10 Facts about Myanmar
Myanmar is a country of mysteries. In fact, not many people know that much about it and so we felt it our obligation and privilege to make you party to ‘10 facts about Myanmar’ so that you can feel that little bit wiser. Before visiting a destination, it’s always nice to have a few facts up your sleeve; here are your for the Land of the Golden Pagodas…
1. PERSON – Aung San Suu Kyi must be Myanmar’s most famous person. Born in 1945, she was the daughter of Myanmar’s de facto Prime Minister and founder of the modern army General Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Suu Kyi is leader of the National League for Democracy Party which came into power in the country's democratic elections in 2015; the first in 50 years. Despite not actually allowed to become President (by decree of the previous military regime) she holds the reigns of the appointed President Htin Kyaw.
2. HISTORY – Myanmar was colonised by the British in 1824 and remained under their rule until the Second World War, when Japan invaded and it became a major battleground. Burma achieved independence in 1948.
3. POLITICS – In 1962 after a successful coup, General Win took control of Burma and it remained under military junta until 2011. There have been moves towards a new democracy with the registration of the National League for Democracy as a recognised political party and their success in the by-elections of 2012. The first free elections were held in 2015 seeing the NLD sweep into power.
4. RELIGION – Most of the country practises Buddhism and it is considered the national religion, with a monastic population of 500,000. The small percentage of non-Buddhists include Christians, Muslims and Hindus, who face religious discrimination and obstruction. A recent global study by the Charities Aid Foundation ranked Burma Number 1 on the World Giving Index, perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the practice of charitable giving or dana is integral to religious observance amongst Theravada Buddhists, with it being one of the key paths to earning good merit.
5. CULTURE – Although a range of indigenous cultures exist in Burma – the Kachin and Chin, several Hill tribes, Inle Lake Intha people – the majority culture is Buddhist and Bamar. In traditional villages, the monastery is the centre of cultural life. However, elements of western culture were assimilated under British colonial rule with the education system being modelled along similar lines and colonial architecture still in evidence in major cities.
6. FESTIVALS – Thingyan, the Burmese New Year Water Festival, is the most popular, and raucous of Burma’s colourful celebrations. Calculated by the lunar calendar, it usually falls around April and lasts for five days. On the first day, people around the country gather together, visit pagodas, make offerings and pay homage to the monks, play traditional games and celebrate in joyful spirits! On the second day, the water throwing which marks the festival begins in earnest. Revellers use receptacles of all shapes and sizes to douse each other to symbolise the cleansing of the sins of the year.
7. NATURE – Burma boasts a wide range of fish and mammals but is probably best known for its elephants, manatees, wild buffalo, tigers and leopards. Over 800 species of birds make it an ornithologist’s paradise.
8. LANDSCAPE – Burma’s landscape is rich and varied. It is a country of mountains: the Himalayas, the Hengduan Mountains, the Rakhine Yoma, the Bago Yoma, the Shan Hills and the Tenasserim Hills. Between the densely-forested mountain ranges, the country’s winding rivers – the Irrawaddy, the Salween and the Sittaung – flow through fertile valleys. Burma also has glorious beaches, having 1,930 km of contiguous coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
9. ICONIC STRUCTURE – The extraordinary Shwedagon Pagoda towers over Yangon’s skyline at 110 metres high. Built 2,500 years ago to enshrine Buddha’s hair and other holy relics, the complex now consists of hundreds of temples, stupas and statues. The main pagoda is covered with hundreds of gold leaves and the top of the stupa is encrusted with 4531 diamonds; the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond!
10. ETHNIC GROUPS – Burma is home to about 135 ethnic groups, including a multitude of hill tribes each with their own culture. The Burmese government groups them into ‘eight major national ethnic races’ – Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Bamar, Rakhine, Shan. Perhaps most recognisably, the Intha people live on and around Inle Lake and have adapted their famous one-legged rowing technique in order to row standing up to see over the water-reeds.