Myanmar Modern History

By | January 31, 2023

Burma is a country located in Southeastern Asia. With the capital city of Naypyidaw, Burma has a population of 54,409,811 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. After Myanmar, then called Burma, became independent from the colonial power of Britain in 1948, a civil war broke out between communist guerrillas and the government, led by the Antifascist People’s Liberal Alliance (AFPFL). The government won the war, but the situation remained unstable and in 1962 the military took power in a coup. The military junta ruled the country as far back as the 2010s. The opposition to military power was led by Aung San Suu Kyi from the 1980s. She was in house arrest for long periods of time, but with the help of pressure from the outside world, she and her party NLD managed to persuade the military to allow elections in 2010 and 2015. NLD won big 2015 but still had to share power with the military.

Shortly after independence in January 1948, the Communists began a guerrilla war against the country’s new government, led by Prime Minister U Nu, who was one of the leaders of the independence movement. The government was also employed from elsewhere. In the western part of the country, Muslim rebels fought for their own state. The Karen people took up arms in 1949, and at the same time Chinese nationalist troops fled Mao Zedong’s army into the state of Shan in the north, where they established their own empire.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Burma. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

In the spring of 1949 most of the countryside was outside the control of the government, as was occasionally part of the capital Rangoon. The government troops under the command of General Ne Win eventually succeeded in pushing the rebels back, largely because the rebels not only fought the government forces but also each other. In 1951, the regime ruled most of the country. Check best-medical-schools for more information about Myanmar.

“The happy country”

The government initiated a fairly extensive land reform, which meant that many tenants were allowed to take over land that was not used by the owners. Foreign companies were nationalized and the industry was subjected to socialist planning, although the private sector continued to dominate the economy. Income and wealth were leveled.

Political life largely followed the rules of parliamentary democracy, with the rule of law, freedom of speech for the political opposition and free press. The U Nus government borrowed heavily from the British labor movement and from Scandinavian social democracy. His goal was to build a welfare society called pyi daw tha – “the happy country”.

During the second half of the 1950s, the government’s position weakened, partly because almost half of the peasants still lacked their own land. Furthermore, economic setbacks had led to a deterioration in living standards. The minority peoples and communists continued the armed struggle while the AFPFL government was divided by personal fighting. The government also received fierce criticism for not turning Buddhism into a state religion.

In 1958, U Nu gave up and asked Parliament to appoint General Commander General Ne Win as new head of government. Ne Win led a government that focused on getting the administration working. After two years he returned power to U Now since his faction in the AFPFL had won the parliamentary elections in 1960.

U Now began discussions with the minority people about genuinely expanded self-government. The military feared that this would lead to the dissolution of the state. The officers also disapproved of U Nus’s attempt to attract foreign companies to Burma, as it was contrary to their socialist ideas.

The military takes power

In March 1962, Ne Win seized power in a military coup. Politicians were imprisoned and military took over the administration. A “Burmese path to socialism” was introduced, which Ne Win described as a combination of Buddhism and socialism. The Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) became Burma’s only allowed political party. In practice, the peculiar “Burmese path to socialism” meant that all activities were nationalized without any actual ideology behind the action. The economy was at the bottom and a black market developed.

In the early 1970s, military leaders announced plans to introduce a new constitution and surrender power to a civilian government. In 1974 the new constitution came into force and general elections were held for a popular assembly. Ne Win, who has now left the army, was elected president and leader of a new, monitoring body, the Cabinet. On paper, Burma was given a civilian government and some of the rulers were replaced, but the power remained largely in the hands of the same circle as before. For several years, Burma was almost completely isolated from the outside world.

After a few years of growing economy, the situation deteriorated again in the early 1980s. On several occasions, disturbances erupted as a result of food shortages. In 1987, Burma was forced to apply to the UN for the status of “least developed country”, which for many residents was a national humiliation. This contributed to the mass movement for democracy and against socialism that swept across Burma in 1988–1990 and which expressed 26 years of frustration over poor living conditions.

The initiative for the protests was taken by Burma’s traditionally politically active students. In March and June 1988, they demonstrated in Rangoon against the military regime. They met with violence, and many students were killed. Ne Win officially “retired” in July, but he remained, despite illness and his old age (born 1912), the real powerhouse behind the scenes. A couple of short-lived governments, consisting of Ne Wins puppets, followed each other, while the mass demonstrations continued. During nationwide riots in July, the military is believed to have killed several thousand protesters in Rangoon and other cities.

Aung San Suu Kyi leads the resistance

New political groups were formed. After 30 years of exile in the UK, Aung San Suu Kyi had returned to his home country. Together with two senior military, she formed the National United Front for Democracy (NUFD), later renamed the National League for Democracy (NLD).

In September 1988, a new group of generals led by Saw Maung seized power. The days after the coup are estimated to have killed another thousand people and thousands of opposites went underground.

In the spring of 1989, the governing military council promised to organize free elections and hand over power to a democratically elected government. Political parties were allowed to register, but Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest during the summer and thus could not run for office in the May 1990 elections.

Over 90 parties lined up, including the NLD and the regime-loyal National Unity Party (NUP). The election was estimated to have been successful and the NLD won about 60 percent of the vote, which would have given 392 of the 485 seats in Parliament against 10 seats for the RIP. However, when the NLD claimed to be able to take over government power, the military claimed that the election was only for an assembly that would write a new constitution. Juntan intended to remain until the new constitution had been approved by all ethnic groups.

Fight for democracy

The conflict was escalated and several thousand political activists were arrested. A few hundred were sentenced to long prison terms. When Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle for democracy, the generals ended up under strong international pressure to release her from house arrest. The growing attention from the outside world also led to other changes. Saw Maung, leader of the governing military council, was appointed in 1992 and replaced by General Than Shwe. The military support party NUP had lost its credibility and was replaced in 1993 by another organization, called the USDA.

In July 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi was released, giving hope for a political dialogue. But every approach to reform was followed by new setbacks. After the release, she was re-elected leader of the NLD and in May 1996 the party held its first congress. It decided to develop an alternative to the military junta’s proposal for a new constitution.

The regime’s constant harassment of the opposition that year led to the US and the EU imposing limited sanctions on Myanmar, which the regime renamed the country until 1989. The conflict escalated in 1998 when hundreds of NLD members were arrested since the party announced its intention to convene a “People’s Parliament” in despite the junta’s refusal to acknowledge the elections in 1990. The NLD was forced to give up the plans and instead formed a smaller group with the task of representing “the parliament of the people”. However, the persecution scared many members to leave the party.

Between September 2000 and May 2002, Suu Kyi was again held under house arrest, and the freedom thereafter became quite short. The climate has hardened again since she said in 2003 that the outside world should consider financial sanctions. In a clash outside Mandalay between NLD supporters and provocateurs led by the junta, over 70 opposition people were killed. Unrest erupted when Suu Kyi was traveling in the area in a car column. Both Suu Kyi and the party’s deputy chairman Tin Oo were jailed and later placed under house arrest. For Suu Kyi, the house arrest was usually extended by one year at a time until it was finally released in November 2010.

The outside world is increasing the pressure

The NLD boycotted the National Convention, which at the junta’s request gathered in May 2004 to write a new constitution. Just over two years later, the regime announced that the convention had agreed on a constitutional proposal that would be honed by a committee where there were hardly any participants from the opposition.

At the end of 2006, pressure from the outside world on the regime increased. The United States sought to get the UN Security Council to demand the release of political prisoners and democratic reforms. In early 2007, the Southeast Asian cooperation organization Asean, which has traditionally been wary of criticizing Myanmar, demanded that the country accelerate the process of national reconciliation and free political prisoners.

In September 2007, unrest erupted after demonstrations were held against higher fuel prices. In connection with demonstrations in Rangoon with up to 50,000 participants, up to 200 protesters were shot dead and about 100 monks were arrested. Several leading activists among the monks were later sentenced to long prison terms. Asean condemned the violence, but thanks to China’s support, Myanmar avoided being subject to UN sanctions. However, the US and the EU tightened their financial sanctions against the military junta.

In May 2008, the coastal country in the south was hit by a powerful cyclone. Several areas were flooded and devastation became particularly great in the Irrawaddy Delta and Rangoon. The rescue work was made more difficult by the fact that the regime did not first allow foreign aid workers into the area. Although over one hundred thousand people were reported to have died and the situation was chaotic, a referendum on a new constitution was carried out just a week later. 92 percent of voters were said to have approved the new constitution, which gave the military, among other things, a quarter of the seats in the parliament and several heavy government posts such as the posts of the Interior and Defense. According to many analysts, including human rights organizations, a mix of cheating and threats was behind the result.

The military party wins criticized elections

With the new constitution in place, the rulers decided that parliamentary elections should be held in November 2010. A number of new electoral laws were adopted before the election, including those who were previously convicted of crimes for being members of a political party. It hit Suu Kyi, for example. When, as a result, the NLD decided not to run for election, the party was declared dissolved. Defenders from the NLD gathered in a new party, called the National Democratic Force (NDF).

The elections held on November 7 were criticized by the outside world for being neither free nor fair. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), formed by Prime Minister Thein Sein and some 20 ministers who left their military posts, proclaimed victors with over 80 percent of the vote. A week later, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her house arrest, when the regime appeared to regard her as harmless.

In February 2011, Thein Sein was elected President of the newly elected parliament, and the military junta was formally dissolved the following month. Power was now in the hands of a formal civilian government, while the military retained great influence over politics. Expectations for political reform were minimal. No one expected that Thein Sein would follow in Than Shwe’s footsteps.

But the trend was different than expected. Thein Sein estimated a softer tone than his representative. Even after a few months, Suu Kyi was able to hold public meetings in front of thousands of audiences without hindrance. At the same time, she was invited to a meeting with Thein Sein for the first time.

Gradual democratization begins

The strict control over the media was also relaxed. Newspapers were able to publish articles about Suu Kyi, with her portraits, something that had been impossible before. The government also allowed trade unions and began to release political prisoners. In addition, the government canceled a controversial dam construction, which would primarily supply China with energy. The fact that the regime openly cared about public opinion and took environmental issues into account was a new feature of politics.

The government announced a series of economic reforms aimed at reducing the state’s involvement in the economy. Government companies would be privatized and restrictions on foreign investors removed. The government also entered into a ceasefire agreement with several ethnic rebel groups that for decades fought the Myanmar state (see also Conflicts with minority peoples).

The outside world reacted with amazement and delight at the changes. The reward soon came in the form of gradually phasing out financial sanctions from the EU, the US and Japan, among others. President Thein Sein was received with all the honors in the White House in Washington.

Democratization continued that in April 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi could be elected to parliament through election elections after the law that banned her from running for election had been repealed. In total, the NLD, as her party was again called, won in 43 of the 46 constituencies in which election elections were held. Forty of these applied to seats in Parliament’s lower house.

Clouds of concern in the sky

In 2014, there were some signs that the democratization process was slowing down. The media climate hardened again, and the government had not fulfilled the promise to release all political prisoners before the end of 2013. According to human rights organizations, the courts continued to imprison people for political reasons.

But more than perhaps anything else, Myanmar’s progress was overshadowed by growing contradictions between the Buddhist majority and the country’s Muslims. The worst was the Muslim population group Rohingya in the poor state of Rakhine (see also Current politics and Population and language). But even in other parts of the country, Muslims were subjected to violence by Buddhist groups.

The government’s failure to deal with the violence, or direct unwillingness to get to the bottom of the problems, received criticism from the outside world. Aung San Suu Kyi was also criticized for not taking a stand on the conflict. Her silence was supposedly due to her ambition to try to become president after all. To show concern for Muslims would probably be political suicide.

When Parliament voted in June 2015 on a number of constitutional amendments, including the abolition of the statute that prevents Suu Kyi from being elected president (see Political system), the proposals were not supported by the three quarters of the members required for constitutional amendments to adopted.

Burma Modern History