Burma is a multiethnic nation. The overwhelmingly Buddhist Burman make up more than 60 percent of the population, with the remainder belonging to about 135 different ethnic groups. There are also Indian and Chinese minorities. The British colonial troops brought Gurkhas from Nepal, who then settled in Burma. The Rohingya, who the Burmese refuse to grant citizenship, live in the region bordering Bangladesh, and members of the Karen, Chin and Kachin ethnic groups, many of them Christian, live in the west, east and north of the country.
These groups are often militant and have long felt deprived of their rights by the government. Nevertheless, the central government has repeatedly managed to pit local militias against one another or to convince them to sign cease-fire agreements -- albeit at a high price for the government.
Under the agreements, the militias are allowed to keep their weapons and control their tribal areas. This is a profitable business in a region in which opium production is booming and from which methamphetamines are flooding large parts of the world. Indeed, near the Chinese border, entire communities live off the profits from gambling and the illegal trade in rare animal species and tropical hardwoods.
For years, the government tried to deprive the militia fighters of their power by integrating them into its border-protection units. However, many militias have refused to cooperate, which has triggered the army's current showdown with the Kachin.
Returning Full of Hope
There are no signs of war in Rangoon, Burma's thriving center with its golden Shwedagon Pagoda, or in the tourist areas surrounding the old royal city of Bagan.
Businesspeople, as well as returnees that the old regime had driven into exile, are now testing the waters. They include Nigel Blackwood, a 39-year-old Englishman, and his 40-year-old Burmese wife, Marlar, who want to leave Great Britain and return home to Burma after some years in exile.
For the first time, the couple is venturing back into the country in which Marlar's father, a member of the military intelligence service, was sentenced to 142 years in prison and her brother to 14 years in a show trial. The charges against them included the illegal possession of foreign currency and importing a car. Now Marlar hopes that he and her brother will be granted amnesty. After that, she and her husband plan to open a travel agency.
"We want to show people that Burma is a beautiful country and not just a place of oppression," says Marlar, who has made peace with her old home.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who was recently permitted to address the people on television for the first time, is in a similar position. Sitting in front of her party's red flag, she called for a free press, an independent judiciary and constitutional reform.
But the censors apparently didn't like the part of her speech in which she criticized how the former military government had repeatedly used laws to oppress the people. It was edited out.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan