Burma is the second largest country in Southeast Asia, bordering India, China, Laos, and China. Though endowed with rich natural resources, Burma’s GDP per capita is the 13th lowest in the world, according to the UN Development Program. Burma’s military dictatorship is infamous for its corruption and economic mismanagement, dooming the country’s 47 million citizens to extreme poverty.
Beyond development issues, Burmese history is blighted by ethnic violence. A military regime, which has ruled the country since 1962, is responsible for ongoing mass atrocities and “ethnic cleansing” campaigns. The junta’s counter-insurgency initiatives employ execution, torture, rape, forced labor, and displacement as weapons of war against civilians, especially the Karen people of Eastern Burma. The conflict in Burma is often referred to as “the slow genocide”.
Burma was administered as a British province and eventual colony for over a century. Burma’s colonial borders incorporated over 100 historically autonomous ethnic minorities, irrevocably confounding Burmese national identity.
Following World War II, Burma jettisoned colonial rule to become the Union of Burma. Burma’s brief stint as a republic ended in 1962, however, when General Ne Win led a military coup to overthrow the government. General Ne Win and his Revolutionary Council pursued radical socialist policy and consolidated military-political authority. Ne Win’s regime instituted single-party elections, criminalized political dissent, and violently suppressed protesters. In 1988, for instance, the army responded to nationwide demonstrations by killing 42 student protesters, closing all universities, and declaring martial law. Though widespread pro-democracy protests continued to challenge the military dictatorship, Ne Win ultimately succeeded in cementing his authority: the junta established the State Law and Restoration Council (now called the State Development Council) and renamed the country “Myanmar.”
While pursuing this suppressive domestic agenda, the Burmese junta has attempted to maintain a credible international façade. To this end, the military dictatorship permitted multi-party elections in May 1990. The primary opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won 80% of the vote, but the junta declared the election illegitimate. The government arrested opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and resumed martial law. Today, anti-government uprisings persist, but the crackdown on dissenters is equally unrelenting. In November 2010, the military held similarly undemocratic elections, only releasing Auung San Suu Kyi from long-term house arrest after the ballots were “counted”.
In order to preserve national control, the junta has attempted to procure support from all ethnic solidarities. The Karen state of Eastern Burma has proven especially unyielding, launching insurgencies against the government. Since 1990, the Burmese military has engaged a ruthless offensive against the Karen people. Executions, violence, systematic rape, crop destruction, forced labor, and relocation campaigns targeting Karen civilians comprise the Junta’s “Burmanization” initiative. As a result of the conflict, approximately 500,000 refugees have been internally displaced and at least one million have fled to neighboring countries. Over three thousand villages have been burned, according to Genocide Intervention Network estimations.
In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis wreaked havoc in Burma, exacerbating the country’s poverty crisis. The Burmese Government monopolized humanitarian assistance and withheld aid from ethnic minority regions, especially the Karen people. Thousands of civilians died as a result of the regime’s crimes against humanity.
The international community is remiss in responding to the humanitarian and human rights crises in Burma. For more than fifty years, Burmese development has been stalemated by political and armed conflict between the ruling military regime, political dissidents, and ethnic minorities. The gradual nature of Burmese mass atrocities does not excuse the international community’s delayed response. In fact, the cumulative sum of the junta’s violence necessitates immediate and multilateral action.
Basic Burmese facts, figures, and history: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35910.htm
Learn about Burma’s pro-democracy movement: http://uscampaignforburma.org/
Read about Aung San Suu Kyi—Freedom fighter and Nobel laureate:
In Burma, the Votes Don’t Count.
On November 7th, 2010 Burma will hold its first multi-party elections for government offices in 20 years. However, elections were anything but democratic. The ruling Junta established measures including limiting voting rights of Ethnic minorities and not allowing prisoners (including political prisoners such as Suu Kyi) to run for office. Because of the clear corruption, the National League for Democracy and many other parties boycotted and voter turnout was low. The military junta declared themselves the winner of their sham elections.