Burma, in Southeast Asia, has been under repressive military rule since 1962. As of November 2011, however, modest efforts at reform in Burma made the country a key part in U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to strengthen the American presence in the Asia Pacific region.
Burma's government has promoted the country's name as Myanmar since 1989. Pro-democratic groups, however, have refused to acknowledge the name due to its association with repression. The United States, also, has not recognized the usage of the name Myanmar. U.S. officials still use the name Burma.
Beginning in 1044, Burman dynasties ruled the country. After a series of wars in the 19th Century, the British Empire conquered Burma and annexed it to India in 1885. During World War II, popular Burmese General Aung San and his forces joined with Japan to throw Britain out of Burma. Coercive Japanese control, however, prompted Aung San's army to join with the U.S. and Great Britain to oust Japan in 1945. When the war ended, though, Burma demanded independence from the British Empire, which Great Britain granted in January 1948.
According to the U.S. State Department, Burma operated under a constitutional democracy until 1962 when General Ne Win and loyal forces overthrew the government in a coup. For the next 25 years Burma had a repressive, socialist government with a sham parliament. It violently cracked down on protestors, racking a death toll in the thousands.
In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of General Aung San) emerged as the leading opposition spokesperson. She established the National League for Democracy, and the government has periodically put Aung San Suu Kyi under traditional or house arrest.
The U.S. State Department describes Burma's foreign policy since 1962 as "xenophobic," - that is, characterized by a fear of foreign contact. The U.S. has not had full relations with Burma since the military regime emerged, and it has leveled a series of sanctions on Burma in an attempt to nudge the country back toward democracy. Burma has also had questionable relations with the equally repressive government of North Korea.
Recent protests and a bad economy forced the Burmese government to hold elections in November 2010, the first in 20 years. The elections, although rife with irregularities, replaced two-thirds of parliamentary seats with private citizens rather than former military personnel.
The election also ended Aung San Suu Kyi's most recent period of detention. The State Department says, however, that hundreds of political prisoners remain in jail.
Derek Mitchell, U.S. State Department special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, said on October 17, 2011, that Burma is exhibiting some positive signs of reform. The 2010 election and the release of the political prisoners are a couple of those signs.
Still, Mitchell said there are still "too many" political prisoners in Burma, and ethnic human rights abuses are still occurring. But he said U.S. officials are seeing a "positive trend line" in Burmese domestic activity.
Mitchell would not say democracy is blossoming in Burma. "I think it's too soon to tell what we're seeing," he said. He said, however, the U.S. is going to encourage Burma toward democracy through open dialogue and acceptance of Burma in regional development meetings.
Mitchell said, "if, in fact, we do see change, reform [in] democracy, human rights, national reconciliation, and development, they will have a partner in the United States."
Obama Dispatches Clinton To Burma
On November 18, 2011, President Obama announced he was sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to formally visit Burma. She will be the first high-level U.S. official to visit the country in 50 years.
Obama said, "after years of darkness, we've seen flickers of progress [in Burma] in these last several weeks." He reiterated Mitchell's concerns about human rights violations and political prisoners. However, he said he spoke with Aung San Suu Kyi on November 17, and she welcomed Clinton's visit to boost the momentum of reform.
Obama said, "If Burma fails to move down the path of reform, it will continue to face sanctions and isolation. But if it seizes this moment, then reconciliation can prevail, and millions of people may get the chance to live with a greater measure of freedom, prosperity, and dignity,"