This News in Review story focuses on the dramatic political transformation occurring in Burma, a country that has been held in the grip of a brutal military dictatorship for 50 years. We explore the movement for democratic reform led by a remarkable woman named Aung San Suu Kyi, who was held as a prisoner by the country’s rulers for most of the past 20 years.
A major milestone occurred for the country of Burma (also known as Myanmar) on April 1, 2012. On that day, voters in 45 constituencies went to the polls to elect representatives in a series of by-elections. Unlike previous elections—which the country’s military rulers had rigged in their favour—this round of voting was expected to be largely free and fair. For this reason, the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma’s main opposition party, had decided to contest the by-elections with a view to securing representation in the country’s parliament for the first time.
The results were a stunning rejection of the military-backed USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party), which had previously held all of the seats being contested, and a sweeping victory for the NLD, which won all but one of them. But most of all it was a dramatic vindication for Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, who had been held under house arrest by the ruling government for 20 years. Aung San Suu Kyi is the most famous political dissident in Burma and a world-renowned symbol of non-violent resistance to oppression. She and her party had won a landslide election victory in 1990, but she was placed in detention for the next 20 years in her home in Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
But as the Burmese military leaders’ inept and heavy-handed policies drove their country further into economic stagnation and increasing international isolation, their people held on to the hope that one day the regime would give way to a more progressive and competent administration for this resource-rich and potentially prosperous Asian country. Disgusted by the political repression in Burma, and in particular by the regime’s cruel treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi, a number of countries, including the United States, Canada, and the European Union, had imposed harsh sanctions on Burma, crippling its economic development and opportunities for international trade.
Yielding to international pressure, the regime agreed to free Aung San Suu Kyi in late 2010—and the pace of change began to quicken.
The by-election victories are proof that the NLD and its charismatic leader continue to enjoy considerable support among Burma’s long-suffering people and that they represent hope that the decades of dictatorship, poverty, and isolation may finally be coming to an end.
1. What do you know about the relatively unknown southeast Asian country of Burma? Take a minute to Google its location on a map. What strikes you about its location? Its neighbours? Why do you think you hear so little about the country?
2. Aung San Suu Kyi went on to run in the first democratic elections in Burma after being held under house arrest. What qualities do you think she must possess to accomplish such a feat?
3. Do you think that in the face of powerful social media it has become impossible for governments anywhere in the world to keep citizens oppressed and denied basic human rights? Explain.
BURMA AND THE GREAT AWAKENING
Video Review Pre-viewing Questions
With a partner or in a small group discuss and respond to the questions.
1. What do you know about the southeast Asian nation of Burma and the political changes taking place there?
In your notebooks create an organizer like the one below. As you read the following information on the history of Burma, record key points in your organizer. You should be able to enter at least two or three points in each section. You will be using this information in the activities that follow the text material.
• Burma has a population of 60 million, most of whom practise the Buddhist religion
• Its new capital is Naypyidaw, but Yangon (Rangoon) is still the main city
• Burma is rich in natural resources but is one of the poorest countries in the world
An Ancient Civilization
Colonial Rule and Independence
Decades of Dictatorship
The Winds of Change?
Burma, or Myanmar, is one of the least-known countries in Asia. Sharing borders with India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand, it is the second-largest nation in Southeast Asia, with a population of approximately 60 million people. Its capital is the newly built city of Naypyidaw, but the former capital, Yangon (Rangoon), remains its largest and most important city. The vast majority of Burmese people practise the Theravada branch of the Buddhist religion, but there are also small minorities of Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. Two-thirds of Burma’s people are ethnic Burmese, with the remainder belonging to minority groups such as the Shans, Karens, Kachins, and others. Although Burma is rich in natural resources, it is one of the poorest and least-developed countries in the world, with the lowest rate of economic development in Southeast Asia.
Did you know . . .
During British colonial rule and after independence in 1948 the country was known as Burma. In 1989 the military dictatorship decreed that the name was to be changed to Myanmar. Canada continues to refer to the country as Burma because the name was changed by force.
An Ancient Civilization
Burma’s history dates back to the second century BCE when the Pyu people established a series of city-states in the central part of the country. Their cultural and economic links with India led them to adopt the Buddhist religion and other Indian cultural practices. By the late ninth century CE the Pyu city-states were facing attacks from the Kingdom of Nanzhao, which succeeded in establishing the Pagan dynasty a century later. The Pagan Empire flourished in Burma for over 200 years, rivaling its neighbor, the Khmer Empire of present-day Cambodia, as the dominant civilization of Southeast Asia. The Pagan rulers spread Burmese language and culture throughout the region and promoted the Buddhist religion, building over 10 000 temples. However, in 1287 it fell to the invading Mongols, and it was not until the mid-16th century that Burma was again unified under the Taungoo Dynasty and its ambitious king, Tabinshwehti, who, with his successor, Bayinnaung, for a time ruled the largest empire in Southeast Asia.
Beginning in the 17th century, Burma faced increasing foreign intervention from neighbouring Asian states like Siam (Thailand) and China, and also from European colonial powers such as Portugal, France, and Britain. In addition, the majority Burmese ethnic group, who controlled the ruling dynasties, had to contend with sporadic revolts from minorities such as the Shans and Karens. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Konbaung Dynasty of King Alaungpaya and his successors again succeeded in restoring political unity to Burma—but this proved to be short-lived. Despite great achievements in promoting culture, literacy, and architecture, including the rebuilding of the renowned Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s most important Buddhist temple, the Konbaung rulers finally had to yield to superior British military force as the country fell under colonial rule.
Did you know . . .
Burma’s military rulers sometimes consult astrologers to advise them on important government policies. For example, in 2005 the military leader Than Shwe decided to move the country’s capital from Yangon (Rangoon) to the new city of Naypyidaw and asked astrologers to pick the date for the move.
Colonial Rule and Independence
After fighting a series of wars with Burmese rulers, Britain succeeded in gaining control of the entire country in 1886. Eager to develop its vast natural resources, the British established themselves in Rangoon, which became the colony’s capital, and began settling workers from India to build railways, ports, and other facilities. Burmese citizens strongly resented Britain’s domination of their country and the disrespect that colonial authorities showed for their Buddhist religion and culture. Buddhist monks often acted as the leaders of the nationwide resistance movement, and one of them, U Wisara, died in prison after a hunger strike protesting British rule. Until 1937, Burma was a part of British India, but in that year it became a separate colony, with Ba Maw, a strong supporter of independence, as its prime minister.
During the Second World War Burma became a major battleground between Britain and Japan, and the country endured significant destruction and loss of life. Many Burmese, including prominent freedom fighters like Ba Maw and Aung San, supported the Japanese invaders, while others, especially those from minority groups such as the Karens, sided with Britain. By late 1944, the Japanese advance had been thwarted and British rule was restored, with the promise that Burma would be granted independence once the war ended. In 1947, the Panglong Agreement, designed by Aung San, laid the framework for Burmese independence, guaranteeing an equal place for non-Burmese ethnic groups in the new country. But in July of that year, the man who is still regarded as the father of Burma was assassinated by his political rivals. At the time, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, was only two years old—but in the decades to come she would follow in her father’s footsteps and continue his fight for democracy in Burma.
Did you know . . .
Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is one of only four non-Canadians to have been granted Canadian citizenship in recognition of her efforts to promote peace and democracy. Although granted this recognition in 2007, it was only in March 2012 that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was able to present it to her in person after she had been released from house arrest.
Decades of Dictatorship
Burma’s experience with political freedom after independence proved to be short-lived. In March 1962 a military coup led by General Ne Win seized power, overthrowing the civilian government of Prime Minister U Nu, and until 2010 the country remained under army rule. Initially, Burma’s military rulers turned to the Soviet Union as an example for economic development under state control and promoted the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” which combined government central planning with the country’s traditional Buddhist beliefs. During this time Burma entered the prolonged economic decline from which it has still to emerge. Opposition to military rule was strongest in the cities, especially among well-educated university students, who organized sporadic demonstrations that the army routinely put down with considerable loss of life. The ruling junta also faced ongoing revolts from the minority Karen, Kachin, Shan, and other peoples who resented its heavy-handed policy of forced assimilation into the Burmese majority ethnic group.
In 1988 huge pro-democracy protests erupted all over Burma, reaching their peak on August 8 of that year. This was known as the 8-8-88 uprising, with the dates believed to signify good luck. However, the revolt was crushed by General Saw Maung, who imposed martial law and ordered the country’s name changed from Burma to Myanmar. In 1990, the regime did permit free national elections, the first in over 30 years. But when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming victory, the military leaders refused to accept the results and placed her under house arrest.
Severe economic hardship and rising prices caused a new round of anti-government protests to erupt in 2007, with Buddhist monks acting as its shock troops. Known as the Saffron Revolution, after the colour of the robes worn by the monks, this outburst of popular anger met with severe repression, and many monks were shot dead in the streets. One year later, Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma, causing over 200 000 deaths, an estimated USD$10-billion in damages and about one million people to become homeless. The military government’s incompetence in dealing with this disaster, along with its refusal to accept offers of foreign aid, deepened its unpopularity with Burma’s people
The Winds of Change?
In the wake of the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis, and facing increasing economic and diplomatic pressure from foreign governments, Burma’s military leaders finally agreed to their own version of a transition to democracy. A new constitution was adopted that called for a “discipline-flourishing democracy” under civilian rule, but with the military continuing to influence decisions from behind the scenes. Its newly formed political arm, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) easily won the first elections held under the new constitution in November 2010. But since the voting was widely regarded as unfair, and the opposition NLD refused to participate, most foreign powers did not recognize the results as legitimate.
Shortly after the elections, Burma’s first non-military ruler since 1962, President Thein Sein, announced that Aung San Suu Kyi would be released from detention as part of a package of political concessions the regime was prepared to make to end its international isolation. The reforms included the legalization of trade unions, the easing of censorship over the mass media, the release of some political prisoners jailed after the 8-8-88 uprising and the Saffron Revolution, and relaxed currency regulations. The regime also reluctantly agreed to a ceasefire with the Karen, Kachin, and Shan rebels and entered into negotiations with them for greater autonomy in their regions of the country.
Foreign governments that had supported punitive economic sanctions against Burma responded favourably to these overtures, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visiting Burma in late 2011. Clinton met with both Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, and signaled that the United States and other countries would be willing to ease sanctions if the Burmese authorities committed themselves to democratic reforms. On April 1, the NLD won a huge victory in a series of by-elections held throughout the country, with Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters being elected to the Burmese parliament. Burma appeared to be on the threshold of democracy, but there remained lingering doubts that the military who had dominated the country for so long would agree to hand over power completely to political leaders they would not be able to control.
1. With a partner, compare the information in your summary chart. Help each other complete any missing information.
2. Based on this profile of Burma, identify elements of continuity and change in its history from ancient times to the present day. What period would you say was marked by the most change?
3. Why were the years of military rule from 1962 to 2010 such a difficult time for Burma and its people?
4. Why do you think Burma’s rulers finally accepted the need to introduce some democratic reforms after the elections of 2010?
BURMA AND THE GREAT AWAKENING
The Lady: A Profile of Aung San Suu Kyi Reading Prompt
As you read this section, make notes on what you believe to be the strengths that Aung San Suu Kyi possesses that have enabled her to overcome the many obstacles she has faced during the course of her political career and life.
From her birth on June 19, 1945, Aung San Suu Kyi was destined to play a pivotal role in her country’s history. She was only two years old when her father, Aung San, who had negotiated the terms of Burma’s independence from Britain, was assassinated in Yangon (Rangoon). Her mother, Khin Kyi, remained active in the country’s post-independence politics, becoming ambassador to India in 1960. Aung San Suu Kyi was educated in New Delhi, gaining a degree in politics in 1964. A gifted student, she went on to earn a BA from Britain’s renowned Oxford University in 1969. Following graduation, she worked for a few years with her country’s mission to the United Nations in New York, where she became acquainted with U Thant, the Burmese diplomat who served as UN Secretary General from 1961 to 1971.
In 1972, she married Michael Aris, a British historian who was an expert in the Buddhist cultures of Tibet and Bhutan. A year later, she gave birth to their first son, Alexander, in London. Kim, their second son, was born in 1977. Continuing her work in the field of Asian Studies, she completed a PhD at the University of London in 1985. However, the life of a university academic that appeared to be opening for her was not the path she would choose in the end. Instead, she decided to return to Burma just as the country was about to erupt in nationwide demonstrations against its military rulers.
In Canada, we most often refer to females as women, rather than ladies. The term lady is seen as old fashioned, and is rarely used today. But in Burma, when the military came to power and arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, they made it a crime to speak her name publicly. As a result, she was often simply referred to simply as “The Lady.”
A Symbol of Political Courage
Originally Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma in order to look after her mother, who was in declining health. But just after her arrival in 1988, General Ne Win, who had ruled the country since 1962, resigned. In the resulting power vacuum, people took to the streets on August 8 demanding the restoration of democracy. This revolt became known as the 8-8-88 uprising, after the date on which it began, which was very propitious according to the beliefs of Buddhist numerology. On August 26, she spoke before a crowd estimated at 500 000 people in front of the Shwegadon Pagoda in Yangon, Burma’s holiest Buddhist temple, electrifying her supporters with an eloquent and passionate call for freedom. One month later she formally committed herself to a political career by founding the National League for Democracy (NLD), the organization she continues to lead almost a quarter-century later.
Burma’s military rulers feared this brave and determined woman, and with good reason. Her support among ordinary Burmese was rock-solid and growing by the day after her return to the country. For many, she appeared to be the reincarnation of her beloved father, and some of her followers looked on her as almost a religious figure. In order to silence her, the military ordered her to be placed under house arrest in July 1989, offering her the right to leave the country if she chose to in order to be reunited with her husband and sons. She refused to accept.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a student of the non-violent philosophy and political activism that motivated leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. Her own commitment to non-violence also stems from her Theravada Buddhist principles. Despite calls from some of her supporters to endorse violence as a means of promoting political change in Burma, she has remained consistent in her position that only non-violence will succeed in convincing Burma’s military rulers that they must agree to cede power to a civilian, democratic government.
While still under house arrest, she witnessed the stunning victory of her NLD in the elections of May 1990. Her party won almost 60 per cent of the votes and four-fifths of the seats in parliament—but immediately after the results were announced, the military junta declared the election null and void. Robbed of victory and the likelihood that she would have become Burma’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi instead remained under an even harsher house arrest, denied access to her family and prevented from meeting with her political associates.
“It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” — Aung San Suu Kyi,Freedom from Fear
The Long Years of Captivity
It was at this time that Aung San Suu Kyi became an internationally renowned figure in the global campaign for human rights and democratic reform. Like Russia’s Andrei Sakarhov, Tibet’s Dalai Lama, and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, she captivated people worldwide with her courage, dignity, and refusal to bend before the military rulers who had imprisoned her. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which her sons accepted for her in absentia. She donated the USD$1.3-million prize money to a health and education trust fund for the Burmese people, who were contending with one of the world’s worst health and education systems, thanks to the military government’s mismanagement and corruption.
Released in 1995, she was permitted to travel inside Yangon, but in 1996 her motorcade came under attack from pro-government thugs hired to intimidate her. When her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he asked Burma’s rulers to permit him to visit his wife before he died, without success. Instead the military offered Aung San Suu Kyi the right to travel to Britain to be at her husband’s side, promising that she would be allowed to return after his death. However, she did not take the military at its word, and was unable to see her husband before he died in 1999.
One year later, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest again, charged with breaking the terms of her release by meeting with NLD activists in different parts of the country. During her long years of captivity, she occupied herself with reading books dealing with politics, history, and philosophy, learning foreign languages, and playing the piano. She was also permitted access to a personal physician during periods when her health was not good. In 2002, she was again released, but one year later had to flee from a government-inspired mob that attacked her and other NLD supporters after a rally in the northern town of Depayin, in which many people lost their lives. The regime blamed her for causing what became known as the Depayin massacre and used this as an excuse to jail her one more time.
By 2007, Aung San Suu Kyi had spent 12 years in detention, and rallies in support of her were held in 12 different cities around the world. International demands for her release were increasing, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon travelling to Burma in 2008, seeking to pressure the regime to release her, without success. That same year, in a bizarre incident, a deranged American named John Yettaw swam across the lake that fronted Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound in Yangon, claiming he was prompted by a divine vision of her imminent assassination. The authorities used this as an excuse to put her on trial for breaking the terms of her house arrest because she allowed the exhausted Yettaw to stay overnight in her house. She was also accused of allegedly “embarrassing the nation,” and was sentenced to a term of three years imprisonment at hard labour. After a major international outcry, with newly elected U.S. President Barak Obama demanding that she be freed, Burma’s rulers relented somewhat and commuted her sentence to an additional 18 months of house arrest.
Did you know . . .
Aung San Suu Kyi’s name comes from three of her relatives—her father, Aung San, her paternal grandmother Suu, and her mother Kyi. Like all Burmese, she has no surname.
Freedom at Last
On November 13, 2010, the Burmese government made a dramatic announcement. Aung San Suu Kyi was to be freed from house arrest and would also be permitted to resume her role as leader of the NLD. Addressing a jubilant crowd of supporters outside her compound, she hailed the decision as the beginning of a new day for Burma, promising her followers that she would continue to promote non-violent political activism as the best way of achieving democratic reform for her country. At the same time, she also counselled caution, urging foreign governments that had supported her during her long years of incarceration to retain economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure until it became clear that Burma’s rulers were truly committed to ending the dictatorship.
On April 1, 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was one of 44 NLD candidates elected to the Burmese parliament in a series of by-elections held across the country. She easily won the riding of Kawhmu, an impoverished rural area, seeking to draw attention to the military’s failure to promote economic development in regions like this all over Burma. When the first meeting of the new parliament, or Hluttaws, was convened shortly after the by-elections, she demonstrated her continuing determination not to compromise with the authorities on matters of importance to her. Along with the other newly elected NLD members, she refused to take her parliamentary seat until the oath requiring them to swear to safeguard the military-drafted constitution was changed.
Like Nelson Mandela before her, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from her long years as a world-famous political prisoner to become possibly Burma’s first democratically elected leader. As a realist, she is aware that the path before her and her party remains full of potential pitfalls and difficulties. But the determination and bravery she consistently demonstrated during her long years of incarceration will likely continue to motivate her in promoting her vision of a free, democratic, and socially just Burma, the kind of nation her father envisaged at the dawn of the country’s independence so many years ago.
1. With a partner review your list of strengths that Aung San Suu Kyi possesses. Which of them do you think have played the most important role in her political career?
2. Why did Aung San Suu Kyi achieve such a high degree of international fame during her years as a political prisoner in Burma?
3. Read the quote from Aung San Suu Kyi in the margin at the beginning of this section. What does it mean to you? How do you think it could apply to the situation in Burma and other countries where people are ruled by undemocratic governments?
4. What do you think is likely to be the next chapter in Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career?
5. Shortly after her release in 2011, Aung San Suu Kyi was invited to deliver two of the prestigious Reith lectures on the BBC, focusing on what democracy means for her and how the international community can assist countries like Burma in achieving meaningful political reform. They can be viewed as a podcast at www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/reith. With a partner or in a small group, view a podcast and discuss the points that most impressed you and any points with which you disagreed.
BURMA AND THE GREAT AWAKENING
Activity: Economic Sanctions and Democratic Reform After the historic by-elections held in Burma in April 2012, and the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in most of them, many foreign governments, including Canada, began to reconsider the economic and trade sanctions they had imposed on Burma’s military government. After many years, they were definitely taking their toll on Burma’s economy and its ability to maintain normal diplomatic relations with other countries since it was widely viewed as an international outcast or “pariah” state.
In the wake of the changes taking place in Burma, the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and the countries of the European Union believed that a partial lifting of sanctions would demonstrate their support for Burma’s decision to implement serious democratic reforms. They would take a “carrot-and-stick” approach, with the “carrot” encouraging Burma’s leaders to move more quickly along the path to democracy in return for greater trade and investment, and the “stick” signifying a total arms embargo on Burma and a warning to the country’s rulers that sanctions could swiftly be reimposed should the reform initiatives stall or even be reversed.
There has been debate about the wisdom of this policy of partially lifting sanctions on Burma at such an early stage of the country’s move toward political reform. Some argue it is a reasonable response to the positive developments occurring and will serve to encourage Burma’s rulers to adhere to the path they have reluctantly chosen. But others warn that removing sanctions too quickly could endanger the country’s still-fragile transition to democracy while giving the current government an escape route from the economic dead-end its policies have created for Burma.
Your task is to form groups to evaluate the arguments in favour of and against Canada’s decision to lift economic sanctions on Burma. A good resource for this topic is the article, “We can only hope that lifting sanctions will work,” by Kate Heartfield in the Ottawa Citizen, www.ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/Canada/6518823/story.html. A useful website that follows developments in Burma from a Canadian perspective is Canadian Friends of Burma, www.cfob.org.
In your groups, consider the following questions:
1. What are the similarities and difference between Burma and South Africa relating to Canada’s use of economic sanctions to promote democratic reform?
2. Do you think the government’s decision to lift economic sanctions on Burma may have been premature given the current state of the country’s politics?
3. In general, how effective do you think economic sanctions can be as a means of pressuring a dictatorial government to move toward democracy and human rights?
When the groups have finished their research and discussions, they may present their conclusions to the rest of the class. In addition, students may wish to respond to the federal government’s decision to lift economic sanctions on Burma by communicating with John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs. His contact information can be found at: www.parl.gc.ca/MembersOfParliament/ProfileMP.aspx?Key=170471&Language=E.