Burma’s military regime has been in power for almost 50 years. It is a rule of harsh physical and psychological oppression. During the student uprising in 1988, more than 3,000 demonstrators were shot dead and thousands more arrested in the streets of Rangoon. In 2007, Burma’s generals brutally crushed peaceful demonstrations led by monks and students and threw thousands of demonstrators in jail. As of this moment, more than 2100 political prisoners are jailed in harsh prisons around the country.
Burma’s suffering was compounded in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis ripped through the Irrawaddy Delta killing 140,000 and leaving more than two million people homeless and traumatized. Initially, the country’s paranoid generals responded with complete disregard for the population and made an already horrible situation worse by rejecting foreign aid for weeks.
The Burmese people suffer every day under a regime that is as inept as it is repressive. The regime’s faulted economic policies have resulted in double-digit inflation that devastates wages and salaries. An average Burmese lives on less than a dollar per day. Today, minimum wage buys 8-10 times fewer basic commodities like rice, salt, sugar and cooking oil than 20 years ago. The country once dubbed “The Rice Bowl of Asia” can now hardly feed itself and has gone from being the richest in the region to one of the world's most impoverished nations. While the majority of the Burmese live in poverty, military leaders and their business cronies exploit the country’s riches like timber, minerals, gemstones, hydropower, oil, and gas.
The world’s best jade and rubies come from mines in middle and northern Burma. Underpaid, overworked migrant workers carve gems out of the ground while they live in shantytowns away from family. Drug abuse and HIV/AIDS is rampant in the mining camps. Access to healthcare is mostly nonexistent. The mines are state-owned, but leased out to private investors who pay vast sums of money, both over and under the table, to the Junta (Burma’s military regime) for mining rights. Despite trade sanctions and a ban on Burmese gemstones many of these stones make it to western markets.
The growing elite and middle class of China is creating huge demand for, especially, jade stones and jewelry. To the Chinese, jade represents virtue, purity and prosperity – a Chinese idiom is: “Gold has a value, jade is invaluable.” At a gem trade fair in Rangoon in spring 2010 more than 2000 foreign traders attended, and the vast majority of them came from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. More than 500 million dollars worth of mostly jade was sold in little less than two weeks. At a more recent, smaller, gem fair in Rangoon, one 33-carat ruby fetched one million US dollars: 400,000 US dollars went straight to the regime, which demands 40% of the proceeds from the most lucrative and famous mines.
Recently, the Junta has started a massive privatization of state enterprises but critics point out that the assets are being sold either to retired officers or to businessmen allied with the military, reinforcing the strength of a class of oligarchs and military cronies. The highly lucrative oil industry is to be privatized and the Junta has instructed its favorite crony, Burma’s richest civilian, Tay Za, to head a new petroleum association. Tay Za is also the man behind a newly built residential area in Rangoon with condo high-rises and 22 luxurious villas with a starting price of 850,000 US dollars. So far all the villas except one have been sold – most of them to army officers.
While the military has doubled in size since 1988 and currently consumes up to half the annual budget, the government spends less than $1 per citizen per year on healthcare. The patients pay for more than 90% of health expenditures – which means that proper healthcare is out of reach for the vast population of the country. Government hospitals lack medicine and doctors and nurses are grossly underpaid and treat people according to the amount of “lunch money” the patients are able to provide.
In a 2005 survey by WHO (World Health Organization), Burma had the second-poorest healthcare system in the world, only topped by Sierra Leone. Half of all Asia's malaria deaths occur here; the country has some of the world’s deadliest strains of TB; and the regime has a potentially devastating HIV epidemic on its hands. The lack of willingness to treat people or let foreign NGOs treat on a sufficient scale means that, at most, only a fifth of the people infected with HIV have access to treatment.
Burma’s health and education sectors are crumbling through neglect and crippled by corruption due to low salaries. The regime has built a number of universities but does not allocate enough funds to operate them. Too keep up appearances, the government provides educational degrees of dubious quality, which artificially augments the country’s educational statistics. Therefore, it is not uncommon for a Rangoon rickshaw or taxi driver to have a master’s degree in philosophy or law.
Burma’s many ethnic minorities also struggle. Some have struck deals with the regime in exchange for access to valuable resources and safety, but many others live in neglect and poverty and some have been locked tight in a deadly war for survival with the regime for decades. Burmese of all ethnicities flee the country for survival, in the hope of a safer and more prosperous future. Surviving in Burma can be so difficult that even working and living on a Thai dumpsite is a viable alternative. Thailand alone is believed to be home to up to two million Burmese migrants and refugees; Bangladesh, already a poor country struggling to feed its own, has up to a quarter of a million Burmese. Inside Burma, 500,000 Burmese are internally displaced. Most of them are in the Karen State - a Burmese ethnic minority that resides along the Thai/Burmese border - where villages are torched and thousands of villagers are on the run from fighting between Christian Karen, government troops, and a rivaling Karen faction.
The generals seem to think that an oppressed, sick, and uneducated citizenry poses less threat to their power. Some maintain that the generals’ behavior is due to their commitment to keep Burma united. Others say that the iron-fisted rule only proves their commitment to stay rich and in power. No matter what the explanation, the Junta seems incapable of going beyond harsh military rule when attempting to govern Burma’s diverse, multiethnic society.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for November 7, 2010, yet it looks like they will only perpetuate military rule under a facade of legislative formality. The regime’s constitution allows the military to hold 25 percent of the seats in the new parliament and to control an appointed body with veto power over all parliamentary decisions.
Opposition leader and Nobel Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won the 1990 elections and has been under house arrest for 14 of the last 21 years, has been barred from the elections and her party disbanded. But despite the obviously flawed election laws some Burmese have decided to participate hoping that their presence in parliament can help steer Burma slowly towards real democratic reforms.
Christian Holst has been working on Burma-related issues since 2006. Part of this work has been made possible with the support of The Art Works Projects, a non-profit organization, whose mission is to use design and the arts to raise awareness of and educate the public about significant human rights and environmental issues. The Art Works Projects and Christian Holst are collaborating on a campaign on human rights issues in Burma and more specifically to shed light on the Junta’s lucrative control of the gemstone industry.
Art Works Projects