There’s no excuse for the behavior of Burma’s leaders, but history offers an explanation that goes beyond sheer autocratic barbarism. As friendly as the Burmese can be to Western tourists, they have reason to be suspicious about their neighbors and outside powers — they have been sandwiched between empires in India and China; subjugated and exploited by Great Britain; devastated by Japan (and the Allies) during World War II; and vulnerable in the second half of the 20th century to meddling by Thailand, rogue Chinese nationalists, and other factions and interests. Hand in hand with that xenophobia goes a fierce pride: For much of their history they’ve been not just survivors, but builders of a Burmese empire that, at its zenith in the mid-11th century, controlled a large chunk of mainland Southeast Asia.
Made in Burma, the junta reflects Burmese characteristics that won’t necessarily go away once it’s removed. Consider the junta’s seemingly laughable reliance on omens and lucky numbers to set government policy, whether it involved moving the capital or changing the currency. In July 1947, a few months before independence, Burma’s Cabinet resigned en masse because it discovered that the day when most of its members had taken the oath of office was “inauspicious.”
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