Culture Name



Identification. The name of the country of Burma (or Myanmar, as it is now officially known) is associated with the dominant ethnic group, the Burmese. Because of the current regime's lack of legitimacy and poor human rights record, it is common practice outside the country not to use the name Myanmar. The country fell under British colonial rule during the nineteenth century. When it became independent as the Union of Burma in 1948, the country almost immediately entered a state of civil war as ethnic minorities fought against the Burmese-dominated central government. Insurgencies by some ethnic groups continue. In 1962, the military leader Ne Win seized power. His regime sought to isolate the nation and institute nationalist policies under the label "the Burmese Road to Socialism." In 1972, the name of the country was changed to the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. After civil unrest in 1988, the military government changed the name to the Union of Myanmar.

Efforts to create a broadly shared sense of national identity have been only partly successful because of the regime's lack of legitimacy and tendency to rely on coercion and threats to secure the allegiance of non-Burmese groups. The low level of education and poor communications infrastructure also limit the spread of a national culture.

Location and Geography. The state has an area of 261,789 square miles (678,034 square kilometers). It is bordered by Bangladesh to the west, India and China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. The southern portion faces the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The middle portion centers on the Irrawaddy River, with a large delta area at its mouth and the area above the delta featuring floodplains. Most of the population and agricultural lands are found along the Irrawaddy, which is navigable for about one-thousand miles. The western, northern, and eastern regions have mountains and high valleys and plateaus. The western region has the Arakan, Chin, and Naga hills. The most important geographic feature to the east is the Shan Plateau. The Burmese live primarily in the central lowlands, while the other ethnic groups live mainly in the highlands. Under British rule, the political capital was moved from Mandalay in the center to Rangoon on the eastern edge of the Irrawaddy delta in 1885. That city was built in 1755 and named Dagon. Rangoon remained the capital after independence (its name was changed later to Yangon) and continues to be politically and economically the most important city. Both Rangoon and Mandalay lie within the area occupied primarily by Burmese peoples, although both cities have a significant Indian population as a legacy of British rule.

Demography. The official population figure in 1995 was 44.74 million, but it may range from 41.7 million to 47 million. Linguists have identified 110 distinct ethnolinguistic groups, and the government recognizes 135 ethnic groups (referred to as races). The Burmese account for about 68 percent of the population. Other major ethnic groups include the Shan (about four million), Karen (about three million), Arakanese or Rakhine (about two million), Chinese (over one million), Chin (over one million), Wa (about one million), Mon (about one million), Indians and Bengalis (about one million), Jingpho (about less than one million), and Palaung (less than one million). With the exception of the Chinese, Indian, and Belgalis, each minority group occupies a relatively distinct area.

Linguistic Affiliation. Burmese is a Tibeto-Burman language whose alphabet is derived from south Indian scripts. The largest ethnic group that speaks Burmese is the Myanma; there is a smaller Burmese-speaking ethnic group known as

Burma, also known as Myanmar
Burma, also known as Myanmar
Baramagyi (or Barua). A few regional dialects of Burmese are associated with subgroups. Closely related Southern Burmish languages include Arakanese, Intha, and Taungyo (or Tavoyan). Burmese is the national language. It is spoken as a second language by most educated members of other ethnic groups, but some of those groups have little contact with the national language. Many educated urban residents speak English as a second language, but English is not widely spoken among the population as a whole. The teaching of English in schools was banned from 1966 to 1980. Shan is as an important second language for many ethnic groups in Shan State, while Jingpho is spoken as a second language by many smaller ethnic groups in Kachin State.

Symbolism. Since 1962, the government has used an array of slogans urging discipline and support for the regime and the military. The promotion of nationalist sentiments through the media, public events, and the display of related images is especially marked on holidays. Among architectural sites with national symbolism, two of the most important are the archaeological site of the old capital of Pagan and Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The earliest civilizations associated with what is now Burma were the Mon (also called Taliang) in the south and the Pyu in central Burma which flourished during the first half of the first millennium. The Mon were strongly influenced by Indian culture through trade and the Buddhist religion. The Pyu went into decline in the 800s. Around that time, the ancestors of the Burmese, known as Mranma, settled to the south of Mandalay. With the former Pyu city of Pagan (known as Arimadanapura) as his capital, the Burmese ruler Anaw-rahta (ruled 1044–1077) founded the first Burmese kingdom. His conquest of Thaton resulted in the spread of Theravada Buddhism and the adoption of many aspects of Indian-inspired Mon art and architecture. The lowland area along the Irrawaddy River under the control of Pagan often is referred to as "Burma Proper," since it is the heartland of the region that has been most securely under Burmese rule. In the late 1200s, Pagan declined and the Burmese lost control over much of the territory. Over the next few centuries, the Burmese slowly regained control over portions of lowland Burma from their new capital of Pegu. However, the Mon remained independent until 1539 and the Arakanese until 1784, while most of the upland territory occupied by the Shan was outside their control or only loosely under Burmese domination. The capital was moved to Ava during the reign of King Tha-lun (1629–1648).

During the reign of Ling Alaung-hpaya (1752–1760), a new dynasty was founded known as the Kon-baung, and the Burmese began a new period of military expansion. The Mon were conquered

Floating gardens on Lake Inle. Most Burmese live along the Irrawaddy River, which has one thousand miles of navigable length.
Floating gardens on Lake Inle. Most Burmese live along the Irrawaddy River, which has one thousand miles of navigable length.
again, Burmese migration into Mon territory was instituted, and many Mon were resettled in the western Irrawaddy delta. Burmese migrants were sent to the east to serve as a barrier against the Shan. Efforts at expansion beyond the lowland area met with little success.

In the early nineteenth century, incursions into border areas to the west brought Burmese rulers into conflict with the British in India, leading to the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824. At the end of the war in 1826, the Burmese were forced to give up claims to territories in eastern India and a portion of southern Burma that included territories associated largely with non-Burmese ethnic groups. Continued poor relations resulted in the loss of the province of Pegu. This territory became known as Lower Burma. Although foreign relations improved under the reign of King Min-don (1853–1878), unstable conditions following his death and Prince Thibaw's overtures to the French led the British to invade Upper Burma again in 1885. In the face of local resistance that lasted until 1890, the British established colonial rule over not only the lowland territory but the Shan states as well. Over the next few decades, the British tried to bring the other highland areas under their control, but some territories remained free throughout the colonial period.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the British implemented reforms aimed at granting eventual self-rule. The proindependence forces were not unified, and there was infighting between factions. In addition to sporadic anti-British violence, nationalist sentiments took on a Burmese ethnic tone that resulted in violent outbursts against local Indians and Chinese. Burma was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. The British returned toward the end of the war, but the colony quickly moved toward independence. An independent Union of Burma was declared in 1948 under Prime Minister U Nu. It was a fragile new nation beset by political infighting and civil war involving ethnic minorities and communists backed by China.

National Identity. Before colonial rule, Burma consisted essentially of the central lowland areas and a few conquered peoples, with highland peoples only nominally under Burmese control. The British brought most of the highlands peoples loosely under their control but allowed highland minorities to retain a good deal of their own identity. This situation changed after independence as the Burmese-dominated central government attempted to assert control over the highland peoples. Despite continued resistance to the central government, those in the lowland areas and the larger settlements in the highlands have come to share more of a common national culture. The spread of Burmese language usage is an important factor in this regard.

Ethnic Relations. The majority of the people speak Tibeto-Burman languages. Tibeto-Burman speakers in Burma can be divided into six distinct groups. The Burmish constitute the largest of these groups by population. Nungish speakers live in upland areas in Kachin State. The main Baric-speaking group is the Jingpho in Kachin State. The Kuki-Naga-speaking peoples include a large number of ethnic groups in the mountains along the border with India and Bangladesh. The Luish group includes the Kado, who live near the border with the Indian state of Manipur. The Karen groups live in the hills along the border with Thailand and the southern lowlands. The Lolo-speaking groups tend to be the most recent immigrants to Burma; they live in the highlands of Shan and Kachin states.

There are also large numbers of speakers of Austro-Tai languages. The largest Daic-speaking group is the Shan, who constitute the majority in Shan State. Smaller, related groups include the Tai Khun, Lue, Tai Nua, and Khamti. Other Austro-Tai speakers include the Austronesian-speaking Moken and small groups of Hmong and Mien in Shan State.

Under the British, ethnic minorities generally were able to retain some autonomy. Negotiations for independence after World War II brought suspicions among the political leaders of several ethnic minorities that their status would be undermined. Immediately after independence in 1948, serious divisions emerged between Burmese and non-Burmese political leaders, who favored a less unified state. Between 1948 and 1962, armed conflicts broke out between some of these minority groups and the central government. Although some groups signed peace accords with the central government in the late 1980s and early 1990s, others are still engaged in armed conflict. The Wa have signed a peace agreement but have retained a great deal of autonomy and control of much of the drug trade in northern Burma.

Military operations in ethnic minority areas and government policies of forced resettlement and forced labor have dislocated many ethnic groups, and have caused large numbers of refugees to flee to neighboring countries. At present there are around three hundred thousand refugees in Thailand, Bangladesh, and India, mostly from ethnic minorities.

Before independence, Indians were a dominant presence in urban-centered commercial activities. With the outbreak of World War II, a large number of Indians left for India before the Japanese occupation. Through the 1950s, Indians continued to leave in the face of ethnic antagonism and antibusiness policies. The Indians remaining in Burma have been treated with suspicion but have avoided overt opposition to the regime.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

About 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Rangoon has a population of 4 million, and Mandalay has almost 1 million residents. The ethnic composition of Rangoon and Mandalay is over-whelmingly Burmese, although these cities are also where most of the Indian population lives.

Architecture reflects the country's Buddhist and colonial heritage. Buddhist temples are the most important architectural features throughout the country. The Buddhist temple serves as a religious school, a community center, a guest house, a place where the government and other agencies post information, a site for sports activities, a center for welfare services for those who are poor and ill, a morgue, and a center for music and dance. It also carries out economic services such as providing loans and renting lands and homes. Temples are also important in urban areas. While most temples in central Burma are Burmese in style, the temples of Shan State tend to have a distinctive look that is referred to as the Shan style. Temples tend to be surrounded by small shops that sell sacred and secular items.

The traditional house is made largely of bamboo. Flattened pieces of bamboo made into large plaited sections are used to make the walls. The floors are made of bamboo planks or wood. The frame of the house is made of wood, with hard and durable wood being used for the house posts. Roof coverings are made of a variety of materials, including thatch made from broad-leafed grass or palm fronds. Roofs may be covered with tiles, wooden shingles, or zinc sheets. The front of the house usually has a veranda that is raised a few feet off the ground. This is the public area where guests are entertained. The center of the house is the living area for the family. Behind it is a covered cooking area where rice is stored. Especially in urban areas, these houses are being replaced by more generic ones made from cement.

Some ethnic minorities have distinctive styles of houses. Many Palaung traditionally lived in multiple-family houses. Today, these structures are very rare, and most Palaung live in single-family houses.

Small boat traffic on Lake Inle. Men are primarily responsible for the transportation of commercial goods.
Small boat traffic on Lake Inle. Men are primarily responsible for the transportation of commercial goods.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Rice is the staple food except among those in highland areas where rice is difficult to grow. In those areas, rice, millet, sorghum, and corn are the staples. Rice is accompanied by a raw salad of leaves, fruit, or vegetables; a soup; and curries of fish, meat, prawns, or eggs. In addition to turmeric and chili, curries are seasoned with fermented fish or shrimp paste. A variety of cultivated vegetables and wild greens are eaten as well as bamboo shoots. Meals often are accompanied by lentils, pickled relishes, and balachaung (made from fried dry prawns). There are a variety of rice-noodle dishes. After a meal, it is common to eat fresh fruit.

Burmese traditionally eat a morning meal and an evening meal that is taken before dark. The meals are served in a large platter or on a low table, with members of the household sitting on mats. Food is eaten with the fingers, although sometimes utensils are used. It is common to drink water and eat fruit after the main meal. Throughout the day people eat betel and smoke tobacco. Burmese not only drink tea made from dried tea leaves but also eat pickled tea as a snack. Other snacks include chappatis, fried insects, and Chinese pastries.

Tea shops are found in every city, town, and large village. These establishments are important locales for social gathering. Street stalls sell a variety of foods in the cities and towns. Relatively few restaurants serve Burmese food. The majority serve Indian or Chinese food, and English food is served in many hotels and guest houses.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Feasting and sharing food are an important feature of traditional agricultural and religious rites. Often special foods are prepared for those occasions. Htamane, which is served during the rice harvest festival February, is made of glutinous rice mixed with sesame seeds, peanuts, shredded ginger, and coconut. Alcoholic beverages are drunk during some secular festivities but are not drunk during most religious festivals. In urbanized areas, commercial beer and other forms of alcohol are consumed, while in more remote rural areas, locally made alcohol is more common. Alcoholic drinks are made from fermented palm juice and a distilled rice-based solution. Fermented grain-based alcoholic drinks are more commonly consumed among highland groups.

Basic Economy. The economy is dominated by agriculture, which accounts for over 59 percent of the gross domestic product and employs about two-thirds of the labor force. Rice is the main product. Production declined after independence but increased during the late 1970s and early 1980s because of the introduction of high-yielding varieties, fertilizer, and irrigation. Since that time, production has barely kept pace with population growth, and Burma, once the world's leading exporter of rice, is barely able to meet subsistence needs of its own population. It continues to export some rice to earn foreign exchange. The production of narcotics from poppies and other sources is widespread in the northern highlands, and Burma is the world's leading supplier of opiates.

Land Tenure and Property. In areas under Burmese rule, land traditionally was held on the basis of service to the court and could be leased or sold and passed on to one's heirs; it also could be taken away by the court. In more remote areas, land ownership tended to be related to continual cultivation and occupancy. Under the British, private ownership became widespread in the central areas and a system of land taxation was introduced in which failure to pay property taxes could result in the loss of land. Before World War II, in the southern delta area absentee ownership of productive land was widespread. In the central area, agricultural land tended to be in the hands of small-scale owner-producers. Shortly after independence, the government passed a land nationalization act that was intended to turn land owned by wealthy landlords over to those who worked the land. However, that act was not implemented. A second act passed in 1954 met with only partial success.

The revolutionary government that seized power in 1962 nationalized the larger commercial and manufacturing establishments, including those of Indian traders. This created a large black market economy as people attempted to circumvent government control of commerce. The revolutionary government attempted to remove the landlord class and turned all land over to peasant producers while retaining ultimate ownership for itself. In practice, agricultural tenancy was not eliminated, and producers had the added burden of state intervention. After 1988, the government allowed a greater role for the private sector and foreign investment. While these reforms have allowed greater private ownership, considerable insecurity remains among those who own property.

Commercial Activities. Since 1992, the military regimes have emphasized self-sufficiency and tried to limit imports. The largest companies and financial institutions are state-owned, with the private sector limited mainly to small-scale trading. In recent years, however, more imported goods, especially from China, have appeared in local markets

A Burmese woman at a lacquer factory.
A Burmese woman at a lacquer factory.
and there has been growth in the private sector. The main cities and many smaller towns have one or more central markets that sell a wide variety of domestic and imported goods, including clothing and cloth, tobacco, food, baskets, jewelry, toiletries, and electronic goods. There are also specialized markets, such as the iron bazaar in Rangoon's Chinatown.

Major Industries. Industrial production focuses on goods for local consumption, although a handful of factories produce for exportation. Local industries include textiles and footwear, wood processing, mining, the production of construction materials, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizer manufacturing. Although the country has substantial gem, oil, and natural gas reserves, extraction and processing capabilities are limited. There is a small tourist industry. There has been a dramatic growth in the number of hotels built since the introduction of economic reforms. Travel restrictions and poor infrastructure have concentrated the tourist industry in a few areas.

Trade. Legal exports include timber, rice, beans and pulses, fish, garments, precious stones, and rice. Legal imports include construction materials, plant equipment, and consumer goods. The difference in the value of imports and exports is covered in large part by revenue from narcotics and other illegal exports. Under British colonial rule, Burma was the world's leading exporter of rice, and rice remains the major legal export. Logging was also important in the colonial economy, but excessive harvesting and poor forestry management have resulted in a sharp drop in the availability of teak. China, Thailand, and India are their main markets for timber, but most wood is exported illegally. Burma is famous for rubies and jade, but since 1962, a lack of capital and expertise has hindered that industry. As with timber, most ruby and jade exports go through illegal channels.

Burma is the world's largest supplier of illegal opiates (opium and heroin), and the export of amphetamines has increased. Money from the illegal narcotics trade plays a crucial role in the national economy and in keeping the regime solvent. Much of the production of illegal narcotics, however, is in the hands of ethnic rebels in Shan State. Recent peace accords between the government and some rebel groups have given the regime access to income from narcotics.

Thailand and India are Burma's primary sources of legal and illegal imported goods. Small amounts are also imported from other neighboring countries such as India, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Division of Labor. There is little specialization in the agricultural sector. Small-scale commercial trading is done by both men and women, with men being primarily responsible for the transportation of goods. Ethnic Indians and Chinese are an important segment in commercial trading, but many Burmese and others are involved in commercial activities. Few tasks or professions are the monopoly of a single ethnic group. There are various forms of traditional craft specialization. This includes making lacquer ware, stone working, fine wood carving, and working with metal. Modern technical professions such as medicine and engineering are related to one's level of education and specialized training. Those in the higher levels of commerce and administration generally come from the families of prominent members of the regime, and connections with the regime are important factors in amassing wealth and power.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Not only is poverty widespread, there is marked inequality. Essentially, the society is divided into a tiny elite, a fairly small middle class, and a large number of very poor people. While there are traditional elites within most of the ethnic groups and new elites in some groups whose wealth comes from smuggling, the national elite is overwhelmingly Burmese. In recent years income from the narcotics trade has been an important source of wealth for members of the elite. Although some segments of the middle class have prospered from the economic reforms of the late 1980s, most have not done well and remain poor.

Political Life

Government. The military has ruled the country since 1962. In the face of growing opposition to the government and its socialist policies, Ne Win and President San Yu resigned in July 1988, and widespread civil unrest followed. General Saw Muang formed a new military regime known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and abolished much of the socialist system. Elections were held for the 485-member People's Assembly in 1990. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won 396 seats, while the military-backed party won only 10. The People's Assembly was never convened, and many of its leaders were arrested or forced into exile. The military began drafting a new constitution in 1992, but this task has not been completed. The regime changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997. The council includes a chairman and twenty other members. The government formed by the council consists of a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers, and thirty-seven ministers.

Leadership and Political Officials. Political leadership revolves around political intrigues and struggles for power within the military. From 1962 until 1988, General Ne Win was the dominant political figure, with other officers and their associates jockeying for positions underneath him. General Than Swe's hold on power since 1988 has been far less absolute. The officers holding positions in SLORC/SPDC tend to be roughly the same age and have roughly similar backgrounds and values.

The National League for Democracy is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the assassinated independence leader Aung San. She is currently under house arrest in Rangoon. The majority of the small inner circle around Aung San Suu Kyi are former military officers and associates or followers of Aung San. Both the regime and its leading opponents therefore form a small political elite.

There is an ethnic dimension to political office holding and leadership. The 1948 and 1962 governments

A young child at an initiation ceremony in Mandalay. Ninety percent of Burmese follow the Theravada form of Buddhism, also know as Hinayana Buddhism.
A young child at an initiation ceremony in Mandalay. Ninety percent of Burmese follow the Theravada form of Buddhism, also know as Hinayana Buddhism.
were predominantly Burmese in composition and pursued pro-Burmese policies. Those policies sparked ethnic insurgencies led by ethnic elites, and the situation deteriorated when the regime passed a law in 1983 that created three tiers of citizenship rights based largely on ethnicity. At the bottom was a category of "other races" that included naturalized immigrants, mainly from India and China, whose ancestors arrived during the colonial period. Those assigned to this tier cannot run for political office or hold senior government posts. The 1988 regime signed peace accords with most of the insurgent groups, but national leadership has remained in the hands of the Burmese.

Social Problems and Control. The authoritarian military regime has been harsh in its treatment of ethnic minorities and rules by decree, without a constitution or legislature. The regime systematically violates human rights and suppresses all forms of opposition. The judiciary is not independent of the military regime, which appoints justices to the supreme court. These justices then appoint lower court judges with the approval of the regime. Prison conditions are harsh and life-threatening. The regime reinforces its rule with a pervasive security apparatus led by a military intelligence organization known as the Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence (DDSI). The regime engages in surveillance of government employees and private citizens, harassment of political activists, intimidation, arrest, detention, and physical abuse. The movements and communications of citizens are monitored, homes are searched without warrants, and people are forcibly relocated without compensation. There is no provision for judicial determination of the legality of detention. Before being charged, detainees rarely have access to legal counsel or their families. Political detainees have no opportunity to obtain bail, and some are held incommunicado for long periods. After being charged, detainees rarely have counsel. In ethnic minority areas, human rights abuses are widespread, including extrajudicial killings and rape. The regime justifies its actions as being necessary to maintain order and national unity.

Although the regime officially recognizes the NLD, political rights are limited. There is virtually no right of assembly or association. Intimidation of NLD supporters forced the party to close its offices throughout the country. Opponents of the regime have disappeared and been arrested. Detainees often face torture, beatings, and other forms of abuse. There is little academic or religious freedom. Under the 1974 constitution, the regime required religious organizations to register with it. Religious meetings are monitored, and religious publications are subject to censorship and control. Buddhist monastic orders are under the authority of the state-sponsored State Clergy Coordination Committee. The regime has attempted to promote Buddhism and suppress other religions in ethnic minority areas. Workers' rights are restricted, unions are banned, and forced labor for public works and to produce food and other goods and perform other services for the military is common. Military personnel routinely confiscate livestock, fuel, food supplies, alcoholic drinks, and money from civilians.

Military Activity. Since 1962, the military (the Tatmadaw ) has been the dominant political and economic force, with a large proportion of the population serving in the armed forces since the 1960s. In 1985, there were an estimated 186,000 men and women in the military; another 73,000 were in the People's Police Force and 35,000 served in the People's Militia. Reflecting the country's poverty and international isolation, the military is poorly armed and trained. Direct spending on the military declined from about 33 percent in the early 1970s to about 21 percent in 1987, representing less than 4 percent of the gross domestic product. This decline in personnel and expenditure was reversed in 1988. By 1997, the military had grown to over 350,000 and military spending had increased greatly. At present, military spending by the government is greater than nonmilitary spending. Military officers and their families play an important role in economic affairs outside the formal activities of the military. This is true both in the formal economy through government economic entities and in the black market, especially narcotics smuggling. The military's formal role includes intimidation of the population and waging war against ethnic insurgents.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Both men and women do agricultural work, but individual tasks are often gender-specific. Men prepare the land for planting and sow seeds, and women transplant rice seedlings. Harvesting is done by both men and women. Men thresh the rice. Most domestic work is done by women. During ceremonies, however, men are involved in food preparation. A variety of traditional handicrafts are made within the household or by specialists. Items of metal, wood, or stone generally are made by men, and weaving usually is done by women. Pottery, basketry, plaiting, making lacquerware, and making umbrellas can be done by men or women. Small-scale market selling and itinerant trading are conducted by both sexes. Transportation of goods or people by animal, carts, boat, or motor vehicle is done mainly by men. Religious specialists and traditional curers generally are male, but sometimes they are female. Spirit mediums can be male or female. Traditional theatrical and musical performances involve both genders. Women work mainly in teaching and nursing.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Traditional society was known for the relatively high status of women. If a couple divorces, for example, common goods are divided equally and the wife retains her dowry as well as the proceeds from her commercial activities. However, military rule has undermined the status of women, especially at the higher levels of government and commerce. Women, however, play a significant role in the political opposition to the regime. The higher levels

Mingalla Market, Mandalay. Men and women engage equally in small marketplace selling and trading.
Mingalla Market, Mandalay. Men and women engage equally in small marketplace selling and trading.
of business are in the hands of men, but many medium-size and small businesses are run by women.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Individuals usually find their own marriage partners. Arrangements for the marriage may be made by the parents of sometimes an intermediary is employed. If the parents oppose the union, often the children elope and later the parents condone the marriage. When a man asks a woman's parents for their consent, it is common practice for him to bring a gift for the woman. Wedding ceremonies are relatively simple except among wealthy families. After speeches by the parents, members of the families and guests share pickled tea. Polygyny is rare. Far more common is the practice of wealthy and powerful men having an informal second wife. Divorce is relatively common and usually involves the couple ceasing to live together and dividing their property.

Domestic Unit. A newly married couple may live with the parents of one partner (often the parents of the wife) but soon establish their own household. The nuclear family is the primary domestic unit, but it may include extended family members such as unmarried siblings, widowed parents, or more distant unmarried or widowed relatives. The husband is nominally the head of the household, but the wife has considerable authority. Women are responsible for most domestic chores.

Inheritance. Property generally is divided equally among the children after the parents die.

Kin Groups. Descent is reckoned bilaterally. Traditionally, there were no family names.


Infant Care. Young children receive a great deal of attention. Newborns are placed in very carefully made cradles. A mother keeps her baby with her when she leaves the house. Burmese women carry babies on the hip, while most hill-dwelling peoples hold them in a sling on the back. Young children are pampered, given considerable freedom of movement, and allowed to handle virtually anything that catches their attention. Weaning usually takes place when a child is two to three years old. Relative or friends may nurse an infant. Adults take a great deal of interest in children, including those who are not their own.

Child Rearing and Education. Young children undergo several rites of passage. When a child is a

A child carrying baskets on a shoulder pole. Traditionally, all boys of eight to ten years of age attended school in a Buddhist monastery.
A child carrying baskets on a shoulder pole. Traditionally, all boys of eight to ten years of age attended school in a Buddhist monastery.
few years old, a ceremony is held to give the child a name. Children in rural areas grow up surrounded by the implements that they will use when they grow up and watch adults performing domestic, agricultural, and artisanal tasks. In the past, all boys eight to ten years of age would begin attending school in a nearby Buddhist monastery, where they would learn about Buddhism and be taught to read and write. Those schools gradually gave way to public schools, but many young men continue to receive some education in monasteries. Under that system, few women were educated; their education took place mainly at home as they learned how to perform domestic tasks.

Modern education began under King Mindon (1853–1878), who built a school for an Anglican missionary. Under the British, secular education spread and the country achieved a relatively high level of education. Since 1962, the educational infrastructure has deteriorated. Today two-thirds to three-quarters of children drop out of elementary school before the fifth grade. The curriculum is scrutinized by the military regime, and it often is forbidden to teach in languages other than Burmese.

Higher Education. There are forty-five universities and colleges and 154 technical and vocational schools. There has been a steady erosion of higher education since 1962. After the civil unrest in 1988, during which many students were involved in antigovernment activities, there were widespread closures of universities and colleges. Since that time there has been a repeated cycle of opening and closing the universities and colleges that has made serious study virtually impossible. The universities and colleges were closed in 1996, and only a few were reopened in 2000.


It is considered improper to lose one's temper or show much emotion in public, but the Burmese are a very friendly and outgoing people. The Burmese and other Buddhists follow the Buddhist custom of not touching a person on the head, since spiritually this is considered the highest part of the body. Patting a child on the head not only is improper but is thought to be dangerous to the child's well-being. A person should not point the feet at anyone. Footwear is removed upon entering temple complexes for religious reasons, and it is polite to remove footwear when entering a house.


Religious Beliefs. Almost 90 percent of the people are Buddhists, and the proportion is higher among the Burmese majority. Burmese follow the Theravada form of Buddhism, which is also known as Hinayana Buddhism and the doctrine of the elders or the small vehicle. In Theravada Buddhism, it is up to each individual to seek salvation and achieve nirvana. Buddhism is believed to have been introduced to Burma by missionaries sent by the Indian emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C.E.

Buddhism is followed by many of the non-Burmese ethnic groups. While all these groups follow Theravada Buddhism, there are some differences between the in beliefs and practices and those of the Burmese. Buddhist beliefs and practices include animistic elements that reflect belief systems predating the introduction of Buddhism. Among the Burmese, this includes the worship of nats, which maybe associated with houses, in individuals, and natural features. An estimated 3 percent of the population, mainly in more isolated areas, who adhere solely to animistic religious beliefs.

Another 4 percent of the population is Christian (3 percent Baptist and 1 percent Catholic), 4 percent is Muslim, 4 percent is Hindu, and 1 percent is animist. Christian missionaries began working in the country in the nineteenth century. They had relatively little success among Buddhists but made numerous converts among some of the minority groups.

Religious Practitioners. Between ages of ten and sixteen, most young Burmese men and some young women become Buddhist novices and go to live in a monastery. While most young men remain at the monastery for only a short time before returning to the secular life, some become fully ordained monks. A person who wants to become a monk is expected to be free of debt and certain diseases, have the permission of his parents or spouse, agree to follow the disciplinary rules of the monkhood, and not become involved in secular life. While monks are expected to lead a life of aestheticism, they perform important functions in the community, especially as counselors. A variety of religious practitioners are associated with the animistic beliefs of most Buddhists, including spirit dancers who become possessed by spirits and may engage in healing and fortune-telling. There are also astrologers, other types of healers, tattoists with occult knowledge, and magicians.

Rituals and Holy Places. Thingyan, the water festival, marks the advent of the new year in mid-April. Buddha images are washed, and monks are offered alms. It is also marked by dousing people with water and festive behavior such as dancing, singing, and theatrical performances. Kason in May celebrates Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and entrance into nirvana. The day includes the ceremonial watering of banyan trees to commemorate the banyan tree under which Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. A ceremony is held in July to mark the start of the three-month lenten period and commemorate Buddha's first sermon. It is at this time that young males become novices. Lent is a period of spiritual retreat for monks, who remain in their monasteries. During this time people may not marry. Lent ends in October. Over a three-day period, candles, oil lamps, paper lanterns, and electric bulbs are lit to show how angels lit Buddha's return from heaven. Many marriages are held at this time. A celebration is held in November to produce new garments for monks and Buddha images. People come to complete the production of the cloth within a single day.

Death and the Afterlife. Buddhists believe that those who die are reborn in a form that is in keeping with the merit they accumulated while alive. The cycle of death and rebirth is believed to continue as long as ignorance and craving remain. The cycle can be broken only through personal wisdom and the elimination of desire. Funerals involve either burial or cremation. The ceremony includes a procession of monks and mourners who accompany the coffin to the cemetery or crematorium, with the monks chanting and performing rites. Funerals for monks tend to be elaborate, while those who have died a violent death generally are quickly buried with very little ceremony, since their spirits are believed to linger as malevolent ghosts.

Medicine and Health Care

The use of traditional forms of medicine remains important, especially among the ethnic minorities. Few young people, however, receive training in these forms of medicine by an aging group of traditional healers and many traditional practices and the knowledge of traditional remedies are being lost. Serious health problems are reaching crisis proportions, and nontraditional health care by the public and private sectors has deteriorated.

Malaria, AIDS, and malnutrition and related diseases are a serious problem. Intravenous drug use formerly was a problem mainly in the northeast among ethnic minorities, but since 1988, drug used has spread to the lowlands and the urban areas inhabited by the Burmese majority. There are only 703 hospitals and 12,464 doctors. These facilities are in very poor condition, and funding for medical care and training is inadequate.

Secular Celebrations

The major state holidays are Independence Day (4 January), Union Day (12 February), Peasants' Day (2 March), Resistance or Armed Forces Day (27 March), May Day or Workers' Day (1 May), Martyr's Day (19 July), and National Day (late November or early December). These are occasions for the regime to promote nationalist sentiments, and some are accompanied by festive events. Far more important for most Burmese are the older celebrations associated with agriculture and the Buddhist religion.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. Until the 1880s, the nobility was an important source of support for artists. After the fall of the monarchy, support came from newly rich merchants and British colonial officers. From the 1920s to the 1940s, there was relatively little support from the government or the public. State schools for the fine arts were opened in

A woman carrying grasses in Maymio, Burma. Women had high status in traditional society, which has been lessened today by the militaristic government.
A woman carrying grasses in Maymio, Burma. Women had high status in traditional society, which has been lessened today by the militaristic government.
Rangoon and Mandalay in 1953, and there was a revival of interest in traditional art forms. The military regime of 1962 encouraged art forms supportive of its nationalist and socialist agenda. Since 1988, there has been little government support.

Literature. The focus of writing within Burmese society was, and to a large extent still is, focused on writing for theater performances ( pwe ) and producing texts relating to Buddhism. In addition, since the nineteenth century there is a fair amount of popular fiction. There is also some British fiction from the colonial period that is set in Burma. Among the early British works of fiction concerned with the Burmese are two novels by H. Fielding: The Soul of a People (1898) and Thibaw's Queen (1899). By far the best known British novel set in Burma is George Orwell's Burmese Days (1934), a critical examination of British colonial rule.

Graphic Arts. The graphic arts include temple sculpture in wood, stucco, stone, and wood; temple mural painting, usually in tempera; other forms of wood carving; ivory carving; work in bronze, iron, and other metals; jewelry; ceramics; glassware; lacquerware; textiles and costume; items made of palm and bamboo; and painting on paper or canvas.

Lacquerware entails the covering of an object made of bamboo or wood with a liquid made from tree sap. These objects include containers as well as tables, screens, and carved animal figures. The process preserves, strengthens, and waterproofs objects and has been developed into a decorative art form. Its origins are ancient. Pagan is the largest and most important center for lacquerware. The Government Lacquerware School was established by local artists in Pagan in 1924. The Shan also have a distinctive lacquerware tradition.

Weaving is a highly developed traditional art form. Among the Burmese, it reached its highest form in the production of lun-taya acheik cloth. The technique was brought from Manipur in the eighteenth century, but the complex motifs are distinctly Burmese. This style of cloth is still woven near Mandalay for sale to elite Burmese. There are distinctive textile traditions among the ethnic minorities.

Traditional painting on paper made from tree bark or bamboo pulp is known as parabaik painting. The earliest known example dates back to the eighteenth century. Pigments were made of tempera, with gold and silver inks used for the costumes of nobles and deities. The paintings also formed folded pages in books. Initially these paintings depicted religious scenes, court scenes, or astrological charts, medicines, tattoo designs, and sexual techniques, and the painters were itinerant artists employed by the court. In the nineteenth century, the court in Mandalay employed full-time artists, and a system of apprenticeship was put in place. Among the new styles of painting that emerged after the fall of the monarchy were paintings of happy families sold to the newly rich. Traditional painting declined in the 1920s as local patrons and artists became more interested in European styles. A revival of interest in Burmese themes took place after the 1962 military takeover. The new regime held an annual painting exhibition to promote select painters. The exhibitions ended in 1988, but the military regime allowed the fine arts school to remain open. Most painters today are dependent on sales through a handful of private galleries that cater largely to resident expatriates. The themes of newer paintings continue to be Burmese, especially religious paintings and landscapes.

Performance Arts. Popular performances often combine music, dance, and drama in a pwe ("show"). These shows take place at fairs, religious festivals, weddings, funerals, and sporting events. They generally are held at night and can go on all night long. A pwe typically includes performances based on legends and Buddhist epics; comedy skits; singing, dancing, and music; and sometimes a puppet show. Traditional music and dance have been influenced by Thailand. Traditional instruments played in an ensemble include a circle of drums, a thirteen-stringed boat-shaped harp, a circle of gongs, a xylophonelike instrument, an oboelike instrument, a bamboo flute, a bass drum, small cymbals, and bamboo clappers. Today these traditional instruments are combined with Western ones, including a guitar. The Kon-baung court employed performers specializing in recitation, singing, dancing, and acting. Highly stylized dramatic performances were accompanied by music. There is also a tradition of popular public performances such as the nebhatkhin (a pageant depicting the birth of Buddha) and the more secular myai-waing (an earth-circling performance) conducted by traveling actors and musicians. After 1885, entertainers performed for a new public, and more lively forms of entertainment were developed, including all-female dance troupes. Western-style stage plays were introduced at that same time. There was interest in newer forms of performance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such performances ended with the outbreak of World War II. After of independence, there was a revival of interest in traditional dance, drama, and music. The 1950s saw a revival of traditional art forms and the emergence of a new form of modern melodrama called pya-zat . These were modern plays that rarely dealt with traditional subjects. While secular performance arts now dominate popular entertainment, the military regime has continued to support more traditional performances and the fine arts schools still teach traditional forms of dance and drama, although the audiences consist largely of tourists, resident expatriates, and members of the ruling elite.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

Training in the physical and social sciences at national institutions such as Yangon University and Yangon Technical University is very limited. Since 1962, the social sciences have been almost nonexistent. Some social science research continues to take place, but most of it focuses on the relatively distant past. Institutions involved in such work include the Myanmar Historical Commission, Cultural Institute, Department of Archaeology, and Religious Affairs Department.


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