In 1988, the military took control of the nation of Burma, ousting the then-leadership and establishing a new junta. Despite its main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, winning a landslide victory in multiparty legislative elections held in 1990, the junta has refused to hand over power since. NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest and isolated from her party and supporters.
Suu Kyi has remained under house arrest for most of the period since 1989, which has been interspersed with short periods of release or imprisonment. The Burmese people continue largely to hope for her full release and a subsequent overhaul of the current government. In 2008, the UNDP’s Human Development Index, which measures nations’ achievements in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment, and adjusted real income, ranked Burma 133 out of 177 countries overall. In 2007, when the junta unexpectedly increased fuel prices, tens of thousands of Burmese citizens marched in protest, led by pro-democracy activists and Buddhist monks. The government brutally suppressed the protests, killing at least 13 people and arresting thousands. The regime continues to raid homes and monasteries and arrest those suspected of participating in the pro-democracy demonstrations.
A resource-rich country, Burma has long been the world’s largest teak source and a leading exporter of jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires. However, suffering from strict government control and inefficient economic policies, many of its people are poverty-stricken, especially in rural areas, with about 30 per cent of the whole population living under the poverty line. Most overseas development assistance stopped after the junta began to suppress the democracy movement and refused to honour the results of the 1990 elections. Overall, socio-economic conditions of Burma have deteriorated because of the regime’s mismanagement of the economy.
The business climate is generally regarded as corrupt and highly inefficient. Thus, sanctions instated by the European Union in 2007 ban investment and trade in Burmese gems, timber and precious stones. The United States has recently expanded its sanctions list to include more Burmese government and military officials. Burma’s total foreign debt now stands at over $7 billion. The country receives some technical assistance from Asia and limited humanitarian aid and debt relief from Japan and China.
Over two million Burmese, many of them ethnic minorities, have fled for economic and political reasons to Thailand, Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia and Malaysia to seek work and protection. Burmese children are subjected to conditions of forced labour, domestically and in Thailand in particular. Women are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation to Malaysia and China. The military junta remain directly involved in significant acts of forced labour and unlawful conscription of child soldiers. Burma is the world’s second largest producer of illicit opium.
In 2008 the country was struck by Cyclone Nargis, which left an estimated 80,000 dead and 50,000 injured.