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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
Official Language(s): Burmese
Other Languages Spoken Regionally: Jingpho, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan
Population: 55,400,000 (according to 2009 estimate)
Ethnic Group Most Seen in Canada: Karen
(Information retrieved from the US Department of State4 and CIA World Factbook3)
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 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
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
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
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).
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 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
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
Contact for corrections or updates: elena DOT paraskevopoulos AT gmail DOT com
Translated educational handouts on health issues.
Dentists, physiotherapists and other community resources who speak other languages, accept IFH or offer reduced fees.