It’s been more than six decades since Burma (also known as Myanmar) won its independence from the British Empire.
Burma, a country of 50 million people in Southeast Asia, was then known as Asia’s rice-basket with its formidable food production potential exceeded only by the vast natural wealth in oil, gas, gems, timber and hydro-power.
Nowadays, these treasures lure foreign investors, who support the military dictatorship that rules the country.
Army rule was imposed in 1962. Since then, Burma’s Generals, known as the ‘junta’, have run the country as little more than a personal goldmine.
In 1988, student protests erupted across the country, demanding democracy and seeking an end to the poverty-inducing command economy the Generals imposed after 1974.
The army cracked down, killing over 3000 Burmese. Thousands more were jailed, and more again fled to neighbouring countries.
In Burma, you can be imprisoned for publishing a poem about democracy, or for having political meetings of more than 50 people.
The junta has also been widely criticised for using forced labour to build railways and pipelines for overseas companies.
The sad state of play
The country’s natural resource wealth has been seized by the army and its associated cronies.
They allocate investment rights to energy-hungry investors from China, India, South Korea and Southeast Asia – in exchange for diplomatic support, access to foreign banks and much-needed foreign exchange.
US and European sanctions (bans) means the junta needs this closer-to-home support.
The result is that ordinary Burmese, 70% of whom are subsistence farmers, are among the poorest people in the world. Burma sends gas to Thailand, which means cheap electricity in Bangkok, but Rangoon (the capital) often goes without power.
The junta spends next to nothing on health and education, but maintains the largest army in southeast Asia, currently over 400,000 troops.
Burma buys arms from China, Russia and Eastern Europe, and there are allegations that North Korea is providing nuclear technological assistance.
The aim is to keep a large, well-resourced army to crush any challenge. The army quashed the Saffron Revolution in 2007, when Buddhist monks famously led protests against a faltering economy and military rule.
The international community incorrectly assumed the generals would not harm or imprison the monks because of their respectful positions. Many were beaten, imprisoned and killed.
The Lady – Aung San Suu Kyi
Elections held in 1990 turned out to be a false dawn. The main opposition party was, and is, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced “chi”).
Her party won that election, but the military, which expected its own party to win easily, annulled the result and put Suu Kyi under house arrest.
She is famously known as ‘The Lady’ and is the subject of U2’s song Walk On.
Like Nelson Mandela was, she has become an icon with many around the world campaigning for her release. Many believe it is this profile that keeps her alive.
Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 in recognition of her stand for freedom, which went as far as staying in Burma while her British husband lay dying in 1999.
The junta said they would allow her to leave, to be at her husband’s side during his final days, but she would have not been allowed back into Burma if she went. She stayed, he died, and she has spent 14 of the years since 1990 under lock and key.
Cementing their future
Just days after their indifferent response to the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster which killed 135,000, the Burmese Generals pushed ahead with a referendum on a new national constitution.
The vote was dismissed as a fraud, but rubberstamped the junta’s drip-feed programme to reintroduce civilian rule, which it pledged to do after the 1990 elections.
However, the process is a sham, and allows the army to continue ruling under a civilian veneer. Elections under the new system are set to take place next year, and these will likely be dominated by ‘parties’ comprised of former military officers.
In any case, 25% of the seats in the new parliament are reserved for current military, and it will take a 75% majority to amend the new constitution. Check mate.
The new President will almost certainly be a former military officer, who can be overruled by the Commander-in-Chief – who in any case will be the head of the armed forces, not the President.
The junta has done its utmost to ensure that Suu Kyi cannot take part. Because her deceased husband was not Burmese, she cannot run for office.
To ensure she is kept away from the public and the campaign trail, they extended her house arrest by 18 months on August 11.
This was the result of the bizarre incident where an American, John Yettaw, swam across a lake to her house, stayed for two days, then swam back – completely uninvited and breaking the rules of her house arrest just two weeks before her much awaited release.
The remarkable incident, which has crushed hope for a better future, will be covered in tomorrow’s story of the day – Burma Part 2: The John Yettaw Incident.Show