The preeminence of the Burman ethnic majority in economic, social, and political affairs is clear. To the degree that other peoples participated in the mainstream of national life, it is in the context of Burman dominance. Burmans constituted perhaps two-thirds of the country's estimated 36 million people in 1983. All the 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.
Circumstances of history have contributed to the difficulty of party and government efforts to unify the nation. Over the past millennium, three dynasties dominated by ethnic Burmans succeeded for relatively brief periods in imposing their political authority over the area within the boundaries of the modern political state, and at times these dynasties expanded to the east and west considerably beyond those perimeters. Not until the Union of Burma was formed in 1948, however, had all the diverse peoples within its ill-defined borders formally been brought together in a single, if somewhat tenuous, federation. Moreover, among Burma's major ethnic groups, apart from the Arakanese, only the Burmans themselves are concentrated wholly within Burma. Shans, Mons, Chins, Karens, and Kachins are also found in various numbers in neighboring countries. Some ethnic minorities in Burma are also represented all over southeast Asia.
The effect of geography in promoting diversity among people within Burma itself makes nationbuilding difficult, both socially and politically. 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 mountain 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. To a remarkable degree in 1983 ethnic minorities retained their own customs, languages, and historical and political consciousness. Many groups differed from the ethnic Burmans in religion as well. Some have adopted Christianity, introduced to Burma by Western missionaries in the nineteenth century, while others adhered to indigenous beliefs and practices. Among minorities sharing adherence to the uniquely Burmese form of Theravada Buddhism practiced in Burma - a form that exhibits the influence of indigenous beliefs as well as of Hindu-Brahman doctrine -- are the Shans and the Mons. The Mons, whose ancient kingdoms in the central lowlands may substantially predate those of the Burmans, are believed by some to have brought Theravada Buddhism to Burma from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka).
Nationalist spirit runs deep in the society. Burmese are intensely proud of their history and cultural tradition. Their name for the country bespeaks that pride: Myanma (literally, fast, "strong) refers to the attributes oFearly forebears on the central lowland plains. Burmese cherish the recalled splendors of Pagan, with its myriad pagodas, monasteries, and shrines; and athough the British deposed the last monarch at Mandalay in the late nineteenth century, Burmese still regard that city as the nation's religious and spiritual fountainhead.
Surrounding the Burman majority, and sometimes intermixed with them in lowland settlements, are a host of ethnic minorities, each of which may have its own history, language, religion, and life-style. These minorities have interacted with Burmans for so many centuries that whenever they opt to do so, they may assume Burman ways for strategic reasons. In the southwest are the Buddhist Arakanese, speaking a form of Burmese but having a proud historical independence until the late eighteenth century. North of them in the plains and mostly in the hills are the Chin peoples, who have their own language and religion and live a mountain life in contrast to their Buddhist lowland neighbors. Still farther north are the Naga and Kachin hill peoples, having a distinct language and culture, most preferring the safety of the mountains but others settling in the valleys with Burmans or another minority, the Shans. The Shans (or Tai, as they call themselves) are usually rice farmers, have their own language and customs, and practice their own variants of Theravada Buddhism.
Along the eastern borders of Burma are still more complex groups of peoples, including a large population of valley Shans in the eastern Shan Plateau. In eastern hill and mountain areas also may be found Kachins, Was, Akhas, Lisus, Palaungs, Kayahs, Karens, and many others, groups of whom may prefer to stress their distinctness or separateness from the Burmans or decide to throw in their lot with lowland, "civilized" life. In the southeast of the country, in addition to the Karens, are the Mons, descendants of a once-powerful southern kingdom of Mon-speaking Buddhists who were conquered by the Burmans in the late eighteenth century. To make the society of Burma even more complex are thousands of Muslims, Hindus, Chinese, and others originally from neighboring countries who live in urban settlements or are found scattered about the countryside.
The segments of Upper and Lower Burma that constituted 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.
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