PrintPrint EmailEmail ShareShare CiteCite


Understanding Myanmar

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
Updated: June 21, 2013
This publication is now archived.


Following a military coup in 1988, Myanmar was gripped by a repressive, authoritarian military junta. Sanctions from numerous countries and civil unrest sparked by the Saffron Revolution in 2007 eventually gave way to crucial steps toward democracy, including elections in 2010 and 2012. They also led to the release of the country's most visible figure, pro-democracy leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest in 2010 and her election to parliament in 2012. Many are hopeful that the new reforms have marked a new era of democracy and possibilities for the beleaguered state. Experts say that increased foreign investment and the lifting of international sanctions will allow Myanmar to progress even further, but a combination of increasing ethnic violence and disproportionate economic growth could still handicap the country.


Political History

A colony of the British Empire for more than a century, Myanmar achieved independence in 1948. The newly independent Union of Burma started as a parliamentary democracy like most of its neighbors in the subcontinent that had recently gained freedom from colonial rule. It was beset by ethnic strife from the start. Soon after independence, the different groups began to resist domination by the Burmans, the majority ethnic group. Burmans formed around 60 to 70 percent of the population in Burma; the remaining 30 to 40 percent comprised 135 different ethnic groups, with Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Chinese, Mon, and Indian among the largest.

Despite constitutional disputes, representative democracy survived in Burma until the military coup of 1962 led by General Ne Win. His regime, known as the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), held power for the next twenty-six years. Throughout this period, there were no free elections, and freedom of expression and association were almost entirely denied. Ne Win abolished the constitution and framed a new one in 1974 based on an isolationist policy--the "Burmese Way to Socialism"--and the economy deteriorated significantly.

By mid-1988, food shortages and economic discontent led to mass protests, often spearheaded by monks and students. The army seized power in a coup, abolished the 1974 constitution, and silenced the protests by opening fire on unarmed dissidents, leaving more than three thousand dead, according to official figures. A year later in 1989, the new military regime changed the country's name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, and the capital Rangoon was renamed Yangon. While the change in names has been accepted by the United Nations, countries such as the United States and Britain still refer to it as Burma.

Largely a Buddhist country (90 percent of the population are devout followers of Buddha), Myanmar has around 400,000 monks and as many army personnel. The army has doubled in size since the 1988 uprising and consumed more than 40 percent of the government's annual budget at its height, but now only encompasses about 10 percent of the government's budget.

During the 1988 protests, Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence as the leader of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). In 1990, the junta held elections in which Suu Kyi's party garnered 82 percent of the vote despite Suu Kyi's house arrest. The military government refused to acknowledge the results, imprisoned many NLD politicians, forced others to flee, and continued to clamp down on dissent, closing the country to the outside world.

After nearly twenty years of staying mostly out of the international spotlight, the country grabbed headlines in September 2007 following widespread protests by Buddhist monks, the so-called "Saffron Revolution." The ruling junta's slow response and its initial blockade of international aid efforts for the victims of a deadly cyclone in May 2008, which killed more than 140,000 people, led some Western leaders and rights groups to call for forced humanitarian intervention.

Myanmar drafted a new constitution (PDF) and put it to vote in May 2008 amid the humanitarian crisis from the cyclone. According to the junta, the constitutional referendum won an overwhelming majority, but rights groups called the vote "a fraud." Amnesty International also notes that the constitution contains "discriminatory" provisions such as barring members of religious orders and "destitute" persons from voting.

General elections were held under the new constitution in 2010, with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party declaring a wide margin of victory, though pro-democracy groups again cited rampant fraud (PDF). Despite questions over the vote, the new civilian government under President Thein Sein spearheaded a series of reforms, including the amnesty of more than 200 political prisoners, relaxation of censorship, establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. The government abolished laws that led to the National League for Democracy's boycott, and in April 2012 elections, Aung San Suu Kyi's party won forty-three of forty-five seats (Guardian) up for election. Although the small parliamentary victory was expected to have only a tangible effect, it served as a symbolic victory for democracy.

Democratic and Economic Reforms

Prior to 2010, international policy toward Myanmar varied, running the gamut from harsh U.S. sanctions to milder sanctions by Europe and Japan to full commercial engagement by neighbors China, India, and the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The United States imposed sanctions after the 1988 military crackdown on protests led by monks and students, including a ban on the export of financial services and a freeze on the assets of certain institutions. Myanmar had been "essentially a client state of China," according to Mathea Falco, president of the Washington-based research institution Drug Strategies and chair of a 2003 CFR Independent Task Force on Myanmar, with bilateral trade between the two nations being as high as $5 billion in 2011. India has competed with China for Myanmar's oil and natural gas resources, sharing bilateral relations with the government and reaching bilateral trade of $1.2 billion in 2010.

However, knowing that Western support would come only with visible democratic reforms, Myanmar began shifting its policies in 2010 and has sought to diversify foreign investment in the country. With President Thein Sein's ascent to power in 2011, foreign investment laws were changed and foreign investment has increased. A June 2013 McKinsey report stated that while FDI in Myanmar was only $40 billion between 1989 and 2012, FDI is expected to increase to up to $100 billion over the next two decades as a major driver of GDP growth. According to the IMF, Myanmar's GDP now stands at around $50 billion, which pales in comparison to the similarly populated and located Thailand's GDP of $348 billion. The increase in foreign investment has not been entirely positive for all of Myanmar's population, with increasingly unprofitable exports forcing prices down and putting many farmers--who comprise roughly 70 percent of the workforce--in debt.

Following the new stage of engagement with Myanmar in 2011, the United States has taken a number of steps to reopen relations. With Myanmar's release of more than 200 political prisoners and shift to more democratic elections in 2012, the United States announced further steps for cooperation, including the reestablishment of a USAID mission at its embassy in Yangon and beginning the process of lifting economic sanctions to ease the bans on the exportation of U.S. financial services and new investment. The State Department, though, has made it clear that it has ongoing concerns regarding human rights and democracy; the framework of the sanctions remains in place, along with trade restrictions, including the ban of U.S. companies doing business with firms associated with the country's military.

U.S. relations with Myanmar improved with landmark visits by both President Obama to Yangon University in November 2012 and by President Sein to Washington in May 2013. On both occassions, the leaders spoke of the warming of relations between the two countries. "I stand here with confidence that something is happening in this country that cannot be reversed, and the will of the people can lift up this nation and set a great example for the world. And you will have in the United States of America a partner on that long journey," said President Obama during his speech at Yangon University.

For the United States, Myanmar is an opportunity to support a democratizing country, an opportunity for investment, and a means of containing China, Myanmar's greatest investor. Conversely, Myanmar's relationship to the United States offers access to secure loans, improved financial assistance, and greater development opportunities.

The State and Society in Myanmar

Myanmar, a country of estimated fifty million people, has abundant natural resources such as oil, natural gas, timber, and minerals. Once known as the rice bowl of the world, it was the richest country in the region at the time it gained independence from colonial rule in 1948. But decades of military rule have ravaged the country.

Despite political reforms, the government continues to fail to deliver basic services to its people. Even with hundreds of thousands of people living with HIV in Myanmar, (making it one of the highest HIV-infected countries in Asia), the junta spent only 2 percent of GDP on health in 2011. UNICEF says more than 25 percent of the population lacks access to safe drinking water, and malaria continues to be a national priority.

Human rights monitors have reported abuses, but there is no real evidence as to whether the situation has improved in the two years since reforms have been put in place. The following are the most pressing human rights issues that Myanmar faces:

  • Labor. Forced labor remains widespread (PDF), according to the International Labor Organization. Experts say it is targeted particularly at the ethnic minorities living in the border regions such as Karen, Mon, Shan, and Karenni. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) says there are about 109 labor camps in the country.
  • Population flight. Refugees International in January 2012 estimated that around 500,000 people are displaced by conflict in eastern Myanmar, and another 800,000 Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar are stateless and lack basic human rights. Approximately three million Burmese have been forced to flee to neighboring countries. Around 150,000 refugees from Myanmar live in camps on the Thailand-Myanmar border, which has been a source of tension between the two countries.
  • Sexual Violence. The military's use of sexual violence against women has dramatically escalated in recent years, especially in dissident ethnic areas. The U.S. State Department's 2010 report on human rights (PDF) also notes widespread reports of rape by the army in rural areas and among displaced persons.
  • Child soldiers. Myanmar was estimated to have the world's largest number of child soldiers (under the age of eighteen) as of the early twenty-first century. Myanmar and the United Nations signed a landmark, eighteen-month action plan in June 2012 to prevent the recruitment and to end the use of children in state and non-state armed forces. Despite the release of close to seventy child soldiers since the signing of the agreement, a 2013 Human Rights Watch report states that Myanmar is failing to uphold its commitments: recruitment continues and the demobilization of child soldiers is far too slow.
  • Ethnic groups. Human Rights Watch, in its 2013 world report, describes the military's abuse of ethnic minorities through forced labor, sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, the use of "human shields," torture, beatings, and pillaging of property. Tensions between the country's majority Bamar population and various ethnic groups are high, especially in the borderlands. Some 100 ethnic groups live in Burma, with many more diverse tribes crowded into the country. Tensions turned violent in 2012 and 2013 between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine. Myanmar does not recognize Rohingya Muslims as one of the many ethnic groups in Myanmar and denies them citizenship; they are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Conversely, Bangladesh states that Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for centuries. A 2013 Human Rights Watch report labeled the violent flare-up in 2012 as "ethnic cleansing" perpetrated by local political and religious leaders and sanctioned by state security authorities. Clashes have broken out in numerous states throughout the country, and have spilled over into neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia as well.
The Troubled Way Forward

Myanmar's future over the past two years has taken an unexpectedly bright turn, although prospects toward stability and ongoing democracy are tenuous. According to a recent talk with CFR fellow Joshua Kurlantzick and Brookings Institution fellow Lex Rieffel, a combination of the United States restoring diplomatic relations and the European Union suspending economic sanctions against the government has triggered huge investor interest in Myanmar. Still, they warn that Myanmar's government only has business in mind, and not economic growth. As such, due to the drastic economic change that Myanmar is undergoing, it faces a rocky economic future.

Human rights conditions have improved sharply in Myanmar since the beginning of the reforms in 2010, but many warn that the real problem in the country's future is ethnic violence. A UN independent human rights expert cited escalating violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state as a serious threat to the country as a whole, and Kurlantzick, in an article in the National, cites the government's failure to address ethnic conflict as a threat to putting more power into the hands of the military.

Myanmar will chair ASEAN for the first time in 2014, providing the government with an opportunity to lead the regional organization as it seeks to uphold and further its reforms, particularly concerning human rights and good governance. Myanmar has the confidence of its ASEAN partners looking ahead to work together toward a single market and regional stability.

Leo Schwartz and Eleanor Albert contributed to this report.

More on This Topic

Analysis Brief

Brazilís Energy Windfall

Author: Stephanie Hanson

The recent discovery of offshore energy reserves and the diminishing sway of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez have been a boon for Brazil’s regional...

Analysis Brief

On the Trail of Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chavez's recent world tour secured arms deals and an energy pact with a U.S. nemesis, Iran, but it's unclear whether the Venezuelan...