Skip to main content
Select Source:

Burma (Myanmar)


Union of Burma

Pyidaungzu Myanma Naingngandaw



Situated between Indian and Thailand, Burma is a southeast Asian nation. From the borders of India and China in the north, the country extends into the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal in the south. The country also shares borders with Laos and Bangladesh. Slightly smaller than the state of Texas, Burma has an area of 678,500 square kilometers (261,969 square miles). Its land borders are 5,876 kilometers (3,651 miles) long and its coastline, home to many excellent natural harbors, is 1,930 kilometers (1,199 miles) long. Burma's capital, Rangoon (also known as Yangon), is in the south. Mandalay, Moulmein, Pegu, Bassein, Taunggyi, Sittwe, and Myanwa are the other most important cities in the country.


The population of Burma, according to July 2000 estimates, was 41,734,853. A high mortality rate caused by AIDS is factored into this estimate; it is estimated that at least 1 million people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This high mortality rate from AIDS has slowed population growth to a projected rate of growth of 0.64 percent. The country registered a birth rate of 20.61 per 1000 population and a death rate of 12.35 per 1000; consequently, the population of Burma in 2015 is expected to be 45,925,967.

In the past, the government of Burma sought to restrict emigration (people leaving the country) and immigration (people settling there from outside the country). Burmese authorities negotiated with India to reduce the number of people of Indian origin in the country. As a result, Burma repatriated about 100,000 people to India between 1963 and 1965. Thousands of Burmese also fled to neighboring countries to escape military repression and armed conflicts in the ethnic minority areas.

Ethnic diversity is an interesting feature of the Burmese population. Burmans, an ethnic group related to the Tibetans, constitute the majority at 68 percent of the population. Shan (9 percent), Karen (7 percent), Rakhine (4 percent), Chinese (3 percent), Mon (2 percent), Indian (2 percent), and other ethnic groups account for the rest of the population mix. Buddhism is the major religion, with 89 percent of the population; there are minorities of Christians and Muslims. A majority of the people, 65 percent, are between the ages of 15 and 64. Only 5 percent of the population is older than 65, while 30 percent of the population is under 14 years of age. This is in sharp contrast to Japan, west European countries, and the United States where the number of older people in the population is much higher. The density of population is about 65.2 per square kilometer (169 per square mile). With agriculture as the most important occupation, a majority of the people live in the rural areas and only an estimated 27.3 percent (1999) reside in cities.


Despite many attempts to industrialize and modernize, Burma remains an essentially agricultural economy. Attempts in the 1990s to encourage foreign investments, revitalize the economy, and promote the tourism industry as a source of income and employment have been only moderately successful. Agriculture remains the most dominant sector of the economy, generating 59 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 1997 and employing more than 65 percent of the workforce in 1999.

Only 10,680 square kilometers (4,123 square miles) of the country's arable land was irrigated in 1993. Agriculture, for the most part, depends on the monsoon rains. Periodic droughts are a major problem. Similarly, natural disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes, floods, and landslides, especially during the long monsoon season, can have an adverse impact on agricultural production.

Until it became independent in 1948, Burma was a British colony. The colonial authorities promoted agriculture by encouraging the settlement of people in the delta regions. Roads, bridges, and ports were built to facilitate the movement of agricultural products. This development led to an internal migration from the dry northern regions to south of the country. The delta produced large quantities of rice. The British were not interested in encouraging industries in Burma. Foreign domination of the economy was complete.

During the 1950s, the capital of Rangoon was one of the commercial centers of Southeast Asia. At the time, the World Bank estimated that Burma would become one of the most prosperous countries of the region. But independence, democracy, and a free market economy failed to produce political stability or economic prosperity. In 1962, a military takeover of the government led to socialism and central economic planning. Foreign businesspeopleespecially those from India, China, and Pakistanwere expelled and foreign investment in Burma stopped. The new rulers adopted a "Burmese road to socialism"a policy of state socialism and isolationism (a policy of keeping foreign influence and involvement to a minimum so that a country can develop on its own). Economic conditions did not improve under the harsh rule of the generals; rather, they worsened. In 1987, the United Nations declared the country a "Least Developed Nation."

Many people in Burma remained antagonistic toward the military rule and the state-controlled economy. This opposition finally led to mass protests and violence in March 1988, which the government sought to suppress. The army chief of staff took control of the government, abandoned the 3-decade-old period of state socialism, and freed the market from most of the state controls.

Burma now has a mixed economy with a private, state, and a joint private-state sector. Agriculture, light industries, and other businesses are in the private sector . Heavy industries that require huge capital investment are in the state sector. The economic reforms of the last decade sought to promote joint ventures between private Burmese and foreign firms. Therefore, foreign investments were once again encouraged with modest success. The state sector continues to be inefficient, and attempts to privatize at least a portion of it remain on the books. External debt amounts to 10 percent of the GDP, and imports exceed exports by 2 to 1, causing a serious trade imbalance.

Burma is a top producer of illicit drugs and contributes 80 percent of all Southeast Asian production of opium. Most of the heroin available in the United States originates from Burma. The trafficking in drugs is illegal; thus, an accurate assessment of its contribution to the economy is impossible to gauge. A parallel black market , perhaps bigger than the state's economy, continues to pose problems for the authorities.

During the 1998-99 fiscal year , Burma received an estimated US$99 million in economic aid. In 1995, the figure was about US$157 million. Economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Community, and other nations have contributed to this decline. These sanctions are in response to continued political repression and human rights violations by the military regime. In 1990, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) had won a clear victory in the elections, but the generals refused to transfer power to the duly-elected representatives of the people. Moreover, the leaders of the NLD were harassed, detained, tortured, and even murdered by the regime.

Politically and economically, Burma remains a pariah (outcast) nation. Except for its membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the country is not befriended by most nations. In May 2000, U.S. president Bill Clinton imposed new sanctions on the military junta (a group of military personnel who overthrow a government) making it difficult for the Burmese authorities to get foreign loans, economic assistance, and foreign investments. Many American companies such as Apple Computer, Oshkosh B'Gosh, Eddie Bauer, Reebok, Levi Strauss, Pepsi Cola, and Liz Claiborne have withdrawn from the country. Therefore, the attempts of the military junta to revitalize the economy have been only partly successful.

Despite the introduction of banking and trade regulations in the late 1990s, Burma failed to achieve fiscal or monetary stability. Inflation continues to be high. Although poor and undeveloped, Burma is rich in natural resources. Nevertheless, the decline of the agricultural sector, regional economic crises, international sanctions, and shortages of electricity have all contributed to a slowdown in the economy since 1997.


Burma fought for independence from Great Britain in the late 1940s under the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League led by Aung San, U Nu, and Ne Win. The independence movement was a pro-Burman, anti-British, and anti-foreign movement that emphasized Burmese values, symbols, and experiences. This movement had very strong socialist leanings in response to Chinese and Indian domination of the Burmese economy during the British rule. In 1948, the country became independent under the leadership of U Nu because his political opponents had already killed Aung San, the father of Burmese nationalism. In 1962 the army, under the leadership of Ne Win, overthrew the democratic government and set up the Burmese Socialist Party, nationalized schools, banks, and factories, and followed a policy of socialist central planning and international isolationism. Later on, the party of the generals changed its name to the Burma Socialist Program Party. In 1974, all political parties were abolished.

In September of 1988, amid massive demonstrations against the government, a new regime seized power in a military coup. Calling themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the new regime also changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, something that opposition groups still object to. Following the anti-government protests, riots, and bloodshed in 1988, the opposition parties coalesced into the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the martyred national hero, Aung San.

Responding to nationwide protests, the SLORC allowed national elections in May of 1990. The NLD dominated the elections, winning 80 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, but the ruling SLORC refused to concede power and imprisoned NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Since that time the SLORC has exercised complete control over all branches of government. The National Assembly elected in 1990 has in fact never convened, the judicial system is bankrupt, and all executive positions are held by military representatives of the SLORC.

In 1997 the ruling SLORC was reorganized as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) amid a shakeup that saw several high officials dismissed for corruption. Five top generals, including Secretary Khin Nyunt, consolidated their power but showed no signs of ceding control of the government to the opposition, most of which was banned from any official forms of organization. Like the SLORC, the SPDC is primarily concerned with cracking down on opposition and not on improving the economic fortunes of the country.

The government's mounting deficit financing, resulting mostly from declining tax revenue and escalating military expenditures, has had a negative impact on the economy. The regime's policies led to the growth in the money supply and accelerated inflation. Mounting foreign debt and depleting foreign exchange reserves also affected the health of the economy. Military expenditures increased while the funding for health and education declined. The government's oppressive attitude towards the opposition has caused international censure, prompting foreign firms to pull out or cut back on their activities. Because of foreign economic sanctions, Burma is unable to get assistance from other countries or loans from international funding sources.

The country's tax base shrank in the last years of the 20th century, due to the government's inability to collect taxes because of a corrupt bureaucracy and a black market perhaps as large as the legitimate market. The sources of government revenue include general sales and value-added taxes , income from state enterprises, taxes on international trade, fees, and grants from donor nations and international agencies. The government also collects customs at its border posts, but most of the border trade is unrecorded.

The judicial system that Burma inherited from its British colonial masters was abolished in 1974. The new constitution calls for a council of People's Justices. In addition, there are lower courts at the state, town, village and ward level. The courts settle both civil and criminal cases. The armed forcescontrolling most aspects of the country's politics and governmentalso exert influence over Burma's judicial system.


In most developing countries of the world including Burma, inadequate infrastructure roads, bridges, canals, railways, ports and communication facilities impedes economic growth. Burma's long coastline is home to many excellent natural harbors such as Bassein, Bhamo, Mandalay, Rangoon, and Tavoy. The government has taken steps to develop new ports and maintain the existing ones, although all the ports are not used to their maximum capacity. A salient geographic feature of Burma is its many rivers, especially the Irrawaddy. The country's waterways remain the most important traditional mode of transportation to many remote areas of the country. Of more than 12,800 kilometers (7,954 miles) of waterways, 3200 kilometers (1,988 miles) are navigable by large commercial vessels.

Since the economic liberalization in 1989, the government started many public works programs. Early in the 1990s the government used forced rural labor to work on these projects. However, due to international criticism, the government began to engage the armed forces on these construction projects starting in mid-1990s. These projects did not bring about major improvement in the infrastructure needs of the country. The result has been that economic expansion was made difficult because in the absence of adequate transportation facilities, distribution of goods and services has been extremely difficult and costly.

In 1996, Burma had a total of 28,200 kilometers (17,523 miles) of roads, of which only 3,440 kilometers (2,138 miles) were paved. Although the government attempted to improve many major roadways during the final years of the 20th century, most remain in poor repair and are not passable during the monsoon season. A major effort in this regard was to reconstruct the Old Burma Road from Mandalay to the borders of China. As of late 2000, the work on the project was still incomplete.

Rail services remain poor despite attempts in the 1990s to renovate the existing lines, add new ones, and upgrade railway services on the main routes. Burma has a total of 3,991 kilometers (2,480 miles) of railways, over 320 locomotives, and more than 4,000 rail cars. The recent efforts include upgrading Rangoon-Mandalay rail line and beginning a new 162-kilometer Ye-Dawai Rail track project. In the 1995-96 fiscal year the railways carried 53,400,000 passengers and 3,280,000 tons of freight.

Burma has 80 airports and 1 heliport. Only 10 airports have paved runways. Both the private sector and the state sector are active in air transportation. The Department of Civil Aviation is responsible for the airports and the state-run airline. Air Mandalay, Myanma Airways, and Myanma Airways International are the chief airlines of the country. Burma's chief airports at Rangoon, Mandalay, and Bago were upgraded in the late

Country Newspapers Radios TV Sets a Cable subscribers a Mobile Phones a Fax Machines a Personal Computers a Internet Hosts b Internet Users b
1996 1997 1998 1998 1998 1998 1998 1999 1999
Burma 10 95 7 N/A 0 0.1 N/A 0.00 1
United States 215 2,146 847 244.3 256 78.4 458.6 1,508.77 74,100
China N/A 333 272 40.0 19 1.6 8.9 0.50 8,900
Thailand 63 232 236 10.1 32 2.5 21.6 4.49 800
aData are from International Telecommunication Union, World Telecommunication Development Report 1999 and are per 1,000 people.
bData are from the Internet Software Consortium ( and are per 10,000 people.
SOURCE: World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000.

1990s. During the 1995-96 fiscal year state-run airlines carried a total of 719,000 domestic passengers and 138,000 international passengers.

Light transportation such as buses and cars are a private sector activity in Burma. As of March 31, 1996, Burma had 151,934 passenger cars, 42,828 trucks, 15,639 buses, 88,521 motorcycles, and another 6,611 registered vehicles.

Also during 1996, state-owned maritime vessels carried 24,491,000 passengers and 3,158,000 tons of freight. These numbers show an increase over the same period of the previous fiscal year.

Industrial production and expansion are limited due to inadequate production and intermittent supply of electric power. Electricity production of 4.38 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 1998 was far below demand. Around 38 percent of the electricity is generated by hydroelectric projects while the remaining 62 percent comes from fossil fuels. Chronic shortages and frequent disruptions of supply exist. Therefore, state and private enterprises operate far below their capacity. Moreover, very often they have to depend on their own diesel-run power generators to meet their electrical needs.

As of 1995, there were 158,000 main telephone lines. In 1997, there were 500 exchanges with a capacity to reach 320 of the 324 townships in the nation. The number of mobile cellular phones was only 2,007 in 1995. Although the telephone system is capable of providing basic services, it is inefficient and outdated. Attempts in the 1990s to upgrade the system yielded only minimal results. Cellular and wireless phones function more efficiently than the traditional lines. The switching system is incapable of meeting current demands, and people have to wait for a long time for a telephone connection to their homes and factories. International service powered by a satellite earth station is relatively good.

The 2 television stations in Burma service 260,000 (1997) television sets. TV Burma is able to transmit 82 percent of its broadcasts to 267 of the 324 townships in the country with the help of 120 TV relay stations. These are in addition to Burma's 2 AM, 3 FM, and 3 shortwave radio stations. In 1997 the country had a total of 4.2 million radio sets. Radio and television stations are state-owned and operated. In 1996, there were 5 newspapers with an estimated circulation of 449,000, a significant decline from 1994 circulation figures.

There are about 50,000 computers in all of Burma. Public access to the Internet is prohibited for fear that it could encourage and widen political dissent and protest. Unauthorized ownership of modems is punishable by up to 15 years in jail. E-mail is restricted to foreigners and businesspeople with close ties to the administration. Private e-mail providers are prohibited, and only the Ministry of Post and Telegraph is allowed to provide e-mail service.

Improvements in the infrastructure were partly funded by deficit spending. In the absence of adequate funds, the government is unable to fully develop the country's transportation and communication systems and facilities. This situation had a negative impact on modernization and economic growth of the country for many decades.


Agriculture, industries, energy and tourism are the main sectors of the Burma economy. Agriculture, however, is the dominant sector and accounts for almost 60 percent of the GDP. The heavy industries are owned and operated by the state. Agriculture is mostly a private activity, although rice exports are a state monopoly . Recent government initiatives to improve agricultural production failed because drought and flooding diminished in rice production. The cultivation of pulses and beans, however, has increased significantly.

Industrial manufacturing is still undeveloped. Government attempts to privatize some industries have stalled, even though government-owned concerns continue to lose large sums of money. Foreign investments, although encouraged, have failed to generate enough international interest due to sanctions and boycotts protesting the military regime's human rights violations. All told, industry contributed just 11 percent of GDP in 1997.

The energy sector grew considerably during the late 1990s. The exploration and discovery of petroleum and natural gas deposits continued during this period. The construction of the Yadna gas pipeline to Thailand was a major development and is expected to be a major source of revenue. The lack of sufficient electrical power contributes to the country's poor economic growth.

Following the military crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1988, there was a sharp decline in the number of foreign tourists visiting the country. Early in the 1990s the government placed great emphasis on tourism development. The government's attempt to turn tourism into a "cash cow" has not materialized, although the number of people visiting Burma has certainly increased in the last several years.

Realizing the difficulties on the road to rapid industrialization, the government of Burma, while not giving up on industrialization, is hoping to make the agricultural sector the centerpiece of its plans for economic revitalization of the country. This sector, however, has seen declining financial returns. Burma is caught in a vicious circle of inflation, deficit financing, unemployment, and poverty. In an age of increasing international interdependence, Burma cannot expect to develop without the cooperation of the international community.


Agriculture, which includes crop production, hunting, fishing, and forestry, is the mainstay of the Burma economy. This sector is responsible for much of the income and employment in the country. About 60 percent of the GDP comes from agriculture, and as much as 65 percent of the labor force is employed in this sector alone. Burma produces enough food to feed its entire population. In the absence of purchasing power, however, many people go hungry. Further, about a third of the rural households do not have any land or livestock. Only half of the arable 45 million acres is under cultivation.

Rice is the most important agricultural commodity of Burma. Rice production increased from 5,200,000 metric tons in 1950 to 16,760,000 metric tons in 1993. The crop is cultivated along the river valleys, coastal areas, and in the Irrawaddy River delta. A wide variety of crops are cultivated in the northern dry zone. Rubber and other commercially useful products are cultivated in the Irrawaddy and Tenasserim regions. Agricultural products form the bulk of the export trade and include rice, teak, prawns, beans and pulses, and opiates.

Burma's agriculture is heavily dependent on the monsoon rains. While some areas suffer from too much rain, other regions receive too little. Government efforts in the 1990s increased the amount of irrigated land to 2.2 million acres. Many agricultural products like tobacco, sugar, groundnut, sunflower, maize, jute and wheat, however, have not reached their pre-1985 production levels. This reduction is offset by higher production in rice, pulses and beans. Rice production increased due to supportive government policies as well as favorable market forces. According to Asian Development Bank estimates, however, real annual growth in agriculture declined from 5.0 percent in 1996-97 to 3.7 percent in 1997-98 and to 2.8 in the 1998-99 fiscal years. Further, per-acre yield of the crops has not increased because of inadequate application of fertilizers and pesticides. One factor that helped to improve production was the removal of government controls over the agricultural sector.

Deforestation has been a major concern in Burma. The slash-and-burn method of agriculture is destroying the forests of the country, causing soil erosion and depletion of fertility. Periodic droughts, floods, landslides, and cyclones sometimes have devastating effect on agriculture. For example, flooding in Pegu and Irrawaddy during the 1997-98 growing season did considerable damage to rice production. Consequently, Burma exported only 28.4 thousand metric tons of rice in the 1997-98 season as opposed to 93.1 thousand metric tons in the previous year.

The heavy reliance on monsoons is a major handicap for Burmese agriculture. The authorities have recently renovated dams and reservoirs, built new ones, pumped water from rivers and streams and taken other measures to improve irrigation. More remains to be done in this regard. Another impediment to agricultural improvement is the inability of farmers to secure adequate loans to enhance cultivation. Private lenders charge exorbitant rates, and there are not enough banking institutions to serve people in the rural areas. As a result, farmers are not able to buy fertilizers and pesticides for their crops. Financial services need to be improved to make funds available to the cultivators.

The economic liberalization policies of the military junta have transformed the agricultural sector. Under the new economic system, the government distributed land among the landless, improved irrigation facilities, and increased the floor price of paddy that the government procures from the farmers. Some private activity in the export sector has been allowed since economic liberalization began in 1989. Consequently, the share of the agricultural sector in the GDP has gone up.


. Burmese farmers raise a variety of animals including cattle, water buffalo, goats, sheep, chickens, and pigs. Oxen and water buffalo serve as draught animals in agriculture and for rural transportation. The GDP share of the livestock has increased slightly during the past decade. Most of the cattle are raised in the dry zone in the north.


. Burma is rich in forests and woodland. While its neighbors, India, China and Thailand, have already depleted their forests, Burma is still regarded as the "last frontier of biodiversity in Asia." (Biodiversity refers to ecosystems that are rich, varied, and largely unpolluted or tampered with by human development.) Most of the timbers, especially teakwood, consumed in these Asian countries come from Burma, although most of these exports are illegal. In their search for precious foreign exchange, the military junta is engaged in indiscriminate destruction of forests. Deforestation increases erosion and landslides and threatens the lives of many already endangered species in the rain forests.

Burma is the leading supplier of teak in the international market. In addition to hardwoods, Burma also produces large quantities of bamboo in the delta regions and in the areas of heavy rainfall. Elephants and water buffalo play a key role in hauling teak and other hardwoods.


. Burma is blessed with some of the world's most bountiful fishing grounds that extend from the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Martaban. Fish, often dried and salted, is part of Burmese cooking and is the most important source of protein in the diet. The government took many steps to encourage deep-sea fishing although the people prefer fresh-water fish. There has been a steady increase in the catch since the 1980s. Since 1989, Thai companies have been given permission to fish in the Burma waters. They use a modernized trawler fleet to harvest fish. The government also encourages fresh-water fish farms with a view to increasing fish production. Moreover, the Tenasserim area is home to some of world's finest pearls. As a result, the export value of fish and fish products alone has gone up from 159.4 million kyats in 1995-1996 to 227.8 million in 1996-97.


Primarily an agricultural country, Burma has always lagged behind in industrial production. The colonial authorities discouraged industrialization and encouraged only the production of raw materials, although there were some industrial developments towards the end of the colonial period.

World War II caused serious damage to the country's infant industries. It took a long time for production to catch up to pre-war levels, and in 1952, the government established the Industrial Development Corporation to stimulate industrial production. The country's effort to industrialize without foreign assistance was successful to a certain extent in areas such as petroleum and natural gas production. In the 1960s, under military rule, many industries were nationalized. Since the 1970s, there has been a steady growth in industrial production. In 1988, the government liberalized the economy, abandoned state socialism, and encouraged foreign investment.

Much of the industrial sector, especially heavy industries, is controlled by the government, although the share of private enterprise in this area is steadily growing. Industry accounts for only about 11 percent of the GDP and employs only 10 percent of the total labor force. Most of the industries center around agricultural processing, textiles, footwear, wood and wood products, copper, tin, tungsten, iron, construction materials, petroleum and natural gas, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizers. Cars and television sets are also assembled in the country. In 1999, the annual rate of growth of industries was estimated at 4 percent. The heavy losses of the public sector factories and industries are in part responsible for slow industrial growth.

Pegu is the seat of most industrial activity. In addition, the government has opened 17 special industrial zones all over the country, 5 of which are in the Rangoon area. Foreign investment is encouraged in 2 of the zones. While these zones are not fully developed, several factories and plants manufacturing clothing, consumer goods , and iron and steel materials are already operating there.


. Although their GDP contribution is not very significant, mineral products are important in earning foreign exchange. Burma has large amounts of mineral deposits. They include tin, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, silver, gold, iron and antimony. Coal, natural gas, and crude oil are also extracted. Jade, rubies, sapphires, and gold are also found in Burma. Should the country ever open to foreign investment there may be significant opportunities for development in this sector.


. Burma's petroleum industry dates back to pre-independence days. During 1963-1964, the government took complete control of petroleum exploration, extraction, and purification. Petroleum is found in the Irrawaddy basin, the delta region, and at offshore sites. Burma is self-sufficient in oil.

The discovery of natural gas reserves in the Gulf of Martaban added to Burma's energy reserve. In 1986 the country produced 32,600 million cubic feet of natural gas. Burma also has large deposits of natural gas in the Andaman off-shore fields. In its efforts to facilitate the growth of its energy sector, the government built the Yadana natural gas pipeline, connecting natural gas stores off the Andaman Islands and Thailand, with the help of Unocal and Total, 2 international petroleum companies. According to government estimates, the energy sector grew approximately 88 percent in 1998. Government projections showed a 77 percent growth for the year 1999.


With just 30 percent of GDP and 25 percent of the workforce, the services sector is not a dominant part of the economy as it often is in developed countries.


Like the cash-strapped countries of Jamaica and Cuba, Burma is also actively promoting itself as an island paradise to increase tourism. Both the government and private enterprises are heavily engaged in the tourism industry. In order to attract tourists, the country has improved roads, built international standard hotels, and other facilities. In 1988, roughly 40,000 foreigners visited the country, although following the suppression of the democracy movement that same year, tourism decreased. Between 1993 and 1996, tourism once again revived. The government proclaimed 1996 as "Visit Burma Year" and hoped to attract 500,000 tourists. However, only 180,000 people showed up. In the 1997-98 fiscal year 191,000 tourists visited the country. Both the government and the private sector, having invested heavily in new tourist facilities, were disappointed.

Nevertheless, Burmathe land of Buddhist pagodashas great tourism potential. Rangoon, Mandalay, Pagan, Pegu, and Tawnggys, with their palaces and shrines and pagodas, are the centers of tourism. However, the tense political situation, human rights violations, and boycotts by the international community have deterred many people from visiting. Tourism, so far, makes up only a small percentage of the GDP.


During the post-independence days, most financial institutions were private. In 1964, the military junta nationalized all of the country's 24 banks. In their place, the government created 4 state banks. In 1990, the financial sector was revamped under the provisions of the Central Bank of Myanmar Law. Since then the financial institutions are the Central Bank of Myanmar, the Myanmar Agricultural and Rural Development Bank, the Myanma Economic Bank, the Myanma Foreign Trade Bank, the Myanma Industrial and Commercial Bank, the Myanma Small Loans Enterprise, and Myanmar Insurance. The 1990 law also allowed for both private and foreign banks. As a result, by February 1996, 16 private banks were formed, most of them in Rangoon. During the same period, more than 20 foreign banks opened branches or offices in Myanmar.

The banking sector is still underdeveloped. The people have yet to maintain regular banking habits. The inflation rate is so high that the real rate of interest does not encourage deposits. But without deposits, banks cannot provide credit. In contrast, during the 1970s, when the interest rate was raised, people deposited more money in the banks.

The Burma Securities Exchange was founded in 1996 as a joint venture between Japan's Daiwa Institute of Research and Myanma Economic Bank. The financial sector contributes only a small percentage of the GDP.


Historically, most of Burma's export-import trade was with Asian countries. In 1999, more than 80 percent of the country's export-import trade was with Asian nations, including about half with ASEAN countries. Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and China are its major trading partners. Singapore is the single most important partner both in terms of imports and exports, providing 31 percent of imports and taking 10 percent of exports. There has been a decline in trade with Europe and the United States since the 1988 military crackdown on the democracy movement. Burma's export-import trade with the United States constitutes about 5 percent of the total foreign trade.

The country's exports are mostly agricultural products. They include pulses and beans, teak, prawns, rubber, rice and other agricultural products. There is a large black market that smuggles live animals, gems, minerals, teak, and rice into the neighboring countries. Burma

Trade (expressed in billions of US$): Burma
Exports Imports
1975 .173 .197
1980 .472 .353
1985 .303 .283
1990 .325 .270
1995 .846 1.335
1998 1.067 2.666
SOURCE: International Monetary Fund. International Financial Statistics Yearbook 1999.

also conducts brisk trade in narcotics. During the 1997-98 fiscal year, imports included raw materials, transport equipment, construction materials, and food items. While priority was given to the importation of materials needed for the Yadana natural gas pipeline, the government took measures to control importation of non-essential goods.

In 1998 the country exported $1.2 billion in goods and services while importing $2.5 billion, reflecting a steady increase of imports over exports during the 1993-98 period. In fact, the trade imbalance has been a chronic problem for the country for well over 2 decades. During the 1965-75 period, rice exports fell, and Burma cut back on imports. During the 1976-80 period, although exports increased, there was a corresponding increase in imports. By the mid-1980s, exports declined, but imports continued to soar. The adverse balance of payment situation continues to plague Burma.

This imbalance has a negative impact on the economy as a whole, forcing Burma to spend its precious foreign exchange reserves. To compensate for this situation, the government has printed currency to buy foreign exchange, thereby accelerating the inflationary tendencies of the economy. This inflation has wiped out many of the gains the country made as a result of economic liberalization in the 1990s. Making matters worse, the government had to buy foreign exchange from foreign sources at commercial rates. Consequently, Burma was unable to service its debt payment, prompting the World Bank to sever ties with the country. The net effect for Burma's people is that their purchasing power and standard of living declined.

The regime, while continuing to increase military spending, was forced to cut back on education, health, and other essential services. Growing international concern about human rights abuses and the regime's inability to tackle narcotics trafficking have led many countries, including the United States, and international financial institutions, to refuse aid or loans to the country. The government's use of forced labor has also led to boycotts of Burmese goods.


Adverse balance of payments, decreasing tax revenues, high defense spending, and deficit financing all have led to the printing of more currency and price inflation. The official exchange rate of the kyat to dollar, however, remains unchanged. There are 4 different rates for currency exchange: the official exchange rate, the customs rate, the official market rate, and the black market rate. Officially, US$1 equals 6.73 kyats, whereas in the black market the dollar may fetch 375 or more kyats.

Exchange rates: Burma
kyats per US$1
Jan 2001 6.5972
2000 6.5167
1999 6.2858
1998 6.3432
1997 6.2418
1996 5.9176
SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].

The Asian currency crisis of 1997 added to Burma's currency woes. The sharp decline in the Thai bhat had a negative impact on the kyat. During the 1997-98 fiscal year, according to U.S. embassy estimates, the kyat lost 54 percent of its value. Between April and December 1997, the kyat declined from 167/dollar to 257/dollar. In 1997 and 1998, when the kyat fell, the government intervened to prop up the value of the kyat and took strong measures to keep foreign exchange from leaving the country. It put a monthly cap of $50,000 on remittances , cut the number of banks allowed to handle foreign exchange transactions, and placed stiff controls on trade.

The Asian economic crisis prompted foreign investors to either withhold investments or stay out of the Burmese market. Crises in the neighboring countries, Burma's principal trading partners, cost the country its export markets. The resultant ballooning of the trade deficit prompted the country to expand its money supply and draw down on foreign exchange reserves. According to the U.S. State Department Commercial Guide for 1999, the country was "virtually bankrupt."


Like most countries of the world, Burma has extremes of wealth and poverty. Once prosperous, Burma was, in 2001, one of the poorest countries of the world.

GDP per Capita (US$)
Country 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000
Burma 1,120 1,190 1,200 1,200 1,500
United States 28,600 30,200 31,500 33,900 36,200
China 2,800 3,460 3,600 3,800 3,600
Thailand 7,700 7,700 8,800 6,100 6,400 6,700
Data are estimates.
SOURCE: Handbook of the Nations, 17th,18th,19th and 20th editions for 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999 data; CIA World Factbook 2001 [Online] for 2000 data.

Most people live in the 40,000-odd villages of the country, while the majority of the urban population resides in the capital city of Rangoon. Among the population engaged in agriculture, 37 percent of the people do not have any land or livestock. Poverty and misery have increased in the past 3 decades. In 1997 the CIA World Factbook estimated that 23 percent of the Burmese population had incomes that placed them below the poverty line.

The economic crisis of 1997 added to the problem. Inflation as of 1999 was at an all-time high of 50 percent on domestic goods and 104 percent on imported items. The government's policies have not helped to diminish inflation, which has eroded the purchasing power of Burma's citizens. The gap between rich and poor and rural and urban areas has increased. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), per capita income registered only a minimal increase in the 1990s. Many poor people are forced to send their children to work. Many women reportedly are sent to work in Thailand. The number of street children has also increased, and malnutrition among children is widespread. Sanitary conditions are far from satisfactory. Malaria, diarrhea, dysentery, tuberculosis, and more recently HIV/AIDS (due to drugs and prostitution) are the major health hazards of the country.

In the countryside, a bullock cart (a 2-wheeled cart drawn by 2 castrated bulls) is the most popular means of transportation. Most farmers own a pair of oxen or water buffalo, a hoe, and a bullock cart for agricultural purposes. The rural houses (actually huts without running water or toilets) are made of bamboo. One portion is used for cooking and the other for sleeping. In the major towns and cities, there are houses made of brick and concrete. They are usually small and overcrowded.

The government's socio-economic policies have not helped the people. Large outlays of money have been spent on the military, while only meager funds have gone to education and health issues. The numbers of children who do not attend school or who have dropped out reportedly increased in the 1990s. According to World Bank estimates, only 46.9 percent of the secondary school-age children were enrolled in schools during 1995. Education beyond the primary age is not compulsory. Burmese authorities boast a literacy rate of 83 percent, though independent observers have suggested that the rate may be as low as 30 percent. Most universities have been closed since December 1996.

Health care in the rural areas was marginal until the 1960s. The government has opened more rural health centers and directed more doctors to the rural areas. As a result, the doctor-patient ratio has decreased considerably, from 1 per 15,560 to 1 per 3,578 in 1986. Health care is provided free of charge.


The Burmese labor force is estimated to be 19.7 million strong and consists of people between the ages of 15 and 59. About 65 percent of the labor force is employed in the agriculture sector. Of the remaining 35 percent, 10 percent is employed in the industrial sector while the remaining 25 percent is employed in a variety of service sectors. The official government unemployment rate for the fiscal year 1997-98 was reported as 7.1 percent.

One serious concern about the Burma labor situation is the reported use of forced labor on public works projects. In November 2000, the International Labor Organization (ILO) concluded that Burmese authorities had not discontinued the practice and advised member nations to review their relations with Burma. In response, Burmese authorities said that they would stop cooperating with the ILO. The government has maintained that the ILO action represented an effort by its member states to exert improper influence on Burma's internal affairs.

According to U.S. sources in Rangoon, the government lessened its dependence on forced labor. Instead, it was using military personnel on some of these projects. Military authorities, however, continue to force civilians to work for them. Many women and children, for instance, have to work as porters for the army.

There are reports of the continued prevalence of child labor in the country. Legally, children must be 13 or above before they can be employed. This and the compulsory education law, however, are not fully enforced. Consequently, a large number of children never enroll in school and many do not complete the primary school course. Therefore, children are frequently employed in many areas, especially in the arts and crafts industries.

Since the military takeover in 1962, the authorities have consistently denied the people their freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association. Also in 1964, the government abolished all trade union organizations. Substituting for independent unions are government-sponsored Regional Workers Councils. In 1985, there were 1.8 million members. Coordinating the work of the regional councils is the central workers organization in Rangoon, formed in 1968. The Central Arbitration Board is given the responsibility to settle major labor disputes but is inactive. Minor labor concerns are addressed by the township level agencies. One labor organization, the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma (FTUB), is an anti-government group that was formed in 1991 by Burmese living in exile.

Working conditions were set forth in a 1964 law called The Law on Fundamental Workers' Rights and the Factories Act of 1951. An abundance of labor and the failure of the government to protect the workers have led to substandard working conditions. The public sector employees follow a 5-day, 35-hour workweek. Employees in the private sector and state enterprises have a 6-day, 44-hour workweek. The law provides for overtime pay. However, these laws cover only a small percentage of the workers. Moreover, the workers are not allowed to organize in unions and bargain collectively. In the public sector industries, the government sets the wages and benefits. The joint sector companies are discouraged from paying their employees more than their counterparts in the public sector.

As of March 2000, all institutions of higher education, with the exception of a military academy and a medical school affiliated with the army, were closed. The middle class is frustrated that their children are not able to get an education. Many Burmese of all classes have fled the country for fear of oppression. Thousands of Burmese refugees remain in camps in Thailand and Bangladesh.


1044. Pagan empire is founded on the banks of Irrawaddy.

1824. First Anglo-Burmese war leads to Burmese defeat and loss of territory.

1886. Burma is defeated in the Second Anglo-Burmese war, and Britain annexes the remainder of the country's territory.

1941-45. Japanese forces invade Burma and occupy much of the country during World War II.

1948. Burma becomes an independent, democratic country with a free market economy.

1962. The military under General Ne Win overthrows democracy, establishing the "Burmese way to socialism" and nationalizing banks and other private industries.

1974. The government establishes a new constitution and announces the formation of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma.

1988. Amid widespread protests and riots, a military junta headed by Generals Ne Win and Saw Maung replaces the civilian president with a new government called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The SLORC renames the nation the Union of Myanmar, dropping the name "Burma," and liberalizes the economy.

1990. Elections are held, and the opposition National League for Democracy wins a clear majority. The SLORC refuses to cede power and opposition leaders are jailed.

1997. The Asian economic crisis damages Burma's economy.

2000. The International Labor Organization concludes that Burma is in violation of rules regarding forced labor and advises member nations to review their relations with Burma.


Burma is a resource-rich, naturally beautiful, and culturally significant country. Its potential for growth and prosperity is tremendous. Yet Burma can never reach its potential until the military regime negotiates with the opposition and transfers power to the elected representatives of the people. The regime, however, has been trying to eradicate the opposition. Most international observers agree that the government must end human rights violations, release political prisoners, establish sound monetary policies , increase the tax base and revenue, enhance the infrastructure, and further liberalize the public sector if the country has any hopes of taking its place in international commerce. Despite announcing plans for such improvements, however, the ruling SPDC seems most concerned with retaining its grip on power through violence and intimidation of internal opposition and disengagement with the international community. In the absence of a change in this program, economic stagnation, poverty, disease, and illiteracy will remain Burma's most notable features.


Burma (Myanmar) has no territories or colonies.


"Amnesty International Report 2000-Country Reports, Myanmar." Amnesty International. <!OpenDocument>. Accessed December 2000.

Cady, John Frank. Southeast Asia: Its Historical Development. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.

Cady, John Frank. The United States and Burma. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Soe, Maung Maung. "Economic Reforms and Agricultural Development in Myanmar." ASEAN Economic Bulletin. Vol. 15, No. 1, April 1998.

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. World Factbook 2000. <>. Accessed July 2001.

U.S. Department of State. Country Commercial Guides FY 1999: Burma. <>. Accessed December 2000.

George Thadathil


Rangoon (Yangon).


Kyat (Kt). One kyat is equal to 100 pyas. There are coins of 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 pyas and 1 kyat, and notes of 1, 5, 10, 15, 20, 40, 90, 100, 200, 500, and 1,000 kyat.


Pulses and beans, prawns, fish, rice, teak, and opiates.


Machinery, transport equipment, construction materials, and food products.


US$59.4 billion (purchasing power parity, 1999 est.).


Exports: US$1.2 billion (1998). Imports: US$2.5 billion (1998).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burma (Myanmar)." Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies. . 9 Jul. 2018 <>.

"Burma (Myanmar)." Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies. . (July 9, 2018).

"Burma (Myanmar)." Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies. . Retrieved July 09, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.



Country statistics


676,577 sq km (261,228 sq mi) 50,913,600

capital (population):

Rangoon (Yangon, 4,101,000)


Military regime

ethnic groups:

Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Mon 2%


Burmese (official)


Theravada Buddhist 89%, Christian 5%, Muslim 4%


Kyat = 100 pyas

Republic in se Asia. Burma is officially the Union of Myanmar. The most densely populated part of the country is the valley of the River Irrawaddy. Mandalay, Burma's second-largest city, lies on the banks of the river. The capital, Rangoon, lies on the shores of the Andaman Sea. Burma's land borders are formed by a chain of Himalayan mountains, which rise in the n to 5881m (19,294ft). In the e, lies the Shan Plateau, home to the Shan tribe. Burma is federated into tribal areas. Sittwe is the main port of the Arakan region, on the Bay of Bengal. In the se, lies the Tenassserim region, which includes the port of Moulmein.

Climate and Vegetation

Burma has a tropical monsoon climate. The humid rainy season lasts from late May to mid-October. Rainfall is generally less inland. Mandalay is relatively dry, with an annual rainfall of 50–100cm (20–50in). The Irrawaddy delta is one of the world's largest rice-growing areas. About 50% of Burma is covered by forest.

History and Politics

Conflict between the Burmans and Mons dominated Burma's early history. In 1044 the Burman King Anawratha unified the Irrawaddy delta region. In 1287 Kublai Khan conquered the Burman capital, Pagan. Burma was divided: the Shan controlled n Burma, while the resurgent Mons held the s. In the 16th century, the Burmans subjugated the Shan. In 1758 Alaungapaya reunified Burma, defeating the Mons kingdom and establishing the Konbaung dynasty.

Wars with British India marked much of the 19th century. The first war (1824) resulted in the British gaining the coastal regions of Tenasserim and Arakan. The second war (1852) saw the British gain control of the Irrawaddy delta. British India annexed Burma in the third war (1885). In 1937 Burma gained limited self-government. Helped by the Burmese Independent Army, led by Aung San, Japan conquered the country in 1942. The installation of a puppet regime led Aung San to form a resistance movement. In 1947 Aung San was murdered. Burma achieved independence in 1948. The socialist AFPFL government, led by U Nu, faced secessionist revolts by communists and Karen tribesmen. In 1958 U Nu invited General Ne Win to re-establish order. Civilian rule returned in 1960, but in 1962 Ne Win mounted a successful coup. His military dictatorship faced mass insurgency. In 1974 Ne Win became president. Mass demonstrations forced Ne Win to resign in 1988, but the military retained power under the guise of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), led by General Saw Muang. In 1989 the country's name changed to Myanmar. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won elections in 1990, but SLORC annulled the result and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. In 1997 SLORC became the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In 1998, NLD calls for the reconvening of Parliament led to mass detention of political opponents by the SPDC. In 2002 the SPDC released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. She was arrested again in 2003.


Burma is one of the world's poorest nations (2000 GDP per capita, US$1500). Agriculture is the main activity, employing 64% of the workforce, mainly at subsistence level. Teak and rice constitute about 66% of exports. It has many mineral resources, mostly unexploited. Burma is famous for its precious stones, especially rubies.

Political map

Physical map


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burma." World Encyclopedia. . 9 Jul. 2018 <>.

"Burma." World Encyclopedia. . (July 9, 2018).

"Burma." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 09, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.


Burma was ruled by the Alaungpaya dynasty from 1752 to 1885. Initially, the dynasty was expansionary, conquering (although failing to hold) Thailand and pressing west towards Arakan and Assam. However, it was severely checked and ultimately defeated by a counter-expansionary drive coming from the British in India. The British conquest of Burma was piecemeal, beginning in 1826 and not reaching completion until 1885. It partly came about as a reaction to deep Burmese hostility and the failures of ‘informal empire’. But it also reflected growing economic ambitions. In colonial Burma, valuable resources of oil, tin, and rubber were more fully exploited and commercial rice cultivation was developed. Originally ruled as a province of British India, the country was given its own administration in 1937. Between 1942 and 1945, Burma was overrun by the Japanese—many of the British, famously, ‘walking out’ to India. After the war, hopes continued in the Colonial Office for a restoration of British dominance. However, an Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League had arisen under the leadership of Aung San to organize large-scale popular resistance to the Japanese. Now it was turned against the British. On 4 January 1948, the Independent Republic of Burma came into existence.

David Anthony Washbrook

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burma." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 9 Jul. 2018 <>.

"Burma." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (July 9, 2018).

"Burma." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved July 09, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.



Culture Name



Identification. The name of the country of Burma (or Myanmar, as it is now officially known) is associated with the dominant ethnic group, the Burmese. Because of the current regime's lack of legitimacy and poor human rights record, it is common practice outside the country not to use the name Myanmar. The country fell under British colonial rule during the nineteenth century. When it became independent as the Union of Burma in 1948, the country almost immediately entered a state of civil war as ethnic minorities fought against the Burmese-dominated central government. Insurgencies by some ethnic groups continue. In 1962, the military leader Ne Win seized power. His regime sought to isolate the nation and institute nationalist policies under the label "the Burmese Road to Socialism." In 1972, the name of the country was changed to the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. After civil unrest in 1988, the military government changed the name to the Union of Myanmar.

Efforts to create a broadly shared sense of national identity have been only partly successful because of the regime's lack of legitimacy and tendency to rely on coercion and threats to secure the allegiance of non-Burmese groups. The low level of education and poor communications infrastructure also limit the spread of a national culture.

Location and Geography. The state has an area of 261,789 square miles (678,034 square kilometers). It is bordered by Bangladesh to the west, India and China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. The southern portion faces the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The middle portion centers on the Irrawaddy River, with a large delta area at its mouth and the area above the delta featuring floodplains. Most of the population and agricultural lands are found along the Irrawaddy, which is navigable for about one-thousand miles. The western, northern, and eastern regions have mountains and high valleys and plateaus. The western region has the Arakan, Chin, and Naga hills. The most important geographic feature to the east is the Shan Plateau. The Burmese live primarily in the central lowlands, while the other ethnic groups live mainly in the highlands. Under British rule, the political capital was moved from Mandalay in the center to Rangoon on the eastern edge of the Irrawaddy delta in 1885. That city was built in 1755 and named Dagon. Rangoon remained the capital after independence (its name was changed later to Yangon) and continues to be politically and economically the most important city. Both Rangoon and Mandalay lie within the area occupied primarily by Burmese peoples, although both cities have a significant Indian population as a legacy of British rule.

Demography. The official population figure in 1995 was 44.74 million, but it may range from 41.7 million to 47 million. Linguists have identified 110 distinct ethnolinguistic groups, and the government recognizes 135 ethnic groups (referred to as races). The Burmese account for about 68 percent of the population. Other major ethnic groups include the Shan (about four million), Karen (about three million), Arakanese or Rakhine (about two million), Chinese (over one million), Chin (over one million), Wa (about one million), Mon (about one million), Indians and Bengalis (about one million), Jingpho (about less than one million), and Palaung (less than one million). With the exception of the Chinese, Indian, and Belgalis, each minority group occupies a relatively distinct area.

Linguistic Affiliation. Burmese is a Tibeto-Burman language whose alphabet is derived from south Indian scripts. The largest ethnic group that speaks Burmese is the Myanma; there is a smaller Burmese-speaking ethnic group known as Baramagyi (or Barua). A few regional dialects of Burmese are associated with subgroups. Closely related Southern Burmish languages include Arakanese, Intha, and Taungyo (or Tavoyan). Burmese is the national language. It is spoken as a second language by most educated members of other ethnic groups, but some of those groups have little contact with the national language. Many educated urban residents speak English as a second language, but English is not widely spoken among the population as a whole. The teaching of English in schools was banned from 1966 to 1980. Shan is as an important second language for many ethnic groups in Shan State, while Jingpho is spoken as a second language by many smaller ethnic groups in Kachin State.

Symbolism. Since 1962, the government has used an array of slogans urging discipline and support for the regime and the military. The promotion of nationalist sentiments through the media, public events, and the display of related images is especially marked on holidays. Among architectural sites with national symbolism, two of the most important are the archaeological site of the old capital of Pagan and Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The earliest civilizations associated with what is now Burma were the Mon (also called Taliang) in the south and the Pyu in central Burma which flourished during the first half of the first millennium. The Mon were strongly influenced by Indian culture through trade and the Buddhist religion. The Pyu went into decline in the 800s. Around that time, the ancestors of the Burmese, known as Mranma, settled to the south of Mandalay. With the former Pyu city of Pagan (known as Arimadanapura) as his capital, the Burmese ruler Anaw-rahta (ruled 10441077) founded the first Burmese kingdom. His conquest of Thaton resulted in the spread of Theravada Buddhism and the adoption of many aspects of Indian-inspired Mon art and architecture. The lowland area along the Irrawaddy River under the control of Pagan often is referred to as "Burma Proper," since it is the heartland of the region that has been most securely under Burmese rule. In the late 1200s, Pagan declined and the Burmese lost control over much of the territory. Over the next few centuries, the Burmese slowly regained control over portions of lowland Burma from their new capital of Pegu. However, the Mon remained independent until 1539 and the Arakanese until 1784, while most of the upland territory occupied by the Shan was outside their control or only loosely under Burmese domination. The capital was moved to Ava during the reign of King Tha-lun (16291648).

During the reign of Ling Alaung-hpaya (17521760), a new dynasty was founded known as the Kon-baung, and the Burmese began a new period of military expansion. The Mon were conquered again, Burmese migration into Mon territory was instituted, and many Mon were resettled in the western Irrawaddy delta. Burmese migrants were sent to the east to serve as a barrier against the Shan. Efforts at expansion beyond the lowland area met with little success.

In the early nineteenth century, incursions into border areas to the west brought Burmese rulers into conflict with the British in India, leading to the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824. At the end of the war in 1826, the Burmese were forced to give up claims to territories in eastern India and a portion of southern Burma that included territories associated largely with non-Burmese ethnic groups. Continued poor relations resulted in the loss of the province of Pegu. This territory became known as Lower Burma. Although foreign relations improved under the reign of King Min-don (18531878), unstable conditions following his death and Prince Thibaw's overtures to the French led the British to invade Upper Burma again in 1885. In the face of local resistance that lasted until 1890, the British established colonial rule over not only the lowland territory but the Shan states as well. Over the next few decades, the British tried to bring the other highland areas under their control, but some territories remained free throughout the colonial period.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the British implemented reforms aimed at granting eventual self-rule. The proindependence forces were not unified, and there was infighting between factions. In addition to sporadic anti-British violence, nationalist sentiments took on a Burmese ethnic tone that resulted in violent outbursts against local Indians and Chinese. Burma was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. The British returned toward the end of the war, but the colony quickly moved toward independence. An independent Union of Burma was declared in 1948 under Prime Minister U Nu. It was a fragile new nation beset by political infighting and civil war involving ethnic minorities and communists backed by China.

National Identity. Before colonial rule, Burma consisted essentially of the central lowland areas and a few conquered peoples, with highland peoples only nominally under Burmese control. The British brought most of the highlands peoples loosely under their control but allowed highland minorities to retain a good deal of their own identity. This situation changed after independence as the Burmese-dominated central government attempted to assert control over the highland peoples. Despite continued resistance to the central government, those in the lowland areas and the larger settlements in the highlands have come to share more of a common national culture. The spread of Burmese language usage is an important factor in this regard.

Ethnic Relations. The majority of the people speak Tibeto-Burman languages. Tibeto-Burman speakers in Burma can be divided into six distinct groups. The Burmish constitute the largest of these groups by population. Nungish speakers live in upland areas in Kachin State. The main Baric-speaking group is the Jingpho in Kachin State. The Kuki-Naga-speaking peoples include a large number of ethnic groups in the mountains along the border with India and Bangladesh. The Luish group includes the Kado, who live near the border with the Indian state of Manipur. The Karen groups live in the hills along the border with Thailand and the southern lowlands. The Lolo-speaking groups tend to be the most recent immigrants to Burma; they live in the highlands of Shan and Kachin states.

There are also large numbers of speakers of Austro-Tai languages. The largest Daic-speaking group is the Shan, who constitute the majority in Shan State. Smaller, related groups include the Tai Khun, Lue, Tai Nua, and Khamti. Other Austro-Tai speakers include the Austronesian-speaking Moken and small groups of Hmong and Mien in Shan State.

Under the British, ethnic minorities generally were able to retain some autonomy. Negotiations for independence after World War II brought suspicions among the political leaders of several ethnic minorities that their status would be undermined. Immediately after independence in 1948, serious divisions emerged between Burmese and non-Burmese political leaders, who favored a less unified state. Between 1948 and 1962, armed conflicts broke out between some of these minority groups and the central government. Although some groups signed peace accords with the central government in the late 1980s and early 1990s, others are still engaged in armed conflict. The Wa have signed a peace agreement but have retained a great deal of autonomy and control of much of the drug trade in northern Burma.

Military operations in ethnic minority areas and government policies of forced resettlement and forced labor have dislocated many ethnic groups, and have caused large numbers of refugees to flee to neighboring countries. At present there are around three hundred thousand refugees in Thailand, Bangladesh, and India, mostly from ethnic minorities.

Before independence, Indians were a dominant presence in urban-centered commercial activities. With the outbreak of World War II, a large number of Indians left for India before the Japanese occupation. Through the 1950s, Indians continued to leave in the face of ethnic antagonism and antibusiness policies. The Indians remaining in Burma have been treated with suspicion but have avoided overt opposition to the regime.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

About 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Rangoon has a population of 4 million, and Mandalay has almost 1 million residents. The ethnic composition of Rangoon and Mandalay is over-whelmingly Burmese, although these cities are also where most of the Indian population lives.

Architecture reflects the country's Buddhist and colonial heritage. Buddhist temples are the most important architectural features throughout the country. The Buddhist temple serves as a religious school, a community center, a guest house, a place where the government and other agencies post information, a site for sports activities, a center for welfare services for those who are poor and ill, a morgue, and a center for music and dance. It also carries out economic services such as providing loans and renting lands and homes. Temples are also important in urban areas. While most temples in central Burma are Burmese in style, the temples of Shan State tend to have a distinctive look that is referred to as the Shan style. Temples tend to be surrounded by small shops that sell sacred and secular items.

The traditional house is made largely of bamboo. Flattened pieces of bamboo made into large plaited sections are used to make the walls. The floors are made of bamboo planks or wood. The frame of the house is made of wood, with hard and durable wood being used for the house posts. Roof coverings are made of a variety of materials, including thatch made from broad-leafed grass or palm fronds. Roofs may be covered with tiles, wooden shingles, or zinc sheets. The front of the house usually has a veranda that is raised a few feet off the ground. This is the public area where guests are entertained. The center of the house is the living area for the family. Behind it is a covered cooking area where rice is stored. Especially in urban areas, these houses are being replaced by more generic ones made from cement.

Some ethnic minorities have distinctive styles of houses. Many Palaung traditionally lived in multiple-family houses. Today, these structures are very rare, and most Palaung live in single-family houses.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Rice is the staple food except among those in highland areas where rice is difficult to grow. In those areas, rice, millet, sorghum, and corn are the staples. Rice is accompanied by a raw salad of leaves, fruit, or vegetables; a soup; and curries of fish, meat, prawns, or eggs. In addition to turmeric and chili, curries are seasoned with fermented fish or shrimp paste. A variety of cultivated vegetables and wild greens are eaten as well as bamboo shoots. Meals often are accompanied by lentils, pickled relishes, and balachaung (made from fried dry prawns). There are a variety of rice-noodle dishes. After a meal, it is common to eat fresh fruit.

Burmese traditionally eat a morning meal and an evening meal that is taken before dark. The meals are served in a large platter or on a low table, with members of the household sitting on mats. Food is eaten with the fingers, although sometimes utensils are used. It is common to drink water and eat fruit after the main meal. Throughout the day people eat betel and smoke tobacco. Burmese not only drink tea made from dried tea leaves but also eat pickled tea as a snack. Other snacks include chappatis, fried insects, and Chinese pastries.

Tea shops are found in every city, town, and large village. These establishments are important locales for social gathering. Street stalls sell a variety of foods in the cities and towns. Relatively few restaurants serve Burmese food. The majority serve Indian or Chinese food, and English food is served in many hotels and guest houses.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Feasting and sharing food are an important feature of traditional agricultural and religious rites. Often special foods are prepared for those occasions. Htamane, which is served during the rice harvest festival February, is made of glutinous rice mixed with sesame seeds, peanuts, shredded ginger, and coconut. Alcoholic beverages are drunk during some secular festivities but are not drunk during most religious festivals. In urbanized areas, commercial beer and other forms of alcohol are consumed, while in more remote rural areas, locally made alcohol is more common. Alcoholic drinks are made from fermented palm juice and a distilled rice-based solution. Fermented grain-based alcoholic drinks are more commonly consumed among highland groups.

Basic Economy. The economy is dominated by agriculture, which accounts for over 59 percent of the gross domestic product and employs about two-thirds of the labor force. Rice is the main product. Production declined after independence but increased during the late 1970s and early 1980s because of the introduction of high-yielding varieties, fertilizer, and irrigation. Since that time, production has barely kept pace with population growth, and Burma, once the world's leading exporter of rice, is barely able to meet subsistence needs of its own population. It continues to export some rice to earn foreign exchange. The production of narcotics from poppies and other sources is widespread in the northern highlands, and Burma is the world's leading supplier of opiates.

Land Tenure and Property. In areas under Burmese rule, land traditionally was held on the basis of service to the court and could be leased or sold and passed on to one's heirs; it also could be taken away by the court. In more remote areas, land ownership tended to be related to continual cultivation and occupancy. Under the British, private ownership became widespread in the central areas and a system of land taxation was introduced in which failure to pay property taxes could result in the loss of land. Before World War II, in the southern delta area absentee ownership of productive land was widespread. In the central area, agricultural land tended to be in the hands of small-scale owner-producers. Shortly after independence, the government passed a land nationalization act that was intended to turn land owned by wealthy landlords over to those who worked the land. However, that act was not implemented. A second act passed in 1954 met with only partial success.

The revolutionary government that seized power in 1962 nationalized the larger commercial and manufacturing establishments, including those of Indian traders. This created a large black market economy as people attempted to circumvent government control of commerce. The revolutionary government attempted to remove the landlord class and turned all land over to peasant producers while retaining ultimate ownership for itself. In practice, agricultural tenancy was not eliminated, and producers had the added burden of state intervention. After 1988, the government allowed a greater role for the private sector and foreign investment. While these reforms have allowed greater private ownership, considerable insecurity remains among those who own property.

Commercial Activities. Since 1992, the military regimes have emphasized self-sufficiency and tried to limit imports. The largest companies and financial institutions are state-owned, with the private sector limited mainly to small-scale trading. In recent years, however, more imported goods, especially from China, have appeared in local markets and there has been growth in the private sector. The main cities and many smaller towns have one or more central markets that sell a wide variety of domestic and imported goods, including clothing and cloth, tobacco, food, baskets, jewelry, toiletries, and electronic goods. There are also specialized markets, such as the iron bazaar in Rangoon's Chinatown.

Major Industries. Industrial production focuses on goods for local consumption, although a handful of factories produce for exportation. Local industries include textiles and footwear, wood processing, mining, the production of construction materials, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizer manufacturing. Although the country has substantial gem, oil, and natural gas reserves, extraction and processing capabilities are limited. There is a small tourist industry. There has been a dramatic growth in the number of hotels built since the introduction of economic reforms. Travel restrictions and poor infrastructure have concentrated the tourist industry in a few areas.

Trade. Legal exports include timber, rice, beans and pulses, fish, garments, precious stones, and rice. Legal imports include construction materials, plant equipment, and consumer goods. The difference in the value of imports and exports is covered in large part by revenue from narcotics and other illegal exports. Under British colonial rule, Burma was the world's leading exporter of rice, and rice remains the major legal export. Logging was also important in the colonial economy, but excessive harvesting and poor forestry management have resulted in a sharp drop in the availability of teak. China, Thailand, and India are their main markets for timber, but most wood is exported illegally. Burma is famous for rubies and jade, but since 1962, a lack of capital and expertise has hindered that industry. As with timber, most ruby and jade exports go through illegal channels.

Burma is the world's largest supplier of illegal opiates (opium and heroin), and the export of amphetamines has increased. Money from the illegal narcotics trade plays a crucial role in the national economy and in keeping the regime solvent. Much of the production of illegal narcotics, however, is in the hands of ethnic rebels in Shan State. Recent peace accords between the government and some rebel groups have given the regime access to income from narcotics.

Thailand and India are Burma's primary sources of legal and illegal imported goods. Small amounts are also imported from other neighboring countries such as India, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Division of Labor. There is little specialization in the agricultural sector. Small-scale commercial trading is done by both men and women, with men being primarily responsible for the transportation of goods. Ethnic Indians and Chinese are an important segment in commercial trading, but many Burmese and others are involved in commercial activities. Few tasks or professions are the monopoly of a single ethnic group. There are various forms of traditional craft specialization. This includes making lacquer ware, stone working, fine wood carving, and working with metal. Modern technical professions such as medicine and engineering are related to one's level of education and specialized training. Those in the higher levels of commerce and administration generally come from the families of prominent members of the regime, and connections with the regime are important factors in amassing wealth and power.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Not only is poverty widespread, there is marked inequality. Essentially, the society is divided into a tiny elite, a fairly small middle class, and a large number of very poor people. While there are traditional elites within most of the ethnic groups and new elites in some groups whose wealth comes from smuggling, the national elite is overwhelmingly Burmese. In recent years income from the narcotics trade has been an important source of wealth for members of the elite. Although some segments of the middle class have prospered from the economic reforms of the late 1980s, most have not done well and remain poor.

Political Life

Government. The military has ruled the country since 1962. In the face of growing opposition to the government and its socialist policies, Ne Win and President San Yu resigned in July 1988, and widespread civil unrest followed. General Saw Muang formed a new military regime known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and abolished much of the socialist system. Elections were held for the 485-member People's Assembly in 1990. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won 396 seats, while the military-backed party won only 10. The People's Assembly was never convened, and many of its leaders were arrested or forced into exile. The military began drafting a new constitution in 1992, but this task has not been completed. The regime changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997. The council includes a chairman and twenty other members. The government formed by the council consists of a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers, and thirty-seven ministers.

Leadership and Political Officials. Political leadership revolves around political intrigues and struggles for power within the military. From 1962 until 1988, General Ne Win was the dominant political figure, with other officers and their associates jockeying for positions underneath him. General Than Swe's hold on power since 1988 has been far less absolute. The officers holding positions in SLORC/SPDC tend to be roughly the same age and have roughly similar backgrounds and values.

The National League for Democracy is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the assassinated independence leader Aung San. She is currently under house arrest in Rangoon. The majority of the small inner circle around Aung San Suu Kyi are former military officers and associates or followers of Aung San. Both the regime and its leading opponents therefore form a small political elite.

There is an ethnic dimension to political office holding and leadership. The 1948 and 1962 governments were predominantly Burmese in composition and pursued pro-Burmese policies. Those policies sparked ethnic insurgencies led by ethnic elites, and the situation deteriorated when the regime passed a law in 1983 that created three tiers of citizenship rights based largely on ethnicity. At the bottom was a category of "other races" that included naturalized immigrants, mainly from India and China, whose ancestors arrived during the colonial period. Those assigned to this tier cannot run for political office or hold senior government posts. The 1988 regime signed peace accords with most of the insurgent groups, but national leadership has remained in the hands of the Burmese.

Social Problems and Control. The authoritarian military regime has been harsh in its treatment of ethnic minorities and rules by decree, without a constitution or legislature. The regime systematically violates human rights and suppresses all forms of opposition. The judiciary is not independent of the military regime, which appoints justices to the supreme court. These justices then appoint lower court judges with the approval of the regime. Prison conditions are harsh and life-threatening. The regime reinforces its rule with a pervasive security apparatus led by a military intelligence organization known as the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI). The regime engages in surveillance of government employees and private citizens, harassment of political activists, intimidation, arrest, detention, and physical abuse. The movements and communications of citizens are monitored, homes are searched without warrants, and people are forcibly relocated without compensation. There is no provision for judicial determination of the legality of detention. Before being charged, detainees rarely have access to legal counsel or their families. Political detainees have no opportunity to obtain bail, and some are held incommunicado for long periods. After being charged, detainees rarely have counsel. In ethnic minority areas, human rights abuses are widespread, including extrajudicial killings and rape. The regime justifies its actions as being necessary to maintain order and national unity.

Although the regime officially recognizes the NLD, political rights are limited. There is virtually no right of assembly or association. Intimidation of NLD supporters forced the party to close its offices throughout the country. Opponents of the regime have disappeared and been arrested. Detainees often face torture, beatings, and other forms of abuse. There is little academic or religious freedom. Under the 1974 constitution, the regime required religious organizations to register with it. Religious meetings are monitored, and religious publications are subject to censorship and control. Buddhist monastic orders are under the authority of the state-sponsored State Clergy Coordination Committee. The regime has attempted to promote Buddhism and suppress other religions in ethnic minority areas. Workers' rights are restricted, unions are banned, and forced labor for public works and to produce food and other goods and perform other services for the military is common. Military personnel routinely confiscate livestock, fuel, food supplies, alcoholic drinks, and money from civilians.

Military Activity. Since 1962, the military (the Tatmadaw ) has been the dominant political and economic force, with a large proportion of the population serving in the armed forces since the 1960s. In 1985, there were an estimated 186,000 men and women in the military; another 73,000 were in the People's Police Force and 35,000 served in the People's Militia. Reflecting the country's poverty and international isolation, the military is poorly armed and trained. Direct spending on the military declined from about 33 percent in the early 1970s to about 21 percent in 1987, representing less than 4 percent of the gross domestic product. This decline in personnel and expenditure was reversed in 1988. By 1997, the military had grown to over 350,000 and military spending had increased greatly. At present, military spending by the government is greater than nonmilitary spending. Military officers and their families play an important role in economic affairs outside the formal activities of the military. This is true both in the formal economy through government economic entities and in the black market, especially narcotics smuggling. The military's formal role includes intimidation of the population and waging war against ethnic insurgents.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Both men and women do agricultural work, but individual tasks are often gender-specific. Men prepare the land for planting and sow seeds, and women transplant rice seedlings. Harvesting is done by both men and women. Men thresh the rice. Most domestic work is done by women. During ceremonies, however, men are involved in food preparation. A variety of traditional handicrafts are made within the household or by specialists. Items of metal, wood, or stone generally are made by men, and weaving usually is done by women. Pottery, basketry, plaiting, making lacquerware, and making umbrellas can be done by men or women. Small-scale market selling and itinerant trading are conducted by both sexes. Transportation of goods or people by animal, carts, boat, or motor vehicle is done mainly by men. Religious specialists and traditional curers generally are male, but sometimes they are female. Spirit mediums can be male or female. Traditional theatrical and musical performances involve both genders. Women work mainly in teaching and nursing.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Traditional society was known for the relatively high status of women. If a couple divorces, for example, common goods are divided equally and the wife retains her dowry as well as the proceeds from her commercial activities. However, military rule has undermined the status of women, especially at the higher levels of government and commerce. Women, however, play a significant role in the political opposition to the regime. The higher levels of business are in the hands of men, but many medium-size and small businesses are run by women.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Individuals usually find their own marriage partners. Arrangements for the marriage may be made by the parents of sometimes an intermediary is employed. If the parents oppose the union, often the children elope and later the parents condone the marriage. When a man asks a woman's parents for their consent, it is common practice for him to bring a gift for the woman. Wedding ceremonies are relatively simple except among wealthy families. After speeches by the parents, members of the families and guests share pickled tea. Polygyny is rare. Far more common is the practice of wealthy and powerful men having an informal second wife. Divorce is relatively common and usually involves the couple ceasing to live together and dividing their property.

Domestic Unit. A newly married couple may live with the parents of one partner (often the parents of the wife) but soon establish their own household. The nuclear family is the primary domestic unit, but it may include extended family members such as unmarried siblings, widowed parents, or more distant unmarried or widowed relatives. The husband is nominally the head of the household, but the wife has considerable authority. Women are responsible for most domestic chores.

Inheritance. Property generally is divided equally among the children after the parents die.

Kin Groups. Descent is reckoned bilaterally. Traditionally, there were no family names.


Infant Care. Young children receive a great deal of attention. Newborns are placed in very carefully made cradles. A mother keeps her baby with her when she leaves the house. Burmese women carry babies on the hip, while most hill-dwelling peoples hold them in a sling on the back. Young children are pampered, given considerable freedom of movement, and allowed to handle virtually anything that catches their attention. Weaning usually takes place when a child is two to three years old. Relative or friends may nurse an infant. Adults take a great deal of interest in children, including those who are not their own.

Child Rearing and Education. Young children undergo several rites of passage. When a child is a few years old, a ceremony is held to give the child a name. Children in rural areas grow up surrounded by the implements that they will use when they grow up and watch adults performing domestic, agricultural, and artisanal tasks. In the past, all boys eight to ten years of age would begin attending school in a nearby Buddhist monastery, where they would learn about Buddhism and be taught to read and write. Those schools gradually gave way to public schools, but many young men continue to receive some education in monasteries. Under that system, few women were educated; their education took place mainly at home as they learned how to perform domestic tasks.

Modern education began under King Mindon (18531878), who built a school for an Anglican missionary. Under the British, secular education spread and the country achieved a relatively high level of education. Since 1962, the educational infrastructure has deteriorated. Today two-thirds to three-quarters of children drop out of elementary school before the fifth grade. The curriculum is scrutinized by the military regime, and it often is forbidden to teach in languages other than Burmese.

Higher Education. There are forty-five universities and colleges and 154 technical and vocational schools. There has been a steady erosion of higher education since 1962. After the civil unrest in 1988, during which many students were involved in antigovernment activities, there were widespread closures of universities and colleges. Since that time there has been a repeated cycle of opening and closing the universities and colleges that has made serious study virtually impossible. The universities and colleges were closed in 1996, and only a few were reopened in 2000.


It is considered improper to lose one's temper or show much emotion in public, but the Burmese are a very friendly and outgoing people. The Burmese and other Buddhists follow the Buddhist custom of not touching a person on the head, since spiritually this is considered the highest part of the body. Patting a child on the head not only is improper but is thought to be dangerous to the child's well-being. A person should not point the feet at anyone. Footwear is removed upon entering temple complexes for religious reasons, and it is polite to remove footwear when entering a house.


Religious Beliefs. Almost 90 percent of the people are Buddhists, and the proportion is higher among the Burmese majority. Burmese follow the Theravada form of Buddhism, which is also known as Hinayana Buddhism and the doctrine of the elders or the small vehicle. In Theravada Buddhism, it is up to each individual to seek salvation and achieve nirvana. Buddhism is believed to have been introduced to Burma by missionaries sent by the Indian emperor Ashoka in the third century b.c.e.

Buddhism is followed by many of the non-Burmese ethnic groups. While all these groups follow Theravada Buddhism, there are some differences between the in beliefs and practices and those of the Burmese. Buddhist beliefs and practices include animistic elements that reflect belief systems predating the introduction of Buddhism. Among the Burmese, this includes the worship of nats, which maybe associated with houses, in individuals, and natural features. An estimated 3 percent of the population, mainly in more isolated areas, who adhere solely to animistic religious beliefs.

Another 4 percent of the population is Christian (3 percent Baptist and 1 percent Catholic), 4 percent is Muslim, 4 percent is Hindu, and 1 percent is animist. Christian missionaries began working in the country in the nineteenth century. They had relatively little success among Buddhists but made numerous converts among some of the minority groups.

Religious Practitioners. Between ages of ten and sixteen, most young Burmese men and some young women become Buddhist novices and go to live in a monastery. While most young men remain at the monastery for only a short time before returning to the secular life, some become fully ordained monks. A person who wants to become a monk is expected to be free of debt and certain diseases, have the permission of his parents or spouse, agree to follow the disciplinary rules of the monkhood, and not become involved in secular life. While monks are expected to lead a life of aestheticism, they perform important functions in the community, especially as counselors. A variety of religious practitioners are associated with the animistic beliefs of most Buddhists, including spirit dancers who become possessed by spirits and may engage in healing and fortune-telling. There are also astrologers, other types of healers, tattoists with occult knowledge, and magicians.

Rituals and Holy Places. Thingyan, the water festival, marks the advent of the new year in mid-April. Buddha images are washed, and monks are offered alms. It is also marked by dousing people with water and festive behavior such as dancing, singing, and theatrical performances. Kason in May celebrates Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and entrance into nirvana. The day includes the ceremonial watering of banyan trees to commemorate the banyan tree under which Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. A ceremony is held in July to mark the start of the three-month lenten period and commemorate Buddha's first sermon. It is at this time that young males become novices. Lent is a period of spiritual retreat for monks, who remain in their monasteries. During this time people may not marry. Lent ends in October. Over a three-day period, candles, oil lamps, paper lanterns, and electric bulbs are lit to show how angels lit Buddha's return from heaven. Many marriages are held at this time. A celebration is held in November to produce new garments for monks and Buddha images. People come to complete the production of the cloth within a single day.

Death and the Afterlife. Buddhists believe that those who die are reborn in a form that is in keeping with the merit they accumulated while alive. The cycle of death and rebirth is believed to continue as long as ignorance and craving remain. The cycle can be broken only through personal wisdom and the elimination of desire. Funerals involve either burial or cremation. The ceremony includes a procession of monks and mourners who accompany the coffin to the cemetery or crematorium, with the monks chanting and performing rites. Funerals for monks tend to be elaborate, while those who have died a violent death generally are quickly buried with very little ceremony, since their spirits are believed to linger as malevolent ghosts.

Medicine and Health Care

The use of traditional forms of medicine remains important, especially among the ethnic minorities. Few young people, however, receive training in these forms of medicine by an aging group of traditional healers and many traditional practices and the knowledge of traditional remedies are being lost. Serious health problems are reaching crisis proportions, and nontraditional health care by the public and private sectors has deteriorated.

Malaria, AIDS, and malnutrition and related diseases are a serious problem. Intravenous drug use formerly was a problem mainly in the northeast among ethnic minorities, but since 1988, drug used has spread to the lowlands and the urban areas inhabited by the Burmese majority. There are only 703 hospitals and 12,464 doctors. These facilities are in very poor condition, and funding for medical care and training is inadequate.

Secular Celebrations

The major state holidays are Independence Day (4 January), Union Day (12 February), Peasants' Day (2 March), Resistance or Armed Forces Day (27 March), May Day or Workers' Day (1 May), Martyr's Day (19 July), and National Day (late November or early December). These are occasions for the regime to promote nationalist sentiments, and some are accompanied by festive events. Far more important for most Burmese are the older celebrations associated with agriculture and the Buddhist religion.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. Until the 1880s, the nobility was an important source of support for artists. After the fall of the monarchy, support came from newly rich merchants and British colonial officers. From the 1920s to the 1940s, there was relatively little support from the government or the public. State schools for the fine arts were opened in Rangoon and Mandalay in 1953, and there was a revival of interest in traditional art forms. The military regime of 1962 encouraged art forms supportive of its nationalist and socialist agenda. Since 1988, there has been little government support.

Literature. The focus of writing within Burmese society was, and to a large extent still is, focused on writing for theater performances (pwe ) and producing texts relating to Buddhism. In addition, since the nineteenth century there is a fair amount of popular fiction. There is also some British fiction from the colonial period that is set in Burma. Among the early British works of fiction concerned with the Burmese are two novels by H. Fielding: The Soul of a People (1898) and Thibaw's Queen (1899). By far the best known British novel set in Burma is George Orwell's Burmese Days (1934), a critical examination of British colonial rule.

Graphic Arts. The graphic arts include temple sculpture in wood, stucco, stone, and wood; temple mural painting, usually in tempera; other forms of wood carving; ivory carving; work in bronze, iron, and other metals; jewelry; ceramics; glassware; lacquerware; textiles and costume; items made of palm and bamboo; and painting on paper or canvas.

Lacquerware entails the covering of an object made of bamboo or wood with a liquid made from tree sap. These objects include containers as well as tables, screens, and carved animal figures. The process preserves, strengthens, and waterproofs objects and has been developed into a decorative art form. Its origins are ancient. Pagan is the largest and most important center for lacquerware. The Government Lacquerware School was established by local artists in Pagan in 1924. The Shan also have a distinctive lacquerware tradition.

Weaving is a highly developed traditional art form. Among the Burmese, it reached its highest form in the production of lun-taya acheik cloth. The technique was brought from Manipur in the eighteenth century, but the complex motifs are distinctly Burmese. This style of cloth is still woven near Mandalay for sale to elite Burmese. There are distinctive textile traditions among the ethnic minorities.

Traditional painting on paper made from tree bark or bamboo pulp is known as parabaik painting. The earliest known example dates back to the eighteenth century. Pigments were made of tempera, with gold and silver inks used for the costumes of nobles and deities. The paintings also formed folded pages in books. Initially these paintings depicted religious scenes, court scenes, or astrological charts, medicines, tattoo designs, and sexual techniques, and the painters were itinerant artists employed by the court. In the nineteenth century, the court in Mandalay employed full-time artists, and a system of apprenticeship was put in place. Among the new styles of painting that emerged after the fall of the monarchy were paintings of happy families sold to the newly rich. Traditional painting declined in the 1920s as local patrons and artists became more interested in European styles. A revival of interest in Burmese themes took place after the 1962 military takeover. The new regime held an annual painting exhibition to promote select painters. The exhibitions ended in 1988, but the military regime allowed the fine arts school to remain open. Most painters today are dependent on sales through a handful of private galleries that cater largely to resident expatriates. The themes of newer paintings continue to be Burmese, especially religious paintings and landscapes.

Performance Arts. Popular performances often combine music, dance, and drama in a pwe ("show"). These shows take place at fairs, religious festivals, weddings, funerals, and sporting events. They generally are held at night and can go on all night long. A pwe typically includes performances based on legends and Buddhist epics; comedy skits; singing, dancing, and music; and sometimes a puppet show. Traditional music and dance have been influenced by Thailand. Traditional instruments played in an ensemble include a circle of drums, a thirteen-stringed boat-shaped harp, a circle of gongs, a xylophonelike instrument, an oboelike instrument, a bamboo flute, a bass drum, small cymbals, and bamboo clappers. Today these traditional instruments are combined with Western ones, including a guitar. The Kon-baung court employed performers specializing in recitation, singing, dancing, and acting. Highly stylized dramatic performances were accompanied by music. There is also a tradition of popular public performances such as the nebhatkhin (a pageant depicting the birth of Buddha) and the more secular myai-waing (an earth-circling performance) conducted by traveling actors and musicians. After 1885, entertainers performed for a new public, and more lively forms of entertainment were developed, including all-female dance troupes. Western-style stage plays were introduced at that same time. There was interest in newer forms of performance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such performances ended with the outbreak of World War II. After of independence, there was a revival of interest in traditional dance, drama, and music. The 1950s saw a revival of traditional art forms and the emergence of a new form of modern melodrama called pya-zat. These were modern plays that rarely dealt with traditional subjects. While secular performance arts now dominate popular entertainment, the military regime has continued to support more traditional performances and the fine arts schools still teach traditional forms of dance and drama, although the audiences consist largely of tourists, resident expatriates, and members of the ruling elite.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

Training in the physical and social sciences at national institutions such as Yangon University and Yangon Technical University is very limited. Since 1962, the social sciences have been almost nonexistent. Some social science research continues to take place, but most of it focuses on the relatively distant past. Institutions involved in such work include the Myanmar Historical Commission, Cultural Institute, Department of Archaeology, and Religious Affairs Department.


Aung San Suu Kyi. Freedom from Fear: And Other Writings, 1991.

. Aung San Suu Kyi: Conversations with Alan Clements, 1997.

. Letters from Burma, 1997.

Aung-Thwin and Michael A. Pagan. The Origins of Modern Burma, 1995.

. Myth and History in the Historiography of Early Burma: Paradigms, Primary Sources, and Prejudices, 1998.

Carey, Peter, ed. Burma: The Challenge of Change in a Divided Society, 1997.

Fraser-Lu, Sylvia. Burmese Lacquerware, 1985.

. Burmese Crafts Past and Present, 1994.

Fredholm, Michael. Burma: Ethnicity and Insurgency, 1993.

Gravers, Mikael. Nationalism as Political Paranoia in Burma: An Essay on the Historical Practice of Power, 1999.

Howard, Michael C. Textiles of the Hill Tribes of Burma, 1999.

Isaaca, Ralph, and T. Richard Blurton. Visions from the Golden Land: Burma and the Art of Lacquer, 2000.

Lintner, Bertil. Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy, 2nd ed., 1990.

. Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948, 1999.

Luce, Gordon H. Phases of Pre-Pagan Burma Languages and History, 1995.

Maring, Joel M. and Ester G. Maring. Historical and Cultural Dictionary of Burma, 1973.

Maung, Mya. The Burmese Road to Poverty, 1991.

Renard, Ronald D. The Burmese Connection: Illegal Drugs and the Making of the Golden Triangle, 1996.

Silverstein, Josef, ed. Independent Burma at Forty Years: Six Assessments, 1989.

Singer, Noel F. Burmese Puppets, 1992.

. Burmese Dance and Theatre, 1995.

Smith, Martin. Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 1991.

Spiro, Melford. Burmese Supernaturalism, 2nd ed., 1974.

. Kinship and Marriage in Burma, 1977.

. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes, 1982.

. Anthropological Other or Burmese Brother? Studies in Cultural Analysis, 1992.

Strachan, Paul, ed. Essays on the History and Buddhism of Burma, 1988.

. Imperial Pagan: Art and Architecture of Burma, 1990.

Taylor, Robert H. The State in Burma, 1987.

Michael C. Howard

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burma." Countries and Their Cultures. . 9 Jul. 2018 <>.

"Burma." Countries and Their Cultures. . (July 9, 2018).

"Burma." Countries and Their Cultures. . Retrieved July 09, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.


BURMA. A country of South-East Asia. Languages: Burmese (official), and indigenous, such as Shan and Karen. Burma was annexed to India during three wars with the British between 1824 and 1886. It gained internal self-government in 1937, and became independent in 1948. Burma did not join the Commonwealth, and discontinued the use of English as a language of administration and education. See ASEAN.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"BURMA." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . 9 Jul. 2018 <>.

"BURMA." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . (July 9, 2018).

"BURMA." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved July 09, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.


Burma: see Myanmar.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burma." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 9 Jul. 2018 <>.

"Burma." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (July 9, 2018).

"Burma." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved July 09, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.


Burmadormer, former, korma, Norma, performer, pro-forma, stormer, transformer, trauma, warmer •sixth-former • barnstormer •aroma, carcinoma, chroma, coma, comber, diploma, glaucoma, Homer, lymphoma, melanoma, misnomer, Oklahoma, Omagh, roamer, Roma, romer, sarcoma, soma •beachcomber •bloomer, boomer, consumer, Duma, humour (US humor), Nkrumah, perfumer, puma, roomer, rumour (US rumor), satsuma, stumer, Sumer, tumour (US tumor) •zeugma • fulmar •bummer, comer, drummer, hummer, midsummer, mummer, plumber, rummer, strummer, summa, summer •latecomer • newcomer • agama •welcomer •astronomer, monomer •ashrama • isomer • gossamer •customer •affirmer, Burma, derma, Irma, murmur, squirmer, terra firma, wormer

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burma." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 9 Jul. 2018 <>.

"Burma." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (July 9, 2018).

"Burma." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved July 09, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.