Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) shares borders with Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh and is one of the world's most ethnically diverse countries. It has abundant natural resources, especially timber, precious stones, oil, gas and fertile soil. However it is subject to destructive earthquakes, cyclones, flooding and landslides, and for the vast majority of the population there are few services or opportunities. Politically, the country has moved from a colonial administration to socialist government, then, in 1988, to a military regime known as the State Peace and Development Council.

Fast FactsMyanmarNew Zealand
Population48 million4.3 million
Official languagesBurmeseEnglish and Maori and NZ Sign
GNI per capitaNZ $2746NZ $40,915
Life expectancy65 years81 years
Under 5 mortality rate66/10006/1000
Adult literacy rate92%99%


Most people live in the lowland regions of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawady) River valley, a large rice-growing region. Of the many different ethnic groups, Burman is the largest, but Karen, Rakhene, Chinese, Indian and Mon also have significant populations. Burmese is the major and official language, however there are more than 100 languages spoken in the country. Myanmar is predominantly Buddhist, although there is widespread belief in "Nats", which are spirits of forests, mountains and trees. Christian churches exist in most parts of the country, but are sometimes restricted in their ability to carry out social activities. Traditionally, women and children in Myanmar paste thanaka on their faces. Made from the bark of the sandalwood tree, the paste is used as a sunscreen.


Mountains surround Myanmar's central basin region to the north, west and east and rise along the Thai border. Forests cover more than half the country's land area. There are three seasons: a cool, dry winter from November to February; summer from March to May; and the monsoon season from June to October.


Approximately two thirds of the population is employed in agriculture, with less than 10 per cent in manufacturing. Myanmar exports manufactured clothing, hardwoods and wood products, fish, processed fish products and crops such as rice, beans and pulses. The country was once known as the rice bowl of Asia, but expansion of the agricultural sector has not kept up with the growth in population. Now most rice grown in the country is consumed locally. Lack of industrial growth and migration from rural villages have contributed to a rapid rise in urban poor. Many of the resettlement areas or satellite towns have very few employment opportunities and the majority of households live on casual day labour wages.


Along with rice, other subsistence crops include groundnuts, pulses, beans and sugar cane. Production losses caused by floods, drought, poor agricultural inputs or trade restrictions have resulted in increased poverty in rural areas. Much of the world's illicit opium is grown in northern Myanmar, making it the world's second-largest producer. The government is trying to stop this trade by introducing other profitable crops or forms of work for the hill tribe farmers who produce it. Since 1996, cultivation of opium poppies has decreased by 73 per cent.


Declining resources in formal education have reduced the availability of teaching aids and textbooks, contributing to understaffing and overcrowding. Since 1987, the higher education system has been disrupted by regular closures. The majority of universities have been closed periodically since 1996.


Although Myanmar's primary healthcare infrastructure is improving gradually, only 60 per cent of the country is believed to have access to a full array of services. Poor nutrition, the use of polluted water and unsanitary methods of waste disposal result in a high incidence of illness, absenteeism from work and low productivity. Myanmar's deteriorating economy and its proximity to the Thai border expose girls and women to sex trafficking. Many of these girls and women work in the border areas of Thailand, then return to their villages in Myanmar, contributing to the country's burgeoning HIV and AIDS problem.

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