What’s the Deal With Reform in Myanmar?

Hello All!

You'd be surprised at what you'll see through a historical lens

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that views global news through a historical lens (not bifocals).

In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss the hoopla surrounding the parliamentary elections in Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma) and how the media is turning away from a huge human rights problem.

What’s that problem, you ask?

For decades, a long standing war has been waged by the Burmese authoritarian military against the ethnic minorities of Myanmar.  Unfortunately, even with the recent reforms and a commendable return of suffrage rights this spring, this campaign of human rights abuses continues.  Hopefully, as long as it continues, it will remain a deterrent to ending economic sanctions of the Myanmar government by the U.S. and others.

Disclaimer:  I want to make clear that I in no way oppose or am unhappy with the progress that Myanmar has made in allowing the parliamentary elections to proceed.  It may seem from my tone that I am denouncing the whole efforts of Aung San Suu Kyi and her election as a candidate for the National League for Democracy.  This is not true; I am genuinely ecstatic that repression has subsided in a country mired in authoritarian rule that has mirrored North Korea in its global isolation and lack of freedoms.  My point with this blog post is to recognize that this election is a first step in the transition to a full democracy; one that includes freedoms for all ethnic groups in a united Myanmar.

President U Thein Sein took a U turn from the military

When the military junta ended the house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010, the junta also paved the way for the first free elections since 1990 with a resurfacing of a constitutional democracy.  President U Thein Sein has also freed other political prisoners and reformed some of the government control of the economy that had kept most of Myanmar’s 55 million people in poverty.  Back in the election of 1990, the National League for Democracy, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, had actually won the majority of seats  in an election for parliament in Myanmar.  Suu Kyi was a winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and more famously in Burma, the daughter of Aung San, the revolutionary who helped gain independence from the British.  The ruling military junta, however, had refused to accept this result; plunging the country back into military rule and creating the isolation, poverty, and human rights violations within the state until these very recent reforms.

It is fitting that we talk about the issue of Burmese repression of Kachin, Karen, and other ethnic peoples of Myanmar now, during this political revolution of sorts.  For while political and economic freedoms come for the Burmese, the picture is quite different in the rest of the country.  To find out how Myanmar has arrived at a speedy divergence from their military junta rule and what ethnic tensions remain, we’ll take a look at the history of the region and how ethnic tensions and the military state have come to be in the present.

From 3 Kingdoms to a Junta

Unless you want to cross the Himalayas, crossing through Myanmar is the best way to get to SE Asia

For centuries, Burma has been an important through-way for explorers, travelers, plunderers, and traders.  Similar to the Middle East, Burma is a vital route from the Far East to the West.  This geographical position has shaped Burma’s history from the ancient kingdoms to World War II.  The travels of Marco Polo, the conquering Mongol empire, the extensive British Empire, and the Japanese invasion of WW2 all took advantage of the strategic position of the region now known as Myanmar.  This should be kept in mind while looking at the chronological history of the country and peoples.

Burma was unified first in 1044 AD under the Burmese rulership of the Bagan Dynasty, often considered the “Golden Age” of Burmese history as a huge city (Bagan) was built along the mighty Irrawaddy River, and Buddhism became a cultural mainstay.  The Bagan Dynasty prospered until 1287, when the Mongols, once again make a plundering appearance in history, destroyed Bagan, and disunited the region, creating a political vacuum.

Don't call them plunderers, or they will sack your city.... just ask Kiev

Ethnic Shan peoples established a political capital at what would become Mandalay, but did not recreate one unified state.  Other peoples took power, during this interim period, but it wasn’t until 1486 that a new coagulated Burmese empire took the place of Bagan, in the form of the Tuangoo Dynasty.  Tuangoo lasted until 1752, but left little impact except the conquest of the Shan and retaking of territory.  Military escapades and infighting struck down Tuangoo, much like it would its succeeding dynasty, the Konbaung Dynasty.  Consistent with its predecessor, Konbaung featured heavy fighting against multiple surrounding peoples, including the Mons, Arakanese, and Siamese (the Burmese burned down the Siamese capital of Ayuthaya in 1767).  By the 18th Century, the Burmese empires were showing significant signs of decline as more powerful empires asserted their power, first through 4 invasions by the Chinese, and eventually the British.

Lasting from 1044 – 1885, the united Burmese Empires are better known for their eventual fall to the far-flung but powerful British Empire, but should be remembered more for a development of:

  • A well developed civilization and sophisticated culture during the Bagan Dynasty.
  • A history of clashing with the many cultures surrounding the Burmese: a militaristic empire.

the British had a rice little operation going in Burma

In a series of 3 wars, from 1824 – 1885 the British were able to latch onto and expand territorial conquests, until a full cession of the Burmese territory from the Burmese Kingdom to the British in 1885.  The British put Burma under the jurisdiction under their huge colony next door to the West, India.

Growing nationalism movements emerged from early resistance to the British.  The British (through private companies) had built an exploitative and extensive rice farming operation.  Though many Burmese owned or operated their land, any profits were taken by middlemen who controlled the logistics to sell products.  Rice had risen in demand significantly, and the British had been able to secure an efficient (and profitable) way to ship the cash crop from the strategic river delta capital at Rangoon to Europe through the Suez Canal.  Failing to reap the profits from their own land, nationalism and anti-colonial sentiment became popular among the Burmese.

This was best exemplified when the Japanese invaded Burma in 1941 and Burmese nationalists rose up and fought with the Japanese against their colonizers.  A scholar of Marxism and a Burmese nationalist, General Aung San led a group called the “30 Comrades” and the Burmese Army in siding with the Japanese in driving out the British Army from Burma.  An important note: sticking with the British were the ethnic Karen and Kachin people who fought valiantly against the Japanese (perhaps because they believed the British provided a better chance to gain rights than with the Burmese).

the Japanese taking Rangoon was a low point for the British Empire

Despite its huge importance in the war, the Burma campaign is largely forgotten in general WW2 discussion.  The widely used and vital Burma Road, one of the only means of the Allies reaching China and supplying Chiang-Kai Shek against the Japanese, was finally retaken by the Allied forces in 1944 after a brutal campaign (being sidelined several times by Churchill in favor of his favorite Southern Europe campaigns).  In addition to the important Burma road, there was a huge worry among the British that Burma was a stepping stone to Britain’s colonial crown jewel, India, being invaded by the Japanese.   Eventually, the Burmese army saw the inevitable collapse of the Japanese empire, and decided to join the Allies in retaking Burma.

This side-switching held a huge importance for the country after the war, as General Aung Sang (did we mention he is the father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?) demanded a complete economic and political independence from the British for the Burmese.  This was duly (if begrudgingly) granted by the British in 1947, and a constitution was put forth, but not soon enough as General Aung Sang was assassinated with most of his cabinet in 1948 before the document could be signed.

The Impact of the Colonial Period:

  • Saw Burmese military authority rise in prominence & leadership wiTh a distrust of the West
  • Drew political boundaries around ethnic groups whom Burma had had historical antagonistic relations with
  • Left a lack of infrastructure development

    The British Empire: lions make terrible map drawers for socio-economic development

For the next 14 years after Aung Sang’s assassination, Burma was technically a constitutional democracy; but a dysfunctional parliament, political turmoil, and most importantly a persistent division and conflict with the many ethnic groups existed within the state and kept Burma politically unstable.  This was partially a factor of the British creating an artificial border around multiple ethnic groups that the Burmese adopted, but also reflected the long-standing ethnic conflict that had existed between the Burmese and other groups and the decision for the Karen and Kachin to stand with the British and fight against the Burmese/Japanese during the war.  The division and lack of stability convinced the then Prime Minister U Nen to allow military rule in 1958 to restore political power.

This decision boded poorly for the fledgling state as a relatively strong military became well connected to civilian power.  The coup in 1962 by General Ne Win hardly seems surprising.  His takeover of power and reversal from constitutional democracy was certainly not good news for the Burmese people; but even less so for the rest of the ethnic groups residing within the country.  A xenophobic authoritarian regime labeled under the disguise of a “Burmese Path to Socialism”, established the Burmese Socialist Program Party (the only political party allowed) and nationalized industries, isolating Burma from much of the world which had disastrous socio-economic consequences.

Widespread suppression of protests, basic freedoms, and demands for change were swift and mercilessly crushed by the armed extension of the Government.  Widespread protests in 1974, and again in 1988 against the government and the abysmal economic conditions showed the “necessity to restore order” killing thousands of demonstrators.  1988 saw the disbanding of the Burmese Socialist Program Party, the “constitution” and the implementation of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), essentially a military leadership council (junta) that was put in place to restore order from the continuing demonstrations.  Restoring order meant killing 3,000 people, and forcing 100,000 into hiding and exile. At the same time, an opposition figure emerged to represent a new democratic Burma, one Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

"If you thought the first 28 years were bad, wait till we win this election and then have to endure another 11 years of this"

The SLORC, having performed its “restoration” readied the country for a supposed return to a constitutional democracy in elections in 1990, under a new country name: the Republic of Myanmar.  Running under the National League for Democracy, Ms. Suu Kyi proved to be a very popular figure winning  the majority of votes and seats in parliament.  Having incorrectly guessed that their own chosen politicians would win, the SLORC threw out the vote, imprisoned many opposition politicians, and retained its grip on power, refusing to call the Parliament into effect.  So instead of a path to a democracy, the military junta couldn’t bear to see their power waned through fair elections, so they decided just to keep power for themselves.

the price for being the opposition leader

For the next 20 years, the junta continued the suppression of its own people; and locked up dissidents (at best) or used torture, coercion, and violence to silence opposition.  Ms. Suu Kyi, as it is well known, was kept under house arrest, away from politics, yet her legend as a voice for the Burmese people rose to great fame in Myanmar and around the world.  In 2010, a great change came about as a member of the military, General U Thein Sein was appointed President as part of “elections” supervised by the junta (read: they appointed military officials to a non-democratic parliament).  Surprisingly, the new President, took a U-turn by announcing great reforms: that he would end the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi (to great international relief) and that Myanmar would hold elections permitting Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy to run in 2012.  With much fanfare, Suu Kyi rode a huge popular wave to victory for a seat in the parliament, while the National League for Democracy won some 60% of the seats up for a vote.

Much remains to be dissected about what all this really means.  Is Myanmar actually a democracy now?  Will the military allow the elections to stand, or will they take power back as they did in 1990?  Speaking of the military, they still are the dominant force in Myanmar and despite reforms in the last 2 years, no change has come for the country’s ethnic groups who are still fighting for their lives.

Kachin up on their guerilla tactics

The Kachin people, living in the North of Myanmar are seemingly a people without a home (much like our friends the Kurds).  Fighting for autonomy for years against the Burmese military has been a deadly exercise that has continued to the present.  A recent report has shown the use of torture, rape, and civilian killings by the Burmese military in an attempt to reign in the Kachin guerrillas.  Burmese military has also forced children, men, and women to join or work for the Burmese military, and the government outlaws individual culture and language.  the geopolitical situation is more dire: Kachin state happens to contain great natural resources in gold, jade, and timber and its rivers are exploited by the Chinese for hydroelectric power.  China has much to gain from the suppression of the Kachin, and Myanmar has so far been inclined to comply.

The Karen people have faced a similar similar situation.  Having braved the Japanese to save the Allied cause in Burma in WW2, they now have braved the might of the Burmese military for 60 years in the longest running civil war in world history.  Similar discrimination, violent repression, and lack of civil rights exists for the Arakanese, Shan, Mon, Chin, and Karenni, though their situation is not mired in a full on war.

they wrote the book on civil war

So, it is pretty clear that with a growing military (the size of the army has doubled in the past 20 years) and a history of crimes against humanity, Myanmar is far from a free democracy.


An all too short summary of the history of Myanmar has given us a few important takeaways:

How did Myanmar arrive at their militarized authoritarian regime?

  • Since the Tuangoon Dynasty, the Burmese leadership has been highly militaristic
  • Its strategic geographical location made it susceptible to invasion, so Burma has recognized the importance of a strong military
  • In controlling its people, the military led government has recognized that to continue control involves growing military might and suppressing democracy

How did we arrive at a point where ethnic violence and human rights violations are perpetuated in Myanmar?

  • the Burmese have clashed with its neighbors and surrounding ethnic groups for centuries
  • the British adopted a political boundary for Burma for colonial and economic reasons, but ignored ethnic boundaries; this was passed on to independent Burma in 1948.
  • the rise of the military in civilian government in 1962 saw complete suppression of outside ethnic groups and an attempt to combine all ethnic groups under one Burmese regime.

A quick analysis of the present:

This past week’s elections come with some good news: Fortunately, the United States has actually taken a tough stand with the Burmese and Myanmar governments since the fateful coup in 1962 (a great beginning to a limerick) brought a militarized state.  the U.S. has only recently returned diplomatic relations with President Thein Sein’s political reforms.  Even more hopeful, the U.S. is restraining further removal of economic relations and alliances until steps are taken to stop the war against the Karen and Kachin.

But of course there are several worries: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has stood as a representative for the people, and said she would work to bring peace and rights to ethnic minorities, but how much power is the military actually willing to give its parliament?  This is very murky.  Also, a worry is that the U.S., like China, will take its own interests above protecting human rights (when has the U.S. ever done that?…).  The U.S. has developed a new Pacific/Asia military strategy, basically an attempt to counter Chinese military growth.  Will the U.S. race to coddle the new Myanmar government just to build its Asian relations, or will it force the Myanmar government to end its horrible practices against ethnic minorities?

If the U.S. is going to water down sanctions, they should start with this queue

Myanmar for decades has suffered economic stagnancy which has hampered development and left most of the population in abject poverty.  With an annual per capita of $841 and ranking 138 in the Human Development Index, Myanmar is abjectly poor, which is why most work by the U.S. so far since last year has been in supplying aid.  Finally, we should think about what the fate of the minority people of Myanmar will be.  Do they want complete autonomy, or are they okay with being a part of Myanmar, you know, as long as they receive basic liberties?  Their final decision will determine if the wars continue.

Well, this will certainly be fascinating to keep track of as the elected officials come to parliament this year, and see how many questions from the above section are answered.  Hopefully, the media will choose to focus on both Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the continuing war zones across the country.

Until Next time,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources & Further Reads



Charney, Michael W, A History of Modern Burma



the River of Lost Footsteps: A History of Burma, Thant Myint-U





About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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2 Responses to What’s the Deal With Reform in Myanmar?

  1. I am working and living in Mae Sot with Burmese student and youth base organization, It’s been 1,3 years now. Very interesting article you have here, definitely worth a share! Thanks and best wishes

  2. tevuona@yahoo.com says:

    Thank you for what I think is an excellent article. I would add/stress the following:
    I think whether Myanmar is, was, or will be a democracy that respects ‘human rights’ has, is, and will be, quite besides the point as far as are concerned (western) states’ foreign policy end-games. The 1988-2010 period of concerted western diplomatic and economic soft-power pressure applied onto Myanmar’s ruling elite was a happy ‘coincidence’ between larger principles of universal human rights, and western powers’ realpolitik interests. That coincidence is now over. Such a ‘coincidence’ still occurs in instances such as Taiwan, Tibet, but likewise there, if ever western states’ end-games (security and economic self-interests, as is the case for most states at most times) were seen to be better served by an all together different strategy, a shift similar to what we are seeing in Myanmar would also occur.

    In short, I think that though stressing the lack of change in Myanmar is important, it is also worth noting that this is not a determinant variable in western countries’ calculus as to whether to drop or advance sanctions, etc. embassies in Yangon or Bangkok are not naive; they know very well how little has changed on those particular front of human rights/ethnic relations.
    Lastly, I would add that this is not to discourage those of us who have actually as an end-game universal human rights, cultural minority rights, or democracy. Rather, we just have to come to terms with the fact that the temporary ‘allies’ that might have been western states in this particular case for the last 22 years can no longer be counted as such. That honeymoon is over!

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