Country profile: Burma

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Country profile: Burma


Cars at night by the golden Sule Paya in Ragoon, with a lot of tall new buildings around. © CEJ Simons Photography

The village of Laing Khin in Nagaland – far away in northwest Burma – has no electricity or running water.

But the grandchildren of the Naga headhunters here wear T-shirts with pictures of the Korean popstar Sy and play football pretending to be David Beckham. Teenagers have $500 Chinese motorbikes. They carry hunting guns and have Huawei smartphones. Globalization has come to every corner of Burma.

In less than five years, Burma* has changed a lot.

In November 2010, the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi ended. This was after the Union Solidarity and Development Party (supported by the military government) won Burma’s first elections for 20 years. Many people said the election was not fair. Suu Kyi’s party - National League for Democracy (NLD) won the election in 1990 by a lot. But the military did not accept her win.

In 2011, Thein Sein became president of a new government – they said it was a civilian government. Since then, there has been progress in human rights. For example, they have released thousands of political prisoners; ended fighting with ethnic militia groups; and stopped media censorship before publication.


Burmese schoolchildren visiting a temple in Mrauk U, Rakhine State. CEJ Simons Photography

In April 2012, Suu Kyi was elected to parliament. So the EU and US stopped all non-military sanctions against Burma. President Obama was the first US president to visit the country. The economy has grown a lot, with a lot of foreign investment, a lot more aid, and a lot more export of oil and gas.

But there are still many problems for Burma in becoming a democracy.

In November 2014, Suu Kyi said the US should not be so optimistic about the changes in Burma. A lot of money from other countries has made prices rise. So many Burmese people don’t have enough money to live in Rangoon.

There is not much infrastructure (buildings, transport and power) outside the big towns. There has been a lot of building, but basic health and education services are not good.

There is now more inequality, because friends of the people in power make money from the new economic opportunities. They force people in the countryside to leave their homes to make space for new developments eg. the Thilawa Special Economic Zone, a Burmese-Japanese project, 24 kilometres away from Rangoon.

The Burmese media no longer has direct censorship, but the authorities check and follow the journalists a lot.

In October 2014, freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, famous for reporting the ethnic conflicts, died in the custody of the Tatmadaw (Burmese military). Friends of the government now own the new commercial media – the only people with money to invest – so there is not much political reporting.


A woman prays at a temple in Mrauk U, Rakhine State (recently there has been violent ethnic fighting there). CEJ Simons Photography

So Burma is still number 156 of 175 countries on the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other groups say there is still a lot of abuse of human rights in Burma. This includes forced labour and getting thousands of children to be soldiers.

The military took control because they said there was too many political problems and ethnic fighting after Burma’s independence in 1948.

Our research shows that the military will probably say they need to keep the power because of ethnic fighting again before the elections this year. The government has not tried to stop the growing Buddhist extremism (eg. the actions of the 969 Movement) so there is a lot of violence against the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in western Rakhine State.

The government says that because of recent fighting between ethnic groups eg. in Meiktila, Mandalay and Bago, they cannot now stop the stability of military control.

Not many Burmese people would agree with this. They have had decades of corrupt control. And the government did not handle the emergency response to cyclone Nargis in 2008 well.

*The military government gave Burma a new name - Myanmar - in 1989. But democracy movements prefer the name Burma. Both names have the same linguistic root.

Tina Burrett and Christopher Simons


Evening at Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most important Buddhist sites in Burma. CEJ Simons Photography

Country profile: Burma Fact File

Leader President Thein Sein (from March 2011). Before, he was a military commander.

Economy GNI per person $3,998, one of the lowest in East Asia (Thailand $13,364, UK $35,002). Money: Myanmar Kyat (MMK). Main exports: Oil and natural gas; minerals and gems; agricultural products. Economic changes since 2011 have increased private business and foreign investment. The economy grew by 8.3% in 2013-14, mostly because of construction, manufacturing and services but also agriculture.

People 51.4 million (in 2014). People per square kilometre 76 (UK 260). Population growth per year 1990-2013 1%. Health Infant death rate 40 per 1,000 (Thailand 11, UK 4). Lifetime risk of maternal mortality 1 in 250 (UK 1 in 6,900). HIV 0.6%. Burma spends only 2% of GDP on healthcare. Malaria is the biggest cause of death; people get TB three times more often than the world rate.

Environment The biggest problems are: deforestation, overcultivation of arable land, overfishing, and environmental destruction because of oil, gas and mineral extraction.

Culture Burma has more than 130 ethnic groups. The main ones are Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2% and Mon 2%. Since 1948, the government has been fighting all the time against some minority ethnic groups.

Religion Theravada Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Catholic 1%), Muslim 4%, Animist 1%, other 2%.

Language Burmese is the official language, but many ethnic groups have their own language.

Human development index 0.524, 150 out of 187 (Thailand 0.722, UK 0.892).

Country profile: Burma ratings in detail

Income distribution The freer economy is creating a lot more inequality. There is a lot more foreign and local investment in cities. But more than two-thirds of the population live in rural communities. 2005 ★★

Life expectancy 65 years. This is more than 57 in 2005 (Thailand 74, UK 81). 2005 ★★★

Position of women Better than before, but there are cultural barriers to women. There is a lot of sexual violence and trafficking in the fighting areas and at the borders. 2005 ★★

Freedom There have been some changes, but human rights are still not good. The army has killed civilians in the fighting with the Kachin that has killed thousands. 2005 ★

Literacy UNICEF says 92.7% of adults are literate, but not everyone agrees with this. Children have to go to primary school, but 12% of children do not go. 2005 ★★★

Sexual minorities You can go to prison for between 10 years and life for homosexuality. There were gay pride celebrations in several cities in 2012. 2005 ★★

NI Assessment (Politics) In March 2011, Burma had a parliamentary government for the first time since 1962. The military junta ruled 1962 – 2011. But the junta wrote the 2008 constitution, and this keeps the power of the military. The military must have 25% of seats in parliament. Changes to the constitution need more than 75% of MPs to agree. So the military control any changes. No-one with close foreign relatives can become president. Aung San Suu Kyi has two British sons. She is fighting to change these points before the election later this year. 2005 ★★

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