Reconciliation in Burma

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday August 5 2012

Colonial background

The British forced Burma to become a part of the colonial export economy. Vast tracts of land were taken to cultivate rice for export. Indigenous farmers lost their lands and most jobs went to indentured Indian laborers. Grass-roots control was exercised by burning villages and dissent was suppressed by mass executions.

The imperial power introduced a secular education system and encouraged Christian missionaries to found schools. Buddhism and traditional Burmese culture were discouraged as part of a plan to deprive the Burmese people of a cultural unity.


A nationalist movement began to take shape in the form of Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA). By 1930s, a new radical movement known as the Thakin was formed. Its leading figures included Aung San, U Nu and Ne Win.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San sought support for the Burmese independence struggle from Japan. Japan invaded Burma in 1942 but never succeeded conquering the whole country. On August 1, 1943 the Japanese declared Burma to be an independent nation. Aung San was appointed War Minister but he became disillusioned with the Japanese. He was assassinated on July 19, 1947. Former prime minister U Saw was tried and hanged. Middle-ranking British army officers were also tried and imprisoned.



For most of its existence independent Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship. In 1988 unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression led to demonstrations. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators.  General Saw Maung staged a coup and established SLORC – the State Law and Order Restoration Council. In May 1990 the government held free elections for the first time in almost after 30 years but ignored the results. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy won 80% of the seats.


Ethnic conflict

There are 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Burma. Burma has been the scene of some of the most-sustained and diverse ethnic insurgencies in the contemporary world. The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) found that “more people had been forcibly displaced from their homes during the past year than any other since obtaining first data collection in 2002.”

Human Rights Watch publicized “atrocities” committed during last month’s clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas which left 78 people dead and about 100,000 homeless.

A foreign journalist asked Aung Sang Suu Kyi whether she regarded Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. “I do not know. We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.” This can be translated as “I won’t get any votes by defending a minority group”.


The US had accepted Burma as one of the original beneficiaries of its Generalized System of Preference (GSP) program in 1976. There was also a major International Military Education and Training [IMET] program) until 1988. The implementing of sanctions on Burma did not begin until the Tatmadaw’s (Myanmar army) brutal suppression of peaceful protest.
Washington recently lifted some financial and investment sanctions in response to nascent democratic reforms but has retained the ban on imports — a restriction that a US Senate committee this month said should be extended by three years.
Today optimists on Burma have criticized sanctions as stifling key job-creating areas of the economy such as the garment industry rather than hurting the interests of the targets of the corrupted elite. The International Crisis Group(ICG)  has said the sanctions stifle  reform.


Human rights

A Boycott Burma campaign stated : “As a tourist to Burma you will travel on roads and railroads, see temples and palaces and stay in hotels built or rebuilt since 1988 which will definitely contain the dead bodies of the slave laborers who made them for you… If you go to Burma you pay to murder the people you visit.”

The army has used villagers as human minesweepers. The prisoners sentenced to ‘prison with hard labor’ are used as slaves and many die. Burmese soldiers, who provide security for the Yadana oil pipeline on behalf of the French company forced thousands of people to do heavy work in the pipeline area and to build police stations and barracks.



The TBBC said: “Almost two thirds of households in rural areas of the South East are unable to meet their basic needs.” The TBBC statement said poverty is severe in the “conflict-affected areas of Northern Kayin State and Eastern Bago Region.”
A Burmese academic Maung Zarni said: “Pro-democracy crowds are also cut from the same racist ideological fabric as the military-dominated government.”

Burmese lessons for Sri Lanka?

Some Sri Lankans think that Burma has good lessons for their country. If these commentators think the nation consistently placed at number 190 in the human development league of shame could be an exemplar to anyone they seem determined to think the worst of Sri Lanka.
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