Democracy Now? A Preposterously Brief Burmese History

Democracy Now? A Preposterously Brief Burmese History

Today, as I breathe a far away sigh of relief to see the words ‘President Barack Obama for another 4 years’, it reminds me of just how lucky I am. I have the luxury of voting, the luxury of choosing to live in another country, and the luxury to travel to almost anywhere in the world freely with my US passport.

“People in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter, the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.” Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech.

Nowhere does this seem more relevant than the country I just visited, Burma (Myanmar).

Burma’s politics are contradictory, backwards, confusing, and very difficult to explain. This is my interpretation from a variety of sources. I have tried to be as accurate as possible, but often it is difficult to know what is really happening there based on the news. I will skip its old history and start around 100 years ago.

After being a British colony from 1886 – 1947  Burma fell under the rule of U Nu and things started going downhill. In 1958 it fell under the horrible dictatorship of Ne Win for essentially 30 years and things got progressively worse.

1988 – On 8.8.88 civilians non-violently demonstrated against the government and at least 3,000 people were massacred. Aung San Suu Kyi had returned from England to see her ill mother. She spoke out at the protests on 8.8.88 and became the secretary-general of the National League of Democracy, who won general elections. The military would not relinquish their power and essentially quashed democracy for the foreseeable future.

Despite a continued military rule, Suu Kyi was/is seen as a hope for Burma’s future. In 1989 she was put under house arrest, where she remained for the better part of 20 years. In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize.

(image from

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, because Burmese government committed multitudes of human rights abuses on its own people, many foreign countries banned travel, investment, and any kind of economics in the country.

2007 – Prices of gas and petrol rose more than 200%, which made all goods expensive. This caused the ‘Saffron Revolution’, which was neither saffron nor a revolution but a protest by 50,000 monks (whose robes are  burgundy in Burma). There was widely televised footage of the government killing monks in the street. At least 30 monks were killed.

2008 – Cyclone Nargis destroyed much around Yangon killing at least 140,000 and leaving many others  homeless. When other countries stepped in to help, the Myanmar government refused any type of aid for its people.

2010 – ‘Elections’ showed that the military-backed party ‘won’. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest a few days later. Since these elections, government reforms have started taking place. Burma’s military rule has been replaced with a military-backed nominally civilian government. I’m not sure how different that is, but it sounds like a step in the right direction on the ‘roadmap to democracy’.

Now it’s November 2012 – Violence in Rahkhine state has been in the news for the past few months on a daily basis. Foreign investment has started happening, which could be good or go completely wrong.

I have read that Burma “warmly welcomes” President Obama’s visit next week. He is the first US President to visit Burma. He would like to encourage the country in its ‘democratic transition’.

Burmese leader Thein Sein said he would accept Aung San Suu Kyi as president if the people vote for her in the next election in 2015.

So what will Burma’s future be? I don’t know. I just knew it seemed like a good time to visit my neighbor while in transition for what will hopefully be changes for the better. Travel restrictions have lessened in the main tourist areas, though special permits are needed for parts of the country and other parts are still off limits. In a few years Burma could be a very different place, some parts for the better, other parts could be worse.

Despite its horrible government, the people are absolutely lovely, the country is incredibly picturesque, and there was and air of innocence that felt a little bit like stepping back in time. It is hard to believe that in a place where people have faced such atrocities that they could be so genuinely kind, but they were. As with any country, especially Burma and the US, the government and the news do not paint an accurate portrait of its people.

I wish Burma luck on achieving democracy, stability, and peace. The people deserve it.

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