You may have never heard of Myanmar until you read about the violence against monks that has been making world headline news over the last few weeks. Just what are the problems in the country? Why are monks under attack? Let’s examine these questions about the country called Myanmar.
The myriad of problems in Myanmar begin with its name. Myanmar was formerly known as Burma until June 18, 1989, when the military ruling junta officially changed the English version of the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar. Some western governments, namely those of the United States, Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, continue to use “Burma”. These governments and Burmese opposition groups do not recognize the new name because they do not recognize the legitimacy and authority of the ruling military government.
The current Head of State is General Than Shwe, who holds the posts of “Chairman of the State Peace And Development Council” and “Commander in Chief of the Defense Services”. The military government allows little room for political organizations and has outlawed many political parties and underground student organizations. The economic mismanagement of the military government has made Myanmar the poorest country in southeast Asia.
There is no independent judiciary in the country and human rights abuses by the military government are rampant. The military government restricts Internet access through software-based censorship that limits the material citizens can access online.
The military is also notorious for rampant use of sexual violence as an instrument of control, including systematic rapes and the taking of sex slaves as porters for the military.
The mismanagement of the economy and the human rights abuse by the military government over the last twenty years has led to the current sorry state of affairs in Myanmar. It also should never have happened. A legitimately elected government was never allowed to take office.
In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi left England and her family and returned to Burma to take care of her dying mother during a period of political change in the country. At the time, the socialist government was in the process of turning power over to a military junta led by General Saw Maung.
Aung San Suu Kyi would soon enter politics to work for democracy for Burma. She is the daughter of one of the Burma’s most celebrated heroes, the martyred General Aung San, (who led his country’s fight for independence from Great Britain in the 1940s and was assassinated in 1947). She attended schools in Oxford, England and received a P.H.D. from the University of London. She was heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandi’s philosophy of nonviolence. She would lead similar nonviolent protests against economic mismanagement and political oppression in Burma.
The Burmese army would suppress this political opposition by firing on demonstrators on August 8, 1988, and declaring martial law. Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest on July 20, 1989. She was offered freedom if she would leave the country, but she refused. However, these 1988 protests led to the 1990 People’s Assembly elections.
She ran for election against General Saw Maung’s government, winning over 60% of the vote and over 80% of the Parliamentary Seats. She was elected to be the Country’s Prime Minister in the first election held in Burma in thirty years. The Military Junta won less than 2% of the seats. The election results were subsequently annulled by General Saw Maung’s government and everyone associated with the newly elected government was arrested.
However, Aung San Suu Kyi earned international recognition as an activist for the return of democratic rule to Burma, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi authorized the use of the Nobel Peace Prize’s $1.3 million to establish a health and education trust for the Burmese people
Since then, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more than 11 of the past 17 years behind bars or under house arrest. Her latest stretch of detention started “for her own safety” on May 30, 2003, after clashes between her supporters and pro-junta demonstrators. She has been held virtually incommunicado, with her telephone line cut, and all visitors, apart from her housemaid and doctor, barred.
This brings us to the worldwide headlines of events in Myanmar in recent weeks. The government’s increase in the price of fuel (price was doubled) has sparked widespread, peaceful protests in this poor country. On Saturday, September 22, 2007, monks marched to greet Aung San Suu Kyi, who is held in a villa under house arrest. In fact, monks have become involved in other non-violent protests, but even their sacred station in that society has not stopped the military junta from attacking them. The military crackdown in recent days has led to deaths and numerous injuries.
The concern over the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi has led to comments from South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu. He said, “She’s my only pin-up in my office. It is incumbent on us to say: no, please, for goodness’ sake, listen to the calls of the people. The people are saying we just want freedom and democracy. Please, please, how can men armed to the teeth be scared of this petite, demure, beautiful woman?”
The answer to Desmond Tutu’s last question is in the first two lines of Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous speech, “Freedom From Fear”, which she gave in 1990. She said, “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
It is an outrage that Aung San Suu Kyi has been imprisoned and not allowed to hold her elected office since 1990. The United Nations has not been effective in resolving the situation and has even recognized the country’s name change authorized by the illegitimate ruling military junta. This dubious result is reflected in the country’s violent events reported in the latest world wide headlines. The sad truth is that for Myanmar, after seventeen years of illegitimate rule, there is still no “Freedom From Fear”.