Myanmar - Political background

Myanmar (Burma), was annexed to British India in 1885 after a succession of wars. It did not gain full independence until January 1948. For 10 years following independence, the country, then known as the Union of Burma, maintained a parliamentary democracy headed by Prime Minister U Nu. In May 1958, in the face of a mounting political crisis, U Nu asked the military, headed by General Ne Win, to form a caretaker government until elections could be held. U Nu was returned to office in the elections of February–March 1960. Although the crisis had eased, the nation was confronted with serious problems of internal factionalism, insurgency, and lack of economic development. Taking advantage of these conditions, General Ne Win staged a coup d'état in March 1962. The general abolished the national legislature and organized a Revolutionary Council of senior army officers to run the government. The plan was to set the country on the "Burmese Road to Socialism," an eclectic mix of Marxism and spiritualism. In July, the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) was founded as the political arm of the military government, and Ne Win was designated chairman of the party.

In 1973, the name of the country was changed to the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. In 1974, after 12 years of military rule, the regime promulgated a new Constitution, which codified Ne Win's BSPP ideals. At the same time, the national legislature was revived as the unicameral 489-member People's Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw).

The 1974 Constitution vested executive power in the 29-member Council of State (the chairman of which was also state president) and the 22-member Council of Ministers (which designated one of its members as the prime minister). The People's Assembly was the supreme organ of state authority, and members of both executive councils were chosen from within the assembly.

Since 1988, there has been no People's Assembly. In that year, following a coup d'état, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was created, made up primarily of ministers drawn from the military to run the country. As of early 2000, the May 1990 general elections, in which the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won an overwhelming 87.7% majority, had still not been recognized by the SLORC, and those elected had not been seated.

Although Ne Win stepped down as president in 1981 and as chairman of the BSPP in 1988, many observers believe that he has continued to exert strong influence behind the scenes. The SLORC announced on 18 June 1989 that the name of the country would no longer be the Union of Burma, but Myanmar Naing Ngan, an ancient, formal term. The country is commonly referred to as Myanmar, while democracy advocates such as the NLD and the U.S. government use the old name, Burma. City and other place names were changed by the SLORC as well.

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