Some background information about Burma

In 1948, Burma, a South East Asian country with 48 million multi-ethnic people, won independence from Britain after more than 60 years as a colony. A new constitution established a system of government based on a democratically elected parliament.

However, almost immediately the government was challenged by ethnic groups, who had been promised more autonomy within ten years in the new constitution, and communists. Periods of intense civil war ensued.

In 1962, a group of military officers, led by army chief-of-staff General Ne Win, staged a coup and a military junta has, in one guise or another, ruled the country with ruthlessness and absolute impunity ever since.

The military junta suspended the constitution and instituted authoritarian rule under the Revolutionary Council (RC). Government ministers and ethnic leaders were jailed and parliamentary democracy came to an end.

The military junta adopted an isolationist policy (which was to last for 26 years) and introduced state control of the economy (by nationalizing private enterprises and controlling prices). Both measures would prove to be disastrous for the country in the following years.

In 1974, a new constitution, which people were forced to approve, established a one-party (the Burma Socialist Programme Party or BSPP) government with a 451 member People's National Congress; and the name of the country was changed to the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. A one-party election was held and Revolutionary Council Chairman General Ne Win became Chairman of the State Council and President of Burma U Ne Win. The military junta was still firmly in control.

Over the years, the army had become more involved in counterinsurgency campaigns against ethnic rebels who would eventually join to form the National Democratic Front in 1975.

Also over the years, discontent with the state of the economy had given rise to anti-government demonstrations, food riots and an attempted coup [in 1976] by junior military officers. Ne Win resigned as President in 1981, but retained his hold on the leadership by remaining chairman of the BSPP.

By 1987, Burma's economy had sunk to a level verging on bankruptcy and the UN had conferred its 'least-developed nation' status on the country. The decision of Ne Win to declare that 80 percent of the money in circulation in Burma had no value instantly wiped out the savings of thousands and provoked more unrest.

Finally in 1988, Burma erupted into a series of demonstrations and strikes protesting the existing extreme political oppression and economic hardships. The government initially responded with arrests, detentions, and excessive force resulting in some deaths.

The demonstrations of 1988 culminated in a massive nation-wide show of People Power on August 8 in which hundreds of thousands of people marched to demand a change in government. These peaceful demonstrations were violently crushed by army troops who fired relentlessly on the unarmed crowds in Rangoon and other cities killing more than 10,000 student, civilian and Buddhist monk protesters throughout the country. Thousands were arrested.

Then on September 18 1988, army chief-of-staff General Saw Maung "staged" another military coup which imposed martial law and transferred control of the country to the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

In the midst of the unrest in mid-1988, a civilian, Dr. Maung Maung, had been appointed President and he had promised free and fair multi-party elections. Now, in the face of international condemnation following the massacre of 8-8-88, the SLORC allowed political parties to be formed and called a multi-party election. However, they hampered the ability of the new parties to campaign by arresting leaders and limiting access to the news media.

In 1989, the SLORC changed the name of the country to Myanmar (and also changed the names of several cities) claiming that the new names were for the benefit of the minority, non-Burman segments of the countries population.

One of the significant political parties, of the more than 200 that emerged in 1988 and 1989, was the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by the Burmese human rights activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She is the daughter of Burma's national hero, General Aung San. Alarmed by her popularity, the SLORC put her under house arrest in July 1989. [She was to remain under house arrest for six years, during which time she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December of 1991 for her peaceful struggle for freedom for her country and herself.]

In the free and fair multi-party election held in May 1990, the NLD won a landslide victory sweeping 392 of 485 parliamentary seats (or 80% of the seats) despite having a leader under house arrest and very little access to the media. However, the SLORC refused to transfer power to the NLD claiming that transfer of power to a civilian government could not happen until a new constitution is brought into effect — something that has yet to happen.

Later in 1990, the elected representatives formed the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) — the democratically elected government of Burma in exile.

The martial law, declared in September 1988, was finally repealed in September 1992.

The military junta continued to mount military offensives against various ethnic rebel groups and hundreds of thousands of Karen, Shan, Karenni, and others were forced to take refuge in Thailand, Bangladesh and India. The offensives involved executions, forced labour and forcible relocations.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in July of 1995, but again in 1999 the military junta imposed restrictions on her movements about the country.

In 1997, the SLORC was dissolved and replaced by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) which continues to rule today.

The people of Burma have been intimidated since 1962 through various forms of human rights abuses inflicted upon them by the military junta in its many guises.

Religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, forced relocations of indigenous communities, summary executions, arbitrary arrests, the use of civilians as human mine sweepers, slave labor and gang-rapes have been documented by Amnesty International and the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

As a result of these abuses, more than 800,000 refugees have been driven out of Burma into neighboring Thailand, Bangladesh and India.

Two additional sources of good information about Burma are:

  1. The U.S. Department of State's report "2009 Human Rights Report: Burma". Although written from an American perspective, this report provides a frank assessment of the current economic, social and human rights situation in Burma. It was prepared by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.
  2. The Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre's report "View on Myanmar/Burma written September 2004. Although written from an Australian perspective, this report provides a thorough summary of Burma's history and its political and human rights situation. However, its assessment of the current political situation in Burma is out of date.
Visit the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma Web site for up-to-date information.

Date last changed: 2010 March 20

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