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ETHNONYMS: Burmans, Myanmarese


Identification. The Burmans speak Burmese (a Tibeto-Burman language) and live in the central plain of Burma, in the Union of Burma, which was renamed Myanmar in 1990. "Burman" is the name of the people of this region, while "Burmese" refers to the language and culture of these people and to other citizens of Myanmar. The Burmans are overwhelmingly adherents of Theravada Buddhism.

Location. Myanmar lies between India and China and also borders Thailand. The central plain formed by the Irrawaddy River and the Salween River is the home of the Burman, while the hill country around the plain is populated by Karen, Kachin, Chin, Shan, and some smaller tribal groups. The climate is dominated by the monsoon, which brings a rainy season lasting from June to October, followed by a brief cool season, and then a four- or five-month hot and dry season.

Demography. In 1992 the population of Myanmar was estimated at 42.6 million. The official count, at last census estimate (1988), was 33 million. Population growth is estimated at about 3 percent per year. Burmese speakers are about 70 percent of the national population.

Linguistic Affiliation. Burmese is a part of the Tibeto-Burmese Family, a Subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan Family. Outside the Sino-Tibetan Familywhich includes Kachin, Chin, and several tribal languages on the China borderTai (various dialects in the Shan states), Mon-Khmer (lower Burma), and some Indian languages on the western frontier are spoken in Myanmar.

History and Cultural Relations

The Burmans apparently migrated south from Yunnan, along with several other linguistic and cultural groups, more than 3,000 years ago. The Mons, the Tai, and the Burmans, the predominant population, were all of the same physical type called southern Mongoloid. The history of Burma begins with King Anawratha in 1057, when the king conquered the Mons in southern Burma and brought back, according to legend, a complete copy of the three books of the Pali canon, the basis of Theravada Buddhism.

Anawratha proceeded to make Theravada Buddhism the official religion of his kingdom, driving out other varieties of Buddhism and attempting to suppress and regulate forms of animism. This dynasty reigned for about two and one-half centuries.

The conquest of Yunnan by Kublai Khan shook the Burmese throne along with the rest of mainland southeast Asia, and after the fall of the capital at Pagan various principalities under shifting Tai, Mon, and Burman rulers held sway in various parts of the country. A new Burmese dynasty arose in Pegu and later shifted to Ava as its capital, giving an inland central-valley orientation to this and future Burmese regimes.

European trade and frontier squabbles led to three Anglo-Burman wars; the peacock throne was toppled and the last king Thibaw and his queen were sent into exile. Under British rule Burma became a province of India. Lower Burma was turned into one of the world's largest exporters of rice, while teak, rubies, and other products continued to enter world markets. A sort of ethnic division of labor took place with Europeans at the economic and political top, and most of the Burmans locked into the lower spaces of the classic plural or export economy. This export economy was hard hit by the world depression of the 1930s, and a rising nationalism combined with hard times led to the Saya San rebellion, suppressed by the British.

In World War II the Japanese occupied Burma and granted it nominal independence. The Japanese trained the "Thirty heroes" who became the military leaders of the independence movement called the "Thakins." Burma received independence in 1948 and proceeded to attempt to rebuild a war-ravaged country.

Upon its founding, the Union of Burma was plagued by ethnic unrest from separatist movements among the Karens (KNDO was the name of the armed insurgency) and various Communist and other insurgent groups, as well as vicious political in-fighting among the Thakins and other Burmese leaders. The hero of the independence movement, Aung Sang, and members of his cabinet, were assassinated by opponents. U Nu was elected prime minister, but the troubles with separatists, insurgents, and political disunity continued, leading to a caretaker government of the army under the command of General Ne Win. U Nu won another election, but in 1962 the army again took control, and a single-party government under Ne Win, as of 1990, runs Myanmar, despite a recent election which gave a majority to the opposition party.


Villages are the predominant form of human settlement. Over 65,000 villages make Myanmar a mainly rural country. Villages are of three kinds. In Upper Burma the village surrounded by a palisade or a fence is common. Ingress and egress are through a village gate, and the fence or palisade is often manned by village guards. There are also clustered villages without a boundary fence. These villages do not have regular plans and usually lack public buildings. The only major difference between houses is that some have one story, others two. Monasteries are always placed outside the bounds of the village. Fields lie beyond the village, usually within walking distance, but houses are set among trees and fruit crops. The third settlement type is a line village strung out along a road or river bank. Towns and cities are found near or on major rivers and waterways, indicating both irrigation centers and transport networks. Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is now a major Burmese city and the nation's capital; Mandalay is the home of former kings and the cultural capital.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Wet-rice cultivation dominates agricultural activity. Most of that crop is now consumed domestically because the export industry has shriveled under the centralized control of the military powers. Upland, rain-fed rice is common in Upper Burma above the 100-centimeter rain line, and in the hill country slash-and-burn agriculture (swidden agriculture rather than crop rotation) is practiced. Cotton, maize, peanuts, onions, and other crops are produced. Logging, especially of teak for export, is still an important industry. There is an active fishing industry in Burmese waters, and dried shrimp and fish are important components in the diet. Mining of rubies and the export of jade are successful industries. Drilling for and refining oil are on a small scale, hardly for export. Among Burmese handicrafts, lacquer ware is distinctive. Wood carving, stone sculpting, and brass casting are local industries. Tobacco, cheroots, and cigars are produced. There is a small livestock industry, some jute processing, and a little tin and tungsten mining. The economy, however, remains overwhelmingly agricultural and extractive.

In the sector of industry and mining, technology is slightly obsolete but appropriate; in agriculture, on the other hand, most of the technology is geared to the small rice producer. A wooden plow with metal share yoked to a pair of bullocks, the wooden-toothed harrow, the sickle, the metal-bladed hoe, a long knife, ropes and twine of various grasses, and the forked stick comprise the long-standing farming kit. Bamboo and wood items are ubiquitous, and iron and metal nearly so. Modern technology is represented by the sewing machine, the loudspeaker and amplifier, the battery-run transistor radio, some guns, and an occasional vehicle. In the cities an assortment of machines and vehicles dating from World War II predominates.


The kinship system counts relatives on both the mother's and father's side, and there are no kinship-based groups beyond the family. It is not the category of kinship that is important, but rather the personal relations cultivated, relative age, generation, and the sex of persons who are linked. Age, sex, and generation, in fact, are the major axes for ordering most social relations. Beyond the nuclear family, terms of address reflect relative age, seniority, and respect rather than the degree or category of kinship.

Marriage and Family

Most marriages are monogamous. Marriages are not a sacramental affair and are arranged by families, but usually on the request of one or the other of the potential marriage partners. Divorce is easy, informal, but infrequent after the arrival of children. Families tend to be nuclear and to live in their own compound, but many households (the really effective unit) are made up of extended families or compound families. This results in part from the normal cycle of family formation and dissolution rather than from a preference for larger than nuclear families. The strongest bond in the family is the mother-daughter relationship, which is lifelong. There is no strong domestic division of labor; men cook and tend babies, and women are barred only from the monkhood.

Sociopolitical Organization

Myanmar is made up of fifteen states and divisions, all centralized under a single bureaucracy run by the army and its mass organization, the Lanzin party. This was constitutionally set up in 1974. Below this formai structure are the villages, linked by various agencies in a hierarchy reaching from the village to the prime minister's office. The village has an elected headman and he is the link between the bureaucracy and the party. There are agencies of the central government in contact with the villagers, but it is chiefly the army and the mass party that impinge on the local organization, which tries to settle its disputes at the local level.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Buddhism is a pervading force in Burmese society. The hillsides dotted with pagodas, the hosts of saffron-robed monks, and innumerable monasteries all proclaim the breadth and depth of Buddhist belief and practice in Myanmar. Almost all Burmans (more than 95 percent) are Buddhist. There are also Christians, chiefly among the Karen, Kachin, and Chin, and a sprinkling of Muslims and Hindus. Buddhism is Theravada, although this distinction is only meaningful to the learned or sophisticated monk or abbot. The religion of the ordinary Burman is boda hatha, the way of the Buddha.

Burmese Buddhism is characterized by consensual elements of knowledge, belief, and practice that are separate from the more specialized knowledge of the Pali Canon and the commentaries known to some learned monks. The ideas of kan (related to karma) and kutho (merit) underlie religious practice. Kan is the moral nucleus earned throughout many lives that goes on from life to life in the never-ending chain of rebirth, until the very remote end of nirvana, when rebirth ends. Rebirth, in form and place, is determined by the accumulated merits and demerits earned in previous existences. A person can be reborn in one of the three levels of existence: this world, the hells below, or the various heavens above. The whole worldview of Buddhism is summed up in the continually heard refrain: aneiksa (change, the impermanence of everything), dokhka (life is suffering), and analta (no self, the ego is an illusion). The next most common summary of the belief system is the repetition of the triple jewel: I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the teaching, and I take refuge in the monkhood. The monkhood (sangha ) is loosely organized into two principal sects without significant doctrinal splits. Monks (pongyi ) are highly honored, and most Burmese boys spend some time in a monastery after an induction ceremony (shinbyu ) mimicking the Buddha's renunciation of secular life.

Supplementary to the Buddhist worldview are belief systems involved with crisis management, prediction, and divination. Nats are the most important of these systems. These spirits are mainly malevolent and must be propitiated at stated times and places to avoid harm and evil. There are also ghosts, demons, spirits, and goblins in the forest, caves, and natural features capable of causing trouble to people.

Alchemy, astrology, and horoscope casting are employed in attempts to read the future disposition of forces toward the affairs of individuals. There is a system of curing and healing depending on notions of a balance of elements in the patient.

Arts. The pwe (a play, or a song and dance performance), often lasting several days and nights, often accompanies the ritual calendar.


Nash, Manning (1973). The Golden Road to Modernity: Village Life in Contemporary Burma. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Spiro, Melford E. (1970). Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. New York: Harper & Row.

Shway Yoe [James George Scott] (1882). The Burman, His Life and Notions. Reprint. 1963. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Steinberg, David (1980). Burma's Road Toward Development, Growth, and Ideology under Military Rule. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Tinker, Hugh (1959). The Union of Burma: A Study of the First Years of Independence. London and New York: Oxford University Press.


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Bur·mese / bərˈmēz; -ˈmēs/ • n. (pl. same) 1. a member of the largest ethnic group of Myanmar (Burma) in Southeast Asia. 2. a native or national of Myanmar. 3. the Tibeto-Burman language of the Burmese people, written in an alphabet derived from that of Pali and the official language of Myanmar. 4. (also Burmese cat) a cat of a short-haired breed originating in Asia. • adj. of or relating to Myanmar, its people, or their language.

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Burmese Official language of Burma, spoken by 75% of the population. It belongs to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages.

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