HUMAN AND ECONOMIC GEOGRAPHY
State of Southeast Asia. At the last census, which dates back to 1983, the population was 35,307,913 residents, while according to a 2005 estimate it was around 50 million. The country, which represents one of the most backward components of the Indochinese region (together with Laos and Cambodia), is characterized by a high spread of AIDS, which, according to official data, has infected over 1 % of the population. The consequence was a strong erosion of the demographic push, a decrease in life expectancy at birth and an increase in mortality rates (9.8 ‰ in 2006) and infant mortality (61.8‰).
The economy is dominated by the agricultural sector, which contributes more than 50 % to the formation of national income and supports growth, while the only industrial sectors of some importance are textiles and agri-food. The country is not without important natural resources, first of all natural gas, extracted along the west bank of the Irrawaddy and in the Gulf of Martaban (9200 million m 3 were produced in 2003), but it is subjected to heavy sanctions international due to the repeated human rights violations committed by the military regimes in government since 1962, however, accused of favoring the laundering of illegal money and of little involvement in the fight against drug trafficking. Myanmar is the first world producer of amphetamines and the second of opium (after Afghānistān). During 2003, following the decision by the United States and the European Union to strengthen the embargo against the country (reaffirmed in the following years), there was a significant reduction in the contribution of foreign capital, accompanied by a fall of production and a financial crisis. The only sector not affected by the situation was tourism: the number of visitors who entered the country in 2004, outside of organized groups, increased by 64 % compared to previous years.
Subjected since 1962 to authoritarian regimes controlled by the armed forces, the country remained on the threshold of 2000 still far from starting a real process of democratization and continued to struggle in chronic poverty, determined by scarce investments in the agricultural and industrial sector and aggravated by the inefficiency and corruption that pervaded the state apparatus to a large extent.
The creation of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the new governing body formed in 1997 after the official dissolution of the military junta that had governed the country since 1988, did not bring about any real change. in the direction of internal politics and continued to remain in effect an organ of the armed forces, composed of younger officers but always under the direction of General Than Shwe, in power since 1992, in whose hands both the position of chief of the state is that of prime minister.
The 1974 Constitution continued to remain inapplicable and the formation of the new Parliament banned as it was the result of the 1990 legislative elections won by the National League for Democracy (NLD), which did not cease to be the subject of severe repression despite the growing popularity of its leader, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi (Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991), repeatedly subjected to arrests and intimidation.
A cautious opening towards opponents seemed to have been initiated by the government during 2000 and 2001, above all to cope with the pressures of the international community, on which the financial aid indispensable for the country’s economy depended, moreover completely in the hands of the several military lobbies. In recent years there was a gradual release of the numerous political prisoners and high schools and universities were reopened, closed following the mobilization of the student movement. A certain tolerance was also shown towards the activity of the NLD, severely conditioned, however, by the new house arrest imposed on Aung San Suu Kyi (ag. 2000). The dialogue between the parties, despite encountering numerous obstacles, continued and in May 2002 the leader of the NLD was freed again, with the official guarantee of being able to resume her political activity. In reality, faced with the reorganization of the party and the pressing demand for democratic guarantees, the regime backtracked again and in April 2003, taking as a pretext some clashes that broke out in the north of the country after a rally by Aung San Suu Kyi (according to some international observers, deliberately provoked by the army), again deprived the latter of personal freedoms. The protests of the international community were immediate: the United States Congress and the European Parliament decreed new economic sanctions and Japan threatened to block economic aid; Criticisms were also expressed by the ASEAN countries (Association of South-East Asian Nations), traditionally unwilling to express judgments on the internal politics of the member states.
At the end of August 2003 the political situation was suddenly shaken by unexpected changes that revealed an internal clash in the ruling hierarchies: Than Shew left his post as prime minister and was replaced by General Khin Nyut, head of the secret services and first secretary of the SPDC.. Willing to resume dialogue with the opposition, Khin Nyut proposed the hypothesis of a gradual return to democracy through the drafting of a new Constitution and the holding of new elections. Numerous releases of NLD members followed in the following months and in May 2004 the National Convention was again convened (whose work had been interrupted in 1996), appointed to rewrite the Constitution. Boycotted by representatives of some ethnic communities, the credibility of the Convention was undermined by the absence of Aung San Suu Kyi, still detained, and the refusal of the NLD to take part in it.
In September 2004, Khin Nyut was arrested on corruption charges and Than Shew placed a close associate, General Soe Win, at the helm of the executive. In the following months a general purge hit all the state apparatuses, which were thus placed under the strict control of the head of state. Although the new executive confirmed its intention to collaborate with the opposition forces, the situation did not change during 2005 and the first months of 2006: Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest and repression continued to strike opponents of the regime.
In foreign policy, the government tried in recent years to overcome international isolation and obtain the release of foreign funding. The persistence of a repressive policy made this goal for the most part unattainable, and both the United States and the European Union continued to prohibit trade and financial relations with the country. Different is the attitude of China, which in recent years established increasingly close relations with the Burmese state. In December 2001, following an official visit by President Jiang Zemin, important trade agreements were signed between the two countries. Beijing also granted Rangoon substantial financial aid, aimed among other things at favoring the development of the upper Mekong basin, considered by the Chinese government to be an important inter-regional communication route. New economic and trade treaties were signed in March 2004. The increased influence of China led Japan to mitigate criticism of the regime and in 2004 Tokyo resumed economic relations with the Burmese government. In recent years, relations with Thailand and the Indian Union also improved.