Slightly smaller than Texas in size, the country of Burma shares borders with India, China, Bangladesh, Laos, Thailand, and the Bay of Bengal. It’s a land of diversity, with over one hundred languages, several religions, fertile plains, and rugged highlands. The country was once described as the “rice bowl of Asia” and enjoyed one of the highest literacy rates in Southeast Asia.
Sadly that didn’t last. Today about ninety percent of Burma’s people live at or below the poverty line, and the country’s health system is ranked second worst in the world. About ten percent of children die before the age of five, and the literacy rate has been plummeting each year.
How did the region’s “rice bowl” become a place of suffering, disease, and hunger? It’s a sad story of injustice and corruption.
Once ruled by Britain, Burma became an independent parliamentary democracy in 1948. Ethnic groups like the Shan, the Karen, and the Wa wanted to keep their independence and avoid being controlled by the Burmese majority. Despite tension and strife, the country survived as a representative government for fourteen years. In 1962, however, military leaders murdered the elected leaders and took control of the country.
Things went from bad to worse—the army shut down free elections, took over newspapers and businesses, and clamped down on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. People tried to resist, but the military brutally crushed student and worker demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s. The government tortured and imprisoned anyone brave enough to speak out. At the same time ethnic groups along the country’s frontiers continued to struggle for independence. To fight these “insurgents,” as they were labeled, the government began forcing young Burmese men into the army.
On the eighth of August (8/8/88), hundreds of thousands of people gathered peacefully and demanded that the military regime step down in favor of an elected civilian government. But the nonviolent protest didn’t work. Soldiers opened fire on crowds of unarmed marchers, killing thousands, and arrested and tortured thousands more.
Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of one of the first leaders of Burma who had been killed in 1968, helped to form a political party called National League for Democracy (NLD). The military government put her under house arrest in 1989 and threw many of the top senior NLD officials in prison. Even when the people voted resoundingly for Suu Kyi and the NLD in a 1990 election, the military refused to step down and seat the new leaders. The government became progressively more repressive. When cyclone Nargis hit Burma in May 2008, the government initially blocked international aid and put more people in jail without just cause. By the end of 2009, the total number of political prisoners in Burma was over two thousand.
The military makes money by controlling industries like mining, logging, oil, transport, manufacturing, apparel, and electricity, and by regulating exports and foreign investment. What happens to all that income? Half is spent on the military and next to nothing on health care and education. And the rulers are lining their own pockets, of course. While the elite live in luxury, the vast majority of Burmese don’t know if they’ll be able to feed their families tomorrow.
As for the ethnic groups, the army tortures and kills minorities, uses them for hard labor, and burns their villages. Thousands of people hide in the jungle as internally displaced people, while some flee across the border to Thailand to seek shelter in refugee camps. About one hundred and forty thousand refugees live in nine camps along the Thai-Burma border.
Over fifty thousand refugees representing different minority groups in Burma have been resettled in other countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Norway since 2004. The Karenni, however, were not allowed into the United States until 2009. At the time of this writing, the situation for the majority of Karenni still in Burma or Thailand remains grim.
On November 13, 2010, under international scrutiny after a questionable "election" where the ruling party won most of the seats, the military goverment released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Immediately after the election, even as news of Suu Kyi's release spread through the world, the Burmese Army stepped up attacks against the Karen people along the border. That move by the goverment, sadly, received hardly any coverage by the international media. The genocide continues.