Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Burma (Myanmar) on the 64th Independence Anniversary

As Burma (Republic of the Union of Myanmar) celebrates her 64th independence day, she is at a historic juncture of great importance.

Burma was a very rich country with a proud history before the British occupied her territory in the 19th century, ending her independence in 1885. Burmese people could not forgive the British imperialists for the disgraceful banishment of the Royal Family. Furthermore, Burma was administered as a part of British India until 1937, adding insult to injury. During the British era, until the outbreak of the Second World War, Burma was an important producer of rice, the famous Burma teak, oil, rubies and other precious stones and some other minerals.

Burma’s decline started with the spreading of World War II into Asia. To prevent vital infrastructure from falling to the Japanese hands, the British destroyed many installations before they retreated. But the sociopolitical situation was such that the British left the country within just over two years. However, Burma lost an able statesman, Aung San, when he was assassinated weeks before independence.

Burma adopted an independent foreign policy from the outset. Unlike most of the other former British overseas territories and colonies, she did not join the Commonwealth. The Prime Minister, U Nu, followed a policy of neutrality and cultivating friendship with all. He was a forefather of what was to become the concept of non-alignment.

However, domestically he was challenged at the outset of independence itself by various forces. Several ethnic minority rebel groups emerged, most notably the Karen National Liberation Army, which is still waging what has been described the ‘world’s longest ongoing war.’ Also the communists had taken up arms.

In October 1958, General Ne Win seized power and ruled the country until 1960. He relinquished power in 1960 but in 1962, he once more deposed U Nu, this time for good. From 1962, Ne Win adopted a new policy “Burmese way to Socialism” and from 1974, Burma became a one party state ruled by Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Program Party. However, this Burmese way just increased her woes and isolated the country from the rest of the world.

In 1988, Ne Win was in turn deposed by General Saw Maung and he established the State Law and Order Council. In 1989, the name of the country was changed to Myanmar. The following year, the first democratic election in 30 years was held in Burma (Myanmar). The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San won a by a landslide. However, the military annulled the results and imprisoned leaders of the NLD.

Thereafter, the country was even more isolated from the international community including many regional powers. A notable exception was the country joining Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997. However, Myanmar exceedingly tilted towards People’s Republic of China as she was shunned by the Western powers and India. The latter vehemently criticized the suppression of the democratic movement in Myanmar.

On the other hand, Myanmar regime was breaking the ties with the past. They built a new capital city at Naypyidaw. Also they changed the official name of the country, its national flag and national anthem in October 2010.

However, with the passage of time, the global political outlook changed. With the rise of China, India changed her attitude towards regional powers. Meanwhile, Burma may have felt the need to dilute Chinese influence in their country. Increasingly cordial relationships were being built up with regional powers, notably India, the ASEAN states and Sri Lanka among others. Meanwhile, in 2010, Myanmar returned to civilian rule after a general election. It was the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party which won the election. This raised accusations of election fraud and no one predicted tangible reforms forthcoming in the near future.

However, the Burmese president Thein Sein was to prove the skeptics wrong. The first real break was the suspension of the Chinese funded Myitsone Dam in late September 2011, which came as a total surprise. Soon, around 200 political prisoners were set free and election laws were amended. As a result, the NLD announced their intention of entering active politics again. Meanwhile, a National Human Rights Commission was also established. In December 2011, the United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made a landmark visit to Myanmar.

Given these facts, Burma (Myanmar) can be said to be in a crucial junction of her history. She faces a lot of challenges including the stagnant economy, internal armed conflict, drugs trafficking in the Golden Triangle of the Burmese, Lao and Thai border areas and democratization. The world watches as Burma enters her 65th year as an independent nation.

Image: The New National Flag of Myanmar, Adopted on October 21, 2010. From Wikimedia Commons

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