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Travel Guide > Asia > Burma/Myanmar

Burma/Myanmar History & Politics

  
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Like most of Southeast Asia's countries, Myanmar's people and history is a glorious mishmash of settlers and invaders from all fronts. The Mon and the Pyu are thought to have come from India, while the now dominant Bamar (Burmese) migrated through Tibet and, by 849, had founded a powerful kingdom centered on Bagan. For the next millennium, the Burmese empire grew through conquests of Thailand (Ayutthaya) and India (Manipur), and shrank under attacks from China and internal rebellions.

Eventually, Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. It was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate self-governing colony. During the Second World War, Burma was a major battleground as the Allies fought the Japanese for dominance over Asia. The Burma Road was built to get supplies to China. The Thailand-Burma railroad (the so-called "Death Railway") from Kanchanaburi in Thailand over the River Kwai to Burma was built by the Japanese using forced labour — Allied prisoners-of-war, indentured Thai labourers, and Burmese people. They had to work in appalling conditions and a great number of them died (estimated at 80,000) during construction of the railway. Large parts of Western Burma, particularly the hilly areas bordering India and the city of Mandalay were severely damaged during the war.

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While the Burmese independence fighters led by Aung San initially cooperated with the Japanese to oust the British, with the Japanese promising to grant independence to Burma in exchange, it soon became apparent that the Japanese promises of independence were only empty promises. In fact, the Japanese occupation was more brutal than the British colonisation, and the Japanese treated the Burmese people worse than the British had. Aung San subsequently switched alliegance and helped the British win Burma back from the Japanese. Aung San subsequently led negotiations with the British for Burmese independence after the end of World War II, and the British agreed in 1947 to grant independence to Burma the following year, though Aung San himself was assassinated later in the year and never lived to see his dream come true. Independence from the British under the name Union of Burma was finally attained in 1948, and till this day, Aung San is regarded by most Burmese people to be the father of independence.

Though initially the country was democratic, General Ne Win led a military coup which ousted the democratically elected government in 1962, and subsequently installed himself as leader. General Ne Win dominated the government from 1962 to 1988, first as military ruler, then as self-appointed president, and later as political kingpin. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 were violently crushed, with general Saw Maung taking over in a coup and installing the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country, now renamed Myanmar.

Multiparty legislative elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party - the National League for Democracy (NLD) - winning a landslide victory (392 of 489 seats). But SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, which she has endured for 14 of the last 20 years.

Today Myanmar, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has since slumped into poverty due to widespread corruption. The junta took steps in the early 1990s to liberalize price controls after decades of failure under the "Burmese Way to Socialism," but had to reinstate subsidized prices on staples in the face of food riots, upon which the democracy movement grafted its agenda. The government called out troops and the rioters were defiant until the monks intervened: standing between both sides, they told everyone to go home and they did. The riots caused overseas development assistance to cease and the government subsequently nullified the results of the 1990 legislative elections.

Water buffaloes are a substantial part of rural life in Burma/Myanmar.  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

In response to the government's attack in May 2003 on Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy, the USA imposed new economic sanctions against Myanmar, including bans on imports of products from Myanmar and on provision of financial services by US citizens.

The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started in August, apparently in an uncoordinated manner, as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of gasoline, but morphed into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in the town of Pakokku. The monks demanded an apology but none was forthcoming and soon processions of monks with begging bowls held upside down filled many cities (including Sittwe, Mandalay, and Yangon). Yangon, particularly the area around Sule Pagoda in the downtown area, became the center of these protests. While the monks marched, and many ordinary citizens came out in support of the monks, the world watched as pictures, videos, and blogs flooded the Internet. However, the government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks and closing monasteries, and temporarily shut down Internet communications with the rest of the world. This led the USA, Australia, Canada and the European Union to impose additional sanctions, some targeting the families and finances of the military leaders. Dialogue between the UN and the military government has stalled.

General elections have been held on 7th of November 2010. Aung San Suu Kyu was released from house arrest on 13 November 2010.

Politics

Myanmar has been under strong military rule for the past 40 years, with a reputation for repressing dissent, as in the case of the frequent house arrests of democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, and currently has more than 1,500 political prisoners When in Myanmar, abstain from political activities and don't insult the government.

Discuss politics, if you must, with people who have had time to get a feel for you. The danger however, is primarily posed to those you speak with, and thus you should take care with their safety. Let them lead the conversation. Also, realize that many phone lines are tapped. And if you absolutely must wave a democracy banner in front of a cop shop, you'll simply find yourself on the next outbound flight.

Avoid doing things that might make the military or police feel uncomfortable, such as taking pictures of police and police buildings or vehicles.





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