Under Military Rule as Citizens Stive to Obtain Freedom

By Liz Goldner

Soil Collection Site: The grounds of Shwedagon Pagoda in what used to be the capital, Yangon, formerly Rangoon.

Soil Collector: Joe (Kyaw Swa) is our soil collector from Myanmar.

Myanmar was known as Burma until 1989, as the country’s name was changed by the military government that took over in 1988. Yangoon (formerly Rangoon) is the commercial capital and largest city. The administrative capital is Naypyidaw.

Myanmar has been under military rule since a coup in 1962. The main opposition to that rule in the last decade has been the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. She endured 19 months of house arrest and some form of detention for 12 years before her release last year, and has again been detained by the military regime. Her latest detention instigated a global outcry.

Here are excerpts from the September 24, 2007 issue of The New York Times: “The largest street protests in two decades against Myanmar’s military rulers gained momentum Sunday as thousands of onlookers cheered huge columns of Buddhist monks and shouted support for the detained pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Winding for a sixth day through rainy streets, the protest swelled to 10,000 monks in the main city of Yangon, formerly Rangoon, according to witnesses and other accounts relayed from the closed country, including some clandestinely shot videos. It came one day after a group of several hundred monks paid respects to Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi at the gate of her home, the first time she has been seen in public in more than four years.

“The link between the clergy and the leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement, the beginnings of large-scale public participation in the marches and a call by some monks for a wider protest raised the stakes for the government. Myanmar’s military government has sealed off the country to foreign journalists but information about the protests has been increasingly flowing out…The state-controlled press has carried no reports about the monks’ demonstrations.”

Photo taken October 2007


The ethnic origins of modern Myanmar are a mixture of Indo-Aryans and the Mongolian invaders under Kublai Khan who penetrated the region in the 13th century. Anawrahta (1044–1077) was the first great unifier of Myanmar. (There are about 140 separate tribes in Burma, with the Burmese being the majority.)

In 1612, the British East India Company sent agents to Burma, but the Burmese resisted efforts of British, Dutch, and Portuguese traders to establish posts along the Bay of Bengal. Through the Anglo-Burmese War in 1824–1826 and two subsequent wars, the British East India Company expanded to the whole of Burma. By 1886, Burma was annexed to India, then became a separate colony in 1937.

During World War II, Burma was a key battleground; the 800-mile Burma Road was the Allies' vital supply line to China. The Japanese invaded the country in Dec. 1941, and by May 1942, had occupied most of it, cutting off the Burma Road. Allied forces liberated most of Burma prior to the Japanese surrender in Aug. 1945.

Burma became independent on Jan. 4, 1948. In 1962, left-wing general Ne Win staged a coup, banned political opposition, suspended the constitution, and introduced the “Burmese way of socialism.” After 25 years of economic hardship and repression, the Burmese people held massive demonstrations. These were brutally quashed by the State Law and Order Council (SLORC). In 1989, the military government officially changed the name of the country to Myanmar.

In May 1990 elections, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide. But the military, or SLORC, refused to recognize the election. The leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, which focused world attention on SLORC's repressive policies.

The economy has been in a state of collapse except for the junta-controlled heroin trade. The universities have remained closed, and an AIDS epidemic, unrecognized by the junta, has gripped the country.

From 2000 to 2002, Suu Kyi was again placed under house arrest. In spring 2003, the government cracked down again on the democracy movement, detaining Suu Kyi and shuttering NLD headquarters. The regime opened a constitutional convention in May 2004, but many observers doubted its legitimacy.

In October 2004, the government arrested Prime Minister Gen. Khin Nyunt and charged him with corruption. He had angered the leadership of the junta with his recent experiments on reform, first by freeing Suu Kyi from house arrest and later for proposing a seven-step “road map to democracy.”

A series of coordinated bomb attacks in May 2005 killed about a dozen people and wounded more than 100 in Rangoon. The military junta blamed the Karen National Union and the Shan State Army. The ethnic rebel groups denied any involvement.

On November 13, 2005, the military junta relocated the seat of government from the capital Rangoon to a mountain compound called Pyinmanaa in Naypyidaw. The junta explained, “Due to changed circumstances, where Myanmar is trying to develop a modern nation, a more centrally located government seat has become a necessity.”

More than 1,000 delegates gathered in December to begin drafting a constitution, which the junta said was a step toward democracy. The convention adjourned in late January 2006 with little progress. In September 2007, representatives to the convention, which has met on and off since 1993, released a draft constitution that ensures that the military will continue to control the ministries and legislature and have the right to declare a state of emergency. The document also limits the rights of political parties. Opposition parties were excluded from the convention.

Widespread pro-democracy protests, prompted by a sharp increase in fuel prices, erupted throughout the country in August 2007. Buddhist monks joined the throngs of protesters when government troops used force against demonstrators in early September. The monks emerged as the leaders of the protest movement and gained international sympathy and support. On September 26, the military cracked down on the protesters, firing into crowds, raiding pagodas, and arresting monks. At least nine people were killed. The protests were the largest in the country in 20 years, with as many as 100,000 people marching. In a statement, the United Nations Security Council condemned the crackdown, saying it "strongly deplores" the violence unleashed on the protesters.

Geography and Natural Resources

Myanmar, officially, Union of Myanmar, republic in Southeast Asia, is bounded on the west by Bangladesh; on the west and northwest by India; on the northeast by China’s Yunnan Province; on the east by Laos and Thailand; and on the southwest by the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The longest land border is shared with China.

A horseshoe-shaped mountain complex and the valley of the Irrawaddy River system are the country’s dominant topographical features. The mountains of the northern margin rise to 5,881 m (19,295 ft) atop Hkakabo Razi, the highest peak in Southeast Asia. The fertile delta of the Irrawaddy River in the south contains a network of intercommunicating canals and nine principal river mouths. Forests cover 49 percent of Myanmar. The country’s dense tropical forests contain extensive stands of timber and oil-bearing trees, including commercially valuable teak forests.

The most important resources of Myanmar are agricultural. There are approximately 250 commercially useful kinds of trees, 50 of which have been exploited. The most important forest resource is teak. Important mineral resources are petroleum and natural gas, along with tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, and small amounts of marble and limestone. Myanmar is an outstanding source of jade and natural rubies.

Jungle animals such as the tiger and leopard are common in Myanmar. Among the larger native animals are the elephant, rhinoceros, wild buffalo, wild boar, and several species of deer and antelope. The country has 867 known varieties of birds, including parrots, peafowl, pheasants, crows, herons, and paddybirds. Among typical reptiles are crocodiles, geckos, cobras, pythons, and turtles. Edible species of freshwater fish are plentiful.


The culture of Myanmar has been heavily influenced by Buddhism, and in recent times, by British colonial rule and westernization.

Historically, Burmese visual art was based on Buddhist or Hindu cosmology and myths. The Mandalay style, developed in the late 1800s, consists of an oval-shaped Buddha with realistic features. Burmese literature, notably the Jataka Tales, has also been greatly influenced by Buddhism. Later, British colonization introduced fiction and poetry. Traditional Burmese orchestras called saing waing, accompanied by classical singing – still popular today – are influenced by classical legends, as well as by religion, the glory of monarchs, the natural beauty of the land, forests and the seasons, feminine beauty, love, passion and longing. However, popular music, adopted and homegrown, dominates the music of Burma today,

Burma is also referred to as “The Land of Pagodas” with thousands of stupas and temples, nearly 1,000 years old, in the ancient capital of Bagan by the River Ayegarwaddy alone.

Barbara White, a photographer from Laguna Beach, California, has traveled to Burma four times, and facilitated the collection of the soil for Gary Simpson’s Common Ground 191 on the grounds of Shwedagon Pagoda in what used to be the capital, Yangon, formerly Rangoon. Barbara explains, “Burma is one of my favorite places to go and photograph. And, I love the people.”


Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon

Buddhism reached Burma one thousand years ago, where Hinduism and indigenous animism were already established. Religion to the present day is a mix of pure Buddhism of the Sri Lankan or Theravada school with deep-rooted elements of animism, Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism from northern India.

Islam reached Burma at approximately the same time, but never gained a foothold outside the geographically isolated seaboard running from Bangladesh southward. Christianity was brought to Burma by European missionaries in the 1800s. The Assemblies of God of Burma are the largest Christian denominations in the country, which is also home to the second largest population of Baptists in the world, after the United States.

Burmese cuisine, influenced by Indian, Chinese and Thai food, is characterized by a mildly spicy taste. The most famous Burmese dish is mohinga, rice noodles in a rich fish soup. Salads (thoke) are popular, white rice is a staple of the diet, while Indian breads as paratha and naan and noodles are also popular.


The Burmese language is the official language of Myanmar, and is spoken by 32 million people as a first language, and as a second language by ethnic minorities in the country.

Burmese is a member of the Tibeto-Burman languages, a subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. The language uses the Burmese script, derived from the Mon script. The word for “Peace” in Burmese is “Nyein Chan Yay.”





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