new internationalist
issue 248 - October 1993

Country profile: Burma

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Burma has never had a famine; the land of golden pagodas and lush rice fields was offered this blessing in return for its kindness to the Buddha. But despite the legend it currently suffers one of the world's most repressive regimes. Today, martial law and the military junta's refusal to allow democracy under the elected but now imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, conspire to worsen human rights.

Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, a hero of the Burmese independence movement who fought the British colonial regime and later formed a transitional administration before his assassination in July 1947. Suu Kyi's charisma, name and political skill helped turn the National League for Democracy (which she co-founded) into the leading political force in Burma. The NLD won 80 per cent of the 485 seats in national-assembly elections in 1990.

The Burmese military, which seized power and over-turned democracy in 1962, denounces international pressure to accept these election results as 'interference in internal affairs'. The regime has used torture and extrajudicial executions against students, ethnic minorities, Buddhist monks and anyone else who demands that the military step aside.

The Junta bought over $1.2 billion dollars' worth of weapons from China. In 1988, one year before the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square when Chinese troops killed hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators, Burma's troops committed a similar atrocity in Rangoon, killing over 1,000 democracy activists who vainly pressed for an end to dictatorship.

Burma's junta aim to emulate Singapore's model for economic advancement under military rule. With an open-door policy to foreign investment, foreign reserves have rocketed and led the way to new jobs and a consumer society. The current craving for foreign goods rebounds from 25 years of 'State Socialism' when many imports were banned and most businesses nationalized.

Dissidents, meanwhile, demand international sanctions against Burma and a boycott of Pepsi-Cola, Amoco, Exxon, Texaco, Total, Petro-Canada, BHP, Mitsubishi, Daewoo and other multinationals doing business there. They condemn the United Nations Development Program for allocating 90 million dollars to the regime to kick-start the economy, arguing that this finances repression.

Military onslaughts forced more than 250,000 minority Muslims to flee the western province of Arakan during the past year. The military scored valuable victories against dissidents, pressuring the border town of Manerplaw where the NLD's 'Government-in-exile' works to co-ordinate the resistance movement.

Burma's name was changed to Myanmar in 1989 but pro-democracy groups refuse to use it, insisting that it symbolizes an illegal regime.

Richard Ehrlich


LEADER: General Than Shwe and Major General Khin Nyunt lead an unelected military junta.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita US$220 (US$21,790).
Monetary Unit: Kyat ('Chat')
Major industries: Sugar, textiles, fertilizers, cement and plywood. Agricultural production includes rice, pulses, beans, cotton and teak.
Main exports: Fish, forest products, base metals and ores. Burma now produces more heroin than any other country.

PEOPLE: 44 million, concentrated in the Irrawaddy Delta and growing at 2.1 per cent per annum.

HEALTH: Infant mortality is 98 per 1,000 live births. Ten per cent of children under three suffer malnutrition. One doctor per 3,347 people.

CULTURE: Most Burmans are Theravada Buddhist. There are Hindu, Christian and Muslim minorities. Many Buddhist Burmans also follow animist cults.
Ethnic groups: Minorities include Chinese, Indians, Karens, Shans, Chins, Kachins, Mons, Arakanese and Karenni.
Language: Burmese spoken by 95 per cent. English widely spoken, Shan 11 per cent, Karen 5 per cent, Chinese 3 per cent and Kachin 2.5 per cent.

Sources: The State of the World's Children UNICEF 1993; Asian Development Bank; World Health Organization; Amnesty International.

Last profiled in February 1982.



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Restrictive economic policies keep most of the population poor.

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ADULT LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
80% 89% male, 72% female.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Most imports including medicines are smuggled in and sold on the black market.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown]
Executions, torture, imprisonment and enslavement as army porters.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Women more involved in trade but at least 40,000 women have been sold into Thailand's sex industry.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
55 years (US 76 years)

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Politics now

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Military dictatorship now embracing the free market.


NI star rating

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