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COUNTRY PROFILES


PROFILE

Population: 53.5 million
Capital City: Naypyitaw (population 200,000). Major Centre of Population: Rangoon (population 5.8 million).
People: (All figures estimated) Bamar (69%), Shan (8.5%), Karen (6.2%), Rakhine (4.5%), Mon (2.4%), Chin (2.2%), Kachin (1.4%), Karrenni (0.4%), other indigenous (0.1%) and foreign nationalities (including Burmese Indian & Sino Burmese people) 5.3%
Languages: Burmese is the official language. There are numerous other ethnic minority languages.
Religion(s): Buddhism is the predominant religion. The other main religions are Christianity, Islam and Animism.
Currency: Kyat
Major political parties: Burma’s Parliament convened on 31 January. The military junta’s proxy political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, has a large majority in the upper and lower national parliaments. Together with the 25% reserved military bloc, former regime officials control over 80% of the total seats in both national parliaments. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was effectively outlawed in May 2010 after deciding not to participate in general elections. The Burmese Supreme Court rejected the NLD’s appeal against its dissolution on 28 January. Burma’s new government and the inauguration of the new President was announced on 30 March.
Government: Union Solidarity and Development Party.
President: U Thein Sein
Vice-President: Tin Aung Myint Oo and Sai Mauk Kham
Membership of international groupings/organisations: United Nations, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).

BURMA OR MYANMAR?

Britain's policy is to refer to Burma rather than 'Myanmar'. The former military regime changed the name to Myanmar in 1989. Burma's democracy movement prefers the form ‘Burma’ because they do not accept that the military had a legitimate right to change the name of the country. Internationally, both names are used.

TRAVEL

The NLD published a review of their tourism policy in a statement on 20 May 2011. The NLD make clear that they welcome tourism that promotes the welfare of Burma’s people, the conservation of the environment and that seeks to preserve and enjoy the country’s heritage. The NLD statement also seeks to remind potential visitors of some of the negative aspects of tourism including human rights abuses, such as forced labour and displacement as a result of hotel construction, and environmental degradation due to the development of infrastructure aimed at attracting tourists. The full text of the statement is at http://www.nldburma.org/media-press-release.html (http://www.nldburma.org/media-press-release.html) .

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ECONOMY

Basic Economic Facts

Total GDP: US$60.07billion (2010 estimate)
GDP Per capita: US$1,1000 (2010 estimate)
Inflation: 9.6% (2010 estimate)
Total Govt. Debt (% of GDP): US$7.145billion (2010 estimate)
Major Industries: Agriculture 42.2%, Industrial 18.9%, Services 38.7% (Central Statistics Office and Economist Intelligence Unit, 2008)
Major exports: natural gas, wood products, pulses, beans, fish, rice, clothing, jade and gems
Major trading partners: Thailand, China, Singapore, India
Exchange Rate: £1= approximately 10 Kyats (at official rate in 2010)
Burma is currently the world’s 10th biggest and Asia’s top exporter of natural gas. Natural gas exports are now Burma’s main source of foreign exchange income. Natural gas sales constitute 12.5% of Burma’s GDP and over 40% of its commodities exports. With expected further expansion in natural gas exploration and production, Burma’s ranking among the world’s top exporters of natural gas is likely to move upward.

As a result of decades of economic mismanagement, and despite substantial natural resources, Burma is one of the world’s poorest countries. The economy is unstable and in need of fundamental structural reform. The banking sector is fragile and a small private sector struggles with an unpredictable policy environment and a multitude of market distortions. Inflation is high.

As a result of gas exports, Burma’s economy is thought to be growing. But in the absence of macroeconomic reform, the prospects for sustainable growth remain bleak. Social indicators are likely to continue their downward slide.

It is likely that agriculture will continue to struggle to grow rapidly because of a lack of investment and poor access to important inputs and equipment. And it is likely that the manufacturing sector will remain troubled, reflecting the difficulties that it faces in obtaining essential inputs and investment capital.

The 2011 outlook for growth in private consumption and investment by local enterprises is bleak. Consumer spending is constrained by low average incomes, and also by a lack of confidence owing to price instability and weak free-market exchange rate.

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HISTORY

Burma was an independent Buddhist kingdom from 11-13th centuries, when the country fell to Mongol invaders, before becoming a satellite of China. Burma came under the control of the British Raj in 1885. In 1937, Burma became a self-governing protectorate.

During WWII, Burma was the site of heavy fighting between the Japanese and the Allied forces. In 1948, Burma gained independence from the British. General Aung San (father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi), leader of Burma’s Independence movement, was assassinated in 1947. General Aung San is still today regarded as the father of the nation. Following the death of Aung San, efforts to reconcile the many ethnic nationalities under the new Union failed. Burman rule has been contested by a number of ethnic rebel groups since Independence, most notably by the Karen, Kachin, Shan, Wa and Mon. Following a period of unstable parliamentary governance, military juntas have ruled Burma since 1962. Since 1988 a number of ethnic rebel groups reached ceasefires with the government, although few disarmed.

Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s a military junta under General Ne Win, the so-called Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), pursued socialist economic policies with disastrous results. In July 1988, public discontent over the mounting economic chaos led to Ne Win’s resignation. But protest continued to spread and on 8 August 1988 hundreds of thousands of people nationwide marched to demand the BSPP’s replacement by an elected civilian government. The protests were brutally crushed by the military. Soldiers fired on the crowds killing thousands of demonstrators. Many others were arrested and imprisoned. The events of 8 August 1988 brought Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence as the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). She quickly became the most recognisable and charismatic Burmese Opposition leader and a global democracy icon.

In September 1988 the military re-established control under General Saw Maung who established the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

The SLORC undertook to hold elections. However, in the run-up to elections, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and many other senior NLD members were jailed. A free vote took place on 27 May 1990. Of 485 parliamentary seats contested, the NLD won 392 (over 80% of the seats). Ethnic minority parties opposed to the SLORC won an additional 65 seats. The military regime was taken by surprise and prevented the NLD from assuming power. Many NLD leaders were imprisoned. Others fled the country and are still in exile.

In 1997, the ruling SLORC was reconstituted as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In 2003 General Khin Nyunt of the SPDC announced a 7-step road map to build a "modern, democratic, prosperous state". A National Convention was revived to draw up a new constitution. The NLD boycotted in protest at the continued house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD Vice-Chairman U Tin Oo and the closure of NLD offices.

In October 2004, Khin Nyunt was ousted in a coup by the then current military dictator Than Shwe.

Timeline - Word Document (http://www.fco.gov.uk/resources/en/word/travelling-living-overseas/burma_timeline)

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INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

UK relations with Burma

The cause of democracy and respect for human rights in Burma is a high priority for the British Government. Following elections on 7 November 2010, the Foreign Secretary said: “The British Government will stand by the people of Burma and will continue to maintain pressure on the regime until we see real progress on democracy, governance and human rights” The Prime Minister takes a close interest in Burma.

As a member of the UN Security Council and of the European Union, and through sanctions and diplomatic pressure, the UK seeks to pressure the Burmese government to comply with the international community’s demands. These are the release of all political prisoners, cooperation with the UN, and an inclusive process of national reconciliation involving the democratic opposition including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and all ethnic groups. The UK lobbies the governments of ASEAN countries, India and China to use their influence on Burma to press for progress.

The Government is clear that only a genuine process of national reconciliation involving all ethnic and opposition groups will lead to long term stability, peace and prosperity for Burma’s long-suffering people.

The UK does not encourage trade and investment with Burma. We do not offer any commercial services for companies wanting to do business with Burma, nor do we give financial support for trade promotion activities or organise trade missions.

UK HUMANITARIAN ASSISTANCE

British Aid to Burma significantly increased from £9 million in 2007/08 to £28 million for 2010/11. On 1 March, the Secretary of State for Department for International Development (DFID) announced that aid to Burma would increase to an average of £46 million per year over the next four years. It will continue to be spent through the UN, trusted NGOs and community groups, and will focus on health, education, rural livelihoods, civil society and people affected by conflict (including Burmese refugees in Thailand). The top priorities are:

-- Helping local groups to have a say in their future

-- Tackling malaria and reducing child and maternal mortality

Enabling children to build their future

For more information on the DfID Burma programme please visit their website. (http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.dfid.gov.uk/countries/asia/burma.asp)

Burma's Relations with Neighbours

Burma joined the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997. ASEAN members are among Burma's key trade partners, along with India and China. Continued ethnic and political tension on the Burma/Thai border has led to occasional skirmishes and closure of the border there. Burma deferred its chairmanship of ASEAN in July 2006 to focus on its seven point roadmap, but can request to take the next chair out of rotation.
Following the crackdown against peaceful protestors in September 2007 ASEAN urged restraint. On 20 July 2008, ASEAN Foreign Ministers expressed their deep disappointment over the extension of Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest. The Foreign Ministers also called on the Burmese government to engage in a meaningful dialogue with all political groups, to work towards a peaceful transition to democracy, and in addition to work closely with the UN Secretary-General’s office and his Special Adviser Ibrahim Gambari for an inclusive process towards national reconciliation. The next day, Burma ratified ASEAN Charter.

In July 2010, ASEAN Foreign Ministers including Burma’s Foreign Minister U Nyan Win met in Hanoi. A statement issued following the meeting underscored the importance of national reconciliation and the importance of holding national elections in a free, fair and inclusive manner. Foreign Ministers also stressed the need for Burma to work with ASEAN member states and the United Nations to build a more stable and prosperous Burma. ASEAN’s offer to provide monitors during Burma’s elections was rejected. ASEAN issued a statement on 9 November 2010, following elections in Burma. They encouraged Burma to continue to accelerate the national reconciliation process and stressed the need for Burma to continue to work with ASEAN and the UN towards this goal.

From 16-17 January, Indonesia hosted the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat. The subsequent statement announced that international sanctions imposed on Burma should be lifted or eased as they were having an impact on development in Burma.

Burma's Relations with the International Community

CHINA

China is one of Burma’s main military, economic and diplomatic backers. China offers debt relief, economic development grants and loans used for the construction of infrastructure and industry in Burma. China is also a major supplier of arms and munitions to Burma. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao travelled to Burma in June 2010, and Burma’s leader, Senior General Than Shwe visited China in September. The Prime Minister raised Burma with Premier Wen during his most recent trip to China on 9 November 2010. More recently, the Foreign Secretary discussed Burma with Chinese Vice Minister Li on 10 January 2011.

In 2005, the China National Petroleum Corporation signed a deal with Burma's Government to purchase natural gas over a 30 year period. A deal was then agreed to build an oil and natural gas pipeline, which will have the capacity to provide China with 12 million tonnes of oil and 12 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year. The pipeline is due for completion in 2013. The two countries are also developing dam and hydroelectric power projects. If completed as planned in 2017, the Myitsone Dam will be the fifteenth largest hydroelectric power station in the world. It is estimated to provide between 3,600 to 6,000 megawatts of electricity to China. Despite these links, China reacted angrily following the Burmese army’s attack on the Kokang in August 2009, which resulted in a number of casualties and an estimated 30,000 refugees fleeing over the border into China.

THAILAND

Burmese-Thai relations are generally cooperative. Thailand is one of the largest foreign investors in Burma, targeted mainly in the tourism, mining and gas sectors. Thailand has purchased natural gas from Burma since the 1990s and today over 30% of Thailand’s energy needs are sourced from Burma. Thailand is home to some 150,000 Burmese refugees and up to the two million economic migrants. Following elections on 7 November 2010, up to 20,000 refugees were reported to have fled across the Thai-Burma border to escape clashes between ethnic rebels and the Burmese army.


INDIA

Historically, India was one of the leading supporters of Burmese independence. For many years thereafter, Indo-Burmese relations were strong due to cultural and commercial links. Since 1992, India and Burma have pushed to expand trade and military links. As a result, India is currently one of Burma’s largest trade partners. This move to forge close relations with Burma is motivated by India’s need for energy resources and its desire to counter China's growing influence as a regional leader. Energy cooperation is a highlight of the relationship, with Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India and Gas Authority of India Ltd partnering with Burmese companies for extraction of natural gas from deposits in the Shwe fields off the western coast of Burma. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosted General Than Shwe in India from 25-29 July 2010. The Prime Minister discussed Burma with Prime Minister Singh and Foreign Minister Krishna in July 2010.

SINGAPORE

Singapore is a significant investor in Burma and maintains high level contacts with the personnel in the Burmese government. It is a favourite destination for Burmese generals and cronies, who use Singaporean banks, seek medical treatment at Singapore’s hospitals, send their children to schools and universities and invest in Singaporean property.

NORTH KOREA

In 1983 North Korean government agents carried out an attack that killed four South Korean ministers visiting Rangoon. The fact that Burmese intelligence failed to prevent the attack led some to believe that they were complicit. Since this time relations between North Korea and Burma have improved. North Korea’s Foreign Minister visited Burma in July 2010, and there have been recent reports about Burmese collaboration with North Korea on weapons sales and the development of nuclear technology. This is a cause of concern and the Government has raised our concerns at the highest possible level.

EU

In 1996, the EU adopted a Common Position on Burma, which implemented a range of restrictive measures designed to target those obstructing reform and progress. These measures have been strengthened and added to over time.

Current EU policy towards Burma is set out in an EU Council Decision (formerly Common Position) agreed in 1996 and most recently renewed by EU Foreign Ministers on 12 April 2011, for a further year.

Measures renewed include:

an arms embargo;

-- an asset freeze and travel ban on the regime, its associates and their families with the measures suspended for a year for lifelong civilians and the Foreign Minister

-- an investment ban on state and associate-owned enterprises;

-- trade and investment bans on timber, precious metals and gems; and

-- a ban on development assistance, except in specific sectors which are not linked to the central government

The EU Council Decision on Burma can be viewed here. (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/JOHtml.do?uri=OJ:L:2011:101:SOM:EN:HTML)

On 8 February, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy issued a paper in which they outlined their support for sanctions. The paper blamed Burma’s plight on the economic mismanagement of the economy. You can view their report here. (http://www.nldburma.org/media-press-release/press-release/213-a-review-on-sa)

The EU has repeatedly made clear its readiness to revise, amend or reinforce these measures in light of developments on the ground. At the EU Foreign Affairs Council in April 2011, EU Foreign Ministers issued Council Conclusions on Burma to accompany the renewal of the Council Decision. This can be viewed here (http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/121501.pdf ) .

The EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) or trading privileges were suspended by the European Commission in 1997, because of the use of forced labour in Burma. This prevents Burma from having duty-free access to the EU market for its products.

The EU is a major donor of humanitarian aid to Burma. The EU’s programme includes projects to strengthen civil society and support progress on the Millennium Development Goals. For more information about the EU’s Burma policy please see. (http://www.eeas.europa.eu/myanmar/index_en.htm)

Piero Fassino, a senior Italian MP and former Italian Minister of Justice, was appointed as the EU Special Envoy to Burma 6 November 2007. His appointment underlines the importance that the EU attaches to democratic change, reconciliation, the improvement of the human rights situation and development in Burma.

UNITED STATES

In late 2009, the United States government completed a review of their policy towards Burma. A press statement detailing the outcome of their review can be seen here. (http://www.state.gov/p/eap/rls/rm/2009/09/129698.htm) The US decided to maintain sanctions but pursue dialogue with the Burmese regime. The US Assistant-Secretary of State Kurt Campbell visited Burma on 3-4 November 2009, and met with representatives from the military government, including the Prime Minister Thein Sein, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Campbell visited Burma for a second time on 9-10 May 2010. The US have so far expressed disappointment that no headway has been made but for the time being intend to continue to pursue a policy of limited engagement.

In August 2009, following the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, U.S. Senator Jim Webb became the first member of Congress to visit Burma in 10 years. He was due to visit again on 3 June 2010, but cancelled his trip at the last moment following reports of Burmese military links with North Korea. Following Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest on 13 November 2010, President Obama issued a statement in which he highlighted the USA’s commitment to remaining a steadfast advocate of freedom and human rights for the Burmese people and accountability for those who continue to oppress them.

UN

Following anti-government protests in September 2007, the Security Council issued a Presidential Statement (http://www.altsean.org/Research/UN%20Dossier/UNSC.htm) which emphasised the importance of the early release of all political prisoners and the creation of the necessary conditions for a genuine dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and all concerned parties and ethnic groups. The Security Council reiterated this call in May 2009.

UN Security Council Statement: Presidential Statement (http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2007/sc9171.doc.htm) , 14 November 2007.

In November 2010, the UN General Assembly issued a robust resolution on human rights in Burma, which called for the release of all political prisoners and underlined demands for Burma to respect all human rights and promote fundamental freedoms. A copy of the resolution can be found here (http://www.altsean.org/Docs/UNGA%20Resolutions/Res%2065%20241.pdf) .

More recently, there was a similarly robust statement made during the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Burma’s human rights record on 27 January. A copy of the report can be viewed here. (http://www.upr-info.org/IMG/pdf/A_HRC_WG-6_10_MMR_1_E.pdf)

UN Security Council press and Presidential statements can be viewed here (http://www.altsean.org/Research/UN%20Dossier/UNSC.htm)

A range of other UN statements, resolutions and reports can be found here. (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/NewsSearch.aspx)

UN operations in Burma

Several UN agencies operate inside Burma, delivering humanitarian assistance, distributing food aid, providing health, educational and environmental training, protecting individual’s fundamental rights and reducing poverty. The in-country team is led by UN Resident Coordinator. Burmese officials have blocked the opening of an UN political office in country despite repeat requests from the international community.

Food and Agriculture Organization (http://www.fao.org/)
International Labour Organisation (http://www.ilo.org/global/lang — en/index.htm)

UNAIDS (http://www.unaids.org/en/ )
United Nations Environment Programme (http://www.unep.org/)
The United Nations Children's Fund (http://www.unicef.org/)
The United Nations Population Fund (http://www.unfpa.org/public/home/about)

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (http://www.unhabitat.org/categories.asp?catid=1)

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home)

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (http://www.unodc.org/)
United Nations World Food Programme (http://www.wfp.org/)
World Health Organisation (http://www.who.int/en/)
United Nations Development Programme (http://www.undp.org)
Other agencies regarded as part of the UN family but which are either not full agencies, not resident in Burma or have limited programmes include:

International Organization for Migration (http://www.iom.int)
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (http://ochaonline.un.org)

The United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (http://www.no-trafficking.org)

UNOPS (http://www.unops.org/english/Pages/default.aspx)
Myanmar Information Management Unit (http://www.themimu.info/)
United Nations Information Centres (http://www.un.org/aroundworld/unics/english/about.htm)

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (http://www.unesco.org/)

United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (http://www.unido.org/ )

United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (http://www.unescap.org)

Since 1990, UN Special Envoys and Special Rapporteurs have visited Burma on over forty occasions in an attempt to facilitate dialogue between the military regime and the pro-democracy forces, and to carry out fact-finding missions. The UN Secretary-General has visited Burma twice, most recently in July 2009.

There has been a UN Special Envoy to Burma since 1995. The most recent UN Special Envoy, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, last visited Burma in June 2009. He was appointed to another position in December 2009, and has not yet been substantively replaced. The current UN Special Envoy to Burma is Vijay Nambiar, who is also the UN Secretary General’s Chief-of-Staff. He undertook his first visit to Burma in December 2010.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon maintains a personal interest in developments in Burma and has called for tangible steps towards establishing a credible and inclusive political process in the country, including progress on human rights. He has shown leadership on the issue through his Good Office Mission. Following the regime’s refusal to allow him to meet Aung San Suu Kyi on his visit in July 2009, he made a hard-hitting speech (http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2008/sc9320.doc.htm) criticising the regime’s economic, political and human rights record.

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GEOGRAPHY

Burma is the largest country in mainland South East Asia (678,500 square kilometres). It has three mountain ranges running north-to-south from the Himalayas. These mountain chains divide Burma’s three river systems, the Irrawaddy, Salween and Sittang Rivers. There are central lowlands along the Irrawaddy River culminating in a delta region by the sea. Burma’s has a rich ecosystem, including teak forests, but much has been lost to deforestation.

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POLITICS

THE “SAFFRON REVOLUTION” OF SEPTEMBER 2007

Sudden fuel-price hikes in mid August 2007 sparked anti-government protests. These gathered pace in September when monks in Rangoon and other towns began a peaceful march to protesting at the mistreatment of monks in Pakokku, central Burma. Tens of thousands of activists and public supporters joined the protests, which evolved into calls for wide reform.

On 26 September 2007, the military cracked down. A curfew was imposed and monasteries raided during the night. Monks were beaten, killed or arrested. On 27 September 2007, several thousand civilians gathered in locations in Rangoon. When the crowds refused to disperse, the military and police troops threw smoke grenades and shot into the crowd. Official figures state that 15 people were killed (the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights after his visit following the 2007 events reported twice this number). A Japanese journalist was among those killed.

The international community condemned the military junta’s actions. The UN Security Council issued a Presidential Statement on 11 October 2007, strongly deploring the use of violence against peaceful demonstrations.

UN Security Council Statement: Presidential Statement, 11 October 2007 (http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2007/sc9139.doc.htm)

NATURAL DISASTERS

On 2 or 3 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis struck Burma’s Irrawaddy delta and townships in Rangoon, Mon and Karen states, leaving 140,000 dead or missing. The UN estimated that about 2.5 million people were affected by the cyclone. The then military regime initially refused offers of international assistance. After sustained lobbying by many countries, including the UK, an UN-ASEAN relief effort was launchedched.

In response to Cyclone Nargis, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) donated £45 million for emergency relief and recovery activities.

A Human Rights Watch report “I want to help my own people” published in April 2010, details the Burmese junta’s response to Cyclone Nargis and its implications for human rights and development in Burma today. The full report is here. (http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2010/04/29/i-want-help-my-own-people)

On 22 October 2010, Cyclone Giri struck Burma causing extensive damage in the Rakhine state near Sittwe, with estimates of over 250,000 people being affected.

On 24 March 2011, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude took place ion the Thai/Burma/Laos border area.

THE ROAD MAP to "disciplined democracy"

The first stage of the so-called 7-step Road Map towards 'disciplined democracy', the National Convention, was completed on 3 September 2007. Ethnic and opposition groups and international observers considered it neither a credible nor inclusive process. Most of the Convention delegates were handpicked by the regime at the time.

The process of drafting a new constitution was completed in February 2008, and the constitution was approved in a rigged referendum in May the same year. Despite international opprobrium, the regime held this referendum in the aftermath of the widespread devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis.

The 2008 Constitution is designed to entrench military rule. 25% of seats in the National Assembly are reserved for the military. And a majority of 75% in the National Assembly is needed to make any change to the Constitution. In the event of a perceived threat to national security, the military retains the power to assume direct executive and judicial control. The Constitution also provides immunity from prosecution for SPDC members for any acts committed while in authority. The clear implication is that they should not be held accountable for any human rights or other abuses.

2010 ELECTIONS

A series of highly restrictive Election Laws were promulgated in early March 2010. The laws have been criticised by domestic and Western sources for precluding free and fair elections. The features that have attracted most criticism include:

-- The National Election Commission’s lack of independence

-- Restrictions on parties’ financing and campaigning activities

-- The barring of political prisoners from founding a political party, from standing as a candidate, or from voting. This effectively excluded Aung San Suu Kyi and the other over 2100 political prisoners from the process

-- The laws explicitly annul the 1990 election results

The unfairness of these election laws were a major factor in Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD’s decision not to register to participate in the elections and the party was deregistered and dissolveded.

In total, 47 regional and national parties applied to the Election Commission for registration including an NLD breakaway party, the National Democratic Force. Of these, 42 were approved and five failed to propose enough candidates to satisfy the minimum set by the election laws. The majority of approved parties were ethnic parties. Only two parties had the capability to put up candidates nationwide: the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party and the National Unity Party.

In June 2010, the Election Commission published a political party campaign directive prohibiting political parties from marching in procession to designated gathering points or venues while displaying party flags or chanting slogans. The directive also forces political parties to apply in advance to the Election Commission for permission to hold political gatherings and to give speeches. The run up to the elections was heavily controlled by the regime. Tight regulations allowed the authorities to deny registration to some parties without explanation and to restrict campaigning and funding sources.

On 7 November 2010, elections took place in Burma for the first time since 1990. Citizens voted for representatives to sit in the two assemblies that make up the new national parliament and 14 regional and state assemblies. The process was condemned by a range of Western governments. On 31 January, Burma’s Parliament held its inaugural session. Over 80% of all seats in both upper and lower houses are held by members of the regime’s proxy party and serving military officers. In addition, there are highly restrictive controls on freedom of expression for MPs signalling that the current leadership intends to retain its grip on power.

Initial results following elections on 7 November suggest that the regime’s proxy political party has won between 80%-85% of the seats available in the national legislatures. Opposition parties have complained about voter intimidation and misuse of advance voting.

On 28 January 2011, the Burmese Supreme Court decided to dismiss Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party’s appeal against dissolution which effectively outlawed the party.

On 30 March, the Burmese State media announced the dissolution of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the inauguration of the new Burmese Government. Most of the new members of the Government are former SPDC officials or members of the military.

OPPOSITION PARTIES DURING THE ELECTIONS

National League for Democracy (NLD) and the National Democratic Force (NDF)

The National League for Democracy was founded on 27 September 1988, following the 8888 Uprising, with Aung San Suu Kyi as the General Secretary. On 6 May 2010, the party was effectively declared illegal and ordered to be disbanded by the ruling military junta after failing to register for the elections slated for November 2010. Following the dissolution of the party, a splinter group named the National Democratic Force (NDF) broke away from the NLD to contest the 2010 elections. During the 2010 elections, the NDF won a total of 12 seats across both houses.

Democratic Party – Myanmar (DP)

The Democratic Party is a Burmese political party founded in 1988. It was formally registered in May 2010. The Democratic Party's chairman is Thu Wai, a former political prisoner.

The Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP)

The Shan Nationalities Democratic Party is a political party in Burma, representing the interests of the Shan minority. At the 1990 parliamentary elections, the party became the second party in parliament, but parliament was not allowed to convene. During the 2010 elections, the SNDP won three seats in the upper house and 18 seats in the lower house, making it the second largest party in the lower house, after the junta backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (which won 258 seats with 79%).

Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP)

The RNDP was specifically formed to contest the 2010 election. The party is headed by chairman Dr Aye Maung. During the 2010 elections, the RNDP won seven seats in the upper house and nine seats in the lower house, making it the second largest party in the upper house, after the junta backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (which won 129 seats with 76.79%). It also won 19 seats in the Rakhine State Assembly.

All Mon Regions Democratic Party (AMRDP)

The AMRDP was formed on 7 April 2010, by Mon who disagreed with the New Mon State Party’s decision to boycott the elections. The party is led by Nai Ngwe Thein and other former civil servants. During the 2010 elections, the AMRDP won a total of seven seats across both houses. It was the only Mon party to contest the elections.

Chin National Party (CNP)

The CNP is a Chin ethnic party, formed in April 2010. The party is led by Chairman Zam Ciin Pau aka Pu Zo Zam, a local cartoonist and humanitarian worker. During the 2010 elections, the CNP won a total of four seats across both houses.

Chin Progressive Party (CPP)

The CPP is a Chin ethnic party, formed in April 2010. The party is led by No Thang Kap. During the 2010 elections, the CPP won a total of six seats across both houses.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI

Aung San Suu Kyi is the iconic leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement and leader of the former National League for Democracy party. She has been active in Burmese politics since 1988 but has spent over 15 of the past 21 years in detention. In the 1990 general election, despite Aung San Suu Kyi being held in detention, the NLD won a landslide victory. However the then military regime refused to recognise the results. Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

She has been in detention for three periods: 1989-1994; 1996-2002 and most recently from 2003 to November 2010. In May 2003, shortly after being released from her second period in detention, supporters of the military authorities attacked Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy of NLD supporters in Depayin, central Burma. She was then taken into 'protective custody' by the regime and held incommunicado until September 2003, when she was moved to house arrest.

On 14 May 2009, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested and taken to Insein prison in Rangoon and charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest. This followed the intrusion into her house by a US citizen, John Yettaw, who had swam across Inle Lake to get there, most likely in full view of the military guard. There followed a three month show trial concluding on 11 August 2009. Despite widespread calls for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, including from the UN Secretary-General during his visit to Burma in July 2009, Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to three years hard labour commuted to 18 months further house arrest. The verdict elicited widespread condemnation from the EU, UN, ASEAN and many other countries. The EU strengthened sanctions against Burma in response.

In keeping Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, the military junta’s intent was to isolate and marginalise her, preventing her participation. The military’s overriding objective is to maintain their grip on power and they view Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity as a threat.

Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her latest period of house detention on 13 November 2010, six days after the elections.

Human Rights

Human rights in Burma are a long standing concern for the international community and human rights organisations. The UN Special Rapporteur, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has described gross, systematic and widespread violations of human rights abuses in Burma. Fundamental freedoms are denied. Some of the worst violations have been perpetrated against ethnic minority communities in the border and conflict areas. Land confiscation, forced labour, ethnic and religious persecution abound. There is no freedom of expression. Long prison sentences are handed out to people critical of the government and over 2,000 political activists have been incarcerated, many in gaols remote from their families.

Our Embassy in Rangoon monitors the human rights situation in Burma, makes regular representations about abuses to the military authorities and works with UN agencies and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to address human rights concerns including forced labour. At the April launch of the FCO’s Human Rights Command Paper, the Foreign Secretary stated that whilst he welcomed the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, this had not led to an improvement in the human rights situation or greater political openness. The Foreign Secretary’s full statement and link to the Human Rights Command Paper can be seen here. (http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=Speech&id=576187382) The Command Paper’s Burma quarterly updates can be viewed here. (http://fcohrdreport.readandcomment.com/human-rights-in-countries-of-concern/burma/)

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) have passed successive resolutions condemning human rights violations in Burma. More recently in November 2010, the UN General Assembly voted through the 20th resolution which highlighted the widespread and serious nature of the human rights abuses being committed in Burma. It sharply criticised the failure of the regime to investigate the human rights abuses and supported the implementation and recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma. The latest Human Rights Council resolution adopted in March 2011, expressed serious concern that previous calls to end impunity had not been heeded and called on the regime to undertake without delay, an impartial and independent investigation into all human right violations. That resolution included new language that called for the investigation to be done “as a matter of priority and with appropriate attention from the United Nations”.

A full list of all past UNGA and UNCHR resolutions on Burma can be viewed here. (http://www.altsean.org/Research/UN%20Dossier/UNDHome.php)

UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR

The UNCHR established a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma in 1992. His mandate comes from the UN Human Rights Council. The current UN Special Rapporteur for Burma is Thomás Ojea Quintana. Since his appointment in May 2008, Quintana has made three trips to Burma, the most recent in February 2010. The Special Rapporteur’s previous reports can be viewed here. (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/AsiaRegion/Pages/MMIndex.aspx)

INTERNATIONAL LABOUR ORGANISATION (ILO)

The ILO took the unprecedented decision, fully supported by the UK, to invoke exceptional measures against Burma in November 2000, in response to the use of forced labour including child soldiers. In February 2007, the ILO reached a preliminary agreement with the Burmese government to investigate suspected cases of forced labour in the country. The agreement allows the ILO liaison officer in Rangoon to make a preliminary investigation of alleged cases, and guarantees that the government will not retaliate against those making the complaint. As of June 2010, under this mechanism 144 complaints have been processed successfully. The ILO's supplementary understanding with the Burmese government has been extended to February 2012.

THE ETHNIC MINORITIES AND CEASEFIRES

Ethnic minorities are estimated to make up more than 30% of the overall population. There are around 135 different minorities, and seven main groups besides the dominant (Buddhist) Burmans – the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan.

Armed conflict against the central military government continues in several areas of the country, although since 1989, the government has negotiated ceasefire arrangements with several armed groups. These include the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Shan State Army - North (SSA-N). Those still fighting include the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the Karenni Army, the Shan State Army - South (SSA-S) and the Shan State National Army (SSNA). The Karen National Union (KNU) has been fighting since 1949. The picture now is a complex patchwork of ceasefire and non-ceasefire groups. Some, like the Wa - close to the border with China - have carved out a significant degree of autonomy. Despite some success in ceasefire negotiations, insurgencies have continued in several border areas and ceasefire forces have maintained their arms. Some militias have become involved in drug and people trafficking. Conflicts have displaced huge numbers of civilians, both within Burma (an estimated 470,000) but also across its borders, into Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh (some 180,000 refugees and over two million migrant workers).

In April 2009, the Burmese government proposed that the armed groups be folded into a national border guard force. The ceasefire groups, particularly the KIO, the UWSA and the DKBA, have so far rejected the offer and have put forward a number of compromise solutions. There has been little effort from the Burmese government to negotiate a solution. Troop movements have been reported in Kachin and Shan State, causing widespread belief amongst civilians that fighting could be imminent. Although a return to widespread conflict in border regions seems unlikely, the emergence of localised rebel attacks and more organised splinter groups cannot be ruled out.

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Last Updated: August 2011

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