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Tinderbox in Burma (Myanmar)

Khin Mar Si’s life along the Irrawaddy River in Burma, or Myanmar, as the ruling military junta calls it, is the same as it has been for years….a simple life…She is doing what she can, day-in and day-out, to get by. She washes her clothes, and bathes in the river, as millions of her countrymen do. Living in the rural area, as she does, she may not even know that there are pending elections in her country.

Most people in the English-speaking world who think about Burma, remember political events, such as the decades-long detention of the democratically elected Nobel Peace prize laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Or they think of her continued detention after the American journalist, John Yettaw, swam to her home in 2009.

Or, Westerners remember the press coverage of those in the Irrawaddy delta who lost their homes, family members and livelihoods to the raging Nargis Cyclone in May, 2008. There were an estimated 140,000 people who perished in that storm.

Even more recently the actions of Thailand, to the east, and Bangladesh, to the west, in their efforts to manage the growing refugee populations along their respective borders with Myanmar, have brought additional press coverage. According to Refugees International, there are over 200,000 Rohingya refugees in makeshift camps in Bangladesh. Some human rights agencies estimate that over 9,000 are likely to be deported to Burma. The United Nations Refugee Agency placed the total number at 184,413, in Bangladesh as of January, 2009, with 67,290 Internally displaced persons, the highest in S.E. Asia. At the same time they acknowledged that there are approximately 200,000 unregistered Burmese “persons of concern” living in Bangladesh. They also place the January, 2009 estimate for refugees living in Thailand at just under 13,000.

Finally, for those that track international press coverage, it has been announced that the ruling junta will be holding elections, although they have not yet announced the date of these elections.

The people eke out a living in this, one of the 20 poorest countries on the planet. One of the greatest natural assets is the Irrawaddy, the major river that runs from the northern-most border with China, to the southern delta as it spreads into the Andaman Sea. The Irrawaddy is about 1,350 miles long.

This short article tells about the resource management issues, the religious life, the historical and cultural heritage, and the spirit of a gentle people that have been left behind by the forces of globalization.

Burma is a country about the size of Texas that has a population of almost 60 million people. There are a number of ethnic groups including the Burmese (at about 68% of the population), the Shan (9%) and the Karen (7%). There are also small but growing Indian and Chinese living in Burma. Literacy, defined as the percentage of the population over 15 that can read and write, is estimated to be 85.3%. Primary education is mandatory to about age 11. Infant mortality rate is estimated to be about 62 deaths per 1000 live births. Life expectancy rate for men is 58 and for women is 64 years old.

HIV/AIDS is a growing problem with an estimated 330,000 people who are currently living with the disease and over 20,000 deaths.

About 89% of the population in Burma are Buddhist. Monks are estimated to number over 500,000. There are small Muslim, Hindu and Christian minorities as well.

Burma is rich in gems, jade, teak, and offshore natural gas. As recently as 2008 the government exported over $2 billion dollars of natural gas to Thailand, alone. Yet the per capita income at PPP is officially reported at $1900; while unofficially estimated to be more like $440 annually (as estimated by the UK’s Burma Campaign). About 70% of the population works on farms and an estimated third of the population is below the $1/US dollar a year poverty line.

The recent history of British occupation, the attempted occupation by Axis forces during the 2nd World War, and the anti-colonial movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s Father and culminating in independence from the British empire in 1948 are all important recent events in understanding both the current political/economic context and the future potential of this important Southeast Asian country.

General Ne Win wrested control from a failing government in 1962 and began the world’s longest running military dictatorship. They have pursued xenophobic policies which have resulted in almost total isolation from the rest of the world community. After an uprising in 1988 and elections in 1990 when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 82% of the popular vote, the ruling dictatorship refused to yield power and, instead, placed the elected leader under house arrest.

In 2007 there was another uprising, sparked this time, by a 5-fold increase in the price of gasoline. The support for the protests was so widespread that this time monks from several monasteries got involved. This further inspired people to take action, and by September 24th there were protests throughout the country. On September 27th the military, as ordered by General Than Shwe and supported by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) responded with violence.

These periodic protests over the past 40 years and the official response by the SPDC have drawn strong rebukes by China and the Association of S.E. Asian Nations. Trade sanctions have been imposed by the U.S. and other European nations.

In March, 2010 the ruling junta released a new Election Law which, in part, requires the various parties to register for the upcoming election. However, it was reported on March 23rd by the Irrawaddy News website that Aung San Suu Kyi is urging that her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), NOT register. According to her lawyer, Nyan Win, she believes that, since the registration law requires that party leaders must vow to uphold the current constitution, it would demean the NLD party to participate.

At about the same time the Election Law came out a series of privatizations of publically-owned assets were announced. This drive toward privatization is believed to be the brain child of General Than Shwe in his efforts to maintain control through his own holdings and those of his cronies like U Tay Za, the head of the Petroleum Association. Over 176 assets in Yangon alone have been offered within the past 3 weeks. Once accomplished this asset transfer will mirror the mafia-style privatization that occurred in Russia during the 1990s.

No one knows what the outcome will be for Burma. Elections are likely to be held; however, few knowledgeable sources believe that they will be fair, irrespective of the Election Law.

How much longer will Khin Mar Si and the other 60 million people have to wait before they have some measure of political freedom and economic prosperity?