Myanmar (Burma): The Country, its People and the Crisis

Myanmar, the resource rich northwestern-most country of Southeast Asia is home to a mixed climate that ranges from tropical monsoon in the lowlands, to temperate mountain regions with heavy snowfall towards higher elevation.

Defined by a rich culture with Buddhist underpinnings Myanmar has also been heavily influenced by its neighbouring countries, India and China. It is formed by an ethnically diverse population consisting of 135 distinct ethnic groups that belong to four major language families. Many religions are practiced in Myanmar from relatively small Christian, Muslim and Hindu populations, through to Buddhism which prevails as the dominant practice estimated at 80% to 89% (Myanmar 2014 Census).

Brief History

The amalgamation of cultures can be traced back to British colonial rule that administered Myanmar as part of ‘British India’ flooding the country with Indian immigrants and encouraging migration from abroad, predominantly China. This period saw the subjugation and marginalisation of Burmese people as jobs were lost and colonial imposition did little in the way of respecting local Buddhist customs.

As a result Burmese nationalism increased with demands for self-governance that saw the end of colonial rule in 1948. However what ensued was the complete disintegration of the country as rebel groups, communists, anti-communists, private armies, WWII resistance and plain mutineers revolted against the Bamar majority.

This complex political landscape laid the groundwork for what continues to be a precarious situation today as the country has been engaged in one of the worlds longest running civil wars. The dominance of authoritative military rule saw the economy slip from bad to worse; accompanied by the religious persecution of non-Buddhists Myanmar has become home to one of the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.

The Rohingya and Their Place Within the Conflict

The Rohingya, an ethnic group majority of whom are Muslim, remain at the centre of this violence and persecution which has been described by the United Nations as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” They are not counted in the country’s 135 “official” ethnic groups and have effectively been rendered stateless through being denied citizenship in Myanmar since 1982. Many Buddhists consider the Rohingya to be Bengali with the understanding that they migrated from India and Bangladesh during the 124 years of British colonial rule. Hence their residence within Myanmar is viewed negatively by a large part of the population, despite the fact Rohingya have been living in the area known as Myanmar since as early as the 12th century.

Myanmar Today

In 2015 Myanmar rejoined the international community by voting in its first democratically elected government for more than half a century. However it carries with it a long history of closed borders, chronic under-development and oppressive military rule. Problematically Aung San Suu Kyi, the new leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy, refuses to discuss the plight of the Rohingya. The failure to stand up for the rights of more than one million Rohingya in Myanmar, the rejection of accusations of abuses and no condemnation of the indiscriminate force used by troops has been highly criticized by the international community. Furthermore the governments reluctance to accept UN investigators is evidence that the crisis is far from resolved.

Though Myanmar’s social, political and economic isolation has come to an end the military remains a powerful force in politics and change has been slow to trickle down to the Burmese population. The economic and social changes Myanmar is undergoing are principally confined to big cities and towns, as large areas of the country remain off limits due to the enduring ethnic conflict. The widespread abuse of human rights encompassing the pervasive neglect of economic, social, cultural and political rights has left 220,000 people displaced nationwide over the past five years (Human Rights Watch 2016). This coupled with an unstable political economy and limited opportunities for its citizens leaves millions with little choice but to search for more stable ground abroad, such as in Thailand.

Burmese in Thailand

Over the past four decades Thailand has experienced rapid social and economic development; its remarkable progress has made it a key site for Burmese migration. Pull factors include the increase in opportunities through large supply of low-skilled jobs, its geographical position bordering Myanmar and relatively lax migration policies.

According to the 2014 Myanmar Census there are 1,418,472 former Burmese residents living in Thailand, constituting about 70% of Myanmar’s overseas population. An additional unknown number of illegal undocumented migrants, some NGO’s estimate another 1 to 2 million, add up to this sum. Myanmar nationals represent the largest community of migrant workers accounting for 80% of Thailand’s migrant workforce. 

Migrant workers largely hold low-skilled jobs, especially in fishing and seafood processing, clothing factories, construction and domestic services. Many do not hold registration and work illegally which increases the propensity of human rights abuses as migrants remain outside support systems unaware of their entitlements. Exploitation of migrant workers is common since they are in highly vulnerable positions as a result of desperate financial situations, their inability to speak the language and lack of understanding of Thai labour laws.

Despite the changes Myanmar is undergoing, the prospect of labour migration diminishing in the short term is unlikely as most of the economic reforms have not significantly altered the daily lives of its residents. Furthermore, with infrastructure taxed by natural disasters and deep-rooted ethnic/religious violence that continues Myanmar’s outflow remains high. In this context the work of the FED holds critical importance by providing a support system for Burmese migrants in Thailand and realizing basic human rights, providing healthcare support and education to Burmese families.

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