Like the shifting sand dunes along a beach, the only constant in Myanmar’s government has been change. For over two thousand years, both internal and external forces have battled to gain control of the country's vast resources and geographically strategic location.
Historically, each turnover of a ruling dynasty was followed by a change in the location of the imperial capital. These included Bagan, Mandalay, Yangon, and now Naypyidaw — established in 2005 by the military junta. Each new capital came with breathtaking new temples and pagodas that symbolize the regime’s power.
Tatmadaw, the Myanmar army, has ruled Myanmar for many decades. This military junta relinquished some of its power to a democratically elected government in 2011. Now, hope is blossoming for a new Myanmar. As encouraging as the new democratic government is, there's no doubt that the military junta still controls many aspects of life in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s first democratically elected government is led by one of the country’s most beloved daughters, Aung San Suu Kyi. Her revolutionary father, General Aung San, is credited with bringing about Burma's independence from Britain. In many homes and businesses, their pictures hang side-by-side on the wall.
Aung San Suu Kyi has worked tirelessly on behalf of human rights for the Burmese people. The military junta, famous for imprisoning political dissidents, kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest from 1989 until 2010. Once freed, she was elected to the State Chancellor position. Due to a small formality written into the constitution — she has children with foreign citizenship — she is unable to be president of the country. Still, she is effectively seen as the political leader of Myanmar.
In spite of the new government, pockets of trouble remain. In 2012, clashes between the Buddhist and Muslim population in Rakhine left 88 dead. To quell the statewide riot, the military stepped in, which resulted in the widespread destruction of Rohingya villages. This in turn led to a massive exodus of Muslims, with hundreds of thousands fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.
A recent flare-up over the summer of 2016 has seen continued hostilities in this remote western area, and many have accused the Myanmar military of crimes against humanity. Most recently the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, flew to the area to assess the ongoing situation.
Women in Myanmar have had equal rights for many centuries. They can own businesses and have always had the right to divorce. That being said, unemployment is still higher for women.
As the economy recovers from years of a repressive socialist regime, many workers have migrated to nearby countries in search of work. Thousands of Burmese workers have migrated to Thailand and Malaysia.
Unemployment rates are highest among the young. Around a quarter of men and over 30 percent of women between ages 15 and 24 are unemployed. In addition to unemployment, these young people are also not enrolled in educational programs.
Internet access has increased since liberalization began, going from 2 percent in 2011 to around 20 percent 2015. Private Internet connections are still too expensive for the majority of Burmese people, although mobile Internet is much cheaper and increasingly popular.
Children in Myanmar have very poor access to education, but Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is working to change that with the National Education Strategic Plan. This plan aims to grant universal access to basic education by 2021.
Besides lack of access to quality education, child labor is not uncommon in Myanmar. Many families live below the poverty line, and many children are expected to do all they can to supplement their family’s income.
The life expectancy in Myanmar is 68 years for women and 64 years for men.
Health in Myanmar needs to improve. Myanmar has the lowest life expectancy of any country in Southeast Asia. Smoking is very common in Myanmar, and sadly, it's even common for children to smoke. Combined with the terrible pollution, lung disease has become a terrible scourge in this part of the world.
Most Burmese citizens do not have adequate access to healthcare. There are only 61 doctors per 100,000 citizens, and there are not enough students enrolled in medical school to care for the population. 70 percent of Myanmar’s population lives in rural areas, where access to medical care is even more limited. Most injured or sick people only receive very basic medical care.
Cyclone Nargis was a deadly hurricane that hit Myanmar in 2008. The cyclone made landfall in the Irrawaddy River Delta, which is where much of Myanmar’s population lives. Its ensuing floods killed at least 84,000 people, and over 50,000 were never found. Millions of people were displaced. Numbers vary greatly based on which source you consult — the UN has suggested that over 200,000 people perished.
(Side note: All hurricanes that originate in the Bay of Bengal are called cyclones.)
The storm was able to do so much damage in part because of the deforestation of mangroves. Coastal vegetation can serve as a buffer against these types of disasters, but much of it had been cleared to make way for shrimp farms. In addition, many have suggested the military junta could have done more to help evacuate people before the storm hit.
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