With its first written records dating back to the 2nd century BC, and archaeological evidence stretching back to 11,000 BC, Myanmar has a long and distinguished history. Over the centuries, successive waves of people have moved across the mountains and plains that now constitute the country, with the Bamar, who became referred to as the Burmese, founding a powerful empire, centred on Bagan, from the 11th century onwards. The Mon, the Mongols, the Chinese and the Shan also exercised their influence and presence over the country during the medieval period. The first Europeans to arrive were Portuguese, while conflicts with China and Thailand have continued into modern times. Fighting also occurred with Arakan and Assam, conquered by the Burmese in 1785 and 1817-19, respectively. This brought first contact with the British Empire.
Three wars with the British followed, during the last of which, in 1885, the country was invaded and conquered. British rule was turbulent, however, with strikes, protests and confrontations orchestrated by an increasingly popular Burmese nationalist movement. In 1941, with the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific, many of these joined the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), under General Aung San. A Japanese invasion then began in 1942, with the BIA supporting Japan, although when the tide of war turned in 1945, the reconstituted BIA, the Burmese National Army, rose up and turned on the Japanese. After the war, the country moved rapidly to independence, which was achieved in 1948.
The new nation was, however, deeply troubled. General Aung San was assassinated just before independence, and communist and non-communist groups began fighting each other. Ethnic conflicts between Shan, Burmese, Chin and Kachin also broke out. In 1962 General Ne Win led a military coup and declared the creation of a socialist state run by the Union Revolutionary Council. Conflict, however, continued, with the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Shan State Army fighting the largely Burmese military. In 1978 fighting broke out too in Arakan, causing many Muslim Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
A major anti-government uprising broke out in 1988, which was crushed, with General Saw Maung taking over. In 1989 he changed the country’s name to Myanmar, and held an election the following year. This was won by the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San’s daughter. The military, however, refused to accept the result, putting NLD leaders under house arrest.
In 1992 General Than Shwe took over, while political and ethnic conflicts continued. In 2003 the military announced a “roadmap to democracy” and in 2005 moved the capital away from Yangon to Naypyidaw. A new wave of protests began in 2007, and in 2008 the government announced a referendum on a new constitution and elections for 2010.
That year also saw Cyclone Nargis hit the country, with the catastrophe – and the government’s much-criticised response – further alienating the military regime. In 2010, as and the pace of reform quickened, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, and two years later by-elections gave her and the NLD seats in the military-dominated parliament installed in 2010. In 2011 former General Thein Sein became president and in 2013, the government pledged to adopt a federal system.
In 2015 fresh, nationwide elections delivered a resounding majority for the NLD. A ceasefire with eight out of 14 armed groups in the country was also signed that year, although fighting has since continued in the eastern Shan States. Meanwhile, in Arakan, ethnic and religious conflict continued in 2014 and 2015. In August-September 2016 a new peace conference was held, named Panglong II – after the Panglong conference of 1947, which united opposition to British rule – promising a new agenda for cooperation between warring factions and the national government.
Head Of State
Under the 2008 constitution, which remains in force, the president is the head of state and the head of the government, with this post currently held by the NLD’s U Htin Kyaw. Daw Aung San Su Kyi is barred from holding the post under a constitutional provision stating that presidents cannot have foreign spouses; her husband is British.
The president is elected by the bicameral legislature, the Assembly of the Union (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw). This chooses among three candidates, one of each put forward by the three committees of the electoral college. These committees are constituted by deputies from the House of Nationalities, the House of Representatives and the military. The president appoints the Cabinet, made up of ministers, although the 2008 constitution stipulates that the military, the Tatamdaw, rather than the president, appoints the defence, interior and border security portfolios. Other cabinet ministers appointed from the Assembly must resign their seats there, paving the way for by-elections. The new government has also cut the number of ministers from 36 to 22.
The House of Representatives, or Pyithu Hluttaw, consists of 440 members, 330 of whom are elected, with the remainder appointed by the military. The elected seats are on a township basis, with each electing one representative for a five-year term according to a first-past-the-post system. Members of the influential Buddhist clergy, or Sangha, are not allowed to vote.
As of late 2016 the NLD held 255 of the 330 elected seats, with the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) – the military’s preference – holding 30 seats. The Arakan National Party (ANP) had 12 seats, as did the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party. Thirteen seats are held by other parties, mainly ethnically based outfits, with one independent and seven seats suspended due to conflict.
The upper, House of Nationalities (Amyotha Hluttaw) has 224 members, with 168 directly elected and 56 appointed by the military. Currently, the NLD has 135 of the elected seats, while the USDP holds 11, the ANP 10, and the rest are held by smaller, largely ethnic-based parties.
The Supreme Court of the Union is the highest judicial body, with the legal hierarchy then descending to the High Courts of the Regions and States. The latter hear and determine civil cases, while also acting as appellate courts in criminal cases determined at lower courts of the first instance. District Courts then come under the High Courts, along with Courts of the Self-Administered Division or Zone, where such administrative entities exist. These lower courts hear original criminal and civil cases, provided the subject matter does not exceed MMK500m ($406,000). Beneath this level are the township courts, which can hear criminal cases where a punishment of not more than seven years in prison is possible, and civil cases up to a limit of MMK100m ($81,200) in damages.
Myanmar has seven states and seven regions, along with the six self-administered zones and one self-administered division. Each of these has its own local government, headed by a chief minister, with a state or regional Hluttaw as the local legislative body. These are elected in the same fashion as the national Hluttaw, with seats either elected or military-appointed. States and regions are constitutionally equivalent, with the main difference being that states are primarily for non-Bamar ethnicities, while regions form subdivisions within the majority Bamar ethnic areas.
The self-administered zones and the one division are run by Leading Bodies. These are led by a chairperson and constitute both the legislature and executive arms. They are made up of the deputies elected to the House of Nations for the zone or division, plus military appointees.
The capital, Naypyidaw, has its own local authority, constituted directly under the national president. Day-to-day business there is conducted by a council, led by a chairperson.
Meanwhile, the smallest administrative unit in rural areas is the village, with a Village Tract being a group of several of these. Urban wards are at a similar level to villages, with these village tracts and towns then grouped together to form townships. Collections of these in turn form districts, with groups of districts forming states or regions. At these lower levels, there is currently a mix of elected officials and those positions that are appointed by the General Administration Department of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The 2015 general election gave a great deal of hope to many that Myanmar had made a decisive break with its authoritarian past. Indeed, the country now not only has its first, democratically elected government, but also its first civilian president. Working now as state counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also gives Myanmar a globally recognised and respected leader, able to command a great deal of goodwill worldwide.
At the same time, however, the country still faces great challenges. Fighting still continues in parts of the country, despite recent advances in peace-building, with inter-ethnic and religious violence still present in certain areas. In addition, the government also has to balance expectations of rapid change with the continuing power and presence of the Tatamdaw throughout the country and its institutions. Building capacity is therefore a major task, and the need for a new outlook within and attitude towards the role of state institutions widely seen as vital if the country is to become more open and its officials more accountable. Nonetheless, Myanmar today is a place undergoing rapid change, and there is a solid determination among its people and leaders alike to help their country establish an important place at the global political and economic table.
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