A rapid transition: The “Golden Land” is opening up to the world

The “Golden Land”, officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and formerly as Burma, has undergone dramatic reforms in recent years under the administration of President U Thein Sein. The rapid transition from a military junta to an open economy has surprised the global community, and will see Myanmar assume the ASEAN chair for the first time in 2014.

Although the easing of sanctions has accelerated the nation’s economic growth, Myanmar still faces several significant political challenges, including ongoing ethnic conflict and religious tensions. However, with greater access to international markets and a growing number of business opportunities, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the country’s future.

Ancient History

The territory that makes up the modern-day state of Myanmar was first unified in 11th century CE under the Pagan empire. Founded by King Anawrahta, the empire was based in the Irrawaddy Valley in the town of Pagan. The Pagan empire fostered and spread the influence of Burmese culture in the area, which over time resulted in Theravada Buddhism becoming the predominant religion. After the disintegration of the Pagan empire and a 250-year hiatus in which invasions and competing kingdoms fragmented the political landscape, unification in the Irrawaddy Valley was achieved once again in the 16th century by King Tabinshwethi and his successor Bayinnaung, from the state of Toungoo. The Toungoo dynasty brought with it new political structures that replaced the feudal and hereditary chieftainships. Despite a brief interval in which Portuguese influence gained supremacy, the dynasty endured for 266 years.

Winds Of Change

Burma was colonised by Britain following three Anglo-Burmese wars between the years 1824 and 1885. During the colonial era Rangoon (now Yangon) was established as the capital of Burma and became an important trading port between Singapore and India. Throughout the late 19th century vast numbers of Indians came to Burma, and their arrival brought about cultural changes that affected everything from traditional clothing to belief systems, and these influences are still present today. During the Second World War, Burma was a major site of fighting between Allied forces and the Japanese. Although many Burmese fought initially for the Japanese, others, especially from ethnic minorities, fought on the side of the British. The Burma National Army and the Arakan National Army fought with the Japanese from 1942 to 1944, but switched allegiance to the Allied side in 1945. Before his assassination in 1947, General Aung San, the founder of the modern Myanmar army, negotiated the Panglong Agreement, which eventually saw the country achieve independence in January 1948.

Although basic infrastructure and colonial buildings put in place during British rule are still present in the evolving landscape of modern-day Myanmar, the country did not join the British Commonwealth, unlike many other former British colonial possessions. Much of Myanmar’s post-independence history has been dominated by military rule, which began in 1962 following a coup by General Ne Win. During military rule Western nations imposed numerous sanctions on the country, which saw its economy isolated for more than half a century. Following a general election in 2010 and the appointment of President U Thein Sein the following year, the military junta was officially dissolved.

The end of the military junta and the rule of Senior General Than Shwe brought about the easing of sanctions by the EU and the US, as well as the release of Myanmar’s most prominent human rights activist and the chairperson of the National League for Democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of General Aung San), along with many other political prisoners. As a result, the country is gaining increasing international credibility, but it still has obstacles to overcome, including the ongoing conflict in the northern state of Kachin.

Geography & Climate

Wedged between the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, Myanmar is the 40th-largest nation in the world with a land area of 676,578 sq km. Located in South-east Asia and bordered by China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh, Myanmar has three seasons: summer, rainy and cold. From March to mid-May are the summer months with temperatures reaching in excess of 40°C in central Myanmar; the rain falls from mid-May to the end of October; and the cold season starts in November and ends in late February.

Myanmar enjoys a tropical monsoon climate, but conditions differ widely from region to region due to the country’s varied topography. The Irrawaddy River is the longest waterway in Myanmar, which covers much of the country’s landmass and has a drainage area of 255,081 sq km. Rising in the far north, the river flows south, bisecting the country before bifurcating into a delta that meets the Andaman Sea.

The nation’s central lowlands are surrounded by a series of mountain ranges, with the tallest peak being Hkakabo Razi in the northern state of Kachin, standing at 5881 metres. Located on the Bay of Bengal, the coastline of Myanmar stretches approximately 2832 km. The coastline can be divided into two sections, firstly, the Western Rakhine coast facing the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and secondly, the Southern Taninthayi coast along the Andaman Sea, which is also host to the stunning Myeik Archipelago.

Population

With a young and growing population of more than 60m people. Myanmar is the 24th-most-populous country in the world and the second most populous in South-east Asia. It is predominantly rural, although urbanisation is increasing at a rate of 2.9% per year, which is higher than the annual population growth rate of 1.07%. The current life expectancy at birth is 65 years. The population is made up of a total of 135 different ethnicities, with the largest group being the Burman or Bamar, which accounts for 68% of the population. The next-largest group is the Shan, comprising 9%, followed by the Karen (7%), Rakhine (4%), Chinese (3%), Indian (2%) and Mon (2%).

Language & Religion

Burmese is the nation’s official language, although a wide variety of others are spoken in the regions by ethnic minorities, with studies suggesting there are as many as 100 languages within the country. Aside from Burmese, other major local languages include Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Mon and Rakhine. Burmese is the primary language in schools and English is the secondary language.

English was the primary language of instruction from late 19th century until 1964, when Gen Ne Win mandated educational reforms in order to “Burmanise” the people. English continues to be used by the educated, particularly in cities, and the national government. With regards to religion, Buddhism is practised by 89% of the population, whilst Christianity and Islam are the two next most practised religions in the country, each representing around 4% of the total population.

Regions

Myanmar comprises seven states and seven regions. Prior to August 2010, these regions were known and recognised as divisions. The regions can be described ethnically as predominantly Burman (Bamar), while the states (including what is known as the zones and Wa Divisions) are ethnic minority-dominant. Mandalay Region has the largest population, whilst Yangon Region is the most densely populated. The smallest population is Kayah State. In terms of land area, Shan State is the largest and the Yangon Region is the smallest. States and divisions are divided into districts, which consist of townships that include towns, wards and village-tracts – groups of adjacent villages. Each state or region has a regional government or a state government consisting of a chief minister, other ministers and an advocate general.

Natural Resources

Myanmar is rich in natural resources and has an established extractive industries sector with one of the world’s oldest continuously producing oil fields, Yenangyaung in central Myanmar, which has been in operation since 1887. The country is also known for its rare gemstones, including sapphires, pearls, jade and rubies. Jade extraction is one of the largest contributors to GDP, although it has been halted since 2012 due to regional ethnic conflicts. Myanmar is also rich in mineral resources, but it remains greatly unexplored by international mining firms, something the government is proactively trying to change.

The country has substantial hydrocarbons resources as well, with proven oil reserves of 50m barrels, although current production is just 20,790 barrels per day, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Myanmar is even richer in natural gas, ranking 37th globally in terms of reserves. Current proven reserves come in at 10trn cu feet, while production stood at 421bn cu feet in 2011, according to the US EIA. Natural gas has been a major export earner for the country, with net exports of some 303bn cu feet in 2011. As a result, Myanmar has a significant role to play in the future as a leading producer of natural gas. With the lifting of sanctions and the resolution of a maritime border dispute with Bangladesh, the government has accelerated investment by tendering resource-rich territory to foreign parties. Finally, hydropower also has immense potential, as Myanmar’s large and long rivers are exceptionally well suited to building hydroelectric dams.

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