Before becoming a country in 1948, Myanmar was under the control of Britain first as a province of India, then later a sovereign colony. Before 1989, the country was known as Burma until the military junta declared a new name. The Buddhist majority makes up 87.9% of the country’s population. Christianity (6.2%) and Islam (4.3%) are the two largest minorities.
From 1962 to 1988, Myanmar was under the control of General Ne Win who ruled as bother a military ruler and self-selected present. In 1988 he resigned before the military junta took leadership. After elections in 1990, The National League for Democracy’s candidate, Aung San Suu Kyi won the presidency but was placed under house arrest by the military. For two decades under house arrests, the military crushed all democratic protests until the national legislature elected Thein Sein, a former prime minister, as the new president in 2011. Thein Sein led multiple social reforms, releasing political prisoners and removing barriers on freedom of the press. Aung San Suu Kyi was assigned multiple governmental positions from Chair of the Committee for Rule of Law and Tranquility (2014) to Minister of Foreign Affairs (2016) ). Htin Kyaw, Aung San Suu Kyi’s friend and member of the National League of Democracy, became the country’s next president in 2016 until he retired in 2018. The current president of Myanmar is Win Myint with Aung San Suu Kyi as the country’s first state counselor (prime minister). Aung San Suu Kyi is considered the de facto leader of Myanmar because of her multiple positions of influence.
The Rohingya and Cultural Populism
The Rohingya Muslims are the largest minority group in Myanmar who have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for multiple centuries. In the 1700s, Rakhine State became an official part of Myanmar and, until recently, has been the home to 1.1 million Rohingya. Despite living in Myanmar for so long, the Buddhist Burmese majority views the Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya are used as scapegoats to blame for the country’s economic troubles and the military from Myanmar’s founding to the present openly targets and harasses Muslim communities in Rakhine. Myanmar’s history of human rights violations shows characteristics of cultural populism, where the majority targets an ethnic or religious minority. To see the connections between government decision-making and responses to violence in the Rakhine State, go to the Interactive Timeline.