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Myanmar: A nation in turmoil

To examine the present situation in Myanmar, and reflect upon our personal freedom.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5

Aims

To examine the present situation in Myanmar, and reflect upon our personal freedom.

Preparation and materials

  • You could download pictures of Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi to accompany this assembly. Try Google images and http://www.dassk.com/index.php for Aung San Suu Kyi.
  • Reflective music: something by Enya would be suitable.

Assembly

  1. History is littered with many, too many, stories of brave individuals putting up with tremendous hardship in order to stick to their principles. In recent years, figures such as Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama spring to mind. Another famous activist is Aung San Suu Kyi. Born in 1945, as British colonial rule ended in her nation of Burma, now known as Myanmar, she has been the legitimate prime minister since 1990. However, a military government has refused the people of Myanmar their rightfully elected leaders and Suu Kyi has spent many years under house arrest.
  2. A former British colony, Myanmar was ‘liberated’ by Japanese colonial forces during the Second World War. Following the Allied victory, a transitional government was installed by the British, leading to full independence. However, in 1962 a military coup took place, aiming to bring about a socialist state. In 1988, the people’s frustration boiled over into a series of pro-democracy protests. Thousands of protesters were killed, and the State Peace and Development Council, led by General Saw Maung, led a coup d’etat, with elections planned for 1990. The National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party, won an overwhelming victory which the generals annulled. Suu Kyi has never been able to take office, and has spent sporadic periods under house arrest.
  3. During this time, Myanmar has remained one of the poorest nations in the region, missing, to a large extent, the wave of development and economic improvements that have benefited other nations in the Asia-Pacific region. Cyclone Nargis in 2008 revealed the poverty and substandard living that many from Myanmar have to face every day. More than 200,000 people remain missing from the cyclone. The junta exacerbated the damage by refusing to allow foreign aid into Myanmar, many believe because of fears that foreign soldiers could also be sent.
  4. Meanwhile, the nation’s leaders live in opulent luxury. General Than Shwe, considered the head of the junta, organized an enormous celebration for the marriage of his daughter, involving champagne and diamonds, while the people live in poverty and forced austerity. The capital was moved in 2006 from Yangon to Naypyidaw, a new city, construction of which began only in 2005. Officially this is due to overcrowding in Yangon; but many doubt this. Many junta members are highly superstitious: this may be a cause. More likely is that the wide, carefully planned cartography of Naypyidaw, 200 miles away from Yangon’s huge population, would make any uprising harder to create and easier to dissolve.
  5. Unfortunately, recent events have not been kind to the people of Myanmar. In September 2007 the Buddhist monks of the country took part in huge peaceful demonstrations. They were brought to heel in a violent manner by the riot police. Many died, and many more were incarcerated.

    In early 2009 an American man, John Yettaw, swam across the lake to Suu Kyi’s house. She let him stay for two days to recover from exhaustion, thus violating the conditions of her house arrest. They were both arrested. Following negotiations with US senator Jim Webb, Yettaw was flown back to the USA, in part because of his poor mental health. Suu Kyi was sentenced to three years’ hard labour, but Than Shwe intervened to show ‘clemency’, reducing her sentence to 18 more months of house arrest. This has been seen as a political move, to prevent Suu Kyi from campaigning in upcoming elections. As the junta’s main threat, her removal all but guarantees their victory.
  6. However, her bravery has not gone unnoticed. Suu Kyi is revered across the world as a champion of freedom and justice. The rulers of Myanmar have shown repeatedly that they will not tolerate any dissent. It is up to the rest of the world to ensure that Suu Kyi’s struggles have not been in vain.

Time for reflection

Project the image of Aung San Suu Kyi. Play some reflective music.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spent her life trying to work to give the people of Myanmar their rights.

What would I be prepared to do to stand up for the basic rights of my friends, family and fellow citizens?

How much do we take our freedom for granted day by day?

Prayer

We remember Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Myanmar today.

We pray that freedom may come,

that elections will be honoured,

and that the people of Myanmar be able to live better lives in the future.

Amen.

Hymn

‘Peace is flowing like a river’ (Hymns Old and New, 539)

‘For the healing of the nations’ (Hymns Old and New, 170)

Publication date: November 2009   (Vol.11 No.11)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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