The village of Laing Khin in Nagaland – one of the remotest areas of northwest Burma – has no electricity or running water.
Yet here, the grandchildren of the Naga headhunters wear T-shirts showing Korean popstar Sy and play football pretending to be David Beckham. Their teenage siblings perch on $500 Chinese motorbikes, wear hunting rifles on their backs and text each other on Huawei smartphones. Globalization has arrived in the farthest corners of the former pariah state.
In less than five years, Burma* has undergone widespread change.
In November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, following victory for the military government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party in the country’s first elections for 20 years – elections widely condemned as fraudulent.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the last election in 1990 by a landslide, but the result was ignored by the military.
In 2011, Thein Sein was sworn in as president of a new, nominally civilian, government. Since then, progress in human rights has included the release of thousands of political prisoners; a ceasefire with ethnic militia groups; and abolition of pre-publication media censorship.
In April 2012, Suu Kyi was elected to parliament in a by-election. In response, the EU and US suspended all non-military sanctions against Burma. President Obama became the first sitting US president to visit the country. Consequently, economic growth has skyrocketed, driven by surging foreign direct investment, big increases in aid, and rising commodity exports (primarily oil and gas).
However, Burma’s democratic transition still faces many hurdles.
In November 2014, Suu Kyi criticized the US for its excessive optimism about Burma’s reforms. The sudden influx of foreign capital has led to rising prices, with many Burmese priced out of living in Rangoon.
Infrastructure outside economic centres remains poor or non-existent, despite frenetic building, and impedes basic health and education services.
Inequality is rising as regime cronies benefit from post-sanctions economic opportunities. Rural populations have faced eviction to make way for new developments – for example, for the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, a joint Burmese-Japanese venture, 24 kilometres outside Rangoon.
Although the Burmese media no longer operates under direct censorship, the authorities routinely harass journalists.
In October 2014, freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, known for his reporting on ethnic conflicts, died while in the custody of the Tatmadaw (Burmese military). Ownership of the new commercial media by regime cronies – the only ones with capital to invest – acts as a restraint on political reporting.
Thus, Burma still ranked 156 out of 175 countries on the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other international observers record ongoing human rights abuses in Burma, including forced labour and the recruitment of thousands of child soldiers.
Political turmoil and ethnic conflict following the country’s independence in 1948 provided the military with its original pretext for seizing power.
Our research suggests that the military will again use ethnic strife to justify its hold on power before this year’s elections. The government has done little to stem the growing tide of Buddhist extremism – such as the activities of the notorious 969 Movement – that has increased violence against the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in western Rakhine State.
The government points to recent inter-ethnic riots – such as those in Meiktila, Mandalay and Bago – to argue that now is not the time to reject the stability of military rule.
After decades of totalitarian oppression, corruption, and the regime’s paranoid and incompetent handling of the emergency response to cyclone Nargis in 2008, few Burmese would agree.
*Burma was renamed Myanmar by the military government in 1989. However, democracy movements prefer the name Burma. Both names have the same linguistic root.
At a glance
- President Thein Sein, a former military commander (from March 2011).
- GNI per capita $3,998, one of the lowest in East Asia (Thailand $13,364, UK $35,002). Monetary unit:Myanmar Kyat (MMK). Main exports: Oil and natural gas; minerals and gems; agricultural products. Economic reforms since 2011 have stimulated the private sector and foreign direct investment. The economy grew by 8.3% in 2013-14, driven mainly by construction, manufacturing and services but also by agricultural recovery.
- 51.4 million (2014 census). People per square kilometre 76 (UK 260). Annual population growth rate 1990-2013 1%.
- Infant mortality rate 40 per 1,000 live births (Thailand 11, UK 4). Lifetime risk of maternal mortality 1 in 250 (UK 1 in 6,900). HIV prevalence rate 0.6%. Burma spends a pitiful 2% of GDP on healthcare. Malaria is the leading cause of death; TB prevalence is three times the global rate.
- Major problems include deforestation, overcultivation of arable land, overfishing, and environmental destruction due to oil, gas and mineral extraction.
- Burma has over 130 ethnic groups, the main ones being Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2% and Mon 2%. Since 1948, the government has fought continually against some minority ethnic groups.
- Theravada Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Catholic 1%), Muslim 4%, Animist 1%, other 2%.
- Burmese (official), but many ethnic groups have their own language.
- 0.524, ranked 150 out of 187 (Thailand 0.722, UK 0.892).