Myanmar is a South-East Asian country bordered by India, Bangladesh, Laos, Thailand and China. The largest city is Yangon, which used to be the country’s capital, but was later moved to the newly built city of Naypyidaw. Until 1989, Myanmar was called Burma, this changed because of the name’s colonial origins and because it favored the Bamar ethnic majority.
Economically, the country has witnessed a major evolution in the recent years, but still struggles with high rates of poverty. The rate went from 48,2 % of the population in 2004 down to 32,1 % in 2015. If the economy is one of the fastest growing in the region, Myanmar is still the country with the lowest life expectancy in all of the ASEAN countries, and has the 2nd highest infant and mortality rate. Dropout rates are also very high, especially within poorer families. The access to basic infrastructure remains a challenge as the number of roads is still low, and only 1/3 of the population has access to the national electricity grid.
Myanmar is currently in a democratic transition.
Archeological evidence places human settlements in Myanmar as early as 11 000 years BC. But the first populations of which there are records are the Pyu people who formed city-states along the Irrawaddy River around the 2nd century BC. It was only during the 11th century that a first big empire took place in Myanmar where the Bamar conquered most of nowadays Myanmar and made Bagan their capital. The Bamar Empire was, alongside the Khmer Empire, one of the two main empires in mainland Southeast Asia. This empire fell under Mongol attacks in the 13th century and was left broken-up into small pieces. Territorial integrity was not regained until the 17th century.
The Toungoo (1510 – 1752) and the Konbaung (1752 – 1885) were the last 2 dynasties in the history of the Burmese monarchy. European powers trying to conquer Asia made it difficult to hold power.
Colonisation (1885 – 1948)
After fighting and losing three wars, Burma fell under British rule in 1885. The British did not have any clear plans for Burma, as it was mostly a buffer zone between India and the rest of Asia.
The British created a very unequal society: if the economy soared, Burma becoming the world’s largest exporter of rice, only the British reaped the rewards. Many Indians were brought to the country as civil servants, and many Chinese were encouraged to migrate to Burma in order to stimulate trade. A strong anti-British sentiment started to take form. Monks who used to have a central role in society, peasants and students (including Aung San, current head of state Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) started leading a guerilla.
WW2 appeared to be a way to regain independence. The rebellion started fighting for the Japanese after they had promised them they could help them get rid of the British and then grant them independence, but in 1942 when Japan was occupying the country, it became clear that independence was not in order. The rebellion started fighting for the British, who regained Rangoon in 1945.
After the war, the UK tried to reinforce its rule, but it became clear that it would be impossible. In 1947, Aung San came to London to negotiate the independence. He also negotiated with Burma’s ethnic minorities in order to create a unified Burma. Elections granted his party almost all of the seats for the assembly to draft the new constitution, but he was murdered later in 1947 along with most of his cabinet. U. Nu took over his position and Burma was declared independent on January 4th, 1948. The anti-British sentiment was so strong that Burma refused to join the Commonwealth.
A short-lived democracy (1948 – 1988)
U Nu’s government faced many challenges, but the 1950’s remained a progressive decade. In 1958, a coup led by General Ne Win overthrew the government. In 1960, elections were held and largely won by U. Nu, but Ne Win forged another coup in 1962. The constitution was suspended, the opposition banned and the press muzzled. The country closed off from the rest of the world as the army was planning the “Burmese way to socialism”. Human Rights abuses expanded and the economy started going down.
It was only in 1988 that General Ne Win announced that he was stepping down. Many demonstrations broke into the streets during what would later be called the “democracy summer”, but on August 8th, the army fired into the crowd killing 3 000 people. People who were politically engaged fled the country and most foreign countries started implementing sanctions on Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the movement for democracy (1988 – today)
At that time, Aung San Suu Kyi was in Burma, taking care of her dying mother. She was approached by the democracy movement and asked to join. She formed the National League for Democracy (NLD). She then led peaceful protests and rallies calling for peaceful democratic reform and free elections, but soon, the army imposed martial law and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. From that moment until 2010, she spent most of her time either in jail or under house arrest.
In 1990, free and fair elections were held and Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won overwhelmingly, but the army refused to hand over the power. In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize.
With the economy going downhill, the junta found itself in a precarious position, but dissent kept on being systematically crushed. In 2007, after an unexpected price-rise began the “saffron revolution” led by Buddhist monks. The junta suffered from unprecedented discontent, and thus decided to hold a referendum for a change of constitution in 2008. While the rights groups were calling the election a fraud, the junta was declaring a landslide victory. In 2010, elections were held, but the NLD decided to boycott them. The junta thus declared victory. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest a few days later.
In 2011, the junta surprised everyone by declaring its dissolution. A civilian government was formed, although many top officials remained from the military. At that time began a period of reform: many political prisoners were granted amnesty, censorship was relaxed, the National Human Rights Commission was established and efforts were taken to make peace with ethnic rebel groups.
As the new government was entering a period of reforms, the NLD rejoined the political process. In 2012, by-elections were held and the NLD won 43 seats out of the 45 contested. Weeks later, Aung San Suu Kyi became the leader of the opposition. At that moment, foreign powers were starting to lift their sanctions over Myanmar.
In 2015, general elections were held, the first openly contested elections in 25 years. Aung San Suu Kyi is still, to this day, not allowed to run for president because of a clause in the 2008 constitution stipulating that a candidate with allegiance to a foreign power can’t run, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s children are British. On November 13th, the NLD won two thirds of the seats in an apparently fair vote (although some irregularities were noted). Even though she couldn’t become president, she is still considered as the de facto leader of the country. Her official title is “state counsellor” and the president, Htin Kyaw, is a close confidant.
Since taking power, Aung San Suu Kyi has faced international criticism over her failure to speak on behalf of minority groups like the Rohingyas and ignoring the human rights abuses.
Girls and women
Myanmar is considered by the OECD to be a country with high levels of gender discrimination.
- Early marriages are illegal, but still occur, even if their social acceptance is declining.
- Fathers are usually perceived as the head of households.
- If inheritance is supposed to be fair, discriminatory practices still persist to this day. It is to be noted that customary laws vary greatly among the states.
- There is no strong son-bias in Myanmar, data shows that there aren’t more boys than girls. Regarding schooling, there is no difference noted in primary schools, and only slightly more boys are attending secondary school compared to girls. It is customary that the first daughter drops out of school to take care of the family needs.
- There are no specific laws on domestic violence. In 2008, CEDAW (the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) expressed concerns about “widespread domestic violence and sexual violence”. Domestic violence is still widely seen as a private matter, which could explain the very low rate of complaints for domestic violence. Sexual violence is considered by NGOs to be very high but so far there is no investigation to have precise numbers.
- Violence (including sexual) from the state is reported to be a chronic issue, especially in ethnic areas. Many reports and evidence shows that rape is systematically used by the state to humiliate and intimidate people, but despite this evidence, the state has consistently failed to hold anyone accountable for these crimes. Indeed, the 2008 constitution grants amnesty to all members of the regime for any crime, which leaves the victims helpless.
- If the penal code punishes sexual harassment, it remains a common issue in Myanmar.
- Trafficking of women remains a serious issue as well.
- Abortion is only legal if the mother’s life is at risk. Out of all the maternal deaths, 10% are abortion related. Contraception is increasingly accessible and used.
Civil liberties are very restricted for all citizens of Myanmar. The threat of violence from the army is putting a lot of restriction on women’s rights to movement. The recent liberalization of the country is giving more space to talk about issues regarding gender, while it used to be very restricted, but there is a clear lack of concrete change.
Facts and details – Pyu people and civilization – 2014 – http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Myanmar/sub5_5a/entry-2996.html – History of Pagan and the early Burmans – 2014 – http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Myanmar/sub5_5a/entry-2998.html#chapter-9 – Toungoo Dynasty (1510 – 1752) – 2014 – http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Myanmar/sub5_5a/entry-3003.html – Konbaung Dynasty (1752 – 1885) – 2014 – http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Myanmar/sub5_5a/entry-3004.html
Encyclopedia Britannica – Mon Kingdom – https://www.britannica.com/place/Mon-kingdom – Toungoo Dynasty – https://www.britannica.com/topic/Toungoo-dynasty – Konbaung Dynasty – http://web.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Konbaung_dynasty
The Diplomat – When Burma was still part of British India – 2017 – https://thediplomat.com/2017/10/when-burma-was-still-part-of-british-india/
The Telegraph – The shared history of Britain and Burma – 2008 – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3558192/The-shared-history-of-Britain-and-Burma.html
BBC – The Burma Campaign 1941 – 1945 – 2017 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/burma_campaign_01.shtml – Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi – 2016 – http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-11685977
New Internationalist – A short history of Burma – 2008 – https://newint.org/features/2008/04/18/history
OECD – Social Institutions and Gender Index: Myanmar – 2018 – https://www.genderindex.org/country/myanmar/
Wikigender – Myanmar – 2015 – https://www.wikigender.org/countries/east-asia-and-the-pacific/gender-equality-in-myanmar/
Foreign Policy – Burma’s women are still fighting for their rights – 2015 – http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/02/burmas-women-are-still-fighting-for-their-rights-myanmar/
The World Bank – Myanmar revises poverty measure to reflct needs of population in 2015 – 2017 – http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2017/12/12/myanmar-revises-poverty-measure-to-reflect-needs-of-population-in-2015 – Country overview: Myanmar – 2017 – http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/myanmar/overview
Counsel on Foreign Relations – Understanding Myanmar – 2016 – https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/understanding-myanmar