Myanmar, earlier known as Burma, was a Buddhist kingdom until 1885 when the Burmese were defeated by the British-Indian troops. Burma was ruled as a province of British India until 1937 when it was given the status of a state under the British crown. Britain granted independence to Burma in 1948.
The country has an area of 676,578 sqkm and a population of 56,320,206. In the good old days Burma was a rich country. It was a country with vast tracts of land with low population. It used to export almost 40% of the rice produced in the country. During the period of British rule (1885 to 1948) resources like petroleum and natural gas were explored and developed. Apart from that it also had the famous Burmese timber, tin, zinc, copper, coal, marble, limestone and precious stones like Burmese ruby. Recently it also developed hydropower. It also has both fresh water as well as sea water fish.
When Britain set up colonies in East Africa, it took middle grade workers (like foreman, supervisor, etc.) from India to Kenya and Uganda. Similarly they also took Indians to Burma after 1885. Because of proximity the lion’s share of such Indians were from Bangladesh, especially from the Chittagong region. The last such major migration took place between 1941 and 1945 when British-Indian troops entered Burma to fight the Japanese. Then-Brigadier Ayub Khan and then-Major Osmani were with General Bill Slim who later became the chief of the Imperial Army. Civilians were taken with them to support their war efforts.
These civilians later settled mostly in the Arakan region. Together they now constitute about 4.5% of the total Burmese population known as Rakhine Muslims. Today the ethnic structure of the population is about 68% Burman, 9% Shan, 7% Karen, about 4.5% Rakhine and rest of Chinese descent. By religion it would be like 89% Buddhist, 4% Muslim and 4% Christian apart from few others. There has been no migration of Indians/Pakistanis or Bangladeshis to Myanmar after it achieved independence in 1948. This means, the Rohingya Muslims have been a part of Burmese society even before Burma attained its independence in 1948.
During the Second World War Aung San was a senior officer in the British Burmese Army. In 1941 when the Japanese Army entered Burma with a view to defeat Britain in India, Aung San joined them with his followers. However, he soon changed his mind and later signed an agreement with Britain in 1947. He was mysteriously assassinated before Burma gained its independence. He is still regarded as a war hero and freedom fighter. The government of independent Burma offered his widow a diplomatic role. She came to Delhi with her young daughter Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced as aung-san su-chi).
Suu Kyi grew up amid privilege. She had her early education in a front-rank English medium school in India and then moved to Oxford University in England. She also spent some time in New York, working for the United Nations. She fell in love with a Briton named Michael Aris in late 1960s and eventually married him in 1972. Their first son Alexander was born in 1973 and second son Kim in 1977.
Half a world away Burma, once a rich, thriving and prosperous nation, was sliding into poverty and violence. As it often happens in third world countries, the military led by General Ne Win considered themselves as the only patriotic force which could do all the good for the country, and hence took over power in 1962. Burma had all the resources and potential to make greater economic success than Thailand or Vietnam. Instead the military plunged the nation into darkness and isolation.
They would not allow the Burmese to travel abroad. Not to speak of any investment, foreigners were scared of visiting Burma. They nationalized every possible industry and business, and thereby killed the spirit of entrepreneurship. Resources were looted and plundered by corrupt officials. Burmese banks were not allowed to make international transactions. Even letters of credit had to be opened through a Singapore bank authorized by the military. The military government lacked even rudimentary skill or knowledge.
Having failed to achieve any political, social or economic growth, it resorted to certain unnecessary activities to divert the attention of the poor people away from the core problems. In all other countries of the region (India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia) vehicles keep to the left. The military government decided that vehicles should drive on the right side of the road. Most of the motor vehicles are either second-hand or reconditioned Japanese vehicle that are right-hand drive vehicles meant to keep left. I have seen the chaos on the road as they cannot see ahead before overtaking another vehicle. The second such action was to change the spelling of Rangoon to Yangon as if it would change the fate of the people. Of course even the biggest change, that is, the change of the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar made no difference to the poverty and problems of the common people.
The military government then had to do something unique. After crushing the mass upsurge against the military dictatorship, the government decided to play the old game – pitting people against people. The 1988 Nationality Act stripped the Rohingya Muslims of their Burmese/Myanmar nationality and made them stateless. It is something that Idi Amin had tried by driving away all the Indians as if they were the root cause of all miseries. It made the Ugandans even poorer. The military government evicted the Muslim Rohingya from their properties, bundled up all the Rohingya and took them to segregated camps. The Rohingya became refugees in their own countries. That was not enough.
The administration spread rumors of Muslims having raped Buddhist girls and instigated the Buddhists against the Muslims. They achieved a short-term goal by engaging the people against each other instead of having a movement for democracy. The military junta became a big joke to the outside world when it decided, in 2005, on the advice of fortune tellers, to shift the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw. Myanmar, where the common people cannot even afford two square meals a day, has already spent over three billion dollars on this program. This project was definitely one last big opportunity for the junta to make some more money.
In 1988, when Suu Kyi heard about her mother being on the death bed she rushed back to Myanmar to be by her mother’s bedside. Soon Suu Kyi’s mother died. As she was thinking of coming back to her husband and two sons in Britain, something dramatic happened. Hundreds of Burmese gathered in front of her house chanting her father’s name and asking her to get their freedom back. She burst into tears. The next day on the steps of the famous golden pagoda she declared to thousands of cheering people that her life was for them and she would never abandon them.
Since that day she joined the struggle for democracy. She named her group and party the National League for Democracy (NLD). The military junta got worried about the increasing popularity of Suu Kyi. They hurriedly called an election in 1990 to ensure a guided democracy under their shadow and supervision to oust Suu Kyi from the political scene. Surprisingly—mainly for the junta—the NLD won the election by a large margin. The election result was declared null and void by the supreme military council and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.
Difficult times lay ahead for Suu Kyi. Husband Michael Aris was diagnosed with cancer. On her advice Michael wanted to come Myanmar to meet her but the cruel military regime would not grant him a visa. The junta, instead, wanted Suu Kyi to travel to the UK. Suu Kyi knew once she went out she would not be allowed to return to Myanmar. The junta would score a quick victory. She resisted all pain and temptation and stayed back in Myanmar. On March 27, 1999, Suu KKyi was driven to the British Ambassador’s residence for a telephone call and she came to know of her husband’s death on his 53rd birthday.
Meantime, Suu Kyi had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights. Her sacrifices can only be compared to those of Nelson Mandela. The western world surprisingly remained aloof of all developments in Myanmar. It was 20 years ago that Madeleine Albright, then President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the UN, travelled to Burma to meet Aung Suu Kyi, temporarily freed after years of house arrest. President George Bush’s period mostly passed in a war called “you are either with us or with them”. There was no time for Myanmar or Suu Kyi.
Then President Obama showed the courage to visit Myanmar and meet Suu Kyi. It was also followed by a visit by the British Prime Minister. The junta realized the significance of the Nobel Peace Prize and the high profile visits, one after another. The military junta decided to give a constitution and election, making sure of three things: Suu Kyi should never become head of state or government; the military will still hold the key to veto any decision of the government; and the Rakhine Muslims should be altogether removed from the political process. The constitution presented in 2008 made it clear that anyone married to a foreigner or whose children are foreign nationals cannot become the head of state or government. It also kept 25% parliament seats reserved for the armed forces. It kept the ministry of state home security and defense reserved for the armed forces. It required more than 75% vote for any amendment.
Suu Kyi’s party the NLD boycotted the 2010 election. However, after her release in November 2010 the party participated in by-elections in 2012 for 44 seats and won 43. A civilian government was finally sworn in. However, after mounting pressure from the outside world the government was forced to give a free and fair election in 2015 in which Suu Kyi’s NLD won a landslide victory. It is now to be seen how the military junta respects the people’s verdict and how the NLD can pull the nation out from poverty to progress and prosperity. With the limitations imposed under the present constitution, the elected government will find it difficult to implement its plans and projects.
Since 1962 the military regime has no achievement of which it can be proud of except one thing: they have permanently poisoned the minds of majority Buddhist Burmese against the Rakhine Muslims as if these 4% of the population is the root cause of all evils. The people have been brainwashed in such a manner that they see nothing wrong with all the atrocities done to the Muslims. The Rakhine Muslims cannot get a job under the government – civil or military. They cannot even engage in any business. They cannot send their children to schools. So much so that they require prior approval to get married or have children.
Despite all the provocation, Suu Kyi, the champion of human rights remained silent. She knew that it was made such a sensitive issue that if she uttered a single word in support of the Muslims she would lose her popularity with the majority population. By remaining silent she proved her political wisdom and maturity. Now that she won the election she would perhaps do something about it to rectify the tarnished image of the nation.
The new government will have a lot to do. All sorts of restrictions, permits, controls and licenses must go. Liberate the people and their lives. Travel restrictions must go. Make information accessible. The government should facilitate business but not engage in business. A liberal approach must be taken for growth of trade, commerce and industries. Private enterprises must be supported. Foreign investment must be encouraged. Massive investment is required in transport and communication sectors. Huge public spending has to be made for education and health care. Rakhine Muslims must be brought back to the mainstream. Above all, democratic values, such as human rights, freedom of expression, equality and justice must be restored. Perhaps it has to start with an amendment to the constitution.