Q&A: The Situation in Myanmar The military opened fire on anti-government demonstrators, led by Buddhist monks in Myanmar. Here's some background on the country and its politics.
NPR logo Q&A: The Situation in Myanmar

Q&A: The Situation in Myanmar

NPR Video on Protests

Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Myanmar Map
Lindsay Mangum, NPR

President Bush has imposed new U.S. sanctions on the military rulers of Myanmar, also known as Burma, in an effort to stop their violent repression of anti-government demonstrators, led by Buddhist monks.

Here's some background on the country and its politics:

Which is it, Burma or Myanmar?

The country was known as Burma when it was a British colony, and became the Union of Burma when it achieved independence in 1948. In 1989, the military junta adopted the name Myanmar, which stems from one of the country's literary names in the Burmese language. The move was part of an effort to eradicate traces of colonialism, and it also involved changing the name of the principal city from Rangoon to Yangon.

Opponents of the military regime still refer to the country as Burma, to show that they don't recognize the military's authority to change the name. The United Nations recognizes the name Myanmar, but the United States and Britain do not. That's why President Bush consistently refers to Burma in his speeches.

How did the military come to power?

When the country became independent, it did so with a British-style parliamentary system under Prime Minister U Nu. Although Burma was in relatively good economic shape, U Nu was derided as a dreamer and an ineffectual leader. General Ne Win seized power in 1962 and ruled for nearly 26 years. Like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Win called his regime "socialist," but used his control of the economy to benefit his friends and allies. That model is still in place under the current ruler, Senior General Than Shwe.

Why don't we hear more about these generals?

"Because they don't want you to know," says Marvin C. Ott, professor of National Security Policy at the National War College. Ott, a former CIA official, calls the junta members "basically primitives, relatively uneducated men who are out of touch with the urban, cosmopolitan parts of the country." As an example, he tells the story of the former strong man, General Ne Win, who consulted an astrologer on a daily basis. In 1987, he ordered the country's currency, the kyat, to be re-issued in denominations of 15, 30, 45 and 90, reportedly because an astrologer told him he would live to be 90 if he did so. The move caused chaos in Myanmar's financial system.

Ott says the generals "have utterly mismanaged the economy. In the 1950s, Burma was considered to be one of the developing countries that were in the best position to succeed. Now it's one of the poorest countries in the world."

With a record like that, how has the military remained in power?

Myanmar's army is huge — about 400,000 members — relative to its population of nearly 49 million. That's partly because the government has been fighting ethnic rebels, mostly in the hill country of the north. Much of that fighting has subsided in recent years, as the government signed peace deals with some of the main tribes — deals that, according to Professor Ott, allowed some of them to keep up their activities in the opium trade.

Just as important, though, Ott says, is that the junta has received strong backing from China. The Chinese have provided Myanmar with military and economic aid and political cover in the United Nations, when other countries were condemning the junta for its repression of dissidents, including Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Even though President Bush has announced new economic sanctions on Myanmar's rulers, Ott says that the generals have little to lose as long as China backs them up.

But Ott does have one caution for the junta. He says China is concerned that the junta has mis-managed its affairs so badly as to provoke widespread opposition. If some parts of Myanmar's military refused to go along with the repression, the generals could be ousted and China would probably support whomever seemed likeliest to come out on top, even opposition leader Suu Kyi.