An Idiot’s Guide to the Issues in Myanmar
Words by: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Image credit: Voice of America
Myanmar is decidedly not an easy country to make sense of. It’s difficult enough trying to decide whether you’re supposed to call it Burma or Myanmar (either name is perfectly acceptable; the only difference being Burma rolls off the Western tongue more easily, while you need to take a bit of time trying to properly pronounce Myanmar [the ‘n’ is practically silent; and yet not so]). The country was called Burma during its colonization by the British; after which the military government decided to reinstate what it claimed to be cultural identity and renamed the country the Union of Myanmar.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Ever since its so-called reformation process began in 2010 (which led to another name change, to the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar”), Myanmar’s progress has been tentative. At the time there was a strong surge of optimism, following the release of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from a total of fifteen years house arrest. The general Burmese population truly believed that the country was on the cusp of change—and this was further supported by the string of events that followed. Media censorship laws were eased; the National Human Rights Commission was established; political prisoners released. Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy, re-registered as a political party in 2011; Aung San Suu Kyi herself ran for a seat in parliament and won.
Recently, Myanmar made international headlines with a story highlighting police brutality. The story behind it is as follows: In September 2014, the parliament of Myanmar passed an educational law that angered students and academics alike. Among other things, the law reduced funding for education and denied schools the right to teach ethnic languages in classes. All of this culminated in repeated calls for overhaul of the law. Students began organising demonstrations around the country, and on the 2nd of March, 2015, a group of about a hundred students decided to begin a march from Letpadan to Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital and largest city. They were hindered by a government police force, five hundred in number, who denied them passage.
On the 10th of March, tensions boiled and violence broke out between the police force and the rioting students, resulting in the arrest of a hundred people, students and journalists alike; with at least three dozens of people injured from the fray.
This is the most recent in a long line of riots and civil unrest that has broken out on the streets of Myanmar. Most adults will hark back to the uprising of 8/8/88, when hundreds of thousands students, monks, housewives, and children took to the streets nationwide, to protest the Burma Socialist Programme Party, headed by the nefarious General Ne Win. This regime impoverished Myanmar to the point where the United Nations Economic and Social Council gave it the Least Developed Country status. Ne Win had also withdrawn the newly replaced currency notes, leaving only the 45 and 90 kyat notes: further angering students who woke up to find that their savings for tuition fees had been rendered worthless overnight. Rampage and havoc wreaked Yangon and Mandalay—all of which was ended by a bloody military coup by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The deaths of thousands were attributed to the military. Military authorities maintained that the number of deaths had only come up to 350.
The 8888 Uprising resulted in the resignation of General Ne Win and the appointment of General Saw Maung, who imposed harsher Draconian laws than Ne Win had. Tatmadaw (military) troops traversed the country, killing protestors indiscriminately. The 21st of September, 1988, saw the military regain full power of the government, with the uprising effectively screeching to a halt in October. Ten thousand deaths, of protestors, civilians and soldiers alike, were reported by the end of the year.
If you take into consideration the protests that had occurred in 1975, 1976 and 1977, all of which were violently suppressed, you might start to wonder if the very streets of Myanmar are drenched in the blood of innocents. You would not be too far off the mark.
In August 2007, the ruling junta removed fuel subsidies without warning, which caused the cost of both petrol and diesel to double, with the price of compressed gas to increase five-fold in less than a week. People could not afford to go to work; food prices soared; the people of Burma needed no incentive more to take to the streets again. And yet: the memory of 8/8/88 was still strong in their collective memory. The people of Burma, at this time, were terrified. Fear does not inspire action; fear roots you to the spot, praying for a miracle.
Then again, the Burmese are no strangers to fear. Civilians marched in protest through the streets; and these protests were again quickly and violently quelled by the military. The injuries inflicted on three monks who had been at once particular scene, which received no apology from the government, called for the involvement of the Burmese religious order. The monks had been watching with baleful eyes as the economy deteriorated, driving most families to destitution. A peaceful resistance began, led by hundreds of Buddhist monks, who marched through Yangon city reciting a mantra of goodwill. The military crackdown that followed left at least thirty one people dead.
The Rohingya issue arose in 2013, when sermons preached by Sayadaw U Wirathu, dubbed by Time Magazine as “the Face of Buddhist Terror”, instilled what can only be described as the exact opposite of Buddhist moral values in listening ears. Violence broke out between the Buddhists and the Muslims, especially in the Rakhine state; leading to horrific deaths, one of which included Muslim men being thrown into a pile and burned alive. While it can be argued that Sayadaw U Wirathu had spurred on these inhumane injustices, the history of Muslim persecution in Burma is not exactly what one might call a clean slate.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, and seen by most of the Burmese as the ruler they need and deserve, has been fighting her own battle against the Burma’s Constitution of 2008. The Constitutional Amendment Implementation Committee recently voted to leave Article 59(f) of the Constitution unchanged, which denies Aung San Suu Kyi the right to run for presidency due to her involvement with a “foreign power”, in that she was married to an Englishman, Michael Aris, and that both of her sons are English citizens. To declare that she is being selfish by pushing to modify this injustice towards her instead of tending to other, arguably more important constitutional amendments, is perhaps unfair. Aung San Suu Kyi has sacrificed—although she despises the use of that term—so much for so long that to deny her the right which she was practically born with (as the daughter of Burma’s father of independence) verges blatantly on inanity.
Myanmar has long been on the road to democracy. Time will tell if the long-standing goal is ever attained.