Thursday, September 27, 2007

Background on the Current Conflict and Potential Crisis in Myanmar

Mary Grant submitted the following update on the situation in Myanmar. We thank her for her diligent work.

Over the last few decades, the government of Myanmar has typically responded to peaceful demonstrations with violence, at times with dramatic results. In 1988, thousands of demonstrators were killed, and in 1989 thousands were arrested. To avoid similar human rights violations, the international community must apply pressure on Myanmar to implement a democratic response to the current demonstrations.

As of September 22, 2007 the Burmese monks, in an unprecedented move, denied spiritual service to all military personnel. Twenty thousand monks are leading the largest demonstrations in 20 years. Demonstrations have swelled to over 100,000 people over the past nine days. Protestors are calling for lower prices of basic commodities, improved health care and education, and better utility services.

But what has triggered the current protests, especially when the country has endured incredible oppression under the military junta’s rule for the last 40 years? In September, the government released a long awaited draft constitution that continues to ensure military control of the legislatures and ministries. The controlling military junta is regarded as one of the most “draconian regimes in the world” (Life Under Burma’s Military Regimes, BBC News, June 15, 2006).

Various international agencies, including the Red Cross, have accused the military junta of violating international humanitarian laws. Within Myanmar, the government is in the habit of eliminating all opposition by arresting and sentencing dissenters to lengthy jail terms, hard labor, or death. Citizens claim that everything they do is controlled. Media is heavily censored. Education is geared towards military propaganda. Citizens must ask the government for permission even if they want to have a guest stay overnight.

In 2006, the International Labor Organization sought to bring charges of forced labor against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice, accusing the military of kidnapping villagers, including children. The military allegedly forced those they kidnapped to serve as porters, to lead troops through fields in order to uncover land mines, and to work on construction projects.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime lists Myanmar in the top 45 countries of human trafficking originators, transit points, and final destinations.

The government has poured money into developing the military and building a new capital, but it has done little to improve the country’s standard of living. Consequently, the economy of the Burma has become one of the poorest and most corrupt in Asia. It has the fourth highest inflation level in the world (at 25%), and it is the second largest producer of opium. Their economic growth rate has slowed to 1.5%, and the annual GDP per capita is $1,600. Half of the children under the age of 5 are considered chronically malnourished. Additionally, an estimated 150,000 children under the age of 5 die every year from preventable diseases such as malaria and dysentery.

The economic crisis, which has been looming for years, intensified in 2006 when the military junta authorized increased salaries for all government workers. However, the government did not have the economic means with which to pay these salaries. The result has been a 30-60% increase in the prices of basic commodities.

When considering the economic and social climate, the current protests seem inevitable. The question is how to resolve the conflict. Myanmar has strong economic ties with China. Exports from China to Burma have risen 50% so far this year. As China wants positive international publicity (as it approaches the Beijing Olympics), the international community can apply pressure on China to exert its significant influence over Myanmar in order to initiate a democratic process and resolve the conflicts peacefully. For more ideas on how to resolve the emerging crisis in Myanmar, see the recent media release by the International Crisis Group.

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