Burma (09/06)

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

Flag of Burma is red, with a blue rectangle in the upper hoist-side corner bearing 14 white five-pointed stars encircling a cogwheel containing a stalk of rice.


Union of Burma

Area: 678,500 sq km. (slightly smaller than Texas).
Cities: Administrative Capital—Nay Pyi Taw, near the township of Pyinmana (pop. 200,000); Other Cities--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: 54.3 million (UNESCAP 2004 estimate); no official census has been taken since 1983.
Annual growth rate (2004 UNESCAP est.): 2.0%.
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--male 93.70%; female 86.2% (2004 UNESCAP estimate); estimates of functional literacy are closer to 30%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--61.85 deaths/1,000 live births (2006 estimate). Life expectancy--61.8 yrs.: male; 61.8 yrs., female 66.0 (2002 UNESCAP est.).

Type: Military junta.
Constitution: January 3, 1974 (suspended since September 18, 1988, when the current junta took power). A national convention started on January 9, 1993 to draft a new constitution, but collapsed in 1996 without an agreement. The junta reconvened the convention in May 2004 without the participation of the National League for Democracy and other pro-democracy ethnic groups. The convention recessed in July 2004, a second session was held from February 17 to March 31, 2005, a third session was held from December 5, 2005 to January 31, 2006, and another session is scheduled to convene in late 2006.
Branches: Executive--Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Senior General Than Shwe is the head of state. Prime Minister Gen. Soe Win is the head of government. On October 19, 2004, former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was ousted by the SPDC senior leadership and replaced by Soe Win. Legislative—The suspended constitution provides for a unicameral People's Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) with 485 seats; members are elected by popular vote to serve 4-year terms. The last elections were in 1990, but the military prevented the Assembly from ever convening. Judicial--Supreme Court. 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.
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; there are also many other smaller parties.
Administrative subdivisions: The country is divided into seven primarily Burman ethnic divisions (tain) of Ayeyarwaddy (Irawaddy), 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 (but there have been no elections since 1990).

GDP: $8.8 billion (estimate at August 2006 market rate).
Annual growth rate: 2.9% (2005 estimate); the military claimed the official 2005 rate was 12.2%.
GDP per capita (2005 est.): $174.
Natural resources: timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, limestone, precious stones, natural gas, hydropower, and some petroleum.
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 (IMF 2005 ): Exports--$3.6 billion (official statistics: natural gas - 38.8%, teak and forest products 16%, agricultural products 14.1%, garments 8.2% and marine products 6.8%. Major markets (IMF 2005) -- Thailand 45%, India 11.5%, P.R.C. 8%, Japan 5.1% and Malaysia 3%. Imports (IMF 2005)--$3.6 billion (official statistics: machinery and transport equipment, oil & diesel 13.8%, artificial and synthetic fabrics 12.1%, base metals and manufactures 7.2%, and plastic 4.6%). Major suppliers (IMF 2005)-- P.R.C. 30%, Thailand 22%, Singapore 18.3%, Korea 6%.

A majority of Burma's estimated 54.3 million 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; Jingpho; 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, 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, although the regime may underestimate adherents of these other religions.

Much of the population lives without basic sanitation or running water. In 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked Burma among the lowest countries worldwide in healthcare delivery to its citizens. 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. In 2005, the UNDP's Human Development Index, which measures achievements in terms of life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income, ranked Burma 129 out of 177 countries.

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 Bangladesh, India, China, Malaysia and Thailand to seek work and asylum. More than 170,000 Burmese live in the nine refugee camps in Thailand and the two in Bangladesh. Over one million Burmese work and reside legally and 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 rise of the Pagan (Bagan) Dynasty in 1044 AD, which is considered the "Golden Age" in Burmese history. It was 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 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 Arakanese, 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 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, 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 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. 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, 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 honor the results and call the Parliament into session, and instead 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 began talks with the political opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been released once from house arrest in 1995. These talks were followed by the release of political prisoners and some increase in political freedoms for the NLD. On May 6, 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi 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 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, along with over one thousand other political prisoners.

On October 19, 2004, hard-line members of the senior leadership consolidated their power by ousting Prime Minister 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. Those released since November 2004 include Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, both key figures in the 1988 demonstrations. On July 6, 2005, authorities released 323 additional political prisoners.

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 the capital city itself was firmly 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.

In November 2005, the ruling regime unexpectedly relocated the capital city from Rangoon to Nay Pyi Taw, further isolating the government from the public. 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, but construction and development of the new administrative capital remains incomplete. Foreign diplomatic missions are still located in Rangoon.

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 through a system of subordinate executive bodies and regional military commanders.

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. The Prime Minister is appointed directly by the SPDC. Control is maintained through intimidation, the strict censuring of information, repression of individual rights, and suppression of ethnic minority groups.

The SPDC continues its harsh rule and systematic human rights abuses today, and insists that any future political transition will be negotiated on its terms. It proclaimed a seven-step roadmap to democracy beginning with a National Convention process, purportedly to develop a new constitution and pave the way for national elections. However the regime restricts public input and debate and handpicks the delegates, effectively excluding pro-democracy supporters.

Although the SPDC changed the name of the country to "Myanmar," the democratically elected but not convened, Parliament of 1990 does not recognize the name change, and the democratic opposition maintains use of the name "Burma." Due to consistent, unyielding support for 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 -- Gen. Soe Win
Minister of Foreign Affairs -- U Nyan Win
Charg� 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) 332-3344; fax: (202) 332-4351.

Burma is a resource-rich country with a strong agricultural base. It also has vast timber, natural gas, 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. Due to Burma's poor human rights record, the U.S. has imposed a range of trade 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 passed in 2003.

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 in the economy, infrastructure has deteriorated, and no rule of law exists.

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 that equates to less than $200 per capita. Inflation, caused primarily by public sector deficit spending, and the eroding value of the local currency (the kyat) have reduced living standards. The limited moves to a market economy have been accompanied by a significant rise in crony capitalism. A handful of companies loyal to the regime has benefited from policies that promote monopoly and privilege.

Agriculture, light industry, trade and transport dominate the private sector of Burma's economy. State-controlled activity predominates in energy, heavy industry, and the rice trade. The military's commercial arms play a major role in the economy.

Burma remains a primarily agricultural economy with 55% of GDP derived from agriculture, livestock and fisheries, and forestry. Manufacturing/industry constitutes only 10% of recorded economic activity, and state industries continue to play a large role in that sector. Services constitute only 34% 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 government mismanagement and minimal investment. A number of other countries, including member states of the 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, including 12.2% in 2005. However, the rate is likely much smaller. Burma's top export markets include Thailand, India, China, Japan and Malaysia. Burma's primary exports include natural gas, wood and wood products, beans and pulses, garments, and fish and fish products. Natural gas exports will increase once production begins from the offshore Shwe Field, recently confirmed to hold 5.7-10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas,

Burma remains the world's second-largest producer of illicit opium - although it only produces 6% of the world's total opium. Annual production of opium has declined over the past decade and is now estimated to be less than 20 percent of mid-1990 peak levels. Burma is also a 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 expanded its 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. Burma's lack of progress on human rights and democracy have frayed some ties, and in July 2005, Burma passed up its scheduled 2006 ASEAN chairmanship.

Although Burmese-Thai relations are generally cooperative, they have been tainted by a long history of border conflicts, and sporadic hostilities over narcotics trafficking and insurgents operating along the Burmese-Thai border. Nonetheless, official and unofficial economic ties remain strong. In addition to the sizeable population of Burmese refugees it hosts, the Thai Government has issued temporary work permits to another one million Burmese who live outside the refugee camps in Thailand. Despite their often-contentious history, Burma and China have grown much closer in recent years. 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's ties with India are also growing, although not as quickly as with China.

The UN Secretary General's Special Envoy to Burma, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, resigned his position in December 2005 due to the regime's lack of cooperation. UN Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Paulo Sergio Pinheiro has not been allowed to visit the country since 2003. In December 2005, UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari briefed the UN Security Council for the first time ever on the situation in Burma. Although the regime permitted Gambari to visit Burma in May and meet with Senior General Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi, it immediately thereafter renewed Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest.

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. Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, and has participated in that regional forum, even hosting a number of seminars, conferences, and ministerial meetings. As one of ASEAN's least developed members, Burma also has an extra five 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 per person 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. Since July 1987, the World Bank has not made any loans to Burma. 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 serviced its ADB loans since January 1998. Burma's total foreign debt now stands at over $7 billion.

The political relationship between the United States and Burma worsened after the 1988 military coup and violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations, and remains estranged today.

The United States has imposed broad sanctions against Burma under several different legislative and policy vehicles. The Burma Freedom and Democracy Act (BFDA), passed by Congress and signed by the President in 2003, includes a ban on all 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. Congress has renewed the BFDA annually, most recently in July 2006.

In addition, since May 1997, the U.S. Government has prohibited new investment by U.S. persons or entities. 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 shareholders. The United States has also imposed countermeasures on Burma due to its inadequate measures to eliminate money laundering.

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. Burma is also designated a Tier 3 Country, subject to additional sanctions, for its poor record in preventing Trafficking in Persons (TIP) and use of forced labor.

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

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Charg� d'Affaires--Shari Villarosa
Deputy Chief of Mission--Karl Stoltz
Political/Economic Affairs Officer--Leslie Hayden
Public Affairs Officer--Todd Pierce
Consul--Lee McManis

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.