Burma‚Äôs military junta has been internationally condemned for gross human rights abuses, including the jailing of Nobel prizewinner Aung San Suu Kyi. Today, there are more than 2,000 political prisoners in custody.
The government has also forcibly relocated civilians and tolerates child labour. Military-run enterprises control major industries and have been accused of large-scale trafficking in heroin.¬† Burma has a high level of corruption, and ranks 178th out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index. The population remains very poor.
There has been wide condemnation of Burma by the US, European Union and United Nations, and economic sanctions have been imposed. ASEAN has voiced its frustration with the government and "grave concern" over the Nobel prizewinner‚Äôs arrest. However, support from other powers including Russia, India, and China mean that regime change in the short term is unlikely.
Burma was declared independent in 1948 after 62 years of British rule.¬† In 1962, General Ne Win overthrew the parliamentary democracy and established a military government. Its brand of socialism was built on a platform of nationalisation, central planning and superstition. In 1974, Newsweek called the policy an "amalgam of Buddhist and Marxist illogic".¬† Student protests and brutal crackdowns rounded off the 1970s.
In 1988, massive protests against economic mismanagement resulted in thousands of deaths and a second coup.¬† A new set of generals organised all-party elections for the People‚Äôs Assembly, where the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won by a landslide. The generals promptly annulled the result and refused to relinquish power. They changed the name of Burma to Myanmar.
Since 1989, Miss Suu Kyi has lived almost entirely under house arrest. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Until the early 1990s, Burma fought a series of rebel insurrections led by ethnic minorities in the north. General Than Shwe signed ceasefires with many of these groups and has succeeded in co-opting some of them into the state apparatus.
The Burmese media has been strictly controlled since 1962. Censorship represses not only dissenting political voices, but also bad news. When Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, killing at least 150,000 people, the government took no action and imposed a media blackout.
Peaceful protests, in 2007 and again in 2008 (in the wake of the cyclone), led by monks were dubbed the Saffron Revolution in foreign media. Images smuggled out of the country recorded the violent military crackdown by the authorities. Reporters Without Borders ranks Burma almost bottom, at 170th out of 173 countries, in its Worldwide Press Freedom Index for its "relentless advanced censorship". Internet access is tightly controlled.