The military regime of Burma is considered one of the world's most repressive and abusive of its own people. Human rights are virtually nonexistent. The government has been suspected for years of marking certain ethnic minorities for extermination. One method of such extermination is the planting of land mines and then forcing minorities to walk in front of soldiers to protect them from the blasts as they patrol the countryside. Add to this forced child labor, human trafficking and repression of even the most basic freedoms such as the freedom of speech.
Democratic rule of Burma’s government ended in 1962 with a military coup. Power has transferred many times over and the current military regime took control of the government in 1988. The most recent Democratic election was held in 1990 and results subsequently nullified by the military when the election resulted in a win by the National Leage for Democracy (the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991). The government refused to hand over power and Ms. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest where she has remained for nearly 20 years. In today's Burmese society, political parties are largely controlled and repressed from daily activity. Elections have been promised sometime this year but it is very unlikely that any outcome resulting in a transfer of power will be upheld. The farce elections are only meant to try and legitimize the junta.
Even the Internet is monitored by the government and pages such as blogspot, facebook, hotmail and gmail are censored to limit what its citizens can view online. Cell phones are virtually nonexistent, as the SIM cards run upwards of $1000! Citizens are afraid of talking with foreigners in public as this may be seen as collusion. When we asked a friend from Burma, who lives in the US, if we could meet his family in Yangon the response was basically no due to the fear factor. If you wish to be taken from the airport to somewhere other than a hotel, you can rest assured that the government will wonder why and where.
Perhaps the most recent example of the junta's devastating rule is the refusal of international aid to and refusal of visas to foreign aid workers when Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008. Nargis devastated the country's Irrawaddy Delta causing nearly $4 billion in damage and leaving 138,000 people dead. What kind of regime does that to its own people?
Due to the military regime's ongoing human rights abuses, the detention of Nobel Peach Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi and the refusal to accept the winner of the the 1990 elections the country's foreign relations with the West are in shambles. Both the European Union and the United States have placed sanctions on Burma including import bans, arms embargos and frozen assets (of the military). All aid has been suspended with the exception of humanitarian aid (which is sometimes refused in an ill conceived effort of saving face). Relations with its Asian counterparts tend to be better, particularly with neighboring India and China. Burma is rich in natural resources, such as timber (teak in particular), oil and gas not to mention opium for heroin production (Burma is the world's 2nd largest producer of opium, second only to Afghanistan). Commercial ties and trade are strong with both India and China.
So why would we want to go there?
Well for starters, Burma is home of some of SE Asia’s friendliest people. Truly, after traveling around the region it’s difficult to imagine a place where smiles are so forthcoming, where you can hop into a taxi cab or negotiate a business transaction without worry of being taken advantage of. It’s really a breath of fresh air. The touts are practically nonexistent and where they are around they give up pretty easily. Traditions are taken seriously, you notice this as soon as you step off the plane just by the typical dress, the unisex saree, of the average “joe.”
It is in their eyes, the vision of an everyday working class, that you truly see the real impact of trade embargos and tourism boycotts. All of the nations wealth lies in the hands of a handful of military rulers that will always be able to find a market. Whether it’s ‘legitimate’ business transactions with the Chinese or Indians, or illegal smuggling – desired goods like jade, teak, and emeralds will find their way to market. Odds are that if you have purchased any teak furniture – it came from here thus supporting the junta. Much as the trade embargo with Cuba has resulted in no regime change for the past 40+ years, the same can be said here. In all that political bickering there remains still one constant – the normal, everyday people suffer. Common items to you and I like shampoo and toothpaste are scarce and expensive. Education is possible, but to what end? With tight controls, Burmese are not allowed to leave the country to find work and international business and commerce are not allowed to enter due to embargos. As our horse cart driver in Bagan says, “Of course I can study in university, but why? Earning a degree in business is of little use when there are no businesses to work in. I can make more money here driving this cart and I don’t need a degree for that.”
With that reality in mind, Burma needs what Vietnam, China, and Eastern Europe received 20 years ago, – Capitalism, free enterprise. Business has a funny way of changing the rules. When tax revenues begin to pour in, governments start to change their stance more and more. The change is not sudden, but rather gradual. As once strict communist countries began to relax the rules and began to open their borders to foreign investment the society changed. It was then possible for the kid with a degree to not only find a job, but eventually start their own business. A Middle Class begins to develop, and with wealth and power, are able to invoke change from within.
Foreign investment and opportunities are what the Burmese need. The heavy handed approach has had little desired results and it is unlikely to change anytime soon. Until the common man can get a leg up, their efforts are largely fruitless. Little resources are at their disposal and the struggle continues.
As long as the embargo is in place, little change will ever come. Until that day comes, may the Burmese continue sharing their struggle and warm hearts with all who will come and bother to listen.
We heart Burma.