With all this talk about Burma, I’ve seen a few things cropping up on tourist websites and travel blogs about the beauty of Bagan, Inle Lake, Rangoon and other attractions. They’re very nice articles, with tips on transport, accommodation, food and money. But I think it’s something of a shame that travel bloggers tend to steer clear of current affairs and politics when discussing world travel; the articles I’ve read recently on Burma tend not to talk in much depth about what’s happening there right now, which is just as fascinating and beautiful and historical as the country itself.
If you’re anything like me, you read the news and usually think “I really should read up on this because I have absolutely no idea what’s going on”. This post is inspired by that feeling.
A 5 Minute Guide to What’s Happening in Burma
A bit of history:
Myanmar started, as with a lot of places, when a few different cultures and groups of people got together and said “right-o, shall we make this a country then?” The first real state of Myanmar began around 1044, around the time when Bagan (below) was being built. Everything was relatively hunky dory until, as with a lot of places, the British showed up and were like “you are now mine, pip pip”, and proceeded to annex Myanmar into India in 1886.
During WW2, Burma was occupied by Japan, who promised independence for the country whilst at the same time ruling with an iron fist. Aun Sang, a Burmese freedom fighter who initially sided with the Japanese, was appalled by the brutality of Japanese occupation and subsequently switched sides to negotiate independence with the British. True independence was finally achieved in 1948, where the country officially became known as the Union of Burma. Aung Sang sadly died before he saw his dream fulfilled, but is still known as a national hero and symbol for freedom in Myanmar.
Unfortunately, things went less than smoothly after this. The new country struggled with forming a government that fairly represented all the vastly different ethnicities and cultures within the nation, and civil conflict began to kick in. In 1962, a military leader called General Ne Win rose up against the democratic government, ousted them and appointed himself leader of the country. His party had absolute rule, and guess what? They weren’t the biggest fans of democracy either. Shocker. Protests and campaigns for democracy were violently crushed by the military junta, who were also known to forcibly relocate citizens and extensively use child labour. Lovely guys, just great. It was in 1989 that the junta changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, a name which many states still refuse to recognize because of its associations with the undemocratic regime.
In 1990, the military junta held some elections, to be like “you’ve all been so good, so here’s a treat – a bit of that democracy you keep banging on about. No need to thank us, just vote for us please.” Because the citizens of Burma had brains, they were like “nah, don’t think I will actually. #sorrynotsorry” and the main opposition party – the National League for Democracy, led by international wonder-woman Aung San Suu Kyi – won the elections by a landslide. Predictably, the junta refused to give up power, presumably because they had comfy chairs and didn’t feel like moving, so they placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. She’s endured that for 14 of the last 20 years, and her supporters were generally harassed or jailed.
The country, which used to be one of the richest and most developed in Asia, now began to decline, sinking into poverty, corruption and economic depression. After the government attacked Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy in 2003, the USA imposed sanctions on the country including a ban on Burmese imports. Cyclone Nargis, which made landfall in Burma in 2008, also hit the country incredibly hard.
Elections were held once again in 2010, with a military backed party claiming victory. Despite this claim being widely touted as fraudulent, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest later that year and in 2011 a civilian government led by beloved dwarf* Thein Sein was installed. There’s been a significant progress in human rights since then, with political prisoners released, ceasefires established and increased freedom of the press implemented. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected into parliament, and the US responded by suspending the sanctions against Burma. Obama even paid a visit that year, along with a fair few backpackers. Burma still had it’s challenges – many of them – but it was making first steps in a long road to recovery.
So what’s happening in Burma now?
The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, is back – with a vengeance. Burma has just held their most democratic elections in 25 years, and Suu Kyi’s party looks set to win the election by another landslide (75% of the vote, she predicts). Though she cant become president because of constitutional law (she has foreign children, which forbids her from holding the post), she’s stated that, if elected, she’ll effectively lead the country anyway and implement her plan to bring long-awaited peace and stability to Burma.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear the Burmese people are pretty happy about what’s going on.** Whatever happens, this is a clear victory for democracy and the climax of one woman’s life-long campaign for her country’s freedom.
*The President of Burma is definitely not a dwarf invented by Tolkien.
**In this summary I haven’t even gone into the persecutions of Muslims in Burma, arguably one of the most pressing human rights issues that the country faces. I hope to go into this in more detail in a future post.