Burma has suffered years of repression in the grip of a military regime that renamed it Myanmar
Burma consists largely of the central fertile valley of the Irrawaddy River, encircled by a horseshoe-shaped mountain system running north to south. The highest mountains are to the north, while to the west are two lower ranges, the Chin Hills and the Arakan range. To the east is the extensive Shan Plateau which consists of mountains that intersect with broken ranges of hills and river valleys.
Three-quarters of the population, mostly Burmans, live in the central valley and the coastal strips. Although sparsely settled, Burma has a complex ethnic mix, with 21 major groups and over 100 languages. The second largest group are the Shan, who live on the Shan plateau. The Karen live in the delta, the coastal areas to the south, and the hills bordering on Thailand, while the Rakhine live in the south-west. These groups have engaged in long struggles with the military government. Around 120,000 live in refugee camps in Thailand.
Education standards are low and more than one-third of children are malnourished. Intravenous drug use is growing and 240,000 people are now HIV-positive. Over one-third of public spending is used to finance the army.
Two-thirds of households make their living from agriculture, which accounts for 40% of GDP. But they are short of fertilizer and other inputs so productivity is low. Another source of rural income is forestry. Burma has around 75% of the world's teak reserves, but over-logging, often through government contracts with Thai companies, is rapidly stripping the forests. The most profitable crop is opium poppies, which enable Burma to supply around 60% of the world's heroin. Burma is also a major source of amphetamines.
Burma has made slow progress in industrial development. However, recent offshore discoveries have made natural gas the leading export earner. Foreign investment is limited. A number of Hong Kong and Korean companies have established a garments industry, though in 2003 the US banned imports. Faced with consumer boycotts, Levi-Strauss, Reebok, and British Home Stores have pulled out and Texaco has withdrawn from oil and gas.
Aung San Suu Kyi arrested
The present regime dates to a coup in 1988. Millions of people had taken to the streets to protest against military rule. The response was brutal. Soldiers sprayed bullets indiscriminately into the crowds and during this incident and the subsequent repression 10,000 people may have died. At this point, a new group of senior military officers seized power. They called themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and renamed the country Myanmar. In 1989, they placed under house arrest the leading opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, a hero of Burma's independence struggle.
In 1990 SLORC, presuming wrongly that their grip on power would intimidate people into voting for military-backed parties, held multiparty elections for representatives to design a new constitution. In the event, 80% of the seats were won by Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy. SLORC refused to accept the results. The assembly never met.