About Burma

Burma or Myanmar?

The country was known for centuries in English as ‘Burma’, but in 1989 the military government decided to make the official English name ‘Myanmar’, the same as it is pronounced in the official language i.e. Burmese [Myanmar language]. However, the Burma Children’s Fund has chosen to use the name Burma and the other historic names because most of our supporters find this approach more familiar. Also for the many World War 2 vet¬erans and their relatives the original place names of battles trigger special memories of their comrades.

Geography

Located in South East Asia, Burma is naturally beautiful and culturally rich. It shares borders with India and Bangladesh to the North and West. China is on its North Eastern border and Laos and Thailand lie to the East. There is a long Southern coastal strip facing the Andaman Sea and the central heartland is the dry zone from about Shwebo to Prome.

There are three main seasons:

The Hot Season from March to May when temperatures are around 30-35 degrees centigrade and there is little rainfall The Rainy Season from June to September when temperatures are around 25-30 degrees centigrade; the monsoon rain falls in torrents with as much as 60 centimetres falling in the month of July in Rangoon The Cool Season when temperatures are around 20-25 degrees centigrade and there is little rainfall

Terrain

Burma has a variety of landscapes with huge mountainous areas in the North and West. The Himalayas rise in the North of Burma where there are some mountains over 5000 metres high. Rivers flow from the mountains in the North, including the 1300 mile Irrawaddy which empties into the river delta and floodplains in the South.

The name ‘Irrawaddy’ means the river of refreshment’ it has been Burma’s transport lifeline for people and goods for centuries. Boats have been navigating the river throughout most of Burma’s history. The oarsmen and ferry boat captains need to be constantly alert for the shifting sand banks and the mist which falls and lifts rapidly in the dry season. The Irrawaddy today is mainly used to transport people and goods, including teak logs which are floated down parts of it. It links the upper parts of Burma with the delta area. A number of very smart tourist boats travel the length of the Irrawaddy and at certain times of year can navigate nearly up to the border with India.

In the 19th Century the British changed its mainly domestic use by building canals and embankments. Rice was planted on a vast scale with eight million acres of paddy producing rice crops which made the area the rice bowl of Asia at the time. Rice production has declined and mainly domestic crops are now grown along the banks of the Irawaddy.

Monsoon forests, which have a dry season of three months or more, occupy the area between Rangoon and Myitkyina. Peninsular Burma, to the South of Moulmein is mainly an area of rainforest. Teak and other hardwoods grow in the forest areas which occupy some forty percent of the landscape.

The major cities are Rangoon [Yangon], Mandalay, Bassein [Pathein], Moulmein] Mawlamyaing], Taunggyi, Myitkyina and Akyab [Sittwe] the latter on the West coast. However a new capital city was established in 2005 in central Burma called NAYPYIDAW, situated between Rangoon and Mandalay

Population

The last census was undertaken in 1983, and population estimates vary between about 48 and 55 million with about 70% living in rural areas. The UN will support a new census in 2014. The Government does not currently recognise the Rohinga who live in Burma The government recognizes some 135 ethnic groups in the country. About 70% of the population is descended from the Bamar who arrived in Burma from Central Asia and Tibet before the 15th century. Apart from Chinese and Indians many of the minority ethnic groups live in the hills.

Religion

About 89% of the population are Buddhists, 4% Christian, 4% Muslims and about 3% are other religions including Spirit worshipers. Burma is a land of Pagodas. Burma’s most sacred Buddhist shrine is the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon which Kipling called ‘The Golden Mystery’. It is thought to have its origins 2500 years ago. Successive Kings increased its height and in 1871 King Mindon added a new tier bringing its height to some 98 metres. It is covered with 60 tons of gold leaf and the top is adorned with rubies, diamonds and other precious stones & jewellery.

There are pagodas throughout Burma and they are found in almost every town and village. On the East bank of the Irrawaddy lies the ancient capital of Bagan which has been described as ‘a place of exquisite ruins’. Several thousand pagodas and stupas fill the landscape. Bagan was founded in 849AD. At the height of the eleventh century empire there were an estimated five thousand temples there, which had been built by successive dynasties in a variety of architectural styles – Indian, Mon and Burmese. In 1975 an earthquake destroyed a large number of temples and, although some have been restored, others have gone forever.

Historical Background

It is difficult to give an accurate account of Burma’s history as many of the official records are unobtainable. Historians would need to search for themselves. However a brief outline is given in most guidebooks or can be found on Wikipedia.

Government

A military regime ruled Burma from 1988 to 2010, ignoring the results of elections in 1990, which were overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi. A new constitution which guarantees continued domination by the military of Burma’s government was adopted by referendum in May 2008, in what was widely regarded as a rigged vote. The regime held elections in 2010 in which the government’s USDP won 80% of the vote, but some genuine opposition candidates were also elected.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy did not compete. Following the release of a large number of significant prisoners in late 2011 and early 2012, on 1 April 2012, a bye-election for 45 seats was held, and the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been released from house arrest, contested it, winning 43 of them. They have taken their seats in Parliament in Naypyidaw where legislation is under discussion. There are still political prisoners, although sporadic releases continue. Although the new government is making a more active attempt to broker sustainable peace deals, fighting still continues in some ethnic areas, particularly Kachin state.

International Policy

The targeted sanctions imposed by the European Union including the UK for over a decade were suspended following the April 2012 bye-elections. There have been many visit by international politicians

Currency

The local currency is the kyat. The kyat was floated in April 2012 and can now be exchanged legally at a market rate in banks in Rangoon. £Sterling and $US are widely accepted.

Health

WHO estimate (2009) that the government spends 2% of the country's GDP on health care, around $10 a head, consistently ranking among the lowest in the world. Although health care is nominally free, in reality, patients have to pay for medicine and treatment, even in public clinics and hospitals. Public hospitals lack many of the basic facilities and equipment. Maternal and under 5 mortality and malnutrition remain a serious problem. An estimated hundred and fifty thousand Burmese children under the age of five die every year of malaria, acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea.

Education

Like all services, education is woefully under-funded. Most state schools are funded by a mixture of formal and informal user fees (e.g. compulsory donations for teachers’ salaries, equipment). In many State schools new pupils need some financial support before they can enter the school. Although this may only cost a few dollars it can be an impossible barrier to entry to the poorest and most needy children.

Orphans

There are many orphans in Burma, some cared for in Orphanages, others in their local communities. Some children are orphaned by disease (particularly AIDS, malaria, and TB). Others are the victims of family break-up or have been abandoned by parents forced to seek work in neighbouring countries. Not all of the children in orphanages have lost parents. Some have been sent deliberately to orphanages in towns and safer parts of the country because of insecurity in their villages, and occasionally return to their home areas to see their families. Most of the orphans who come from remote mountainous region of Burma are sick when they arrive at Orphanages and have had no previous education. Few of them speak Burmese, which is the official language of the country.

Cyclone Nargis

Cyclone Nargis swept across the Irrawaddy Delta and southern Yangon on May 2, 2008 with winds of 150 mph. A 3.5 metre wall of water hit the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta and this killed some 140,000 people and a further 2.4 million were severely affected. The cyclone flooded many paddy fields with sea-water that also damaged wells, irrigation systems and seed supplies. Nargis killed around 200,000 farm animals, including 120,000 used by farmers to plough their fields. Many children were orphaned and some were left with no living relatives. There is an ongoing need to support the orphans, to rebuild the infrastructure including schools and to re-institute supplies of fresh water. The BCF is helping with these projects.