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Myanmar - Geography

The effect of geography in promoting diversity among people within Burma itself makes nationbuilding difficult, both socially and politically. Always somewhat protected and isolated by the formidable ring of mountains on its borders, Burmese society has developed in its unique manner, never unaffected by the larger nations of India and China but &.ways able to develop in a particularly Burmese way. The variety in the physical environment in Burma itself has ensured that a people unusually close to nature in their ways of living would develop a society itself complex and varied.

Those seeking to develop an understanding of Burma are often encouraged to begin with comprehending the difference between the wet-rice-producing tropical lowlands and the drier hills. These contrasts are often not as simple as they first may seem, but as an introduction, the valley-hill dichotomy is useful.

Encompassing some 678,000 square kilometers about the size of Texas.-Burma in the simplest terms consists of two very different kinds of ecological settings. One is the more or less compact lowland area cut by the Irrawaddy and Sittang rivers, with which the Burmans and other lowland peoples have lived in symbiotic alliance as rice-growing farmers for more than 1,000 years. The other is an elongated horseshoe of high plateau and "rugged mmmtain country inhabited by various "hill" peoples long setted in the area For example, Shans have dominated the high plateau of eastern Burma since the thirteenth century, living in the alluvial valleys and hills of this upland region. Contact between Burmans and other lowland peoples and between Burmans and certain of the hill peoples has resulted in varying degrees of acculturation. Especially with respect to the hill peoples, however, contact has resulted less often in acculturation than in conflict and the perpetuation and reinforcement of ethnic differences.

Burma has an area of about 678,000 square kilometers, sharing boundaries with Bangladesh and India in the west and northwest, with China in the north and northeast, and with Laos and Thailand in the east and southeast. Land frontiers consist for the most part of a ring of hills and rugged mountains, making overland transportation between Burma and its neighbors very difficult. In the south and southwest the country faces the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea along an extensive coastline. Internally, communication is facilitated by the Irrawaddy River system that drains the eater part of the country, arising from its source in the foreted mountains of northern Burma southward through the country's central lowlands towards an expansive delta where nine mouths of the river empty into the Bay of Bengal.

The central lowlands lie between a range of mountains known to the Burmese as the Arakan Yoma on the west and the Shan Plateau in the east. The folds of the plateau and the ranges of the Arakan Yoma are aligned in a generally north-to-south direction, the deeply dissected Shan Plateau extending southward into the Tenasserim coastal region of the Malay Peninsula. Another largc river, the Salween, flows across the plateau; this is generally steeply rolling terrain, having an average elevation of 984 meters above sea level and at certain places rises to twice that height.

The climate of the country is under the influence of the southwest monsoon, which blows off the Indian Ocean and divides the year into three seasons: a rainy season, from late May to late October; a cool season, from late October to mid-February; and a hot season, from mid-February to late May. Despite the influence of the monsoon over much of the country, the amount of rainfall varies sharply by area. Along the coastline, where the west monsoon winds are forced to rise and cool, annual rainfall is very heavy. In drier upland areas annual precipitation is considerably less. Always somewhat protected and isolated by the formidable ring of mountains on its borders, Burmese society has developed in its unique manner, never unaffected by the larger nations of India and China but always able to develop in a particularly Burmese way. The variety in the physical environment in Burma itself has ensured that a people unusually close to nature in their ways of living would develop a society itself complex and varied.

Those seeking to develop an understanding of Burma are often encouraged to begin with comprehending the difference between the wet-rice-producing tropical lowlands and the drier hills. These contrasts are often not as simple as they first may seem, but as an introduction, the valley-hill dichotomy is useful.

Blessed with huge rivers flowing southward from the heartlands of Asia, Burma has collected for millennia rich, alluvial soil that has been the base for a tropical panorama of life and a promise, sometimes achieved, of an agricultural bonanza. The drenching monsoons inundate the plains and even help the drier uplands during the rainy season of roughly three months. Trapped in ancient irrigation canals-low earth dikes-this life-giving water has supported centuries of ricegrowers in what is often called Lower Burma (approximately the lower one-third of the country), including the coastal and river delta regions that, particularly during the last hundred years, were opened up to cultivation. Lower Burma may also refer to the area annexed by the British in their second war against the Burmese in the mid-nineteenth century. In general, it may be thought of as the wet-rice region that is not the historical heart of the country but rather the more modern agricultural rice-basket centering on the modern-day capital of Rangoon.

In actuality, Lower Burma includes not only the whole Tenasserim coastal region along the Andaman Sea, encompassing intricate islands stretching down toward Malaysia, but also the areas around Moulmein and Pegu, traditionally the ancient home of the Mons, a people whose ancestry certainly rivals or surpasses in antiquity that of those known as the Burmans. Centuries of political maneuvering in Lower Burma can be traced in the settlement patterns today around the deltas of the great Irrawaddy, Sittang, and Salween rivers, where peoples such as the Mons and Karens have been made into citizens of the modern state of Burma but proudly hold memories of a separate ethnic identity that modern politicians find difficult to meld into a single national will.

The segments of Upper and Lower Burma that constitute the seven divisions made up the core of Burma in terms of population and political power. Government control was more secure in these areas, where in the early 1980s an estimated 64 percent of Burma's inhabitants lived, than it was at the fringes. The divisions were the Buddhist strongholds, which were also the areas where Burman education and the arts have flourished for centuries. As kings came and went, the divisions were most often under Burmese administration, although the Mons and others often managed to challenge the system. The divisions shared a basic world view, culture, language, religion, and royal tradition that could be reasonably called Burmese.

North and upriver of the wet-rice plains are the drier heartlands of Upper Burma, where the classical civilizations of Burma developed. For about a thousand years, kingdoms, based on control of central Burmese agriculture and manpower, shifted their capitals to fulfill predictions of good fortune. As these kingdoms and their urban centers rose and fell, the villages of outlying farmers survived, and through much adversity and forgotten predictions the villages have endured, not without memories of royal fortunes that have impinged on their tested and trusted rural ways. The medieval city of Pagan and the last royal capital of Mandalay still somehow manage to retain a mood of greatness and past glory that radiates into the countryside. Because a national sense of pride developed in a riverine environment so far from the sea and so seemingly protected by the mountain ranges about it, Upper Burma at moments of greatness believed it was indeed the special heart of the world, the center of everything important. The fact that the Chinese, Japanese, and British had at one time swept over the land, leaving ruins in their wake, has not dimmed the conviction that Upper Burma remains the guardian of traditions and truths of considerable cosmic import.

While kingdoms rose and fell in the plains and village farmers perfected the art of surviving palace coups and foreign invasions, the people in the hills also became quite adept at keeping out of the way when the armies raged and sought recruits. Like mountain dwellers everywhere, Burmese hill groups have prized their freedom and right to live less luxuriously than their valley neighbors.



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