"Burma is in Southest Asia, with Thailand and Laos to the east, Bangladesh to the west and India and China to the north. The population is estimated at around 50 million. There are eight main ethnic groups, and more than 100 subgroups, making it one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world.
It is a country rich in natural resources, but also one of the poorest in the world, as the dictatorship spends up to half its annual budget on the military.
Burma gained independence from Britain after the Second World War, but even under democratic rule the central government oppressed and discriminated against ethnic groups.
In 1962, General Ne Win took power in a military coup, and the country has been ruled by dictatorships ever since. A student-led pro-democracy uprising in 1988 was brutally suppressed by the regime, and a new dictatorship—the State Law and Order Restoration Council—took over. A combination of internal and international pressure led the regime to hold elections in 1990, which it expected to win. But instead the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 82 per cent of the seats in Parliament. The regime refused to accept the results, and instead arrested and tortured MPs and democracy activists. As of December 2008 there were more than 2,100 political prisoners in Burma, many of whom are tortured, kept in solitary confinement and denied medical treatment.
Aung San Suu Kyi is now in her third period of detention, and is the world's only Nobel Peace laureate in detention. She is denied visitors, her phone line is cut, and she is not allowed to send or receive post. She has grandchildren she has never been allowed to see.
Burma is a record-breaker for all the wrong reasons. It has the highest number of child soldiers, the longest-running civil war, one of the highest levels of infant mortality in the region and the lowest levels of spending on health and education. The regime has been accused by the United Nations of a crime against humanity for its use of slave labour, the highest in the world. It is engaged in ethnic cleansing in eastern Burma, is one of the few governments in the world that still uses landmines, and denies international aid to its own population. Burma also regularly comes top in tables on corruption and media censorship."
(Since this book was published, Aung San Suu Kyi has been released, some political prisoners are supposedly going to be released, though there it is still a long road to democracy.)
The ethnic cleansing Phan glances over in the summary is the primary subject of the book. The Karen being one of the ethnic groups that the government has been trying to annihilate for decades in brutal fashion. Phan spends the majority of her life running and hiding from attacks as her villages and refugee camps are attacked, burned, and her friends and neighbours are raped, shot, forced into slave labour, die from starvation or one of many treatable illnesses, blown up in bomb raids or by landmines. Any horror you can imagine, the Burmese army has been inflicting it on the Karen for years. What bothered me the most is how this was never on my radar until now, and how relatively mute it's been on the world stage, primarily because foreign investment has been a bigger priority. It's sickening. Also sickening is how long it took for the UN to get involved, because it was deemed as an internal problem and posed no threat to any other countries. And how difficult it was for Phan to claim refugee status.
I highly, highly recommend this book as a way to become familiar with the ongoing problems facing the Karen. I would lend you my copy, but better to buy it from the Phan Foundation where proceeds will go to support the Karen people of Burma as they struggle to fight poverty, provide education, protect their culture, and promote human rights.
UPDATE: I just watched The Lady, a phenomenal film about Aung San Suu Kyi and her years under house arrest. It's sad, frustrating, inspiring and enraging, and I highly recommend it. Here's the trailer: