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South East Asia

South Asia








Even more than other south east Asian states Burma is very diverse, ethnically and linguistically. The Tibeto-Burman people, the ancestors of the modern Burmans arrived about 500 BC. However, there are many other ethnic groups. The British ruled these in autonomous states, partly separate from Burma proper. The largest group were the federated Shan states, ruled mostly by their traditional rulers, though with a British Commissioner to supervise. In British times these were not considered part of Burma itself.

The three Karen states were also ruled by the British but like the native states of India were considered bound to the Empire by treaty rather than conquest, and were not part of Burma colony.

The first Burmese kingdom was founded about 1000 AD. It was disrupted by a Mongol invasion in 1287. The kingdom was refounded by the 16th century. It was conquered by the Mons (Khmers) in 1752 but regained independence in 1757. As with Tibet China has claims on the kingdoms of the area, as tributaries. Probably the current regime in China still regards Burma as in their sphere of influence and votes against UN sanctions on the undemocratic regime controlling Burma.

The British East India Company attempted to trade with the area but failed to establish a base (factory). The British conquered Burma in three wars ending in 1885. The first war was in 1823, mainly to prevent the Burmese from occupying parts of Assam (now in India). A war in 1852 led to the capture of Rangoon and the setting up of a British administration in Lower Burma. The conquest of Upper Burma occurred in 1885. After that the British made Burma a province of India. From 1897 there was a local colonial administration with an appointed Legislative Council. From 1923 the legislation in India that began to set up provincial parliaments was applied to Burma, as a province of India. Local ministers supervised local government functions.

There was a peasant pro-Buddhist rising in 1931 which led to the British separating Burma from India in 1937. At that time the British began organizing the country for "Dominion status" with a new constitution providing responsible local government. There was an elected House of Representatives and a partly elected Senate, with half appointed by the British Governor. By the time the Japanese invaded there was a Burmese Prime Minister and cabinet with the governor retaining reserve powers.

What is the relevance of the above to what happened after the second world war? If the British had continued to control the colony they would probably have called a constitutional conference which would have settled the problems of the many ethnic groups and perhaps devised a constitution which recognised all their needs. The Japanese occupation prevented that evolution. At the end of the war the British left without developing any constitution.

The ethnic origin of the people is different from the people of India. The dominant religion is Buddhism of the type found in Tibet, from where the main languages come. However, the country is also home to a number of other ethnic groups and is not at all homogenous in population - the main root of the political problems. As with many other British colonies the post-independence governments failed to treat all the peoples equally.

It is surrounded by mountain ranges which made travel between Burma and India difficult. The British failed to build either a road connection or a railway into India. It was only in 1939 that a road was built to Yunnan in China. Thus from the British point of view the country was connected to the rest of the empire by sea (and later, by air).

The Japanese occupied the land from 1942 to 1945. While they occupied the country the Japanese founded an army in their own image - a very brutal and arrogant officer corps. Thus whereas the British-trained Indian Army has not interfered in politics, the Burmese army has run the country since 1962.

Burma became independent in 1948 but did not wish to join the Commonwealth. U Nu was the Prime Minister at independence. A coup in 1962 led by General Ne Win, the army chief, inaugurated the Burmese Socialist Program Party which created a dictatorship, nationalized industry and caused economic stagnation. He remained in power until replaced by the governing generals who continued most of his policies.

The main problem of Burma, apart from the dictatorship, is the rebellion of minority non-Burmese peoples, especially the Karens who have been fighting for independence since 1950. They were treated as a separate minority by the British. The dictatorship itself may be partly a result of the difficulties the previous civilian regime had with the rebellions, and its failure to come to an agreement with them. As with many other former British territories part of the problem is that the British colony included areas that were not previously part of the Burmese kingdom.

The name of the country was changed to Myanmar by the military regime following the 1990 aborted elections. They also changed the name of the capital (to Yangon) and have moved the seat of the government away from the city to a remoter and more defensible area - harder for the ordinary people to reach.

Tacit support for the regime is coming from Thailand and China who are trading with it and refuse to implement sanctions requested by western nations and Japan. Since neither country has a democratic regime, these are not sympathetic to encouraging democracy in their neighbor.

Among the numerous atrocities of the regime is the violent mass expulsion of the Rohinga Muslim minority to Bangladesh. This has burdened Bangladesh with the problem of receiving refugees in an overcrowded country.

The border area with Thailand and parts of the Irrawaddy Delta are populated by this group who consider themselves different from the Burmans. During the British period they were treated differently and many were converted to Christianity. During the war they fought against the Japanese on behalf of and with British guerrilla forces (the Chindits). They were promised separate independence by the British officers to encourage them to fight, then ignored at the independence conference. Oppression by the majority began almost immediately after independence and the civil war has been going on ever since 1947.

By 1997 their territory had been reduced by the Burmese army to a few enclaves.

12 January 2012 the government has announced a ceasefire agreement with the Karen fighters. Will this lead to a permanent peace?


Over 100 languages. but most are spoken by the hill tribes.

Tibeto-Burman languages are related to the Turkic languages of Central Asia.

Burmese (related to Tibetan) - 70%







The long standing single-party dictatorship (Burma Socialist Program Party) of Ne Win apparently came to an end in 1988 with riots by students and others who demanded free elections. The government had to agree to elections.

The country was then ruled by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), probably still influenced by Ne Win. This government repudiated the May 1990 election which the National League for Democracy is believed to have won.

The National League is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the first leader of independent Burma but she was put under house arrest on 21 July 1989. The military have not allowed the elected parliament to assemble and Suu Kyi remains in detention. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 but not permitted to receive it. She is being held because she refuses to leave the country or undertake not to take part in politics. She returned to the country at the time of the elections after living in Britain for many years (married to an Oxford academic).

It is believed that the present government is in fact a continuation of the previous regime. It has changed its name to State Peace and Development Council but remains a military dictatorship. Ne Win, aged 92 in 2002, was said to have been under house arrest himself following disagreements within the military regime. He died in December 2002.

Those in power may fear being put on trial for their atrocities if democracy arrives. Aung San was 'released' in July 1995. However, she was soon after returned to house arrest with no freedom of movement. On 6 May 2002 there were again reports of her release. Time will show whether this leads to democracy. Her release might have been the equivalent of the release of Nelson Mandela (if it had been real).

It may be that the military were forced to act after a period of sanctions by some important trading partners.

Until 2010 she remained under house arrest and her party was suppressed.

In August 2007 the military government raised the price of motor fuel arbitrarily by cutting subsidies, doubling petrol and diesel, and quintupling compressed Natural Gas for buses. As a result the cost of transport, especially for the poor, soared. Mass demonstrations, especially by Buddhist monks, followed. Could this be the beginning of the end of the military dictatorship? The outcome probably depends on the attitude and actions of China and India, neither of whom seem on the surface to be much bothered.

By 1 October 2007 it seemed the regime was fully in control again, having arrested the demonstrating monks, killed some and imprisoned others, and killing an unknown number of other people.

The BBC reports that many soldiers have deserted in silent protest against the assault on the monks, and that the army is now kidnapping children and forcing them to serve.

In May 2008 there was a catastrophic Cyclone (hurricane) that devastated areas of the south, especially the Irrawaddy Delta area, one of the main rice growing areas. The government seemed unable to deal with the problem, but refused to let UN and other foreign help come to the aid of the people. Maybe they should be nominated for the Bad Government prize (if there were one). Only Zimbabwe would be a competitor.

The government called elections in November 2010, but the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi did not to take part. International observers, in so far as they could see anything from outside the country, are dubious about the honesty of the elections, which saw a "victory" for the regime.

Shortly after the elections the regime declared that Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest.

In October 2011 there are signs of a tentative relaxation of the dictatorship. Has the ruling clique thrown up a Gorbachov - someone with liberal ideas who has risen in the hierarchy, silently, until becoming president?

The National League has said that some of its members will stand in the elections in 2012.

Interesting reading

Emma Larkin - Secret Histories (finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop) - the author travels to the places where Orwell lived and talks to people about the dictatorship - one of the worst in the world

Thant Myint-U - Where China meets India

Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia

Guardian review

Democratic Voice of Burma

Useful text if you can find it

Burma Handbook 1944 published in India by the colonial administration in exile during Japanese occupation.

Aung Suu Kyi's second Reith lecture







The attempted autarky of the Ne Win military socialist regime has had the usual effect, a very low standard of living. Although complete state ownership was supposed to have been ended after 1988 the economy remains at a low level, except for the oil and gas industries. The Generals are the ones who gain almost all the benefit.

The present regime is beginning to allow foreign companies in to exploit oil reserves, timber and fishing. There are reports of forest damage and over-fishing. SLORC hopes to be bailed out by western and Chinese oil companies who are invited to take the gas fields found in the Andaman Sea. Slave labor builds the roads and pipelines.

Commentators point out that the Generals, like many other dictatorships understand nothing about economics and have ruined the country (see Zimbabwe).

China wants the oil and gas.







The military regime is permitting exploitation of the teak forests by companies which are now restricted in neighboring Thailand. The result is stripping of the forests which can be expected to result in flooding, erosion and local climate change as well as ruin for the forest peoples who rely on the native forest for their traditional way of life.

AIDS is spreading from Thailand (to which some of the women are lured to "work" in the brothels). The government is said to have a policy of killing people infected with HIV.






Human Rights

One of the six worst countries for human rights along with:

  • China
  • Uzbekistan
  • North Korea
  • Sudan
  • Syria

Torture, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, execution without trial are common.

Forced labor on tourist sites and oil pipelines.

Climate effects

The May 2008 Cyclone is an example of the extreme weather events likely to be commoner as the sea surface warms up, and as the sea level rises, making large areas of the country vulnerable to flooding. In May 2008 the cyclone's low pressure caused the sea level to rise and invade large areas of land, drowning possibly 100,000 people and poisoning the soil with salt. (The military dictatorship tried to refuse all international help but provided almost none of their own.)

Last revised 12/01/12

South Asia


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