Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Burma Also Seeking Democracy 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday,  August 22 / 11

Zack Gross

We don’t often hear about the country Burma (also known as Myanmar) in Southeast Asia. 

Some might recall their democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been compared to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but she has been silenced by house arrest for most of these past 20 years. 

Others might recall Burma / Myanmar as a country that was hard hit by Hurricane Nargis in 2008, displacing over two million of its citizens.

Despite possessing a strong agricultural base and being rich in natural resources, Burma’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is 13th lowest in the world. 

It has the second-highest infant mortality rate outside of Africa, but receives only one-tenth the amount of international aid of the world’s poorest countries, in part because of the lack of credibility of its rulers and the control the military holds over all aspects of the country’s governance. 

Aside from the brutality of the leadership, they are also often linked to the opium trade in that country.

Burma is a country slightly smaller than Texas, lying between Bangladesh and Thailand.  It has a population of around 50 million from many ethnic groups and speaking about 100 first languages, which has in part contributed to unrest there. 

Independence from Britain came in the late 1940s and, after more than a decade of political uncertainty, a military coup in 1962 has led to almost a half century of repressive rule, and restricted access by people from the West.

In 1988, the Burmese population demonstrated against one-party military rule in major civil disobedience led by students and Buddhist monks. 

From spring to fall of that year, thousands were arrested, tortured and / or killed, and tens of thousands became refugees or guerrilla fighters, living in camps (even to this day) and fighting from bases along the border between Burma and Thailand. 

The first multi-party election in 30 years was held in 1990 with Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy taking three-quarters of the seats. 

However, the military would not relinquish rule and another election would not be held  for twenty more years, in 2010. 

Since that time, with cosmetic changes to make its face more acceptable to Western observers, the military SLORC regime (State Law & Order Restoration Council) has fought a protracted war against a variety of dissident groups. 

SLORC has been accused of institutionalized repression of their population while “modernizing” the country via large-scale development projects and resource extraction and export (hydro-electric and oil exploration). 

The benefits have not trickled down to the poor, but divisions in the opposition movement have weakened that side of the struggle.

The military rulers of Burma have undertaken a number of major development projects that disregard the cultures and rights of groups affected. 

Indigenous communities in mining and hydro development areas, say critics, are not consulted about these projects and their villages are occupied by soldiers to keep protest down. 

Chinese companies and banks are involved as contractors and investors in Burma (and also in similar projects in East Africa and in other parts of Southeast Asia) acting as a threat to the environment, to indigenous culture and to relations among communities. 

Burma’s opium production rose sharply in 2010 (while Afghanistan’s fell by one-third) - another negative impact on the country and in the world.

An election in November 2010 brought in a nominally civilian government closely tied to the military. 

While the victorious claimed to have 80% of popular support, many irregularities were identified by election observers. 

The new government may be the “same old”, but Western governments are being urged to take this opportunity to influence its policies by offering dialogue and aid to bring Burma into the mainstream. 

As is often true of dictatorships, the future of Burma is somewhat dependent on the retirement plans of its most powerful general, Than Shwe, who has stepped back from, but not out of, power. 

His weakening health and rumblings of discontent from military members not favoured in his reorganization after the election may mean changes in the country’s direction in the near future.

While Aung San Suu Kyi has been released (yet again) from house arrest, her re-engagement in the political process has already caused the government to direct her to stop holding political meetings as “there may be chaos and riots

At a time, however, of popular uprisings around the world, her response has been that the universal aspiration to be free can lead to quick and peaceful transitions to democracy, and that Burmese envy the solidarity of people in Tunisia and Egypt and feel a renewed commitment to the cause of human dignity.

In other words, stay tuned!

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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