Over the past few years Myanmar has experienced a number of dramatic transitions that have restructured its economy, rapidly changing its unique landscape and gradually enriching the social welfare of its people. These changes, which were accelerated by the dissolution of the military junta, have placed modern-day Myanmar back on the international investment radar, and has seen the nation coin the phrase “the Last Frontier”.
The chairing of the ASEAN summit in 2014 is testament to how far “the Golden Land” has come in a relatively short time. However, significant hurdles remain; political, ethnic and religious tensions hinder national objectives that overstretch its outdated infrastructure and understaffed public sector. These bottlenecks, which stem from decades of economic sanctions, are now being addressed by an ambitious government, which under the leadership of President U Thein Sein has taken critical steps that have reintegrated Myanmar into the international community. The release of hundreds of political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD); cease-fire agreements with rebel groups; and an amended foreign investment law have enticed conglomerates and international donors back into the South-east Asian nation, accelerating the pace of change. With national elections set to take place in late 2015, the world is eagerly watching to see how things will unfold.
Following three Anglo-Burmese wars in the mid to late 1800s, Burma as it was known then was colonised by the British empire.
Unlike many other colonies, Burma never joined the Commonwealth, but colonial buildings still form part of Myanmar’s changing landscape. Rangoon (now Yangon) became the capital of Burma during the colonial era and formed an important trading hub, particularly with Singapore and India. Vast numbers of Indians entered the country throughout the 19th century, acting as civil servants alongside the British army. Their arrival brought about cultural changes that can still be seen in modern day Myanmar in the form of traditional clothing and religion.
During the Second World War, Allied forces clashed with the Japanese throughout Burma. Initially many Burmese fought alongside the Japanese, while ethnic minorities sided with 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. General Aung San, the founder of the modern Myanmar army, negotiated the Panglong Agreement, which eventually saw the country achieve independence in January 1948. General Aung San, the father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947 shortly before autonomy was granted.
After 14 years of independence, General Ne Win staged a coup in 1962 that saw government replaced by a military junta that dominated for nearly 50 years. The country’s infrastructure and economy fell into decline following decades of economic sanctions imposed by the Western world. However, in 2011 the appointment of President U Thein Sein ended the rule of the military under Senior General Than Shwe. Coupled with the decision to free the country’s most famous human rights activist, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, this transition resulted in Myanmar’s re-entry into the international community and the easing of economic sanctions.
According to a national census conducted in 2014, the first of its kind in more than 30 years, the total population of Myanmar is 51.42m. The most populous region of the country is Yangon with more than 7m people and the least populated is Chin State with fewer than 300,000 residents.
The second-most-populous country in South-east Asia, and the 24th biggest in the world, Myanmar has a total of 135 different officially recognised ethnic groups. Approximately 70% of the population lives in rural areas, and urbanisation is increasing at a rate of around 2.9% per year.
Accounting for 68% of the population, the Burman, or Bamar, is the biggest ethnic group, the second largest being the Shan with 9% of the population, then Karen with 7%, Rakhine with 3.5%, Chinese with 2.5%, Mon 2%, Kachin 1.5%, Indian 1.25% and Kayah 0.75%. The remaining 4.5% is made up of Wa, Naga, Lahu, Lisu and Palaung ethnic groups.
Located in the heart of South-east Asia, lodged between India and China, Myanmar also shares borders with Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh. With the Bay of Bengal on the southwest coast and the Andaman Sea to the south-east, the coastline of Myanmar stretches approximately 2832 km. The 40th-largest country in the world, and the second largest in South-east Asia, Myanmar’s land area of 676,578 sq km makes it slightly smaller than Texas but bigger than Italy and Germany combined.
The central lowlands have an array of spectacular mountain ranges. Standing at 5881 metres, Hkakabo Razi in the northern state of Kachin is the tallest peak. The Ayeyawady River stretches across Myanmar’s countryside, bisecting mountains and jungles. It is the country’s largest river with a total drainage area of just over 255,000 sq km.
Although Myanmar enjoys a tropical monsoon climate, conditions can differ between regions as a result of its diverse landscape. Normally, there are three seasons. The summer season runs from March until mid-May with temperatures soaring past 40°C in central parts of the country. The rainy or monsoon season follows directly after summer and lasts up until late October. The cold season starts in November and ends in late February. In 2008, the country was devastated by Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in its recorded history, taking the lives of more than 130,000 people and leaving approximately 2.5m people homeless.
Language & Religion
With 135 ethnic groups spread across the nation, it comes as no surprise that there are more than 100 languages spoken throughout Myanmar. The nation’s official language, Myanmar, is the most commonly spoken and the primary language in schools. Other major spoken languages include Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Mon and Rakhine. English is the second language of instruction in schools, although under the orders of General Ne Win, it was removed from the curriculum in 1964 in an attempt to “Burmanise” the people. Under a new government English regained its place in the education system and continues to play an important role in both the public and private sectors.
Theravada Buddhism, the largest religion in terms of adherents in the country, has been the official religion since the 11th century. Today approximately 90% of the population is Buddhist, while Christianity, which was introduced by missionaries during the British colonial period, and Islam are the two next most practised religions in Myanmar, each representing around 4% of the country’s population.
Education & Literacy
Under the Ministry of Education, originally formed in 1950, public basic education comprises four levels lasting 11 years in total, commencing with a three-year lower primary programme for children aged five to seven with classes in Myanmar, English, mathematics and science. This is followed by a two-year upper primary programme that adds geography and history to the existing subjects. Once primary school is completed, students move onto lower secondary school, a four-year programme, followed by upper secondary or high school, which is a two-year programme. The final matriculation exam is sat between the age of 15 and 16, with the 2013/14 pass rate at 31.67%.
Prior to the British colonial period, Buddhist monasteries formed the backbone of the education system. Today, these places of learning still supplement the primary education framework, with over 1700 monastic schools educating more than 300,000 children a year. As a result of the student uprising in 1988, the majority of higher learning institutions were closed throughout the 1990s, and were only reopened in the year 2000.
For example, Yangon University, the most well known and oldest institution in the country before its closure, only reopened in late 2013. Today, there are more than 163 tertiary institutions spread across the nation, and a growing number of private institutions also offer services to the expatriate community as well as affluent local families.
With a dramatically increased budget, the Ministry of Education is undertaking initiatives such as the Comprehensive Education Sector Review to rebuild the country’s education system. The reopening of Yangon University and the announcement by government that public education will be entirely free going forward is evidence of the renewed commitment to strengthening the sector. It will not be starting from scratch, however; literacy among people aged 15-24 in already in the 90th percentile.