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Backgrounder: Understanding Myanmar

Council on Foreign Relations

Author: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer
October 4, 2007


The September 2007 protests by Buddhist monks in Myanmar have put a spotlight on the little-known Southeast Asian country for the first time in nearly twenty years. Protests in 1988 led to a crackdown by the ruling military junta that left an estimated three thousand people dead and intensified the country’s isolation and poverty. Still known as Burma by some states, the country faces new scrutiny by the international community and competing calls for sanctions and greater engagement with the regime.

Background to the Protests

Myanmar, a country of 56 million people, has abundant natural resources such as oil, natural gas, timber, and minerals. Once known as the rice bowl of the world, it was the richest country in the region at the time it gained independence from colonial rule in 1948. But decades of military rule have ravaged the country. In 2005, according to the United Nations Statistics Division, Myanmar’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was only $217, making it one of the twenty-poorest countries in the world.

A government decision to make cuts to national fuel subsidies in mid-August increased diesel prices by a reported 100 percent and caused a five-fold increase in the price of compressed natural gas, placing inflationary pressure (PINR) on an economy already facing estimated inflation levels of 21.4 percent in 2006. The surging fuel prices provoked public protests, joined by thousands of monks, attracting international attention.

Limited International Influence on Regime

The United States imposed sanctions on the country after the 1988 crackdown, including a ban on the export of financial services and a freeze on the assets of certain Burmese institutions. Washington announced new sanctions in September 2007 after the junta moved to crush dissent.

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Copyright 2007 by the Council on Foreign Relations. This material is republished on with specific permission from the Reprint and republication queries for this article should be directed to

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