f_0022600_18592 - Burma A View from Rangoon Larry M Dinger...

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Spring 2011 The Ambassadors REVIEW 16 Burma: A View from Rangoon Larry M. Dinger Chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy of the United States in Rangoon, Burma urma (also known as Myanmar) is a land of contrasts. It is geographically the largest country in Southeast Asia, stretching from tropical beaches to Himalayan peaks. It is rich in resources, including natural gas, timber, and gems. Eighty years ago its people were generally acknowledged to be the best educated in the region, and their prospects for development were expected to be high. Yet today, Burma is the poorest country in Southeast Asia with a per capita GDP of about $625; governmental health and educational expenditures are pitifully small; and Burmese rank near the bottom in most human-development indexes. The ethnic Burman, mostly Buddhist majority lives mostly in the central plains; but more than one hundred other distinct ethnic groups exist, as do notable Christian, Muslim, and Hindu minorities. Visitors universally praise the hospitality of Burmese peoples; yet ethnic-based armed conflicts simmer and sometimes flare in border areas, and Burma receives constant international criticism for major human rights abuses. Why such contrasts? History explains a lot. Upon independence from the British after Japanese forces captured and then lost Burma during World War II, civil wars broke out between several ethnic groups and the government’s Burman-dominated army, hindering the effort to establish a viable democratic polity. The Burma Army came to believe that only it stood between a united Burma and anarchy. Ever since General Ne Win took power definitively in 1962 and inaugurated the “Burmese way to socialism,” high- level decision-making has been autocratic, opaque, and inefficient, resulting in very unfortunate governance. Major street demonstrations triggered by economic difficulties in 1988 brought forth a democracy movement inspired by the daughter of Burma’s founding father, Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947 when his daughter was only two years old. Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of her first 40 years abroad. She has spent most of the past 22 years under house arrest in Rangoon. Her detention began even before elections in 1990 that, to the surprise of most everyone, were relatively free and fair and brought a resounding victory to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which won nearly 60 percent of the vote and took more than 80 percent of the seats in a parliament that never sat. The Burma Army overrode the elections and has continued in power ever since, with governance and human-rights abuses, by many accounts, only getting worse.
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