“When speaking to people in Davos, the issue of the opening up of Myanmar, the former Burma, arose. It is a country of which we do not have great knowledge, although there were real connections between Ireland and Burma as it was called. That country of 60 million has a huge range of natural resources, yet some 58 million of its people have never had access to communications. That country will move from what might be termed ground zero to cloud computing and cloud access straight away. The scale of the investment there will be enormous. The scale of the investment there will be enormous.” An Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking in the Dail, 12th February 2013.
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny may not have great knowledge about Burma, but even as a primary school teacher, he would have the wherewithal to quickly learn about its geography, economy and politics. And even if hadn’t, he employs €168,000 a year special advisers who must surely be capable of giving a country summary to the boss. The following blogpost might help them all.
Burma or “Myanmar” as it has been known internationally since 1989 is a big country in south east Asia. It’s just over 5,000 miles away as the crow flies.
Here’s a close-up.
It has a population of 60m, the same as the UK or Italy. It has an economy which is only half the size of Ireland’s, so you could say it is a deeply poor country, in fact the 164th poorest out of 180 countries in the world according to the IMF.
So, how many of you have ever visited Burma? Not many, I’ll bet and why would you. It’s been under fairly brutal military rule since 1962, and there are far nicer regional tourist destinations in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. And who wants to visit a place where state rape, torture and mass killing are so prevalent, or where a minor infraction might end with you mysteriously falling from the fifth floor of police stations. Myanmar is now seen by some as the largest narco state in the world, second only to Afghanistan for the production of heroin and believed to be world number one for methamphetamines. Drug production is intrinsically linked to the military junta and its proxies.
Here’s a potted history of the country: it comprises 130 different ethnicities and an approximation to its present borders has only existed for 300 years. In the 1820s, our friends and neighbours, the Brits tried their hand at acquiring it as another colony, and by 1885, Burma was a country ultimately under the rule of Britain’s Queen Victoria. But like Ireland, the locals weren’t happy with being ruled by foreigners and resentment eventually led to it, in the 1930s, becoming a colony like Canada. Then came World War 2, and a savage fight between the Brits and the Japanese, remember Bridge on the River Kwai? In 1948, a year after India, Burma became independent. It had just over a decade of democratic rule with the equivalent of our Dail and Seanad, but then in 1962, the military took over and there followed a Soviet-style of centralized economy for five decades. It has been pretty repressive. In the late 1980s, just as Communism was falling in Europe, there were protests in Burma, and there was a new military coup – yes, it was replacing an existing military junta but it had different generals. During all this time, there has been some semblance of politics but the military has ruled with an iron fist in an iron glove. In 2008, after years of protests, the military allowed reforms and in 2010 there were new elections. The military-backed political party won power with the UN describing the elections as fraudulent. As things stand in 2013, there is an elected president and an equivalent of Dail and Seanad where representatives are predominantly military-backed, elected in elections dismissed as fraudulent.
In the last 18 months, there have been small signs of change with the release of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a politician whose struggle to bring democracy to Burma won her a Nobel prize. The graceful Daw Aung visited Ireland last summer. Sanctions against the country by the EU and US have been eased very slightly – the US is still banning companies from doing business with certain Burmese nationals so this is far from a free-for-all land grab.
President Obama’s United States bans US firms from doing business with the country’s biggest and most corrupt businessmen, says Erika Kinetz an Associated Press writer who says that although “flights to Rangoon are full, hotel rooms booked solid. Foreign bars are packed with well-fed Westerners in khakis and jean” that Burma is still not a gold rush for US firms with the US slow to ease sanctions in such a corrupt country. It is still the fourth most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International.
With recent political developments, foreign corporations have been banging on the door trying to get access to the oil and gas and other natural resources. And the country has also started to look at opening up its telecoms market, and with just 3% of Burmese owning a mobile phone according to the World Bank in 2011, the market potential there is huge.
It is still a nasty, nasty country which has a history of civil wars and where there are still “Troubles” today. Here’s an overview on civil rights –
300 political prisoners despite releases after the 2010 elections; systematic rape by military with 25% of rapes resulting in death; beatings, burning of limbs, mock executions electrocution, water torture and drowning routinely used by military and police- they seem to have invented a new torment in Burma, pressing a roller over limbs which causes the skin to peel off, genocide, Child soldiers, widespread censorship, Red Cross denied access to prisons, certain ethnic groups need permission to marry or travel between towns and are forbidden from having more than two children.
Yes Enda, it is indeed a country of which we have not had great knowledge.