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Talk explores emergence of Myanmar
Nation on a 'dramatic deviation'
Talk WEB
Richard Byers spoke to more than 60 attendees Thursday at a Great Decisions lecture. - photo by Alyssa LaRenzie

What’s next

All Great Decisions Series lectures will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays at the University Center | GA 400 campus of the University of North Georgia, 300 Aquatic Circle, off Pilgrim Mill Road in Cumming.

• Jan. 31 — “NATO”

• Feb. 7 — “Threat Assessment”

• Feb. 14 — “China in Africa”

• Feb. 21 — “Egypt”

• Feb. 28 — “Future of the Euro”

• March 7 — “Humanitarian Intervention”

For more information, visit or call (678) 717-3541.

Attendance at the Great Decisions lecture series in Cumming nearly doubled Thursday from the prior week’s opening event.

Staff at the University Center | GA 400 campus of the University of North Georgia brought in extra chairs to accommodate the crowd of more than 60 that gathered to learn about Myanmar, also known as Burma.

The annual series, which is free to attend, is organized by the Foreign Policy Association as a way for communities to come together to discuss current, international issues.

Richard Byers, associate professor of history, presented the background and its impact on future challenges for Myanmar as it transitions from militaristic rule to a more Democratic society.

The southeast Asian nation, which is slightly smaller in size than Texas, borders India and China, as well as Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos.

“Stuck between these two larger, more regional powers,” Byers said, “the Burmese of course have had to come to terms with this and pursue their own political and economic goals within that context in the shadow of these two much larger and, in many ways, much more powerful states.”

That position has made it a popular choice for foreign powers to use as a conduit to reach the larger nations, he said. Both Britain and Japan ravaged the land during their World War II efforts.

After the conflict, Gen. Aung San, who Byers called “the father of modern Burma,” created a federalist unity state with great regional autonomous powers to allow the diverse groups to be “weakly held together.”

San was assassinated in January 1948, however, and the nation fell into civil wars, ending with military rule led by Gen. Ne Win from 1962-88.

In the late ’80s, “cracks in the regime arose,” Byers said, but it wasn’t until a people’s revolution in 2007 and a cyclone in 2008 that the military lost its stronghold.

Two years later, the country held an election that installed a president and a legislature.

“It’s a dramatic deviation from previous policy,” he said. “Over the last year or two, Burma has begun to transform itself. It has begun to open its economy and markets to the world.”

The emergence of a largely isolated nation into the global sphere raises questions about what role Myanmar will play within the international community. According to Byers, the nation is pushing energy, oil and gas, agriculture and tourism as its top industries.

These sectors require ability to negotiate with other nations, however, and Byers noted the last generation hasn’t seen any businessman, lawyers, politicians or other professional trades because the military oppression wouldn’t allow it.

The country has many internal reforms to tackle as well, including establishing the rule of law, building infrastructure and creating public health reform, he said.

It also struggles to capture unity between the 68 percent Burmese population and the outlying minority groups. The people would like the U.S. to be involved, said Byers, adding “but what role are we willing to play?”

The Great Decisions series will continue next week with exploration of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The university’s Cumming campus expects another large crowd, said Jane O’Gorman, director of public services and continuing education.

She’s seen people return from the previous three years the series has been offered, as well as new faces each week.

“It is a very exciting opportunity where we have the experts come and talk to us about topics of interest to us today,” she said.