Myanmar/Burma Travel Culture and more

Buddhist Shrine Burma Malacca Straights 16x9 Impression

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Burma

 Burma (Listeni/ˈbɜrmə/ bur-mə), officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, commonly shortened to Myanmar (Listeni/ˈmjɑːnˌmɑr/ myahn-mar,/ˈmænmɑr/ or /ˈmjænmɑr/), is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. One third of Burma’s total perimeter of 1,930 kilometres (1,200 miles) forms an uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Burma’s population of over 50 million makes it the world’s 25th most populous country and, at 676,578 square kilometres (261,227 sq mi), it is the world’s 40th largest country and the second largest in Southeast Asia. Its capital city is Naypyidawand its largest city is Yangon.
Republic of the Union of Myanmar

ပြည်ထောင်စု သမ္မတ မြန်မာနိုင်ငံတော်

Pyidaunzu Thanmăda Myăma Nainngandaw

Flag State seal
CapEarly civilisations in Burma included the Tibeto-Burman speaking Pyu in Upper Burma and the Mon in Lower Burma.  In the 9th century, the Burmans of the Kingdom of Nanzhao entered the upper Irrawaddy valley and, following the establishment of the Pagan Empire in the 1050s, the Burmese language and culture slowly became dominant in the country. During this period, Theravada Buddhism gradually became the predominant religion of the country. The Pagan Empire fell due to the Mongol invasions (1277–1301), and several warring states emerged. In the second half of the 16th century, reunified by the Taungoo Dynasty, the country was for a brief period the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia.[12] The early 19th century Konbaung Dynasty ruled over an area that included modern Burma and briefly controlled Manipur and Assam as well. The British conquered Burma after three Anglo-Burmese Wars in the 19th century and the country became a British colony (a part of India until 1937 and then a separately administered colony). Burma became an independent nation in 1948, initially as a democratic nation and then, following a coup in 1962, a military dictatorship which formally ended in 2011.

For most of its independent years, the country has been engrossed in rampant ethnic strife and a myriad of Burma’s ethnic groups have been involved in one of the world’s longest-running unresolved civil wars. During this time, the United Nations and several other organisations have reported consistent and systematic human rights violations in the country.  In 2011, the military junta was officially dissolved following a 2010 general election, and a nominally civilian government was installed. Although the military retains enormous influence through the constitution that was ratified in 2008, it has taken steps toward relinquishing control of the government. This, along with the release of Burma’s most prominent human rights activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, and many other political prisoners, has improved the country’s human rights record and foreign relations and has led to the easing of trade and other economic sanctions that had been imposed by the European Union and the United States.  There is, however, continuing criticism of the government’s treatment of the Muslim ethnic Rohingya minority and its poor response to the religious clashes that have occurred throughout the nation, described by various human rights organisations as a policy of ethnic cleansing.

Burma is a country rich in jade and gems, oil, natural gas and other mineral resources. In 2013, its GDP (nominal) stood at US$56.759 billion and its GDP (PPP) at US$221.479 billion. The income gap in Myanmar is among the widest in the world, as a large proportion of the economy is controlled by cronies of the former military government.  As of 2013, according to the Human Development Index (HDI), Burma had a low level of human development, ranking 150 out of 187 countries.

Etymology

In 1989, the military government officially changed the English translations of many names dating back to Burma’s colonial period or earlier, including that of the country itself: “Burma” became “Myanmar”. The renaming remains a contested issue. Many political and ethnic opposition groups and countries continue to use “Burma” because they do not recognise the legitimacy of the ruling military government or its authority to rename the country.

The country’s official full name is the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar” Listeni/ˈmjɑːnˌmɑr/ (ပြည်ထောင်စု သမ္မတ မြန်မာနိုင်ငံတော်, Pyidaunzu Thanmăda Myăma Nainngandaw, pronounced: [pjìdàʊɴzṵ θàɴməda̰ mjəmà nàɪɴŋàɴdɔ̀]). Some countries, however, have not recognised this name and use the short form “Union of Burma” instead.

In English, the country is popularly known by either of its short names “Burma” or “Myanmar”. Both these names are derived from the name of the majority Burmese Bamar ethnic group. Myanmar is considered to be the literary form of the name of the group, while Burma is derived from “Bamar”, the colloquial form of the group’s name. Depending on the register used, the pronunciation would be Bama (pronounced: [bəmà]) or Myamah(pronounced: [mjəmà]). The name Burma has been in use in English since the 18th century.

Burma continues to be used in English by the governments of many countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada. Official United States policy retains Burma as the country’s name, although the State Department’s website lists the country as “Burma (Myanmar)” and Barack Obama has referred to the country as Myanmar. The United Nations uses Myanmar, as do the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,Russia, Germany,] China, India, Norway,and Japan.

Most English-speaking international news media officially refer to the country by the name Myanmar, including the BBC,] CNN, Al Jazeera, Reuters, and Russia Today.

There are also other variations. Burma is known as “Birmania” in Spanish, Italian and Romanian, as “Birmânia” in Portuguese, and as “Birmanie” in French.] The Government of Brazil uses “Mianmar”.

Histor

Prehistory

Neolithic paintings found insidePadah-Lin Caves, radiocarbon dated up to 13,000 years ago

Archaeological evidence shows that Homo erectus lived in the region now known as Burma as early as 400,000 years ago.] The first evidence of Homo sapiens is dated to about 11,000 BC, in a Stone Age culture called theAnyathian with discoveries of stone tools in central Burma. Evidence of neolithic age domestication of plants and animals and the use of polished stone tools dating to sometime between 10,000 and 6,000 BC has been discovered in the form of cave paintings near the city of Taunggyi.  The Bronze Age arrived circa 1500 BC when people in the region were turning copper into bronze, growing rice and domesticating poultry and pigs; they were among the first people in the world to do so The Iron Age began around 500 BC with the emergence of iron-working settlements in an area south of present-day Mandalay.  Evidence also shows the presence of rice-growing settlements of large villages and small towns that traded with their surroundings as far as China between 500 BC and 200 AD.  Iron Age Burmese cultures also had influences from outside sources such as India and Thailand, as seen in their funerary practices concerning child burials. This indicates some form of communcation between groups in Burma and other places, possibly through trade.[

Around the 2nd century BC the first-known city-states emerged in central Burma. The city-states were founded as part of the southward migration by the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu, the earliest inhabitants of Burma of whom records are extant, from present-day Yunnan.  The Pyu culture was heavily influenced by trade with India, importing Buddhism as well as other cultural, architectural and political concepts which would have an enduring influence on later Burmese culture and political organisation.  By the 9th century AD several city-states had sprouted across the land: the Pyu states in the central dry zone, Mon states along the southern coastline and Arakanese states along the western littoral. The balance was upset when the Pyu states came under repeated attacks from the Kingdom of Nanzhao between the 750s and the 830s. In the mid-to-late 9th century the Mranma (Burmans/Bamar) of Nanzhao founded a small settlement at Pagan (Bagan). It was one of several competing city-states until the late 10th century when it grew in authority and grandeur.

Imperial Burma

Pagodas and temples in present-day Pagan (Bagan), the capital of thePagan Kingdom

Pagan gradually grew to absorb its surrounding states until the 1050s–1060s when Anawrahta founded the Pagan Empire, the first ever unification of the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Pagan Empire and the Khmer Empire were two main powers in mainland Southeast Asia. The Burmese language and culture gradually became dominant in the upper Irrawaddy valley, eclipsing the Pyu, Mon and Pali norms by the late 12th century. Theravada Buddhism slowly began to spread to the village level although Tantric, Mahayana, Brahmanic, and animist practices remained heavily entrenched. Pagan’s rulers and wealthy built over 10,000 Buddhist temples in the Pagan capital zone alone. Repeated Mongol invasions (1277–1301) toppled the four-century-old kingdom in 1287.

Temples at Mrauk U

Pagan’s collapse was followed by 250 years of political fragmentation that lasted well into the 16th century. Like the Burmans four centuries earlier, Shan migrants who arrived with the Mongol invasions stayed behind. Several competing Shan states came to dominate the entire northwestern to eastern arc surrounding the Irrawaddy valley. The valley too was beset with petty states until the late 14th century when two sizeable powers, Ava Kingdom andHanthawaddy Kingdom, emerged. In the west, a politically fragmented Arakan was under competing influences of its stronger neighbours until the Kingdom of Mrauk U unified the Arakan coastline for the first time in 1437.

Early on, Ava fought wars of unification (1385–1424) but could never quite reassemble the lost empire. Having held off Ava, Hanthawaddy entered its golden age, and Arakan went on to become a power in its own right for the next 350 years. In contrast, constant warfare left Ava greatly weakened, and it slowly disintegrated from 1481 onward. In 1527, the Confederation of Shan States conquered Ava itself, and ruled Upper Burma until 1555.

Like the Pagan Empire, Ava, Hanthawaddy and the Shan states were all multi-ethnic polities. Despite the wars, cultural synchronisation continued. This period is considered a golden age for Burmese culture. Burmese literature “grew more confident, popular, and stylistically diverse”, and the second generation of Burmese law codes as well as the earliest pan-Burma chronicles emerged. Hanthawaddy monarchs introduced religious reforms that later spread to the rest of the country.  Many splendid temples of Mrauk U were built during this period.

Bayinnaung’s Empire in 1580

Political unification returned in the mid-16th century, due to the efforts of one tiny Toungoo (Taungoo), a former vassal state of Ava. Toungoo’s young, ambitious king Tabinshwehti defeated the more powerful Hanthawaddy in 1541. His successor Bayinnaung went on to conquer a vast swath of mainland Southeast Asia including the Shan states, Lan Na, Manipur, the Chinese Shan states, Siam, Lan Xang and southern Arakan. However, the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia unravelled soon after Bayinnaung’s death in 1581, completely collapsing by 1599. Siam seized Tenasserim and Lan Na, and Portuguese mercenaries established Portuguese rule at Syriam (Thanlyin).

The dynasty regrouped and defeated the Portuguese in 1613 and Siam in 1614. It restored a smaller, more manageable kingdom, encompassing Lower Burma, Upper Burma, Shan states, Lan Na and upper Tenasserim. The Restored Toungoo kings created a legal and political framework whose basic features would continue well into the 19th century. The crown completely replaced the hereditary chieftainships with appointed governorships in the entire Irrawaddy valley, and greatly reduced the hereditary rights of Shan chiefs. Its trade and secular administrative reforms built a prosperous economy for more than 80 years. From the 1720s onward, the kingdom was beset with repeated Manipuri raids into Upper Burma, and a nagging rebellion in Lan Na. In 1740, the Mon of Lower Burma founded theRestored Hanthawaddy Kingdom. Hanthawaddy forces sacked Ava in 1752, ending the 266-year-old Toungoo Dynasty.

A British 1825 lithograph ofShwedagon Pagoda shows British occupation during the First Anglo-Burmese War.

After the fall of Ava, one resistance group, Alaungpaya’s Konbaung Dynasty defeated Restored Hanthawaddy, and by 1759, had reunited all of Burma (and Manipur), and driven out the French and the British who had provided arms to Hanthawaddy. By 1770, Alaungpaya’s heirs had subdued much of Laos (1765), defeated Siam (1767), and defeated four invasions by China (1765–1769).  With Burma preoccupied by the Chinese threat, Siam recovered its territories by 1770, and went on to capture Lan Na by 1776. Burma and Siam went to war until 1855, but all resulted in a stalemate, exchanging Tenasserim (to Burma) and Lan Na (to Siam). Faced with a powerful China and a resurgent Siam in the east, King Bodawpaya turned west, acquiring Arakan (1785), Manipur (1814) and Assam (1817). It was the second largest empire in Burmese history but also one with a long ill-defined border with British India.

The breadth of this empire was short lived. Burma lost Arakan, Manipur, Assam and Tenasserim to the British in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826). In 1852, the British easily seized Lower Burma in the Second Anglo-Burmese War. King Mindon tried to modernise the kingdom, and in 1875 narrowly avoided annexation by ceding the Karenni States. The British, alarmed by the consolidation of French Indo-China, annexed the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885.

Konbaung kings extended Restored Toungoo’s administrative reforms, and achieved unprecedented levels of internal control and external expansion. For the first time in history, the Burmese language and culture came to predominate the entire Irrawaddy valley. The evolution and growth of Burmese literature and theatre continued, aided by an extremely high adult male literacy rate for the era (half of all males and 5% of females). Nonetheless, the extent and pace of reforms were uneven and ultimately proved insufficient to stem the advance of British colonialism.

British Burma

The landing of British forces in Mandalay after the last of the Anglo-Burmese Wars, which resulted in the abdication of the last Burmese monarch, King Thibaw Min.

British troops firing a mortar on theMawchi road, July 1944.

The country was colonised by Britain following three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824–1885). British rule brought social, economic, cultural and administrative changes.

With the fall of Mandalay, all of Burma came under British rule, being annexed on 1 January 1886. Throughout the colonial era, many Indians arrived as soldiers, civil servants, construction workers and traders and, along with theAnglo-Burmese community, dominated commercial and civil life in Burma. Rangoon became the capital of British Burma and an important port between Calcutta and Singapore.

Burmese resentment was strong and was vented in violent riots that paralysed Yangon (Rangoon) on occasion all the way until the 1930s.  Some of the discontent was caused by a disrespect for Burmese culture and traditions such as the British refusal to remove shoes when they entered pagodas. Buddhist monks became the vanguards of the independence movement. U Wisara, an activist monk, died in prison after a 166-day hunger strike to protest a rule that forbade him from wearing his Buddhist robes while imprisoned.

On 1 April 1937, Burma became a separately administered colony of Great Britain and Ba Maw the first Prime Minister and Premier of Burma. Ba Maw was an outspoken advocate for Burmese self-rule and he opposed the participation of Great Britain, and by extension Burma, in World War II. He resigned from the Legislative Assembly and was arrested for sedition. In 1940, before Japan formally entered the Second World War, Aung San formed theBurma Independence Army in Japan.

A major battleground, Burma was devastated during World War II. By March 1942, within months after they entered the war, Japanese troops had advanced on Rangoon and the British administration had collapsed. A Burmese Executive Administration headed by Ba Maw was established by the Japanese in August 1942. Wingate’s British Chindits were formed into long-range penetration groups trained to operate deep behind Japanese lines.  A similar American unit, Merrill’s Marauders, followed the Chindits into the Burmese jungle in 1943.  Beginning in late 1944, allied troops launched a series of offensives that led to the end of Japanese rule in July 1945. However, the battles were intense with much of Burma laid waste by the fighting. Overall, the Japanese lost some 150,000 men in Burma. Only 1,700 prisoners were taken.

Although many Burmese fought initially for the Japanese as part of the Burma Independence Army, many Burmese, mostly from the ethnic minorities, served in the British Burma Army.  The Burma National Army and the Arakan National Army fought with the Japanese from 1942 to 1944 but switched allegiance to the Allied side in 1945. Under Japanese occupation, 170,000 to 250,000 civilians died.

Following World War II, Aung San negotiated the Panglong Agreement with ethnic leaders that guaranteed the independence of Burma as a unified state. Aung Zan Wai, Pe Khin, Bo Hmu Aung, Sir Maung Gyi, Dr. Sein Mya Maung,Myoma U Than Kywe were among the negotiators of the historical Panglong Conference negotiated with Bamar leader General Aung San and other ethnic leaders in 1947. In 1947, Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Burma, a transitional government. But in July 1947, political rivals assassinated Aung San and several cabinet members.

Independence

British governor Hubert Elvin Ranceand Sao Shwe Thaik at the flag raising ceremony on 4 January 1948 (Independence Day of Burma).

On 4 January 1948, the nation became an independent republic, named the Union of Burma, with Sao Shwe Thaik as its first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister. Unlike most other former British colonies and overseas territories, Burma did not become a member of the Commonwealth. A bicameral parliament was formed, consisting of a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Nationalities,[66] and multi-party elections were held in 1951–1952, 1956and 1960.

The geographical area Burma encompasses today can be traced to the Panglong Agreement, which combined Burma Proper, which consisted of Lower Burma and Upper Burma, and the Frontier Areas, which had been administered separately by the British.[67]

In 1961, U Thant, then the Union of Burma’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and former Secretary to the Prime Minister, was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations, a position he held for ten years. Among the Burmese to work at the UN when he was Secretary-General was a young Aung San Suu Kyi, who went on to become winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.

Military rule

On 2 March 1962, the military led by General Ne Win took control of Burma through a coup d’état and the government has been under direct or indirect control by the military since then. Between 1962-74, Burma was ruled by a revolutionary council headed by the general, and almost all aspects of society (business, media, production) were nationalised or brought under government control under the Burmese Way to Socialism, which combined Soviet-style nationalisation and central planning. A new constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was adopted in 1974. Until 1988, the country was ruled as a one-party system, with the General and other military officers resigning and ruling through the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).  During this period, Burma became one of the world’s most impoverished countries.

Protesters gathering in central Rangoon, 1988

There were sporadic protests against military rule during the Ne Win years and these were almost always violently suppressed. On 7 July 1962, the government broke up demonstrations at Rangoon University, killing 15 students ]In 1974, the military violently suppressed anti-government protests at the funeral of U Thant. Student protests in 1975, 1976 and 1977 were quickly suppressed by overwhelming force.

In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression by the government led to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country known as the 8888 Uprising. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators, and General Saw Maung staged a coup d’état and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989, SLORC declared martial law after widespread protests. The military government finalised plans for People’s Assembly elections on 31 May 1989.  SLORC changed the country’s official English name from the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” to the “Union of Myanmar” in 1989.

In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years and the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats (i.e., 80% of the seats). However, the military junta refused to cede power  and continued to rule the nation as SLORC until 1997, and then as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) until its dissolution in March 2011.

Protesters in Yangon during the2007 Saffron Revolution with a banner that reads non-violence: national movement in Burmese. In the background is Shwedagon Pagoda.

On 23 June 1997, Burma was admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). On 27 March 2006, the military junta, which had moved the national capital from Yangon to a site near Pyinmana in November 2005, officially named the new capital Naypyidaw, meaning “city of the kings”.

Cyclone Nargis in southern Burma, 2–3 May 2008

In August 2007, an increase in the price of diesel and petrol led to a series of anti-government protests that were dealt with harshly by the government.  The protests then became a campaign of civil resistance (also called theSaffron Revolution.  led by Buddhist monks,  hundreds of whom defied the house arrest of democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi to pay their respects at the gate of her house. The government finally cracked down on them on 26 September 2007. The crackdown was harsh, with reports of barricades at the Shwedagon Pagoda and monks killed. However, there were also rumours of disagreement within the Burmese armed forces, but none was confirmed. The military crackdown against unarmed Saffron Revolution protesters was widely condemned as part of the International reaction to the 2007 Burmese anti-government protests and led to an increase in economic sanctions against the Burmese Government.

In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis caused extensive damage in the densely populated, rice-farming delta of the Irrawaddy Division. It was the worst natural disaster in Burmese history with reports of an estimated 200,000 people dead or missing, and damage totalled to 10 billion US Dollars, and as many as 1 million left homeless.  In the critical days following this disaster, Burma’s isolationist government was accused of hindering United Nations recovery efforts. Humanitarian aid was requested but concerns about foreign military or intelligence presence in the country delayed the entry of United States military planes delivering medicine, food, and other supplies.

In early August 2009, a conflict known as the Kokang incident broke out in Shan State in northern Burma. For several weeks, junta troops fought against ethnic minorities including the Han Chinese  Wa, and Kachin.  During 8–12 August, the first days of the conflict, as many as 10,000 Burmese civilians fled to Yunnan province in neighbouring China.

Democratic reforms

The goal of the Burmese constitutional referendum of 2008, held on 10 May 2008, is the creation of a “discipline-flourishing democracy”. As part of the referendum process, the name of the country was changed from the “Union of Myanmar” to the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar”, and general elections were held under the new constitution in 2010. Observer accounts of the 2010 election describe the event as mostly peaceful; however, allegations of polling station irregularities were raised, and the United Nations (UN) and a number of Western countries condemned the elections as fraudulent.

The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party declared victory in the 2010 elections, stating that it had been favoured by 80 percent of the votes; however, the claim was disputed by numerous pro-democracy opposition groups who asserted that the military regime had engaged in rampant fraud.  One report documented 77 percent as the official turnout rate of the election. The military junta was dissolved on 30 March 2011.

Opinions differ whether the transition to liberal democracy is underway. According to some reports, the military’s presence continues as the label ‘disciplined democracy’ suggests. This label asserts that the Burmese military is allowing certain civil liberties while clandestinely institutionalising itself further into Burmese politics. Such an assertion assumes that reforms only occurred when the military was able to safeguard its own interests through the transition—here, “transition” does not refer to a transition to a liberal democracy, but transition to a quasi-military rule.

Since the 2010 election, the government has embarked on a series of reforms to direct the country towards liberal democracy, a mixed economy, and reconciliation, although doubts persist about the motives that underpin such reforms. The series of reforms includes the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, the granting of general amnesties for more than 200 political prisoners, new labour laws that permit labour unions and strikes, a relaxation of press censorship, and the regulation of currency practices.

The impact of the post-election reforms has been observed in numerous areas, including ASEAN’s approval of Burma’s bid for the position of ASEAN chair in 2014;  the visit by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2011 for the encouragement of further progress—it was the first visit by a Secretary of State in more than fifty years  (Clinton met with Burmese president Thein Sein, as well as opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi);  and the participation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the 2012 by-elections, facilitated by the government’s abolition of the laws that previously barred the NLD  As of July 2013, about 100  political prisoners remain imprisoned, while conflict between the Burmese Army and local insurgent groups continues.

The by-elections occurred on 1 April 2012 and the NLD won 43 of the 45 available seats; previously an illegal organisation, the NLD had never won a Burmese election until this time. The 2012 by-elections were also the first time that international representatives were allowed to monitor the voting process in Burma.  Following announcement of the by-elections, the Freedom House organisation raised concerns about “reports of fraud and harassment in the lead up to elections, including the March 23 deportation of Somsri Hananuntasuk, executive director of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), a regional network of civil society organizations promoting democratization.”

Civil wars

Civil wars have been a constant feature of Burma’s socio-political landscape since the attainment of independence in 1948. These wars are predominantly struggles for ethnic and sub-national autonomy, with the areas surrounding the ethnically Burman central districts of the country serving as the primary geographical setting of conflict. Foreign journalists and visitors require a special travel permit to visit the areas in which Burma’s civil wars continue.

In October 2012 the number of ongoing conflicts in Burma included the Kachin conflict, between the Kachin Independence Army and the government;  a civil war between the Rohingya Muslims, and the government and non-government groups in Arakan State; and a conflict between the Shan, Lahu and Karen  minority groups, and the government in the eastern half of the country. In addition al-Qaeda signalled an intention to become involved in Myanmar. In a video released 3 September 2014 mainly addressed to India, the militant group’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri said al-Qaeda had not forgotten the Muslims of Myanmar and that the group was doing “what they can to rescue you.”  In response, the military raised its level of alertness while the Burmese Muslim Association issued a statement saying Muslims would not tolerate any threat to their motherland.[

Government and politics

Assembly of the Union (Pyidaungsu Hluttaw)

The constitution of Burma, its third since independence, was drafted by its military rulers and published in September 2008. The country is governed as a presidential republic with a bicameral legislature, with a portion of legislators appointed by the military and others elected in general elections. The current head of state, inaugurated as President on 30 March 2011, is Thein Sein.

The legislature, called the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, is bicameral and made up of two houses: The 224-seat upper house Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities) and the 440-seat lower house Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives). The upper house consists of 224 members, of whom 168 are directly elected and 56 are appointed by the Burmese Armed Forces while the lower house consists of 440 members, of whom 330 are directly elected and 110 are appointed by the armed forces. The major political parties are the National League for Democracy, National Democratic Force and the two backed by the military: the National Unity Party, and the Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Burma’s army-drafted constitution was approved in a referendum in May 2008. The results, 92.4% of the 22 million voters with an official turnout of 99%, are considered suspect by many international observers and by the National league of democracy with reports of widespread fraud, ballot stuffing, and voter intimidation.

The elections of 2010 resulted in a victory for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party and various foreign observers questioned the fairness of the elections.  One criticism of the election was that only government sanctioned political parties were allowed to contest in it and the popular National League for Democracy was declared illegal. However, immediately following the elections, the government ended the house arrest of the democracy advocate and leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi  and her ability to move freely around the country is considered an important test of the military’s movement toward more openness.  After unexpected reforms in 2011, NLD senior leaders have decided to register as a political party and to field candidates in future by-elections

Burma rates as a corrupt nation on the Corruption Perceptions Index with a rank of 157th out of 177 countries worldwide and a rating of 2.1 out of 10 (10 being least corrupt and 0 being highly corrupt) as of 2012.

Human rights

There is consensus that the military regime in Burma is one of the world’s most repressive and abusive regimes.  On 9 November 2012, Samantha Power, Barack Obama’s Special Assistant to the President on Human Rights, wrote on the White House blog in advance of the president’s visit that “Serious human rights abuses against civilians in several regions continue, including against women and children.”  In addition, members of the United Nations and major international human rights organisations have issued repeated and consistent reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations in Burma. The United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly  called on the Burmese Military Junta to respect human rights and in November 2009 the General Assembly adopted a resolution “strongly condemning the ongoing systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” and calling on the Burmese Military Regime “to take urgent measures to put an end to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.” 

International human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International] and the American Association for the Advancement of Science  have repeatedly documented and condemned widespread human rights violations in Burma. TheFreedom in the World 2011 report by Freedom House notes, “The military junta has … suppressed nearly all basic rights; and committed human rights abuses with impunity.” In July 2013, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners indicated that there were approximately 100 political prisoners being held in Burmese prisons

Mae La camp, Tak, Thailand, one of the largest of nine UNHCR camps in Thailand where over 700,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons have fled

Evidence gathered by a British researcher was published in 2005 regarding the extermination or ‘Burmisation’ of certain ethnic minorities, such as the Karen, Karenni and Shan

Child soldiers

Child soldiers have and continue to play a major part in the Burmese Army as well as Burmese rebel movements. The Independent reported in June 2012 that “Children are being sold as conscripts into the Burmese military for as little as $40 and a bag of rice or a can of petrol.”  The UN’s Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, who stepped down from her position a week later, met representatives of the Government of Myanmar on 5 July 2012 and stated that she hoped the government’s signing of an action plan would “signal a transformation.”  In September 2012, the Myanmar Armed Forces released 42 child soldiers and the International Labour Organization met with representatives of the government as well as the Kachin Independence Army to secure the release of more child soldiers.  According to Samantha Power, a US delegation raised the issue of child soldiers with the government in October 2012. However, she did not comment on the government’s progress towards reform in this area. 

A Bangkok Post article on 23 December 2012 reported that the Myanmar Armed Forces continued to use child soldiers including during the army’s large offensive against the KIA in December 2012. The newspaper reported that “Many of them were pulled off Yangon streets and elsewhere and given a minimum of training before being sent to the front line.”

Child/forced/slave labour, systematic sexual violence and human trafficking

Forced labour, human trafficking, and child labour are common  The military is also notorious for rampant use of sexual violence, a practice continuing as of 2012  In 2007 the international movement to defend women’s human rights issues in Burma was said to be gaining speed 

Genocide allegations and crimes against Rohingya people

The Rohingya people have consistently faced human rights abuses by the Burmese regime that has refused to acknowledge them as Burmese citizens (despite some of them having lived in Burma for numerous generations)—the Rohingya have been denied Burmese citizenship since the enactment of a 1982 citizenship law. The Burmese regime has attempted to forcibly expel Rohingya and bring in non-Rohingyas to replace them—this policy has resulted in the expulsion of approximately half of the 800,000  Rohingya from Burma, while the Rohingya people have been described as “among the world’s least wanted”and “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”

Rohingya are also not allowed to travel without official permission, are banned from owning land and are required to sign a commitment to have no more than two children.  As of July 2012, the Myanmar Government does not include the Rohingya minority group—classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh since 1982—on the government’s list of more than 130 ethnic races and, therefore, the government states that they have no claim to Myanmar citizenship.

In 2007 the German professor Bassam Tibi suggested that the Rohingya conflict may be driven by an Islamist political agenda to impose religious laws, while non-religious causes have also been raised, such as a lingering resentment over the violence that occurred during the Japanese occupation of Burma in World War II—during this time period the British allied themselves with the Rohingya  and fought against the puppet government of Burma (composed mostly of Bamar Japanese) that helped to establish the Tatmadaw military organisation that remains in power as of March 2013.

A UN envoy reported in March 2013 that unrest had re-emerged between Burma’s Buddhist and Muslim communities, with violence spreading to towns that are located closer to Yangon.  The BBC News media outlet obtained video footage of a man with severe burns who received no assistance from passers-by or police officers even though he was lying on the ground in a public area. The footage was filmed by members of the Burmese police force in the town of Meiktila and was used as evidence that Buddhists continued to kill Muslims after the European Union sanctions were lifted on 23 April 2013.

Rohingya Fleeing by boat

Rohingya have been fleeing Rakhine State by boat in recent years. Often, the boats are very small and dangerous on the open seas. They have been fleeing to Thailand, Malaysia, or even Australia for refuge. Over 200 have died in recent years and over 7,000 have been held in detention centres even after surviving the boat trip.

2012 Rakhine State riots

A widely publicised Burmese conflict was the 2012 Rakhine State riots, a series of conflicts that primarily involved the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist people and the Rohingya Muslim people in the northern Rakhine State—an estimated 90,000 people were displaced as a result of the riots.

The immediate cause of the riots is unclear, with many commentators citing the killing of ten Burmese Muslims by ethnic Rakhine after the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman as the main cause.  Whole villages have been “decimated”.  Over 300 houses and a number of public buildings have been razed. According to Tun Khin, the president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK), as of 28 June 2012, 650 Rohingyas have been killed, 1,200 are missing, and more than 80,000 have been displaced. According to the Myanmar authorities, the violence, between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, left 78 people dead, 87 injured, and thousands of homes destroyed. It displaced more than 52,000 people.

The government has responded by imposing curfews and by deploying troops in the regions. On 10 June 2012, a state of emergency was declared in Rakhine, allowing the military to participate in administration of the region.  The Burmese army and police have been accused of targeting Rohingya Muslims through mass arrests and arbitrary violence.  A number of monks’ organisations that played a vital role in Burma’s struggle for democracy have taken measures to block any humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya community.

Freedom of speech

Main article: Censorship in Burma

Restrictions on media censorship were significantly eased in August 2012 following demonstrations by hundreds of protesters who wore shirts demanding that the government “Stop Killing the Press.” The most significant change has come in the form that media organisations will no longer have to submit their content to a censorship board before publication. However, as explained by one editorial in the exiled press The Irrawaddy, this new “freedom” has caused some Burmese journalists to simply see the new law as an attempt to create an environment of self-censorship as journalists “are required to follow 16 guidelines towards protecting the three national causes — non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity, perpetuation of sovereignty — and “journalistic ethics” to ensure their stories are accurate and do not jeopardise national security.” In July 2014 five journalists were sentenced to 10 years in jail after publishing a report saying the country was planning to build a new chemical weapons plant. Journalists described the jailings as a blow to the recently-won news media freedoms that had followed five decades of censorship and persecution.

Praise for the 2011 government reforms

According to the Crisis Group,  since Burma transitioned to a new government in August 2011, the country’s human rights record has been improving. Previously giving Burma its lowest rating of 7, the 2012 Freedom in the World report also notes improvement, giving Burma a 6 for improvements in civil liberties and political rights, the release of political prisoners, and a loosening of restrictions.  In 2013, Burma improved yet again, receiving a score of five in civil liberties and a six in political freedoms

The government has assembled a National Human Rights Commission that consists of 15 members from various backgrounds. Several activists in exile, including Thee Lay Thee Anyeint members, have returned to Burma after President Thein Sein’s invitation to expatriates to return home to work for national development. In an address to the United Nations Security Council on 22 September 2011, Burma’s Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin confirmed the government’s intention to release prisoners in the near future.

The government has also relaxed reporting laws, but these remain highly restrictive.  In September 2011, several banned websites, including YouTube, Democratic Voice of Burma and Voice of America, were unblocked.  A 2011 report by the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations found that, while contact with the Myanmar government was constrained by donor restrictions, international humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) see opportunities for effective advocacy with government officials, especially at the local level. At the same time, international NGOs are mindful of the ethical quandary of how to work with the government without bolstering or appeasing it.

2013 onwards

Following Thein Sein’s first ever visit to the UK and a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron, the Myanmar president declared that all of his nation’s political prisoners will be released by the end of 2013, in addition to a statement of support for the well-being of the Rohingya Muslim community. In a speech at Chatham House, he revealed that “We [Myanmar government] are reviewing all cases. I guarantee to you that by the end of this year, there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar.”, in addition to expressing a desire to strengthen links between the UK and Myanmar’s military forces.

Economy

Graphical depiction of Myanmar’s product exports in 28 color-coded categories

A street market in Yangon selling produce

The country is one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, suffering from decades of stagnation, mismanagement and isolation. The lack of an educated workforce skilled in modern technology contributes to the growing problems of the economy. ] The country lacks adequate infrastructure. Goods travel primarily across the Thai border (where most illegal drugs are exported) and along the Irrawaddy River. Railways are old and rudimentary, with few repairs since their construction in the late 19th century.  Highways are normally unpaved, except in the major cities. Energy shortages are common throughout the country including in Yangon and only 25% of the country’s population has electricity. 

The military government has the majority stakeholder position in all of the major industrial corporations of the country (from oil production and consumer goods to transportation and tourism).[213]

The national currency is Kyat. Inflation averaged 30.1% between 2005 and 2007.  Inflation is a serious problem for the economy.

In 2010–2011, Bangladesh exported products worth $9.65 million to Myanmar against its import of $179 million.  The annual import of medicine and medical equipment to Burma during the 2000s was 160 million USD. 

In recent years, both China and India have attempted to strengthen ties with the government for economic benefit. Many nations, including the United States and Canada, and the European Union, have imposed investment and trade sanctions on Burma. The United States and European Union eased most of their sanctions in 2012.  Foreign investment comes primarily from China, Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea, India, and Thailand.

Rice cultivation accounts for much of the agriculture in Burma today.

Background

Under British administration, Burma was the second-wealthiest country in South-East Asia. It had been the world’s largest exporter of rice. Burma also had a wealth of natural and labour resources. It produced 75% of the world’s teak and had a highly literate population. The country was believed to be on the fast track to development. ] However, agricultural production fell dramatically during the 1930s as international rice prices declined, and did not recover for several decades. 

During World War II, the British destroyed the major oil wells and mines for tungsten, tin, lead and silver to keep them from the Japanese. Burma was bombed extensively by both sides. After a parliamentary government was formed in 1948, Prime Minister U Nu embarked upon a policy of nationalisation and the state was declared the owner of all land. The government also tried to implement a poorly considered Eight-Year plan. By the 1950s, rice exports had fallen by two thirds and mineral exports by over 96% (as compared to the pre-World War II period). Plans were partly financed by printing money, which led to inflation.  The 1962 coup d’état was followed by an economic scheme called the Burmese Way to Socialism, a plan to nationalise all industries, with the exception of agriculture. The catastrophic program turned Burma into one of the world’s most impoverished countries.  Burma’s admittance to least developed country status by the UN in 1987 highlighted its economic bankruptcy.

Agriculture

The major agricultural product is rice, which covers about 60% of the country’s total cultivated land area. Rice accounts for 97% of total food grain production by weight. Through collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute 52 modern rice varieties were released in the country between 1966 and 1997, helping increase national rice production to 14 million tons in 1987 and to 19 million tons in 1996. By 1988, modern varieties were planted on half of the country’s ricelands, including 98 percent of the irrigated areas.  In 2008 rice production was estimated at 50 million tons.

Burma is also the world’s second largest producer of opium, accounting for 8% of entire world production and is a major source of illegal drugs, including amphetamines.  Opium bans implemented since 2002 after international pressure have left ex-poppy farmers without sustainable sources of income in the Kokang and Wa regions. They depend on casual labour for income.

Natural resources

Burma produces precious stones such as rubies, sapphires, pearls, and jade. Rubies are the biggest earner; 90% of the world’s rubies come from the country, whose red stones are prized for their purity and hue. Thailand buys the majority of the country’s gems. Burma’s “Valley of Rubies”, the mountainous Mogok area, 200 km (120 mi) north of Mandalay, is noted for its rare pigeon’s blood rubies and blue sapphires.

Many US and European jewellery companies, including Bulgari, Tiffany, and Cartier, refuse to import these stones based on reports of deplorable working conditions in the mines. Human Rights Watch has encouraged a complete ban on the purchase of Burmese gems based on these reports and because nearly all profits go to the ruling junta, as the majority of mining activity in the country is government-run.  The government of Burma controls the gem trade by direct ownership or by joint ventures with private owners of mines.

Other industries include agricultural goods, textiles, wood products, construction materials, gems, metals, oil and natural gas.

Tourism

Stilt houses at Inle Lake

Since 1992, the government has encouraged tourism in the country; however, fewer than 270,000 tourists entered the country in 2006 according to the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board.  Burma’s Minister of Hotels and TourismSaw Lwin has stated that the government receives a significant percentage of the income of private sector tourism services.

The most popular available tourist destinations in Burma include big cities such as Yangon and Mandalay; religious sites in Mon State, Pindaya, Bago and Hpa-An; nature trails in Inle Lake, Kengtung, Putao, Pyin Oo Lwin; ancient cities such as Bagan and Mrauk-U; as well as beaches in Ngapali, Ngwe-Saung, Mergui.  Nevertheless much of the country is off-limits to tourists, and interactions between foreigners and the people of Burma, particularly in the border regions, are subject to police scrutiny. They are not to discuss politics with foreigners, under penalty of imprisonment and, in 2001, the Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board issued an order for local officials to protect tourists and limit “unnecessary contact” between foreigners and ordinary Burmese people.

The only way for travellers to enter the country seems to be by air.  According to the website Lonely Planet, getting into Burma (Myanmar) is problematic: “No bus or train service connects Myanmar with another country, nor can you travel by car or motorcycle across the border – you must walk across.”, and states that, “It is not possible for foreigners to go to/from Myanmar by sea or river.”  They do say that there are a small number of border crossings, but that these are limiting in that they do not allow travel into the country “You can cross from Ruili (China) to Mu-se, but not leave that way. From Mae Sai (Thailand) you can cross to Tachileik, but can only go as far as Kengtung. Those in Thailand on a visa run can cross to Kawthaung but cannot venture farther into Myanmar.”

Flights are available from most countries, though direct flights are limited to mainly Thai and other ASEAN airlines. According to Eleven magazine, “In the past, there were only 15 international airlines and increasing numbers of airlines have began launching direct flights from Japan, Qatar, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany and Singapore.” Expansions were expected in September 2013, but yet again are mainly Thai and other Asian based airlines according to Eleven Media Group’s Eleven, “Thailand-based Nok Air and Business Airlines and Singapore-based Tiger Airline”.

Economic sanctions

The Government of Burma is under economic sanctions by the US Treasury Department (31 CFR Part 537, 16 August 2005) and by Executive orders 13047 (1997), 13310 (2003), 13448 (2007), 13464 (2008),] and the most recent, 13619 (2012).]There exists debate as to the extent to which the American-led sanctions have had more adverse effects on the civilian population rather than on the military rulers.

From May 2012 to February 2013, the United States began to lift its economic sanctions on Burma “in response to the historic reforms that have been taking place in that country.”  Sanctions remain in place for blocked banks and for any business entities that are more than 50% owned by persons on “OFAC’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list (SDN list)”.

Government stakeholders in business

The military has the majority stakeholder position in all of the major industrial corporations of the country (from oil production and consumer goods to transportation and tourism).

Economic liberalisation post 2011

In March 2012, a draft foreign investment law emerged, the first in more than 2 decades. Foreigners will no longer require a local partner to start a business in the country, and will be able to legally lease but not own property] The draft law also stipulates that Burmese citizens must constitute at least 25% of the firm’s skilled workforce, and with subsequent training, up to 50-75%.

In 2012, the Asian Development Bank formally began re-engaging with the country, to finance infrastructure and development projects in the country. The United States, Japan and the European Union countries have also begun to reduce or eliminate economic sanctions to allow foreign direct investment which will provide the Burmese government with additional tax revenue.

Demographics

A block of flats in down-town Yangon, facing Bogyoke Market. Much of Yangon’s urban population resides in densely populated flats.

The provisional results of the 2014 Burma Census show that the total population is 51,419,420. This total population includes 50,213,067 persons counted during the census and an estimated 1,206,353 persons in parts of northernRakhine State, Kachin State and Kayin State who were not counted. People who were out of the country at the time of the census are not included in these figures. There are over 600,000 registered migrant workers from Burma in Thailand, and millions more work illegally. Burmese migrant workers account for 80% of Thailand’s migrant workers. Burma has a population density of 76 per square kilometre (200 /sq mi), one of the lowest in Southeast Asia. Refugee camps exist along Indian, Bangladeshi and Thai borders while several thousand are in Malaysia. Conservative estimates state that there are over 295,800 refugees from Burma, with the majority being Karenni, and Kayin and are principally located along the Thai-Burma border  There are nine permanent refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, most of which were established in the mid-1980s. The refugee camps are under the care of the Thai-Burma Border Consortium (TBBC). Since 2006, ] over 55,000 Burmese refugees have been resettled in the United States

There are over 53.42 million Buddhists, over 2.98 million Christians, over 2.27 million Muslims, over 300,000 Hindus and over 790,000 of those who believe in other religions in the country, according to an answer by Union Minister at Myanmar Parliament on 8 September 2011.

The persecution of Burmese Indians and other ethnic groups after the military coup headed by General Ne Win in 1962 led to the expulsion or emigration of 300,000 people. They migrated to escape racial discrimination and the wholesale nationalisation of private enterprise that took place in 1964.  The Anglo-Burmese at this time either fled the country or changed their names and blended in with the broader Burmese society.

Many Rohingya Muslims fled Burma. Many refugees headed to neighbouring Bangladesh, including 200,000 in 1978 as a result of the King Dragon operation in Arakan. 250,000 more left in 1991.

Ethnic groups

Ethnic Composition in Burma
(rough estimate)
ethnic group percent
Bamar 68%
Shan 9%
Karen 7%
Rakhine 3.5%
Chinese 2.5%
Mon 2%
Kachin 1.5%
Indians 1.3%
Chin 1%
Kayah 0.8%
Other groups 5%

Kayan women in a village near Inle Lake in 2010

Burma is home to four major language families: Sino-Tibetan, Tai–Kadai, Austro-Asiatic, and Indo-European  Sino-Tibetan languages are most widely spoken. They include Burmese, Karen, Kachin, Chin, and Chinese. The primary Tai–Kadai language is Shan. Mon, Palaung, and Waare the major Austroasiatic languages spoken in Burma. The two major Indo-European languages are Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, and English.

According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, Burma’s official literacy rate as of 2000 was 90%.  Historically, Burma has had high literacy rates. To qualify for least developed country status by the UN to receive debt relief, Burma lowered its official literacy rate from 79% to 19% in 1987

Burma is ethnically diverse. The government recognises 135 distinct ethnic groups. While it is extremely difficult to verify this statement, there are at least 108 different ethnolinguistic groups in Burma, consisting mainly of distinct Tibeto-Burman peoples, but with sizeable populations of Tai–Kadai, Hmong–Mien, and Austroasiatic (Mon–Khmer) peoples  The Bamar form an estimated 68% of the population. 10% of the population are Shan The Kayin make up 7% of the population. The Rakhine people constitute 4% of the population. Overseas Chinese form approximately 3% of the population.  Burma’s ethnic minority groups prefer the term “ethnic nationality” over “ethnic minority” as the term “minority” furthers their sense of insecurity in the face of what is often described as “Burmanisation”—the proliferation and domination of the dominant Bamar culture over minority cultures.

Mon, who form 2% of the population, are ethno-linguistically related to the Khmer.  Overseas Indians are 2% ] The remainder are Kachin, Chin, Anglo-Indians, Gurkha, Nepali and other ethnic minorities. Included in this group are the Anglo-Burmese. Once forming a large and influential community, the Anglo-Burmese left the country in steady streams from 1958 onwards, principally to Australia and the UK. Today, it is estimated that only 52,000 Anglo-Burmese remain in the country. As of 2009, 110,000 Burmese refugees were living in refugee camps in Thailand.

89% of the country’s population are Buddhist, according to a report on ABC World News Tonight in May 2008 and the Buddha Dharma Education Association.]

Language

 Burmese, the mother tongue of the Bamar and official language of Burma, is related to Tibetan and to the Chinese languages.  It is written in a script consisting of circular and semi-circular letters, which were adapted from the Mon script, which in turn was developed from a southern Indian script in the 5th century. The earliest known inscriptions in the Burmese script date from the 11th century. It is also used to write Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism, as well as several ethnic minority languages, including Shan, several Karen dialects, and Kayah (Karenni), with the addition of specialised characters and diacritics for each language  The Burmese language incorporates widespread usage of honorifics and is age-oriented.  Burmese society has traditionally stressed the importance of education. In villages, secular schooling often takes place in monasteries. Secondary and tertiary education take place at government schools.

Religion

Main articles: Religion in Burma, Buddhism in Burma, Hinduism in Burma, Christianity in Burma, Islam in Burma and History of the Jews in Burma
Religion in Burma (Pew Research)[267]
Buddhist 80%
Folk 6%
Protestant 5%
Muslim 4%
Hindu 2%
Catholic 2%
Other 1%

Many religions are practised in Burma. Religious edifices and orders have been in existence for many years. Festivals can be held on a grand scale. The Christian and Muslim populations do, however, face religious persecution and it is hard, if not impossible, for non-Buddhists to join the army or get government jobs, the main route to success in the country.  Such persecution and targeting of civilians is particularly notable in Eastern Burma, where over 3000 villages have been destroyed in the past ten years.  More than 200,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh over the last 20 years to escape persecution.

In February 2012, 1000 Buddhist monks and followers gathered for the 18th annual Shwegyin NikayaConference at the compound of Dhammaduta Zetawon Tawya Monastery in Hmawbi Township,Yangon Region.

A large majority of the population practices Buddhism; estimates range from 80%  to 89%. Theravāda Buddhism is the most widespread. Other religions are practised largely without obstruction, with the notable exception of some ethnic minorities such as the Muslim Rohingya people, who have continued to have their citizenship status denied and treated as illegal immigrants instead, and Christians in Chin State.  4% of the population practices Islam; 4% Christianity; 1% traditional animistic beliefs; and 2% follow other religions, including Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, and East Asian religions.  However, according to a US State Department’s 2010 international religious freedom report, official statistics are alleged to underestimate the non-Buddhist population. Independent researchers put the Muslim population at 6 to 10% of the population. A tiny Jewish community in Rangoon had a synagogue but no resident rabbi to conduct services.

Although Hinduism is presently only practised by 1% of the population, it was a major religion in Burma’s past. Several strains of Hinduism existed alongside both Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism in the Mon and Pyu period in the first millennium CE  and down to the Pagan period (9th to 13th centuries) when “Saivite and Vaishana elements enjoyed greater elite influence than they would later do.”

Culture

Rama (Yama) and Sita (Me Thida) in the Burmese version of the Ramayana,Yama Zatdaw

A diverse range of indigenous cultures exist in Burma, the majority culture is primarily Buddhist and Bamar. Bamar culture has been influenced by the cultures of neighbouring countries. This is manifested in its language, cuisine, music, dance and theatre. The arts, particularly literature, have historically been influenced by the local form of Theravada Buddhism. Considered the national epic of Burma, the Yama Zatdaw, an adaptation of India’s Ramayana, has been influenced greatly by Thai, Mon, and Indian versions of the play.[280] Buddhism is practised along with nat worship, which involves elaborate rituals to propitiate one from a pantheon of 37 nats.

Mohinga, traditional Burmese rice noodles in fish soup, is widely considered to be Burma’s national dish.

Shinbyu ceremony in Mandalay

In a traditional village, the monastery is the centre of cultural life. Monks are venerated and supported by the lay people. A novitiation ceremony called shinbyu is the most important coming of age events for a boy, during which he enters the monastery for a short time.  All male children in Buddhist families are encouraged to be a novice (beginner for Buddhism) before the age of twenty and to be a monk after the age of twenty. Girls have ear-piercing ceremonies (နားသ) at the same time.  Burmese culture is most evident in villages where local festivals are held throughout the year, the most important being the pagoda festival  Many villages have a guardian nat, and superstition and taboos are commonplace.

An Arakan (Rakhine) girl pours water at revellers during the Burmese New Year Thingyan Water Festival in Yangon.

British colonial rule introduced Western elements of culture to Burma. Burma’s education system is modelled after that of the United Kingdom. Colonial architectural influences are most evident in major cities such as Yangon.  Many ethnic minorities, particularly the Karen in the southeast and the Kachin and Chin who populate the north and northeast, practice Christianity.  According to the The World Factbook, the Burman population is 68% and the ethnic groups constitute 32%. However, the exiled leaders and organisations claims that ethnic population is 40%, which is implicitly contrasted with CIA report (official US report).

Art

Burmese contemporary art has developed rather on its own terms and quite rapidly.

One of the first to study western art was Ba Nyan. Together with Ngwe Gaing and a handful of other artists, they were pioneers of western painting style in Burma. Later, most of the students learnt from masters through apprenticeship. Some well known contemporary artists are Lun Gywe, Aung Kyaw Htet, MPP Yei Myint, Myint Swe, Min Wai Aung, Aung Myint, Khin Maung Yin, Po Po and Zaw Zaw Aung.

Most of the young artists who were born in the 1980s have greater chances of art practises inside and outside the country. Performance art is a popular genre among Burmese young artists.

Media

Due to Burma’s political climate, there are not many media companies in relation to the country’s population, although a certain number exists. Some are privately owned. All programming must meet with the approval of the censorship board.

The Burmese government announced on 20 August 2012 that it will stop censoring media before publication. Following the announcement, newspapers and other outlets no longer required approved by state censors; however, journalists in the country can still face consequences for what they write and say.

Burma was in the attention of the media’s eye when on 18 November 2012 Barack Obama visited the country, making it the first time a sitting US president has travelled there.

In April 2013, international media reports were published to relay the enactment of the media liberalisation reforms that we announced in August 2012. For the first time in numerous decades, the publication of privately owned newspapers commenced in the country.

Film

Burma’s first film was a documentary of the funeral of Tun Shein — a leading politician of the 1910s, who campaigned for Burmese independence in London. The first Burmese silent film Myitta Ne Thuya (Love and Liquor) in 1920 which proved a major success, despite its poor quality due to a fixed camera position and inadequate film accessories. During the 1920s and 1930s, many Burmese-owned film companies made and produced several films. The first Burmese sound film was produced in 1932 in Bombay, India with the title Ngwe Pay Lo Ma Ya (Money Can’t Buy It). After World War II, Burmese cinema continued to address political themes. Many of the films produced in the early Cold War era had a strong propaganda element to them.

In the era that followed the political events of 1988, the film industry has been increasingly controlled by the government. Film stars who had been involved in the political activities were banned from appearing in films. The government issues strict rules on censorship and largely determines who produces films, as well as who gets academy awards

Over the years, the movie industry has also shifted to producing many lower budget direct-to-video films.

Most of the movies produced nowadays are comedies. ] In 2008, only 12 films worthy of being considered for an Academy Award were made, although at least 800 VCDs were produced. 

Burma is the primary subject of a 2007 graphic novel titled Chroniques Birmanes by Québécois author and animator, Guy Delisle. The graphic novel was translated into English under the title Burma Chronicles in 2008. In 2009, a documentary about Burmese videojournalistscalled Burma VJ was released.  This film was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2010 Academy Awards  The Lady (2011 film) had its world premiere on 12 September 2011 at the 36th Toronto International Film Festival.

Sport

Men playing chinlone

The Lethwei, Bando, Banshay, Pongyi thaing martial arts and chinlone are the national sports in Burma.

2013 Southeast Asian Games

The official mascot

The 2013 Southeast Asian Games took place in Naypyidaw, Yangon, Mandalay and Ngwesaung Beach in December representing the third occasion that the event has been staged in Burma. Burma previously hosted the Games in 1961 and 1969

Geography

Topographic map of Burma

Rural landscape of Shan State

Burma, which has a total area of 678,500 square kilometres (262,000 sq mi), is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, and the 40th-largest in the world. It lies between latitudes 9° and 29°N, and longitudes 92° and 102°E. As of February 2011, Burma consisted of 14 states and regions, 67 districts, 330 townships, 64 sub-townships, 377 towns, 2914 Wards, 14220 village tracts and 68290 villages.

It is bordered on the northwest by the Chittagong Division of Bangladesh and the Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh states of India. Its north and northeast border straddles the Tibet Autonomous Region andYunnan province for a Sino-Burman border total of 2,185 km (1,358 mi). It is bounded by Laos and Thailand to the southeast. Burma has 1,930 km (1,200 mi) of contiguous coastline along the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea to the southwest and the south, which forms one quarter of its total perimeter.

In the north, the Hengduan Mountains form the border with China. Hkakabo Razi, located in Kachin State, at an elevation of 5,881 metres (19,295 ft), is the highest point in Burma Many mountain ranges, such as the Rakhine Yoma, the Bago Yoma, the Shan Hills and the Tenasserim Hills exist within Burma, all of which run north-to-south from the Himalayas  The mountain chains divide Burma’s three river systems, which are the Irrawaddy, Salween (Thanlwin), and the Sittaung rivers.  The Irrawaddy River, Burma’s longest river, nearly 2,170 kilometres (1,348 mi) long, flows into the Gulf of Martaban. Fertile plains exist in the valleys between the mountain chains. The majority of Burma’s population lives in the Irrawaddy valley, which is situated between the Rakhine Yoma and the Shan Plateau.

Administrative divisions (regions and states)

A clickable map of Burma/Myanmar exhibiting its first-level administrative divisions.

About this image

The country is divided into seven states (ပြည်နယ်) and seven regions (တိုင်းဒေသကြီး), formerly called divisions.  The announcement on the renaming of division to regions was made on 20 August 2010  Regions are predominantly Bamar (that is, mainly inhabited by the dominant ethnic group). States, in essence, are regions that are home to particular ethnic minorities. The administrative divisions are further subdivided into districts, which are further subdivided into townships, wards, and villages.

Below are the number of districts, townships, cities/towns, wards, village Groups and villages in each divisions and states of Burma as of 31 December 2001:[

No. State/Region Districts Town
ships
Cities/
Towns
Wards Village
groups
Villages
1 Kachin State 4 18 20 116 606 2630
2 Kayah State 2 7 7 29 79 624
3 Kayin State 3 7 10 46 376 2092
4 Chin State 2 9 9 29 475 1355
5 Sagaing Region 8 37 37 171 1769 6095
6 Tanintharyi Region 3 10 10 63 265 1255
7 Bago Region 4 28 33 246 1424 6498
8 Magway Region 5 25 26 160 1543 4774
9 Mandalay Region 7 31 29 259 1611 5472
10 Mon State 2 10 11 69 381 1199
11 Rakhine State 4 17 17 120 1041 3871
12 Yangon Region 4 45 20 685 634 2119
13 Shan State 11 54 54 336 1626 15513
14 Ayeyarwady Region 6 26 29 219 1912 11651
Total 63 324 312 2548 13742 65148

Borders

Burma shares borders with five countries. Its land border of 5,876 kilometres (3,651 mi) is the longest in Southeast Asia. Burma’s land borders by country and length

Country Length (km)
China 2185
Thailand 1800
India 1463
Laos 235
Bangladesh 193

Climate

Limestone landscape of Mon State

Much of the country lies between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator. It lies in the monsoon region of Asia, with its coastal regions receiving over 5,000 mm (196.9 in) of rain annually. Annual rainfall in the delta region is approximately 2,500 mm (98.4 in), while average annual rainfall in the Dry Zone, which is located in central Burma, is less than 1,000 mm (39.4 in). Northern regions of the country are the coolest, with average temperatures of 21 °C (70 °F). Coastal and delta regions have an average maximum temperature of 32 °C (89.6 °F)

Wildlife

The country’s slow economic growth has contributed to the preservation of much of its environment and ecosystems. Forests, including dense tropical growth and valuable teak in lower Burma, cover over 49% of the country, including areas of acacia, bamboo, ironwood and Magnolia champaca. Coconut and betel palm and rubber have been introduced. In the highlands of the north, oak, pine and various rhododendrons cover much of the land.[302] Heavy logging since the new 1995 forestry law went into effect has seriously reduced forest acreage and wildlife habitat.[303] The lands along the coast support all varieties of tropical fruits and once had large areas of mangroves although much of the protective mangroves have disappeared. In much of central Burma (the Dry Zone), vegetation is sparse and stunted.

Typical jungle animals, particularly tigers and leopards, occur sparsely in Burma. In upper Burma, there are rhinoceros, wild buffalo, wild boars, deer, antelope, and elephants, which are also tamed or bred in captivity for use as work animals, particularly in the lumber industry. Smaller mammals are also numerous, ranging from gibbons and monkeys to flying foxes and tapirs. The abundance of birds is notable with over 800 species, including parrots, peafowl,pheasants, crows, herons, and paddybirds. Among reptile species there are crocodiles, geckos, cobras, Burmese pythons, and turtles. Hundreds of species of freshwater fish are wide-ranging, plentiful and are very important food sources.  For a list of protected areas, see List of protected areas of Burma.

Health

The general state of health care in Myanmar (Burma) is poor. The government spends anywhere from 0.5% to 3% of the country’s GDP on health care, consistently ranking among the lowest in the world.  Although health care is nominally free, in reality, patients have to pay for medicine and treatment, even in public clinics and hospitals. Public hospitals lack many of the basic facilities and equipment.

HIV/AIDS, recognised as a disease of concern by the Burmese Ministry of Health, is most prevalent among sex workers and intravenous drug users. In 2005, the estimated adult HIV prevalence rate in Burma was 1.3% (200,000–570,000 people), according to UNAIDS, and early indicators of any progress against the HIV epidemic are inconsistent.  However, the National AIDS Programme Burma found that 32% of sex workers and 43% of intravenous drug users in Burma have HIV.

Burma’s government spends the least percentage of its GDP on health care of any country in the world, and international donor organisations give less to Burma, per capita, than any other country except India. According to the report named “Preventable Fate”, published by Doctors without Borders, 25,000 Burmese AIDS patients died in 2007, deaths that could largely have been prevented by antiretroviral therapy drugs and proper treatment.

In June 2011, the United Nations Population Fund released a report on The State of the World’s Midwifery. It contained new data on the midwifery workforce and policies relating to newborn and maternal mortality for 58 countries. The 2010 maternal mortality rate per 100,000 births for Myanmar is 240. This is compared with 219.3 in 2008 and 662 in 1990. The under 5 mortality rate, per 1,000 births is 73 and the neonatal mortality as a percentage of under 5’s mortality is 47.

Education

Yangon University of Medicine

The educational system of Burma is operated by the government agency, the Ministry of Education. Universities and professional institutes from upper Burma and lower Burma are run by two separate entities, the Department of Higher Education of Upper Burma and the Department of Higher Education of Lower Burma. Headquarters are based in Yangon and Mandalay respectively. The education system is based on the United Kingdom’s system, due to nearly a century of British and Christian presences in Burma. Nearly all schools are government-operated, but there has been a recent increase in privately funded English language schools. Schooling is compulsory until the end of elementary school, approximately about 9 years old, while the compulsory schooling age is 15 or 16 at international level.

There are 101 universities, 12 institutes, 9 degree colleges and 24 colleges in Burma, a total of 146 higher education institutions

Students on their way to school,Kalaymyo, Sagaing Region, Burma.

There are 10 Technical Training Schools, 23 nursing training schools, 1 sport academy and 20 midwifery schools.

There are 2047 Basic Education High Schools, 2605 Basic Education Middle Schools, 29944 Basic Education Primary Schools and 5952 Post Primary Schools. 1692 multimedia classrooms exist within this system.

There are four international schools acknowledged by WASC and College Board—The International School Yangon (ISY), Crane International School Yangon (CISM), Yangon International School (YIS) and International School of Myanmar (ISM) in Yangon.

Internet

Internet use is estimated to be relatively low compared to other countries. Activity at internet cafes is regulated. There is censorship, and authorities view e-mail and posts on Internet blogs. At least 2 Myanmar bloggers have been sent to prison. One of them, known by the name of Zarganar, was sentenced to 59 years in prison for publishing a video of destruction caused by the Cyclone Nargis in 2008; Zarganar was released in October 2011.

In regards to communications infrastructure, Myanmar is the last ranked Asian country in the World Economic Forum’s Network Readiness Index (NRI) – an indicator for determining the development level of a country’s information and communication technologies. With 148 countries reported on, Myanmar ranked number 146 overall in the 2014 NRI ranking No data is currently available for previous years.

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