Brief History: Following a series of empires and warring states, the land and people of Myanmar (Burma) were annexed by Britain and became part of British India in 1886. The British conquest took place over 61 years with three separate Anglo-Burmese Wars. The pairing of Burma and India lasted until 1937 when Burma became its own colony.
During World War 2 Burma became a battleground for the British and Japanese, which destroyed a lot of the country’s infrastructure and began to pit the minority ethnic groups against the Burman majority.
Like many other colonies, Burma achieved its independence in 1948, and was, for a brief period, a democratic state. Though independent, Burma never achieved overall peace, and near constant civil war has plagued Burma since independence. Broken British promises and World War 2 alliances created the tension that devolved into minority ethnic unrest and dreams of independent states. These freedom and independence movements, both violent and non-violent, were unanimously met with violent and brutal suppression.
Democratic rule of Burma ended in 1962 when General Ne Win gained control through a military coup d’état. The country has been under military rule more or less since then. Throughout the 70’s Burma experimented with its own form of socialism mixed with superstition. These failed policies led to a crippled economy and Burma was transformed from the largest rice exporter in Asia to a rice importer. Prior to this period, Burma had high levels of education and literacy and was home to some of the best universities in Southeast Asia. The educational institutions were dismantled during this period and the general population suffered intellectually.
General Ne Win’s rule and the reduction in Burmese living standards incited opposition and his time in power was marked by near constant revolts and protests. The biggest protests came in 1988, called the “8888 Uprising,” and were led mainly by students. These protests, like others before, were met with violence and massive loss of civilian life. During this period, a common enemy led to unlikely bonds and pairing between urban Burman students and the already organized minority resistance groups.
The military authorities never ceded power but made illusions of concessions over the next few decades. In 1990, Burma held its first free elections since Ne Win had gained power and Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the NDL, won over 80% of the seats of government. However, these results were never acknowledged or implemented and many members of the opposition were jailed or disappeared. Over this time period the ruling authorities made many symbolic changes to shed the yoke of British imperialism, such as changing the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar and the spelling of many cities’ names. The capital was also relocated from Rangoon to the newly created city of Nay Pyi Taw.
Despite these changes, and a slight easing of suppression, the resistance never ceased. In 2007, another large revolt broke out, this time led by the saffron-robed Buddhist monks and aptly titled the “Saffron Revolution.” Again, this movement was met with an iron fist and a massive loss of civilian life. These actions led to some of the strongest international sanctions to date.
In 2008 nature itself turned on Myanmar, when Cyclone Nargis claimed the lives of over 100,000 people and did massive damage to the country’s already underdeveloped infrastructure. The military government was impotent in providing assistance for those affected and stalled international aid out of fear of espionage.
Over the last five years the government has taken some steps to move toward a civilian government and democratic constitution. Exactly how far these steps will go and how real they are is debatable. Some positive signs have been the release from house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her subsequent election to parliament, as well as the release of some of the political prisoners. The remainders of the political prisoners have been promised to be released entirely by the end of 2013.
Karen History: The Karen people represent the third largest ethnic population and reside mainly in the Kayin State in eastern Myanmar. They have resided in this area for at least several centuries and most likely emigrated from the north. There are three main branches of the Karen people (Sgaw, Pwo, Pa’o) each with their own unique language. The Karen people are also divided religiously; the majority of them are Buddhists, though there are also sizable populations of both Christians and Animists.
Karen and Burman relations deteriorated following WW2. During the war the Karen people, due to their connection with British missionaries, sided with the British while the majority Burmese (Burman) Army fought alongside the Japanese.
In 1947, the Karen people formed the KNU (Karen National Union), originally comprised of both Christians and Buddhists. The Karen leadership’s original goal was an independent state, which the ruling British government promised to consider and resolve. The British Empire’s hasty exit from South Asia left the Karen state unresolved and its future in limbo.
Originally after Burma’s independence from Britain, relations between the Karen and Burmans were fairly peaceful. These relations soon deteriorated, particularly following the government takeover by General Ne Win. Under Ne Win the Burmese Army began increasingly attacking and destroying Karen villages and the KNU responded by forming the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). Besides forming the resistance army, the KNU also administered social services such as medical care and education for its people.
Technically at war with the Burmese Army since 1949, the Karen insurgency has had periods of success and nearly captured Yangon itself on several occasions. Fighting between the KNU and Burmese Army continued intermittently for nearly the next 60 years. Fighting peaked in the 1980’s when Karen fighters were joined by Burman students following the brutal suppression of protests. At its height, the KNLA had more than 20,000 fighters but never ceased political efforts to resolve the conflict.
During the 1990’s internal strife caused a split in the KNLA. Karen Buddhists split from the KNLA, with its largely Christian leadership, and formed their own resistance group called the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army). The DKBA has often sided with their religious peers, the Burmese Army, over their ethnic group in the KNLA. However, recent years have seen some reversal of this with stronger ties being created between the KNLA and the DKBA.
The Karen conflict is currently the longest running internal war worldwide, though an informal ceasefire was agreed upon and somewhat abided by for the last several years. Over 200,000 Karen have been driven from their homes and over 160,000 are currently living in Thailand in refugee camps. The largest camp, Mae La, situated on the Thai-Burma border, holds over 50,000 Karen refugees with limited food, education and work opportunities. There were still reports of the Burmese Army burning Karen villages as recently as 2010.
Human Rights: The Burmese Army and military ruling class have been accused of a vast array of human rights abuses and have been subject to international sanctions for years. Recently, these sanctions have begun to be eased with the implementation of government reforms and the move toward democracy. The true nature of these reforms and their reach is still unknown.
Over the past 60 years substantiated reports have emerged of the Burmese military being responsible for political executions, child soldiers, forced labor, and even systematic rape and sex trafficking. Additionally, the Burmese authorities have met any form of dissidence with extreme violence and total suppression. Freedom of speech has been severely restricted over the last 60 years but has been tentatively allowed since 2012.
All ethnic resistance movements, including the Karen, have been subject to these and other human rights abuses. Currently, the Rohingya population on the western border of Myanmar faces the most persecution. There have been accusations of ethnic cleansing by the Burmese government. Though the Rohingya have lived there for centuries, they are still denied Burmese citizenship. Tensions have flared recently between the Burman Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya leading to the Muslim communities being attacked and their villages burned with little prosecution or intervention by the government.
Land/Climate: The land of Burma/Myanmar is slightly smaller than the size of Texas with a population of approximately 60 million. Myanmar is bordered by Thailand and Laos to the east and Bangladesh and India to the west with China neighboring in the north. Myanmar itself is broken up into seven individual states, each largely populated by the specific ethnic group the state is named after.
Myanmar is defined by its rivers; there are three main rivers that trisect the country with the largest and most vital being the Irrawaddy. The Irrawaddy Delta provides the fertile plains where the majority of the population resides and the land is the most agriculturally productive.
The climate within Myanmar is fairly diverse, though most of the country is affected by seasonal monsoons. Generally central Myanmar is dry, the north is cool, and the coastal and delta areas are hot and wet.
People/Culture: Myanmar is very culturally diverse, with 135 different ethnic groups officially being recognized by the government. Additionally there are several sizable ethnic populations, which remain unrecognized by the authorities. In total there are over 100 languages spoken, many with a variety of different dialects.
The term Burmese refers to all citizens of Myanmar of any ethnic background, though it is frequently used to refer specifically to the majority ethnic group. This group comprising of two-thirds of the population is the more accurately referred to as Burman or occasionally Bamar. The majority of the Burman are Theravada Buddhists with a minority being Islamic. These Burman Muslims often face persecution and therefore the Bamar refugee population is largely Muslim. The Burman language, referred to as Burmese, is the official language of the country, although it is not spoken or understood by a large portion of the minority ethnic groups.
Religiously, Myanmar is almost 90% Buddhist with around 4% each of Christians and Muslims. The Myanmar government doesn’t designate any official religion and its constitution allows for the freedom of religion. In practice, many government policies favor Buddhists, and there have been widespread reports of religious persecution against Christians and Muslims.
Myanmar hosts a diverse cuisine, due in large part to the amount of ethnic identities residing there. In general, the food combines elements of Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisines with each ethnic group favoring their own unique dishes. Meals are typically eaten with the right hand, though noodle dishes are eaten with chopsticks and a spoon.
Traditional dress and customs vary somewhat from group to group. A “longyi,” or a wrap-around sarong is a common article of clothing for both males and females. Generally, most ethnic groups share a strong respect for elders. Public physical affection, like hand-holding, is common amongst plutonic friends of the same gender while public affection is discouraged in mixed gender, even married couples. It is commonly considered rude to touch a person’s head or feet and additionally to use one’s feet to point; shoes are removed upon entering a home. The principal of “Ana,” which is defined as, “an overall hesitation, reluctance or avoidance, to perform an action based on the fear that it will offend someone or cause someone to lose face, or become embarrassed,” is characteristic of the majority of Myanmar’s inhabitants.