Myanmar (Burma)

6/1/2012

Overview

Also known as Burma, Myanmar is the second largest country in Southeast Asia. Colonized by Britain in the 19th century, the country achieved its independence in 1948 and has been involved in internal sectarian conflict ever since. The country's modern history has been a mixture of military rule, human rights abuses, and a brief period of democracy. Recent events, including the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, suggest a possible re-emergence of democracy in the country. Join Active Minds as we explore the country's history and importance in the world today.

Key Lecture Points

  • From its independence in 1948 until today, Burma/Myanmar has been beset by ethnic strife and civil war, while struggling to maintain nationhood first as a parliamentary democracy, and then, after a successful military coup in 1962, under a military dictatorship.
  • Burma/Myanmar was ruled by the military from 1962 to 2011. Under the military regime the country was isolated, diplomatically and economically, because of its harsh treatment of its ethnic minorities and its crushing of its political opposition. In 1988 the US, European Union, and others imposed economic sanctions on the government because of its human rights violations.
  • The military government changed the name of this country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. Some Burmese pro-democracy activists continue to use the name Burma as a sign of protest saying the military had no authority to change the country’s name. The governments of the US, UK and Canada have likewise continued to use the colonial name Burma on an official level in support of the democratic opposition.
  • Burma/Myanmar is geographically positioned between China and India. As economic competition increases between these two growing powers, Burma/Myanmar takes on strategic interest. Also Burma/Myanmar is located along the Malacca Straits, a vital link between the Middle East and East Asia. Current Chinese port and pipeline projects will provide an alternative route for shipping Burmese oil and gas directly to southwestern China.
  • The first general election in 20 years was held in November 2010. A new, nominally civilian government was seated in 2011, led by President Thein Sein, a retired General. Parliamentary elections were held in April 2012. The pro-democracy National League for Democracy, led by the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Ong San Soo Chee), won 43 of the 45 seats up for election. The elections provide evidence of the commitment to reform by the new government. In May, 2012, the US lifted all economic sanctions against Burma/Myanmar, crediting the reforms since 2011, and following the lead of the European Union and others that had already lifted all their sanctions a month earlier. Additionally, Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to Thailand, her first journey outside her home country after 20 years of periodic house arrest. Her trip provided further evidence of the rapid change taking place in Burma/Myanmar.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the geo-political and economic factors that have made Burma/Myanmar and China long-term allies?
  • What has been Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in the pro-democracy movement? How did she come to this role? How is her role changing?
  • What are the obstacles Burma/Myanmar needs to address before it can reach its economic potential?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think Burma/Myanmar will continue on a path to democracy? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever been to Burma/Myanmar? What were your impressions? How does it compare to other Southeast Asian countries?

More to Explore

  • Website of the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs Click here
  • People, history and culture Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Popham, Peter. The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi. Experiment, 2012. 464 pages. Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi.
    Click here to order
  • Larkin, Emma. No Bad News for the King: the True Story of Cyclone Nargis and Its Aftermath in Burma (paperback). Penguin (Non-Classics), 2011. 288 pages. This book tells the tragic story of what happened after Cyclone Nargis hit Yangon and the Iraawaady Delta.
    Click here to order