Myanmar (Burma): Facts and History

Hot air balloon over plain of Bagan in misty morning, Mandalay, Myanmar
Thatree Thitivongvaroon / Getty Images


Naypyidaw (founded in November of 2005).

Major Cities

Former capital, Yangon (Rangoon), population 6 million.

Mandalay, population 925,000.


Myanmar, (formerly known as "Burma"), underwent significant political reforms in 2011. Its current president is Thein Sein, who was elected the first non-interim civilian president of Myanmar in 49 years. 

The country's legislature, the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, has two houses: the upper 224-seat Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities) and the lower 440-seat Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives). Although the military no longer runs Myanmar outright, it does still appoint a significant number of legislators - 56 of the upper house members, and 110 of lower house members are military appointees. The remaining 168 and 330 members, respectively, are elected by the people. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won an abortive democratic presidential election in December of 1990 and then was kept under house arrest for most of the following two decades, is now a member of the Pyithu Hluttaw representing Kawhmu.

Official Language

The official language of Myanmar is Burmese, a Sino-Tibetan language that is the native tongue of slightly more than half of the country's people.

The government also officially recognizes several minority languages that predominate in Myanmar's Autonomous States: Jingpho, Mon, Karen, and Shan.


Myanmar probably has about 55.5 million people, although census figures are considered unreliable. Myanmar is an exporter of both migrant workers (with several million in Thailand alone), and of refugees. Burmese refugees total more than 300,000 people in neighboring Thailand, India, Bangladesh, and Malaysia.

The government of Myanmar officially recognizes 135 ethnic groups. By far the largest is the Bamar, at about 68%. Significant minorities include the Shan (10%), Kayin (7%), Rakhine (4%), ethnic Chinese (3%), Mon (2%), and ethnic Indians (2%). There are also small numbers of Kachin, Anglo-Indians, and Chin.


Myanmar is primarily a Theravada Buddhist society, with about 89% of the population. Most Burmese are very devout and treat monks with great respect.

The government does not control religious practice in Myanmar. Thus, minority religions exist openly, including Christianity (4% of the population), Islam (4%), Animism (1%), and tiny groups of Hindus, Taoists, and Mahayana Buddhists.


Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, with an area of 261,970 square miles (678,500 square kilometers).

The country is bordered on the northwest by India and Bangladesh, on the northeast by Tibet and China, by Laos and Thailand to the southeast, and by the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea to the south. Myanmar's coastline is about 1,200 miles long (1,930 kilometers).

The highest point in Myanmar is Hkakabo Razi, with an elevation of 19,295 feet (5,881 meters). Myanmar's major rivers are the Irrawaddy, Thanlwin, and Sittang.


The climate of Myanmar is dictated by the monsoons, which bring up to 200 inches (5,000 mm) of rain to coastal regions each summer. The "dry zone" of interior Burma still receives up to 40 inches (1,000 mm) of precipitation per year.

Temperatures in the highlands average about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), while the coast and delta areas average a steamy 90 degrees (32 Celsius).


Under British colonial rule, Burma was the richest country in Southeast Asia, awash in rubies, oil, and valuable timber. Sadly, after decades of mismanagement by post-independence dictators, Myanmar has become one of the poorest nations in the world.

Myanmar's economy depends on agriculture for 56% of GDP, services for 35%, and industry for a minuscule 8%. Export products include rice, oil, Burmese teak, rubies, jade, and also 8% of the world's total illegal drugs, mostly opium and methamphetamines.

Estimates of the per capita income are unreliable, but it is probably about $230 US.

Myanmar's currency is the kyat. As of February 2014, $1 US = 980 Burmese kyat.

History of Myanmar

Humans have lived in what is now Myanmar for at least 15,000 years. Bronze Age artifacts have been discovered at Nyaunggan, and the Samon Valley was settled by rice agriculturalists as early as 500 BCE.

In the 1st century BCE, the Pyu people moved into northern Burma and established 18 city-states, including Sri Ksetra, Binnaka, and Halingyi. The principal city, Sri Ksetra, was the power-center of the region from 90 to 656 CE. After the seventh century, it was replaced by a rival city, possibly Halingyi. This new capital was destroyed by the Nanzhao kingdom in the mid-800s, bringing the Pyu period to a close.

When the Khmer Empire based at Angkor extended its power, the Mon people from Thailand were forced west into Myanmar. They established kingdoms in southern Myanmar including Thaton and Pegu in the 6th to 8th centuries.

By 850, the Pyu people had been absorbed by another group, the Bamar, who ruled a powerful kingdom with its capital at Bagan. The Bagan Kingdom slowly developed in strength until it was able to defeat the Mon at Thaton in 1057 and unite all of Myanmar under one king for the first time in history. The Bagan ruled until 1289 when their capital was captured by the Mongols.

After the fall of Bagan, Myanmar was divided into several rival states, including Ava and Bago.

Myanmar unified once more in 1527 under the Toungoo Dynasty, which ruled central Myanmar from 1486 to 1599. Toungoo over-reached, however, trying to conquer more territory than its revenues could sustain, and it soon lost its grip on several neighboring areas. The state collapsed entirely in 1752, partly at the instigation of French colonial officials.

The period between 1759 and 1824 saw Myanmar at the apex of its power under the Konbaung Dynasty. From its new capital at Yangon (Rangoon), the Konbaung kingdom conquered Thailand, bits of southern China, as well as Manipur, Arakan, and Assam, India. This incursion into India brought unwelcome British attention, however.

The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) saw Britain and Siam band together to defeat Myanmar. Myanmar lost some of its recent conquests but was basically unscathed. However, the British soon began to covet Myanmar's rich resources and initiated the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. The British took control of southern Burma at that time and added the rest of the country to its Indian sphere after the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885.

Although Burma produced a lot of wealth under British colonial rule, almost all of the benefit went to British officials and their imported Indian underlings. The Burmese people got little benefit. This resulted in the growth of banditry, protests, and rebellion.

The British responded to Burmese discontent with a heavy-handed style later echoed by indigenous military dictators. In 1938, British police wielding batons killed a Rangoon University student during a protest. Soldiers also fired into a monk-led protest in Mandalay, killing 17 people.

Burmese nationalists allied themselves with Japan during World War II, and Burma gained its independence from Britain in 1948.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Szczepanski, Kallie. "Myanmar (Burma): Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Myanmar (Burma): Facts and History. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Myanmar (Burma): Facts and History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).