Alternative Titles: Burma, Mranma Prañ, Myanma, Union of Myanmar

Myanmar, also called Burma, country, located in the western portion of mainland Southeast Asia. In 1989 the country’s official English name, which it had held since 1885, was changed from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar; in the Burmese language the country has been known as Myanma (or, more precisely, Mranma Prañ) since the 13th century. The English name of the city that served as the country’s capital from 1948 to 2006, Rangoon, also was dropped in 1989 in favour of the common Burmese name, Yangon.

In 2005 the government began to shift its administrative centre, first to the city of Pyinmana(some 200 miles [320 km] north of Yangon) and then to Nay Pyi Taw (Naypyidaw), a newly constructed city near Pyinmana. Nay Pyi Taw was proclaimed the capital of Myanmar in 2006.

Although Myanmar is located in the monsoon region of Asia, its climate is greatly modified by its geographic position and its relief. The cold air masses of Central Asia bring snow to the northern mountains for two months of the year, but this mountain wall prevents the cold air from moving farther south, so that Myanmar lies primarily under the influence of the monsoon winds. The north-south alignment of ranges and valleys creates a pattern of alternate zones of heavy and scanty precipitation during both the northeast and southwest monsoons. Most of the precipitation, however, comes from the southwest monsoon. The west coast is subject to occasional tropical cyclones.

Myanmar has three seasons: the cool, relatively dry northeast monsoon (late October to mid-February), the hot, dry intermonsoonal season (mid-February to mid-May), and the rainy southwest monsoon (mid-May to late October). The coastal regions and the western and southeastern ranges receive more than 200 inches (5,000 mm) of precipitation annually, while the delta regions receive about 100 inches (2,500 mm). The central region is not only away from the sea but also on the drier, lee side—in the rain shadow—of the Rakhine Mountains. Precipitation gradually decreases northward until in the region’s dry zone it amounts to only 20 to 40 inches (500 to 1,000 mm) per year. The Shan Plateau, because of its elevation, usually receives between 75 and 80 inches (1,900 and 2,000 mm) annually.

Elevation and distance from the sea affect temperature as well. Although Myanmar generally is a tropical country, temperatures are not uniformly high throughout the year. The daily temperature range is greater than that in nearly all other parts of Southeast Asia, but no locality has a continental type of climate (i.e., one characterized by large seasonal differences in average temperature). Mandalay, in the centre of the dry zone, has some of the greatest daily temperature ranges, which span about 22 °F (12 °C) annually. In broader perspective, however, average daily temperatures show little variation, ranging from 79 °F (26 °C) to 82 °F (28 °C) between Sittwe (Akyab) in the Rakhine region, Yangon near the coast, and Mandalay in the northern part of the central basin. At Lashio, on the Shan Plateau, the average daily temperature is somewhat cooler, around 71 °F (22 °C).


Ethnic groups
Myanmar is a country of great ethnic diversity. The Burmans, who form the largest group, account for more than half of the population. They are concentrated in the Irrawaddy Rivervalley and in the coastal strips, with an original homeland in the central dry Myanmar: Ethnic compositionEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The Karen are the only hill people who have settled in significant numbers in the plains. Constituting about one-tenth of the population, they are the second largest ethnic group in Myanmar. They are found in the deltas among the Burmans, in the Bago Mountains, and along both sides of the lower Salween River. The Kayah, who live on the southern edge of the Shan Plateau, were once known as the Red Karen, or Karenni, apparently for their red robes. Although ethnically and linguistically Karen, they tend to maintain their own identity and hereditary leadership.

PadaungPadaung woman weaving in Nyaungshwe, Myanmar (Burma), 2012.©Zzvet/

The Shan of the Shan Plateau have little ethnolinguistic affinity with the Burmans, and, although historically led by hereditary rulers, their society was less elaborately structured than that of the plains peoples. The Shan represent a small but significant portion of the country’s population.

The Irrawaddy and Sittang deltas were once peopled by the Mon, who likely entered the country more than two millennia ago from their kingdoms in the Chao Phraya River valley in Thailand. The Mon were conquered in the 11th century by the Burmans, and by the end of the 18th century they had largely been incorporated into Burman society—by intermarriage as well as by suppression. A sizable number still remain in the Sittang valley and in the Tenasserimregion; although they continue to call themselves Mon, most have assimilated virtually imperceptibly into Burman culture and no longer speak their original language.

Numerous small ethnic groups, most of which inhabit the upland regions, together account for roughly one-fifth of Myanmar’s population. In the western hills and the Chindwin Rivervalley are various groups called by the comprehensive name of Chin. The upper Irrawaddy valley and the northern hills are occupied by groups under the comprehensive name of Kachin. These peoples long have had an association with the Burmans.

The ethnographic complexity of the highlands occasionally leads to misgroupings of some of the smaller communities with their more prominent neighbours. For example, the Wa and the Palaung of the Shan Plateau are often grouped with the larger—but ethnically and linguistically distinct—Shan community. Similarly, the Naga on the Myanmar side of the frontier with India sometimes are mistakenly placed with the Chin, and the Muhso (a Lahupeople) in northeastern Myanmar are grouped with the Kachin.

During the period of British colonial rule, there were sizable communities of South Asians and Chinese, but many of these people left at the outbreak of World War II. A second, but forced, exodus took place in 1963, when commerce and industry were nationalized. In the early 21st century the Chinese constituted a small but notable portion of Myanmar’s people.

Many indigenous languages—as distinct from mere dialects—are spoken in Myanmar. The official language is Burmese, spoken by the people of the plains and, as a second language, by most people of the hills. During the colonial period, English became the official language, but Burmese continued as the primary language in all other settings. Both English and Burmese were compulsory subjects in schools and colleges. Burmese, Chinese, and Hindi were the languages of commerce. After independence English ceased to be the official language, and after the military coup of 1962 it lost its importance in schools and colleges; an elementary knowledge of English, however, is still required, and its instruction is again being encouraged.

The local languages of Myanmar belong to three language families. Burmese and most of the other languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of Sino-Tibetan languages. The Shan language belongs to the Tai family. Languages spoken by the Mon of southern Myanmar and by the Wa and Palaung of the Shan Plateau are members of the Mon-Khmer subfamily of Austroasiatic languages.

Speakers of Burmese and Mon historically have lived in the plains, while speakers of a unique dialect of Burmese (that perhaps retains some archaic features of pronunciation) have occupied the Rakhine and Tenasserim coastal plains. The hills were inhabited by those speaking Shan, Kachin, Chin, and numerous other languages. In the plains the ancient division between northern and southern Myanmar (Upper Burma and Lower Burma, respectively) was based not only on geographic differences but also on a linguistic one. The Mon (now a small minority) lived in southern Myanmar, while the majority Burman population lived in the northern dry zone.

Although Myanmar has no official religion, nearly nine-tenths of the population follows Theravada Buddhism. The vast majority of Burmans and Shan are Buddhist. There is, however, a significant Protestant Christian minority, concentrated primarily among the Karen, Kachin, and Chin communities. Many of the other hill peoples practice local religions, and even those who adhere to world religions typically incorporate local elements to some degree. Muslims, mostly Burman, and Hindus are among the smallest religious minorities.
Myanmar: Religious affiliation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Monk standing at the Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock) pagoda,
a historic Buddhist pilgrimage destination in eastern Myanmar (Burma). © Index Open
Reclining Buddha, Bago, Myan. Slim Aarons/Photo Researchers
Monks receiving alms from a laywoman in Yangon, Myan.
Photobank BKK/Robert Harding Picture Library
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