Country Profile: Burma (Myanmar)
Updated May 2013
Population: 49 million
Government: Transitional – former military junta moving towards democracy
Religion: Buddhist 80%; Christian 9%; Muslim 7.2%; Other 3.8%
A former British colony, Burma (also known as Myanmar) was under harsh military rule from 1962 to 2011. The junta used troops to crush student and Buddhist-led protest movements. The 2010 elections, boycotted by the main democracy movement, returned power to the generals. Under the constitution a quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, and several key cabinet posts must be held by serving generals.
President Thein Sein, himself a former general, has instituted reform that has triggered the lifting of many sanctions by Europe and the USA – despite opposition by human rights groups.
Western nations are keen to compete with China to exploit Burma’s rich natural resources. Despite years of economic neglect, the country remains the world’s largest exporter of teak and a major exporter of precious stones. It is also a significant producer of heroin and other opiates, and the Government has been accused of extensive drug-trafficking.
After years of house arrest, opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to stand for Parliament in a by-election in 2012, and was voted in by a landslide. She is widely viewed as the country’s president-in-waiting. But Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised for failing to intervene to protect Burma’s ethnic minority groups in the regions, which have been brutally repressed by the military.
The army has been accused of using forced labour, herding civilians ahead of the military to trigger landmines, and using rape as a weapon of war and a means of diluting the ethnic population. Huge numbers of civilians have been driven from their homes. Refugees have fled over the border or been forced into the jungle to escape the military.
Religious persecution has become a weapon of war. Two of the largest minority groups, the Chin and Karen, include large numbers of Christians, as do the Kachin. Despite an official ceasefire, fighting resumed in Kachin state in 2011, driving 100,000 from their homes. The Rohingya Muslims in western Burma have also been targeted and are currently under heavy persecution.
Many of Burma’s minority tribes were promised more freedom after the Second World War. But those who continue to demand autonomy and have their own militias – including the Kachin – are viewed as a threat to national stability.
Burma is dominated by the Burman tribe, and the dominant faith is Buddhism. Foreign Christian workers were made to leave the country in 1966. Churches continue to be denied official registration. There have been reports of children being removed from Christian families, to be brought up in Buddhist monasteries, and of Christians being forced to build Buddhist pagodas, while their own churches are pulled down. Christians have been told: ‘To be Burmese is to be Buddhist,’ and the authorities have referred to Christianity as ‘the C-virus’.
Even so, Christianity continues to gain ground and Operation World reports ‘an increasing [positive] response from the Buddhist majority, particularly monks’.
Current and recent projects include:
- Supporting young missionaries graduating from Bible school as they start work in rural locations
- Rebuilding a Bible school damaged by fire
- Caring for orphans, including building an orphanage and providing bedding and mosquito nets
Sources: BBC; Burma Campaign UK; CSW; Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre; International Christian Concern; Operation World 2010; Release International; The World Factbook 2013.
Updated May 2013