Mysterious Myanmar – Burma
Since 1990, a military junta has ruled this largely Buddhist nation. An election in 2010 created a “civilian” government but the large numbers of ex-military officers in major positions within this government suggest that the junta still is in control. The junta took control of the nation in 1990 after the last free election placed an opposition party into power.
Burma is officially a “union” and the Burmese make up just 68 percent of the country’s population. The northern part of the country is a mix of various ethnic groups and their relationship with the central government in Rangoon has been tenuous, often violent, for decades. The Shan, Chin and Kachin peoples had been granted a degree of autonomy after World War II but that arrangement broke down in the late 1970′s. There has been fighting off and on ever since and Thailand has reluctantly absorbed thousands of refugees.
Burma has been among the most isolated nations on earth for many years. China has been Burma’s main ally since Western nations placed economic restrictions on the nation due to its human rights record. The government’s policies have heavily funded the military, promoted Burmese nationalism and, at times, been described as “fundamentalist Buddhist”.
The Indian government is seeking to build better relations with the Burmese. With that nation’s long coastline on the Indian Ocean, it presents a strategic risk to India. Burma is also rich in natural resources that a growing Indian economy craves. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently paid a state visit to Burma. The Telegraph reports that it was the first such visit in 25 years.
On May 17, President Obama named Derek Mitchell to be ambassador to Burma. He would be the first U.S. ambassador to that nation in 22 years, according to the Voice of America. The U.S. is also moving to reduce restrictions on American investment in Burma and trade with Burma. A State Department spokesman described that process as focusing on incentivizing good behaviors, and focusing on “bad actors” in and out of the Burmese government.
Much of this change in position is the result of the Burmese government’s changes in behavior over the last year. Several hundred political prisoners have been released. Talks have bee started with various ethnic armies. Small protests are being allowed without police interference.
Both India and the United States have good reason to warm relations with Burma. Chinese influence in the reclusive state has made it of strategic concern to both nations. The Chinese are constructing a number of major projects, including a gas pipeline, dams, medical clinics and re-establishing the rail link between the two nations.
More information about Burma:
- CIA Factbook
- State Department Background Notes – Burma
- BBC – Burma profile
- Human Rights Watch – Burma
- National Geographic – Myanmar: Land of Shadows
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