The most densely populated part of the country is the valley of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, which, with its vast delta, is one of the main rice-growing regions of the world. Mandalay, the country's second largest city, is on the Ayeyarwady in central Myanmar. The Ayeyarwady basin is inhabited by the Burmans proper, a Mongolic people who came down from Tibet by the 9th cent. and now represent nearly 70% of the mainly rural population. The valley is surrounded by a chain of mountains that stem from the E Himalayas and spread out roughly in the shape of a giant horseshoe; the ranges and river valleys of the Chindwinn (a tributary of the Ayeyarwady) and of the Sittoung and the Thanlwin, or Salween (both to the E of the Ayeyarwady), run from north to south.
In the mountains of N Myanmar (rising to more than 19,000 ft/5,790 m) and along the India-Myanmar frontier live various Mongolic peoples; the most important are the Kachins (in the Kachin State in the north) and the Chins (in the Chin State in the west). These peoples practice shifting cultivation (taungya) and cut teak in the forests.
Between the Bay of Bengal and the hills of the Arakan Yoma is Rakhine State, a narrow coastal plain with the port of Sittwe, which is home to the Rakhines. In E Myanmar on the Shan Plateau is Shan State, home of the Shans, a Tai people closely related to the Thai who, at nearly 10% of the population, are Myanmar's largest minority. South of Shan State are the mountainous Kayah State and Kayin State; the Karens, who inhabit this region, are of Tai-Chinese origin, and many are Christians. South of Kayin State is the Tanintharyi region, a long, narrow strip of coast extending to the Isthmus of Kra. At its northern end is the port of Mawlamyine, Myanmar's third largest city.
Most of Myanmar has a tropical monsoon climate; however, N of the Bago Hills around Mandalay is the so-called Dry Zone with a rainfall of 20 to 40 in. (51-102 cm). On the Shan Plateau temperatures are moderate. Theravada Buddhism is the religion of about 90% of the population; there are Christian and Muslim minorities. Burmese (the tongue of the Burmans) is the official language, but each of Myanmar's ethnic minorities has its own language; in all, over 100 languages are spoken.
Myanmar suffered extensive damage in World War II, and some sectors of its economy have not yet fully recovered. About 70% of the population works in agriculture and forestry, and rice accounts for about half of the agricultural output. Other important crops are pulses, sesame, peanuts, and sugarcane. Myanmar also produces illegal opium in the northeast (bordering China, Laos, and Thailand), part of the "Golden Triangle"; heroin produced in the country's laboratories contributes to the black-market trade. Myanmar's forests, which are government-owned, are the source of teak and other hardwoods. Fishing is also important.
The country is rich in minerals. Petroleum is found east of the Ayeyarwady in the Dry Zone. Tin and tungsten are mined in E Myanmar; the Mawchi mines in Kayah State are also rich in tungsten. In Shan State, northwest of Lashio, are the Bawdwin mines, the source of lead, silver, and zinc. Coal, copper, natural gas, and iron deposits have also been found in Myanmar. Gems (notably rubies and sapphires) are found near Mogok. Since the 13th cent., Myanmar has exported jade from the Hunkawng valley in the north to China.
Aside from food processing, other manufacturing industries include wood and wood products, construction materials, pharmaceuticals, fertilizer, natural gas, and textiles and clothing. Exports include gas, wood products, pulses, fish, rice, clothing, jade, and gemstones. The chief imports are fabric, petroleum products, fertilizer, plastics, machinery, transportation equipment, construction materials, crude oil, food products, and edible oil. The country's chief trade partners are Thailand, China, Singapore, and India. Myanmar's developing economy, depressed by political turmoil, began to recover in the 1980s with increased private activity and foreign investment, but efforts to liberalize the economy stalled in the late 1990s.
The chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, the military junta that rules Myanmar, serves as head of state. The government is headed by the prime minister. Myanmar's 1974 constitution was suspended in 1988, when a military junta assumed power. The process of drafting of a new constitution began in 1994, was suspended in 1996, and resumed in 2004; however, it did not included participation of the democratic opposition. The new constitution was adopted in 2008 after a referendum that was tightly controlled by the military. Administratively, the country is divided into seven divisions and seven states.
Myanmar's early history is mainly the story of the struggle of the Burmans against the Mons, or Talaings (of Mon-Khmer origin, now assimilated). In 1044, King Anawratha established Burman supremacy over the Ayeyarwady delta and over Thaton, capital of the Mon kingdom. Anawratha adopted Theravada Buddhism from the Mons. His capital, Pagan, "the city of a thousand temples," was the seat of his dynasty until it was conquered by Kublai Khan in 1287. Then Shan princes predominated in upper Myanmar, and the Mons revived in the south.
In the 16th cent. the Burman Toungoo dynasty unified the country and initiated the permanent subjugation of the Shans to the Burmans. In the 18th cent. the Mons of the Ayeyarwady delta overran the Dry Zone. In 1758, Alaungapaya rallied the Burmans, crushed the Mons, and established his capital at Yangon. He extended Burman influence to areas in present-day India (Assam and Manipur) and Thailand. Myanmar was ruled by his successors (the Konbaung dynasty) when friction with the British over border areas in India led to war in 1824.
The Treaty of Yandabo (1826) forced Myanmar to cede to British India the Rakhine and Tanintharyi coasts. In a second war (1852) the British occupied the Ayeyarwady delta. Fear of growing French strength in the region, in addition to economic considerations, caused the British to instigate the third Anglo-Burman War (1885) to gain complete control of Myanmar. The Burman king was captured, and the remainder of the country was annexed to India. Under British rule rice cultivation in the delta was expanded, an extensive railroad network was built, and the natural resources of Myanmar were developed. Exploitation of the rich oil deposits of Yenangyaung in central Myanmar was begun in 1871; the export of metals also became important.
Until the 20th cent. Myanmar was allowed no self-government. In 1923 a system of "dyarchy," already in effect in the rest of British India, was introduced, whereby a partially elected legislature was established and some ministers were made responsible to it. In 1935 the British gave Myanmar a new constitution (effective 1937), which separated the country from British India and provided for a fully elected assembly and a responsible cabinet.
During World War II, Myanmar was invaded and quickly occupied by the Japanese, who set up a nominally independent Burman regime under Dr. Ba Maw. Disillusioned members of the Burmese Independent Army (which the Japanese had formed secretly before the war to assist in expelling the British) under Aung San formed an anti-Japanese resistance movement, the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL). Allied forces drove the Japanese out of Myanmar in Apr., 1945.Independence and Civil Strife
In 1947 the British and Aung San reached agreement on full independence for Myanmar. Most of the non-Burman peoples supported the agreement, although the acquiescence of many proved short-lived. Despite the assassination of Aung San in July, 1947, the agreement went into effect on Jan. 4, 1948. Myanmar became an independent republic outside the Commonwealth of Nations. The new constitution provided for a bicameral legislature with a responsible prime minister and cabinet. Non-Burman areas were organized as the Shan, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, and Chin states; each possessed a degree of autonomy.
The government, controlled by the socialist AFPFL, was soon faced with armed risings of Communist rebels and of Karen tribespeople, who wanted a separate Karen nation. International tension grew over the presence in Myanmar of Chinese Nationalist troops who had been forced across the border by the Chinese Communists in 1950 and who were making forays into China. Myanmar took the matter to the United Nations, which in 1953 ordered the Nationalists to leave Myanmar. In foreign affairs Myanmar followed a generally neutralist course. It refused to join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and was one of the first countries to recognize the Communist government in China.
In the elections of 1951-52 the AFPFL triumphed. In 1958 the AFPFL split into two factions; with a breakdown of order threatening, Premier U Nu invited General Ne Win, head of the army, to take over the government (Oct., 1958). After the 1960 elections, which were won by U Nu's faction, civilian government was restored. However, as rebellions among the minorities flared and opposition to U Nu's plan to make Buddhism the state religion mounted, conditions deteriorated rapidly.
In Mar., 1962, Ne Win staged a military coup, discarded the constitution, and established a Revolutionary Council, made up of military leaders who ruled by decree. While the federal structure was retained, a hierarchy of workers' and peasants' councils was created. A new party, the Myanmar Socialist Program party, was made the only legal political organization. The Revolutionary Council fully nationalized the industrial and commercial sectors of the economy and imposed a policy of international isolation.
Insurgency became a major problem of the Ne Win regime. Pro-Chinese Communist rebels—the "White Flag" Communists—were active in the northern part of the country, where, from 1967 on, they received aid from Communist China; the Chinese established links with the Shan and Kachin insurgents as well. The deposed U Nu, who managed to leave Myanmar in 1969, also used minority rebels to organize an anti-Ne Win movement among the Shans, Karens, and others in the east. However, in 1972, U Nu split with minority leaders over their assertion of the right to secede from Myanmar.
By the early 1970s the various insurgent groups controlled about one third of Myanmar. Ne Win and other top leaders resigned from the military in 1972 but continued to retain power. A new constitution, providing for a unicameral legislature and one legal political party, took effect in Mar., 1974. At that time the Revolutionary Council was disbanded and Ne Win was installed as president. Economic strife and ethnic tensions throughout the 1970s and 80s led to antigovernment riots in 1988, which caused Ne Win to resign from office. The series of governments that followed failed to restore order, and the military seized control under the name of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC); some 3,000 were killed when the demonstrations were suppressed. In June, 1989, the military government officially changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar.
In elections held in May, 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a large majority of assembly seats. However, the SLORC declared the election results invalid and arrested many leaders and members of the NLD. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD, had been placed under house arrest in 1989; she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In 1992, General Than Shwe became head of the junta and assumed the position of prime minister; many political prisoners were released, most martial law decrees were lifted, and plans to draft a new constitution were announced. However, there was little evidence that the army was prepared to return the government to civilian control. A UN General Assembly committee unanimously condemned the military regime for its refusal to surrender power to a democratically elected parliament.
During the mid-1990s the military government signed cease-fires with the insurgent ethnic minorities except the Karen; the government launched a major offensive against their stronghold in E Myanmar along the Thai border in 1997. Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 1995 and became active as an opposition leader; the military government denounced her and harassed her followers. In Jan., 1996, Khun Sa, a major opium lord and leader of a private army, surrendered and allowed government troops to enter his jungle headquarters; it was speculated that he might have been granted amnesty and allowed to continue drug activities in return for ending his insurgency.
In 1997 the SLORC changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Myanmar moved toward closer political and economic relations with neighboring India and Thailand in the 1990s, and in 1999 it was accepted as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Human-rights groups continued to report numerous abuses, including the jailing of trade unionists and the increased use of members of ethnic minority groups as forced laborers, and harassment of and crackdowns on the opposition were regular occurrences. In Nov., 2000, the International Labor Organization called for sanctions against Myanmar because of the country's use of forced labor, but significant economic measures were not imposed because they would be barred by the World Trade Organization, to which Myanmar belongs.
Aung San Suu Kyi was again placed under house arrest from Sept., 2000, to May, 2002. Although many of her supporters had hoped that her 2002 release signaled a new attitude on the part of the SPDC, talks between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government, which had begun during her confinement, did not resume as expected. As she increased her criticism of the SPDC in 2003, her motorcade was attacked in May, her supporters were blamed for the violence, and she and other NLD leaders again placed in detention or under house arrest. The renewed repression led to new international sanctions and criticism of the government; like the earlier sanctions, these did not have a significant effect, in large part because of significant trade with and investments from China, Thailand, India, and Singapore. A number of NLD leaders were freed beginning in November. Meanwhile, in Aug., 2003, Gen. Khin Nyunt, who headed military intelligence, succeeded Than Shwe as prime minister; the latter remained head of the junta.
In May, 2004, the government convened a constitutional convention, but the NLD boycotted the convention because of Aung San Suu Kyi's continuing detention. The convention adjourned in July. Khin Nyunt, who was regarded as one of the more moderate SPDC members, was forced from office in Oct., 2004. Lt. Gen. Soe Win replaced him. Khin Nyunt was subsequently (2005) secretly tried on corruption and bribery charges and given a suspended sentence.
The country did not suffer significant damage as a result of the Dec., 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami. The government reconvened the constitutional convention in Feb., 2005, but adjourned it again at the end of March. The government arrest of Shan leaders on treason charges in Feb., 2005, following a government call for Shan forces to disarm, led the Shan that had signed a 1995 cease-fire with the government to resume their struggle and declare (May, 2005) Shan State independent. In Nov., 2005, the government announced that the capital would be moved to near Pyinmana from Yangon and that it had begun relocating ministries there. The move was presented as a transfer of the government to a more central location, but outside observers regarded it as an attempt to relocate to a more isolated and secure site.
The constitutional convention was again reconvened from Dec., 2005, to Jan., 2006, from Oct., 2006, to Dec., 2006, and from July to Sept., 2007, which the government announced that it had completed its work of writing the detailed guidelines for a new constitution. Under the guidelines the military would control important government ministries and sizable blocks of legislative seats. Meanwhile, in Apr., 2006, the government accused the NLD of having ties to terrorist groups, a charge the NLD denied. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which usually raises issues of concern confidentially with national governments, publicly criticized Myanmar's military regime of major human rights abuses in June, 2007.
In May, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein became acting prime minister; Soe Win, the prime minister, was seriously ill, and died in October. Fuel price rises in Aug., 2007, led to antigovernment demonstrations that came to involve large numbers of Buddhist monks; the protests continued into September. That month, however, the government brutally suppressed the demonstrations and arrested some 3,000 (the official figure). In Feb., 2008, the government announced that the new constitution was completed and that a national referendum on it would be held in May. The proposed constitution was not published, however, until April.
In May, 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated areas of Myanmar bordering the Andaman Sea, especially in the Ayeyarwady delta and greater Yangon regions. An estimated 138,000 persons were killed, and rebuilding costs were estimated at $1 billion. The junta initially appeared reluctant to accept international aid and for a time refused international help in distributing the aid. Despite the cyclone, the constitutional referendum went ahead as scheduled (with a two-week delay in devastated areas); the vote, criticized internationally as a sham, overwhelming approved the charter, which entered into force later in the month. In Nov., 2008, Myanmarese oil-and-gas exploration ships in disputed waters in the Bay of Bengal were confronted by the Bangladeshi navy; both nations subsequently withdrew their vessels. The government broke a 20-year cease-fire with the rebels in Kokang, in NE Shan State, in Aug., 2009; the small rebel force was soon defeated, but some 37,000 refugees fled across the Chinese border. China called on Myanmar to maintain stability in the border region, and most refugees soon returned.
See F. N. Trager, Burma: From Kingdom to Republic (1966); M. Htin Aung, A History of Burma (1967); H. Tinker, The Union of Burma (4th ed. 1967); N. Bixler, Burma: A Profile (1971); E. D. Smith, Battle for Burma (1979); D. Steinberg, Burma's Road to Development (1981); M. Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Insurgency (1991); T. Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps (2006).
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The first English-Burmese Dictionary was compiled and published by Adoniram Judson, and is still available in a new revision. U Tun Nyein: dictionary and Tet Toe Dictionary are famous among Burmese students.
Hla Pe (who was Professor of Burmese at the University of London 1948-1980) worked with others on the Burmese-English dictionary project, which began in 1925 under the aegis of the Burma Research Society, was continued at the University of Rangoon and then the School of Oriental and African Studies (London). This small group completed 5 volumes of the dictionary, each 80 large-format pages, but it remains incomplete. Other participants were J. A. Stewart, C. W. Dunn, J.S. Furnivall, Gordon H Luce, Charles Duroiselle, Anna Allott, John Okell and, from the United States, R. Halliday and A. C. Hanna. Oxford Dictionary 4th editor C. T. Onions said "A lexicographer's life is a dog's life, but a lexicographer generally lives to an old age". This is true of several contributors to these Burmese dictionaries.