Previously known (and often still referred to) as Burma, the area of Myanmar was populated through three waves of migration: by the Hmon people from what is now Cambodia; by Mongol people from the eastern Himalayas; and, finally, by Thais from northern Thailand.

In 1824, the British, driven by imperial ambitions and goaded by repeated border clashes, annexed Burma as part of British India. In 1937 it was granted separate dominion status. During World War II, the Japanese expelled the British from Burma and attempted to co-opt Burmese political support by offering nominal independence under Japanese control. The opposition to the Japanese, who were defeated in 1944, was the nucleus of the post-war independence movement led by Aung San, who guided the country to independence in 1948 but was assassinated the same year.

A military coup in 1962 brought to power Ne Win, who renamed the country Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma and imposed an idiosyncratic totalitarian dictatorship. In 1988, after years of bizarre policies, isolationism and chronic economic mismanagement by the then Burma Socialist Programme Party, finally brought a popular uprising, with students and Buddhist monks, to the fore.

In September that year, the military stepped in. The demonstrations were brutally suppressed and the political upheaval brought to a halt. The putsch strengthened the position of Ne Win. Although he relinquished his official title as leader of the nation, he continued to exercise considerable influence over the running of the country. Ex-army General Tin Oo and the Western-educated liberal Aung Sang Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, led the principal internal opposition.

After crushing domestic political opposition, the Ne Win junta concluded in 1989 that some political concessions were essential (mostly to assuage international opinion) and announced that elections would be held.

The main opposition movements campaigned under the banner of the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and won the 1990 election. However, the regime used elaborate delaying tactics and harassment to hold onto power; Suu Kyi was put under house arrest for five years.

During the early 1990s, the regime had become an international pariah and its key opponent, Aung San Suu Kyi, would not go away. In 2000, she was put under house arrest, released and then again arrested and jailed in 2003. In 2009, she was placed in a Rangoon prison for allegedly breaching the terms of her house arrest despite international condemnation.

The country’s turmoils continued with the 2007 Saffron Revolution in which monks and civilians were beaten, killed or arrested during anti-government protests. Elections in February 2011 saw Thein Sein of the Union Solidarity and Development Party elected as President of Myanmar.

Myanmar culture

Religion

89% Theravada Buddhist. The remainder are Hindu, Muslim, Christian and animist.

Social conventions

Handshaking is the normal form of greeting. Full names are used, preceded by U (pronounced oo) in the case of an older or well-respected man’s name, Aung for younger men and Ko for adult males; a woman’s name is preceded by Daw. Courtesy and respect for tradition and religion is expected; for instance, shoes and socks must be removed before entering any religious building and it is customary to remove shoes before entering a traditional home (in most modern residences this is no longer observed except in bedrooms). When sitting, avoid displaying the soles of the feet, as this is considered offensive. Small presents are acceptable and appreciated, although never expected. Shorts and mini-skirts should not be worn. Penalties for drug-trafficking range from five years’ imprisonment to a death sentence. Homosexuality is illegal.

Language in Myanmar

The official language is Myanmar (Burmese). There are over 100 dialects spoken in Myanmar. English is spoken in business circles.