In Myanmar joining the Boy Scouts, allowing a foreigner into your home, or gathering outdoors in groups larger than five can be punished with a long prison term. In four decades of military dictatorship, over 1 million people have been evicted from their homes, and countless thousands of others have been tortured, raped or murdered. When the country's first free elections, in 1990, led to a pro-democracy government, the military voided the election and imprisoned 200 elected officials on charges of "sedition." Since then things have not improved much despite growing international criticism of the Myanmar government. While the mlitary junta continues to "negotiate" with what remains of the democratic opposition, and has changed its name from the State Law amd Order Restoration Council to the State Peace and Development Council, there has been little concrete improvement in the lives of the desperately poor and oppressed people.
Despite abundant supplies of natural gas, oil, gemstones, teak and other natural resources, Myanmar remains among the poorest countries in the world. Its medical care infrastructure is ranked the second worst in the world, behind countries like Liberia, Haiti and Sierra Leone. While it may trail behind the world in medical care, Myanmar is at the forefront when it comes to slave labor. On any given day, as many as 800,000 Myanmar civilians are pressed into service by the military as forced laborers. By some estimates as much as 3% of Myanmar's official GDP is obtained through the use of conscripts. It also leads the world in the use of child soldiers, as both rebels and government forces have forced children in combat and non-combat roles. While U.S. government sanctions prohibit new operations in Myanmar, they do nothing to force companies to withdraw from previous projects: Halliburton, the petroleum and energy services company Vice-President Dick Cheney once ran, made extensive joint venture investments in Burma during the 1990s. According to court documents, the Burmese military used forced labor on a pipeline project in which Halliburton was involved.
Throughout its history the region formerly known has Burma has been wracked by ethnic conflicts. An area the size of Texas is home to nearly 140 different ethnic groups, with different cultures, languages and religions. The British colonial government (which ruled from the 1820s to 1948) was able to set up a nominal central administration, but had little control over the outlying areas where many of the ethnic minorities live. After they left, the country fell into chaos until a government ruled by the Burman majority took control. While many of the major ethnic minority groups, like the Shan, Wa, and Karenni, were promised some degree of autonomy, these constitutional guarantees were never fully honored. Yet even these promises proved controversial; General Aung Sa, one of the main architects of the peace between the various ethnic groups, was assassinated in 1947. The current government has played the various ethnic minorities off against each other, keeping them Balkanized in the hopes that they do not unite and become a threat to the status quo. They have signed cease-fire treaties with some of the larger ethnic militias, and have ruthlessly fought to suppress others. As in many civil wars, all sides have been guilty of hideous excesses.
Warfare is expensive, and all sides have also become deeply involved in drug smuggling. Myanmar is one of the world's largest producers of opium and amphetamines. With 20,000+ members, the United Wa State Army rivals any Colombian drug gang in size, armament, and viciousness; the cash-strapped Myanmar government has allowed them virtually free reign in exchange for a share of their heroin profits. Kung Sa's Mong Tai Army has also made arrangements with the government, and is deeply involved in trafficking drugs, arms, and slaves. This has led to tensions - and occasional battles - along the Thai border; it has also led the Thai government to turn back many refugees seeking to flee the incessant violence. Thailand has sought to stamp out the trade which is flooding its borders with cheap drugs, but widespread corruption and collaboration between drug smugglers and Thai officials have hampered their efforts. The Chinese have had similar difficulties; the Yunnan province which borders Burma is home to many of China's intravenous drug addicts - and AIDS cases. India's problems with drug smuggling are the least of its worries. Like Myanmar, India is a patchwork of frequently squabbling ethnic groups, many of which have purchased weapons in Myanmar for use in India.
So far the Myanmar military junta has remained in power despite all this. Much as they have played off the various ethnic groups, they have played on the tensions between their two largest neighbors, India and China, seeking assistance from each in turn. It is not clear how long they will be able to continue this game. To date they have shown no willingness to control the rampant drug traffic - and with their recent efforts to build a nuclear reactor, with help from Pakistan and North Korea, it is likely that they will be producing the raw materials for nuclear bombs within a few years. While they lack missile technology, they have shown a willingness to sell their wares to anyone who has hard currency… and are likely to be as quick to trade U-235 as they are to trade heroin.