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Country profile - Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar

Fertile soils, dense virgin forests and a rich supply of natural oil, gas, and precious stones do not in themselves provide the makings of a rich country. With nearly one quarter of the population living below the poverty line, and the richest ten per cent sharing one third of the country's total income, the majority of Myanmar's people are poor.

The largest nation in mainland Southeast Asia, Myanmar, still commonly known as Burma, lies couched between India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Laos and the Andaman Sea. Home to more than one hundred ethnic groups, with a population of over 47 million, the country is ruled by General Than Shwe's State Peace and Development Council - a military junta accused by the international community of gross human rights abuse against ethnic minorities. The junta came to power in a military coup, after Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won the country's first democratic elections in 1990. Since this time, despite repeated demands from regional and other world leaders, Suu Kyi remains confined under house arrest.

Health and education in the country are poor, and while the official literacy rate is 85 per cent, independent organisations quote a figure of around 30 per cent. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the country spends US$10 per person each year on healthcare, compared with US$160 in neighbouring Thailand. Some 75 per cent of the population live in rural areas, depending primarily on agriculture.

Fertile land and key industries

The vast majority of Myanmar's people live in the lowland regions of the Irrawaddy basin. This fertile expanse is one of the world's great rice-growing regions and provides the country's staple. According to official statistics, Myanmar consumes the highest amount of rice per day, per capita, in Asia.

Whilst paddy rice is the main export crop, yields are actually lower than in neighbouring countries. Over the past two decades, the Myanmar Rice and Paddy Traders' Association has been working with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to introduce new hybrids and boost rice production. The government promotes rotation with pigeonpea and maize, and multiple cropping with pre-monsoon crops (jute, cotton or sesame), to diversify income for small-scale farmers.

The vast majority of Myanmar's people live in the Irrawaddy basin, one of the world's great rice-growing regions (Rhenda Glasco: www.MongaBay.com)
The vast majority of Myanmar's people live in the Irrawaddy basin, one of the world's great rice-growing regions
Rhenda Glasco: www.MongaBay.com

Sugarcane, cotton, and pulses are some of the country's key industries, which until recently, have been dominated by state-owned organisations, such as Myanmar Sugar Cane and Myanmar Cotton and Sericulture Enterprises. However, in an effort to increase foreign exchange and encourage local production, these industries have now been liberalised.

Oil from sesame, groundnut or oil palm are other major sources of foreign exchange. To meet local demand for edible oil, estimated at 300,000 tons per year, and to reduce foreign imports, private investment in the sector has been encouraged. In November 2006, the OPEC Fund for International Development provided a loan of over US$12 million, to increase oilseed production and improve oil-processing technologies over the following three years. The Myanmar Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation has also announced plans to increase biofuel processing capacity in 2008, and to expand jatropha cultivation to over three million hectares.

Exploiting virgin forest

Myanmar is the world's largest exporter of teak, a valuable and versatile hardwood. It is the only country to export teak from virgin natural forest, drawing condemnation from the international community. Timber exports account for a significant amount of the country's export earnings and, while many countries have banned the import of Burmese teak, the ban is voluntary and illegal trade is rife. Although roughly one third of the country is still covered in forest, Global Witness estimates that illegal timber exports from Myanmar amounted to at least 1.3 million cubic metres in 2003-2004. Timber provides a key source of revenue for the military junta, estimated at roughly 15 per cent of its earnings.

Rubber trees provide another popular timber, frequently used instead of teak for furniture at one fifth of the price. According to the Myanmar Perennial Crops Enterprise, demand for rubber has rapidly increased, with China as the main export market. The government plans to double the amount of rubber cultivated between 2007 and 2008 to 400,000 hectares.

The Golden Triangle

Myanmar remains the world's second largest producer of illicit opium, after Afghanistan. It is cultivated mostly by small-scale farmers, and in 2005 alone, an estimated 380 metric tonnes of opium was produced. Since then, production of opium - the most lucrative cash crop cultivated by small-scale farmers in the country - is estimated to have increased. Myanmar is part of the drug trafficking 'Golden Triangle', which includes Thailand, Southern China, Laos and, to a lesser extent, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Drug trafficking is a cause of ethnic tension, in particular between the Karen people - a Christian ethnic minority opposed to the military junta and drug cultivation - and the Wa State army. The Wa State army is the largest drug producing organisation in the region, comprising 20,000 highly motivated and trained guerilla fighters and reinforced by the Chinese People's liberation army. More than 100,000 Karen refugees have fled to Thailand to escape conflict and the government has been accused of failing to tackle the problem.

Future prospects

Fishing Ilne Lake, Burma (Rhenda Glasco: www.MongaBay.com)
Fishing Ilne Lake, Burma
Rhenda Glasco: www.MongaBay.com

Despite good economic relations with its neighbours, better investment and an improved political situation are needed to promote serious foreign investment, exports and tourism in Myanmar.

Courage and decisiveness, purity and virtue, peace and integrity: these are values represented in the red, white and dark blue colours of the Myanmar flag. Although reflected in the mix of ethnic cultures and traditions, they are values reported to be widely neglected by the government's oppressive military regime. In early 2007, reports emerged that 73-year-old Than Shwe sought treatment in Singapore for an undisclosed medical condition. His health may not be strong but, for the time being, the military government shows no signs of losing its grip.

Statistical information
  • Country: Myanmar
  • Capital: Naypyidaw (former capital: Yangon)
  • Area: total: 678,500 sq km land: 657,740 sq km water: 20,760 sq km
  • Population: 47,373,958
  • Population growth rate: 0.815% (2007 est.)
  • Life expectancy: total population: 62.49 years
  • Ethnic groups: Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%, other 5%
  • Languages: Burmese, minority ethnic groups have their own languages
  • Inflation: 21.4% (2006 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: $85.2 billion (2006 est.)
  • GDP per capita: $1,800 (2006 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 50% industry: 15% services: 35% (2006 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 14.92% permanent crops: 1.31% other: 83.77% (2005)
  • Major industries: agricultural processing; wood and wood products; copper, tin, tungsten, iron; cement, construction materials; pharmaceuticals; fertilizer; natural gas; garments, jade and gems Agricultural products: rice, pulses, beans, sesame, groundnuts, sugarcane; hardwood; fish and fish products
  • Natural resources: petroleum, timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, some marble, limestone, precious stones, natural gas, hydropower
  • Export commodities: gas, wood products, pulses, beans, fish, rice, clothing, jade and gems.
  • Export partners: Thailand 43.8%, India 12.1%, China 6.7%, Japan 5% (2005)

Date published: July 2007

 

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