Burma or Myanmar?
The country has been known for centuries in English as ‘Burma’, but in 1989 the military government decided, as part of a campaign to eradicate the remnants of the colonial past, to make the official English name ‘Myanmar’, the same as it is pronounced in the official language i.e. Burmese – or as it is now known, Myanmar language. This is rather like making Germany’s official name ‘Deutschland’. This is the name by which the country is now known in the UN and other international organisations. However 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.
A good website to get information about Burma is run by the Britain Burma Society www.shwepla.net. This site provides a version using the name Myanmar with revised place naming and also an alternative site using the name Burma with historic place naming.
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 ‘anyar’ – which 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
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 holiday 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. During World War 2, and since then, rice production has declined; 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 is being built in central Burma called Pyinmana, situated between Rangoon and Mandalay
There has been no census for over twenty years, and population estimates vary between about 48 and 54 million with about 70% living in rural areas. 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.
About 90% of the population are Buddhists, 7% Christian and about 3% are other religions including Spirit worshipers and some Muslims who mainly live in the West of Burma close to Bangladesh
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’. Some four 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.
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.
A military regime has ruled Burma since 1988. And the results of elections in 1990, which were overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi, have been ignored. A new constitution which guarantees continued domination by the military of Burma’s government was adopted by referendum in May 2008. Internationally, the vote was widely regarded as having been rigged. The regime has promised elections in 2010, and made arrangements for political parties to register. However the rules for party registration are such that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was unable to register and has consequently been disbanded. Newly registered parties have to operate under tight restrictions with the exception of the government-controlled Union Solidarity and Development Party. There are over two thousand political prisoners.
The European Union including the UK has for over a decade imposed targeted sanctions on leading figures of the military regime and their families, banning them from visiting the EU. Military and political ties have also been reduced, and there are no government-to-government aid programmes. However the EU collectively is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Burma, most of which is channeled through NGOs and UN agencies. It is focused on preventing and treating HIV, TB and malaria and assisting refugees, and support for the victims of Cyclone Nargis. The US has more wide-ranging economic sanctions. Burma is a member of ASEAN, and has a working but not warm relationship with its neighbours including Thailand, India and China.
The local currency is the kyat. The rate of exchange against US$ varies. There are restrictions on Burmese holding dollars although these are only enforced selectively and there are limits on the number of US$ that tourists are allowed to bring into the country.
Figures for Health Care spending are not generally available but a 2007 W.H.O estimate was US$10 per person per annum. According to a Save the Children report “Malnutrition is a serious problem; half the children under five are thought to be chronically malnourished in some parts of the country where the situation is as bad as has been seen in sub-Saharan Africa”. An estimated hundred and fifty thousand Burmese children under the age of five die every year of malaria, acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea.
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 an entry fee has to be paid before a new pupil 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.
The SPDC has embarked on an ambitious but under-funded infrastructure programme of roads, bridges and hydroelectric dams and other public
projects. The International Labour Organisation has documented regular use of forced labour on these projects. Some of them have led to the displacement of local communities.
This, together with forced labour and portering demands by the army in areas of continued ethnic insurgency, together with general insecurity, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of peasants moving from their villages to urban centres, or Thailand, as refugees and migrant workers. Many children in the pre-schools and orphanages supported by BCF have been sent by their families to towns for their safety, and because of the impossibility of getting an education in much of rural Burma.
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 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.