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You Don't Know Burma (Neither Do I)

Rip Walsh is an Adjunct Professor at Long Island University who writes about U.S. History and Politics.

Most people in the United States might be hard pressed to locate Burma on a map or realize it is the scene of the world's worst humanitarian crisis since Rwanda in the 1990's. I counted myself among those clueless about the South East Asian nation until my son moved there several years ago to help the country's embattled minority groups. To begin, it is no longer officially called Burma, but Myanmar, a name imposed by the military dictatorship in 1990. The military also changed the names of many of the major cities, including Rangoon, the former capital, which became Yangon, again without consulting the people before doing it. It is a fair guess that the majority of the people prefer the name Burma over Myanmar. In an additional display of control, the military constructed from scratch a new capital city, Naypyidaw, in the early 2000's, arguably one of the coldest, sterile, dreary, and stark places on earth.

A Brief History Lesson

To examine the troubles of Burma, one need not look further than the military, but a brief history lesson might also be instructive. Prior to World War II, Burma, along with India, was one of the crown jewels of the British Empire, famous for its rich natural resources. An independence movement, to free the nation from British control, developed during the 1930's, composed primarily of Burmans, the largest ethnic group in the country, who tended to live in the central lowlands along the IrrawaddyRiver. One of the main leaders was Aung San, father to modern Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San and other top members went to Japan before World War II to receive military training to combat British Colonialism. During the war, the majority Burmans supported the Japanese invasion of Burma, while the numerous ethnic minorities (well over 100), who resided primarily in the mountainous jungle regions surrounding the central lowlands, sided with the British. When the conflict turned against Japan, the Burmans switched allegiances, striking a deal with Britain and her allies. In it, they promised that in a post-war independent Burma, the minority groups would be granted autonomy in their home areas, within a federal system of government. That guarantee died along with Aung San in 1947, when he was assassinated while trying to get the new Burmese government up and running.

Military Dominance

From 1948 to 1962, Burma possessed a civilian government, which functioned with a menacing military constantly lurking over its shoulder. The government and military had increasingly come under the control of the majority Burmans, to the exclusion and marginalization of the minority groups, including the Karen and Kachin. In 1958, the military created what it termed a "care-taker" government, which implied they would one day hand power back to the civilians. That did not happen. In 1962, the Burmese army took official control of the nation through a coup led by General Ne Win. It can be stated that many of the ethnic minorities in Burma have waged a guerilla war against a government that does not recognize their rights, more or less since 1948, but definitely from 1962, making it one of the world's longest running conflicts.

For a nation with so many resources, the Burmese economy stagnated to the point of collapse, under a program instituted by Ne Win and the military termed, "The Burmese Way to Socialism." Things were so bad, by the late 1980's, even the military leaders realized there had to be changes, even though they controlled any wealth the country produced. The military announced there would be a national election to form a new government and opposition groups were allowed to create political parties. The largest became the National League for Democracy, or NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, composed mostly of ethnic Burmans. The NLD would win an overwhelming victory over military candidates and other minority parties in the 1988 referendum. Perhaps not surprisingly, the army refused to honor the mandate of the Burmese people, placing Suu Kyi under house arrest, while jailing or eliminating other opposition leaders. Demonstrations against the military's actions were suppressed violently, along with the nation's universities being shut down temporarily, a favorite tactic to quell discontent.

The military strengthened its control over the nation in the mid-1990’s by writing a new constitution, which provided for the army to control a designated number of seats in any future legislature, giving the military veto power over any decisions a civilian government might make. At the same time, the army continued to suppress the armed ethnic minorities through its infamous “four cuts” strategy, which had been in use since the 1960’s. The object was to divide and conquer the ethnic groups, getting many to sign cease-fire agreements, during which the army pushed deeper into rebel-held territory, so as to be entrenched if the cease-fire should break down. Poor farmers were driven from their lands and often required to act as porters for army units operating deep in the jungle, carrying supplies and being the first to trip mines planted along the trails.

In 2007, protests again broke out in what became known as the Saffron Revolution, being led by the country’s Buddhist monks in their purple robes. The spark had been the government’s ending of subsidies for fuel, but the general malaise of the nation was the root cause. Once more, the military smashed the demonstrations violently, gunning down monks and other protesters in the streets. It would not be this internal turmoil which propelled the army to finally make changes, but a realization that while Burma remained an impoverished backwater, the economies of other nations in Southeast Asia were booming. In a bid to get western nations to lift economic sanctions and attract more investment, the military again determined to hold a national election in 2015. The NLD, still led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won the vast majority of seats up for grabs in the national legislature, embarrassing the army, and technically taking control of Burma. In an act of petty cruelty, however, the military had also written into the constitution a provision that any person married to a foreigner, which Aung San had been, could not serve as president. Htu Kyin, one of Suu Kyi’s deputies, became president in 2016. The ploy worked as western nations, including the United States lifted sanctions against Burma, choosing to forget or ignore that the army still possessed an iron grip on the country and a final say on what happened.

The Rohinya: A Humanitarian Crisis

The Rohinya are a Muslim minority who live primarily in the northwest part of Burma, in RahkineState, numbering around one million people before events of the last six months. Under a 1982 law, the Rohinya are not considered Burmese citizens, face numerous restrictions on their daily lives, and do not possess the right to vote. In late August of 2017, a rebel group called the Arakan Rohinya Salvation Army (ARSA) launched assaults on several military posts in RahkineState, which resulted in the deaths of military personnel and civilians. The ARSA is not a large or well-armed insurgent organization, some of its members reportedly carrying sharpened sticks during the attacks. The response of the Burmese army would be overwhelming.

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To begin, the military closed off access to RahkineState, not allowing entry into the region. It then began a systematic destruction of Rohinya villages, as inhabitants fled for their lives toward the Bangladesh border. There is video of whole villages going up in flames and people being shot in the back as they tried to cross the border. Some 650,000 people escaped from Burma to be huddled in refugee camps inside Bangladesh. The Burmese military and government put out statements that the villagers may have been burning their own homes (anybody’s guess as to why), and the trouble had been instigated by terrorists. There has been a definite upswing in anti-Muslim sentiment in Burma over the past few years, fueled by the military and ultra nationalist Buddhist groups, a seemingly strange occurrence given Buddhism is perceived as one of the world’s most peaceful religions. The rhetoric of some Buddhist monks would have fit right in Nazi Germany during the 1930’s, the only difference being the target, Muslims not Jews. Nobel peace prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, has come under international criticism for not speaking out against the atrocities being committed by the Burmese army, but she is not really in a position to do so. The military controls Burma, those who criticize it too loudly are silenced. For Aung San, that might mean a return to house arrest or worse, a condition she spend the 1990’s in. At the same time, a brutal and horrific wrong needs to be named what it is.

The same could be said of Pope Francis, who visited Burma in November, 2017, in an attempt to bring world attention to the crisis. While in the country, the Pope spoke in general terms of civil rights for all, but did not mention the Rohinya by name; for the same reason Aung San does not, an unfortunate political response by a supposed moral leader. This is not to be harsh on Francis, who deserves recognition for going to Burma, but the ethnic cleansing and genocide taking place not only need to be called out but stopped. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also made a short visit to Burma, but refused to go beyond saying that there was not enough evidence yet to term it ethnic cleansing, but the U.S. would keep studying the matter, as people continue dying. The response of the rest of the world community has been similar; name calling or labels do not assist the refugees in Bangladesh, while the problem will not just go away as perhaps everyone hopes.

Along with the 650,000 refugees in Burma’s western neighbor, Bangladesh, at least another million people displaced by the violence inside Burma reside in 6 large camps inside Thailand, the nation to the east. Besides the monumental task of feeding and caring for such an immense number of people, the harsh reality is that despite lip service to the world about taking back the refugees, Burma gives no indication it actually will. In fact, there is evidence that the army is painstakingly destroying all records and vestiges of the Rohinya having ever lived in RahkineState.

Is There a Long-Term Answer?

Sanctions against a nation like Burma are more or less pointless as they only add to the misery of the poor, without really impacting the military elite. Significant and meaningful change can only come if the army willingly agrees to write a new constitution for the nation, relinquishing power completely to a civilian government, and granting full rights to all minority groups; something not likely in the foreseeable future. One would hope the world’s listless response to the crisis in Burma is not due partly to it being a poor country, but I am not confident in that assessment, just as I also am not in this woefully inadequate summary of Burma’s troubles.


Ashutosh Joshi from New Delhi, India on January 09, 2018:

It's a really tough situation but the fact is the nobody gives a darn, simply because it's happening in a third world nation. Then there are other detractors like the refugees primarily comprising of Rohingya Muslims, who already were second class entities in their nation, ironically sort of makes them less human too.

Even those that can exert influence care less. The UN as it is, defunct and preoccupied in lobbying or screwing someone like DPRK under US watch. China has its interests in the region, so more or less goes with the regime's narrative. Eventually, some will perish, some will be rehabilitated and some will become tools for nefarious activities.

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