Myanmar / The Country and its People

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Myanmar - Burma

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Photo: Myanmar - a journey into the past




Myanmar (Burma) is one of the poorest but at the same time one of the most fascinating countries of Southeast Asia and these two seemingly opposed attributes are more over connected. The country is poor because for decades its government fiercely protected it from almost each foreign influence, which is also the reason for its fascinating character. Travelling to Myanmar is not only a voyage into a different geographic region, but also a voyage into another time.

How far back into the past one travels depends of course on the destinations one chooses inside Myanmar. If you compare the Burmese capital Yangon (Rangoon) to the Thai capital Bangkok, the voyage may take you 30 to 40 years back into the past. On the other hand, a visit to backwash hill tribes can equal a voyage into the middle ages!

In the native tongue Burma's name has always been Myanmar. In 1989 the Burmese military government issued a decree that the country be known by the name of Myanmar among the international community. Since then in official publications and in diplomatic exchanges only Myanmar is mentioned referring to the country, which so far most people had been accustomed to calling Burma. But unofficially the name Burma is still very much in use.

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Myanmar / Geography

Ayeyarwaddy

Photo: The Ayeyarwaddy is the most important transport artery in Myanmar, e.g. to to move giant teak logs.



Covering an area of 676,552 square kilometers Myanmar is almost twice the size of Germany. In the West and Northwest it borders on Bangladesh and India. In the North and Northeast are China and Laos and in the East Thailand, all direct neighbors of the country.

The most important watercourse of Myanmar is the Ayeyarwaddy, which originates in the Eastern part of Tibet. It flows for more than 2,000 kilometers from North to South and thus divides the country into a Western and an Eastern half. The Ayeyarwaddy is passable for ships for a length of about 1,450 kilometers.

The valley and the delta of the Ayeyarwaddy compose one of the most fertile, agricultural regions of the world.

Myanmar's political isolation over the course of the past decades is mirrored by its topography because on three sides, the Northwest, Northeast and Southeast, the country is flanked by high and almost impassable mountain ranges. In the Southeast the Andaman Sea forms its natural border.

But not only are the mountain ranges screening Myanmar from its neighboring countries difficult to travel. The same can be said for the many more mountain ranges inside the country itself.

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Myanmar / Climate

Just like the Thais, the Burmese distinguish three major seasons: the cold season from October to February, the hot season from March until the beginning of June (with peak temperatures around 45 degrees Celsius) and the rainy season from the middle of June to September. During the rainy season about four fifths of the total annual precipitation is received.

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Myanmar / Population

Overloaded truck


Photo: Many Burmese have to share a limited number of means of transportation.


According to Asiaweek's issue of August 24, 1994, in the middle of 1994 Myanmar counted a population of 45.5 Millions. This makes Myanmar the fifth most populated country in Southeast Asia. In terms of population it is surpassed by Indonesia with 191.1 Millions, Vietnam with 73 Millions, the Philippines with 65.6 Millions and Thailand with 59.5 Millions.

Myanmar is among the ethnically most mixed countries of Southeast Asia. Officially the Burmese government distinguishes 135 different nationalities far too many for all to be mentioned here.

The most important are:

  • Burmans

  • Burmanese women

    Photo: Burmanese women working on handicrafts


    Making up about 68 % of the population the Burmans are the largest group of Myanmar's people. Ethnically they belong to the TibetoBurman group.

    Since the early centuries of Christian records, the valley and delta of the Ayeyarwaddy have been populated by members of the TibetoBurman ethnic group, though initially not by the Burmans but by the Pyu. In that period the Burmans invaded the valley of the Ayeyarwaddy from a region, which today is a part of South China. In 849 they set up their first kingdom (with the capital Bagan) and in the following period conquered the area of the Pyu.

    While the Burmans partially took over the social and artistic traditions of the Pyu, they absorbed their population, so that today the Pyu do not appear as an individual group anymore.

    As of old, the present main settlement area of the Burmans are the valley and the delta of the Ayeyarwaddy, one of the agriculturally most fertile regions of the world.

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  • Mon

  • Like the Pyu the tribes of the Mon were mostly absorbed by the Burmans, even though the Mon are ethnically a lot less related to the Burmans than the Pyu (the Mon do not belong to the Tibeto Burman group but to the MonKhmer group, to which Cambodians also belong).

    The central settlement area of the Mon is around the town of Bago, southeast from Yangon. Due to intensive trade with India the Mon were responsible for the appearance of Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

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  • Shan

  • Shan

    Photo: Elder Shan gentleman


    With 11 % of the total population the Shan are the largest ethnic minority of Myanmar and are the only one among Myanmar's larger minorities which belongs to the SinoThai group; just like, of course, the majority of the population of neighboring Thailand.

    The Shan are indeed so closely related to the Thais, that they speak practically the same language (with a degree of difference pertaining to a dialect).

    Primarily the Shan are settled in that part of Myanmar, which borders on the North of Thailand. The settlement area of the Shan is notorious for its widespread cultivation of Opium and for the Heroin factories hidden in its jungles.

    The leader of the Shan Independence Army, Khun Sa, counts as one of the biggest Heroin dealers of the world and was in absence charged with drug trafficking in the US.

    In 1994 Khun Sa demanded that Thailand annex the Burmese settlement area of the Shan. But his demand was not contemplated by the Thai government (and probably will neither be so in the future).

    At the beginning of World War II in Asia, when Thailand still sided with Japan, the Thai government of the day had in fact sent an expeditionary army into northern Myanmar to annex the Shan settlement area. But the terrain proved so difficult with considerably less infrastructure than now a days that the Thai resources proved insufficient to successfully conduct the conquest. Therefore the expedition was cancelled wihout any further attempts.

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  • Karen

  • After the Shan, the Karen are, with 7 % of the total population, the second largest ethnic minority of Myanmar, although only half of the people of the Karen live on Burmese territory; the other half resides in Thailand. When during World War II the Burmese had been siding with the Japanese to drive the British colonial forces out of the country, the Karen fought on the side of the allies.

    The Karen had been expecting to be granted a sovereign state of their own, when the British released the colony Burma into independence. But this dream was not realized, and so since World War II the Karen are still fighting for their own sovereign state. The Karen National Liberation Army has for many years been commanded by its heavy weight leader Bo Mya.

    Traditionally the capital of the Karen had been Manerplaw at the ThaiBurmese border, about 300 kilometers east of Yangon. But in the beginning of 1995 the town was captured by the Burmese army. The main settlement area of the Karen stretches for more than 1,000 kilometers along the ThaiBurmese borderline as well as over parts of the Ayeyarwaddy delta.

    The prevalent world religion among the Karen is Christianity, which, besides different ethnography and language, is another factor differentiating this group from the Buddhist Burmans.

    A subgroup of the Karen are the Padaung, who are famous owing to the peculiar decoration their women wear being metal rings around the neck, which wear down on and deform the shoulders, thus creating the impression of a very long neck. In former times literature they were therefore picturesquely mentioned Giraffe women.

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  • Kachin

  • The Kachin are like the Burmans a Tibeto Burman tribe. They live in the mountainous and barely accessible North of Myanmar. Just like the Karen the Kachin making up about 6 % of the Burmese population have been fighting for decades for a sovereign state. The Kachin Independence Army counts about 5,000 armed men. Most Kachin are animists, but some of them have converted to Christianity.

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  • Chin and Naga

  • The Chin and the Naga compose about 3 % of the population of Myanmar. They are related tribes of Tibeto-Burman origin populating a couple of hundreds of kilometers of mountain range in western Myanmar (but not on the coast of the Indian Ocean) and the border area to India. Both groups also live beyond the Burmese-Indian border in India, where especially the Naga have aroused attention by their zeal for increased autonomy.

    The Chin and the Naga are for the major part attached to natural religions, but an increasing number of both people have converted to Christianity.

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  • Rohingyas

  • In the Burmese province of Arakan, the strip of coastline west of the Ayeyarwaddy delta bordering in the Northwest on Bangladesh, about 20 % of the population are Muslim Bengalese called Rohingyas. By interpretation of Burmese governments throughout the last 200 years including the present government the Rohingyas are not legitimate Burmese citizens, but illegal immigrants, even though the Rohingyas have been living in Arakan province for several generations already.

    After transgressions of Burmese army units in 1991 and 1992 about 260,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, where they were put into refugee camps close to the town of Cox's Bazaar. As the Burmese Bengalese are not welcome in Bengalese Bangladesh the Rohingyas find themselves in a difficult situation. After negotiations through diplomatic channels a large number of the refugees were enabled to return to Myanmar. ==================

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    Myanmar / Religion

    Shwedagon

    Photo: Myanmar, the land of pagodas; the population is deeply religious.


    Buddhism is the national religion of Myanmar and consequently about 85 % of the population are Buddhists. But like Thai Buddhism Myanmar Buddhism is strongly intertwined with spiritism.

    Myanmar was the first country in Southeast Asia where the words of the Buddha were spread. Buddhism has been taught since the first millennium of Christian reckoning by Indian merchants, who entered the Ayeyarwaddy delta for trade purposes.

    But Buddhism became the dominant religion of Myanmar only after King Anawratha ascended the throne of the Burmese Kingdom in Bagan in 1044. King Anawratha was converted to Buddhism by a Mon missionary by the name of Shin Arahan.

    As in Thailand, which was considerably later converted to Buddhism by Mon missionaries, in Myanmar a Buddhist temple is always the center of the village community. Like in Thailand, Myanmar Buddhist temples are the traditional places for education; and again like in Thailand, every male Burmese is expected to temporarily don the monk's robes at least once in his lifetime usually as adolescent.

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    Myanmar / History / Bagan Era

    Pagoda plain

    Photo: Bagan today: thousands of temples and temple ruins


    In 849 Burmans found the town of Bagan on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy about 500 kilometers north of its mouth. Bagan was to be the center of the first Burmese realm about which a wealth of historical information exists. Although even before then in the Ayeyarwaddy valley realms with urban centers had existed, there are only scarce historical sources concerning those earlier realms. Before the Burmans the people of the Mon, related to the Cambodians, and before them the Tibeto-Burman people of the Pyu had founded realms in the Ayeyarwaddy valley or delta, but were in the course of time conquered by the Bagan Burmans.

    King Anawratha ascends the throne of the Bagan realm in 1044. In 1056 he is converted to Buddhism by a Mon monk, Shin Arahan.

    A little later, in 1057, King Anawratha makes war against the Mon town of Bago (Pegu) to gain possession of holy Buddhist scripts (the Tripitaka), which the Mon King Manuha is unwilling to give up voluntarily. After a few months siege of Bago, Manuha finally surrenders. Bago is destroyed and the Tripitaka is carried off to Bagan on the backs of 32 white elephants. The Burmese army brings 30,000 captured Mons to Bagan, among them numerous craftsmen and artisans, who in the following decades not only enrich, but even determine the culture of Bagan. During that time pagodas are almost exclusively built in the Mon style. The Burmese even incorporate the script of the Mon. Mon King Manuha is presented to the main pagoda of Bagan, Shwezigon, as temple slave.

    After his campaign against the Mon, King Anawratha makes successful conquests against the Shan realm of that time, which is adjacent to the Burmese realm in the North, and against the Arakan realm to the West of Bagan.

    After a reign of 33 years King Anawratha is killed by a wild buffalo in 1077. He is succeeded to the throne by his son Sawlu, who further extends the borders of the realm. After King Sawlu's death in 1084 King Kyanzittha ascends the throne and further extends the realm to the South.

    In 1287 hordes of Mongolian horsemen under Kublai Khan bring the Bagan realm to a graceless and bloody end.

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    Myanmar / History / Taungu Dynasty

    After two centuries, during which the realms of the Burmans, the Shan and the Mon in the area of today's Myanmar ceaselessly were at war with each other, King Minkyino ascends the throne of the Burmese town of Taungu in 1486. His reign initiates a resurgence of the Burmese realm.

    After King Minkyino's death in 1530 his 16-year-old son Tabengshweti becomes Taungu's new King. Tabengshweti follows an aggressive policy aiming to resurrect the Burmese realm within the borders of the former Bagan realm.

    In 1535 Tabengshweti's troops conquer the Mon port town Bassein and in 1539 the most important Mon town of that time, Bago. Further conquest campaigns into the northern Ayeyarwaddy valley ensure Tabengshweti's reign over an area, which roughly represents today's Myanmar.

    Tabengshweti dies in 1550. His conquests are of a less permanent nature, because at that time the Burmans have trouble with a number of powerful Shan fiefdoms to the North. Tabengshweti's son-in-law Bayinnaung ascends the throne of Taungu and has to reconquer anew many of the towns, which his father-in-law had already conquered before, among them Bago.

    In 1564 Bayinnaung (according to Siamese sources: Bhueng Noreng) lays siege to the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya, until it surrenders to the conditions of the Burmese. The Siamese King and his family are abducted to Myanmar, as well as a number of highly valued white elephants.

    As Siam is not content with the role of being a tributary to the Burmese, in 1569 Bayinnaung is forced to invade Siam again, leading an army of 200,000 men. After a siege of seven months Ayutthaya is taken by force.

    King Bayinnaung dies in 1581. His successor, his son Nandanaung, however, cannot claim the same military talent as his father. During his 18-year reign Nandanaung loses most of the regions his father had conquered before.

    15 years after the fall of Ayutthaya, in 1584, Siam once again declares its independence. Several campaigns to Siam, the last in 1592, remain unsuccessful. During the following decades the realm of the Taungu Dynasty in Myanmar disintegrates.

    In 1636 the Burmans transfer their capital from Taungu to Ava in the North (close to today's Mandalay). The realm of the Burmans continues to lose in influence. At the same time the realm of the Mon, whose capital is still at Bago, grows in strength.

    The Mon conquer Ava in 1752 and make it temporarily their own capital.

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    Myanmar / History / Konbaug Dynasty

    In 1753, a local Burmese official of the small town of Shwebo, about 100 kilometers north of Ava, by the name of Alaungpaya (according to other sources: Alaungsaya) starts a revolt against the reign of the Mon in Ava. Shortly after, he succeeds to conquer Ava. Only a few years later, in 1757, King Alaungpaya conquers the Mon capital Bago.

    In 1759 Alaungpaya starts a campaign against Siam. But during the siege Alaungpaya is injured and dies on the retreat to Myanmar. He is succeeded on the Burmese throne by his eldest son Naungdawgyi. In 1763 Naungdawgyi's younger brother Hsinbyushin becomes the Burmese King.

    After a siege of 14 months the Burmese army finally succeeds in 1767 to conquer the Siamese capital Ayutthaya. The town is so completely destroyed that after the retreat of the Burmese army the Siamese don't bother to attempt restoration. After a few years of transitory confusion they turn Bangkok into their new capital.

    In 1782 Alaungpaya's fifth son, Bodawpaya becomes King of the Burmese. During his reign, which lasts until his death in 1819, the Burmese realm expands, with the conquest of Arakan, to the West. This leads to conflicts with the British Empire, which at that time is already securely established in Bangladesh and wields a strong influence over the Indian subcontinent from its base Calcutta.

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    Myanmar / History / World War II, Postwar Period

    In 1942 the 15th Japanese army invades Myanmar. It is initially supported by a small troop of Burmese nationalists, among them Aung San and his comrade in arms Ne Win. While the Japanese troops quickly gain control of the Burmese central regions, the British colonial forces retreat to India but not without destroying a large part of the infrastructure, which had been built in the decades of colonial reign, in a policy of burnt earth.

    The Japanese declare Myanmar independent. Aung San becomes Burmese Minister of War, Ne Win ascends to the rank of Chief of the General Staff of the pro-Japanese Burmese army. During the three-year occupation of Myanmar by the Japanese, British units continue attacks on Japanese units and on the Burmese administration instated by them, in a kind of guerilla warfare. Both sides suffer enormous losses.

    When it becomes obvious that Japan is going to lose the war, in March 1945 the Burmese army led by Aung San changes sides and declares itself allies of the allied forces. In the following months Burmese troops support the reconquest of Myanmar by the British forces.

    The Japanese troops in Myanmar surrender in August 1945. The British temporarily reinstate their colonial administration, but meet with strong opposition from Burmese nationalists under the leadership of Aung San. In January 1947 at a conference in London the British Labor government under Prime Minister Atlee concedes to the Burmese demand for independence.

    During parliamentary elections held in April 1947 Aung San's AntiFascist People's Freedom League wins 248 out of 255 parliament seats. But on July 19, 1947, Aung San and five of his closest advisors fall prey to an assassination by prewar Prime Minister U Saw.

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    Myanmar / History / Independence

    At 4.20 am of January 4, 1948, a time recommended by Burmese astrologers, the Burmese flag is raised over Yangon and the country formally gains its independence. U Nu, who has played a significant part during the Burmese student revolts in the 30's, becomes the first Prime Minister of the new state. But, within the next few months Myanmar topples into chaos. Rebellions of Communists and Muslim separatists in Arakan arise.

    The Karen declare their independence from the Burmese state on May 5, 1948, but are not acknowledged by the Burmese government. Since that time the civil war between Karen and the Burmese army keeps smoldering. Only in 1951 the government under U Nu succeeds to gain a semblance of control over the country by military means.

    Internal conflicts inside the government party cause PM U Nu in 1958 to order the Minister of Defense and Chief of the General Staff of the army, General Ne Win, to create a temporary military government.

    Rebellions of the Kachin and the Shan in the North of Myanmar reach a peak in 1961.

    On March 2, 1962, Ne Win and a group of Generals seize political power in a coup d'état. Numerous politicians and delegates of the ethnic minorities, who at that time are present in Yangon because of a conference to find peaceful solutions of ethnic conflicts, are arrested. All parliamentary institutions are dissolved and are replaced by a Revolutionary Council consisting of 17 members.

    In April 1962 the military government publishes a communiqué titled The Burmese Way To Socialism in which Myanmar is prescribed a cocktail of Marxism and Buddhism as state philosophy.

    In 1972 Ne Win and 20 of his followers from the Burmese army resign from their military posts and form a civilian government.

    On January 3, 1974, the country is rechristened Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma and a new constitution is validated. The Burma Socialist Program Party, formerly founded by Ne Win, is admitted as the sole political party. Party Chief Ne Win takes the newly created post of Head of the state council and becomes President besides.

    In 1976 a coup d'état attempt by young officers fails and is followed by numerous executions.

    In 1981 Ne Win resigns as President of State, but remains at the head of the Burma Socialist Program Party ... and thus remains the man pulling the strings from the background.

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    Myanmar /History / Myanmar Today

    After Myanmar's fall into the economical abyss in the previous years, in March 1988 first, massive demonstrations against the government arise in Yangon. The demonstrations
    continue for several months.

    Although those demonstrations had been tolerated over several months, on August 8, 1988, the army uses violence against demonstrators in Yangon, resulting in many deaths.
    In the days that follow also in other towns of Myanmar demonstrations are dissolved by the use of weapons. The international meda mention 3,000 to 4,000 dead and 12,000 injured.

    The Burmese military under the leadership of
    General Saw Maung
    take over political power on
    September 18, 1988
    , and form the State Law and
    Order Restoration Council
    (SLORC) as the new government.
    SLORC promises free elections within the shortest time.

    In July 1989 the cofounder of the Burmese opposition party
    National League for Democracy
    , Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi,
    is placed under restrictive orders not to leave her house in Yangon.

    During parliamentary elections on May 27, 1991, which in
    the opinion of foreign observers were conducted mostly in a fair manner, the candidates of the opposition party National League
    for Democracy
    win with 82 % of the 13 Million given
    votes 392 of 485 parliament seats.

    In October 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi is awarded the Peace Nobel Prize.