Burma’s Politics in Brief

Burma is a country that has captured our imaginations for years. Previously known as the “Land of Gold,” in the early 19th century the country had abundant riches, with golden Buddhas, precious stones such as rubies and sapphires, and forests of teak wood.

Today Burma is no longer a country of vast wealth, but one of the poorest countries in the world. Our guide told us that most of the country’s 60 million people live in extreme poverty, on less than $1 a day. Burma’s health care system is also considered the worst in the world, with the World Health Organization giving the country a ranking of 190 (out of 192 countries).

The country’s economic decline is a result of its military leadership and the subsequent economic embargo that the country has been under for the last 25 years. The EU, U.S. and Canada all imposed economic sanctions when the military took over the government in a coup d’état in 1988. The country’s suffering has increased since.

Burma vs. Myanmar

In 1989, the country’s colonial names were officially changed. For instance, “Burma” became“ Myanmar,” and “Rangoon” became “Yangon.”

The new names remain contested, with government opposition groups refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the military government and therefore refusing to acknowledge the name change. In addition, local ethnic groups associate the name Myanmar with the majority ethnic group, the Bamar, and therefore don’t recognize the new name either.

The U.N. uses “Myanmar,” as does ASEAN, Germany, China, India and Japan, while the U.S., Australia, Canada and UK still refer to the country as Burma.

Political Timeline

I always found Burmese history a bit tangled, so I created a short timeline. Here’s Burma political history in a nutshell:

  • 18th-19th Centuries: Burma was ruled by the Konbaung Dynasty.
  • 1886-1948: After 3 Anglo-Burmese wars, the British finally colonized Burma.
  • 1948: Burmese independence following the end of WWII and the start of one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.
  • 1962: Military coup d’état led by General Ne Win. Military rule instituted.
  • 1988: Military coup d’état led by General Saw Maung, who formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC government).
  • 1990: Free elections held with the National League for Democracy (Aung San Suu Kyi’s party) won 80% of the seats. The military government, however, refuses to cede power and Aung San Suu Kyi is placed under house arrest for nearly 20 years.
  • 2007: Saffron Revolution, an anti-government protest led by Buddhist monks. The protest was brutally crushed by the government and thousands imprisoned.
  • 2008: Constitutional referendum promises a “discipline-flourishing democracy.”
  • 2010: Military junta / SLOCR government dissolved. Civilian government installed after a general election. Election is boycotted by the NLD and is considered fraudulent by the U.N.
  • 2011: U.S. Secretary of State Hilliary Clinton visits Burma to encourage further democratic reforms. Nevertheless, more than 1,600 political prisoners remain in custody.

Burma Today

Upcoming Elections: In less than 2 weeks, on April 1, 2012, Burma will hold by-elections to fill 48 vacant parliamentary seats. The main opposition party, the NLD, have registered to participate and their leader Aung San Suu Kyi is running for an open seat in the one of the capital’s townships.

The government has promised political party monitors during the election and ballot counts and may allow observers from the regional alliance ASEAN to observe the election.

Censorship: The government has relaxed press censorship laws. For example, photographs of Aung San Suu Kyi are now allowed to be published on the front page of local newspapers. While in Rangoon, I also saw Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirts for sale along the main roads and the opposition flag flying openly. These appear to be good signs.

Internet restrictions have also been relaxed under new media legislation adopted in 2012. For instance, YouTube, the Democratic Voice of Burma and the Voice of America have been unblocked. Although when I was in the country in February 2012, I couldn’t access either my Twitter or Facebook accounts.

Human Rights: Two general amnesties were held in 2011 releasing ten thousands of prisoners, although only about 300 of them are considered political prisoners. This is progress, although Burma is thought to still have more than 600 political prisoners locked away.

In October 2011, the government passed new labor laws permitting the existence of labor unions and their right to strike. Just 3 days ago, the government signed a memorandum of understanding to end forced labor by 2015.

While these are improvements, the ruling government has denied the presence of other human right violations, such as alleged army abuses against ethnic minorities.

April 1 is No Joke

The good news is that real political reform in Burma may be gaining ground. April’s elections will give us insight into the government’s commitment to democratic reforms. Let’s cross our fingers that government promises for fair elections aren’t just a cruel April Fool’s joke.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 20th, 2012 and is filed under Asia Pacific.

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