We spend a lot of time on RedTea News making fun of North Korea, because its leaders often pull stunts that are downright wacky. But really, a Communist dictatorship that brutally abuses and starves its own people is not all that funny. And the DPRK doesn't even take the prize for the world's worst dictatorship. For that dubious honor, one must travel 2,200 miles almost precisely southwest.
This week Mandalay, Burma's second-largest city and the nation's cultural hub, is under military curfew as Buddhist gangs target Muslim businesses, leading to deaths of both sides. One Buddhist was murdered by a Muslim with a sword, while a Muslim man was killed by Buddhists on his way to prayers. The rioting was instigated by a social media post claiming that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a group of Muslim men.
The ruling military junta has placed hundreds of riot police on the streets, but the gangs of young Buddhist men still roam the city, attacking Muslim targets. There are approximately 200,000 Muslims in Mandalay, a city of 950,000. Islam is a minority religion in Burma; 89% of the population practices Theravada Buddhism, and another 8% is split evenly between Christians and Muslims. While there is no official religion in the country, the ruling military junta has made it clear that they support the Buddhists. Since 2012, clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have left 280 people dead, and another 140,000 displaced.
In 1989, the nation was formally renamed from Burma to the "Republic of the Union of Myanmar," although human rights groups, both domestic and international, and some international media, refuse to use the new name, as it was chosen by the illegitimate ruling junta. "Democratic reforms" were supposedly instituted starting in 2011; elections were held and the military formally ceded power. But the consensus is that the reforms are a sham, and that the military has continued to expand its influence over all aspects of Burmese society. Some human rights restrictions have been relaxed, and Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in 2011 to support the reforms. But the reforms are seen as a cover as the military firms up its political position.
Part of the problem is that Burma, which is composed of at least seven disparate ethnic groups and at least five major religious groups, has been embroiled in constant civil war since it achieved its independence from the British in 1948. (The Soviet-oriented military seized control in a coup d'état in 1962, and has been in charge ever since.) There are currently three separate, ongoing ethnic-based wars going on Burmese soil.
The Burmese junta is generally considered to have the worst human rights record on Earth. Young children are sold as conscripts into the Burmese army for as little as USD $40. We're not talking about ad hoc militias, but the actual state military — young boys are literally pulled off the street and sent to the front line with minimal training. The military is also notorious for rampant use of sexual violence. Forced labor, human trafficking, and child labor are common. The members of one ethnic group, the Rohingya, have been denied Myanmar citizenship by the government, and one half the population has been ethnically cleansed, either murdered or forced to flee the country.
The country is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, suffering from decades of stagnation, mismanagement, and isolation. In 2008, a cyclone created the worst natural disaster in Burmese history, but the ruling junta spurned all foreign aid, magnifying the suffering of its people. Much of the money that comes into Burma comes from illegal drugs exported to Thailand. The nation's infrastructure is crumbling, but the funds to fix it are hoarded by the military, which has a majority stakeholder position in all of the major industrial corporations of the country — oil production, consumer goods, transportation, and even tourism.
As long as the military has its grip on Burma, the nation will never emerge from its seven-decade national nightmare. But while the US and international groups continue to pressure the regime for reforms, it seems unlikely the situation will improve any time soon. And unlike the Kim Jong-un regime, the government in Naypyidaw is not providing any sort of comic relief.