Note: This is part of a series, co-written by Yankee Papa and James Powell. You can read part one here.
In 1962, the military arrested judges and others and set up a 17-officer junta to run the country. It is here that the history of Myanmar becomes extremely convoluted. In a nutshell, the junta replaced all civil servants (who at least knew how to run things) with military officers—never a good idea when trying to govern a nation. Importation of outside publications was severely restricted and all media existed under the thumb of the new government. “Burmese socialism” was declared, and all land became property of the state. Farmers were allowed to keep only 30 percent of their crop (today in Vietnam it is 50 percent). Corruption set in early, with powerful authorities in some areas charging farmers illegal “rent.”
One of the main things to know about the Myanmar government is that it has laws—this is to be expected from most nations. But it is policy that rules the country. A law might ensure some freedom, but could be ignored in the name of national unity, patriotism, public decency, or national security. It eventually became impossible for anyone, civilian or military, to survive without breaking some regulation or policy. And the cost of that was that anybody not at the top of the social heap could be arrested for anything.
“The military must be fit to fight… it is never fit to rule…”—T.R. Feherenbach
By 1982, the junta had released its final definitions and categories of citizenship: all Burmans, (native Burmese) all indigenous ethnic/lingual groups (at least in theory), and those who could prove that their ancestors had lived constantly in Burma from before 1823 to the present (not surprisingly, it is difficult for many poor people to prove that). Associate citizens were Indians and Chinese born in Burma after that time. Associate citizenship could be revoked for any reason that the junta wanted, and they could not vote, hold public office, serve in the military, or obtain higher education.
The indigenous Moslem Rohingyas near the Bangladesh border are not even viewed as lawful residents. Their lot is pitiful. (In later years, al-Qaeda has offered to get involved, but most Burmese Moslems don’t want a massive provocation that would set off the Myanmar government.) Immediately after taking power, the military forcibly expelled 200,000 Indians from the country with only what they could carry on their backs.
Some in the population decided to act against this aggression, and many paid for their bravery. Atrocities abounded. Students who demonstrated were shot dead in the streets, and one group of students was loaded into a van and asphyxiated. To reduce future problems, colleges had very limited enrollments and many students had to study “away” (effectively correspondence courses).
A medical degree from a Burmese medical school was once so prestigious that Burmese doctors could practice medicine in Britain without having to pass any boards. In an attempt to reduce the threat from “thinkers,” that prestige was allowed to fall by the wayside. Except for the military and some Chinese, professional medical care became nearly impossible to obtain. All doctors had to serve at least three years in the Army. Quality medicines were priced astronomically high. Infant mortality soared to one of the highest rates ever.
To add insult to injury, Ne Win—former commander of the collaborator army—ran the show for a time and had a “wheel off the ground,” making haphazard policy decisions. He changed the currency into multiples of nine because his astrologer told him that was his lucky number. Also acting on the advice of an astrologer, he changed all traffic in the country from the left to the right side. He stepped down from power in 1988 and died four years later at the age of 92.
Even when an eccentric wasn’t running the show, some economic measures devastated the country. To deal with the black market (which was helping keep things together), the government declared many of its notes to no longer be money. (Imagine if all 20-, 50-, and 100-dollar bills in this country were suddenly declared null and void.) The economy went even further down the toilet. People panicked and bought anything—from (smuggled in) Chinese appliances to construction materials—just to have something of value.
A second military dictatorship
In 1988, there were more protests. The military tried to deal with it by releasing criminals into the streets, hoping that the population would turn to authority to restore order. In the end, after some 3,000 demonstrators were killed, the military announced another coup, leaving them in power but doing away with the socialist base of the government (at least officially). The government-backed “guarantees” to foreign companies stated that if they signed a contract, the government would not nationalize their operations. Some contracts, such as massive over-harvesting of teak wood, would serve to damage the country’s ecology (recently limited in Thailand because of severe erosion).
Many Americans have heard of Aung San Suu Kyi, now almost 70 years old and the daughter of the assassinated Aung San. She is bright and outspoken. The junta authorities have tried the use threats and trials to silence her, but they’re smart enough to know better than to kill a Nobel Prize winner or to imprison her. She has suffered under long periods of house arrest, freed briefly, only to be placed under house arrest again “for her protection.” To minimize her impact on her nation’s social conscience, her father’s place in Burmese history has largely been erased by the country’s government.
In May of 1990, the junta held a reasonably fair election with many brand new political parties springing up. It was a divide-and-conquer move that failed. The results, if implemented, would have blown the junta out of its socks. Par for those who rule by fear and corruption, the junta declared the results null and void. As a result, the (quiet) opposition refused to take part in further elections for many years, rightly fearful that they would be nothing more than an attempt by the junta to “erase” the results of 1990.
For a country that was once the world’s “rice bowl,” malnutrition is common in the country. Much of the money that is generated goes into pockets of corrupt junta members.
Officially, there is no draft in Myanmar. In reality, the government can call up anybody “for pressing needs.” By 2008, it was estimated that 300,000 men, women, children, and elderly had been conscripted for “Corvee” labor, (generally on behalf of the Army). Some groups were used for clearing live minefields.
Myanmar has agreed many times to abolish forced conscript labor, but not only has it been retained, anybody refusing to take part is subject to torture, rape, and murder. In the Shan minority areas, 25 percent of all rape victims by the Army are killed. Some 40 percent of rape victims have been gang-raped.
It is estimated that Myanmar has as many as 70,000 child soldiers. They are poorly trained and many are used for clearing heavily mined areas. The tribes have been forced to use child soldiers as well.
While Burman women have historically been much freer than other Asian women, there are still definite restrictions. In the early 19th century, English visitors to Burma reported that Burman women had, on average, a much higher percentage of literacy than women back in England. Most annoying to some women no doubt is the strict Burman interpretation of Buddhism, which states that even the holiest woman can only achieve nirvana after a final reincarnation as a male. (Sorry, Lisa Simpson.)
Chinese involvement in Myanmar
The Chinese government is the largest investor in Myanmar’s economy. Roads, pipelines, and some 30 dams are under construction, with the power generated by the dams to be split between Myanmar and China. The Chinese view pipelines through Myanmar as strategically important. Some 80 percent of their imported oil has to pass through the strategic Straits of Malaca. Avoiding that is in their interest. While the (relatively new) Chinese blue-water navy does not have “bases” in Myanmar, it has facilities right on the Indian Ocean, which concerns India immensely. China is Myanmar’s largest supplier of arms.
A troubling side effect of all this is the ever increasing number of Chinese in Myanmar. Some 300,000 legal Chinese have registered with the government, but the real number might be as high as two million. Some try to pass themselves off as “ethnic Chinese Myanmar” citizens. The government doesn’t look too closely at this minority group. Mandalay may now have 20 percent Chinese.
The only real middle class in Myanmar consists largely of families of retired military and Chinese businessmen. While average citizens lack access to proper banking, the Chinese have their own “internal” system that the government is willing to overlook. If the citizenry feels threatened by local Chinese influence, anti-Chinese riots are possible with the potential for actual Chinese intervention.
In 2008, a cyclone struck Myanmar—killing an estimated 138,000 people. The U.S. military was quick to act but was forbidden to fly supplies to remote areas. As a result, some 75 million dollars’ worth of food and other supplies had to be left on the docks of Rangoon. Later, the Myanmar government asked for foreign grants of billions of dollars to rebuild, with the funds to be handled by the Myanmar government. Enthusiasm was understandably low. The United States has long pushed for regime change to no effect. Sanctions were applied but largely ignored by Myanmar’s neighbors.
After visits by President Obama in 2012 and 2014, little has changed (though the New York Times has seen fit to praise the “results”). Promises were made, dissidents were let out—on a short leash—knowing that they could be confined again on a mere order. Human-rights violations come in by the hour.
Meanwhile, this spring, there has been fighting on the Chinese border, spilling over into China. Some Chinese citizens have been killed by Myanmar forces, almost certainly by accident, but the damage has been done and the die has been cast. Myanmar has offered reparations, but the fighting continues.
In early 1979, China attacked North Vietnam, in part for its treatment of ethnic Chinese. Both sides have a lot to lose in the conflict in Myanmar, but China has loudly proclaimed to her citizens all over the world that they are under the protection of China. More Chinese citizens killed on Myanmar soil could force their hand.
South Korea reluctantly told Myanmar that it would not cause problems if that country had dealings with North Korea. They could not prevent it and to interfere would have caused the loss of a lucrative market. Secret diplomacy in North Korea and North Korean tunnel work in Myanmar have fueled fears of nuclear proliferation.
(Featured image courtesy of codyromano.com)