Learn more about the country of Myanmar including facts about the Burmese people & their history, geography & maps of Myanmar, and the Burmese economy & government. Basic Myanmar demographics including population, religion, GDP, topography, languages and more.
Myanmar Country Profile
Traveling to Myanmar?
Don’t let Burmese entry requirements ruin your trip.
Visit UVC’s Myanmar Visa page for the most current up to date passport & visa information with easy to follow step by step Instructions & online application forms.
History of Myanmar
Burma was unified by Burman dynasties three times during the past millennium. The first such unification came with the foundation of the Pagan Dynasty in 1044 AD, which is considered the “Golden Age” in Burmese history. It is during this period that Theravada Buddhism first made its appearance in Burma, and the Pagan kings built a massive city with thousands of pagodas and monasteries along the Irrawaddy River. The Pagan Dynasty lasted until 1287 when a Mongol invasion destroyed the city. Ethnic Shan rulers, who established a political center at Ava, filled the ensuing political vacuum for a short time. In the 15th century, the Taungoo Dynasty succeeded again in unifying under Burman rule a large, multi-ethnic kingdom. This dynasty, which lasted from 1486 until 1752, left little cultural legacy, but expanded the kingdom through conquest of the Shans. Internal power struggles, and the cost of protracted warfare, led to the eventual decline of the Taungoo Dynasty. The final Burman royal dynasty, the Konbaung, was established in 1752 under the rule of King Alaungpaya. Like the Toungoo Kings, the Konbaung rulers focused on warfare and conquest. Wars were fought with the ethnic Mons and Arkanese, and with the Siamese. The Burmese sacked the Siamese capital of Ayuthaya in 1767. This period also saw four invasions by the Chinese and three devastating wars with the British. The British began their conquest of Burma in 1824, expanding their holdings after each of the three wars. At the end of the third war in 1885 the British gained complete control of Burma, annexing it to India. Under British control, which lasted until 1948, Burma underwent enormous change. The British established strong administrative institutions and reorganized the economy from subsistence farming to a largescale export economy. By 1939 Burma had become the world’s leading exporter of rice. Burmese nationalists, led by General Aung San and 29 other “Comrades,” joined the Japanese forces in driving out the British at the outbreak of World War II. However, the Burmese Army switched sides in mid-1945 and aided U.S. and British forces in their drive to Rangoon. After the war, the Burmese, with General Aung San at the helm, demanded complete political and economic independence from Britain. The British Government acceded to these demands. A constitution was completed in 1947 and independence granted in January 1948. General Aung San was assassinated with most of his cabinet before the constitution went into effect. During the constitutional period from 1948 to 1962, Burma suffered widespread conflict and internal struggle. Constitutional disputes and persistent division among political and ethnic groups contributed to the democratic government’s weak hold on power. In 1958, Prime Minister U Nu invited the military to rule temporarily to restore political order. The military stepped down after 18 months; however, in 1962 General Ne Win led a military coup, abolishing the constitution and establishing a xenophobic military government with socialist economic policies. These policies had devastating effects on the country’s economy and business climate. In March 1988, student-led disturbances broke out in Rangoon in response to the worsening economic situation and evolved into a call for regime change. Despite repeated violent crackdowns by the military and police, the demonstrations increased in size as many in the general public joined the students. During mass demonstrations on August 8, 1988, military forces killed more than 1,000 demonstrators. At a rally following this massacre Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, made her first political speech and assumed the role of opposition leader. In September 1988, the military deposed Ne Win’s Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP), suspended the constitution, and established a new ruling junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In an effort to “restore order,” the SLORC sent the army into the streets to suppress the ongoing public demonstrations. An estimated additional 3,000 were killed, and more than 10,000 students fled into the hills and border areas. The SLORC ruled by martial law until national parliamentary elections were held on May 27, 1990. The results were an overwhelming victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won 392 of the 485 seats, even though she was under house arrest. However, the SLORC refused to call the Parliament into session and imprisoned many political activists. The ruling junta changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, but did not change its policy of autocratic control and repression of the democratic opposition. It continued to subject Aung San Suu Kyi to varying forms of detention and other restrictions on her movement, which it periodically lifted only to reinstate later. In 2000, the SPDC began talks with the political opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi. These talks were followed by the release of political prisoners and some increase in political freedoms for the NLD. In May 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to leave her home, and subsequently traveled widely throughout the country, where she was greeted by large crowds. On May 30, 2003, Aung San Suu Kyi and a convoy of her supporters were attacked by a group of regime-affiliated thugs. Many members of the convoy were killed or injured, and others disappeared. Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her party were detained, and the military government forcibly closed the offices of the NLD. Today, only the NLD headquarters in Rangoon is open, all the party’s other offices remain closed, and Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD Vice Chairman U Tin Oo remain under house arrest. In October 2004, hard-line members of the senior leadership consolidated their power by ousting Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt and removing him and his allies from control of the government and military intelligence apparatus. In late November 2004, the junta announced it would release approximately 9,000 prisoners it claimed had been improperly jailed by Khin Nyunt’s National Intelligence Bureau. Approximately 86 of those released had been imprisoned for their political beliefs, including Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, both key figures in the 1988 demonstrations. On July 6, 2005, authorities released 323 additional political prisoners and on January 3, 2007, the authorities released over 2,800 prisoners, of whom over 40 were political prisoners. Following their release, some of these activists began to reorganize and resume their political activities. Following a sharp increase in fuel prices on August 15, 2007, pro-democracy groups began a series of peaceful marches and demonstrations to protest the deteriorating economic situation in Burma. The regime responded by arbitrarily detaining over 150 pro-democracy activists between August 15 and September 11, including re-arresting Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi. On August 28, as popular dissatisfaction spread, Buddhist monks began leading peaceful marches. On September 5, security forces in the town of Pakkoku violently broke up demonstrations by monks resulting in injuries and triggering calls for a nationwide response and a government apology for the incident. Beginning on September 18, monks resumed their peaceful protests in several cities throughout the country. These marches grew quickly to include ordinary citizens, culminating in a large gathering of protestors in Rangoon on September 24. On September 26 and 27, the regime renewed its violent crackdown, shooting, beating, and arbitrarily detaining thousands of monks, pro-democracy activists, and onlookers. The regime confirmed the deaths of only 10 protestors. However, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) estimated the number of casualties to be much higher, and in his December 7, 2007 report to the UN General Assembly, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro stated that there were over 30 fatalities in Rangoon associated with the September 2007 protests. In retribution for leading protest marches, monks were beaten and arrested, many monks were disrobed, and several monasteries were raided, ransacked, and closed. In addition to the more than 1,100 political prisoners whose arrests predate the crackdown, another thousand or more were detained due to their participation in the September 2007 protests. In February 2008 the government announced that it had completed its draft of a new constitution and would hold a referendum to be followed by multi-party elections in 2010. On May 27, 2008, the regime claimed a 92% approval rate for the referendum, which took place on May 10 and 24. Observers did not consider that figure to be credible.Cyclone Nargis hit Irrawaddy and Rangoon Divisions on the evening of May 2 and morning of May 3, 2008. The storm devastated a huge swath of the Irrawaddy Delta region, wiping out entire villages and leaving an estimated 138,000 Burmese dead or missing (Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)) and approximately 2.4 million people affected by the storm. The regime was criticized for its initial reluctance to grant access to the affected region by international donors, though such access was granted in the ensuring months. Starting in November 2008 the government imposed harsh sentences on large numbers of political prisoners it had arrested over the course of the previous year, including Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi. The trials were closed and did not meet minimum standards of due process. The imprisoned activists were convicted, mainly in closed-door hearings, of unlawful association, illegally distributing print and video media, or generally destabilizing public security and the security of the state and were given lengthy sentences, some as long as 68 years. On May 14, 2009, security forces took Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest to Insein prison and charged her and her two assistants with crimes related to an uninvited American who swam to her home. As of the date of publication the trial was still ongoing.
People of Myanmar
A majority of Burma’s people are ethnic Burmans. Shans, Karens, Rohingya, Arakanese, Kachins, Chins, Mons, and many other smaller indigenous ethnic groups form about 30% of the population. Indians and Chinese are the largest non-indigenous groups. Although Burmese is the most widely spoken language (approx. 32 million speakers), other ethnic groups have retained their own identities and languages. Some of the most prominent are Shan; various Karen, Karenni and Chin languages; Arakanese; Jingpaw; Mon; Palaung; Parauk; Wa; and Yangbye. English is spoken in many areas frequented by tourists. The Indian and Chinese residents speak various languages and dialects of their homelands: Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Bengali, Mandarin, Fujian, and Cantonese. An estimated 89% of the population practices Buddhism. Other religions, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%), Muslim 4%, and animist 1%, are less prevalent, although Christian and Muslim groups claim the regime significantly underestimates their number of adherents. According to the UN Development Programme’s 2007 Human Development Report, public health expenditure equaled only 0.3% of Burma’s GDP. High infant mortality rates and short life expectancies further highlight poor health and living conditions. Tuberculosis, diarrheal disease, malaria, and HIV/AIDS pose serious threats to the Burmese population, In 2008, the UNDP’s Human Development Index, which measures achievements in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment, and adjusted real income, ranked Burma 133 out of 177 countries. There are numerous documented human rights violations, and internal displacement of ethnic minorities is prevalent. Over two million Burmese, many of them ethnic minorities, have fled for economic and political reasons to Thailand, Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia to seek work and asylum. Approximately 150,000 Burmese live in nine refugee camps in Thailand along the border with Burma. Approximately 21,000 Burmese Rohingya are registered as living in two camps in Bangladesh, and up to 200,000 unregistered Rohingya live outside of these two camps. Roughly 40,000 Burmese (mostly Chin and Rohingya) are registered people of concern by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. Another 80,000 unregistered Burmese Chin are in India. Nationality: Noun and adjective–Burmese. Population: 48.8 million (IMF, 2008); no official census has been taken since 1983. Annual population growth rate (2005 UNDP estimate)*: 0.8%.Ethnic groups: Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Mon 2%, Indian 2%, other 5%.Religions: Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%), Muslim 4%, animist 1%, other 2%.Languages: Burmese, minority ethnic languages. Education: Literacy–adult, 89.9%; male, 93.9%; female, 86.4% (UNDP 2005 estimate )*. Health: Infant mortality rate–105 deaths/1,000 live births (UNDP 2005 estimate)*. Life expectancy–60.8 yrs.: male, 57.6 yrs.; female 64.2 (2005 UNDP estimate)*. *The Burmese government reviews UNDP figures prior to release.
Government of Myanmar
The Union of Burma is ruled by a military junta that currently calls itself the “State Peace and Development Council” (SPDC). Although the SPDC changed the name of the country to “Myanmar,” the democratically elected but never convened parliament of 1990 does not recognize the name change, and the democratic opposition continues to use the name “Burma.” Out of support for the democratically elected leaders, the U.S. Government likewise uses “Burma.” Burma consists of 14 states and divisions. Administrative control is exercised from the central government through a system of subordinate executive bodies and regional military commanders. Power is centered on the SPDC, which maintains strict authoritarian rule over the people of Burma. The Prime Minister is appointed directly by the SPDC. Control is maintained through intimidation, the strict censoring of information, repression of individual rights, and suppression of ethnic minority groups. The military regime has a contentious relationship with Burma’s ethnic groups, many of which have fought for greater autonomy or secession for their regions since the country’s independence. In 1948, only Rangoon itself was under the control of national government authorities. Subsequent military campaigns brought more and more of the nation under central government control. Since 1989, the regime has signed a series of cease-fire agreements with insurgent groups, leaving only a handful still in active opposition. The SPDC continues its harsh rule and systematic human rights abuses, and insists that any future political transition take place on its terms. The junta proclaimed a seven-step roadmap to democracy and convened a national convention on January 9, 1993 to draft a new constitution. The national convention collapsed in 1996 after the NLD withdrew its participation. The junta reconvened the convention in May 2004 without the participation of the NLD or other pro-democracy ethnic groups. The national convention convened intermittently and in September 2007, the regime concluded the process of “drafting” principles for the new constitution. Delegates to the convention were not allowed to debate freely, discuss, or attempt to amend the principles. In October 2007, the SPDC appointed 54 persons to sit on a constitution drafting committee, but included no members from the NLD or the pro-democracy opposition. The government declared the completion of the constitution drafting committee’s work on February 5, 2008 and announced that it would hold a national referendum on the constitution in May 2008, with multi-party elections planned for 2010. While the referendum law provided for a secret ballot, free debate was not permitted and activities considered “interfering with the referendum” carried a three-year prison sentence. The government carried out the referendum on May 10 and May 24 in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation and in the midst of the humanitarian disaster caused by Cyclone Nargis. The referendum was rife with irregularities; some voters arriving at polling stations were advised that their ballots had already been cast; in other cases, officials distributed ballots that had previously been completed. On May 27, the government announced that 92.5% of voters approved the constitution, with a 98% voter turnout. Observers do not consider those figures to be credible. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2010. Under the new constitution, the civilian president will not be the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. Additionally, the military is guaranteed at least 25 percent of the legislative seats and has the power to suspend civil liberties and legislative authority whenever it deems necessary in the interest of national security. In November 2005, the ruling regime unexpectedly relocated the capital city from Rangoon to Nay Pyi Taw, further isolating the government from the public and international community. Nay Pyi Taw is a sparsely populated district located approximately midway between Rangoon and Mandalay. Most government workers and ministries moved to Nay Pyi Taw over the following six months, and development of the new administrative capital continues. Foreign diplomatic missions are still located in Rangoon. Principal Government Officials Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council–Senior General Than Shwe Prime Minister–Lt. Gen. Thein Sein Minister of Foreign Affairs–U Nyan Win Chargé d’ Affaires, Burmese Embassy in the United States–U Myint Lwin Ambassador to the United Nations–U Kyaw Tint Swe Burma maintains an embassy to the United States at 2300 S Street NW, Washington, DC 20008, tel.: (202) 332-9044; fax: (202) 332-9046. Type: Military junta. Constitution: January 3, 1974; suspended since September 18, 1988, when the current junta (SPDC) took power. The Burmese regime claimed that a new draft constitution was approved in a May 2008 referendum; it is not clear when the new constitution will go into effect, since parliamentary elections are not scheduled until 2010.Branches: Executive–Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Senior General Than Shwe is the head of state. Prime Minister Lt. Gen. Thein Sein is the head of government. Under the new constitution, the president and two vice-presidents will be selected by the parliament. Legislative–The newly approved constitution calls for a bicameral parliament. The lower house will have no more than 440 members and the upper house no more than 224. At least 25% of the legislature will be military, selected by the Chief of Defense Services. Judicial–The legal system is based on a British-era system, but with the constitution suspended, the military regime now rules by decree and there is no guarantee of a fair public trial; the judiciary is not independent. The new constitution provides for a supreme court, a constitutional tribunal, and lower courts. Political parties: National League for Democracy (NLD) is the primary opposition party; National Unity Party (NUP) is the primary pro-regime party; the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) is a pro-regime socio-political organization; there are also many smaller ethnic parties. Administrative subdivisions: The country is divided into seven primarily Burman ethnic divisions (tain) of Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy), Bago (Pegu), Magway, Mandalay, Yangon (Rangoon), Sagaing, and Tanintharyi (Tenassarim) and seven ethnic states (pyi nay): Chin State, Kachin State, Kayin (Karen) State, Kayah (Karenni) State, Mon State, Rakhine (Arakan) State, and Shan State. Suffrage: Universal suffrage at 18 years of age.
Economy of Myanmar
Burma is a resource-rich country with a strong agricultural base. It has vast timber, natural gas, and fishery reserves and is a leading source of gems and jade. Tourist potential remains undeveloped because of weak infrastructure and Burma’s international image, which has been damaged by the regime’s human rights abuses and political oppression. Due to Burma’s poor human rights record, the U.S. imposes a range of economic sanctions, including bans on the importation of Burmese products into the U.S. and the export of financial services from the U.S. to Burma. Australia, Canada, and the EU also impose additional economic sanctions on the Burmese regime. Despite Burma’s growing GDP due to increasing oil and gas revenues, the regime’s mismanagement of the economy has created a downward economic spiral for the people of Burma. The state remains heavily and inefficiently involved in most parts of the economy, infrastructure has deteriorated, andrule of law does not exist. The majority of Burmese citizens lead a subsistence-level existence with minimal opportunity for economic improvement. Inflation, though now relatively low, is caused primarily by public sector deficit spending and the eroding value of the local currency (the kyat) and has reduced living standards over time. Inflation will likely remain a problem. The military’s commercial entities play a major role in the economy. The limited moves to a market economy have been accompanied by a significant rise in crony capitalism. A handful of individuals loyal to the regime benefit from policies that promote monopoly and privilege. State-controlled activity predominates in energy, heavy industry, and the rice trade. Burma remains a primarily agricultural economy with 50% of GDP derived from agriculture, livestock and fisheries, and forestry. Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 severely damaged approximately 20% of Burma’s rice-producing lands, although most of these fields have since recovered. Manufacturing/industry constitutes only 15% of recorded economic activity, and state industries continue to play a large role in that sector. Trade and services constitute 35% of GDP. Foreign investment from many nations has declined precipitously since 1997 due to the increasingly unfriendly business environment and political pressure, some in the form of sanctions, from Western governments, consumers, and shareholders. However, new investment from regional neighbors, predominately from China, has increased in recent years and is very difficult to quantify accurately. The government conserves foreign exchange by limiting imports and promoting exports. Published estimates of Burma’s foreign trade (particularly regarding imports) are greatly understated because of the large volume of off-book, black-market, illicit, and unrecorded border trade. In the near term, growth will continue to be constrained by government mismanagement and minimal investment. Government economic statistics are often unavailable and always unreliable. According to official figures, GDP growth has been over 10% annually since FY 1999-2000. However, the true rate is likely much lower; the Economist Intelligence Unit estimated that the growth rate in 2009 was 1.8% and predicted 2010 growth to be 3.1%. Burma’s limited economic growth results largely from its natural gas exports, which account for over half of Burma’s export receipts and foreign direct investment. Natural gas exports will increase significantly once production begins from the offshore Shwe and Shwephyu Fields, estimated to hold 5.7-10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Corporations based in China, India, South Korea, Thailand, Russia, Australia, France, and Malaysia have interests in the exploration and development of several offshore and onshore blocks. One U.S. corporation continues to maintain its interests in the energy sector, with an investment that predates U.S. sanctions. Burma remains the world’s second-largest producer of illicit opium–amounting to 5% of the world’s total, according to a 2009 UNODC report. Annual production of opium is now estimated to be less than 15% of mid-1990 peak levels. Cultivation has risen for the past three years following a steady decline through 2006, but yields have fallen during that period. Burma is also a primary source of amphetamine-type stimulants in Asia. Although the Burmese Government has expanded its counternarcotics measures in recent years, production and trafficking of narcotics remain major issues in Burma. While the Burmese Government has actively pursued mid-level and independent traffickers, it remains reluctant to investigate, arrest, and prosecute high-level international traffickers associated with ethnic ceasefire groups.
GDP: $ 22.6 billion (2008 Economist Intelligence Unit “EIU “ estimate).
Annual growth rate: 0.9% (2008 EIU estimate); the regime claimed the 2007-2008 rate, the last for which it released statistics, was 13%.
GDP per capita: $438 (2008 EIU estimate).
Inflation rate: 26% (2008 IMF estimate).
Natural resources: natural gas, timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, limestone, precious stones, hydropower, marine products, and petroleum.
Agriculture: Products–rice, pulses, beans, sesame, peanuts, sugarcane, hardwood.
Industries: Types–natural gas, agricultural processing, knit and woven apparel, wood and wood products, cement, paper, cotton, cotton yarn, sugar, copper, tin, tungsten, iron, construction materials, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizer.
Recorded trade (based on 2008 statistics from Business Information Group): Exports–$6.6 billion. Types –natural gas 38%, agricultural products 18%, precious and semi-precious stones 11%, timber and forest products 8% and marine products 5%. Major markets–Thailand 40%, Hong Kong11%, India 11%, Singapore 13%, China 7.5%, and Malaysia 5.% . Imports–$3.4 billion. Types–lubricant oil and diesel 16.9%, textiles and fabrics 8.6%, machinery parts 8.7%, and steel, iron, and bars 5.8%. Major suppliers–Singapore 30%, China 18%, Bahamas 13% Thailand 6% and Japan 5%.
Geography of Myanmar
Location: Southeastern Asia, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, between Bangladesh and Thailand Map references: Southeast Asia Area: total area: 678,500 sq km land area: 657,740 sq km comparative area: slightly smaller than Texas Land boundaries: total 5,876 km, Bangladesh 193 km, China 2,185 km, India 1,463 km, Laos 235 km, Thailand 1,800 km Coastline: 1,930 km Maritime claims:contiguous zone: 24 nm continental shelf: 200 nm or to the edge of the continental margin exclusive economic zone: 200 nm territorial sea: 12 nm International disputes: none
Climate: tropical monsoon; cloudy, rainy, hot, humid summers (southwest monsoon, June to September); less cloudy, scant rainfall, mild temperatures, lower humidity during winter (northeast monsoon, December to April) Terrain: central lowlands ringed by steep, rugged highlands Natural resources:petroleum, timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, some marble, limestone, precious stones, natural gas Land use: arable land: 15% permanent crops: 1% meadows and pastures: 1% forest and woodland: 49% other: 34% Irrigated land: 10,180 sq km (1989) Environment: current issues: deforestation; industrial pollution of air, soil, and water; inadequate sanitation and water treatment contribute to disease natural hazards: destructive earthquakes and cyclones; flooding and landslides common during rainy season (June to September); periodic droughts international agreements: party to – Biodiversity, Climate Change, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83; signed, but not ratified – Law of the Sea Note: strategic location near major Indian Ocean shipping lanes