited from the streets, a practice that has been described by the government as traditional but is much criticized in international forums. Women, with the exception of medical personnel, generally do not serve in Myanmar’s armed forces.
International Organizations in Myanmar
Myanmar is a member of the following international organizations: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the International Labor Organization (ILO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Myanmar became a full member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997.
HISTORY OF MYANMAR
The history of what is now Myanmar (formerly Burma; renamed in 1989) has been made by a succession of peoples who migrated down along the Irrawaddy River from Tibet and China, and who were influenced by social and political institutions that had been carried across the sea from India. First came the Mon, perhaps as early as 3000 BC. They established centers of settlement in central Myanmar, in the Irrawaddy delta, and farther down the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal. They constructed irrigation systems and developed commercial and cultural contacts with India, while maintaining loose ties with other Mon civilizations in the Chao Phraya Valley of Siam (now Thailand). The Pyu followed much later, moving down the western side of the Irrawaddy and founding a capital near present-day Prome in AD 628. The Burmans entered the Irrawaddy River valley in the mid-9th century, absorbing the nearby Pyu and Mon communities. Later waves brought in the Shan and Kachin, who, along with the native Karen, have all played a part in the country’s development.
The Pagan Kingdom
The first unified Myanmar state was founded by King Anawrahta (reigned 1044-1077) at Pagan in Upper Myanmar and was brought to its height by his son, Kyanzittha (reigned 1084-1112). Their domain advanced from the dry zone to incorporate the delta Mon centers at Pegu and Thaton; they extended political and religious ties overseas to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and fought off a Chinese invasion from the north. The internal structure of the state was similar to that of a Hindu kingdom, with a court at the capital supported by direct household taxes or service obligations drawn from villages, which were under the guidance of hereditary myothugis (township headmen). In time an increasing proportion of the land was donated to Buddhist monasteries in the form of slave villages for the maintenance of the sangha (monkhood). Kingship was legitimated by both Hindu ideology and the king’s role as defender of the Buddhist faith. During 250 years of relative peace, the devout rulers built the many pagodas for which Pagan is known today.
In 1287 Pagan was conquered by the Mongols under Kublai Khan. This was the beginning of a turbulent period during which Upper Myanmar led an uncertain existence between Shan domination and tributary relations with China, while Lower Myanmar reverted to Mon rule based at Pegu.
The Toungoo Dynasty
In the second quarter of the 16th century, a new Burmese dynasty emerged from the sleepy principality of Toungoo in central Myanmar. With the aid of Portuguese adventurers, the Toungoo dynasty established what became under its third king, Bayinnaung (reigned 1551-1581), a reunified and precariously prosperous state. After his death, succession squabbles and encroachment by the Portuguese along the coast, by the Thais on the east, and by Manipuri horsemen from the west brought on the decline of the dynasty, although the system itself endured until the mid-18th century. Its survival was made possible by a stable administrative and legal system at the central and local levels. The dynasty was finally toppled by a Mon rebellion in 1752.
The Konbaung Dynasty and the Anglo-Burmese Wars
Increasing European commercial and political pressure set the context for the rise and demise of the last Burmese dynasty. During the 1600s and early 1700s competing British, Dutch, and French interests had established commercial ventures at Syriam, near present-day Yangon, and elsewhere on the coast. In 1752 Alaungpaya founded the Konbaung dynasty by restoring Burmese rule first at Ava and later in the delta. He moved against the British at the Negrais trading post and then initiated another attack on the Thai, whose capital at Ayutthaya was later destroyed by his son King Hsinbyushin (reigned 1763-1776). Another son, Bodawpaya, lost control of Siam but captured the Arakan, a rich coastal province bordering on Bengal.
By the early 19th century, political friction over an Arakanese independence movement based in Bengal was compounded by the military successes of the Burmese general Maha Bandula in Assam. The British responded by sea in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826). The ensuing Treaty of Yandabo left the British in control of Arakan to the west and Tenasserim to the east of the Irrawaddy delta. The production of rice and timber flourished in these two areas under the British, while their relative political stability induced massive population growth, a general pattern that was repeated after the remainder of the delta was annexed in the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. Commercial ambition and political pretext, heightened by Anglo-French regional rivalry, precipitated the final annexation, when Mandalay fell after a brief battle in 1885. These extensions of British rule were progressively less popular with the resident population, and each in turn required a period of pacification. In the longer run, British rule brought widespread administrative and social modernization to a land that, except for the benign efforts of King Mindon, the builder of Mandalay, had been swamped in reclusive policies and wracked by court intrigues.
Burmese culture, now submerged under a colonial overlay, had three aspects: the language, with accretions from Mon and Pali; Theravada Buddhism, which had come from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and mixed with local nat (animist) rituals; and the society of rice-growing peasant villages. Under colonial rule the linkage of government and religion was lost, the monastic orders fell into disarray, and the monastic schools, which had given Myanmar a higher rate of male literacy than England, declined as English became the language of social advancement. The indigenous culture nevertheless persisted in the magical world of the pwe (a type of folk opera), in the practice of Buddhism and nat worship, and in the language of the peasantry.
The British moved the capital from royal Mandalay to the port city of Yangon in 1886, developing it as a substation of the British Empire in India. This led to large-scale Indian immigration. Yangon thus became the hub of a “steel frame” of administration spreading out into the hinterland, where district officers maintained law and order, collected revenue, and administered justice. As the country was opened up to the world market, it became the world’s major exporter of rice—from 0.5 million metric tons before the fall of Mandalay, to 2 million in 1900, and 3 million before World War II began in 1939. British rule and economic penetration gradually engendered social disintegration and provoked a nationalist movement. This movement used modern institutions, such as the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, student strikes, and political participation in partial self-government to agitate for immediate reforms, including separation from India, and later for independence. In the countryside, the unrelated antimodern Saya San Rebellion of 1930 to 1932 drew widespread support, but was crushed.
The individuals who eventually forged an independent Myanmar began their political careers as student leaders with the title Thakin (master), a term that had previously been applied to the British. One of the student leaders, U Aung San, assembled a military force that was trained by the Japanese into a Burma Independence Army (BIA). When the Japanese invaded Myanmar in 1942, during World War II, the BIA accompanied the Japanese troops, fighting few battles but swelling their membership as a political movement in military garb. This political movement later took advantage of the strains of wartime occupation and the weakness of the Japanese-installed government near the war’s end to resist Japanese rule under the name of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL).
The Modern Nation
After the war, the returning British discovered that the AFPFL, led by former BIA head Aung San, had nearly monopolized native political power. The AFPFL negotiated with Britain to gain Myanmar’s independence by 1948. It also compelled the inclusion into a “federal” republic of such peripheral groups as the Shan and Karen, thought to have had special British protection. In elections held in April 1947, Aung San’s AFPFL won an overwhelming majority of seats in the constitutional assembly. In July 1947, U Saw, a nationalist political rival of Aung San, had him and six ministers of the new government assassinated. U Nu, a former student leader and the foreign minister in the wartime government of Ba Maw, was asked to head the AFPFL and the government.
Myanmar’s new independence confronted the AFPFL government of U Nu with a series of political and ethnic insurrections, which continued over the next three decades. During the 1950s a major threat created by the Karen revolt was blunted, and the Communist insurgents were forced to retreat into the hills. U Nu, along with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, President Sukarno of Indonesia, and President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, helped establish the Nonaligned Movement, a loose association of nations that accepted aid but refused alliance with either the Western bloc of nations led by the United States or the Communist bloc led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Some decades later, when the movement became too much aligned with the USSR, Myanmar quit. After the establishment of the nonaligned foreign policy, economic reconstruction was begun and some new growth undertaken with multilateral foreign aid.
AFPFL rule was validated in national elections in 1951-1952 and 1956. By 1958, however, a party split required the constitutional intervention of a caretaker army government for 18 months. General Ne Win’s government tightened administrative discipline to promote modernization and curbed separatist tendencies in the Shan states, where some of the traditional rulers wanted to exercise the right to secession that was available during the first ten years under the 1947 constitution. The 1960 election gave a resounding victory to U Nu’s faction, based largely on respect for his personal piety. U Nu’s return to power was short-lived, however. His promotion of Buddhism as the state religion and his tolerance for ethnic separatism precipitated a bloodless coup that reestablished military rule under Ne Win in March 1962.
The Ne Win Regime
During the 1960s and 1970s Ne Win attempted to build an effective totalitarian government, establish legitimacy with the country’s people, and maintain autonomy on the world scene. The military Revolutionary Council, which was established after the 1962 coup, abolished independent political parties; independent newspapers were also banned, being replaced by a single paper, The Working People’s Daily. The military leaders formed the Burmese Socialist Program Party and nationalized the economy through a plan called the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” Students protesting in the early months of the revolutionary government were shot with machine guns and the Rangoon University (now Yangon University) Student Union building, where the Thakin movement had been launched decades before, was dynamited.
During the radical first dozen years of the new regime, foreign contacts were curbed. Tourist visas were limited to 24 hours, foreign newspaper reporters were barred, and most foreign assistance was terminated. The economy declined as the consumer goods distribution system became mired in chaos (leading to a booming black market) and agricultural production fell. A combination of urban food shortages and the spillover from China’s Cultural Revolution ignited strikes and anti-Chinese riots, compelling a rethinking of economic policy. Following modest liberalization of trade, a raising of the official price paid peasants for their rice, and the acceptance of international aid for fertilizer and other technical improvements, the economy recovered marginally.
A new constitution was put into effect in 1974, transferring power by referendum and single-party election from the military Revolutionary Council to a People’s Assembly, commanded by Ne Win and other former military leaders. Student strikes still erupted at intervals, as when U Thant, a political figure of the constitutional democracy period and former UN secretary general, died and was returned to Myanmar for burial in 1974.
Ethnic insurrections, which broke out in the Kachin and Shan states after the army coup, continued to deny major areas to government control, including Myanmar’s part of the Golden Triangle (a major supplier of the world opium market). The Karen insurrection moved to the Thai border where it benefited from the black market trade. The Burma Communist Party insurrection migrated from the central Pegu Yoma region to the northeast border with China, where it retained official support from China. When that support was withdrawn in the late 1980s, the aging Myanmar leadership became dependent upon ethnic minority foot soldiers, who mutinied in order to be able to run their own opium business and eventually worked out a cease-fire with the central government. In 1981 Ne Win relinquished the presidency to San Yu, a retired general, but continued as chairman of the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party.
A new citizenship law was gradually implemented during the 1980s designating as “associate citizens” people whose ancestors were not of the “original races” of Myanmar. Its principal target was the Sino-Burman and Indo-Burman community. These groups were permitted to vote but could not be elected nor could they hold appointed office above a certain level in the government.
After a quarter of a century, the Ne Win regime seemed to reach stagnation. The insurrections had been successfully pushed to the periphery and no hostile neighbor actively threatened the independence of the nation, but the economy was declining again. This led the government to apply to the UN for “least developed nation” status and to begin market liberalization in hopes of reviving the domestic economy. In the autumn of 1987 a surprising devaluation of the currency eliminated any savings most people had, resulting in antigovernment riots. The following spring a series of critical public letters to Ne Win from a former military comrade, Brigadier Aung Gyi, and escalating student protests triggered violent repression. As a result of antigovernment riots in March and June 1988, Ne Win officially retired from politics and suggested that a multiparty system might be better for the nation.
Myanmar Under Military Rule
Following Ne Win’s retirement in July 1988, Myanmar endured three months of political turmoil. The head of the riot police took control of the government and the subsequent protesting, looting, and police response left an estimated 500 to 1,000 people dead in Yangon and several thousand dead elsewhere in the country. Leadership then shifted to a civilian associate of the military, Maung Maung, who tried to both appease and restrain the growing, but peaceful, opposition to military rule. The opposition found a wide base of support, from the Yangon Bar Council to nurses and dock workers. Some shape was given to this movement by an alliance of Brigadier Aung Gyi with General Tin U, a former defense minister, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, whose portrait was carried by protesters. When it appeared that parts of the armed forces might join in, the military staged a coup against the government that it had created. On September 18, 1988, Defense Minister General Saw Maung announced the formation of a State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) that pledged to restore law and order; repair transportation and communication; meet the food and shelter needs of the people; and hold free and fair multiparty elections. Meeting the first goal required several months and cost 560 lives according to government reports, although outside sources estimated the loss at more than 1,000 lives.
Campaigning was restricted and the two top leaders of the main opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were taken off the scene; in July 1989 Suu Kyi was put under house arrest and General Tin U was put in prison. The NLD won the May 1990 elections in a landslide, taking 80 percent of the seats with 60 percent of the vote in contrast to the parties favored by SLORC, which received 2 percent of the seats with 25 percent of the vote. When the winners of the election made moves to organize a government, the SLORC responded by arresting many of them and declaring that there could be no civilian government until after a new constitution had been written. Some of the elected representatives fled to the Thai border and set up an alternative National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma at the base camp of the Karen resistance movement.
International pressure on the SLORC intensified in October 1991, when Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to nonviolent change. Many Western nations imposed sanctions and suspended bilateral aid as well as high-level government visits to the country in response to UN reports of human rights violations by the government of Myanmar. General Than Shwe replaced General Saw Maung as SLORC chairman, prime minister, and minister of defense in the spring of 1992. The last democratically elected prime minister of Myanmar, U Nu, was released from prison, as were a number of other political prisoners. Suu Kyi was permitted visits by family members in 1992 and two years later by a U.S. congressman, a UN official, and an American reporter. By the autumn of 1994 she was having discussions with the top two SLORC leaders, generals Than Shwe and Khin Nyunt. Because she refused to accept exile from Myanmar, however, her detention continued beyond the legal limit, which the government then changed. In August 1995 Suu Kyi was released from house arrest but was banned from leaving Yangon. She held weekly public conversations outside her front gate with gatherings of several thousand citizens and foreigners.
The SLORC contended with other sources of opposition, as well. The military junta’s relations with the Buddhist sangha (monkhood) were strained at best, as monks had played a role in the 1988 uprising. Widely revered by the people of Myanmar, monks held an influential position and even helped administer the town of Mandalay. Monks in Mandalay protested military rule by refusing to accept alms from military households. The SLORC responded by pressing the sangha authorities to discipline the monks.
The SLORC also faced continuing ethnic insurgencies on Myanmar’s borders. General Khin Nyunt negotiated separate cease-fire agreements first with the smaller, largely Chinese, hill tribes and then with the Kachin, adopting their armed forces as an autonomous militia and offering economic development aid along with tolerance of their border trading activities (including commerce in opium). The Karen gradually lost the informal support that Thailand had given their independence movement (which had long acted as a buffer for the historic hostility between Myanmar and Thailand). As a result, the Myanmar Army was able to take the Karen’s main base at Mannerplaw in the spring of 1995. Thereafter the parties made several attempts at negotiating a peace settlement, but in early 1998 active fighting continued between the Karen rebels and the Myanmar military. The major opium warlord, Khun Sa, remained in control of a key section of the eastern Shan state until December 1995, when, faced with a U.S. drug indictment and reduced business connections through Thailand, he surrendered to Myanmar troops. Khun reportedly reached an agreement with the SLORC and retired to Yangon.
A national convention selected by the SLORC to draft a new constitution began meeting in January 1993. The convention received instructions from the SLORC to grant the military a dominant role in any future government, along the lines of the Indonesian constitution. The work of the convention was occasionally suspended. In late 1995 Suu Kyi’s NLD party walked out of the convention, asserting that it was not being conducted on democratic principles. The convention was adjourned in March 1996 without producing a constitution.
Tensions between the SLORC and the NLD heightened in May 1996 when the SLORC arrested more than 200 delegates headed toward an NLD party congress. A similar crackdown occurred in May 1997, when the SLORC again arrested NLD members to thwart a meeting intended to commemorate the 1990 elections. In November the SLORC was dissolved and immediately replaced by the newly formed State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), although the top leadership remained the same. In response to UN reports of human rights violations in Myanmar, issued annually since 1991, and boycotts against corporations doing business in the country, the United States increased sanctions against Myanmar in 1997. The member nations of the European Union (EU) also increased sanctions in April 2000.
Suu Kyi was again put under house arrest in September 2000. A UN envoy to Myanmar began brokering negotiations for national reconciliation between Suu Kyi’s democracy movement and the ruling junta. The closed-door talks between the two sides led to the release of about 250 of an estimated 1,500 political prisoners. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in May 2002, with the understanding that no restrictions would be placed on her movements or political activities. Although her unconditional release was one of the main demands of Western nations that had imposed sanctions on the country, Western leaders stated that substantive political reforms would be necessary before sanctions could be lifted. Subsequent reconciliation talks between Suu Kyi, representing the pro-democracy aims of the NLD, and the Myanmar government resulted in a stalemate.
After her release, Suu Kyi worked to reinvigorate the NLD base of support, touring the country and drawing large crowds to pro-democracy rallies. During a road trip to northern Myanmar in May 2003, Suu Kyi’s motorcade was violently ambushed. The government took Suu Kyi into custody, arrested party activists, and closed most NLD offices. International demands were again made to the Myanmar government for the release of Suu Kyi, who was subsequently placed under house arrest. In November 2005 the government announced that it was extending Suu Kyi’s house arrest, despite international protests and condemnation.
Also in November 2005 the government began moving its offices to a new administrative capital in a relatively remote area of central Myanmar. The new capital was constructed as an entirely new planned city. It was officially named Naypyidaw (Burmese for “royal capital” or “abode of kings”) during ceremonies held there for Armed Forces Day in March 2006.
Opposition Protests and Crackdown
Protests erupted in Myanmar in August 2007, sparked by a government decision to increase the price of fuel. The nation’s monks became involved in early September, after government troops used force against protesters, and formed the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks to coordinate ongoing demonstrations. The alliance issued a statement on September 21 describing the military government as “the enemy of the people.”
Daily protests in Yangon and other cities grew increasingly larger, as people responded to the monks’ call for involvement. Facing the largest antigovernment protests since 1988, the SLORC imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew and deployed army troops and riot police to break up the demonstrations. Violent clashes between government forces and protesters resulted in an uncertain number of civilian injuries and deaths. In addition, thousands of monks and other people, including members of the NLD party, were reportedly arrested and detained.
The brutal crackdown renewed international scrutiny of Myanmar’s military government. The United Nations Security Council adopted a statement that strongly deplored the use of “violence against peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators” and called for the release of all political prisoners and detainees. The statement also urged the military government to engage in a “genuine dialogue” with NLD leader Suu Kyi, who remained under house arrest. The statement represented the first formal action taken by the 15-member Security Council over the situation in Myanmar.
Cyclone Nargis, New Constitution, and Suu Kyi on Trial
The international reputation of the junta suffered another major blow in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which made landfall in southwestern Myanmar on May 2, 2008. With a maximum wind speed of 115 knots, making it a Category 4 storm, Cyclone Nargis resulted in widespread flooding in the Irrawaddy delta (see Hurricane). The junta appeared to disregard the catastrophe by proceeding with a referendum on a new constitution on May 10. For nearly three weeks it prevented much of the available international emergency aid and many emergency aid workers from entering the country. By June the government put the official toll from the storm at more than 138,000 people dead or missing.
Human rights groups and other political observers derided the referendum on a new constitution. The junta reported that the referendum passed with more than 92 percent approval and a turnout of nearly 100 percent. Human rights groups cited widespread voter intimidation and expressed disbelief with both the turnout and approval numbers. The new constitution mandates that 25 percent of the seats in parliament will be held by the military, and it prohibits the main opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from holding elected office. Supporters of the junta claimed that the approval of the constitution invalidated the 1990 elections, which were won by Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in a landslide.
In May 2009 the junta put Suu Kyi on trial for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest. Under those terms, she was prohibited from receiving visitors. An American, who was apparently an admirer, swam across a lake and entered her compound. Suu Kyi’s lawyers said the man was a stranger and was not invited. Political observers believed that the junta used the incident as a pretext to either extend Suu Kyi’s house arrest, which was about to expire, or send her to prison. Elections are scheduled for 2010, and although the NLD has indicated it might boycott them, the party has not yet announced a decision.