Brief Facts About Burma
Burma is the largest country on the Southeast Asia mainland. Renamed Myanmar by
the military junta in 1989, it is bounded by India and Bangladesh to the west;
China to the north; Thailand, and Laos to the east; and the Indian Ocean (the
Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal) to the south. Burma was colonized by the British
in 1886 and regained independence in 1948. After a short-lived democratic
period, the military took power in 1962 and has ruled the country ever since.
While students and monks were successful in helping to end British rule, popular
protests led by students in 1988 and by Buddhist monks in 2007 have not
dislodged the military that effectively "occupies" the country. Shortly after
losing free elections in 1990, the junta imprisoned many of the elected
officials including members of the National League for Democracy headed by Nobel
Peace Prize laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest. The
military regime in Burma is widely condemned for its comprehensive abuse of
personal and civil freedoms through intimidation, torture, forced labor and
relocation, rape, and murder. In its annual assessment of global political
rights, Freedom House gave Burma its worst rating for freedom along with only 7
other countries in the world.
As the last credible, national census was conducted during colonial rule in the
1930s, no one knows exactly how many people live inside Burma. The diverse
population likely totals less than 50 million due to high infant mortality and
low life expectancy resulting from unchecked epidemic diseases such as malaria
and HIV-AIDS. The majority of civilians are ethnic Burman, many of whom live in
the valley of the Irrawaddy River that flows south to the former capital of
Rangoon (the military recently built a new administrative capital city called
Nyawpidaw or "home of kings"). The mountainous borderlands surrounding the
valley lowlands of Burma are home to numerous ethnicities. The eight largest
groups are the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni (Kayah), Mon, Shan, Rakhine
(Arakan), and Burmese. The people of Burma can boast a vivid history of
art, culture, religion, architecture, comedy, and law. Buddhism is the primary
religion of Burma and has shaped many social and cultural traditions but
Christianity, Islam, Animism, Nat (spirit) worship are also practiced throughout
Despite Burma's beauty, diversity, and rich natural resources, most Burmese live
in poverty because of the military's mismanagement of the economy. Burma used to
be the largest exporter of rice in the region but now the regime strictly
controls what farmers can plant and sell. There are very few public services.
Once, Burma was envied by neighbors for its top education system. Today, barely
half of Burma's children finish primary school and most universities have been
disbanded by the military in an effort to quell dissent. The UNDP 2007 Human
Development Report indicates that the junta spends less of the country's GPD on
health services than almost any other country in the world.
On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis struck Burma's Irrawaddy Delta, plunging the
country into a humanitarian disaster that the junta could not completely ignore.
Amidst the crisis, on May 10th, the military junta held a referendum on a draft
constitution (written by handpicked representatives) which sought to justify its
rule to the international community. Opponents of the constitution were
prohibited, by law, from campaigning against it. According to an independent
assessment by ANFREL (the Asian Network for Free Elections) the military's claim
of a 99% voter turnout "contrasts with the relatively low number of people seen
at polling stations and cynicism amongst voters about the potential for the
constitution to bring change." The junta further claims that the 92.4% of
citizens outside of the Delta region and 92.5% of people living in the
cyclone-affected region voted in favor of the military-sponsored constitution.
Despite the junta's violence, including its brutal crackdown on peace
demonstrations in 2007 and its negligence towards cyclone victims, many Burmese
remain committed to ideals of democracy and freedom. Emboldened by the monks'
protests, a new generation of activists is joining in the fight for freedom.