Behind the New Burma
Behind the New Burma

A thaw in relations between Burma and the West is underway. U.S. Secretary of State, United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary and other high level government officials from the West have recently visited this former pariah state. Europe eased travel bans for government officials.  Increased contact with the West has been taking place because of recent steps by Burma to increase civil liberties.

Steps include: the first Burmese general elections in 20 years, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi after 15 years of house arrest, the release of 200+ political prisoners (including high profile leaders of the Saffron Revolution), a cease-fire with the Karen, new labor laws allowing unions and strikes, the registration of the National League for Democracy as a political party,1  the reconstitution of Burma’s human rights commission, weakening of censorship laws and more.2

Despite these major steps, human rights abuses are still rampant and many question whether Western countries should fully drop sanctions against Burma. This news analysis examines the factors behind Burma’s move to a more democratic society.

Overview of Burma’s Political History

Burma gained independence from Great Britain in 1947. Fifteen years later, a socialist coup brought the military junta to power. The military junta allowed elections in 1990. When the National League for Democracy won, the military would not let the opposition leaders take power. Seventeen years later, in 2007, Burmese monks and other civil society groups protested against the government in the “Saffron Revolution.” The revolution ended with the incarceration of the movement’s leaders. Calm descended once again.3

General Than Shwe ruled Burma from 1992 to 2011. While he liberalized economy, he was responsible for grave human rights abuses and neglected the country’s educational, agricultural and health care systems. In 2003, Shwe approved a democracy road-map with seven steps, including a new civilian government.4

In 2010, elections were held and the new government was sworn in. A new bicameral national legislature and assemblies for Burma’s seven new states within Burma were formed. Opposition parties were even seated in the legislatures. The elections were far from perfect. Government-supported parties had the upper hand with favorable legislation. Retired generals gained many seats. The United Nations, the U.S. and other western countries decried the elections as rigged.

Opening up Burma

Western analysts have only guessed at the reasons behind the Junta’s decision to liberalize the country’s economic and political systems. Some viewed the 2012 elections as an easy way for Shwe to find a successor, guessing that he did not want to suffer the fate of his predecessor who was placed in house arrest and had his family imprisoned.5

Others believe that Burma wants to shed its identity as a pariah state and move ahead in the economic sphere. Aung San Suu Kyi supports this theory. Some think that Burma wants to court the West as a counterpoint to China’s influence.6  Evidence for this theory includes the recent suspension of the China-backed Myitsone dam, a move that angered China, but appeased many in Burma who opposed the dam project due to its environmental and economic impact.  The dam though, has only been halted until 2015. 7 Local concerns may have played a role as well.

Burma’s Internal Struggles

Burma has plenty of local concerns, including a long-time civil war with the Karen and other persecuted minority groups as well as a moribund economy, education, health and social welfare systems.  Only one percent of Burma’s population is covered by social security. There is no national health insurance or systematic government response to the extreme poverty in the country.8

Minority Groups, Human Rights Abuses, and Civil War

Burma is home to many ethnic nationalities, including the Burman, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Lahu, Mon, Naga, Shan, and Wa9  and the Rohingya. Since gaining its independence, separatists groups from the various ethnicities have fought the government to achieve greater autonomy. Cease-fire agreements were signed (and broken) amongst over the years. The Burmese military have been responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, beatings, abusive forced labor, child soldiers, antipersonnel landmines, and property threat against the ethnic groups.10

As a result of the human rights abuses, about 150,000 Burmese refugees live in camps on the border of Thailand and approximately two million refugees live in Thailand. The refugees are subject to abuse and are at risk for forced labor and child trafficking. Within Burma, the Rohingya minority group is considered stateless. The Rohingya must bribe officials to leave their villages and are forced into carrying out hard labor for the army. Kicked off their land, some Rohingya are forced to work as day laborers. Many Rohingya moved to Bangladesh where they have few rights. Approximately 500,000 internally displaced people live in Burma and an additional 800,000 stateless Rohingyas live in Burma as well.11

Recently, Burma enacted cease-fires with two major rebel groups, Shan State Army South and the Karen National Union. Burma is also discussing a cease-fire with the United Wa State Army.  Political, economic and administrative integration are the main issues under negotiation.12  Despite government orders of a cessation of hostilities, there is still an ongoing conflict with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the resource-rich North. The KIA does not want to integrate into Burma’s centrally-controlled Border Guard Force13  and are angry about the Myitsone dam that will flood dozens of villages in the Kachin state.14

Role of the Economy

Burmese economist U Myint and head of the country’s new economic advisory board describes Burma as a country whose people are poor, but resources are vast.15  Because of Western sanctions, Burma has relied on China as its biggest economic patron of foreign aid and investment.

These sanctions have precluded the U.S. from exporting financial services to Burma.16   There are few banks in Burma and most of the economic activity is cash-based.  Its financial system is not ready to handle integration with the global economy. The IMF will be tackling Burma’s four different exchange rates. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have permission to get involved as well. New investment laws are being drafted,17  but will only be helpful if they are accompanied by judicial reform that ensures the new laws are applied correctly. Corruption is still a major problem.18

In addition, Burma will need to address its large informal economy. It is the world’s second largest producer of illicit opium. While small or mid-level traffickers have been pursued by the government, the government has not pursued high-level traffickers, many of whom can be found in the ethnic communities along its borders.19

Next Steps

The reasons why Burma decided to open its political system and economy may never be known. Sanctions have certainly hurt the people of Burma. Did the sanctions though factor into the decision to become more democratic? Probably not! Did the sanctions influence the decision to open up the economy? Maybe!

The world is waiting to see what happens next. There are still 700 to 1,000 political prisoners that remain in custody in Burma’s prisons. They are being used as a bargaining chips against Western sanctions.20  A democratic society needs to be built from the top down and the bottom up. It will take years, if not decades until Burma is truly functioning as part of the global economy and the global community. Nonetheless, the journey has begun. For now!


1  “More milestones in Burma.” BBC News. January 23, 2012.
2  Köhler, Gabriele. “An Opportunity in Myanmar.” Policy Innovations. January 9, 2012.
3  “Human Rights Abuses in a Globalized World: Burma Case Study.” Globalization101.org.  November 27, 2007.
4  Rieffel, Lex.  “Is This a Meaningful Milestone for Myanmar/Burma?” Brookings Institute. April 5, 2011.
5  Ibid.
6  Hon, Chua Chin. “A good time to explain the reason for reform.” The Straits Times. December 6, 2011.
7  Kaung, Kyi May. “Burma’s economy: Can world-class advisors make a difference?” AsianCorrespondent.com. February 7, 2012.
8  Köhler, Gabriele. “An Opportunity in Myanmar.” Policy Innovations. January 9, 2012.
9  “Ethnic Groups of Burma.”
10  Win, Kanbawza. “Imagine: The Burmese Regime Swindling The European Union.” January 26, 2012.
11  Krikorian, Onnik. “Myanmar (Burma): Betwixt and Between.” Global Voices Online. January 27, 2012.
12  San Wai, Kyaw. “Burma’s transformation: Many challenges still lie ahead.” January 28, 2012.
13  Ibid.
14  Larmer, Brook. “Land of Shadows.” National Geographic. August 2011.
15  Köhler, Gabriele. “An Opportunity in Myanmar.” Policy Innovations. January 9, 2012.
16  “Burma: Economy.” globalEdge.
17  San Wai, Kyaw. “Burma’s transformation: Many challenges still lie ahead.” January 28, 2012.
18  “Aung San Suu Kyi wants to see Myanmar surpass Asean members.” Asia One. February 9, 2012.
19  “Burma: Economy.” globalEdge.
20  “Rights Groups Urge International Community to Maintain Burma Sanctions.” Voice of America. January 27, 2012.

* Picture of Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘Department for International Development/Paul Whittigham’

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