Republican Reference - Area ( 676,578 - Population 29,835,392 - Capital Naypiydaw - Currency Kyats - Chairman President Thein Sein

















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With critical political reforms underway Myanmar is emerging from its four decades long international isolation following ruthless military rule. Though it emerged as a democratic republic with a bicameral parliament in 1948, the fledgling democratic setup was derailed by a coup staged by General Ne Win on 2 March 1962. Ruled by the revolutionary council under the leadership of Ne between 1962 and 1974, Myanmar witnessed tremendous structural changes. Similar to Soviet style control mechanisms, Myanmar underwent a major nationalisation drive during this period as most banks, production houses and media outlets came under the purview of the military junta. Changing its political structure and making Myanmar a single-party state run by the military-led Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), a new constitution was instituted in 1974. The country was officially named the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma under this constitution that remained in place till 1988. With the economy in tatters and political oppression at its worst, there were a series of massive pro-democracy protests in 1988. Instead of opening up and halting political repression, the 1974 constitution was replaced by martial law imposed by General Saw Maung and the protests brutally crushed. During the next two years the name of the country was changed to Union of Myanmar and assembly elections planned under the auspices of the brutal State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Although elections were held in 1990, after a period of about thirty years, with Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party winning 392 of 489 seats, the military generals refused to give up power.

Though the army still remains an important constituency in Maynamar and exerts tremendous control in both social and political spheres, the latest round of elections in 2010 and the 2012 by-elections have paved the way for opening up its polity. There were a series of events that took place between 1990 and 2011 that contributed in bringing about these changes. The military ran the country under the name of the SLORC till 1997 and then under the banner of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) till 2011. During all this period most pro-democracy activists were either assassinated or put in jail, while others went into exile - mostly to India. Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest for fifteen years between 1990-2011. The period witnessed the worst form of human rights violations and steady economic stagnation as the international community, led by the US, imposed economic sanctions. With domestic socio-political pressures already very high, a hike in the price of petrol and diesel in 2007 contributed in sparking another round of civil resistance, led by Buddhist monks. Dealt with by unparalleled brutality, the military succeeded in crushing this round of protests as well, but emerged much weaker itself. The situation was aggravated by the 2008 cyclone Nargis in south Myanmar that almost destroyed the whole of Irrawaddy Division, that is a major rice-growing region. Despite thousands dead, many more becoming homeless, and property loss of over US$ 10 billion, the military regime did not allow planes delivering medicines, food, and aid sponsored by the United Nations (UN) to land.

High on the strategic radar of the two Asian giants - China and India - given its extensive gas reserves, Myanmar caught a lot of international attention lately due to its political overtures. It conducted the first round of elections in 2010 as part of a political transition process. The 2010 elections were condemned by the NLD for being rigged and were consequently boycotted by Suu Kyi. A civilian government led by PM Thein Sein - not surprisingly a former military general - was installed in March 2011. Interestingly, regardless of the supposed transition to democracy, the new constitution setup in 2008 gave centrality to the military, as about a fourth of the seats in the parliamentary chambers and the posts of the border affairs, defence and interior minister have been reserved for military generals. Nonetheless, after a round of high diplomacy and international pressure, the country has opened up and the NLD agreed to participate in the political process in the 2012 bi-elections that saw the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi in her constituency. Moreover, reaffirming the belief among country analysts that Myanmar will come out of its long spell of isolation was the visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2011 - the first in fifty years. She said that the US would consider easing economic sanctions if Myanmar implements meaningful political reforms.

Ethnic tensions
Apart from the political problems of Myanmar the country has been facing ethnic tensions since independence, with a lot of military energy being channelled to quell ethnic conflict. In August 2009 violent conflict broke out between the state security forces and armed groups from ethnic minorities including Va, Kachin and Han Chinese groups in Shan state in north Myanmar. More than 10,000 citizens fled to the Yunnan province of China as a result of the conflict. Myanmar is home to more than 100 ethnic groups of which the Bamar group constitutes about 68 per cent - the reason why the country has traditionally been called Burma. The Shan group forms about 10 per cent of the population whereas Kachin constitutes about 7 per cent and Rakhine up to 4 per cent, according to government data. Dominance of the Bamar ethnic group over all others has been a considerable source of tension and sparked separatist rebellions. However, ceasefire deals brokered in 2011 and early 2012 between the government and the Karen and Shan groups signals a seriousness in solving long-standing conflicts.

Myanmar is low on the growth chart economically, with high levels of impoverishment. Its large forest covers make it world's largest exporter of teak wood, as well as sapphires, pearls, rubies, and jade. Also, it has highly fertile soil and major offshore oil and gas deposits, yet is suffering from years of stagflation and lack of industrial development, due to excessive state control, corruption, and little foreign investment. Lack of skilled labour, low levels of education, and little infrastructural development further stunts economic development. Topping this is the massive drug trade that is controlled by the military regime, which contributed in economic sanctions imposed by Western countries such as US, Canada and the European Union. The only major economies that have invested in Myanmar are India, China, Thailand and South Korea. China's growing interest in Myanmar and concerns over an alignment between China and Myanmar to the detriment of India and other Southeast Asian countries has played an important role in assuaging the global pressure on Myanmar. The only domestic industry apart from the energy sector that seems to be thriving is tourism. Being a major Buddhist hub and housing thousands of pagodas, tourism offers promising growth prospects. Nonetheless, inflation at the rate of 30.1 per cent between 2005-2007 and persisting at more than 8 per cent in 2012 remains a major problem. Overall, regardless of the problems persisting both domestically and internationally, Myanmar has made progress towards democracy and is expected to open up further both politically and economically.


Update No: 006 - (26/02/13)

Summary: Myanmar entered 2013 with a lot of hope on aspects related to political reconciliation and conflict resolution. However, the problem of internally displaced people and the exodus of Rohingyas due to ethnic strife in the sensitive Rakhine state, has taken a different dimension altogether. More than 13,000 Rohingya people took to the high seas using rickety boats in order to find a safe haven in neighbouring countries in 2013. Of these, more than 500 have lost their lives due to starvation and dehydration in the two-month journey - raising alarm bells at the United Nations (UN). On the economic front, MPs of various opposition parties have severely criticised a recent draft budget that allocates more than one-fifth of the total monetary share towards defence spending. On the positive side, the government held a meeting with a conglomeration of rebel groups in North Myanmar and not only discussed plans to chart out a framework of political dialogue, but also discussed mechanisms of distributing developmental funds in the impoverished ethnic regions. Finally, the US and Myanmar has agreed to resume joint efforts to fight illicit drug trade from the world's second largest producer of illegal opium after Afghanistan.

Government-rebels reconciliation talks
As the process of Myanmar's reengagement with the world intensifies, the government is seriously attempting to resolve conflicts with different ethnic factions. Minister of the President's Office Aung Min and other officials met rebels in the northern city of Chiang Mai for peace talks with the leader of opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, offering help in negotiating an end to the ethnic conflict in the country. Representing different ethnic groups was the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) that includes members of the Kachin rebels among a dozen other minority groups. The long Insurgency in the northern Kachin state has been most lethal and complicated for the government to deal with. Terming the talks as "frank and friendly", rebel leaders stated that the UNFC and the Myanmar government have agreed to map out a framework and timeline for the political dialogue. The two sides have also agreed to meet for another round of discussions within the next two months. Reflecting the seriousness with which the government and the rebels are taking the conflict resolution, the talks have been welcomed and encouraged widely by the international community. The two sides, for the first time, also discussed how local and international aid projects could be implemented in the country's impoverished ethnic regions. The projects would focus on humanitarian aid, development of agriculture, livestock and fisheries in ethnic regions, as well as implementation of health and education programs for minorities. The developmental project, if implemented properly, could bring much needed development and relief to the war-torn and isolated ethnic regions.

Myanmar's quasi-civilian government has reached tentative ceasefires with a number of ethnic rebel groups since taking power in early 2011. But several rounds of talks with the Kachin rebels have failed to reach a breakthrough. Not so surprisingly, there have been reports indicating that Kachin officials have been quietly critical of the meeting, dismissing it as a mere meet-and-greet situation - so much so that they haven't sent any senior representatives from Kachin State. The government held fresh talks with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in China earlier in February, with both sides agreeing to try to reduce military tensions and continue dialogue. The Kachin who are fighting for greater autonomy, however, have been demanding more political rights if the negotiations are to move forward. There has been a massive displacement of people from the Kachin state since June 2011 when the fragile 17-year ceasefire between the KIO's armed wing and the Myanmar government broke down. With tensions escalating from December 2012 to the extent that the government used air strikes against the KIO rebels, any consolidated peace map looks like a distant possibility. Although the government announced a unilateral ceasefire in January following the air strikes, the KIO have accused the military of violating it.

UN urges action to prevent boatpeople tragedy in Bay of Bengal
Serious concerns have been raised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) about the growing number of deaths of Rohingya people of Myanmar's Rakhine state who set out on boats to other countries in search of safety and better lives. The refugee agency raised the alarm and called on regional governments to do more to prevent further tragedy on the high seas. Several thousand people are believed to have boarded smugglers' boats in the Bay of Bengal since the beginning of the year. Mostly men, there have been reports of women and children also being ferried out of Myanmar on rickety boats. According to the UN refugee agency, more than 13,000 people took the high seas of which about 500 people have already lost their lives, due to breaking down of boats, capsizing, or to health related problems. In a recent incident this month, about 90 Rohingya people died of dehydration and starvation during a journey that lasted almost two months. More than 30 survivors were rescued off Sri Lanka's east coast. Earlier in February, around 130 people originating from Myanmar and Bangladesh were also rescued at sea by the Sri Lankan navy. UNHCR is seeking independent access to the survivors to assess their situation and needs.

Ethnic violence in western Myanmar's Rakhine state has been going on from June 2012 between different communities. Some 115,000 people, the majority of whom are Rohingya, have since been uprooted. Most continue to be internally displaced within the Rakhine state, while others, as described above have resorted to smugglers to help them flee their country. About 1,700 people have arrived in recent months on the southern coast of Thailand, where the government has granted them six months temporary protection until solutions can be found. In order to assess their situation the UNHCR teams are talking to the men, who are held in detention facilities, and to the women and children who are in government-run shelters. Furthermore, an estimated 1,800 people have arrived in Malaysia since the start of the year. The tragedies demonstrate the need for a coordinated regional response to distress and rescue at sea. UN has facilitating discussions between interested governments and international organisations, at a regional meeting on irregular movements by sea, that will be held in Jakarta in March.

Massive military budget criticised by MPs
Myanmar's opposition lawmakers have expressed dissatisfaction with a proposed budget worth US$ 1 billion for the military in the coming fiscal year, and have criticised the lack of transparency in military spending. The government had submitted a draft budget to the Parliament earlier this month that gave the military a lion's share of public funds - granting its more than one-fifth of the total budget. According to some MPs, the massive defence spending continues to impose an enormous economic burden on the country and prevents it from tackling other important issues such as poverty alleviation, education, healthcare, and other basic indicators of development. Adding on to the concern is the lack of transparency in the way the armed forces use this money. The proposed budget allocates just 4.4 per cent of government funds to education and 3.9 per cent to healthcare.

The military junta that handed over power to the current government in 2011 spent significantly less than this on public welfare, while routinely awarding itself 40 to 60 per cent of the national budget. Lower House MP Daw Dwebu, from the Unity and Democracy Party (UDP) of the Kachin State, approached the Defence Ministry to ask for details of how it plans to use the money. The response was far from clear as the military brass tried to justify the budgetary allocation in the name of building a modern Tatmadaw (armed forces) - without explaining how exactly the money will be distributed. Nai Banyar Aung Moe, a Lower House MP from the All Mon Regions Democracy Party, was reported to have said that the demand for excessive defense spending shows that Myanmar is still largely in the clutches of military rule that lasted for decades. Interestingly, there has been a conspicuous silence on this issue from the leader of opposition Aung San Suu Kyi - a fact that has been missed on other MPs.

Myanmar, US to cooperate in fighting narcotics smuggling
In another positive development, the US and Myanmar signed an agreement to resume cooperation in fighting narcotics after a gap of nearly nine years - the last joint survey on opium was held in 2004. The two sides agreed to restart joint opium poppy yield surveys early this year and cooperate in counter-narcotics training. Expressing his pleasure on the collaboration, US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell called the Agreement another step forward in US-Myanmar relations. The survey on poppy yields would provide better information about poppy cultivation and production in the country and help counter-narcotics efforts tremendously. According to the UN, Myanmar is world's second-largest producer of opium after Afghanistan, accounting for about 25 per cent of global poppy production. It has traditionally been considered a part of the Golden Triangle that includes Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. US aid for Myanmar's anti-drug efforts has been limited since the military took power in 1988. However, relations between Myanmar and the US have improved dramatically since retired Gen. Thein Sein took office as president in March 2011 and instituted a range of political and economic reforms.




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