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Head of state Than Shwe, chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, has steadfastly ruled out a transfer of power.
PTI | By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON JAN 20, 2005 09:52 PM IST

Overview

Myanmar is the second largest country in Southeast Asia which shares common borders with Bangladesh and India in the West, China in the North and North-East, Laos and Thailand in the East. The Bay of Bengal lies in the West and the Andaman sea in the south of the country.

Burma is ruled by a military junta. Prominent pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, has had various restrictions placed on her activities since the late 1980s.

Buddhism is practiced by the vast majority of the population comprising 89.3% while Christianity is practiced by 5.6% of the population, Islam comprises 3.8% and Hinduism accounts for 0.5% of population.

The official language is Burmese which is spoken by over 80 per cent of the population, although each ethnic minority group also has its own language.

Through British control and abolishment of the monarchy in 1885, Myanmar was ruled as part of the British Indian Empire until World War II and gained independence in 1948.

Myanmar had a democratic government between 1948 and 1962, however, through various upheavals, the military assumed the role of caretaker of the government.

After a period of socialist practices, policies were abandoned in 1988 and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (renamed the State Peace and Development Council) assumed control of the country.

The Human Development Index (HDI) ranks Myanmar 127 out of 173 countries. The UNDP Human Development Report 2002 places Myanmar in the medium human development category with an HDI value of 0.552.

The value is lower than that of Thailand (0.762) and China (0.726) also in the medium category but higher than that of Laos (0.485) and Bangladesh (0.478), which are in the low category.

Myanmar also is a diverse country with many cultures and ethnic diversity (135 different ethnic minority groups and sub-groups).

Official estimates in 2002 put the population of Myanmar at 52.2 million with an annual growth rate of 2.02 per cent. The urban population was estimated about 30 per cent and the rural at 70 per cent.

Historical Background

Early civilisation in Myanmar dates back to the 1st Century with archaeological evidences of the Pyu Kingdoms of Thayekhittaya (Sriksetra), Beikthano (Visnu) and Hanlin. 
        
Myanmar greatness in history dates back to 11th Century when King Anawrahta consolidated the whole country into the First Myanmar Empire in Bagan well before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. 

The Bagan Empire encompassed the entire Menam valley in Thailand and lasted two centuries. The Bagan Empire produced a glorious civilisation whose monuments still endure. The Bagan Dynasty collapsed with the invasion of the Mongols under Kublai Khan in the 13th Century.

The Second Myanmar Empire with its capital in Bago was created in the middle of the 16th Century by King Bayinnaung.

King Alaungpaya founded the Third Myanmar Empire in 1752 and had a number of capitals, the last being Mandalay. It was during the zenith of the Konbaung Dynasty that the British moved into Myanmar. Myanmar became a British Colony after three Anglo-Myanmar Wars in the period of 1824 to 1885.

During the World War II, Myanmar was occupied by the Japanese from 1942 till the return of the Allied Forces in 1945. Myanmar became a sovereign independent state on January 4, 1948 after more than 100 years of British colonial administration.

Earlier, Burmese nationalists, led by General Aung San and 29 other "Comrades," had joined the Japanese forces in driving out the British at the outbreak of World War II. However, the Burmese Army switched sides in mid-1945 and aided US and British forces in their drive to Rangoon. After the war, the Burmese, with General Aung San at the helm, demanded complete political and economic independence from Britain. The British Government acceded to these demands. A Constitution was completed in 1947 and independence granted in January 1948. General Aung San was assassinated with most of his cabinet before the Constitution was put into effect.

During the weak constitutional period from 1948 to 1962, widespread conflict and internal struggle gripped Burma. Constitutional disputes and persistent division among political and social groups were largely responsible for the democratic government's weak hold on power.

In 1958, the military was invited temporarily by Prime Minister U Nu to restore political order. The military stepped down after 18 months; however, in 1962, General Ne Win led a coup abolishing the Constitution and establishing a xenophobic military government with socialist economic priorities.

In March 1988, student disturbances broke out in Rangoon in response to the worsening economic situation snowballing into a call for change in regime.

Despite repeated violent crackdowns by the military and police, the demonstrations increased in size with general public joining the students. During mass proptests, on August 8, 1988, military forces killed more than 1,000 agitators.

It was at a rally following this massacre that Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, made her first political speech and assumed the role of leader of the opposition.

On September 18, the military deposed the Ne Win's Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), abolished the Constitution, and established a new ruling junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

In an effort to "restore order," the SLORC sent the army into the streets to suppress the ongoing public demonstrations. An estimated additional 3,000 were killed, and more than 10,000 students fled into the hills and border areas.

The SLORC ruled by martial law until national parliamentary elections were held on May 27, 1990. The results were an overwhelming victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won 392 of the 485 seats, even though she was under house arrest.

However, the SLORC refused to call the Parliament into session and imprisoned many political activists.

The ruling junta changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, but did not change its policy of autocratic control and repression of the democratic opposition.

In 2000, the SPDC announced it would begin talks with the political opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been released once from house arrest in 1995, only to be detained once more.

These talks were followed by the release of many political prisoners and some increase in political freedoms for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. On May 6, 2002, she was allowed to leave her home and subsequently traveled widely throughout the country.

On May 30, 2003, Aung San Suu Kyi and a convoy of her supporters were attacked. Many members of the convoy were killed or injured and others remain unaccounted for.

Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her party were detained, and the military government forcibly closed the offices of the NLD.

The central government has had a contentious relationship with ethnic groups calling for autonomy or secession for their regions since the country's independence.

In 1948, only the capital city itself was firmly in control of the Rangoon authorities. Subsequent military campaigns have seen more and more of the nation under central government control.

Since 1990, the regime has inked a series of cease-fire pacts with insurgent groups, leaving only a handful still in active opposition.

Head of state Than Shwe, chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, has steadfastly ruled out a transfer of power to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. In 1993, Mr Than established the National Convention, a reconciliation process aimed at drawing up a new constitution. However, he is not the one to allow political change, (for sure).

Facts
Population: 50.1 million (UN, 2004)
Capital: Rangoon (Yangon)
Area: 676,552 sq km (261,218 sq miles)
Major languages: Burmese, indigenous ethnic languages
Major religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam
Life expectancy: 54 years (men), 60 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 kyat = 100 pyas
Main exports: Teak, pulses and beans, prawns, fish, rice, opiates
International dialling code: +95

Flag description: Red with a blue rectangle in the upper hoist-side corner bearing 14 white five-pointed stars encircling a cogwheel containing a stalk of rice; the 14 stars represent the 14 administrative divisions.

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