What is Happening in Myanmar? (Pt. 1)

By Lucas Musetti

Disclaimer: Due to the size of this article, this post is part of a 5-part series to be published over the course of this week. To read the entirety of the article at once, visit our Medium page.

Part 1

If you have consumed American mainstream news regularly in the past few months, you may have heard stories about the military coup in Myanmar in between updates about the Coronavirus vaccine or politics or racial violence towards Asians and other people of color in America. If you consumed news from international media, you may have heard a bit more about the human cost of the coup and the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi, a prominent leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. However, many people still have no idea why this coup is so significant, how it relates to other recent violence in Myanmar, and many may not even be able to confidently point Myanmar out on a map. In fairness, some of these people likely would not have been able to identify Burma before 1989, which is when the military junta that ruled the country changed the name to Myanmar. (The United States government still officially uses the name Burma as of March 31, 2021) Incidentally, the military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc or SLORC), also imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi in 1989, much like the current military leaders have. We at Nonviolence International New York would like to deliver the average person a primer in the current conflict in Myanmar and explain its connection to the country’s past. Before we do so, we need to acknowledge that this primer will be delivered by an American author who is removed from the current events and whose exposure to the history of the conflict is filtered through mainly secondary sources.

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A further disclaimer is that, while we try to be fair to our research and audience, we cannot be impartial on all issues. As the events discussed further in will deal with alleged acts of genocide, repression, and government-sponsored violence, we must at times point out that, while current events are based on historic precedence, that does not excuse affronts to human rights. Nevertheless, Myanmar is a diverse country with a complex history and is full of people working towards making a more democratic nation with respect for human rights. The news stories that focus on violence and repression, while bringing important attention to human suffering, do not paint a complete picture of the nation or its people. We have also included links at the end of this article to works from authors who are more closely tied to Burmese culture as their experiences are important to highlight when discussing this and other conflicts.

Contextualizing the Violence as a Response to Human Rights Advocacy

People living outside Myanmar, and particularly in the West, seem to hear about one major event, such as the 1983 bombing in Rangoon or the Saffron Revolution of 2007 or the massacre of Rohingya Muslims, and do not have sufficient context to know how or why these events occurred and/or how they are related. Unfortunately, this confusion and accidental ignorance leads to suboptimal reactions.

Condemnations from powerful organizations often come slowly and only focus on specific incidents, as was the case of a Security Council condemnation in 2007. Other times, swift reactions are generally toothless, such as the recent joint statement by Defense Secretaries from a dozen countries. The statement, in its entirety, reads: “As Chiefs of Defense, we condemn the use of lethal force against unarmed people by the Myanmar Armed Forces and associated security services. A professional military follows international standards for conduct and is responsible for protecting — not harming — the people it serves. We urge the Myanmar Armed Forces to cease violence and work to restore respect and credibility with the people of Myanmar that it has lost through its actions.”[1] Obviously, this statement is well intentioned but is unlikely to place any real pressure on the responsible parties. A worse potential outcome though, is born out of true ignorance. If people only consume headlines or brief news stories about subsequent atrocities in a country in conflict, biases can easily form. People who do not know any better might assume the worst of a country if they only hear worse and worse things. Instead of recognizing that there are many activists in Myanmar who fight for human rights and democracy, uninformed people might only associate Myanmar with repression and violence. Instead of hearing about the peaceful protests by Buddhist monks, people hear about oppressive genocide.

While the history presented in this article mainly focuses on the conflicts Myanmar has faced in an effort to contextualize how the current conflict ties into history, it is important that the reader does not lose sight of the fact that one reason why so many people are facing repression is because there are so many more people fighting for reform. The struggle for human rights occurs in every country and the scale varies with every instance. Many, though admittedly not all, of the instances of violence in this article result from those in power trying to repress the people fighting for human rights. While many of these events are tragic, there is still often an underpinning of hope in that none of the repressions in Myanmar’s past have kept its people from continuing to fight for their rights. Please bear this knowledge in mind as context for the following exploration of how Myanmar’s history relates to its current state.

Myanmar/Burma and Colonization

Myanmar is a country about the size of Texas or Ukraine and owes its surprisingly diverse population to a variety of factors, including its location in Southeast Asia on the Bay of Bengal and its history with colonialism. Kublai Khan’s Yuan Empire conquered Pagan in 1287, essentially ending the first Myanmar state and introducing Mongol culture from the north.[2] Nearly 250 years later, the Portuguese Empire aided the Toungoo dynasty in reuniting the country of Burma, which of course added some elements of Portuguese and other European cultural aspects to the region. Between 1824 and 1885, the British Empire fought three Anglo-Burmese Wars, which first led to the British East India Trading Company seizing lands to add to British India and eventually led to Burma becoming its own province in British India.[3] Eventually, the British Empire made Burma a separate crown colony in 1937, just five years before the Japanese Empire used the Burmese Independence Army, which Japan helped train, to occupy and annex Burma. [4] The Burmese Independence Army did resist Japanese occupation and in 1945 the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, which had evolved from the BIA, was led by Aung San and liberated Burma with the help of the British military.[5] Aung San was later assassinated by political rivals and his successor as head of the AFPFL became the first prime minister of the newly independent Burmese nation in 1947. [6]

The previous paragraph fast-forwarded through almost 700 years of imperial colonization and only provided brief highlights of the truly tumultuous history Myanmar had regarding international relations. The colonization of nearby nations, like French Indochina, which includes present-day Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, and British India, which included India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, also had a profound effect on the cultural diversity and subsequent military history of the region. As in any part of the world, when conflict occurs in neighboring states, a nation is generally impacted economically, socially, and culturally by the conflict itself and by the refugees that seek shelter from violence. A complete history of these wars and their effects on Burma or Myanmar would be too much to include here, but are certainly a factor in the events still to be explored. We at Nonviolence International New York would advise anyone studying humanitarian crises like the one in Myanmar today to remember the effects on wars, not only within a nation’s boundaries but also in the region it occupies, when trying to identify the root causes of suffering.

[1] “International Chiefs of Defense Condemn Use of Lethal Force in Burma.” U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE. March 27, 2021. https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2552774/international-chiefs-of-defense-condemn-use-of-lethal-force-in-burma/.

[2]”Myanmar Profile — Timeline.” BBC News. September 03, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12992883.

[3] “Anglo-Burmese Wars.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed April 08, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/event/Anglo-Burmese-Wars.

[4] “Myanmar Profile-Timeline”

[5] Smith Smith Martin, Martin. “Burma and World War II.” Cultural Survival. December 01, 1989. Accessed April 08, 2021. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/burma-and-world-war-ii.

[6] “Myanmar Profile-Timeline”

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