July 22, 2016
Last year, the US accepted over 18,000 refugees from Burma, meaning that Burmese refugees make up over 25% of refugees accepted to the United States in 2015. Burma has had one of the world’s longest running civil wars, which has created one of the world’s most prolonged refugee crises. While a large portion of the refugees in the US are from Burma, many people are unaware of the conflict that has led to the vast number of refugees.
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a small country in Southeast Asia with a population of 50 million. With over 100 different ethnic groups, Burma is a country known for its ethnic diversity.
Burma was a British colony until 1948, when the nation received its independence. Initially, Burma was led by a parliamentary government, but in 1962, the Myanmar Armed Forces enacted a coup d’état and replaced the government with a military dictatorship. The government of Burma was converted to socialism, and the Burmese Socialist Program Party became the only legal political organization. During this time, the economy worsened, political opponents were detained, and human rights abuses were prevalent, especially among ethnic minority groups.
Years of economic hardship and authoritarian rule continued until an uprising began on August 8, 1988 (known as the 8888 uprising). Burmese citizens began the uprising to stand up against the military regime and call for democracy. During the month-long uprising, over 3,000 people died, many at the hand of the military regime.
After this uprising, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was set up to rule the country, but this was mainly a continuation of the same military leadership that had already ruled Burma. The state set up an election so the people could choose their next leader. Although the National League for Democracy won 80% of the vote, the SLORC ignored the results and stayed in power. Nearly 30 years later, that same political party holds power in Burma (today they are known as the State Peace and Development Council).
Burma’s government has been accused of numerous human rights violations against its people, such as burning down villages, planting landmines, confiscating its people’s land, using its children as child soldiers, forcing its people to work as slave labor, and practicing “ethnic cleansing” by raping and murdering Karen women (Karen is one of Burma’s many ethnic groups).
In addition to the human rights abuses, certain groups in Burma are targeted by the government. Students, intellectuals, elected politicians, and those in support of democracy are among those who have experienced persecution, and many of them have been forced to flee the country for their safety. Those fleeing Burma often go to Thailand or Bangladesh, where some have lived in refugee camps for over 2 decades.
Although these circumstances in Burma might seem like a thing of the past, unrest continues to this day. In recent years, peace agreements have been in the works, but violence between the government and other groups is still ongoing. The internal conflict in Burma, which has lasted almost 70 years, has led to thousands of people seeking safety outside of Burma. The ongoing authoritarian rule, human rights violations, and persecution in Burma has created one of the world’s largest refugee crises and forced thousands from their homes.
Written by Katie Ulrich