Burma (Myanmar)

October 30, 2010 § 4 Comments

BurmaWho lives there?: It is hard to tell. It is thought around 50 million people. The last census was taken in 1931 – although a partial census was taken in 1983. Indeed it is difficult to tell much about the population – the literacy rate was recently officially cut from the unrealistically high figure of 89% to the unrealistically low figure of 18% so that the UN would give them debt relief.

The ethnic situation is equally complicated as, whist there are known to be over 130 different ethnic groups present in Burma, the government has been keen to give the impression of ethnic homogeneity. The Bamar ethnic community comprise about 60% of the population, dominating the Irrawaddy basin area; their language – Burmese – is the official language of the nation. The other ethnic groups are divided between four major language types: Sino-Tibetan, Kradai, Austro-Asiatic, and Indo-European. The Anglo-Burmese population has shrunk from several million in 1950 to 50,000  – but about 70% of the population of Burma is believed to have some English ancestry.

About 90% of the population are Buddhist.

The question of the name is also contentious. The name in Burmese can be pronounced either Burma or Myanmar depending upon the level of formality (Burma is the colloquial pronunciation, Myanmar the formal). In 1989 the government changed the name from Burma to Myanmar. However, many people have refused to accept the change. There are two reasons for this: one is that they do not accept the legitimacy of the military government to make the change. The second is that there was a feeling that, if the name were to change, it should be to something more ethnically neutral. Both Burma and Myanmar have associations with the Bamar ethnic group – Myanmar even more so because it is more formal. I’m calling the article Burma so I can get it done before the elections next week (at the time of publication) without having to break alphabetical order.

How does the system work? (the theory): Burma is a military junta with executive power concentrated in a cabinet appointed by the leadership of the armed forces. Changes to the leadership of the country tend to happen by force.

However there is a “roadmap” to democracy under which a new constitution has been approved to elect two legislative houses by first past the post (the military would still appoint 25% of candidates to both houses). Elections will happen next week. 330 members of the Hose of Representatives (out of 440) and 168 members of the House of Nationalities (out of 224) are up. (Update: this has now happened and the results are included as updates in italics).

There is no local government in Burma, the state is incredibly centralised. Some states have an appointed chief minister, some have a mostly appointed and partly elected district administration, and some are directly ruled by the President.

How does the system work? (the practice): It is already expected that the elections will be a sham and a farce. The referendum to approve the changes was passed by 96% on a 99% turnout – which doesn’t sound very likely. Most parties have been allowed to participate but the only real rival to the junta’s power, Aung San Suu Kyi, has not. In addition parties which do not support the government are forbidden from receiving any media publicity. Given what happened last time it is not certain that even if a hostile party won, they would be allowed to take their seats.

Burma has banned any external observation of the elections and they are not expected to be free or fair. (Indeed they failed to live up to even the low expectations of the international community, vote rigging and violence were believed to be widespread)

How did we get here?: Burma consisted of various smaller, and then larger, kingdoms until it was conquered by the British and made part of British India (the geographical distance from India was nor seen as an issue – Yemen and Oman were also part of British India). In 1937, Burma was made into an administrative territory. In 1943 it was conquered by the Japanese. The British drove them out with the help of a native uprising led by a Burmese General Aung San.

Following the end of WW2 Burma was granted independence. This was in part as a gesture of thanks for the insurrection and more practically as a consequence of Indian independence making the area not viable for the British. Burma became a democracy with Aung San as provisional leader. However, Aung San was assassinated in 1947 by political rivals before he could become Prime Minister. Nevertheless, Burma became a functioning democracy until the military coup of 1962. It has been ruled by military juntas ever since. The first dictator, Ne Win, lasted 26 years before falling to an internal coup. The second lasted 4 years before falling to another internal coup. The third, Than Shwe, is still in power to this day, although a fourth internal coup resulted in a change of Prime Minister in 2004.

There was one famous attempt at Democracy in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi – the daughter of General Aung San – and her National League for Democracy swept the board with 60% of the vote and 80% of the seats. She has been the de-jure Prime Minister ever since (indeed cynics have said that one of the reasons for the junta holding new elections is to ensure this can no longer be said to be the case) but has never been allowed to take office.

The pro junta, National Unity Party got 20 odd percent of the vote but only 2% of the seats (as a result of tactical voting against them by the public). The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (a party allied to the NLD who represents the interests of the Shan ethnic minority) only got about 2% of the vote – but as it was all targeted in one area (the Shan area) they won 5% of the seats overall. The remaining seats were split amongst 24 tiny local interest groups.

The junta were not willing to concede power to the new civilian authority and suspended democracy. The legislative has never been formed, and Aung San Suu Kyi has spent much of the last 20 years under house arrest. She was also prevented from visiting her dying husband (Oxford Professor Michael Aris) as, had she done so, she would not have been allowed back in the country. Her most recent house arrest (and the reason why she cannot compete in the upcoming elections) follows a bizarre incident in which she allegedly breached the terms of her probation by saving a mentally ill American man from drowning. He, in turn, had swum to her house to warn her that the Mormon angel Moroni had come to him in a dream to warn that she would be assassinated.

Who’s in charge?: It is difficult to know for sure who is in charge as the regime is so secretive. It is thought that, rather than power being concentrated in one place, it is shared between several key figures. The junta goes by the name of the State Law and Order Reconciliation Council (SLORC). The official leader of the junta is Than Shwe, whose official title is Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council. Other key figures within the junta are Prime Minister Thein Sein, Vice Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council Maung Aye, First Secretary of the State Peace and Development Council Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo, and Chief of the Bureau of Special Operations Lieutenant General Ko Ko. There was a rumour that Ko Ko had led an internal coup earlier in the year and removed Shwe, Sein and Aye. This appears to not be the case, but it is not clear if there was a failed coup which resulted in Ko Ko himself losing influence.

It is unlikely that the newly rejuvenated political system will actually change much in terms of governance. The National League for Democracy are boycotting the elections as they feel that the are unfair, as Aung San Suu Kyi cannot participate. However a breakaway faction, the National Democratic Force, will be competing. If there is to be democratic change via this process it is likely to come through the National Democratic Force, however that is a big if.

There are two pro junta parties: the National Unity from 1990 Party will again be standing as will the Union Solidarity and Development Party – a party formed by Prime Minister Sien. They will both undoubtedly do well, how well depends on how fair the elections really are.

Two other parties might do well. The Democratic Party, formed by the daughters of two 1950s Prime Ministers, is running but media coverage of their campaign is forbidden. The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy are running again – this time under the name Shan Nationalities Democratic Party.

(Update: the UDSP won a landslide, National Unity were clearly not the preferred pro-junta party this time. The UDSP won 129 of the 168 seats in the upper house and 259 of the 330 seats in the lower house. The other seats largely went to the parties of ethnic minorities. In the upper house the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (an ethnic minority party) won 7 seats, National Unity  5, the National Democratic Force 4, the Chin Progressive party (an ethnic minority party) 4, the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party 4, four other ethnic minority parties 9, and independents 7. In the lower house the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party won 18 seats, National Unity 12, National Democratic Force 12, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party 9, independents 2, and ten other ethnic minority parties 18)

Meanwhile there are a number of parties attempting to oppose the junta by violent rather than democratic means. Whilst it is difficult to get much information out of Burma, it is thought that up to 100,000 people have been killed in low level violence over the last 50 years.

On the one hand we have the Karen Nation Union ( a group who support autonomy for the Karen people and have been at war with the state of Burma since 1948), the Burmese Mujahadeen (who fight for the rights of the Muslim minority), armed factions associated with the National League for Democracy, the Communist Party (opinions differ as to how active they are, they were strong formerly but have not been heard from in some time, they did operate an insurgency along the Chinese Border), the Shan State Army (an umbrella group of anti-junta militias), the Wa State Army (a 20,000 strong guerilla force representing the Wa ethnicity), two different groups known as the Kachin Independence Army (both 10,000 strong ethnic guerilla armies), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (a group of warlords in eastern Shan who have an unstable peace treaty with the junta), and a revolutionary Christian force known as “God’s Army”.

On the other hand there are the armed forces of the junta (the Burmese Army) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. The latter are a former rebel group themselves who, since signing a peace treaty with the junta in 1994, have been fighting alongside the Army against the other rebel groups.

(The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army apparently changed sides once again in response to the election and are now violently opposing the state. Given the total information blackout we don’t really know what’s going on: some of the more hysterical media reports of all out civil war seem highly far fetched, but the official contention that nothing is happening cannot be believed either. Similarly we think the situation has now calmed down but we don’t really know if that is indeed the case or if it is just that peoples’ attention has moved on)

The other major political force in the country is the Buddhist clergy – almost all of whom support Aung San Suu Kyi and of course the National League for Democracy itself. (With superb timing for maximum distraction the junta released Aung San Suu Kyi just after the elections finished. Whilst the outside world (apart from regional allies) didn’t really buy their “we have free elections and we’ve let her go – what more do you want?” shtick, it did draw coverage away from the election results. Aung San has been keen to give the junta a face saving way out, and trying to suggest to them that the “patriotic” thing to do would be to retire and allow democracy to flourish. Still by her very existence she is a danger to them)

What does it look like?: Burma consists of central lowlands ringed by steep rugged highlands. Whilst the land is fertile, the slow rate of development in Burma means that over 50% of the country is still covered by the dense tropical rainforest which used to cover almost all of south east Asia.

Mt Popa

What are the issues?: The regime is so secretive it is difficult to know what the issues are other than the obvious issues of transparency, democracy, and human rights violations.

A good source of impartial information is: Burma is thought to be second only to North Korea for a lack of a free press. This is a country which managed to move its entire capital into the middle of the jungle without anyone noticing. The best source of information is the exile run Mizzima or Burma Digest, although of course dissident groups are not without biases of their own.

A good book is: Aung San Suu Kyi’s most recently updated book is The Voice of Hope. A more academic and impartial treatment (and also right up to date) is The State in Myanmar. Whilst it won’t teach you much about modern Burmese politics, everyone should read George Orwell’s Burmese Days.

When are the next elections?: Elections will next be held in theory in 2015, but nobody really knows when they will next happen or what form they will take.


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