Formerly known as Burma, many have hailed the Republic of the Union of Myanmar’s recent economic, political and social restructuring as ground breaking, and for good reason. In a relatively short period, it has gone from an isolated economy to an investment focal point.
Over the last few years the nation has seen the military junta relinquish power, greater freedom of the press, the advancement of human rights and the release of political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize-winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – all of which led to an easing of international sanctions and the revival of the economy.
While major strides still need to be taken to promote more inclusive growth, critical developments across the country’s diverse landscape continue to heighten investor appetite. This was given a significant boost with victory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) over the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in the November 2015 national elections.
While the new government is in a strong position to steer the modernisation of the economy, it has also inherited a wealth of challenges, such as ongoing ethnic and religious conflict, widespread poverty, the illegal trade of precious resources and a weak social infrastructure.
However, efforts taken by the outgoing government under President U Thein Sein to improve transparency, promote peace and increase spending on health and education have to some degree alleviated the strain left behind by decades of military mismanagement. These critical steps have led to the gradual improvement in the social welfare of Myanmar’s people, and with the incoming NLD administration expected to prioritise inclusive growth, the well-being of Myanmar’s emerging citizens is looking significantly more positive.
Located between the Himalayas in the north and the Andaman Sea to the south, and roughly shaped like a diamond, the landscape of Myanmar is as diverse as it is intriguing. Wedged between China to the east and India to the west, Myanmar also shares borders with Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh. Stretched over 676,578 sq km, it is the 40th-largest country in the world and the second largest in South-east Asia, behind Indonesia. The coastline stretches out 2832 km, with the Bay of Bengal on the south-west coast and the Andaman Sea to the south-east.
The country is divided by three parallel mountain ranges in the north that commence at the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. These ranges are the Arakan, the Pegu and the Shan Plateau. In the northernmost part of the country in Kachin State is Hkakabo-Razi, which, at 5881 metres, is the highest mountain peak in South-east Asia. The northern mountain ranges also partition the country into three river systems, cutting across highlands, lowlands, deltas and jungles. They are the Ayeyarwady, the Sittaung and the Thanlwin.
The Ayeyarwady is the longest river in Myanmar, extending over 2170 km. It flows from north to south, originating in the Kachin River at the N’mai and Mali River’s confluence, starting in the Himalayan glaciers and ending in the Andaman Sea. The Ayeyarwady River has five tributaries, the largest being the Chindwin River. Similar to the Nile River in Egypt, the Ayeyarwady River and Chindwin River are crucial sources of life in the dry central lowlands of the country.
With a population of more than 51m scattered across 14 states/regions with 412 townships/sub-townships, Myanmar is the 12th-most populous country in Asia and the fifth in South-east Asia, behind Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. The three main cities are the business capital of Yangon, with a population of more than 7.3m; followed by the second business capital of Mandalay, with 1.73m people, and the administrative capital of Naypyidaw, which has approximately 1.16m inhabitants.
According to the latest statistics from the Department of Population under the Ministry of Immigration and Population, 30% of people live in urban areas, with urbanisation occurring at a rate of 2.9% per annum. The median age in Myanmar is 27.1, with a population growth rate of 0.89%, a fertility rate of 2.29 and a marital fertility rate of 4.03. The 2014 census, the first of its kind in 30 years, estimated that the average household size is 4.4 people, with children between birth and the age of 14 accounting for 28.6% of the population, while the economically productive age group ( 15-64) represented 65.6% and the elderly population (65+) accounted for just under 6%.
Life expectancy at birth for males in Myanmar is 63.9 years with females expected to live on average six years longer. This figure, however, is much lower in areas with a high number of internally displaced people (IDP) due to conflict and limited access to health care. This is most apparent along the eastern border with Thailand – an area that the government as well as donor agencies are collaborating with local health organisations to improve (see Health chapter).
With a median age of 27, and 55% of people under the age of 30, the majority of Myanmar’s population is well positioned to capitalise on the expansion of the economy. However, education remains a major obstacle. Once regarded as having the best education sector in the region prior to military occupation, schooling has since dwindled, with students lacking access to basic supplies. The method of teaching that has been passed down over the last few decades has changed little since the colonial era. This lack of progress has translated into learners with limited creative thought.
Efforts to bolster Myanmar’s education framework were given a significant boost under U Thein Sein. Whereas education received 1.3% of the national budge on average during military rule, during his last term education spending was increased to 5% of total government expenditure. The funds have been earmarked to employ an additional 50,000 teachers, extend free schooling through to higher education and will also be used for university scholarships and to supplement fees at technical institutions. These initiatives are set to prepare the youth of Myanmar for the rapidly expanding job market.
Theravada Buddhism, which became the country’s official religion in the 11th century, is ingrained across Myanmar with almost 90% of the entire population following it’s teachings. An estimated 4% of the population follow Christianity, which was introduced during the British colonial period. A similar proportion of the country are Muslims who are largely followers of Sunni Islam. Approximately 1% are Hindu, and the remaining 1% consists of practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism and animism.
For the most part, religious beliefs are practiced in peace, but communal violence continues to bubble to the surface, particularly in Rakhine State, where at least 146,000 Rohingya, a religious and linguistic minority from western Myanmar, have been displaced since 2012 due to conflicts between Buddhist and Muslim communities.
Language & Ethnic Groups
There are more than 100 languages spoken across Myanmar by some 135 ethnic groups. The Burman, or Bamar, is the largest ethnic group accounting for 68% of the population. The second largest being the Shan with 9% of the population, followed by the Karen (7%), the Rakhine (3.5%), the Chinese (2.5%), the Mon 2%, the Kachin 1.5%, Indian 1.25% and the Kayah 0.75%. The remaining 4.5% of the population is made up of the Wa, the Naga, the Lahu, the Lisu and the Palaung ethnic groups.
The most commonly spoken language is Myanmar (formerly known as Burmese), which is the primary language of instruction at schools. Other major vernaculars include Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Mon and Rakhine. Up until the early 1960’s English was widely taught at schools across the country. The language was readopted in the late 1980’s and is generally spoken by the older generation and the expanding urban elites.
Myanmar has a subtropical climate with three seasons. The summer season runs from March until mid-May, with temperatures soaring past 40°C in central parts of the country. April is the hottest month. The rainy or monsoon season follows directly after summer and lasts until late October, July is the wettest month, with an average of 582 mm of rainfall. The cold season starts in November and ends in late February. January is both the coolest, (18–23°C) and the driest month with 3 mm of average rainfall.
Monsoon rains in Myanmar are among the harshest in the world. Torrential rains began in July 2015 and continued into September, causing severe flooding in 12 of the country’s 14 states. According to the Ministry of Agriculture more than 5222 sq km of farm land were inundated and 2781 sq km damaged, leaving the government to declare a state of emergency.
Myanmar has an abundance of natural resources, with extractive industries continuing to play a leading role in the country’s foreign investment climate. According to the Department of Geological Survey and Mineral Exploration, there are more than 2000 occurrences of 62 different commodities. Among them are precious stones, including the largest deposit of jade in the world, and lucrative metals, such as tin, copper, gold and zinc.
To add to those resources, the country also has vast amounts of arable land and forests and is a major exporter of natural gas. It is also home to one of the world’s oldest petroleum industries, with its first crude oil exports dating back to the British colonial era in the mid-19th century. With a deepwater shelf that has been fairly underexplored by modern oil exploration methods, many oil and gas experts believe that major new discoveries are more a question of when rather than if. As international oil companies continue to invest and collaborate with local firms the potential for further discoveries is formidable. 2016 should prove to be one of remarkable change in Myanmar. For the first time in recent memory the country is poised to take advantage of its natural strengths.
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