For the best part of 2000 years Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has been overwhelmingly Buddhist.  So how is it that the authorities governing this nation of peace-loving people have managed to put the country at centre of the world stage for a catalogue ethnic atrocities, systematic human rights violations and now a coup d’état ?

Myanmar is rich in natural resources, it shares borders on either side with two of the five largest economies in the world,  and is ideally located for trade and tourism in the region. Sadly, since receiving independence in 1948 the country has struggled to establish a lasting stable democracy. Instead it has descended  into decades of authoritarian rule. As a result, Myanmar now suffers from high levels of poverty and is economically weak.

An immediate consequence of the the latest coup d’etat this month has been a wave or protests from pro-democracy supporters. They quickly gained momentum, despite initially being kept in check by the police and then being banned.

Within a week the military had banned protests and imposed curfews. The police were using force against protestors who were defying the bans. Given the recent  history of this nation, it has been likely that the military take-over would happen, but to many of us it still came as a surprise. Strike action and protests were both forbidden, but went ahead anyway (all month) and this has increased tensions and instability.  The country appears to be on the cusp of another bloody uprising.

In 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising in Burma,  the ruling military junta announced to the world that the country was changing its name, from Burma to Myanmar.  One logical explanation to this name change is that the country needed a fresh start following its (relatively) recent independence.  There may have been an intention for the country to reinvent its self as a multi cultural society with a diverse ethnic religious heritage. The name Burma is deeply rooted in ‘Barma’, the  Barman people being the overwhelming majority in the country. It can be argued that origins of the name Myanmar has a less controversial association to ethnic and religious division.

A logical corollary  of the famous quote  ‘language is the dress of thought’ (Samual Johnson, 1709 – 1784) is that names and labels are important.  Of course, it turns out that dictating a name change does not change how we think about past events. Clearly,  history remains what it is, and directly affects the here and now.

Myanmar shares borders with India and China, with Nepal is to the North and Thailand to the south. The country is well placed to command trade routes through-out the region, in particular as it is flanked by the Bay Bengal along in the South West.  Perhaps, in the past, this has made the country a strategically appealing catch to foreign powers with military and/or economic intentions.  This may go some way to explaining why, for centuries, the country has been subject to so many invasions and take-overs, from outside and from within.

Over the past thousand years Myanmar has been attacked and occupied by various armies, including the Mongols, the Chinese, the Portuguese (in theory a ‘liberating’ army of mercenaries) and of course, the British who ultimately ‘colonised’ the country in the 1800s. Most recent to invade was Japan, during the second World War.

During World War 2 the ethnic and religious divisions a became more polarised across Burma as its citizens were caught up in the armed conflict between Japan and the Allies.  Burmese forces were subsumed by opposing armies into vicious fighting for opposing sides, with Burmese Nationalists fighting for Japan,  facing off to Burmese Muslims fighting for the Allies.  This can only have deepened ethnic divisions.

The plight of the minority population of Rohingya Muslims will be fresh in peoples minds at the moment, with recent reports of genocide They have had had such a dreadful time of it in recent living memory, and it’s all happening again. We don’t have to look to far back in history for other examples of this kind persecution, often being driven by an underlying insecurity within the ruling authorities.  Perhaps a contributing factor might be the increasing number of neighbouring countries which have converted to a Muslim majority  such as  Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and quite recently Malaysia.  India  is another neighbour which may be on the same pathway, with a vast population of (more than 180 million) Muslims, The majority of the Indian Muslims live in the North East, the highest densities being towards the Punjab and borders with Myanmar.  Perhaps this ongoing change is creating an insecurity for the current ethnic and religious majorities in Myanmar?  Perhaps there is a fear that the country could follow its neighbours and succumb to a Muslim majority,  With the wrong type of leadership in place it is not implausible that a consequence  of this fear and insecurity could lead to  the violent confrontation and persecution we are now seeing.

Since the British restored Burma to independence in 1948 the country has been plagued by conflicts between communist, nationalist, ethnic minority armies, and government forces. There was a military coup in 1962. The army seized power again in 1988. After much international pressure and economic sanctions,  2 years later the Army staged an ‘election’ (to form a parliament sized ‘constitutional committee’).  Elections results went pre-democracy and against the army, who refused to accept the result. The military establishment have never fully relinquished control.  Ever since that election. there have been continued conflicts with the elected political leaders, who themselves have been constrained in what they can do. Following increased sanctions by western powers, Myanmar looked east to China and further north to Russia for economic support. Both communist states were happy to fill the void and increase influence (with economic aid and sales of weaponry).

Fast forward to this month and the latest military coup.

During this month we’ve seen a progressive ratcheting up of force by the authorities,  often caught on film issuing brutal  beatings to unarmed protestors, using batons and kicking  them when they were on the ground. Use of water-cannon transitioned to tier gas and the firing of rubber bullets.  The internet has been shut down multiple times during times of confrontation. By the end of the month reports of the army firing live rounds at civilians were backed up by video evidence of troops  shooting into  buildings, vehicles and crowds of unarmed civilians. There have been multiple deaths and injuries reported.

The military junta is back.

Ending this post with beautiful view of a hot air balloon event across Old Bagan, Myanmar in during peaceful times (thanks to Boris Ulzibat from Pexels for sharing) and hope the peace will return soon to the beautiful county.

References/Links:

BBC WorldNews report on the Myanmar coup on this link

San Suu Kui fall from from human rights icon :  on this link

What’s the connection between Buddhism and ethnic cleansing in Myanmar: on this link

Non partisan research / publication by PewResearch on Muslims and Islam around the world [on this link]

Myanma Country Profile from the BBC –  on this link

World Bank’s take on the economic  situation in Myanmar.  – on this link