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Cultural Profiles

Myanmar

  • Canada marked world refugee day in 2006 announcing the sponsorship of 810 Myanmar refugees, all of whom are of Karen ethnic origin.1
  • According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Thailand currently hosts 96,800 refugees from Myanmar who have been registered, and an estimated 53,000 who have not. Refugees reside in nine government-run camps along the border.2
  • According to the CIA World Factbook there are 503,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) within Burma. Most IDPs are ethnic Karen, Karenni, Shan, Tavoyan, and Mon(2007).3
  • Many international authorities have accused Burmese military of ethnic cleansing, with forceful attempts to destroy the Karen identity and exile or execute its people.3
  • A short film by IOM on the 100,000th resettlement from the Thai/Myanmar border camps

Geography and Social Climate:

Bordered by China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, India and the Bay of Bangal, Myanmar is the second largest geographic area in Southeast Asia.

Myanmar is a culturally diverse country with longstanding ethnic tensions between minority groups. These tensions have shaped government, history and the geopolitical climate of the modern day. Myanmar's military aggressively dominates its people, despite successive civilian led protests. Myanmar's government has dominated since 1962, a time when General Ne Win led a coup d'etat which successfully overthrew civilian government. For over 50 years, the ideals of democratic rights have been on trial in Myanmar.3

Factuals:

Capital: Naypyidaw
Official Language(s):
Burmese
Other Languages Spoken Regionally:
Jingpho, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan
Population:
55,400,000 (according to 2009 estimate)
Currency:
Kyat
Ethnic Group Most Seen in Canada:
Karen

Socio-Political Timeline:

(Information retrieved from the US Department of State4 and CIA World Factbook3)

  • 1886 – 1948, marks the colonial era with British rule in Burma.
  • 1948, Burma is granted independence from British rule.
  • From 1948 – 1962, Burma is considered a democratic republic. Sao Shwe Thaik becomes the first Burmese president, and U Nu the first Burmese Prime Minister. Multi-party elections are held in 1951/52, 1956 and 1960.
  • 1962, General Ne Win leads a coup d'etat with success. Democratic rule ends, military junta rule begins
  • Shortly after the 1962 coup d'etat, protests are established and violently ended by military forces. Many protests are led by students.
  • July 7th 1962, a student led demonstration is organized at Rangoon University. Violet militia kills 15 students, sparking outrage throughout Burma.
  • With Ne Win's rise to power comes relentless racial discrimination and persecution of immigrant groups, no longer recognized as citizens. These groups are labelled resident aliens. Exodus is forced and 300, 000 people flee. Others change their names and identities to remain in the country.
  • 1974, article published in Newsweek describes the Burmese government as 'an amalgam of Buddhist and Marxist illogic'.
  • 1988 uprising, which has come to be known as the 8888 Uprising. Unrest over political oppression leads to wide-spread democratic protests. Militia kill thousands of demonstrators.
  • May 1990, government holds free elections for the first time in 30 years. Aung San Suu Kyi leads the National League for Democracy (NLD). NLD overwhelmingly wins but results nullified by government refusing to step down.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi punished to 15 years of house arrest. Burmese passports of both of her sons are nullified.
  • 2007, Burmese anti-government protests led by thousands of Buddhist monks. Protests televised, peaceful demonstrations only. Protests proceed from September 18th – September 26th
  • Rule by military junta 1962- present. Myanmar is currently led by the State Peace and Development Council which is military led.
  • Today there is a division of international opinion on best management of Myanmar's military junta. Canada, the UK, the US and France call for further sanctions while other influential countries such as China disagree. Limited progress has been made by international efforts over recent years.

Etymology and Nomenclature: Burma vs. Myanmar:

In 1989, ruling military government officially changed many of Burma's colonial-era city names. This included an official change to the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. The renaming is a highly contested issue within Burma and internationally. Many opposition groups oppose the name change recognizing neither the legitimacy of the military government nor its right to rename the country. The United Nations has accepted the name change, while Canada, France, Australia, the UK , the US and others have rejected its validity. Both names are in current colloquial use.3

Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar's Democratic Icon

Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese opposition leader, the only daughter of the highly esteemed Aung Sun. He was said to have founded the modern Burmese army and negotiated Burma's independence from the British Empire in 1947. Aung San was assassinated by political opposition during the height of his political popularity, soon after his efforts for independence in 1947.5

Aung San Suu Kyi has followed her father's unfortunate footsteps, experiencing persecution for her political views. She has spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest, penalty for her demand of anti-authoritarianism. Prominent for her petition for democracy, Suu Kyi has become a worldwide icon of freedom. During Burma's general election of 1990 the National League for Democracy, led by Suu Kyi, won a 59% majority vote nationally, and 81% of the parliamentary seats. She had however, been detained under house arrest before the elections. Her electoral success was quickly annulled by a government which refused to step down. Democracy would once again be denied from the Burmese people. On November 13th 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released. The international community awaits her next role in a movement towards Burmese freedom.5

International Accolades:

Suu Kyi has received praise internationally. Made famous for her Freedom From Fear speech, which begins, "It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it." She is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize of 1991 for her non-violent democratic movement. She is also the recipient of the Rafto Prize and the Sakhaov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990. In 1992 the government of India awarded Suu Kyi the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. In 2002, Canada granted Suu Kyi honorary citizenship for her outstanding leadership for democracy, an accolade awarded to only five in Canada's history.5,6

Myanmar's Karen Population:

The Karen population, a largely oppressed ethnic group from Myanmar, are the refugee population most often seen in Canada. Though official Burmese census data has not been collected since 1931, experts suspect there are more than five million Karen people living within Myanmar. The Karen were one of the first inhabitants of Burma. Oppressed over centuries by successions of Burmese rulers, they have endured attack, ridicule, and denial of basic human rights. Many international authorities have accused Burmese military of ethnic cleansing, with forceful attempts to destroy the Karen identity and exile or execute its people. The current State Peace and Development Council of Myanmar bans all schools in Karen state (known as Kayin) to teach its traditional language.8

The Karen reside primarily in Southern and Southeastern Burma. Because of cultural discrimination many Karen have been displaced to Thailand, mostly on the Myanmar-Thai border. The Karen have been referred to as 'hill' people, establishing their homes and communities amongst the hills of Southern Burma.8,9

Karen History:

When war ended in January 1948, Burma was granted independence. At this time the Karen, led by the Karen National Union (KNU) attempted to co-exist with the ethnic majority in Burma. This peaceful mission was initially successful. Karens held leading positions in government, served as army officials and successfully integrated with the Burmese majority without armed conflict. However, in 1948, the Burmese government began militia training which would eventually attack Karen communities. Swiftly, Karen officials in all leading positions were withdrawn from service. Many were jailed, while others were expatriated. This anti-Karen sentiment set the scene for 60 years to come.9 During the 1980s, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) developed into a significant force of 20, 000 people. After the 1988 uprising for democratic freedom, the KNLA harboured Burmese demonstrators at their bases, which existed along the border. The dictatorship quickly retaliated. As the Burmese army grew, they continued to launch major offensives against the KNLA. By 2006, the Burmese militia was 400,000 strong, while the KNLA had shrunk to 4000 soldiers. The battle was lost. Further to the discord of the Karen army, a branch group developed from the KNLA which sided with the opposition. This sect is called the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA).

Religion:

The Karen culture was originally defined around an animist belief system. Animism's central property is that non-humans are spiritual beings. All things embody a life-like principle which is honoured. Animists also regard the spiritual and physical as connected properties, which cannot be separated.

Today, the majority of Karens are Buddhists, as is the majority of Myanmar. There are also Karen Christians, existing in two main denominations, Baptist and Seventh Day Adventists. Burmese Christians have been the target of much discrimination and scrutiny since the time Christianity was introduced in Burma. Burmese authorities continue to persecute Karen Christians.9,3

Karen Language:

Karen language is traced to be part of the Sino-Tibetan language group. Most Karen speak one of three language sets; S'gaw, Pwo and Bwe, though many others exist.10

Displacement and Resettlement:

  • In 2004, the BBC reported that up to 200, 000 Karens had been driven from their homes over decades of war. Specifically, in 1995, the Myanmar army attacked the Karen National Union. At this time, many Karen people were imprisoned; villages were burned. Many Karens faced forced relocation to Thailand or the Thai-Burmese border. Others were forced as labourers to the Burmese government.
  • BBC reporter Andrew Harding discussed his conversations with Karen refugees on the run, “slipping across the Burmese border by boat, then hiking through the jungle to remote valley, we met 700 weary civilians who are now in hiding”.11
  • According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Thailand currently hosts 96,800 registered refugees from Myanmar, with an additional 53,000 estimated unregistered refugees, in nine government-run camps along the border.2
  • The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) has identified 13,000 refugees in need of resettlement to prior trauma or poor camp conditions; many have been subjected to torture, imprisonment and forced labour. Many camps are subject to overcrowding, unclean water, and poor sanitation.2
  • Canada marked world refugee day in 2006 announcing the sponsorship of 810 Myanmar refugees, all of whom are Karen. (Canada has marked World Refugee Day in past years by accepting refugees from Afghanistan and Somalia.)1
  • The United States, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Britain and the Netherlands are also currently accepting refugees from Myanmar.1
  • In October 2010, a UN group investigating human rights offensives issued joint allegations against the Myanmar government concerning refugees. Deported migrants from the Thai/Myanmar border, ordered to returned to their home country, have allegedly suffered serious human rights abuses. These include torture, extortion of money, sex trafficking, and conscription of adolescent males to militia.2
  • In the past few months, government troops have launched a major new offensive. This has triggered an exodus of civilians, perhaps as many as 15,000, who are either hiding in Maynmar's jungle or heading for the border with Thailand'.2

Health Care in Crisis:

Myanmar is one of 57 countries worldwide facing a critical shortage of medical staff, defined as fewer than 23 health workers per 10,000 people. This definition is used by the World Health Organization. It is applied worldwide.12

Links to Interesting and Credible Resources:

Articles from the UN Refugee Agency:

References:

  1. Canada to accept 810 Refugees from Myanmar: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2006/06/20/canada-myanmar-refugees.html
  2. UNHCR – UN Refugee Agency: http://www.unhcr.ca/
  3. CIA World Factbook: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bm.html
  4. US Department of State: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35910.htm
  5. Aung San Suu Kyi Biographys, Nobelprize.org: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1991/kyi-bio.html
  6. Burma releases pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-11749661
  7. Steinberg, David L. (February 2002). Burma: The State of Myanmar. Georgetown University Press. ISBN.
  8. http://www.myanmar.com/people/kayin.html
  9. Karen Cultural Preservation Society: http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs3/karenmuseum-01/karen_history_and_cultur...
  10. Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (2005). "Language Family Trees: Sino-Tibetan". Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. SIL International. http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=90150. Retrieved 9 July 2006.
  11. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4987224.stm
  12. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Myanmar: Rural healthcare "in crisis", 28 January 2011,available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4d4a526c1e.html [accessed 4 April 2011]
  13. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Thailand-Myanmar: Thousands still displaced along border, 25 January 2011,available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4d426416c.html (accessed 4 April 2011)
  14. UN Human Rights Council, Progress report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, 7 March 2011,A/HRC/16/59,available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4d8b48602.html [accessed 4 April 2011]
  15. ^ "Burma party rejects junta's terms". BBC News. 9 October 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/7035946.stm. Retrieved 9 October 2007.
  16. Aust N Z J Public Health. 2009 Oct;33(5):466-70. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4987224.stm

 

Contact for corrections or updates: elena DOT paraskevopoulos AT gmail DOT com

Written by Elena Paraskevopoulos MD (May 12, 2011)

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