myanmar (burma)

Developments in Myanmar (Burma)

Published: 29 May 2013 Updated: 4 September 2014

Developments in Myanmar has ever since independence in 1948 been characterized by conflict between the central government and various ethnic minority groups. In 1962, the military seized power on the pretext that the army was the only institution that could ensure the continuing existence of the union. In recent years, the country has taken several small steps towards increased democracy.

After decades of military rule, Myanmar got a civilian government in 2011 and the military junta that had governed since 1962 was dissolved. Nonetheless, the military has managed to remain in power and the new government that was formed in 2011 consisted almost entirely of ex-military personnel. Furthermore, the constitution is written in a way that practically guarantees the army to remain in control over politics and gives them a quarter of the seats in parliament. The general elections that were held in November 2010 were criticized by much of the international community, including the EU, for being neither free nor fair.

At the same time, Myanmar seems to be undergoing a gradual change towards greater democracy. The new government has promised reforms towards increased democracy and has fulfilled many of these promises in 2011 and 2012: it has initiated a dialogue with the political opposition, released a large number of political prisoners and eased the censorship. In April 2012, pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi and 42 other members of her NLD party were elected to parliament – more than twenty years after the party won a major election victory in 1988 and the military prevented them from forming a government.

Women’s influence in parliament is slowly increasing, though traditional gender roles and fear of expressing an opinion result in few women engaging in politics. During the political change that began in 2011, freedom of expression has gradually been strengthened in Myanmar.

Internal strife

Ever since Myanmar became an independent state in 1948, some of the country's many ethnic minorities have led an armed struggle for independence. The fighting and oppression of minorities have led to refugee flows within the country and to neighboring countries. One of the reasons behind General Ne Win's coup in 1962 was to end the plans for increased autonomy for minority people. Truce now prevails in all of these conflicts, except for one, in the state of Kachin in northeastern Myanmar. Minority People in Myanmar have a limited degree of autonomy and are severely economically disadvantaged. Their access to education and health care is much worse than for Burmese. Near the Bangladeshi border lives a Muslim minority called Rohingya, who are particularly vulnerable. Rohingyas are stateless and not recognized as an ethnic group but seen as illegal immigrants, thus lacking all civil rights. The group is described by the UN as one of the world's most discriminated people.

Military misrule

The military has mishandled the economic and social politics for 50 years. This has led to a stagnant economy, a deteriorating education system and a health system considered the second worst in the world by the World Health Organization (WHO). The seizure of power in 1962 was followed by a wave of nationalization, dismantling of civil society, isolation from the outside world, the introduction of a one-party system and more comprehensive control and surveillance of citizens. People’s dissatisfaction with the current politics resulted in massive demonstrations in August 1988, which was met by a military coup and massacres of protesters.

Sanctions

The world has reacted strongly against Myanmar, including the EU that imposed sanctions in 1996 to increase the pressure on the military regime, with demands for greater democracy and human rights. In light of the positive developments in Myanmar, the EU decided in April 2013 to lift sanctions against the country (with the exception of the arms embargo and a ban on products that can be used for internal repression.)

Free media

One of the more obvious signs of the recent political reforms includes a more open media environment. Pre-publication censorship on print media was lifted in 2012. Censorship on published productions remains, as well as prior restraint on broadcast media and film. Moreover, decades of hard state control has led to a significant self-censorship among journalists. Considerable parts of the censorship for political information on the internet have also been lifted. High transport costs and limited IT infrastructure however result in few people being able to get online.  Privately owned newspapers are allowed for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Exile Media has played an important role in the independent news reporting. Over the last year, many of them have returned home and now act openly within the country. A new media law is being developed where the Swedish public service model is a source of inspiration.

Education

School education is free for everyone wherever available, which is often the case in the cities but not always in the countryside. At least four in five children are estimated to enroll primary school or Buddhist monasteries schools. Unfortunately, only half of the children continue to “middle school” and even fewer go on to high school. The official literacy rate is high, around 90 percent, but the numbers are controversial and some of the citizens are considered "functionally illiterate", i.e. they can only read and write simple phrases.


Page owner: Department for Asia, North Africa and Humanitarian Assistance

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