Country profile: Myanmar
Almost two years after the military seized power, the determination of Myanmar’s resistance movement has only grown. ‘We will never give up,’ says a deposed lawmaker-turned-revolutionary who remains in the same jungle camp he fled to last year, taking up arms after junta forces viciously crushed peaceful protests against the coup.
Just six years ago Myanmar was celebrated as Asia’s fastest-growing economy. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was the country’s de facto leader. After years of isolation under repressive military rule a slew of political and economic reforms were under way. The country was firmly back on the tourist trail, investors rushed in, and it appeared as though Myanmar was on a path towards democracy.
But beneath the veneer, its parliament was still stacked in the military’s favour under a junta-era constitution. Outside the urban heartlands, security forces were fighting ethnic minority militias, their atrocities against civilians mounting. None of this caught the world’s attention – unlike the mass exodus of the Rohingya Muslim minority into Bangladesh as a result of a horrific military campaign of massacres, rape and arson. That Suu Kyi herself would go on to personally defend the military at the International Court of Justice was unconscionable for her former global supporters. For many at home, however, she was still a hero.
But in spite of the military’s continued stranglehold on power, the February 2021 coup caught many by surprise. After another overwhelming defeat at the polls, the generals executed the illegal takeover that has thrust Myanmar into even deeper crisis. More than 2,200 civilians have been killed and over 12,000 detained – including Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders. Tens of thousands have been displaced. Food insecurity, poverty and inequality are all growing. According to a UN estimate a quarter of the population will need aid during 2022.
After Myanmar, then called Burma, won independence from British colonial rule in 1948, it was roiled for years by political feuds and ethnic conflicts. The 1962 army coup forced it under the rule of successive military juntas for nearly half a century.
But this latest power grab has set the country on an altogether new trajectory. Elected lawmakers formed a government-in-exile – the National Unity Government (NUG) – within weeks of the coup. It is led by the most diverse cabinet to date – including anti-coup protest leaders and ethnic minority members – aiming to establish an inclusive federal democracy. There has also been an unprecedented wave of solidarity between Myanmar’s Bamar majority and minority groups, and thousands of young Bamar have trained with ethnic armed organizations since the coup. Fighting has spread countrywide, propelling Myanmar into a full-scale civil war.
‘People’s Defence Forces’ – a loose network of civilian militias mostly, but not all, aligned to the NUG – have sprung up across the nation. They are co-operating closely with several existing ethnic armed organizations but there are other ethnic militias, also fighting the military, that remain suspicious of Bamar politicians. By one estimate, the junta’s basic administration is not enforced in at least 50 percent of Myanmar.
As the junta escalates its violence to stay in control, Myanmar’s people persist with non-violent protest and armed resistance. Some analysts fear an eventual fragmentation of the country, and ethnic minority militias could become the kingmakers. But the NUG is also gaining ground despite a far better equipped adversary, and international recognition of its legitimacy could change the course of a conflict with no obvious end in sight. What is clear, as every activist has told me, is that there’s no turning back.
LEADER: Duwa Lashi La, acting president of the National Unity Government. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, chief of the ruling junta.
ECONOMY: GNI per capita: $4,230 (Thailand $7,260, UK $49,420).
Monetary unit: Myanmar Kyat (1 MMK = $0.0004).
Main exports: Natural gas, rice, refined copper, garments, dried legumes and gems. Unofficially Myanmar is the world’s largest producer of synthetic drugs and the second-largest producer of opium.
POPULATION: 54.8 million. Annual population growth: 0.7%. Population density: 84 people per square kilometre (Thailand 137, UK 278).
HEALTH: Under-5 mortality rate: 44 per 1,000 live births (Thailand 9, UK 4). Maternal mortality per 100,000 live births: 250 (Thailand 37, UK 7). Healthcare is poorly funded and doctors are unevenly distributed throughout the population, leaving the rural poor especially impacted by out-of-pocket medical expenses.
ENVIRONMENT: Myanmar is a treasure trove of biodiversity. Vast mountains and hills define the north, east and west. It is also home to coastal mangroves, fast-flowing rivers, freshwater lakes and a fertile delta region in the south. Myanmar is widely considered one of the countries in the world most vulnerable to climate change, at frequent risk of tropical cyclones and flooding.
CULTURE: The state recognizes 135 ‘national races’ in Myanmar but there are many other groups in this hugely diverse country that have not been given official status, including the persecuted Rohingya.
RELIGION: Nearly 90 percent of the population follows Theravada Buddhism, though there is no official state religion. Christians and Muslims make up the two biggest minorities alongside smaller communities of animists, Hindus and others.
LANGUAGE: Myanmar is one of the world’s most linguistically diverse nations with more than 100 spoken languages including Burmese (official), Mon, Shan, Rohingya, Arakanese and Jinghpaw.
HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.583 (Thailand 0.777, UK 0.932), rank 147 of 189 countries.
INCOME DISTRIBUTION ★✩✩✩✩
About 40% of the population are living below the national poverty line after Myanmar’s economy effectively collapsed following last year’s military coup. Many now rely on charity for food, and inequality is set to become more entrenched.
The literacy rate is 89% (females 86% and males 92%), but the relatively high figure conceals the stark disparities in educational attainment between rural and urban areas.
LIFE EXPECTANCY ★★✩✩✩
At 67 years (Thailand 77, UK 81), life expectancy in Myanmar is the lowest among its neighbours. Low state spending on healthcare is further threatened by the fallout of the coup and pandemic.
POSITION OF WOMEN ★★★✩✩
Military rule and the pandemic have pushed back recent gains in women’s rights. Rapidly shrinking incomes and the fear of violence prevent many from leading a normal life.
Myanmar has a long history of persecuting religious and ethnic minorities. UN investigators have said the military crackdown against the Rohingya has had ‘genocidal intent’. Since seizing power last year junta security forces have conducted mass killings and arbitrary arrests.
SEXUAL MINORITIES ★★✩✩✩
LGBTQI+ people have routinely faced stigmatization, discrimination and abuse in Myanmar, where homosexuality is criminalized under the colonial-era Section 377 of the penal code. A 2020 survey suggested support for decriminalization but there are no hopes for any reform under junta rule.
Myanmar’s military has ousted the country’s elected government but it would be wrong to say it controls the country’s politics, with large swathes of territory now under NUG control. Still, the junta has instigated widespread chaos and for this reason the rating is one star. The NUG is far from perfect and remains untested, but it has made important commitments including citizenship for the Rohingya. It already commands popular support in Myanmar.