By PISA Staff Assistant, Leeann Ji
Following Myanmar Ambassador Aung Lynn’s visit to the Elliott School of International Affairs on Monday, December 12, PISA provides critical background information on the country through our blog. Previously, we discussed the country’s challenges in natural resource governance. Stay tuned for one more post on Myanmar as part of our ongoing series, Climate Change and Sea Level Rise in Asia.
A country composed of 14 administrative states and more than 135 different ethnic groups, Myanmar currently lags behind its Southeast Asian counterparts in many different aspects of development (according to 2014 data gathered by the United Nations Development Program). After decades of political turmoil, Myanmar saw a push towards democracy when the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won the 2015 elections by a landslide. The election results proved to be a victory for Myanmar, but after the Cold War-era proliferation of communism, years of ideological battles, and an exploding opium and heroin trade, the new Burmese government faces many obstacles on the path to catching up to its ASEAN neighbors.
During the Cold War, China played a large role in Myanmar after the remaining members of the Kuomintang (KMT) army fled south into Shan State following defeat by the Communists. The KMT lost its last Chinese province, Yunnan Province, at the end of 1949 to the Communists, and on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the communist nation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). U.S. President Harry Truman became concerned with the potential spread of communism to Southeast Asia, and at the time, the Truman Doctrine affirmed U.S. support to any nation or peoples struggling against external ideological pressures. In addition, the U.S. pursued a policy of “containment” when it came to dealing with the spread of communism, and Southeast Asia was China’s communist petri dish. The KMT looked to the U.S. for support against the communist threat during the Cold War, but instead of directly involving itself in a possible conflict against China, the U.S. used the CIA to covertly support the KMT who had fled to Myanmar. In an attempt to prepare the KMT for an invasion of Southern China, the CIA supported the KMT between 1951 and 1961 by helping soldiers organize, delivering them weapons, and supporting their massive drug operations. Unfortunately, the CIA’s covert support of the KMT in Myanmar had dire consequences for the Burmese, who wished to remain neutral—as seen with Myanmar’s participation in the Non-Aligned Movement.
Specifically, since 1951, Myanmar has become one of the world’s three main sources for illegal opium and heroin. Before the KMT arrived in Myanmar, Shan State cultivated opium for medicinal purposes. However, the KMT transformed the region into a major drug producer to finance its activities. Though the KMT is no longer at war with the Communists, many other insurgent groups continue to rely on the opium and heroin trade to fund their operations. Myanmar currently does not have concrete statistics on national drug use, but it is estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime that approximately 83,000 Burmese males are injecting drugs. To this day, Myanmar remains Southeast Asia’s top opium and heroin producer, and this has not only increased black market trade, but has also increased contraction rates of HIV/AIDS.
The illicit opium and heroin trade represents a mere fraction of developmental issues facing the new Burmese government. Currently, 70% of the population lives in rural areas, there is a 65.7% chance of survival at birth, and only 4.6% of Myanmar’s Parliament is made up of women. Many of these development impediments can be attributed to the 20th century obsession over spreading and containing a political ideology, which had grave consequences for nations caught in the crossfire of the Cold War, such as Myanmar. At PISA, we seek to understand the root causes of national issues in order to craft creative solutions for the future, and in the case of Myanmar, we hope to see a successful movement towards democracy and peacebuilding.