Burma (12/03)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Union of Burma

Area: 678,500 sq km. (about the size of Texas).
Cities: Capital--Rangoon (pop. 5.5 million), Mandalay (pop. 700,000).
Terrain: Central lowlands ringed by steep, rugged highlands.
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).

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Burmese.
Population (official 2001 est.): 51 million, but no census has been taken since 1983.
Annual growth rate (2001 est.): 2.02%.
Ethnic groups: Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Arakanese 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 groups have their own languages. Education (1999 est.): Literacy--male 88.7%; female 77.7% (official Government of Burma statistics); estimates of functional literacy are closer to 30%. BR> Health (2001 est.): Infant mortality rate--73.71 deaths/1,000 live births. Life expectancy--53.73 yrs.: male; 56.68 yrs. female.

Type: military regime.
Constitution: January 3, 1974 (suspended since September 18, 1988 when latest junta took power). A national convention started on January 9, 1993 to draft a new constitution, but progress has since been stalled.
Branches: Executive--Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Senior General Than Shwe is the head of state. Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt is the head of government. Legislative--unicameral People's Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) has 485 seats; members elected by popular vote to serve 4-year terms. The last elections were in 1990, but the Assembly was prevented from convening by the military regime. Judicial--Supreme Court. The legal system was based on the British-era system, but now the junta rules by Decree and there is no guarantee of a fair public trial; the judiciary is not independent.
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 social organization; and other smaller parties.
Administrative subdivisions: Seven primarily Burman divisions (tain) and seven ethnic states (pyi nay); Chin State, Kachin State, Karen State, Karenni State, Mon State, Arakan State, Shan State, Rangoon Division, Mandalay Division, Tenessarim Division, Irrawaddy Division, Pegu Division, Magway Division, and Sagaing Division.
Suffrage: Universal suffrage at 18 years of age (but there have been no elections since 1990).
Flag: Red with a blue rectangle in the upper hoist-side corner bearing, all in white, 14 five-pointed stars encircling a cogwheel containing a stalk of rice. The 14 stars represent the 14 administrative subdivisions.

GDP (2002 est.): $15 billion.
Annual growth rate: N/A.
GDP per capita (2002 est.): $300.
Natural resources: Timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, limestone, precious stones, natural gas, hydropower, and some petroleum. BR> Agriculture: Products--rice, pulses, beans, sesame, groundnuts, sugarcane, hardwood, fish and fish products.
Industries: Types--agricultural processing, knit and woven apparel, wood and wood products, copper, tin, tungsten, iron, construction materials, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizer.
Recorded trade (2001 est.): Exports--$2.8 billion (natural gas, beans and pulses, teak logs, prawns and fish products, rice, and apparel). Major markets--Thailand 26%, United States 16%, India 10%, P.R.C. 4%, and Singapore 4%. Imports--$2.7 billion (machinery and transport equipment, crude oil, base metals and manufactures, electrical machinery, and edible oils). Major suppliers--P.R.C. 20%, Singapore 17%, Thailand 15%, South Korea 10%, and Malaysia 8%.

A majority of Burma's estimated 50 million people are ethnic Burmans. Shans, Karens, Arakanese, Kachins, Chins, Mons, and many other smaller indigenous ethnic groups form about 30% of the population. Indians and Chinese are the largest immigrant groups.

Although Burmese is the most widely spoken language, other ethnic groups have retained their own languages. English is spoken in the capital Rangoon and in areas frequented by tourists. The Indian and Chinese residents speak various languages and dialects of their homelands: Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Bengali, Mandarin, Fujianese, and Cantonese.

According to the 1974 Constitution, Buddhism is the official religion of Burma. An estimated 89% of the population practices it. Other religions, Christian 4%--Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%--Muslim 4%, and animist 1%, are less prevalent.

Much of the population lives without basic sanitation or running water. In 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked Burma's health infrastructure second to last globally. High infant mortality rates and short life expectancies further highlight poor health and living conditions. The HIV/AIDS epidemic poses a serious threat to the Burmese population, as do tuberculosis and malaria.

There are numerous documented human rights violations, and internal displacement of ethnic minorities also is prevalent. Several million Burmese, many of them ethnic minorities, have fled for economic and political reasons to the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, India, China, and Thailand to seek work and asylum. More than 160,000 Burmese live in the nine refugee camps in Thailand and the two in Bangladesh while hundreds of thousands of other Burmese work and reside illegally in the countries in the region.

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 Toungoo 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 Toungoo.

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 large-scale 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 was put into effect.

During the weak constitutional period from 1948 to 1962 Burma suffered widespread conflict and internal struggle. Constitutional disputes and persistent division among political and social groups contributed to the democratic government's weak hold on power. In 1958, the military was invited in temporarily by Prime Minister U Nu to restore political order. The military stepped down after 18 months; however, in 1962 General Ne Win led a coup abolishing the constitution and establishing a xenophobic military government with socialist economic priorities. These policies had devastating effects on the country's economy and business climate.

In March 1988 student disturbances broke out in Rangoon in response to the worsening economic situation which evolved into a call for change in regime. Despite repeated violent crackdowns by the military and police, the demonstrations increased in size as the general public joined the students. During mass demonstrations on August 8, 1988, military forces killed more than 1,000 demonstrators. It was at a rally following this massacre that Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, made her first political speech and assumed the role of leader of the opposition.

On September 18 the military deposed the Ne Win's Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP), abolished 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. In 2000, the SPDC announced it would begin talks with the political opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been released once from house arrest in 1995, only to be detained once more. These talks were followed by the release of many political prisoners and some increase in political freedoms for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. On May 6, 2002, she was allowed to leave her home and subsequently traveled widely throughout the country. On May 30, 2003, Aung San Suu Kyi and a convoy of her supporters were attacked by a group of government-affiliated thugs. Many members of the convoy were killed or injured and others remain unaccounted for. Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her party were detained, and the military government forcibly closed the offices of the NLD.

The central government has had a contentious relationship with ethnic groups calling for autonomy or secession for their regions since the country's independence. In 1948, only the capital city itself was firmly in control of the Rangoon authorities. Subsequent military campaigns brought more and more of the nation under central government control. Since 1990, the regime has signed a series of cease-fire agreements with insurgent groups, leaving only a handful still in active opposition.

The Union of Burma (or Myanmar as it is called by the ruling junta) consists of 14 states and divisions. Administrative control is exercised from the central government at Rangoon through a system of subordinate executive bodies.

Power is centered on the ruling junta--the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC--which maintains strict authoritarian rule over the people of Burma. Control is maintained through the strict censuring of information, repression of individual rights, and suppression of ethnic minority groups.

Today the SPDC continues its harsh rule and systematic human rights abuses. Any future political transition will have to be negotiated among the SPDC, the political opposition, and representatives of Burma's many ethnic minorities.

Although the SPDC changed the name of the country to "Myanmar," 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."

Principal Government Officials
Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council--Senior General Than Shwe 
Prime Minister--General Khin Nyunt
Minister of Foreign Affairs--U Win Aung
Ambassador to the United States--U Linn Myaing
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.: [1] (202) 332-9044; fax: [1] (202) 332-9046.

Burma is a resource-rich country with a strong agricultural base. It also has vast timber and fishery reserves and is a leading source of gems and jade. Tourist potential is great but remains undeveloped because of weak infrastructure and Burma's international image, which has been damaged by the junta's human rights abuses and oppression of the democratic opposition. The economy has been affected further by recently imposed U.S. sanctions, including a ban on the importation of Burmese products into the U.S. and a ban on the exportation of financial services from the U.S. to Burma.

Long-term economic mismanagement under military rule has prevented the economy from developing in line with its potential. Burma experienced 26 years of socialist rule under the dictator, General Ne Win, from 1962-1987. In 1988 the economy collapsed, and pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets. The military government violently put an end to the civil unrest and pledged to move toward a market-based economy. Although some aspects of economic policy have changed, the state remains heavily involved and additional, much needed reforms have not been forthcoming.

The regime's mismanagement of the economy has created a downward economic spiral. The vast majority of Burmese citizens now subsist on an average income of only about $300 per capita. Rampant inflation, caused primarily by public sector deficit spending, stagnant wages, and the eroding value of the local currency (the kyat) have undermined living standards. The limited move to a market economy appears to have favored crony capitalism. A handful of companies loyal to the regime has benefited from policies that promote monopoly and privilege.

Burma has a mixed economy with private activity dominant in agriculture, light industry, and transport. However, state-controlled activity predominates in energy, heavy industry, and the rice trade. The military, through its commercial arms, also plays a major role in the economy of Burma.

Burma remains a primarily agricultural economy with 57% of GDP derived from agriculture, livestock and fisheries, and forestry. Manufacturing constitutes only 9% of recorded economic activity, and state industries continue to play a large role in that sector. Services constitute nearly 8% of GDP.

Foreign investment increased markedly in the early to mid-1990s, but has declined precipitously since 1999 due to the increasingly unfriendly business environment and mounting political pressure from Western consumers and shareholders. The government has tried hard to conserve foreign exchange by limiting imports and promoting exports. Published estimates of Burma's foreign trade (particularly on the import side) are greatly understated because of the volume of off-book, black-market, illicit, and unrecorded border trade.

In the near term, growth will continue to be constrained by poor government planning and minimal foreign investment. A number of other countries, including the members of European Union, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Korea, have joined the United States in applying some form of sanctions against the regime.

Government economic statistics are unavailable or very unreliable. According to official figures, GDP growth has been over 10% annually since FY 1999-2000. However, the real numbers are likely much smaller. Burma's top export markets include Thailand, India, China, and Singapore. Burma's top export commodities include clothing, natural gas, wood and wood products, and fish and fish products.

Burma was the world's second-largest producer of illicit opium in 2002. Burma also has been the primary source of amphetamine-type stimulants in Asia, producing hundreds of millions of tablets annually. The Burmese Government has committed itself in recent years to expanded counternarcotics measures.

During the Cold War, Burmese foreign policy was grounded in principles of neutrality, often tending toward xenophobia. Since 1988, however, Burma has been less xenophobic, attempting to strengthen regional ties. It now is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), and several other regional organizations and initiatives.

Burmese-Thai relations have been tainted by a long history of protracted border conflicts, sporadic hostilities over narcotics trafficking, Burmese insurgents operating along the Burmese-Thai border, and the large number of Burmese who cross the border to work illegally or claim refugee status. In fact, the Burmese Government closed the Burma-Thai border for several months during the summer of 2002. However, official and unofficial economic ties between the two nations are significant, and the current Thai and Burmese Governments seem eager to reach a new, more cooperative, level in their bilateral relations. Despite their often-contentious history, Burma and China have grown closer in recent years, though most Burmese remain suspicious of China's economic influence. China is quickly becoming Burma's most important partner, offering debt relief, economic development grants, and soft loans used for the construction of infrastructure and light industry. China also is purportedly Burma's major supplier of arms and munitions.

Burma is involved in the Asian Development Bank's (ADB) Program of Economic Cooperation in the Greater Mekong Subregion. As such, it participates in regional meetings and workshops supported by the ADB's regional technical assistance. Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, and has participated in that regional forum, even hosting a number of seminars, conferences, and ministerial meetings. Due to difficulties in reforming its economic and trading system, Burma has requested extensions on compliance with the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA). As one of ASEAN's least developed members, Burma also has an extra 5 years (until 2008) to comply with most of AFTA's liberalization requirements. Burma also is a member of the World Trade Organization.

Most Western foreign aid ceased in the wake of the suppression of the democracy movement in 1988. The World Bank reports that aid now represents only about $2 per capita (compared with $53 a head in Laos and $33 per person in Cambodia). According to the United Nations, official development assistance totaled only $76 million in 2000. Burma receives grants of technical assistance (mostly from Asia), limited humanitarian aid and debt relief from Japan and China, and concessional loans from China and India.

Burma became a member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in 1952, the International Financial Corporation (IFC) in 1956, the International Development Association (IDA) in 1962, and the ADB in 1973. There have been no World Bank loans to Burma since July 1987. Since 1998 Burma has been in non-accrual status with the Bank. The IMF performs its mandated annual Article IV consultations, but there are no IMF assistance programs. The ADB has not extended loans to Burma since 1986. Technical assistance ended in 1988. Burma has not paid its loan service payments to the ADB since January 1998. Burma's total foreign debt now stands at over $6 billion.

The political relationship between the United States and Burma is strained. Official relations between the United States and Burma have been cool since the 1988 military coup and violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations.

The United States has imposed broad sanctions against Burma. Many of the sanctions in place are applied under several different legislative and policy vehicles. Thus the improvement of the situation in one area in Burma would not necessarily lead to a lifting of any particular sanction. Recent measures include a ban on imports from Burma, a ban on the export of financial services to Burma, a freeze on the assets of certain Burmese financial institutions and extended visa restrictions on Burmese officials. The United States has also imposed countermeasures on Burma due to its non-compliance with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering.

The U.S. Government has an official policy to neither encourage nor discourage trade with Burma. Since May 1997, the U.S. Government has prohibited new investment by U.S. persons or entities. However, a number of U.S. companies exited the Burma market even prior to the imposition of sanctions due to a worsening business climate and mounting criticism from human rights groups, consumers, and some shareholders because of the Burmese Government's serious human rights abuses and lack of progress toward democracy.

For its particularly severe violations of religious freedom, the United States has designated Burma a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act.

The United States downgraded its level of representation in Burma from Ambassador to Charg´┐Ż d'Affaires after the government's crackdown on the democratic opposition in 1988.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Chief of Mission--Carmen Martinez
Deputy Chief of Mission--Ronald McMullen
Political/Economic Affairs Officer--W. Patrick Murphy
Public Affairs Officer--Mary Ellen Countryman
Consul--Kerry Brougham

The U.S. Embassy in Burma is located at 581 Merchant Street, Rangoon (GPO 521) mailing address: Box B, APO AP 96546, tel: [95] (1) 379880; fax: [95] (1) 256018.

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.