Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar (Burma)
▪ 2009

Area:
676,577 sq km (261,228 sq mi)
Population
(2008 est.): 47,758,000
Capital:
Naypyidaw (site near Pyinmana)
Head of state and government:
Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council Gen. Than Shwe, assisted by Prime Minister Thein Sein (acting)

      The year 2008 marked the 20th anniversary of the nationwide pro- democracy uprising in Myanmar that sparked a brutal military crackdown. In February the ruling junta announced its decision to push ahead with its “road map to disciplined democracy” by holding a referendum on a military-sponsored draft constitution in May, to be followed by multiparty elections in 2010. The new constitution enshrined a leading role for the military in any future government. The 2010 elections would be the first since 1990, when the military ignored the results of a landslide victory for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

      Suu Kyi had been under house arrest for more than 13 of the past 19 years. In 2008, however, for the first time, she refused to meet the few officials permitted to see her, including Labour Minister Aung Kyi and the UN special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari. Her refusal to see Gambari underscored her opposition to his apparent backing of the junta's “road map” process. After rejecting food supplies in August and September, Suu Kyi managed to wrest modest concessions from the military. In a move in late September apparently aimed at easing international pressure, the military junta granted amnesty to some 9,000 prisoners, though only a small number of them were political prisoners.

      Tragedy struck in early May when Cyclone Nargis swept across Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta. The storm, which left more than 138,000 dead or missing, caused more than $4 billion in damages. (See Disasters.)

      The economy remained weak, with real GDP growth estimated at 0.9% in 2008. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, inflation averaged 27.7%, owing partly to the surge in food prices in the wake of the cyclone. The fiscal deficit was about 4% of GDP, the highest in Asia. On the positive side, foreign exchange reserves doubled to $2 billion in 2008, and export revenues were buoyant at $3.5 billion, largely as a result of exports of oil, natural gas, and gems.

      On the diplomatic front, China continued its substantial financial and political support for Myanmar's beleaguered regime. During the April visit to India of Gen. Maung Aye (the second-ranking general in the junta), he concluded an agreement for an India-funded multinodal transportation corridor that would link northeastern India with Myanmar's Sittwe port through the Kaladan River. Myanmar and North Korea engaged in several high-level contacts that raised new concerns about nuclear proliferation. The EU called for the imposition of an international arms embargo on Myanmar.

Mohan Malik

▪ 2008

Area:
676,577 sq km (261,228 sq mi)
Population
(2007 est.): 47,374,000
Capital:
Naypyidaw (site near Pyinmana)
Head of state and government:
Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council Gen. Than Shwe, assisted by Prime Ministers Lieut. Gen. Soe Win and, from April, Thein Sein (acting)

 The year 2007 turned out to be a tumultuous one for Myanmar. On August 15 the ruling military junta drastically hiked the price of gasoline and diesel fuel as well as compressed natural gas, which thereby suddenly increased the cost of transport and other services. With inflation having hit an estimated 17.7% in 2005 and 21.4% in 2006, the rise in fuel prices placed added pressure on Myanmar's already beleaguered economy. The move elicited a defiant public response that caught the authorities by surprise and soon snowballed into the largest show of public disenchantment with the government in two decades. Led by Buddhist monks, tens of thousands of angry protesters took to the streets for weeks in August–September. A government crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrations began on September 26. Security forces raided monasteries and houses at night. Between 6,000 and 7,000 people were reportedly detained. The junta claimed that 10 people were killed when troops opened fire on demonstrators to disperse them, but diplomats and dissidents put the death toll much higher.

      In response, U.S. Pres. George W. Bush announced new sanctions against Myanmar, which included tightening controls on U.S. exports to the country. On October 15 the EU tightened its economic sanctions by banning imports of timber, gemstones, and precious metals from Myanmar. The UN urged China, India, and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to use their influence to press for dialogue between the regime and its political opposition. At the height of domestic unrest, Foreign Minister Nyan Win visited Beijing to brief the Chinese leadership and to seek that country's support at the UN.

      On October 11 the UN Security Council passed a nonbinding statement “strongly deploring” the regime's use of violence against the monk-led protests. In late September UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari had been sent to Myanmar to meet with junta leader Gen. Than Shwe and detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose house arrest had been extended for another year on May 25. Myanmar denied the International Red Cross access to detainees, however. The government appointed Gen. Aung Kyi, Myanmar's labour minister, as an intermediary to hold talks with Suu Kyi.

      Myanmar's economy moved forward at an approximate growth rate of 2.9%. Huge commitments of foreign direct investment in the energy sector were made by China, Thailand, Russia, and India. Two-way trade between China and Myanmar increased 39.4% in the first seven months of 2007 over the same period in 2006, reaching $1.11 billion. Among ASEAN member countries Myanmar had the lowest per capita income. On September 26 Transparency International labeled Myanmar (along with Somalia) as the most corrupt state on its annual 180-country Corruption Perceptions Index.

      Myanmar's prime minister, Lieut. Gen. Soe Win (Soe Win ), died on October 12 in Yangon. Soe Win, who was known for his involvement in two brutal suppressions of democracy advocates, had been replaced earlier in the year by Thein Sein, who was named acting prime minister in April.

Mohan Malik

* * *


Universalium. 2010.

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