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Myanmar / Burma - Introduction

Since 1989 the military authorities in Burma have promoted the name Myanmar as a conventional name for their state; this decision was not approved by any sitting legislature in Burma, and the US Government did not adopt the name. Myanma (literally, fast, strong) refers to the attributes of early forebears on the central lowland plains. The democratically elected Parliament of 1990 does not recognize the name change, and the democratic opposition maintains use of the name, "Burma." Due to unyielding support of the democratically elected leaders, the U.S. Government likewise uses "Burma." Aung San Suu Kyi was asked whether she had a preference about her country's name and she said she did - Burma rather than Mynmar. She said the military rulers had no right to change the name of the country just because they fancied it. The country was known as Suvanna Bhumi (the Golden Earth) in the olden days for its fertile land and rich resources.

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.

Burma's prehistory began with the migration of three groups into the country: the Mons from what is now Cambodia, the Mongol Burmese from the eastern Himalayas and Thai tribes from northern Thailand. The 11th-century Burmese kingdom of Bagan was the first to gain control of the territory that is present-day Burma, but it failed to unify the disparate racial groups and collapsed before a Tartar invasion in 1287. For the next 250 years, Burma remained in chaos.

Occasional border clashes and British imperialist ambitions caused the British to invade in 1824, 1852 and 1883. Burma became a part of British India and the British built the usual colonial infrastructure, which helped to develop the country into a major rice exporter. Indians and Chinese arrived with the British. In 1937, Burma was separated from British India and there was nascent murmuring for self-rule. The Japanese drove the British from Burma in World War II and attempted to enlist Burmese support politically. The Burmese were briefly tempted by an opportunity for independence, but a resistance movement soon sprang up. In 1948, Burma became independent and almost immediately began to disintegrate as hill tribes, communists, Muslims and Mons all revolted.

In 1962, an army revolt led by General Ne Win deposed the democratic government and set the country on the path of socialism. The Burmese economy crumbled over the next 25 years until, in 1987 and 1988, the Burmese people decided they had had enough. Huge demonstrations called for Ne Win's resignation and massive confrontations between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military resulted in 3,000 deaths in a six-week period. In September 1988, a group of generals deposed Ne Win's Burmese Socialist Program Party, suspended the constitution, and established a new ruling junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

Myanmar is the largest country in South-east Asia Peninsular, sharing borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. With the total land area of 676,577 sq, km, it is about the size of Texas and the size of United Kingdom and France combined. The country stretches over 2090 km from north to south and over 925 km from east to west. It has 2832 km long coastline facing the Indian Ocean. Over 50 percent of the total land area is covered with forests.

Administratively, the country is divided into 14 States and Regions. It consists of 67 districts,330 townships, 64 sub-townships, 2891 wards, 13698 village tracts and 64817 villages. Myanmar falls into three well marked natural divisions, the western hills, the central belt and the Shanplateau on the east, with a continuation of this high land in the Tanintharyi. Three parallel chains of mountain ranges from north to south divide the country into three river systems, the Ayeyarwady, Sittaung and Thanlwin. Myanmar has abundant natural resources including land, water, forest, coal, mineral and marine resources, and natural gas andpetroleum. Great diversity exists between the regions due to the rugged terrain in the hilly north which makes communication extremely difficult. In the southern plains and swampy marshlands there are numerous rivers and tributaries of these rivers criss-cross the land in many places.

Generally, Myanmar has three seasons. The monsoon or rainy season is from May to October, the cool dry season is from November to February and the hot season is from March to May. Average temperature ranges from 32oC in central and lower areas to 21oC in the northern highlands.

The population of Myanmar in 2009-2010 was estimated at 59.13 million with the growth rate of 1.29 percent. About 70 percent of the population resides in the rural areas, whereas the remaining are urban dwellers. The population density for the whole country is 86 per square kilometers and ranges from 15 to 666 per square kilometers.

Myanmar has a population of 135 ethnic groups with their own languages and dialects. Ethnic minorities constitute approximately 30 to 40 percent of the population, and the seven ethnic states make up approximately 60 percent of the national territory. Wide-ranging governmental and societal discrimination against minorities persisted. The major races are the Kachin, the Kayah, the Kayin, the Chin, the Mon, the Bamah, the Rakhine and the Shan. Predominantly, a Buddhist country with more than 80 percent of the people embracing Theravada Buddhism. There are also Christians, Muslins, Hindus and some animists.

The name Myanmar embraces all the ethnic groups. All these ethnic peoples are "Burmese," that is, part of the modern nation of Burma, but they are not "Burman," a term referring only to those who have elected to become part of the mainstream, speak Burmese, and practice Theravada Buddhism. To be Burman implies a certain amount of genetic consistency, but other ethnic peoples may become Burman by making a cultural conversion. Many ethnic groups in modern Burma refuse to make that conversion to a world view that harmonizes with those Burmans controlling the government.

The government has a contentious relationship with Burma's ethnic groups, many of which fought for greater autonomy or secession for their regions after the country's independence in 1948. At the time of independence, 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 entered into a series of ceasefire agreements with insurgent groups, though a few armed groups remain in active opposition.

The official language is Myanmar. English is widely spoken and understood. Myanmar lies between two great civilizations, India and China, but it has developed its own distinctive culture. Buddhism has a great influence on the daily lives of Myanmar people. The people have preserved the traditions of close family ties, respect for elders and simple native dress. While tolerance and contentment are the characteristics of Myanmar people, hospitality is legendary.

Myanmar is a country with a large land area rich in natural and human resources. Cognizant ofthe fact that the agricultural sector can contribute to overall economic growth of the countrythe government has accorded top priority to agricultural development as the base for all round development of the economy as well. Following the adoption of market oriented economy from centralized economy the government has carried out liberal economic reforms to ensure participation of private sector in every sphere of economic activities. Encouragement for thedevelopment of the industrial sector has been provided since 1995.

Burma is a resource-rich country that suffers from abject rural poverty. The military regime took steps in the early 1990s to liberalize the economy after decades of failure under the "Burmese Way to Socialism" but those efforts have since stalled. Myanmar is a transitional economy moving from 26 years of centrally-planned socialist economy to market-oriented open economy. Private sector participation has been encouraged and developed in both domestic and external trade. Foreign investment is allowed in almost all sectors of the economy with incentives for investors. As an emerging country rich in natural and human resources, Myanmar has enormous potentials for long term economic development.

Burma has been unable to achieve monetary or fiscal stability, resulting in an economy that suffers from serious macroeconomic imbalances, including an official exchange rate that overvalues the Burmese kyat by more than 100 times the market rate. In addition, most overseas development assistance ceased after the junta suppressed the democracy movement in 1988 and subsequently ignored the results of the 1990 election.

Despite renewed border committee talks, significant differences remain with Thailand over boundary alignment and the handling of ethnic guerrilla rebels, refugees, smuggling, and drug trafficking in cross-border region. Burmese attempts to construct a dam on border stream with Bangladesh in 2001 prompted an armed response halting construction; Burmese Muslim migration into Bangladesh strains Bangladesh's meager resources.

There are generally no Burmese surnames, family names, or married names. Burmese have names of one, two, or three syllables, and these do not necessarily bear any relation to the name of the father, husband, sibling, or any other relative. The names are preceded by titles that indicate sex and that also take account of age and social position relative to the speaker. Use care with Burmese names, which contain honorifics among them. The most common adult title used to address or refer to men of superior age or social status is "U." More modest titles are "Ko'" (elder brother) and "Maung" (younger brother). The female equivalent to "U" is "Daw" for older women and that to "Mating" is "Ma" for younger women. When the name consists of more than three parts, use the last two on second reference. Such honorifics may be appropriate on first reference, when not piled atop another title: U Ne Win or President Ne Win. But drop the honorifics on second reference. Maung and U also are either honorifics or name elements: Maung U Shan Maung, Mr. Shan Maung. "Thakin," once a title of respect used for Europeans, was adopted by Burmese nationalist leaders in the pre-World War II period.

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