For reasons I don't understand, but for which I am nevertheless grateful, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, O.J. Simpson and Britney Spears all managed to shut the fuck up and not get arrested last week.
The result: a sudden vacancy in America's collective consciousness, into which snuck Burma.
Burma is the largest country in Southeast Asia. It's roughly the size of Texas. Or France, if you voted for John Kerry.
To find Burma on a globe, place your finger in the center of India, then slide it to the right, across the Bay of Bengal. Then wash your hands. It's nothing against India or Burma. Globes just sit out all day collecting dust and dirt. They're filthy.
Burma is also known as Myanmar. The country's military rulers changed the official English name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. They also changed the capital's English name from Rangoon to Yangon. Some people in the West call it Burma and Rangoon, some call it Myanmar and Yangon. Some use both. I have read reports indicating that the country's pro-democratic leadership prefers that it be called Burma. Calling the country Burma constitutes a symbolic thumbing-of-the-nose at the military dictatorship. In that case, Burma it is.
The thugs running Burma at the moment have been in power since 1988; Burma's victimization by thugs, however, both domestic and foreign, goes way back.
As part of its colonial conquest of much of South Asia, the Brits took over Burma completely in 1885. Though separate entities, the Brits folded Burma into the British Indian colony.
During the second World War, Burma was on the front line of the fight between the Brits and the Japanese. To gain their independence from the Brits, Burmese forces fought for a while on the side of the Japanese. By the end of the war, however, Burmese forces had switched to the Allied.
Burma was a parliamentary democracy from 1948 until 1962, when the military took over. Under the rule of a man named Ne Win, the Burmese army imposed a quasi-socialist police state on the Burmese people.
Over two-and-half decades, Win and his military goons wrecked the country. What was once a relatively prosperous (by Southeast Asian standards) country with natural resources and brainpower was turned into an oppressive, poverty-stricken mess.
In 1988, Burmese students led a series of peaceful demonstrations against the military regime. The uprising prompted the astonishing and inspiring political coming-out of Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced ong-saan-soo-CHEE), the heroine of the Burmese people's peaceful democracy movement.
She began the year living a normal life not unlike yours and mine. She was a suburban mother and housewife in the U.K.
She flew to Burma early that year to take care of her sick, elderly mother. The country she found was seething.
Suu Kyi's mere presence set Burma's pro-democracy movement abuzz. Though she was, like I said, a British housewife, she also happened to be the daughter of Gen. Aung San, a hero of the Burmese independence movement who was assassinated by political rivals in 1947.
Moved by the courage of anti-government protesters, she delivered the first public political speech of her life on Aug. 26, 1988. She electrified the crowd of 100,000 by calling for multiparty elections.
The Burmese military was not amused. In the days that followed, it slaughtered up to 3,000 demonstrators and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. She went on a hunger strike – demanding that she be placed in the same miserable prison as her lesser-known pro-democracy leaders.
In 1990, the military allowed elections. Suu Kyi's party won in a landslide, so the military nullified the result. Suu Kyi has spent the last 17 years in prison or under house arrest.
Outside governments have done little to help the Burmese pro-democracy movement. Some Western governments, including the United States, have imposed economic and political sanctions on Burma's regime. Its Asian neighbors, however, continue to act as enablers. China is the worst – throwing tons of money and weapons at Burma's military and protecting them in the U.N. Security Council.
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