The Union of Myanmar used to be a byword for stifling authoritarian rule, rigid censorship, self-imposed isolation, and deprived tropical languor. Travel guides refused to cover it, ostensibly to encourage tourists not to visit. The news ignored it, which to be fair is par for the course for Southeast Asia, but in this case media coverage was actively shunned. Politicians would blast it in speeches but not actually do anything. It almost disappeared from the world map. Then, starting in 2011, foreign investment flowed in, political prisoners were released, political opposition was legalized, tourists began putting it on their Southeast Asia itineraries, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama visited. Recently it played host to the East Asia Summit.
What happened? How did a country so many wrote off as unredeemable turn around so fast?
The real answer remains a mystery, thanks partly to how secretive and sheltered the Myanma government is, but I can try to offer an explanation and some context.
NOTE: Just to be confusing, Myanmar is also known as “Burma.” Both names are derived from the main ethnic group in the country, the Bamar. Burma was the usual English name until 1989, when the government changed it. Many continued to call it Burma after that as an ineffectual protest against the regime. For some reason they still do. I call it Myanmar.
Myanmar was originally a large Southeast Asian monarchy like its neighbor Thailand. The so-called Peacock Throne gained a reputation for being militarist and expansionist, mostly at the expense of Thailand, but most mainland Southeast Asian nations were militarist and expansionist so I’m unsure how fair this reputation is. It fell prey to British rule in three excruciating stages: first as the Brits seized its west coast to create a buffer with India, then as they took over the Ayeyarwady Delta in the south, and finally as they sailed upriver to capture the king and lead him into exile. The Burmese were no match for British imperial might, but resisted colonial rule after their conquest both through armed uprisings and through petty crime. Bad blood built up between the British and Burmese; the latter were seen as bad-tempered thugs, and being assigned to Burma was seen as a sort of punishment.
Accordingly the British governed Burma with iron fists. Resistance was crushed mercilessly. It became a police state haunted by a police force and military dominated by the British and Indian immigrants. (For most of the colonial era Burma was annexed to India.) Power was exclusively reserved for the British. The economy was dominated by the British, Indians, Chinese and a few other foreign communities. The Burmese were treated as inferiors and their culture viewed with contempt.
Luckily for Burma, all this mutual resentment never burst out into open war. Although Burma was a theater in World War II as the British fought back against Japanese occupation, independence was negotiated relatively smoothly after the war. But events took a turn for the worse soon enough. The new government was weak and largely ineffectual, and the Burmese economy stagnated. The army remained strong after colonial rule ended, and it quickly decided it would be better able to run the country than Burma’s elected politicians. In 1962, a general named Ne Win led a coup that toppled civilian rule and remade Burma as a socialist military state.
“The Burmese way to socialism” involved nationalizing almost all businesses, expelling the remaining meddling Indians, strict press censorship, and removing foreign influences and foreign organizations. Food and consumer good shortages impoverished the country even by regional standards. Any opposition was squelched. Burma retreated into a sort of austere, isolated shell, making do with a lower standard of living and a very high percentage of farmers. It got weird looks from foreigners, but the military maintained a hard-line anti-Communist foreign policy, so it was mostly tolerated.
1988 changed that. Widespread riots and protests gradually snowballed into a nationwide demonstration against military rule by college students, low-ranking officials, workers, monks and housewives. The already sluggish economy ground to a halt as seemingly the entire country demanded change and an end to a system that had led Burma nowhere. Despite promising signs like Ne Win’s resignation, the military stood firm and crushed the uprising. It later conceded to the demands for elections, but they proved to be a farce — when the opposition National League for Democracy won in a landslide, the military just ignored the results. Although Burma’s self-imposed isolation had largely made the country irrelevant in international affairs by this time, it lost most of the support it had left as the rest of the world turned its back on a regime too venal to honor its own commitments.
And the renamed Myanmar trundled on, largely the same as it was before. While its neighbors entered a new era of economic development and international ambition, Myanmar shunned attention and discouraged outside influence or investment. A military junta continued ruling the way armed forces do: through force and intimidation. Socialism was replaced with crony capitalism, but poverty persisted. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of a World War II nationalist hero who won admiration for her elegant and imposing demeanor, became an international symbol of Myanma isolation: she was confined to her house in the capital, Yangon, to keep her out of politics. Another mass uprising in 2007, this time led by monks (and therefore called the “Saffron Revolution” although Myanma monks wear maroon), got the international media excited and sparked a week of hope in Myanmar, but was eventually put down like its predecessor.
China became Myanmar’s lifeline and gateway to the outside world. China never cares about the nature of other countries’ governments, and Myanmar seemed like a wide-open oyster for it. Chinese aid propped up the Myanma government and funded improvements to its decrepit infrastructure. In desperate need of money and outside assistance and lacking any other options, Myanmar drifted closer and closer into China’s orbit. Indeed, it looked like it was destined to be a Chinese satellite like its fellow Asian authoritarian nightmare, North Korea.
But then something changed. To be fair, it didn’t all happen at once. In 1997, Myanmar joined ASEAN, the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations, to widespread criticism. Foreigners didn’t think ASEAN had anything to gain from adding a stubborn, penniless military dictatorship to its ranks, but now it seems engaging with Myanmar has been vindicated. Over the ’00s, the junta also initiated plans for a gradual transition to democracy, including a constitutional conventions and elections in 2010, but foreigners dismissed these as well and it’s clear that the elections were rigged.
In 2011, the longtime ruler, Than Shwe, stepped down (at least in name), and was replaced by Thein Sein. He actually initiated the democratic transition and international opening that foreigners had only dreamed of before. He canceled a Chinese dam project scheduled for the northern part of Myanmar, released hundreds of political prisoners (including Suu Kyi), and removed restrictions on the press and political organization. In return, Western governments lined up to break the international boycott of Myanmar, establish diplomatic relations, and open up businesses there. Elections in 2012 for the new parliament were swept, once again, by the National League.
An atmosphere of excitement and anticipation has come over Myanmar as it wakes up from a lethargic slumber. It’s been preserved almost intact since the 1962 coup, with many colonial and even precolonial buildings still in use, ’50s-era cars on the roads and almost no banking, fast-food restaurants, chain hotels, convenience stores or skyscrapers to be seen. Trains and roads are ramshackle and few towns have running water or power. But foreigners have started trickling into the country, some to gaze at its picturesque Buddhist temples and lush scenery, others to be the first in their sector to snag a foothold in a virgin market. Public discourse and instruction is picking up, and posters of Aung San Suu Kyi are emerging on the street.
On the other hand, Myanmar’s great opening has also revealed some unsettling details. Buddhism has remained the unifying force in Myanmar throughout the vicissitudes of its history, and Buddhist monks are figures of great respect. A Muslim community in western Myanmar, the Rohingya, are regarded as interlopers and a threat, and they’ve been rounded up into squalid concentration camps and targeted with discrimination and riots. Fanatical Buddhists (yes, they also exist) gain mass followings by whipping up popular paranoia about the coming Islamic invasion and spreading horror stories about rape and intermarriage. Some fear that if the current environment is left unchecked, a genocide could be in the making. (Needless to say, this hasn’t done much for Myanmar’s relations with neighboring Muslim countries.)
On the margins of Myanmar, other minorities are also cautious about democratic reforms. Like Thailand, Myanmar is a river valley surrounded on three sides by mountains; these mountain areas are peopled by Mons, Karens, Shans, Kachins and other ethnic minorities. Long barred from countries of their own and also from participating in the life of the country they’re part of, they have spent Myanmar’s entire independent history battling the central government. (In fact, Myanmar is considered the country with the longest-running current war.) The government has promised to hold peace talks with the minorities and push Myanmar’s structure towards a federation, but many minorities remain skeptical. Their experience doesn’t make them hopeful.
For the most part, everyone’s holding their breath for the 2015 elections. Next year, presidential elections will determine whether Thein Sein is rewarded for his historic reforms or whether the National League achieves a triumphant takeover of the nation’s highest office. Despite her personality cult, Suu Kyi is barred from running. It’s also uncertain whether the military will really let go of the reins of power — they’re guaranteed 25% of the seats in parliament, and Thein Sein’s party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is dominated by former officers. The future of Myanmar might be one of the most suspenseful and unpredictable stories in the world right now. Can a revolution imposed from the top really wash away the grime and muck caked into Myanma society over 50 years of neglect?
I am optimistic about Myanmar. It’s a shame that the two previous revolutions led by the people were failures, but the generals clearly weren’t about to let the rabble push them into doing something they didn’t want to do. Instead we have a case study in revolution imposed from above, and so far it’s working out fairly well. In the days of Myanmar’s isolation, I opposed Western attempts to sanction and boycott it, because I support international engagement and support. Withholding tourism only increased ignorance outside and insulation inside.
I believe it was the threat of falling into China’s sway that ultimately prompted Myanmar’s generals to cave in. China has always loomed threateningly over its southern neighbors, and now does so more than ever. Myanmar is strategically situated at the intersection of East Asia’s 3 main regions, Northeast Asia (China), South Asia (India and Bangladesh) and Southeast Asia (Thailand), and is coveted by businessmen from North America, Europe and Japan. Myanma leaders probably figured that encouraging competition and playing the foreigners off against each other would give it independence and leeway. Given current American enthusiasm for working with Myanmar and Chinese fears of encirclement, their calculation looks canny.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about Myanmar. Its history is full of missed opportunities, contempt for its own populace, and resignation to bleak circumstances. It’s hardly believable that a military that guarded its own power and money so carefully for so many decades would let it all slip away so easily. Foreign investment and internal development will be stalled so long as there’s no peace settlement with the ethnic minorities (so far almost all of the attention has been lavished on the Ayeyarwady valley, and mostly just in Yangon). But optimism and hope can be hard to bottle up again once the bottle is uncorked. The military’s program has been an obvious and catastrophic failure. It knows it and the country needs to change. If Myanmar’s simmering discontent and the military’s legendary suspicion and paranoia can be kept at bay, Myanmar could be a model for other recalcitrant dictatorships nervous about letting their people have even a smidgen of freedom.