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Definition: Myanmar from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

country SE Asia on Bay of Bengal; administrative ✽ Naypyidaw, historic ✽ Yangon area 261,789 sq mi (680,651 sq km), pop 52,200,000

Summary Article: Myanmar
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Country in Southeast Asia, bounded northwest by India and Bangladesh, northeast by China, southeast by Laos and Thailand, and southwest by the Bay of Bengal.

Government Myanmar has had a nominally civilian government since March 2011, but the military, which had been in power since September 1988, retains great influence. The May 2008 constitution specifies the country's name as ‘Republic of Union of Myanmar’ and provides for a multiparty political system in which the military has a leading role. The head of state is an executive president, elected by and working with a two-chamber Union Parliament (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw). The parliament comprises a 440-member lower house, the People's Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw), elected every four or five years, and a 224-member upper house, the House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw). A quarter of the seats in each chamber (and also in regional assemblies) are reserved for the armed forces. This gives the military the power to block amendments to the constitution, which require support from over three-quarters of the legislature.

History The Burmese date their era from AD 638, when they arrived from the region where China meets Tibet. By 850 they had organized a state in the centre of the plain at Pagan, and in the period 1044–1287 maintained a hegemony over most of the area. In 1287 Kublai Khan's grandson Ye-su Timur occupied the region after destroying the Pagan dynasty. After he withdrew, anarchy supervened. From about 1490 to 1750 the Toungoo dynasty maintained itself, with increasing difficulty; in 1752 Alaungpaya reunited the country and founded Rangoon (now Yangon) as his capital.

Burmese wars In a struggle with Britain in 1824–26, Alaungpaya's descendants lost the coastal strip from Chittagong to Cape Negrais. The second Burmese War of 1852 resulted in the British annexation of Lower Burma, including Rangoon. Thibaw, the last Burmese king, precipitated the third Burmese War of 1885, and the British seized Upper Burma in 1886. The country was united as a province of India until 1937, when it was made a crown colony with a degree of self-government.

Burma was occupied in 1942–45 by Japan, under a government of anti-British nationalists. The nationalists, led by Aung San and U Nu, later founded the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL). Burma was liberated in 1945 and achieved full independence outside the Commonwealth in 1948.

Republic A parliamentary democracy was established under the Socialist AFPFL led by Prime Minister U Nu. The new constitution, however, placed all central powers in the hands of the Burmese resulting in a civil war between communist guerrillas, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and other ethnic group separatists which together comprise 40% of the population. Splits within the AFPFL forced the formation of an emergency caretaker government by Gen Ne Win (1911–2002) during the years 1958–60. U Nu won an absolute majority in the 1960 election but continued quarrelling within the AFPFL led to a military coup in 1962 and abolition of the parliamentary system. Ne Win became head of a revolutionary council and established a strong one-party state.

In 1974 a new constitution was adopted, the military leaders became civilian rulers, and Ne Win became president. He stepped down to be replaced by U San Yu (1918–1996) in 1981.

Burmese socialism The post-1962 government adopted a foreign policy of neutralist isolationism while at home it pursued its unique, self-reliant, Buddhist-influenced ‘Burmese Way towards Socialism’, founded on state ownership in the commercial-industrial sector, strict agricultural price controls, and Burmese as the official language in government. Internal opposition by armed separatist groups continued after 1962, causing the economy to deteriorate. The Chinese-funded Burmese Communist Party established control over parts of the north; the Karen National Liberation Army in the southeast; and the Kachin Independence Army in the northeast.

Opposition movement In 1975 the non-communist ethnic separatist groups joined together to form the broad National Democratic Front with the aim of creating a federal union. In 1974 and 1976 worsening economic conditions led to a wave of food riots and in September 1987 student demonstrations broke out in Rangoon. Workers' riots followed in the spring of 1988. Initially they were violently suppressed, at the cost of several hundred lives, but in mid 1988 San Yu and Ne Win, the leader of the ruling party, were forced to resign, as was the newly appointed president, Brig-Gen Sein Lwin, after the murder of 3,000 unarmed demonstrators. With a mass pro-democracy movement sweeping the nation, the more reformist Maung Maung took over as president and free multiparty elections were promised ‘within three months’.

Military rule However, in September 1988 a military coup was staged by Gen Saw Maung. Martial law was imposed and authority was transferred to a 19-member State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The new regime pursued a more liberal economic course. Officially it legalized the formation of political parties, but popular opposition leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of Aung San) and U Nu, were placed under house arrest and barred from standing in the elections of May 1990. Behind the scenes, Ne Win remained in control. In June 1989 the country's name was changed to Myanmar.

The May 1990 legislature elections resulted in an overwhelming victory for the opposition National League of Democracy (NLD) which attracted 59% of the vote. However, the military ignored the result and would not allow the People's Assembly to convene. An opposition ‘parallel government’ headed by Dr Sein Win was formed in December 1990. It was supported by ethnic rebel forces, but denounced by the bulk of the main opposition force. The socialist party headed by U Nu, still under house arrest, was outlawed in 1991.

Military crackdown Serious human-rights abuses continued including arbitrary arrests and torture, forced relocation, and forced labour of nearly 2 million between 1992 and 1995. The ruling junta waged military offensives against Karen ethnic insurgents and moved 75,000 troops into Arakan state, in southwest Myanmar, in an attempt to stamp out a Muslim-led pro-independence movement. The latter prompted the flight of 50,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh during late 1991, and as many as 60,000 Muslims fled Myanmar after a further military crackdown on Karen rebels in January–February 1992.

Foreign response In October 1991 Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of her non-violent struggle for democracy. The West imposed sanctions against Myanmar. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) pursued a more positive policy.

Martial law ended In April 1992 Saw Maung stepped down and was succeeded by Than Shwe, the former defence minister, although the real power in the junta still rested with Ne Win and Gen Khin Nyunt, head of military intelligence. Also in April, U Nu was released from jail along with several other political prisoners but not Suu Kyi. In September 1992 the government ended martial law but the military retained a tight control over political activities. Human-rights abuses continued and Western sanctions remained in force. However, the curfew in Yangon was lifted and more than 1,000 political prisoners released.

In February 1993 a constitutional convention in Yangon discussed the adoption of a proposed new constitution that would allow for multiparty elections but would enshrine the military's ‘leading role’.

Agreements with rebel groups In the mid 1990s the junta reached cease-fire agreements that ended the fighting with the Kokang, hill tribes such as the Wa, and the Kachin, but the Karen guerrillas would not negotiate. However, the military captured the main Karen base at Manerplaw in 1995. In December 1995, Khun Sa, a major opium warlord who nominally controlled parts of Shan state, surrendered to government forces, after US pressure.

Release of Aung San Suu Kyi In July 1995 Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, but the junta banned her from resuming any leadership post within the NLD. A UN report of April 1996 announced that torture, arbitrary killing, and forced labour were still widespread in Myanmar.

In September 1996, the government launched a renewed crackdown against the NLD. This led, in December 1996, to clashes between riot police and 2,000 students marching in support of Aung San Suu Kyi, in the biggest show of civil dissent since 1988. Subsequently, in January 1997, 14 of the protesters were sentenced to seven years' imprisonment and the government closed colleges and universities to students until 2000.

In April 1997, the USA punished Myanmar for its human-rights violations by banning new investment in Myanmar. However, in July 1997, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) controversially admitted Myanmar as a new member.

Changes in the junta In November 1997 the ruling military junta changed its name from the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). A number of new, younger generals were brought into the junta, but the 19-member SPDC was still dominated by the top four generals from SLORC, with Gen Than Shwe as chairman, prime minister, and defence minister. Gen Ne Win was designated First Secretary. In March 1998 Japan resumed its supply of aid, which had been frozen since the military crackdown in 1988.

In November 1998, 300 members of the opposition NLD were released by the authorities, leaving more than 500, including 200 of its elected representatives, still in detention.

Aung San Suu Kyi again under house arrest In August 2000, Aung San Suu Kyi, was prevented from leaving the capital, Yangon, to go to a nearby town to meet members of the NLD. She was involved in a nine-day roadside protest after which she was put under house arrest, prompting renewed international condemnation of the military government. The junta released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in May 2002, but she was re-arrested in May 2003. There was concurrently a further crackdown on the NLD and its supporters.

In February 2005, the government reconvened the National Convention to draft the constitution, for the first time since 1993, but the main pro-democracy organizations and parties, including the NLD were not allowed to take part. It continued to meet intermittently until September 2007, when the government closed it, declaring that constitutional talks were complete.

New capital In March 2006, the military junta moved the national capital from Yangon on the coast to a site in central Myanmar near Pyinmana, officially naming it Naypyidaw (‘city of the kings’).

Pro-democracy protests and new constitution Increases in fuel prices sparked pro-democracy protests in August 2007 Yangon and other cities. They were led initially by students and political activists, but were joined from September by thousands of monks. There was international condemnation when, in late September, the Myanmar military cracked down violently on the protests, killing several protesters and arresting and imprisoning hundreds of dissidents and monks. The EU responded by strengthening its sanctions against Myanmar.

In May 2008, the government claimed that 93% of voters endorsed, in a referendum, a new constitution which reserved 25% of parliamentary seats for the military and banned Aung San Suu Kyi from holding office, because she had been married to a foreigner.

Cyclone disaster The May 2008 referendum was preceded by a natural disaster after Cyclone Nagris hit southern Myanmar, causing massive flooding in the Irrawaddy delta, which claimed over 145,000 lives, destroyed 450,000 homes, displaced 1 million people, and caused huge economic damage valued at $10 billion. The government's reluctance to accept foreign assistance exacerbated the humanitarian disaster, delaying air drops of medical and food supplies by the UN.

Trial of Suu Kyi During 2009 Aung San Suu Kyi faced trial for allegedly breaking the condition of her house arrest by allowing a US national to enter her house, in May 2009. In August 2009, a Yangon court found her guilty and her period of house arrest was extended a further 18 months. The US citizen was John Yettaw, who had swum across a lake to her house and was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment, but he was released on humanitarian grounds and deported to the USA, after a visit to Myanmar by a US senator.

In September 2009, the USA announced a shift in approach to Myanmar, moving from exclusive reliance on sanctions and isolation to direct engagement with the military regime, with the potential lifting of sanctions if it released political prisoners and moved towards democracy.

Elections boycotted by NLD, but are followed by release of Suu Kyi On 7 November 2010, Myanmar held its first parliamentary elections since 1990. The polls were boycotted by the NLD because the electoral law debarred from standing those who had been convicted of a crime, including Suu Kyi. The pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by Thein Sein, who had been prime minister since 2007 but had recently retired from the military and who was a protégé of Than Shwe, attracted 80% of the vote. However, opponents of the regime, including the UN and the West, maintained there had been electoral fraud, widespread abstentions, and, without the participation of Suu Kyi, the poll had been seriously flawed.

Shortly after the election, on 13 November 2010, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.

In February 2011, Thein Sein was elected executive president of Myanmar by the parliament's presidential election college. The pragmatic Thein Sein had supported drives against corruption and given encouragement to foreign investment, which helped Myanmar's economy grow by over 8% a year from 2011. He headed a nominally civilian government.

The ending of international isolation as political reform gathers pace Thein Sein oversaw moves towards a more democratic system. In August 2011, he relaxed press censorship, in October 2011 released some political prisoners and allowed trade unions to form, and in December 2011 allowed peaceful demonstrations. The NLD responded in December 2011 by re-registering as a political party and in April 2012 Suu Kyi was elected to parliament as the NLD swept the board in by-elections. A general election was promised for 2015.

Encouraged by these developments, in April 2012 the European Union suspended its non-military sanctions against the country and in November 2012 offered $100 million in development aid. US President Barack Obama visited Myanmar in November 2012, extending ‘the hand of friendship’, and in 2013 Thein Sein visited the USA and Europe. His government also signed ceasefire agreements with the Karen rebels (in January 2012) and Kachin rebels (in February 2013) and 16 rebel groups (in March 2015), but was criticized abroad for violence against Rohingya Muslims.

NLD wins legislature elections The November 2015 general election saw in a landslide victory for the Suu Kyi's opposition NLD. In what were the country's first democratic, multi-party elections since 1990, the NLD won 56% of the vote and 255 of the 330 elective seats in the People's Assembly, against 28% of the vote for Thein Sein's USDP.

The result gave the NLD sufficient seats to form a government and choose the next president, although, with a quarter of legislature seats reserved for the military, the USDP would be able to block constitutional changes.

The constitution banned Suu Kyi from being a candidate for president because her late husband had been a non-Burmese citizen. Nevertheless. she made it clear that she would be the real power behind the new NLD-led government, as first state councillor. But, at the same time, she called for national reconciliation talks with the military, which still controlled the home, defence, and border affairs ministries.

In March 2016, the two chambers of parliament elected Htin Kyaw of the NLD as its first civilian president since the 1962 military coup. Htin Kyaw was a loyal ally of Suu Kyi and had spent four months in prison in 2000 for helping Suu Kyi travel outside Yangon. The USA responded to the changing situation by relaxing some of its sanctions on Myanmar.

Ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingyas From 2016 to 2016 the Myanmar regime, and Suu Kyi, faced international condemnation for its brutal ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya community who lived in western coastal Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh.

The long-settled Rohingya ethnic minority had long been discriminated against and had been stripped of citizenship in 1982, being viewed by Myanmar's Buddhist majority as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. From January to March 2015 25,000 Rohingyas fled by boat as refugees to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, escaping violence and persecution. A Rohingya insurgent movement, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), struck back on 9 October 2016 by killing nine police officers at border posts, prompting an intensification of repression by Myanmar's military.

Meanwhile, from March 2017 the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan chaired a commission that sought solutions to the ethnic conflict. He reported on 24 August 2017 but, on the following day, 12 more police officers were killed in ARSA raids. The Myanmar army's response was brutal, launching systematic ‘clearance operations’ in Rohingya villages, including extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, lootings, and fires. The UN human rights high commissioner described the campaign as a ‘textbook example’ of ethnic cleansing. Between August and November 2017 over 620,000 Rohingyas (more than half the population) fled as refugees, principally to Bangladesh where there were already 200,000 Rohingyas, but also by sea to Indonesia and Malaysia. Many of those fleeing were women and children whose husbands and fathers had been killed in the genocide.

Suu Kyi faced international criticism for failing to denounce this military action against the Rohingyas. Her supporters claimed that she sympathized with the Rohingyas but lacked control over the military. In mid-October 2017 she announced plans to set up a civilian-led agency, with foreign assistance, to deliver aid and help resettle Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.

In November 2017 Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed a memorandum of understanding to repatriate Rohingyas who wished to return home to Rakhine state, but there were international concerns about the safety of those who chose to do so.




collecting palm juice

Paduang people

Paduang woman


tapestry weaving, Mandalay

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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