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Burma’s people have a rich variety of traditional costumes, corresponding to their dozens of ethnic groups, but their plainer costumes are red and green. Red is the colour for the robes of around 400,000 monks, many of whom file through the streets every morning, lining up from the smallest to the tallest, collecting rice doled out by generous households. The monks are also supported by brigades of roadside volunteers who harangue passing travellers through megaphones, rattling buckets to collect funds for their local monasteries.

Green is the colour for around 340,000 soldiers. The more senior of the ‘men in green trousers’ are to be found not just in the army, the tatmadaw, and the higher echelons of government but in myriad murky business ventures. Lower down the green ranks are the ordinary soldiers, many of whom have been forcibly recruited – boys and young men snatched from the streets or from passing buses.

Burma’s kleptocratic regime was established following a coup in 1988. The military government had responded to pro-democracy street demonstrations with brutal repression that was to kill around 10,000 people. At this point, a small group of officers, calling themselves the State Law and Order Council (SLORC), seized control – promptly renaming Burma as Myanmar, and Rangoon as Yangon, changes that pro-democracy groups continue to resist. In 1990 SLORC held elections for an assembly to design a new constitution. They were shocked to find that 80 per cent of the votes went to the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of independence hero Aung San and known locally as ‘the lady’. So they rejected the election result and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she has largely remained ever since.

In 1997, SLORC changed its own name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), but it did not alter its style of government – a sinister mix of ignorance and brutality, combined with a striking indifference not just to international opinion but to the basic needs of its own people.

Photo: Jeremy horner / Panos Pictures
Photo: Jeremy horner / Panos Pictures

The SPDC’s main pretext for repression is to enforce national unity. But it has had limited success. Much of the country’s tortured history since indepen-dence has reflected struggles between its numerous minority ethnic groups and the national government. After decades of insurgency, many have arranged ceasefires with the military regime, but they have exacted a price since it is they who now administer some of Burma’s wilder border areas.

Decades of warfare and militarization have wrought social and economic havoc. More than a million people have fled their homes either within Burma or to neighbouring countries. The economy has also been brought to its knees by incompetence, mismanagement and corruption as well as by international sanctions, notably by the US, which characterizes Burma as an ‘outpost of tyranny’. Most transnationals have withdrawn, and international aid is very limited. The unloved SPDC seems not to care.

Burma is supposedly on a ‘roadmap’ to democracy but the destination seems ever more remote. The main figure remains the hardline General Than Shwe, who has recently instigated a series of purges – in December 2004 jailing the (relatively) open-minded prime minister Khin Nyunt and many others on charges of corruption. The regime remains generally opaque. The diplomatic and aid community in Rangoon, and Burma-watchers and exile groups in Bangkok, try with limited success to discern what is going on. Most agree that the immediate outlook is grim.

Mary Warren

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Map of Burma

At a glance

Leader: Chair of the SPDC, General Than Shwe.

Economy: Gross national income $220 (Thailand $2,190, Britain [the colonial power until 1948] $28,350). Following the demise of the ‘Burmese road to socialism’ in 1988, most markets were liberalized, but the private sector is still feeble, hampered by erratic policymaking, corruption and sanctions. The main official exports are natural gas, pulses, garments and timber. There are also vast underground exports of opium and amphetamines. Some 120,000 tourists arrive each year, but most travellers boycott the country.

People: 49.5 million. Some 17% of the population are internal migrants, driven to the urban areas by increasing poverty and military activity. Another million or more Burmese are migrant workers or refugees in neighbouring countries, particularly Thailand.

Health: Infant mortality 76 per 1,000 live births (Thailand 23, Britain 5). As a result of low public expenditure, health services are very limited. A third of children are malnourished. Malaria is increasing and HIV infection is now widespread and growing.

Environment: Many hilly areas have been degraded as a result of logging and intensive cultivation, leading to more severe floods.

Culture: Burma has an extraordinarily complex and shifting ethnic structure. The Bama, concentrated in the central plains and coastal areas, make up around two-thirds of the population, but there are also many other groups, including the Shan, Karen, Mon, Chin and Kachin. Between them they speak hundreds of languages.

Religion: Around 90% are Buddhist, 5% Christian and 4% Muslim.

Last profiled October 1993

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star ratings

income distribution

INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
No reliable data, but apart from the evident wealth of the rapacious military regime and the associated élite in Rangoon, poverty seems relatively equally distributed in one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. 1993 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]


LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Officially around 85%, but probably no more than 70%. Primary education is notionally free but numerous other charges push it out of range of poor families. Only half the children complete primary school. Government expenditure is low, so many communities often have to build and pay for their own schools. 1993 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

life expectancy LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
57 years (Thailand 69, Britain 78). HIV/AIDS is expected to become a leading cause of death. 1993 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Overt discrimination is rare, though since there are no women in the army there are none in government. Women living in the militarized areas have been victims of sexual abuse and rape while many other women and girls have been trafficked for prostitution to Thailand. 1993 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

position of women
FREEDOM [image, unknown]
Authoritarian military regime. Thousands of political prisoners, subject to torture. Forced labour and population displacement. No independent media. 1993 [image, unknown]

SEXUAL MINORITIES [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Buddhism is traditionally tolerant though homosexuality is illegal for men and imprisonable for 10 years (women are not mentioned in the law). No overt lesbian or gay groups or activities. Traditionally, transgendered people have an accepted place in society though the legal situation is unclear.

life expectancy


NI Assessment [image, unknown]
One of the world's most oppressive and secretive regimes. Western governments have applied economic sanctions but these are undermined by Thailand and by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations which serve as apologists for the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi remains an iconic figure and a symbol of resistance but she and the National League for Democracy have little immediate prospect of power. The most likely route to freedom is through some kind of infighting within the military that might cause the regime to implode.

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New Internationalist issue 377 magazine cover This article is from the April 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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