Burma: State of Fear
AIRS ON PBS OCTOBER 31, 2006 | CHECK LISTINGS arrow

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COUNTRY PROFILE

One of the largest countries in mainland southeast Asia, Burma is bordered by China on the north, Laos on the east, Thailand on the southeast, Bangladesh on the west and India on the northwest. Burma has almost 1,200 miles of coastline along the Andaman Sea to the south and along the Bay of Bengal to the southwest.

With a population of 50 million people and more than 100 minority groups, Burma is an ethnically diverse country. The largest groups are the Burman people, who make up almost two-thirds of the population and are ethnically related to the Chinese, and the Tibetans. Significant minority groups include the Karen, the Shan, the Rakhine and the Mon. Burman dominance over minority groups has fueled ethnic tensions.

Burma has a rich Buddhist tradition and almost 80 percent of Burma's population practices the religion. The thousands of Buddhist temples and pagodas across the country draw tourists from around the world.

Thick forests cover almost half of the country, but unlike many of the neighboring countries that have undergone rapid economic growth, much of Burma's environment still lies untouched. The country's key exports include teak, jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires. With its extremely fertile soil, Burma is also home to important oil and gas deposits. In recent years, the construction of oil and gas pipelines has started to take a toll on the environment with deforestation happening in some areas.

The majority of the Burmese people live in the valley surrounding the country's longest river, the Irrawaddy. The river, which stretches about 1,350 miles from north to south and bisects the country, is Burma's most important waterway.

The large disparity between the ruling elite and the rest of the population has affected the daily life of many Burmese. Most people's income barely covers the cost of living, and problems with transportation and communication are widespread. Even those who live in large cities, such as Rangoon (also known as Yangon), experience frequent power outages.

Under a military dictatorship, thousands of political activists have been imprisoned. Currently, more than 1,100 people, including 17 members of parliament and 17 journalists, languish in prison for their political views.

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ECONOMY

Despite the country's mineral wealth, Burma has suffered years of economic decline through government controls and inefficient economic policies. It is now one of the poorest countries in the world.

While oil, gas, mining and timber keep the country afloat, growth of manufacturing and service industries have been blighted by poor infrastructure and unpredictable import and export policies. Meanwhile, the country's health and education systems have been in decline for decades. In the absence of a functioning open economy, corruption has flourished. It's estimated that the income from the black-market and unofficial border trade matches that of the official economy.

The United States imposed economic sanctions against Burma in 1997 and imposed even more rigorous sanctions in 2003, after the military junta attacked the convoy of pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and continued to suppress political freedoms. Applying economic and political pressure, the United States banned all imports of Burmese products and froze the assets of senior Burmese officials.

Burma joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1997. This group of 10 nations, which includes Singapore and Thailand, has engaged in regular trade with Burma, a country that has good economic relations with its neighbors. China, India, South Korea and Thailand are competing in efforts to secure Burma's wealth of offshore natural gas resources.

A number of Western companies, including the French oil company Total and the American company Unocal, continue to do business in Burma, building pipelines through the nation. Both companies have also been connected with alleged human rights abuses.

The Burma Campaign UK and other groups have been pressuring international companies to end business ties with Burma. The campaign says foreign investment in Burma helps the military regime to expand its army and maintain power.

Tourism remains a controversial topic, especially since tourist dollars support the military regime. According to the Burma Campaign UK, much of the country's tourist infrastructure is developed by the use of forced labor. Others, however, say that tourism exposes many of the local people to foreigners, a much-needed change for the Burmese population.

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MILITARY RULE

The military junta, which has ruled Burma for the past decade and a half, strictly regulates the activities of the other political parties and the ethnic opposition groups. Since 1989, the military authorities in Burma have promoted the name "Myanmar" as the official name for the country. No sitting legislature in Burma officially approved this decision.

Burma's current military ruler, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, holds the title of "Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council." Than Shwe, who has led the military dictatorship since 1992, joined the Burmese army at the age of 20 and rose through the ranks to power. He was the second in command to his predecessor, Gen. Saw Maung, who resigned in 1992.

Initially, his leadership appeared more relaxed when he began to release political prisoners and allowed some human rights groups into Burma. But a hard-liner soon emerged as he suppressed dissent and ordered the rearrest of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2003. Than Shwe is known for his superstitious leadership and regularly seeks astrologers for the advice.

In 2005, the military rulers moved the capital city 200 miles north of heavily populated Rangoon to isolated Naypyidaw, near the city of Pyinmana. The distance of the government from the major universities in Rangoon made it more difficult for student uprisings to be effective. The new capital, tucked away in the jungles, remains virtually hidden from tourists who visit the country.

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ETHNIC GROUPS

One-third of Burma's population of about 50 million consists of more than 100 ethnic groups. Many minority groups have struggled for autonomous rule and tried to play a greater role in the political process. A number of these groups have their own armies.

The Karen, one of the largest ethnic groups in Burma, makes up 7 percent of the population. Traditionally, most Karens farm the nutrient-rich soils of southern Burma and eastern Thailand.

The group's political wing, the Karen National Union, continues to challenge the Burmese government through its large guerilla army, the Karen National Liberation Army, which has spent the past 50 years fighting for democracy. Most of the fighters are based in temporary jungle camps along the Thai-Burma border.

The Karen people have suffered numerous injustices under the military dictatorship. Much of their land is planted with mines and thousands have been uprooted from their villages, forced to live in makeshift camps deep in the jungle. Most are too afraid to return home for fear of the Burmese military. Others have fled the fighting between Karen forces and Burmese troops and live in refugee camps on the Thai border.

In 2005, Thailand took in approximately 120,000 Burmese refugees. More than half a million others displaced people live in the border areas or in neighboring countries.

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RELATED LINKS

MEDIA

Wedding Video of Senior General Than Shwe's Daughter
First posted on the Irrawaddy Web site and later on YouTube, this video footage shows the July 2006 wedding celebrations of Gen Than Shwe's youngest daughter Thandar Shwe. The Irrawady reports that "the video was leaked to the press and sparked outrage within Burma and outside the country because of the opulence of the ceremony and festivities in Rangoon and Naypyidaw."

The Irrawaddy
Established by Burmese exiles in 1992, this publication includes current news and reports on business and culture. The Irrawaddy is not affiliated with any political party. The publication seeks to promote press freedom and access to unbiased information.

Burma Media Association
BMA, established in 2001 by Burmese journalists living abroad, promotes freedom of the press in Burma. The organization collects information about Burmese journalists who have been imprisoned or put under house arrest by the military dictatorship.

The Myanmar Times
The country's first international weekly publication has an online news site that covers Burmese news, business and current affairs.

BBC Burmese
BBC Burmese, which first started broadcasting in 1940, reports domestic and international news in Burmese.

POLITICAL/ACTIVIST

"The Dirty List"
This site includes a list of companies that continue to do business with Burma. The Burma Campaign UK aims at persuading foreign companies to withdraw from Burma, maintaining that foreign investment in Burma supports the country's military regime.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi site
This site, dedicated to the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, includes news, speeches, interviews and other information about the leader.

Free Burma Coalition
The coalition was founded at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1995 as a Burmese-led political initiative. The site organizes support for the Burmese struggle for democracy and human rights, and it posts essays and commentary from dissidents and journalists regarding the political situation inside the country.

NONPROFITS

US Campaign for Burma
This organization promotes grassroots activism as a way to bring the Burmese military dictatorship to an end. The group connects Americans and exiled dissidents in an effort to raise awareness of human rights violations. The site publishes news and press releases about developments in Burma as well as suggestions on how to get involved with particular campaigns.

The Burma Fund
This organization fosters dialogue on Burma's political situation and seeks to implement a civil and democratic government in the country. The site includes papers on Burma in addition to commentaries by notable scholars and journalists with expertise on the country.

Shan Women's Action Network
The network promotes the role of women from Burma and fights against the exploitation of women and children. The Shan, one of Burma's many ethnic minorities, have not been recognized as refugees by the Thai government, forcing them to flee illegally to Thailand.

The Burma Project
The Open Society Institute established the Burma Project in 1994 in an effort to inform the world about the country's political problems. This site includes key articles, such as a recent report about the shocking number of child soldiers in Burma's army.

The SHWE Gas Movement
This nonprofit challenges international companies that continue the exploration of gas-fields in western Burma. The group believes this project will inflict human rights abuses on ethnic minorities and result in forced labor and the forced relocation of villagers, among other injustices.

ARTICLES AND GENERAL INFORMATION

Burma: Can Sanctions Bring Democracy?
In 2004, FRONTLINE/World reporter Joan Bieder ventured inside Burma, a country which appears to be "moving backward," to report on the impact of U.S. economic sanctions against a military regime that stills holds Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.

Burma: Orwellian state, with teashops
In a series of dispatches, BBC correspondent Kate McGeown reports from Burma about life under the ruling military junta. Her reports from June 2006 assess the current situation in the country and the effectiveness of the international community's pressure for democratic reform.

Guardian Unlimited -- Special Report Burma
The Guardian Online publishes regular reports about Burma, including news regarding business and industry, human rights abuses, and the opium trade. It also provides links to other international coverage of the country.

Myanmar.com
This portal covers major news, travel, and cultural events in Burma and information on the country's history and traditions. The site also provides a guide to Burma's major tourist and entertainment attractions.

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BURMA AND NEIGHBORING COUNTRIES
Burma and neighboring countries

Sources: BBC; the Burma Campaign UK; CIA World Factbook; National Geographic; PBS

Researched and written by Sonia Narang

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