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.
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.
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