Friday, January 04, 2013

Happy Burmese Independence Day

Celebrated: in Burma (also known as Myanmar) since 1948, when British colonial rule ended

President Barack Obama visited Burma last November, the first visit of its kind by a sitting U.S. President. (Warning: what follows is a gross oversimplification of a complicated political history that deserves further reading.) Between 1989 and 2011, the country was controlled by a military junta that changed the country's name to Myanmar (though the US and other western countries continued to call it Burma) and suppressed political dissent and ethnic minority rights movements. Before that, the country was controlled from 1962 to 1974 by a "revolutionary council" headed by General Ne Win, and from 1974 to 1988 by the Burma Socialist Programme Party, also headed by General Ne Win and his military cronies.

By 1988, Burma, a land of immense natural resources (among them oil, gas, timber, copper, and precious stones), had become one of the world's most desperately poor, oppressed nations. General Ne Win and his successors looted the country for personal gain; in 2011, Transparency International cited Myanmar as the world's third-most corrupt public sector, second only to North Korea and Somalia.

So why did the President go to Burma last year? Because things are — fingers and toes crossed — looking up. Two events permanently shook the government of Myanmar in the spring of 2008: a constitutional referendum, in April, and Cyclone Nargis in May, which killed more than 130,000 people. No one could deny that Burma's self-imposed isolation made that disaster worse than it needed to be; Burma's military leaders initially blocked offers of aid from the West, even denying visas to aid workers. General elections in 2010 were fraught with manipulation and deceit, but the military junta finally dissolved in 2011.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese opposition, was released from house arrest at the end of 2010, and took office last May as a member of the Burmese House of Representatives. President Obama met with both her and President Thein Sein, a retired general some call Burma's Gorbachev. The US has eased economic sanctions against Burma in place since 1997, and announced plans to appoint the first US ambassador to Burma since 1990.

We take democracy for granted in the United States, as much as it frustrates us, but it's not an easy system. The transition from any kind of absolute rule to democracy is daunting, because it requires a small number of people to give up what they have. Throughout human history, the traditional way of persuading people to do that has been violent revolution. Dead people can't own things. Dead people can't rule. The road toward peaceful democratic rule takes quantities of imagination and goodwill that don't come naturally to most of us, which is why we remember and honor the ones who show us how it's done.

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