People & Religious Beliefs

Multicultural Myanmar is more salad bowl than melting pot. The government recognises 135 distinct ethnic groups that make up eight official 'major national ethnic races': Bamar, Shan, Mon, Kayin (Karen), Kayah, Chin, Kachin and Rakhine. Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the country's constitution, but Buddhism is given special status by both government fiat and demographic preponderance. Myanmar's ethnic patchwork of people also embraces a variety of other faiths, of which Islam and Christianity have the most adherents.

Feature: Myanmar's Cycle of Life

Rural dwellers make up about three-quarters of Myanmar's population, and much of local life revolves around villages and the rhythms of rice cultivation. Here, national politics or dreams of wealth can pale in comparison to the season, the crop or the level of the river (used for bathing and washing and as a source of drinking water). Everywhere, people are known for helping each other when in need, and they call each other 'brother', 'sister' and 'cousin' affectionately.

Families tend to be large, and you might find three or four generations of one family living in a two- or three-room house. The birth of a child is a big occasion. Girls are as welcome as boys, if not more so, as they're expected to look after parents later in life. Some thatched huts in the countryside have generators, powering electric lightbulbs and pumping life into the TV a couple of hours a night; many don't. Running water outside cities and bigger towns is rare, yet even in a hamlet in the deepest jungle, you may see the glow of a smartphone illuminating an otherwise electricity-free night.

There is a widespread belief in ghosts, which are created when an individual passes without accompanying funerary rituals; this is a trope that harks back to folk belief, and it cuts across many religious practices in Asia. With this in mind, it is fair to say that death is a big deal, and entire charities exist to provide funeral services for the poor. To miss a funeral is an unimaginable faux pas. If a heated argument goes too far, the ultimate capper is to yell: 'Oh yeah? Don't come to my funeral when I die!'

Main Ethnic Groups

Historically, Myanmar's diverse ethnic make-up has been delineated by its topography. The broad central plain, with the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River and Myanmar's most fertile soil, has been populated by whichever group was strongest – usually the Bamar (Burmese) in the past few hundred years. Most ethnic groups continue to live in some sort of isolation in the mountains lining much of Myanmar's international border, notably the Shan, Kayah and Kayin in the east; the Kachin to the north; and the Chin and Rakhine to the west.

In larger cities such as Yangon and Mandalay there exist significant minority populations of ethnic Chinese and Muslims. These groups, particularly the Chinese, are often well represented in the fields of commerce and trade, which leads to some tension with the local ethnic majority – usually the Bamar.

As in many other ethnically (and religiously) diverse countries, feelings of pride and prejudice cause friction between Myanmar's ethnic groups. Ask a Bamar (or a Shan or a Kayin) for their opinion of their countryfolk of different ethnic or religious backgrounds and you'll get an idea of the challenges Myanmar governments have faced in their efforts to keep the peace and preserve the borders. While urban migration and technology do some work to speed integration, most citizens of Myanmar are acutely aware of their ethnicity and the position such an identity has within the nation's baked-in demographic power structures.

Bamar

Also known as Burman or Burmese, the Bamar make up the majority (more than two-thirds) of the population. Thought to have originally migrated from the Himalayas, the Bamar ruled much of what is now Myanmar from Bagan (Pagan) by the 11th century. When the British conquered Myanmar in the 19th century, it was the Bamar who had to relinquish the most. Many ancient court customs and arts were lost when the Bamar monarchy was abolished.

Despite an enduring attachment to older animist beliefs in nat (spirits), the Bamar, from trishaw drivers to senior generals, are devout Theravada Buddhists. Monks are highly respected and the media reports daily on the merit making of top officials at the country's principal Buddhist places of worship – continuing a tradition of patronage started by Burmese monarchs.

Coming of age (shinbyu) is a major event in Bamar/Buddhist culture, with parades around villages and towns for boys about to enter monasteries as novice monks, and both girls and boys having their ears pierced.

The military and current government stopped short of making Buddhism the state religion (though Prime Minister U Nu did just this in 1960). However, nation-building efforts have included establishing the Bamar language (Burmese) as the language of instruction in schools throughout Myanmar, so most non-Bamar speak Burmese as a second language.

Chin

Of Tibeto-Burman ancestry, the Chin people call themselves Zo-mi or Lai-mi (both terms mean 'mountain people'), and share a culture, cuisine and language with the Zo of the adjacent state of Mizoram in India. Making up around 2.2% of Myanmar's population, they inhabit the mountainous region (mostly corresponding with Chin State) that borders India and Bangladesh to the west. Outsiders name the different subgroups around the state according to the district in which they live, for instance Tiddim Chin, Falam Chin and Hakha Chin.

In the past the Chin, as with most highland dwellers, led labour-intensive lives, and their relatively simple traditional dress reflected this. Men wore loincloths in the warmer months and draped blankets over themselves when the weather turned cool. The women wore poncho-like garments woven with intricate geometric patterns. These garments and Chin blankets are highly sought after by textile collectors today.

Traditionally the Chin practise swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture. They are also hunters, and animal sacrifice plays a role in important animistic ceremonies: the state has the largest proportion of animists of any state in Myanmar. Even so, some 80% to 90% of Chin are believed to be Christian, mainly following the efforts of American missionaries during the British colonial period. Present-day activities of government-sponsored Buddhist missions in the region are seen as a challenge to both animism and Christianity among the Zo or Chin groups. Many Chin go to work and study for periods in Bangladesh and India, and some stay permanently.

Feature: The Women with Tattooed Faces

The most extraordinary (but no longer practised) Chin fashion was the custom of tattooing women's faces. Chin facial tattoos vary according to tribe but often cover the whole face – starting at just above the bridge of the nose and radiating out in a pattern of dark lines that resemble a spider's web. Even the eyelids were tattooed. A painful process, the tattooing was traditionally done to girls once they reached puberty.

Legend has it that the practice was initiated to keep Chin maidens from being coveted by Rakhine princes whose kingdom bordered the southern Chin Hills. But it's just as likely that the tattoos were seen as a mark of beauty and womanhood. One proud old Chin woman we met told us that she was just seven when she started pestering her parents to have her own facial inking.

Efforts by Christian missionaries and a government ban on facial tattoos in the 1960s have caused the practice to die out. But in the villages of southern Chin State you'll still see middle-aged and older women with the adornment.

Intha

Although they follow Buddhism and wear modern Myanmar costume, the Intha people of Inle Lake are culturally quite distinct from their Shan neighbours.

The ancestors of the Intha are thought to have migrated to Inle from Dawei in southern Myanmar. According to the most popular legend, two brothers from Dawei came to Yaunghwe (the original name for Nyaungshwe) in 1359 to serve the local Shan sao pha (sky lord). The chieftain was so pleased with the hard-working Dawei brothers that he invited 36 more families from Dawei; purportedly, all the Intha around Inle Lake, who number around 70,000, are descended from these migrant families.

A more likely theory is that the Intha fled southern Myanmar in the 18th century to escape wars between the Thais and Bamar.

Kachin

Like the Chin, the Kachin (1.5% of the population) are part of the Tibeto-Burman racial group. Based mainly in Kachin State, they are divided into six ethnic subgroups (Jingpaw, Lawngwaw, Lashi, Zaiwa, Rawang, Lisu), among which the Jingpaw are the most numerous. Traditionally animist, the Kachin were heavily targeted by Christian missionaries during colonial times (about 36% of the population is Christian, mostly Baptist and Catholic).

As much of Kachin State lies above the Tropic of Cancer, the climate is more extreme – stiflingly hot in the summer months and downright cold in the winter – and the Kachin seem to have abandoned their traditional dress for Western clothes that can be easily changed to suit the seasons.

About the only vestige of Kachin dress still commonly worn is the men's longyi (sarong-style lower garment) of indigo, green and deep-purple plaid. On festive occasions, Kachin women wear finely woven wool skirts decorated with zigzag or diamond patterns, and dark blouses festooned with hammered-silver medallions and tassels.

Following independence from Britain, Kachin relations with the Burmese-run government were increasingly precarious. After the military coup in 1962, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was formed as the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). These two organisations effectively ran the state with an economy based on smuggling and the profits from the jade trade – Kachin State is home to the highest-quality jadeite in the world – until a ceasefire agreement was struck in 1994.

After 17 years the ceasefire broke, and in July 2011 fighting with the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) broke out again. Since then an estimated 100,000 people have been displaced by the conflict and are currently living in refugee camps.

Kayah

Also known as the Karenni or Red Karen, the Kayah are settled in the mountainous isolation of Kayah State.

As with many of Myanmar's ethnic groups that traditionally practised animism, the Kayah were targeted for conversion to Christianity by Baptist and Catholic missionaries during the colonial period. The name 'Red Karen' refers to the favoured colour of the Kayah traditional dress and the fact that their apparel resembles that of some Kayin (Karen) tribes – a resemblance that caused the Kayah to be classified by colonisers and missionaries as 'Karen'.

Today the Kayah make up a very small percentage of the population of Myanmar – around 0.75% – and the vast majority lead agrarian lives. A significant number of Kayah also live in Thailand's Mae Hong Son Province.

Kayan

Perhaps the most recognisable – and enigmatic – of Myanmar's ethnic groups is the Kayan. Known in English as 'longnecks' and in Burmese as Padaung (actually a Shan term meaning 'wearing gold' – a moniker generally considered pejorative by the Kayan), the tribe is best known for the women's habit of wearing brass rings around their necks. Over time, the rings lower the women's collarbones and ribcage, making their necks appear unusually long. A common myth claims that if the coils are removed, the women's necks will fall over and the women will suffocate. In fact, the women attach and remove the coils at will and there is no evidence that the effect of the rings impairs their health at all.

Nobody knows for sure how the coil custom got started. One theory is that it was meant to make the women unattractive to men from other tribes. Another story says it was so tigers wouldn't carry the women off by their throats. Most likely it is nothing more than a fashion accessory.

In recent years some claim that the rings are applied with a different purpose: to provide women from impoverished hill villages with the means to make a living posing for photographs. Some souvenir shops on Inle Lake employ Kayan women to lure passing tourist boats. And there are claims that Kayan women have been ferried across the border to villages in neighbouring Mae Hong Son (Thailand) to provide a photo opportunity for visiting tour groups. These villages are often derided as human zoos but are actually refugee camps that also function as rural markets, with the women earning money by selling souvenirs and drinks.

At research time, the bulk of Myanmar's accessible 'traditional' (ie ring-wearing) Kayan villages in Kayah State were in Deemawsoe township, southwest of Loikaw. Rangkhu is the largest village in the area.

Kayin (Karen)

No one knows for sure how many Kayin (also known as Karen) there are in Myanmar. This ethnic group numbers anything between four and seven million and is linguistically very diverse, with a dozen related but not mutually intelligible dialects. Originally animists, the Kayin are now thought to be mostly Buddhist, with around 20% Christian and a small percentage Muslim.

The typical dress for both men and women is a longyi with horizontal stripes (a pattern that is reserved exclusively for women in other ethnic groups). A subgroup of the Kayin lives on both sides of the Thailand–Myanmar border.

For a long time the independence-minded Kayin were the only major ethnic group to never sign peace agreements with the Myanmar military. But in 2012 the Karen National Union (KNU), the best known of the diverse Kayin insurgency groups, signed a ceasefire with the Myanmar government.

Moken

Also known as sea gypsies (Salon in Burmese), the Moken live a nomadic life drifting on the ocean winds around the Myeik Archipelago, Tanintharyi (Tenasserim) Division. Numbering around 2000 to 3000 individuals, the Moken, scientists believe, have been floating around the archipelago since at least 2000 BC, although they now normally maintain homes on islands for at least part of the year. They are also found further south in the Thai islands in the Andaman Sea.

Incredibly at home on and under the water, most Moken work as fishers, selling their catch in Myeik and other coastal towns in the south. They are insular and shy away from contact with almost anyone they encounter.

Mon

The Mon (also called the Tailing by Western historians) were among the earliest inhabitants of Myanmar and their rule stretched into what is now Thailand. As happened with the Cham in Vietnam and the Phuan in Laos, the Mon were gradually conquered by neighbouring kingdoms and their influence waned until they were practically unknown outside present-day Myanmar, where they currently make up some 2% of the population.

As in Thailand, which also has a Mon minority, the Mon have almost completely assimilated with the Bamar and in most ways seem indistinguishable from them. In the precolonial era, Mon Buddhist sites, including Yangon's Shwedagon Paya, were appropriated by the Bamar (though the Golden Rock is still in Mon State), and Mon tastes in art and architecture were borrowed as well. To this day, the Bamar regard the Mon in a way that is somewhat analogous to European regard for Hellenic Greece – as bearers of a classical civilisation that laid the groundwork for the modern era.

Naga

The Naga are mainly settled in a mountainous region of eastern India known as Nagaland, but significant numbers live in the western Sagaing Region between the Indian border and the Chindwin River.

When the British arrived in the mid-19th century, the Naga were a fragmented but fearsome collection of tribes. Headhunting was a tradition among them and for many decades they resisted British rule, though lack of cooperation between the tribes hindered their efforts to remain independent. After nearly 17,000 Naga fought in WWI in Europe, a feeling of unity grew, which led to an organised Naga independence movement.

The Naga have one of the world's most exotic traditional costumes. Naga men at festival time wear striking ceremonial headdresses made of feathers, tufts of hair and cowry shells, and carry wickedly sharp spears. Several tour companies organise trips to the region during the Naga new year in January, when such ceremonies are performed.

Rakhine

The Rakhine (also spelt Rakhaing and formerly called the Arakanese) are principally adherents of Buddhism; in fact, they claim to be among the first followers of Buddha in Southeast Asia. Their last ancient capital was centred on Mrauk U in Rakhine State, which borders Bangladesh. Today they constitute around 3.5% of Myanmar's population.

The Rakhine language is akin to Bamar, but due to their geographical location the Rakhine have also absorbed a fair amount of culture from the Indian subcontinent. In the eyes of most Bamar, the Rakhine are a creole race – a mixture of Bamar and Indian – a perception that the Rakhine strongly resent. However, it is true that the local culture exhibits a strongly Indian flavour, particularly when it comes to food and music. The Rakhine have a reputation for skilled weaving and are known in Myanmar for their eye-catching and intricately patterned longyi.

Rakhine State also has minority populations of Hindus and Muslim Rakhine, as well as the Rohingya, another Muslim people.

Feature: Rohingya

Even in a nation synonymous with ethnic strife, the Rohingya stand out as Myanmar’s most besieged group. So loathed in Myanmar is this Muslim minority of around 1.1 million people who live in Rakhine State that everyone from Aung San Suu Kyi down refuses to describe them as 'Rohingya'. Instead they are known as 'Bengalis', a reference to the widespread belief that they are simply illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Certainly, most Rohingya have darker complexions than their Buddhist neighbours and generally speak a dialect of the Bengali language readily understood in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s major seaport. But Rohingya scholars cite historical evidence – including the logs of European explorers – that suggests a Rohingya presence in Myanmar that dates back centuries.

Many Rohingya descend from families led to Myanmar in the 19th century by the British Empire. The British needed labour to colonise the newly conquered Burma, and many Muslims (Bengali and others) came to the country to build towns and cities, to work the ports and railways and to farm the fields. A large proportion of them stayed permanently.

For hardline Buddhist nationalists, the Rohingya are an undesirable outcome of colonial occupation that needs correcting. Myanmar’s current citizenship law, widely derided by global human-rights groups, seeks to deny citizenship to any group who arrived after (or because of) British invasion.

Violence between the Rohingya and the ethnic Rakhine has been flaring for decades, but riots in 2012 saw the conflict reach a new scale. Around 90,000 Rohingya were displaced, with most moved to squalid internally displaced person (IDP) camps. Sittwe, Rakhine's capital, is now an almost Muslim- and Rohingya-free zone.

The 2012 riots led to the formation of a Rohingya militant group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). In October 2016 and August 2017, ARSA launched a series of attacks against police outposts in Rakhine State close to the border with Bangladesh. On both occasions the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) responded with large-scale offensives that have led to an estimated 500,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh, reducing the number of Rohingya in Rakhine State to around 600,000.

Allegations of human-rights abuses – the systematic rape of Rohingya women, mass shootings of unarmed people, the burning and looting of Rohingya villages – have been made against the Tatmadaw by a number of organisations, including Amnesty International. In September 2017 the UN described the Tatmadaw operations as a 'textbook example of ethnic cleansing'.

The media and aid organisations have been barred from the area where the violence occurred, and the Myanmar government and military have denied any wrongdoing. Instead, they have claimed that ARSA and the Rohingya themselves were burning down their own villages before leaving for Bangladesh. The worldwide condemnation that followed the August 2017 violence has severely tarnished the reputation of both Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar itself.

Shan

The biggest ethnic group in Myanmar after the Bamar, the Shan account for around 9% of the population. Most Shan are Buddhists and call themselves Tai ('Shan' is actually a Bamar word derived from the word 'Siam'). This name is significant, as the Shan are related ethnically, culturally and linguistically to Tai peoples in neighbouring Thailand, Laos and China's Yunnan Province. In fact, if you've spent some time in northern Thailand or Laos and learnt some of the respective languages, you'll find you can have a basic conversation with the Shan, who nonetheless must write in the Burmese alphabet.

Traditionally, the Shan wore baggy trousers and floppy, wide-brimmed sunhats, and the men were known for their faith in talismanic tattoos. Nowadays, Shan town dwellers commonly dress in the Bamar longyi, except on festival occasions, when they proudly wear their ethnic costumes.

In former times the Shan were ruled by local lords or chieftains called sao pha (which translates, somewhat fantastically, to sky lords), a term that was corrupted by the Bamar to sawbwa. Many Shan groups have fought the Bamar for control of Shan State, and a few groups continue a guerrilla-style conflict in the south near Thailand and further north close to the border with China.

Wa

The remote northeastern hills of Shan State – the homeland of the Wa – are off limits to tourists. During British colonial times, these tribal people – living in fortified villages, speaking dozens of dialects, and having an (unfair) reputation for being permanently unwashed and frequently inebriated – were hated and feared, a status they have yet to throw off.

The British distinguished two main groups of Wa according to how receptive they were to the colonisers' attempts to control them. The 'Wild Wa' were headhunters, and decorated their villages with the severed heads of vanquished enemies to appease the spirits that guarded their opium fields. (It's said that they only stopped the practice in the 1970s!)

The so-called 'Tame Wa' allowed the colonisers to pass through their territory unimpeded, yet the area inhabited by the Wa – east of the upper Thanlwin (Salween) River in northern Shan State – was never completely pacified by the British.

For decades the United Wa State Army (UWSA) – the largest of Myanmar's ethnic armies, with an estimated 20,000 soldiers – has controlled this borderland area, gathering power and money through the production of opium and methamphetamines; the US labelled the UWSA a narcotics-trafficking organisation in 2003. The UWSA struck a ceasefire deal with the military regime in 1989 but has so far refused to cooperate with Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to broker peace.

Women in Myanmar

Myanmar stands as a challenge to the Western trope that holds poorer nations are somehow inherently sexist. Here, the birth of a daughter is celebrated and lauded – a daughter, after all, is often considered more dutiful than a son. Girls are educated alongside boys, and women outnumber men in university and college enrolment. Most white-collar professions grant women six weeks of paid maternity leave before birth and one or two months afterwards.

Myanmar women enjoy equal legal rights to those of men, can own property, do not traditionally change any portion of their names upon marriage and, in the event of divorce, are legally entitled to half of all property accumulated during the marriage. Inheritance rights are also equal.

Rights on paper, however, don't always translate into reality. In the current parliament only 43 out of 433 MPs are women, although this number represents a jump from previous years. Still, apart from Aung San Suu Kyi – herself constitutionally barred from the presidency on the pretext of a law that punishes her for her past marital status – there is no doubt men dominate the political sphere.

When it comes to religion, women also take a back seat. Many people in Myanmar – women as well as men – believe the birth of a girl indicates less religious merit than the birth of a boy, and that only males can attain nibbana (for a woman to do so, she first has to come back as a man!). Buddhist shrines, including Mandalay's Mahamuni Paya and Yangon's Shwedagon Paya, have small areas around the main holy image or stupa that are off limits to women.

In the private sector, there is a bit more equality at play. While men dominate the largest commercial interests in the nation, many small, midsized, and even a few large businesses are managed by women. In both villages and cities, women often manage family finances, a fiduciary role that also serves to somewhat bridge the gender gap. In addition, women are a noticeably vocal presence within the country's growing print and social media community.

Just as boys between the ages of five and 20 usually undergo a pre-puberty initiation as temporary novice monks, girls around the same age participate in an initiatory ear-piercing ceremony (often called 'ear-boring' in Burmese English). Some also become temporary nuns at this age, but nuns are not as venerated in Myanmar as monks.

While men dominate the nation's beer stations (and women are often sidelined as karaoke entertainment), women do engage in Myanmar nightlife.

Religion & Belief

About 88% of the people of Myanmar are Buddhist, but many also pay heed to ancient animist beliefs in natural spirits (nats). Locals are proud of their beliefs and keen to discuss them. Knowing something about Buddhism in particular will help you better understand life in the country.

Feature: The Water Festival

Occurring at the height of the dry and hot season, around the middle of April, the three-day Thingyan (Water Festival) starts the Myanmar New Year. As in Thailand's Songkran, the event is celebrated in a most raucous manner – by throwing buckets of cold water at anyone who dares to venture into the streets. Foreigners are not exempt!

On a spiritual level, Myanmar people believe that during this three-day period the king of the nat (spirit beings), Thagyamin, visits the human world to tally his annual record of the good deeds and misdeeds humans have performed. Villagers place flowers and sacred leaves in front of their homes to welcome the nat. Thagyamin's departure on the morning of the third day marks the beginning of the new year, when properly raised young people wash the hair of their elder kin, buddha images are ceremonially washed, and hpongyi (monks) are offered particularly appetising alms food. On a physical level, it's nice getting a little soak amid sweltering April weather.

Although the true meaning of the festival is still kept alive by ceremonies such as these, nowadays it's mainly a festival of fun and a period when the country's rather rigid social order is briefly upended. In cities, temporary stages called pandal (from the Tamil pendel) are erected along main thoroughfares, with water barrels ready to douse all passers-by.

Buddhism

The Mon were the first people in Myanmar to practise Theravada (meaning Doctrine of the Elders) Buddhism, the oldest and most conservative form of the religion. King Asoka, the great Indian emperor, is known to have sent missions here (known then as the 'Golden Land') during the 3rd century BC. A second wave is thought to have arrived via Sinhalese missionaries between the 6th and 10th centuries.

By the 9th century, the Pyu of northern Myanmar were combining Theravada with elements of Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and Tantric Buddhism brought from their homelands in the Tibetan Plateau. During the early Bagan era (11th century), Bamar king Anawrahta decided that the Buddhism practised in his realm should be 'purified' from all non-Theravada elements. It never completely shed Tantric, Hindu and animist elements, but it remains predominately Theravada.

Feature: Four Noble Truths & the Eightfold Path

1. Life is dukkha (suffering).

The eightfold path

1. Right thought

2. Dukkha comes from tanha (selfish desire).

The eightfold path

2. Right understanding

3. When one forsakes selfish desire, suffering will be extinguished.

The eightfold path

3. Right speech

4. The 'eightfold path' is the way to eliminate selfish desire.

The eightfold path

4. Right action

The eightfold path

5. Right livelihood

The eightfold path

6. Right exertion

The eightfold path

7. Right attentiveness

The eightfold path

8. Right concentration

Feature: Buddha's Hand Signs

At temples and shrines, look out for the following hand signs of buddha images, each with a different meaning:

  • Abhaya Both hands have palms out, symbolising protection from fear.
  • Bhumispara The right hand touches the ground, symbolising when Buddha sat beneath a banyan tree until he gained enlightenment. By touching the Earth, the Buddha drew on its stability as a basis for his own knowledge and resolve.
  • Dana One or both hands with palms up, symbolising the offering of dhamma (Buddhist teachings) to the world.
  • Dhyana Both hands rest palm up on the buddha's lap, signifying meditation.
  • Vitarka or dhammachakka Thumb and forefinger of one hand forms a circle with other fingers (somewhat like an 'OK' gesture), symbolising the first public discourse on Buddhist doctrine.
Theravada Versus Mahayana

Theravada Buddhism (also followed in Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Thailand) differs from Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity in that it is not centred on a god or gods but rather a psycho-philosophical system. Today it covers a wide range of interpretations of the basic beliefs, which all start from the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, a prince-turned-ascetic who is referred to as the Buddha, in northern India around 2500 years ago.

In the Theravada school, it's believed that the individual strives to achieve nibbana (nirvana), rather than waiting for all humankind to be ready for salvation, as in the Mahayana (Large Vehicle) school. The Mahayana school does not reject the other school but claims it has built upon it via practices such as recognising bodhisattva (individuals who have delayed nibbana to facilitate the enlightenment of humankind).

Some argue that Mahayana Buddhism is simply the faith as reflected and interpreted by the cultures of China, Korea, Japan and elsewhere, just as Theravada Buddhism reflects the cultural milieu of Southeast Asia. Clearly, there is a chicken-and-egg conundrum in play here, but it is safe to say that, theologically, Theravadins place a heavier emphasis on the sangha (community of monks); it is almost unthinkable for a Myanmar Buddhist man to finish his life without spending at least some time as a shaven-headed initiate in a monastery.

The Theravadins see Mahayana as a misinterpretation of the Buddha's original teachings. Of the two, Theravada Buddhism is more austere and ascetic and, some might say, harder to practise.

Buddhist Tenets

Buddha taught that the world is primarily characterised by dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence) and anatta (insubstantiality), and that even our happiest moments in life are only temporary, empty and unsatisfactory.

The ultrapragmatic Buddhist perception of cause and effect – kamma in Pali, karma in Sanskrit, kan in Burmese – holds that birth inevitably leads to sickness, old age and death, hence every life is insecure and subject to dukkha. Through rebirth, the cycle of thanthaya (samsara in Pali – a term for the cycle of birth, death and rebirth) repeats itself endlessly as long as ignorance and craving remain.

Only by reaching a state of complete wisdom and nondesire can one attain true happiness. To achieve wisdom and eliminate craving, one must turn inward and master one's own mind through meditation, most commonly known in Myanmar as bhavana or kammahtan.

Devout Buddhists in Myanmar adhere to five lay precepts (moral rules; thila in Burmese, sila in Pali), which require abstinence from killing, stealing, unchastity (usually interpreted among laypeople as adultery), lying and drinking intoxicating substances.

In spite of Buddhism's profound truths, the most common Myanmar approach is to try for a better future life by feeding and caring for monks (the sangha), donating to temples and performing regular worship at the local paya (Buddhist monument) – these activities are commonly known as 'merit making'. For the average person everything revolves around the merit (kutho, from the Pali kusala, meaning 'wholesome') one is able to accumulate through such deeds.

Only a minority of Myanmar's Buddhists are vegetarians, and this applies to monks as well. Despite Buddhism's philosophical stance against worldly pleasure, many Buddhists enjoy food, cigarettes and even alcohol (the latter is rejected by monks); to appreciate dukkha, one must know that which is given up on the road to self-denial.

Monks & Nuns

Myanmar's monkhood, numbering around 500,000, is collectively known as the sangha. Every Buddhist Myanmar male is expected to take up temporary monastic residence twice in his life: once as a samanera (novice monk) between the ages of seven and 20, and again as a hpongyi (fully ordained monk) sometime after the age of 20. Almost all men or boys aged under 20 'take robe and bowl' in the shinpyu (novitiation ceremony).

All things possessed by a monk must be offered by the lay community. Upon ordination a new monk is typically offered a set of three robes (lower, inner and outer). Other possessions a monk is permitted include a razor, a cup, a filter (for keeping insects out of drinking water), an umbrella and an alms bowl.

In Myanmar, women who live the monastic life as dasasila ('10-precept' nuns) are often called thilashin (possessor of morality) in Burmese. Burmese nuns shave their heads, wear pink robes and take vows in an ordination procedure similar to that for monks. Generally, nunhood isn't considered as 'prestigious' as monkhood, as nuns usually don't perform ceremonies on behalf of laypeople and keep only 10 precepts – the same number observed by male novices.

Both men and women will take monastic vows at important junctures in their lives, such as after the death of a loved one, following a painful break-up or even on achieving some form of worldly success. During these periods an individual may remain a monk or nun for as long as is required to achieve some form of spiritual perspective – a week, a month or, sometimes, a lifetime.

Temples & Monasteries

Paya (pa-yah), the most common Myanmar equivalent to the often misleading English term 'pagoda', literally means 'holy one' and can refer to people, deities and places associated with religion. Often it's a generic term covering a stupa, temple or shrine.

There are basically two kinds of paya: the solid, bell-shaped zedi and the hollow square or rectangular pahto. A zedi (stupa) is usually thought to contain 'relics' – either objects taken from the Buddha himself (pieces of bone, teeth or hair) or certain holy materials.

The term pahto is sometimes translated as 'temple', though 'shrine' would perhaps be more accurate, as priests or monks are not necessarily in attendance. Mon-style pahto, with small windows and ground-level passageways, are also known as a gu or ku (from the Pali-Sanskrit guha, meaning 'cave').

Both zedi and pahto are often associated with kyaung (Buddhist monasteries), also called kyaungtaik and hpongyi-kyaung. The most important structure on the monastery grounds is the thein (a consecrated hall where monastic ordinations are held). An open-sided zayat (resthouse) may be available for gatherings of laypeople during festivals or pilgrimages.

Building a paya or monastery, or contributing to their upkeep, is a major source of merit for Myanmar's Buddhists. Even the poorest villager can usually afford to spend a few thousand kyats on gold leaf, which can be pressed on a Buddha statue, or flowers that can adorn a shrine, which all counts towards good merit. Such practices are themselves a manifestation of traditional folk religion, which blends with Buddhism into a syncretic worship that turns an older animistic reverence for sacred spaces into a means of honouring the Buddha and the sangha.

Nat Worship

One of the most fascinating things about Myanmar is the ongoing worship of the nat (spirit being). Though some Buddhist leaders downgrade them, the nat are very much present in the lives of the people of Myanmar, and you'll often find them sharing space with Buddha in their own nat-sin (spirit house) at temples, in private residences and even in corporate offices. Be on the lookout for a coconut, sometimes wrapped in a gaung baung (turban), hanging above a small offering plate or bowl; this is a shrine intended for the nats. You'll also see many nat shrines in rural areas.

History

Worship of nats predates Buddhism in Myanmar. Nats have long been believed to hold dominion over a place (natural or human-made), person or field of experience.

Separate, larger shrines were built for a higher class of nat, descended from actual historic personages (including previous Thai and Bamar kings) who had died violent, unjust deaths. These suprahuman nat, when correctly propitiated, could aid worshippers in accomplishing important tasks, vanquishing enemies and so on.

Early in the 11th century in Bagan, King Anawrahta stopped animal sacrifices (part of nat worship at Mt Popa) and destroyed nat temples. Realising he may lose the case for making Theravada Buddhism the national faith, Anawrahta wisely conceded the nat's coexistence with Buddha.

There were 36 recognised nat at the time (in fact, there are many more). Anawrahta sagely added a 37th, Thagyamin, a Hindu deity based on Indra, whom he crowned 'king of the nat'. Since, in traditional Buddhist mythology, Indra paid homage to Buddha, this insertion effectively made all nat subordinate to Buddhism. Anawrahta's scheme worked, and today the commonly believed cosmology places Buddha's teachings at the top. With that said, the nats still occupy an important role as sources of potential good luck and fortune; in this regard, they are similar to Catholic saints, although they do not occupy the same intercessionary position between a worshipper and a higher power.

Worship & Beliefs

In many homes you may see the most popular nat in the form of an unhusked coconut dressed in a red gaung baung (turban), which represents the dual-nat Eindwin-Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain Who is in the House). Another widespread form of nat worship is exhibited through the red-and-white cloths tied to a rear-view mirror or hood ornament; these colours are the traditional nat colours of protection.

Some of the more animistic guardian nat remain outside home and paya. A tree-spirit shrine, for example, may be erected beneath a particularly venerated old tree, thought to wield power over the immediate vicinity. These are especially common beneath larger banyan trees (Ficus religiosa), as this tree is revered as a symbol of Buddha's enlightenment.

A village may well have a nat shrine in a wooded corner for the propitiation of the village guardian spirit. Such tree and village shrines are simple, dollhouse-like structures of wood or bamboo; their proper placement is divined by a local saya (teacher or shaman), trained in spirit lore. Such knowledge of the complex nat world is fading fast among the younger generations.

Spirit possession – whether psychologically induced or metaphysical – is a phenomenon that is real in the eyes of locals. The main fear is not simply that spirits will wreak havoc on your daily affairs, but rather that one may enter your mind and body and force you to perform unconscionable acts in public.

Nat Festivals

On certain occasions the nat cult goes beyond simple propitiation of the spirits (via offerings) and steps into the realm of spirit invocation. Most commonly this is accomplished through nat pwe (spirit festivals), special musical performances designed to attract nat to the performance venue.

To lure a nat to the pwe takes the work of a spirit medium, or nat-gadaw (nat wife), who is either a woman or, more commonly, a male transvestite who sings and dances to invite specific nat to possess them. The nat also like loud and colourful music, so musicians at a nat pwe bang away at full volume on their gongs, drums and xylophones, producing what sounds like some ancient form of rock and roll.

Every nat pwe is accompanied by a risk that the invited spirit may choose to enter, not the body of the nat-gadaw, but one of the spectators. One of the most commonly summoned spirits at nat pwe is Ko Gyi Kyaw (Big Brother Kyaw), a drunkard nat who responds to offerings of liquor imbibed by the nat-gadaw. When he enters someone's body, he's given to lascivious dancing, so a chance possession by Ko Gyi Kyaw is especially embarrassing.

Once possessed by a nat, the only way one can be sure the spirit won't return again and again is to employ the services of an older Buddhist monk skilled at exorcism – a process that can take days, if not weeks. Without undergoing such a procedure, anyone who has been spirit possessed may carry the nat stigma for the rest of their lives. Girls who have been so entered are considered unmarriageable unless satisfactorily exorcised.

Feature: Attending a Nat Pwe

You arrive at a typical Burmese village, or wander through a residential neighbourhood, a suburb of a city that’s firmly off the tourist trail. There’s a commotion; stalls are set out, crowds are rushing in one direction, and the general vibe is one of simmering excitement.

You follow the masses toward the tinny clang of what sounds like a mass execution of cats, and turns out to be a bad sound system with all volume controls turned to max. Everyone is laughing, joking and – noticeably in a country that tends to frown on public inebriation – drinking. And then you see what all the fuss is over: a woman or transgendered individual dressed in a drag costume slugging back whiskey, chain smoking cigarettes, engaging in a mix of classical dance, stand-up comedy, slapstick vaudeville and shamanic spiritual summoning.

Welcome to a nat pwe.

The term roughly translates to ‘nat dance/festival’, although it refers to a spectacle that is part dance, carnival, ritual and sacred ceremony all at once. During a nat pwe, a nat gadaw – the aforementioned woman or transgendered person – is possessed by a nat. The nat gadaw, accompanied by an orchestra, disrupts the local social hierarchy, bringing the spirit world to the people and giving license to bawdy behaviour, jokes and the public airing of grievances. In the meantime, the nat gadaw asks the audience for donations, which ward off bad spirit attention, pay off the orchestra and, of course, fund the nat gadaw.

While the jokes, commentary and deeper theology of a nat pwe will likely soar past those foreigners lucky enough to find one, their atmosphere and social impact are easy enough to grasp. For a time, the borders between spirit and physical worlds breaks down, and the rules and routines that often define life in Myanmar are cast away. On one level, setting aside a time for breaking rules is a societal rule in and of itself, but that doesn’t make the wild abandon encountered at a nat pwe any less deeply felt.

Superstition & Numerology

Superstitions run deep in Myanmar. Many people consult astrologers to find mates and plan events. According to Benedict Rogers, author of a biography of Than Shwe, the retired senior general has seven personal astrologers at his call, several of whom were once tasked with focussing their darker arts on his chief nemesis, Aung San Suu Kyi.

On a less dramatic level, Myanmar astrology, based on the Indian system of naming the zodiacal planets for Hindu deities, continues to be an important factor in deciding proper dates for weddings, funerals, ordinations and other events. Burma became independent at 4.20am on 4 January 1948, per U Nu's counsel with an astrologer.

Numerology plays a similar role with both eight and nine being auspicious numbers. The Burmese word ko (nine) also means 'to seek protection from the gods'. General Ne Win was fascinated with numerology, especially that relating to the cabalistic ritual Paya-kozu (Nine Gods). In 1987 he introduced 45-kyat and 90-kyat notes, because their digits' sum equalled nine.

While many monks and religious Buddhists may dismiss the above as, well, superstition, even wealthy, educated locals, as well as Myanmar people who have emigrated, will bless a car with holy water before a road trip that may be calculated to fall on a lucky number day.

Islam

Although official statistics say that 4.3% of Myanmar's population follows Islam, the Burmese Muslim Association says that the number is between 8% and 12%. Either way, Muslims have been part of Myanmar's religious fabric from at least the 9th century, and possibly as far back as the 6th century in Rakhine State. Today, Myanmar's Muslims represent a wide swath of ethnicities, which can include those of Chinese, Indian and Rohingya descent.

Waves of Indian immigration under British colonial rule boosted the local Muslim population. This was slashed during WWII, when many Indians fled the country, and again from the start of military rule in 1962, when ethnic Indians were expelled from the army and marginalised in society.

More recently, the Rohingya have been condemned as illegal immigrants, while some other Muslim communities have also been targeted by extreme Buddhist nationalists.

Local Buddhists often point to historical incidents of violence instigated by Muslims (for example, the murder of Buddhist Rakhines during WWII) as proof that Muslims cannot integrate into Buddhist communities, despite the obvious counterpoint of years of peaceful coexistence.

Contemporary issues related to terrorism inflame these prejudices; for example, when in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the famed Bamiyan buddha images – the largest standing buddhas in the world – Myanmar's Buddhists were incensed.

Christianity

Officially, some 6% of Myanmar's population is Christian. Anglican, Baptist and Catholic missionaries have been active in Myanmar for over 150 years. Going even further back, there were communities of Christians among the Japanese who fled to Arakan (Rakhine State) in the 16th century, and Portuguese Catholics (and later Dutch and French mercenaries and prisoners of war) arrived in the early 17th century. The presence of missionaries in the hill country has led to many upland minorities converting to Christianity, particularly in Chin and Kachin States.

Other Religions

Hinduism is practised among locals of Indian descent who settled in the country during colonial times. However, the religion's influence and reach in Myanmar stretch back many centuries, as Hindu temples in Bagan attest. Burmese adaptations of Hindu deities are worshipped as nat.

Other faiths you'll come across include the various traditional religions of Chinese immigrants, and animism among the small tribal groups of the highlands.

Yangon has a tiny Jewish community of about 20 people (buttressed by expats as of late). The Jewish community in pre-WWII Rangoon numbered around 2500 and the city once had a Jewish mayor (as did Pathein). Burma was also the first Asian country to recognise Israel in 1949. However, the military coup and its aftermath encouraged most to leave. Even so, the city's 19th-century Moseah Yeshua Synagogue is beautifully maintained.

Sidebar: Rakhine Cultural Relics

  • Temple ruins (Mrauk U)
  • Mahamuni Buddha image (Mandalay)
  • Rakhine State Culture Museum (Sittwe)

Sidebar: Local Holidays

When Myanmar locals go on holiday it's often in the form of a pilgrimage. Ma Thanegi describes one such trip in The Native Tourist: In Search of Turtle Eggs.

Sidebar: State Religion

During the U Nu period (1948–62), Buddhism functioned as a state religion, as embodied in such catchphrases as 'the Socialist Way to Nibbana'.

Sidebar: Red Monks

Bright red robes are usually reserved for novices under 15, darker colours for older, fully ordained monks. Myanmar eschews the orange and yellow robes so commonly seen in Thailand and Laos.

Sidebar: Nat Spirit Houses

Many Buddhist temples in Myanmar have their own nat-sin (spirit house) attached to the main pagoda.

Sidebar: Derivation of Nat

The written Burmese word nat is likely derived from the Pali-Sanskrit natha, meaning lord or guardian.

Sidebar: Offensive Pork

Those with a general fear of nat will avoid eating pork, which is thought to be offensive to the spirit world.

Sidebar: Religious Composition

Officially Myanmar is 0.8% animist, 0.5% Hindu, 6% Christian and 4% Muslim; others believe that non-Buddhists may account for 30% of the population.

Sidebar: Colourful Myanmar

Khin Myo Chit's English-language Colourful Myanmar highlights many customs and traditions of Myanmar life and is available in many Yangon bookshops.

Sidebar: Chinland

The Chin National Front (www.chinland.org) would like to create a sovereign 'Chinland' out of parts of Myanmar, India and Bangladesh.

Sidebar: The Kachin Perspective

For more about the struggle of the Kachin, from a certain Kachin perspective, see the website of the Kachinland News (http://kachinlandnews.com).

Sidebar: Life in the Valley of Death

Conservationist and author Alan Rabinowitz relates much about local life in the Kachin hills in his fascinating Life in the Valley of Death.

Sidebar: Zoya Phan

Little Daughter: A Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West is the autobiography of Zoya Phan (written with Damien Lewis), a Kayin woman who is the international coordinator of the UK Burma Campaign and who spent many years as a child living in refugee camps.

Sidebar: Kayah

Visit Karenni People (www.karennirefugees.com) to find out more about the Kayah/Red Karen people living in one of the poorest and least accessible parts of Myanmar, written from the perspective of refugee-rights activists.

Sidebar: Martial Arts

Thailand has kickboxing, Myanmar has lethwei – a brutal martial art that practitioners say trumps muay thai in viciousness because of legal headbutts. Other local martial arts include bando, based around multiple animal forms, and banshay, a weapon-based system known for utilising two swords at once.

Sidebar: Shan News

To find out more about the Shan and issues in Shan State, read the Shan Herald Agency for News (http://panglong.org).

Sidebar: The Trouser People

In Andrew Marshall's The Trouser People the intrepid author goes in search of the Wa's creation myth lake of Nawng Hkeo.

Sidebar: White Lotus Press

White Lotus Press (www.whitelotuspress.com) publishes books in English on the various people of Myanmar, including titles on the Kachin, Mon, Moken and Shan.

Sidebar: Learn about Therevada Buddhism

  • DharmaNet (www.dharmanet.org)
  • Access to Insight (www.accesstoinsight.org)
  • World Dharma (www.worlddharma.com)
  • Buddhist Studies (www.buddhanet.net)

Sidebar: Coconuts Yangon

For a deep (English language) dive into the world of Myanmar's young and wealthy urban class (and the expats who hang out with them), plus the occasional good listicle and news reporting, check out Coconuts Yangon (http://yangon.coconuts.co).

Sidebar: Chinese Influx

As Myanmar has opened to the world, there has been a massive influx of Chinese people (tourists and migrants) into northern Burma, evident in Mandalay and certainly in border towns such as Mong La, where the yuan is the local currency.

Sidebar: Self-Administered Zones

Myanmar's constitution has set aside 'self-administered zones' for the Naga, Danu, Pa-O, Palaung, Kokang and Wa peoples.

Sidebar: Hindiusm & Buddhism

Hinduism and Buddhism have deep historical and philosophical ties, and in many archaeological sites, including Bagan and the ancient capitals that ring Mandalay, you'll find evidence of old Hindu shrines and temples.

Sidebar: Moken People

Like almost every ethnic minority in Myanmar, the Moken suffered greatly under military rule; reports from the late 1990s talk of how almost all Moken were subjected to forced relocations to onshore sites. For more information, see www.survivalinternational.org.

Sidebar: Traditions

Myanmar residents – including the urban educated elite – will usually cop to their belief in traditions, such as the power of lucky numbers and talismans, and the subsequent ill effects of unlucky numbers and artefacts.

Sidebar: Dhana

In mornings, you'll see rows of monks and sometimes nuns carrying bowls to get offerings of rice and food. It's not begging. It's a way of letting even poor locals do the deed of dhana, thus acquiring merit.

Sidebar: Animism & Christianity

Ethnic groups that traditionally practised animism have proved more receptive to conversion to Christianity, especially the Kayin, Kachin and Chin.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Her life reads like a contemporary fairy tale. Wife of an Oxford academic and mother of two, daughter of a national hero, Aung San Suu Kyi came to international attention as a prisoner of conscience in Burma. Five years after her release from house arrest in 2010 she would lead her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), in a landslide electoral victory, vanquishing the military junta who had held her captive for 15 years.

Family & Influences

Aung San Suu Kyi was born just two years before the assassination in July 1947 of her father, Aung San, leader of the Burma Independence Army and the key architect of the country's independence. Aung San had met Suu Kyi's mother, Ma Khin Kyi, a nurse, while recuperating from malaria in Rangoon General Hospital in 1942.

Her father's premature death was not the only family tragedy: in 1953 Suu Kyi's elder brother Lin drowned accidentally at the age of eight (there was also an elder sister Chit, but she had died when only a few days old in 1946, a year before Suu Kyi's birth). Later, Suu Kyi would become estranged from her eldest brother Aung San Oo, an engineer who emigrated to the US; in 2001 he unsuccessfully tried to sue her for a share of their mother's home – 54 University Ave, Yangon (Rangoon), where Suu Kyi spent the many years of her house arrest.

Her parents' political activism and example of public service had an enormous influence on Suu Kyi. 'When I honour my father, I honour all those who stand for the political integrity of Burma', she writes in the dedication to her book Freedom from Fear. In the essay 'My Father', she says he was 'a man who put the interests of the country before his own needs' – something Suu Kyi has also done.

Suu Kyi's mother was also a prominent public figure in newly independent Burma, heading up social planning and policy bodies, and briefly acting as an MP, before being appointed the country's ambassador to India in 1960. Suu Kyi finished her schooling in New Dehli, then moved to the UK in 1964 to study at Oxford University. It was in London at the home of Lord Gore Booth, a former ambassador to Burma, and his wife that Suu Kyi met history student Michael Aris.

Marriage, Children & the Oxford Years

When Aris went to Bhutan in the late 1960s to work as a tutor to the royal family and continue his research, Suu Kyi was in New York, working at the UN; they corresponded by post as their love bloomed.

However, when they married on 1 January 1972 in London, neither Suu Kyi's mother or brother attended the ceremony, heightening the perception that the union was not approved of in Burmese circles. Daw Khin Kyi was soon won around to her new son-in-law, especially once Suu Kyi gave birth to her first son, Alexander, in 1973. By 1977 the family were living in Oxford, where Aris was teaching at the university and Suu Kyi had given birth to her second son, Kim.

Friends remembers the future leader of Burma's democracy movement from the Oxford period of her life as a thrifty housewife making do on Aris' meagre salary.

It's true to say that there are few indications from this period of her life of the political interests or ambitions that would later set Suu Kyi on such a different path. However, a clue lies in one of the 187 letters Suu Kyi wrote to Aris in the eight months before their marriage. In his introduction to Freedom from Fear, Aris reveals that his future wife asked '…that should my people need me, you would help me do my duty by them'. That moment came in March 1988. Suu Kyi's mother had suffered a stroke.

Return to Burma

Suu Kyi immediately packed her bags to return to Yangon.

Meanwhile there was growing turmoil in Burma as students and others took to the streets calling for a change of government. Back in Yangon, where injured protestors were brought to the same hospital that her mother was in, it was something Suu Kyi could not ignore, especially when political activists flocked to her mother's home on Inya Lake to seek her support.

It was at this point, as the street demonstrations continued to mount, that Suu Kyi decided to join the movement for democracy. Her speech at Shwedagon Paya on 26 August 1988, with her husband and sons by her side, electrified the estimated crowd of half a million, and sent ripples of excitement and hope throughout the country. Elegantly attired, the trademark flowers in her hair, the 43-year-old Suu Kyi brought a hitherto-unseen sophistication to Myanmar politics as she launched what she called 'the second struggle for national independence'.

The brutal reaction of the military brought the protests to an end a month later.

Braving the Generals

Suu Kyi, however, was just getting started, and in September 1988 she joined several former generals and senior army officers (including Tin Oo, army chief of staff in the 1970s, who had been jailed for his role in an abortive coup in 1975) to form the NLD. As the party's general secretary, she travelled around the country attending rallies.

Her assistant at the time, Win Htein, a former army captain, recalled in an interview with the New Yorker how easily she was able to connect to the people. The Burmese were fascinated by the daughter of national hero General Aung San, but Suu Kyi soon also proved her own courage and strength of will. In April 1989, while campaigning in the town of Danubyu, she came up against soldiers who threatened to shoot her and her supporters; courageously she continued to move forward and calmly asked that they be allowed to pass. Only at the last minute did a senior officer step in and order the men to lower their guns (it's a scene reimagined in the films Beyond Rangoon and The Lady).

In July 1989 Aung San Suu Kyi, who by now had become the NLD's primary spokesperson, was placed under house arrest for publicly expressing doubt about the junta's intentions of handing over power to a civilian government, and for her plans to lead a march in Yangon to celebrate Martyrs' Day. Her status as Aung San's daughter saved her from the fate of many other NLD members, who were imprisoned in the country's notorious jails.

With her husband and sons by her side, Suu Kyi went on a hunger strike for 12 days to gain an assurance that her jailed supporters would not be tortured. None of this stopped the NLD from decisively winning the general election of May 1990.

A Prisoner of Conscience

Aris left Yangon with their sons on 2 September 1989. Suu Kyi would not see either Alexander or Kim for more than two and a half years. Her husband was allowed to spend one more fortnight with her over Christmas in 1989, a time he described in Freedom from Fear as 'among my happiest memories of our many years of marriage'.

At any moment during her years of arrest, Suu Kyi knew that the authorities would let her walk free to board a flight to return to her family in the UK. But once she left Burma she knew she would never be allowed to return, and she would not accept permanent exile. It was a sacrifice in which her family supported her, acting as her proxies to accept from the European Parliament in January 1991 the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and the Nobel Peace Prize in October of the same year.

As the international honours stacked up (the Simón Bolivar Prize from Unesco in June 1992; the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in May 1995), Suu Kyi maintained her strength and spirits by meditating, reading (in Letters from Burma she writes how she loves nothing more than relaxing over a detective story), exercising, practising piano and listening to news on the radio. From May 1992 until January 1995, she was also permitted regular visits from her husband and sons.

Five Years of Freedom

Much to the joy of her supporters at home and abroad, as well as her family, the government released Suu Kyi from house arrest in July 1995. She was allowed to travel outside Yangon with permission, which was rarely granted. During her subsequent five years of freedom, she would test the authorities several times with varying degrees of success.

The last time she would see her husband was in January 1996. A year later he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which would prove to be terminal. Despite appeals from the likes of Pope John Paul II and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the generals refused to allow Aris a visa to visit his wife, saying that Suu Kyi was free to leave the country to tend to him. Aris died in an Oxford hospital on 27 March 1999, his 53rd birthday; over the telephone he had insisted Suu Kyi remain in Burma where many political prisoners and their families also relied on her support.

The following decade was marked by more extended periods of house arrest punctuated by shorter spells of freedom. A couple of intercessions by UN special envoys resulted in talks with military leaders and the release of hundreds of political prisoners, but no real progress on the political front – nor release for the woman who had become the world's most famous prisoner of conscience.

Run-Up to Elections & Release

On 22 September 2007, at the height of the failed 'Saffron Revolution', the barricades briefly came down along University Ave, allowing the protestors to pass Aung San Suu Kyi's house. In a powerful scene, later recounted by eyewitnesses and captured on mobile phone footage, the jailed NLD leader was briefly glimpsed at the gate of her compound, tears in her eyes, silently accepting the blessing of the monks.

A couple of meetings with a UN envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, and members of the military later that year failed to result in Suu Kyi's release. Her house arrest was extended by a year in 2008 and then by a further 18 months in August 2009 following her encounter with John Yettaw.

Six days after the 2010 election, the regime finally saw fit to release her, announcing in the New Light of Myanmar that she had been pardoned for 'good conduct'. Ten days later she was reunited with her son Kim, who brought her a puppy as a present. Kim returned again in July of 2011 to accompany his mother on a trip to Bagan, her first outside of Yangon since 2003.

Reconciliation & Election

Emerging from house arrest, Suu Kyi addressed a jubilant crowd: 'I'm going to work for national reconciliation. That is a very important thing. There is nobody I cannot talk to. I am prepared to talk with anyone. I have no personal grudge toward anybody.'

Initially, Suu Kyi's offer fell on deaf ears. However, in August 2011 the regime began to take a more conciliatory approach. Suu Kyi had talks with President Thein Sein and the government began to release political prisoners and legalised trade unions. In November 2011 the NLD announced its intention to re-register as a political party so it could contest the by-elections of April 2012 – Suu Kyi would be one of 45 NLD candidates.

In the run-up to the poll, Suu Kyi greeted a steady stream of international dignitaries to Yangon, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2011. She also toured the country campaigning for the NLD, battling exhaustion and ill health. The effort was rewarded by an almost clean sweep in the April election for the NLD, giving the opposition party an 8% block in the national parliament.

However, before they could take their seats, Suu Kyi and her NLD colleagues were faced with a dilemma: whether to swear an oath to 'safeguard' the very constitution they had been campaigning against. On 2 May political pragmatism won out as all the NLD MPs made the oath to become lawmakers.

International accolades and alliances

For 24 years Suu Kyi had refused to leave Burma for fear she would not be allowed to return. But in May 2012 all that changed when she packed her bags for a series of high-profile international visits, including to Oslo to accept her Nobel Peace Prize, 21 years after winning it; to her old home Oxford, to accept an honorary degree; and to London for a historic address to both houses of parliament. At every stop she was treated as if she was the visiting head of state.

Long before the 2015 election, Suu Kyi made it plain that her goal was the presidency of Myanmar. But to achieve this ambition would require reform of the constitution which, in turn, would mean an accommodation with the military – something unthinkable to many of her supporters.

Even so, in 2014, Suu Kyi forged a working relationship with Shwe Mann. The powerful former general and speaker of the lower house of parliament was also in favour of constitutional change. This was all the more surprising as Shwe Mann, too, had designs on Myanmar's presidency. This disloyalty to the army didn't go unnoticed and in August 2015, Shwe Mann paid the price when he was unceremoniously sacked as leader of the USDP and confined to his home.

Above the President

Shwe Mann still ran as a USDP candidate in the November 2015 general election. Along with hundreds of his USDP colleagues, he found himself without a job as Suu Kyi led the NLD to a landslide victory, securing ruling majorities in both houses of the national parliament. Unlike in 1990, the generals knew the game was up and let the result stand, allowing a smooth transition of power in February 2016.

The flawed constitution remained intact, however, so rather than taking the top job, Suu Kyi who had already declared herself 'above the president' before the election, had her proxy Htin Kyaw create the new post of State Counsellor. With this prime ministerial–style role Suu Kyi, along with her responsibilities as minister for foreign affairs, education and energy, is effectively running the country – albeit still with 25% of parliamentary seats occupied by serving military.

It's not all been plain sailing. Suu Kyi's refusal to speak up for the persecuted Rohingyas has drawn criticism, the Economist noting how Suu Kyi's halo had slipped in the eyes of human rights advocates over the issue. The NLD's decisions to field no Muslim candidates in the 2015 election and reject other long-standing supporters who were viewed as too independent also saw Suu Kyi and party elders branded as imperious and authoritarian.

Many have noted that it was inevitable that, once Suu Kyi escaped the shadows of incarceration, aspects of the fairy-tale princess image crafted around her by the media and her supporters would start to crumble. The time has now come for the world to judge Suu Kyi in the full glare of the democratic freedoms she has so long campaigned for.

Feature: Aung San Suu Kyi Books & Movies

Freedom from Fear (1991) is a collection of writings by Suu Kyi and supporters on topics ranging from her father to the Nobel Prize acceptance speech delivered by her son Alexander. Letters from Burma (1997) features a year's worth of weekly essays Suu Kyi wrote on Burmese culture, politics and incidents from her daily life for the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun.

One of the most comprehensive biographies is The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (2011), by Peter Popham, which includes extracts from Suu Kyi's private diaries. Popham also authored The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Freedom in 2016, covering the period from her release in 2010 until the election victory of 2015.

Justin Wintle's The Perfect Hostage (2007) is an impressively researched account of Suu Kyi's life and times, and of modern Burmese history, which paints a very believable, likeable 'warts and all' portrait of the Lady. A more up-to-date biography is Rena Pederson's The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation (2015).

On the cinematic front, Luc Besson's The Lady (2011) is a romantically inclined biopic based on Suu Kyi's life between 1988 and 1999 when her husband Michael Aris died; it stars Malaysian actress Michelle Yeo as Suu Kyi.

Covering similar ground, but in documentary format, is Lady of No Fear (www.ladyofnofear.com), directed by Anne Gyrithe Bonne, which was finished before Suu Kyi's release in 2010 and includes interviews with close friends and colleagues about the famously private woman.

Feature: The Swimmer

On 3 May 2009 John Yettaw, a 53-year-old Vietnam vet, retired bus driver and Mormon, strapped on homemade flippers and paddled his way across Inya Lake to the democracy leader's home. Yettaw had attempted a meeting the year before with Suu Kyi, but had been blocked that time by her two housekeepers. This time, however, Suu Kyi took pity on the exhausted American and allowed him to stay, even though she knew such a visit violated the terms of her house arrest.

Speaking to a reporter for the New Yorker in 2010, she said, 'I felt I could not hand over anybody to be arrested by the authorities when so many of our people had been arrested and not been given a fair hearing.' When he left two days later, Yettaw was fished out of the lake by government agents. Following a trial, he was sentenced to seven years in prison, only to be released a few days later to return to the US. Aung San Suu Kyi and her two housekeepers, meanwhile, were sentenced to three years of hard labour, commuted to 18 months of house arrest – sufficient to keep the NLD leader out of the way during the 2010 elections.

Timeline

  • 19 June 1945

A baby girl is born in Yangon (Rangoon) and named after her father (Aung San), paternal grandmother (Suu) and mother (Khin Kyi); the name means 'a bright collection of strange victories'.

  • 1960

Daw Khin Kyi is appointed Burma's ambassador to India. Suu Kyi accompanies her mother to New Delhi, where she continues her schooling.

  • 1964

Suu Kyi moves to the UK to study at Oxford University. Meets future husband, Tibetan scholar Michael Aris, at London home of her 'British parents', Lord Gore Booth and his wife.

  • 1967

Graduates with a third-class degree in politics, philosophy and economics. Daw Khin Kyi retires to Yangon.

  • 1969–71

Moves to New York for postgraduate studies, but ends up working for the UN alongside family friend and 'emergency aunt' Ma Than E and Secretary-General U Thant.

  • 1972

Marries Aris and joins him in Bhutan, where he is tutoring the royal family. Suu Kyi works as research officer in Bhutan's Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

  • 1973–77

The couple return to the UK for the birth of their first son, Alexander. They take up residence in Oxford, where their second son, Kim, is born in 1977.

  • 1985–87

At Kyoto University Suu Kyi researches her father's time in Japan; she also registers at London's School of Oriental and African Studies for a doctorate in Burmese literature.

  • 1988

Returns to Yangon in March to care for her mother, who has suffered a stroke; in September becomes secretary-general of National League for Democracy (NLD).

  • 1989

At her mother's funeral in January she swears to serve the people of Burma until her death. Stands for election in February; placed under house arrest in July.

  • 1991

Wins Nobel Peace Prize; sons accept it on her behalf. Pledges she will use US$1.3 million prize money to establish health and education trust for Burmese people.

  • 1995

Released from house arrest, resumes campaigning for the NLD, but her movements are restricted. At year's end, she sees Aris for what will be the final time.

  • 1996

In November her motorcade is attacked in Yangon, the windows of the car she is travelling in are smashed by a mob; despite presence of security forces no one is arrested.

  • 1999

Suffering terminal prostate cancer, Aris is refused entry to Burma and dies in the UK. After his funeral, sons Kim and Alexander are allowed to visit their mother briefly.

  • 2000

Begins second period of house arrest in September; a month later starts secret talks with the junta, facilitated by UN special envoy Rizali Ismail.

  • 2002

Released in May; returns to campaigning around Yangon and in late June makes a triumphant visit to Mandalay, her first trip to Myanmar's second-largest city since 1989.

  • 2003

In May, while touring northern Myanmar, Suu Kyi and 250 NLD members are attacked by a pro-junta mob; at least 70 people are killed. Another period of house arrest follows.

  • 2007

In September she makes a fleeting appearance, greeting protesting monks at her gate. In October a meeting with UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari is followed by talks with NLD and regime reps.

  • 2011

Freed from house arrest in November 2010, Suu Kyi commences talks with the government during 2011, leading to the release of political prisoners and recognition of the NLD.

  • 2012

In April Suu Kyi is elected to the lower house of the Burmese parliament, representing the constituency of Kawhmu. She travels abroad for first time in 24 years.

  • 2016

Following the NLD's landslide win in the 2015 election, Suu Kyi takes up newly created role of State Counsellor (de facto prime minister) as well as reins of several ministries.

Sidebar: Aung San Suu Kyi's Name

According to local custom, Aung San Suu Kyi's name, like that of all Burmese, should be spelled out in full. It's also commonly preceded by the honorific title Daw. We follow the international convention of shortening her name to Suu Kyi.

Sidebar: Aung San Suu Kyi's Interviews

Suu Kyi's interviews in 1995 and 1996 with journalist and former Buddhist monk Alan Clements, described in The Voice of Hope (www.worlddharma.com/items/voice-of-hope), often intermingle politics and Buddhism.

Sidebar: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Pages

The Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Pages (www.dassk.org) gathers together links to many online features about the Lady and Myanmar, including videos.

Government, the Economy & Human Rights

Since the election victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2015, compared to other nations in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, Myanmar appears a beacon of democratic freedoms. However, that 'democracy' is compromised by a flawed constitution imposed by the previous military government and the ongoing civil conflicts that plague parts of the country. Here we look at who is part of Myanmar's government and how it is tackling the country's poor human rights record.

Politics

Myanmar's national parliament is made up of the 440-seat People's Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) and the 224-seat Upper House (Amytha Hluttaw).

Each of the country's seven states and a further 14 administrative divisions (which include seven regions, six self-administered zones and one self-administered division) also has its own state or regional legislature, made up of elected civilian members and representatives of the armed forces.

National League for Democracy

Founded on 27 September 1988, the National League for Democracy (NLD) is the best known of Myanmar's political parties, thanks to its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The 2015 election was a game-changer for the NLD. With around 60% of the seats in both houses of the national parliament, the party is firmly in the driving seat, able to propose, draft and approve new laws. With a couple of exceptions, the NLD also secured power in of all the state and regional legislatures.

However, on key issues, such as defence and home affairs, the military still retains control. This power-sharing situation will continue while the terms of the military-drafted constitution remain in force.

This same constitution made Suu Kyi ineligible for the presidency – that is the reason her long-time political ally U Htin Kyaw now occupies a role that has become one of a figurehead. Real power resides with Suu Kyi, who is State Counsellor, as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar and head of the president's office. Suu Kyi's wide-ranging powers, coupled with her authoritarian style of leadership, have lead to concerns about lack of checks and balances in the parliamentary system.

The Military & USDP

Although it no longer wields the total power in Myanmar that it once did, the role of the military in politics and governing the country cannot be discounted.

In the run-up to the 2010 election, many in the upper echelons of the military, including President Thein Sein, resigned their posts to become candidates for the military-backed Union Solidarity & Development Party (USDP), which, to nobody's surprise, was the victor at the polls.

The scale of the USDP's loss in the 2015 election was severe – it now has just 41 MPs spread across both houses of parliament. However, it is still Myanmar's second-largest political party. Also, there's the 25% blocks of unelected seats in both houses reserved exclusively for military appointees. It is impossible for the NLD to alter any aspect of the constitution without some of those appointees breaking ranks.

Military figures hold command of the key ministries of border affairs, defense and home affairs. All are crucial in the government's top priority of securing an end to the civil wars that have raged in parts of Myanmar since independence. USDP lawmakers are in charge of the ministries of labour, immigration and population, and religious affairs and culture. Ti Khun Myat, an ethnic Kachin national MP from the USDP, is vice speaker of the lower house.

Other Political Parties & Opposition Groups

After the NLD and USDP, the next largest opposition party in parliament is the Arakan National Party (ANP) with 10 seats in the upper house and 12 in the lower house. The ANP also holds the most number of seats (22) but not a controlling majority in the Rakhine State Parliament.

The Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) has three seats in the upper house and 12 in the lower, putting it in fourth place. The Shan vote was split over several parties with the similar-named Shan Nationalities Democratic Party having lost its position prior to the 2015 election as the third-largest party nationally, and now holds just one seat in the Shan State Parliament.

Other parties with single-figure representation at the national level include the Pa-O National Organisation (PNO), Ta'ang National Party (TNO), Zomi Congress for Democracy (ZCD) representing Chin State, and Lisu National Development Party (LNDP).

There are numerous other ethnic parties, some of whom didn't win seats or are unregistered opposition groups. All of this is an indication of how complicated and potentially divisive ethnic politics is in Myanmar.

The Economy

In the light of recent financial and legal reforms, Myanmar's economic prospects are bright. The country is rich in natural resources, including gas, oil, teak, and precious metals and gems. The potential for the agriculture sector (under colonial rule, Burma was the world's largest exporter of rice) is huge. In 2016 economic growth is likely to be over 8%. With the new NLD government in charge, investment is also flooding into the country.

Since the introduction of mobile phone service competition and the explosive growth of smartphones and internet usage, there's much talk of Myanmar making a digital 'leapfrog' as new technology further boosts the economy.

Set against this, however, is the crippling impact of decades of poor economic management and rampant corruption. Basic infrastructure and services, including roads, electricity supply, education and healthcare, all urgently need upgrading. Myanmar's people are among the poorest in Southeast Asia, with over 25% of the population living beneath the poverty line. Poverty is over 50% in rural areas where 70% of the population live.

Inflation is also a problem hitting an average of 7.4% in 2014–15 and predicted to be almost double that in 2016. The country's budget deficit in the first six months of the 2015–16 financial year was of K3.1 trillion (US$2.4 billion), up 27% year-on-year.

2014 Census

Sound national economic planning is based on accurate population data. The problem for Myanmar was that for much of the 20th century, such data didn't exist. Censuses were carried out, but the results, with the military in charge and significant areas of the country excluded from the survey because of armed conflicts, were always cast into doubt.

In a country with over 135 ethnic groups, at least 19 major languages and ongoing civil wars, undertaking a census is no simple exercise. However, in March 2014 one was finally carried out under the auspices of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (http://myanmar.unfpa.org). Even so, around 1.2 million people in parts of northern Rakhine, Kachin and Kayin states were not counted. There was also criticism that the poll did not recognise Rohingya Muslims in the list of the country's 135 official ethnic groups.

When the results (see www.themimu.info/census-data) started to come in six months later, there were a few surprises. With a population of 51.41 million, Myanmar was discovered to have around nine million fewer people than previously thought. Yangon (Rangoon), with 5.2 million residents, has four times the population of the country’s second-biggest city, Mandalay, and 70% of the population live in rural areas.

Further analysis revealed some other striking facts: life expectancy is among the lowest in the region (for men 63.9 years, for women 66.8 years). An average of only 32.4% of households use electricity for lighting, but slightly more (32.9%) own a mobile phone. Underlining how rural a country Myanmar is, 21.6% rely on bullock carts for transportation; just 3.1% own a car, truck or van.

Noticeably absent from the results published in May 2015 were the stats on religion. This was because of fears that a confirmation on the number of Muslims in Myanmar could have the potential to further exacerbate religious tensions. These figures were released in July 2016 showing that Muslims makes up 2.3% of the population, a fall from a previous census figure of 3.9% that had widely been believed to have undercounted Muslim citizens. Even with the uncounted Muslims in Rakhine State added to this, Myanmar's total Muslim population is likely to be much lower than previously estimated.

Bribery & Corruption

Bribery and corruption are common in Myanmar. In a country where salaries are very low and providing 'tea money' or 'gifts' to facilitate goods and services is pretty much par for the course, it's no surprise that Myanmar consistently ranks close to the bottom of Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index.

However, the Berlin-based antigraft organisation noted that, in 2015, Myanmar had made tiny steps forward, reflecting some improvements made under President U Thein Sein’s administration. The situation is likely to improve further as the NLD has made stamping out corruption a core of its policies. Under Aung San Suu Kyi's government, civil servants have been banned from accepting gifts worth more than K25,000. New rules also forbid government officials from hiring their relatives as assistants. In April 2016 the government publicly shamed a media company for giving a K5 million gift to the assistant of a high-level government official.

Also helping to educate businesses and make a change to this culture is the Yangon-based Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (www.myanmar-responsiblebusiness.org). A joint initiative of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), the centre was set up in 2013 and has the promotion of human rights across business in Myanmar as one of its core values.

Human Rights

There have been improvements in human rights in Myanmar in recent years, not least because of the freedom the press now has to report on such issues. However, there is still much work to be done, including on issues such as political prisoners and child labour.

Those living in rural communities risk losing their land or being made homeless by ethnic conflict, exploitative laws and unscrupulous businesspeople. Across the country, Muslims are under attack and, as Human Rights Watch and many others point out, the Rohingya continue to face statelessness and systematic persecution.

Political Prisoners

The NLD has pledged to release all political prisoners, and create no more prisoners of conscience. Aung San Suu Kyi's first official act as State Counsellor in April 2016 was to free 113 political prisoners.

However, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP; www.aappb.org), which keeps a running tally of the detainees, believes as of August 2016 there are 206 political prisoners: 86 in prison, 35 awaiting trial in prison and 85 awaiting trial outside prison.

Prodemocracy groups point out that the Peaceful Assembly Act introduced in 2012 is being used to arrest political activists as it only grants the right to protest under strict conditions and with local authorities' permission. Under this law unauthorised gatherings of just two people are illegal.

In May 2016 the AAPP and the Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS) released a joint report, After Release I Had to Restart My Life from the Beginning: The Experience of Ex-Political Prisoners in Burma and the Challenges of Reintegration. The report, which took two years to compile and includes information gathered from 1621 former prisoners, provides details of failings in Myanmar's judiciary; torture and misconduct in the prison system; and barriers to reconciliation and treatment.

Child Labour

Child labour is a massive issue in Myanmar: the 2014 census counted more than 1.5 million children aged 10 to 17 – 21% of that age group – as working. The NLD government plans to crack down on the practice and warned businesses in June 2016 that if they hired children under 14 years they would face fines of up to K10 million, six months in prison – or both. Teens aged between 14 and 16 are only supposed to work a maximum of four hours a day.

Travellers will most often come across teenage and pre-teen boys working in teashops, but it's also an issue for girls who are sent by their impoverished families to work in homes as maids, in factories or – worse – in karaoke bars and massage parlours. Children can work anything up to 13 hours a day, seven days a week. If they're lucky, they will be allowed home to see their families once a year. Some are forced to work in hazardous environments and others are little more than indentured slaves, their families having taken the child's wages in advance. Terrible stories of abuse have recently been highlighted by local media.

One of the few ways for children to escape this terrible situation is to have access to education – it is extreme poverty and lack of access to quality schools that force families to send their kids to work. The Myanmar Mobile Education Project (www.facebook.com/myMEproject) is a charity that helps provide free informal education to 1500 children working in teahouses in five cities, including Yangon and Mandalay. It helps provide a win-win situation for everyone: the children can continue earning an income and the employers benefit from having more confident, educated kids.

Land confiscation

Democracy and human rights groups concerned with Myanmar point to land confiscation as one of the biggest problems the country needs to tackle. As Myanmar's economy has opened up, there has been an increase in grabs of resource-rich land by the military, corrupt officials and business cronies, particularly in border areas where ethnic communities report being dispossessed by a variety of industrial development projects.

Critics say that laws relating to land ownership enacted in 2012 have failed to provide adequate protection for farmers from having their land requisitioned by the authorities. Among the cases that it has reported on recently are those associated with the expansion of the Letpadaung copper mine in Monywa township.

Several civil society groups, including the Karen Human Rights Group and the Land in our Hands network (LIOH or Doe Myay in Burmese), have published reports detailing land conflicts and grabbing across the country. The 2015 LIOH report Destroying People Lives: The Impact of Land Grabbing on Communities in Myanmar reflected the experiences of more than 2000 people in 62 townships in six states and seven regions.

Ethnic Conflicts

Fighting between different ethnic groups within Myanmar began in 1948 after the nation's independence and has yet to cease. Thein Sein's government agreed a ceasefire in October 2015, but with only eight out of 15 armed ethnic groups. Fighting subsequently flared in eastern parts of the country between the military, non-signatories and groups that did not take part in the negotiations.

The NLD has made achieving national reconciliation one of its top priorities. The stakes are high. Many of the most egregious human rights abuses levelled at Myanmar, including massive displacement of people, rape, the use of forced labour and child soldiers and torture, are inextricable from the conflicts between ethnic groups and the army. There are entrenched interests in maintaining the status quo on both sides, not least because of the US-billion-dollar black economy fuelled by smuggling and drug running in the wartorn areas.

Religious Conflicts

Since 2011, battles between religious groups in Myanmar have flared up, as witnessed particularly in Rakhine State where the government's non-recognition of the Muslim Rohingya minority is the flash point. There have also been outbreaks of violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Meiktila, Mandalay, Lashio and Bago.

In recent years, Myanmar’s religious hate speech law has also been used to protect ultra-nationalists rather than religious minorities. This and other laws 'to protect race and religion' enacted by the previous government under pressure from powerful Buddhist nationalists have been widely condemned by Myanmar civil rights groups and the international community for discriminating against non-Buddhists.

Relations between the religions hasn't been helped by the fact that there are more higher-ranking Buddhists in government than those of any other religion. There has also been a program of building pagodas in border regions, including the Christian area of Kachin State bordering China and the Muslim areas of Rakhine State bordering Bangladesh.

In 2016 the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called on the new NLD government to end abuses of religious freedom. Religious Affairs and Culture Minister Thura U Aung Ko met members of an interfaith group in Mandalay and Yangon on May 2016, as the NLD takes soundings on a new law to protect religious harmony following failed attempts to pass such a bill in the previous parliament.

Press Freedom

In August 2012, the government abolished prepublication censorship of the country's media – something that had been routine since the military takeover in 1962. This move radically changed Myanmar's media landscape. Previously exiled media organisations, including the Democratic Voice of Burma (www.dvb.no), the Irrawaddy (www.irrawaddy.org) and Mizzima (www.mizzima.com), have all established bureaus back in Myanmar – one of the clearest indications of an improved reporting environment.

It's not a clear-cut improvement, though. Hundreds of laws still exist under which journalists can be punished for publishing or broadcasting material that angers or offends the government. Other methods have also be used to curtail press freedom. A BBC reporter was jailed in June 2016 for allegedly striking a policeman while covering a student protest in the previous year; a month later his appeal against the conviction was upheld.

Even though it has reached its best ever position, in 2016 Myanmar still ranked 143 out of 180 nations on the Reporters Without Borders' index on media censorship. The press freedom organisation noted, 'Burmese-language state media…continue to censor themselves and avoid any criticism of the government or the armed forces'.

Print

The dissolution of the censorship board meant that private daily newspapers could be published for the first time since the early 1960s. Thirty-one companies gained licences to print daily newspapers; few of them either made it to print or survived in business for a year.

The country's only privately owned English-language newspaper is the Myanmar Times, which is published Monday to Friday. It faces competition from the English weekly news magazines Mizzima Weekly and Frontier Myanmar. All of these print media publish the kind of critical news and features that would have been impossible a few years ago.

Even the once notorious propaganda sheet New Light of Myanmar is moving with the times; rebranded the Global New Light of Myanmar, it hired three expat reporters in 2015 in its efforts to liberalise, improve reporting ethics and appeal to new readers. The NLD's aim is to eventually privatise state-run media such as this paper, but at the time of research it remains the exclusive print platform for announcements from government departments.

TV & Radio

Free-to-air TV channels in Myanmar include MRTV, Myawady TV and Myanmar International, but many locals prefer to get their news from overseas radio broadcasts by the BBC's World Service, Voice of America (VOA) and RFA (www.rfa.org), or from satellite-TV channels such as BBC World, CNN and DVB.

The NLD government has said existing TV companies will have to reapply to keep their broadcasting licences and that companies in the private sector will be given an equal chance to compete. It has also vowed not to interfere in or influence state-run media.

Internet

Relaxation in press censorship has had a dramatic impact on access to the internet. Previously blocked international and exile media news sites are now freely available, as is access to blogs. The launch of two new mobile phone networks in 2014 led to an explosion in the number of people using such devices to connect to the internet.

However, in 2015, the watchdog Freedom House (https://freedomhouse.org) pushed back Myanmar’s 'Freedom on the Net' ranking from 'partly free' to 'not free', because of increased government intimidation of internet users during social protests and a surge in the conflicts in ethnic minority regions.

In 2012 Nay Phone Latt, recipient of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write award, was released from jail after spending four years behind bars for blogging. He has since founded the independent Myanmar Bloggers Society and the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), which disseminates information about the internet and holds training sessions on how to blog.

Such education is necessary if internet liberalisation is to have any real and lasting impact in Myanmar. In March 2016, activists launched a Facebook page dedicated to addressing the rising number of hate-speech cases and how best to deal with hate speech on social media.

Feature: The 2008 Constitution

Under the 2008 constitution, Myanmar is divided into seven regions (where the Bamar are in the majority) and seven states (minority regions, namely Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine and Shan states). In addition there are six ethnic enclaves (Danu, Kokang, Naga, Palaung, Pa-O and Wa) with a degree of self-governance.

A quarter of the seats both at the national and state level are reserved for unelected military candidates; this gives the military a casting vote on any constitutional change because these require a parliamentary majority of more than 75%.

There are provisions that the military cannot be legally held to account for crimes against the population committed during its governing period. Key cabinet positions are reserved for serving military, and the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces has far-reaching reserve powers.

There are also the conditions that must be met for a person to assume the office of president; these clauses effectively barred Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency and is the reason why she created the new post of State Counsellor.

Feature: The Gem Business

Myanmar generates considerable income from the mining of precious stones – including rubies, jade and sapphire – and metals such as gold and silver. There is controversy surrounding this mining, however, with reports of forced labour and dangerous working practices.

At Hpakant, ground zero for Myanmar's billion-dollar jade industry, working and living conditions are appalling. The area is notorious for high levels of heroin addiction and HIV rates. The anti-corruption organisation Global Witness estimated the total value of the country’s jade production at US$31 billion in 2014, almost half of the country's GDP. Most taxes on that income are avoided, and very little of the revenue from the trade is shared by miners or others in Kachin.

If you are looking to buy gems and jewellery while in Myanmar, one project worth looking into is that of the nonprofit charity Turquoise Mountain, which has collaborated with the British ethical jeweller Pippa Small (www.pippasmall.com). Her Burma Collection sources semi-precious stones from small traders, mainly women, in Mogok.

Feature: History of Sanctions

From the late 1980s, economic sanctions by mainly the US, EU, Canada and Australia were applied in an attempt to force political and social change in Myanmar. It was a controversial policy: while the NLD, the leading democracy group of the time, insisted they were necessary as a way of maintaining pressure on the military junta, others pointed out the harm that sanctions did to Myanmar's citizens, who in the main were struggling to make a living.

In 1995 the NLD also called for a tourism boycott, which led to criticism of Lonely Planet's continued coverage of the country. In 2010 the travel boycott was officially dropped by the NLD, who now welcome independent tourists who are mindful of the political and social landscape.

During 2012, as the pace of reform in Myanmar continued, the EU, Australia and the US all largely suspended their economic sanctions against the country. In May 2016 the US lifted sanctions on 10 state-owned companies in the banking, timber and mining industries, but kept others such as the ban on the import of jade and rubies in place. Four months later, when President Obama met with Aung San Suu Kyi in the US, he pledged to lift all remaining sanctions 'soon'.

Sidebar: Labour Laws

In 2011 unions became legal for the first time since 1962. Employers also now have to comply with agreements made before a conciliation body. But with penalties for non-compliance being a maximum fine of US$100 or less than a year in jail, critics claim the law has no teeth.

Sidebar: Activist Websites

  • Burma Campaign UK (http://burmacampaign.org.uk)
  • Network Myanmar (www.networkmyanmar.org)
  • US Campaign For Burma (http://uscampaignforburma.org)
  • Karen Human Rights Group (http://khrg.org)
  • Burma Partnership (www.burmapartnership.org)

Sidebar: Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know

Much has changed since its publication in 2011, but David Steinberg's Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know still sheds some light on many aspects of the country's complex situation via a series of concise and understandable Q&As on history and culture.

Sidebar: Burma Chronicles

Guy Delisle's Burma Chronicles is a graphic novel based on the experiences of the Canadian cartoonist in Myanmar with his wife, an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) during 2007. It's both amusing and horrifying, covering topics ranging from electricity outages to the heroin-shooting galleries in jade-mining towns.

Sidebar: Transnational Institute

The Transnational Institute (www.tni.org) has many scholarly articles and reports about the political situation and ethnic conflict in Myanmar.

Sidebar: Nowhere to Be Home

Nowhere to Be Home, edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West, presents 22 often heartbreaking oral histories of Myanmar citizens gathered from those living in the country and those in exile.

Sidebar: Where China Meets India – Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia

Where China Meets India – Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia by Thant Myint-U is about the historic and current connections between the three countries.

Sidebar: Fiery Dragons: Banks, Money lenders and Microfinance in Burma

Fiery Dragons: Banks, Money lenders and Microfinance in Burma by Sean Turnell explains how Myanmar went from one of the richest countries in Southeast Asia to one of its poorest within the space of a century.

Sidebar: Myanmar's Population

Around 70% of Myanmar's population lives in rural areas and relies on farming for its livelihood.

Sidebar: 2008 Constitution

The 2008 constitution contains provisions to stop attempts to prosecute former general Than Shwe and other top military brass for crimes committed under their watch

Sidebar: Myanmar's Economy: Harvard Ash Centre

For further information on Myanmar's economy read the reports compiled by the Harvard Ash Centre (http://ash.harvard.edu/myanmar-program).

Sidebar: Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma

Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma (2015) by Richard Crockett is a wide-ranging account of the momentous changes in the country between 2010 and 2104 by the former Economist correspondent.

Environment & Wildlife

Snowcapped mountains, steamy jungles, coral reefs and open grasslands – you name it, Myanmar's environment has it. Scientists continue to discover new species amid the abundant biodiversity, but at the same time the country's poor record on environmental laws and enforcement is killing off many others. Armed insurgencies, rampant resource extraction and unchecked infrastructure development are among the many dire threats to Myanmar's natural heritage.

Geography

A bit bigger than France and slightly smaller than Texas, Myanmar covers 261,228 sq miles and borders (clockwise from the west) Bangladesh, India, China (Tibet), China, Laos and Thailand, with 1199 miles of coastline facing the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The country's south is similar to Malaysia and its north to northern India. The centre is an overlap between the two, producing 'zones' whose uniqueness is manifest in the scenery and creatures that hop around in it.

The area southwest of Yangon (Rangoon) is a vast delta region notable for its production of rice. Paddy fields are an ever-present feature of Myanmar's central broad, flat heartland, known as the 'dry zone' for its lack of rain. This area is surrounded by protective mountain and hill ranges (yoma in Burmese). Most notable are the rugged Kachin Hills, which serve as the first steps into the Himalaya to the north; Hkakabo Razi, on the Tibetan border, which at 19,295ft is Southeast Asia's highest mountain; and Mt Victoria (Nat Ma Taung), west of Bagan in Chin State, which rises to 10,016ft.

Three major rivers – fed by monsoon downpours and melted Himalayan snows – cut north to south through the country:

Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River This 1240-mile-long waterway is one of Asia's most navigable big rivers, feeding much of the country's rice fields. It connects lower Myanmar (based around Yangon) with upper Myanmar (around Mandalay).

Chindwin River Originating in the Hukawng Valley of Kachin State, this 850-mile-long river connects the northern hills with Myanmar's central zone, joining the Ayeyarwady between Mandalay and Bagan (Pagan).

Thanlwin (Salween) River Rising on the Tibetan Plateau, this river flows into Myanmar in its northeastern corner at China and empties into the Gulf of Mottama, near Mawlamyine (Mawlamyaing).

Also, the Mekong River passes by on the short border with Laos.

Flora & Fauna

Myanmar, which sits on a transition zone between the plants and creatures of the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and the Himalayan highlands, is a biodiversity hot spot. However, the troubled politics of the country over the last century have made it difficult for researchers to gain an accurate picture of the current state of the country's wildlife.

Animals

When Marco Polo wrote about the lands now known as Myanmar in the 13th century, he described 'vast jungles teeming with elephants, unicorns and other wild beasts'. The unicorns, if they ever existed, have gone, but it's difficult to know what else has been lost or to assess the current state of the country's biodiversity.

The Wild Animals of Burma, published in 1967, is the most 'recent' work available and even this volume simply contains extracts from various surveys carried out by the British between 1912 and 1941, with a few observations dating to 1961. The US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org) has engaged in a number of localised surveys, primarily in the far north, over the past few years, but currently nobody is attempting a full nationwide stocktake of plants and animals.

As with Myanmar's flora, the variation in Myanmar's wildlife is closely associated with the country's geographic and climatic differences. Hence the indigenous fauna of the country's northern half is mostly of Indo-Chinese origin, while that of the south is generally Sundaic (ie typical of Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo and Java). In the Himalayan region north of the Tropic of Cancer (just north of Lashio), the fauna is similar to that found in northeastern India. In the area extending from around Myitkyina in the north to the Bago Mountains in the central region, there is overlap between geographical and vegetative zones – which means that much of Myanmar is a potential habitat for plants and animals from all three zones.

Distinctive mammals found in dwindling numbers within the more heavily forested areas of Myanmar include leopards, fishing cats, civets, Indian mongooses, crab-eating mongooses, Himalayan bears, Asiatic black bears, Malayan sun bears, gaur (Indian bison), banteng (wild cattle), serow (Asiatic mountain goats), wild boars, sambar deer, barking deer, mouse deer, tapirs, pangolins, gibbons and macaques. Sea mammals include dolphins and dugongs.

Reptiles and amphibians include 28 turtle species (of which seven are found exclusively in Myanmar), along with numerous snake varieties, of which at least 39 are venomous, including the common cobra, king cobra (hamadryad), banded krait, Malayan pit viper, green viper and Russell's viper.

Myanmar is rich in bird life, with 1067 recorded species, including five that are endemic: the white-browed nuthutch (Sitta victoriae), hooded treepie (Crypsirina cucullata), Jerdon's minivet (Pericrocotus albifrons), white-throated babbler (Tudoides gularis) and Burmese bushlark (Mirafra microptera). Coastal and inland waterways of the delta and southern peninsula are especially important habitats for Southeast Asian waterfowl.

Plants

As in the rest of tropical Asia, most indigenous vegetation in Myanmar is associated with two basic types of tropical forest: monsoon forest (with a distinctive dry season of three months or more) and rainforest (where rain falls more than nine months per year). It's said there are more than 1000 plant species endemic to the country.

Monsoon forests are marked by deciduous tree varieties, which shed their leaves during the dry season. Rainforests, by contrast, are typically evergreen. The area stretching from Yangon to Myitkyina contains mainly monsoon forests, while peninsular Myanmar to the south of Mawlamyine is predominantly a rainforest zone. There is much overlapping of the two – some forest zones support a mix of monsoon forest and rainforest vegetation.

In the mountainous Himalayan region, Myanmar's flora is characterised by subtropical broadleaf evergreen forest up to 6500ft; temperate semi-deciduous broadleaf rainforest from 6500ft to 9800ft; and, above this, evergreen coniferous, subalpine snow forest and alpine scrub. Along the Rakhine and Tanintharyi coasts are tidal forests in river estuaries, lagoons, tidal creeks and low islands. Such woodlands are characterised by mangroves and other coastal trees that grow in mud and are resistant to sea water. Beach and dune forests, which grow along these same coasts above the high-tide line, consist of palms, hibiscus, casuarinas and other tree varieties that can withstand high winds and occasional storm-sent waves.

The country's most famous flora includes an incredible array of fruit trees, more than 25,000 flowering species, a variety of tropical hardwoods, and bamboo. Cane and rattan are also plentiful.

Endangered Species

Of some 8233 known breeding species (of which 7000 are plants) in Myanmar, at least 103 of these (animals, birds and plants) are endangered, including the flying squirrel, tiger, Irrawaddy dolphin and three-striped box turtle.

Both the one-horned (Javan) rhinoceros and the Asiatic two-horned (Sumatran) rhinoceros are believed to survive in very small numbers near the Thai border in Kayin State. The rare red panda (or cat bear) was last sighted in northern Myanmar in the early 1960s but is thought to still live in Kachin State forests above 6500ft.

Deforestation poses the greatest threat to Myanmar's biodiversity, but even in areas where habitat loss isn't a problem, hunting threatens to wipe out the rarer animal species. Wildlife laws are seldom enforced and poaching remains a huge problem. In June 2016, WWF Myanmar (www.wwf.org.mm/en) welcomed the National League for Democracy (NLD) government's plan to close down Mong La's notorious wildlife market, a well-known hub for open buying and selling of endangered species

National Parks

By an optimistic account, about 7% of Myanmar's land area is covered by national parks and national forests, wildlife sanctuaries and parks, and other protected areas.

Sadly, such protection on paper is rarely translated into reality due to lack of adequate funding and effective policing. According to a report in the August 2012 edition of Science Magazine, 14 of Myanmar's 36 protected areas lack staff altogether, while the rest have too few rangers for effective patrolling and management.

Top Parks & Reserves

Hkakabo Razi National Park

Size (sq miles)

1472

Features

highest mountain in Myanmar; forests; rare species such as takin, musk and black barking deer, and blue sheep

Best time to visit

Oct-Apr

Indawgyi Wetland Wildlife Sanctuary

Size (sq miles)

299

Features

one of Southeast Asia's largest lakes; 120 species of birds

Best time to visit

Jan-Apr

Inle Wetland Bird Sanctuary

Size (sq miles)

642

Features

floating agriculture; birdlife, otters, turtles

Best time to visit

year-round

Moeyungyi Wetlands

Size (sq miles)

40

Features

125 species of birds

Best time to visit

Nov-Apr

Mt Victoria (Nat Ma Taung) National Park

Size (sq miles)

279

Features

second-highest mountain in Myanmar; rare birds and orchids

Best time to visit

Nov-Mar

Popa Mountain Park

Size (sq miles)

50

Features

extinct volcano; unique dry-zone ecosystem; monkeys

Best time to visit

Nov-Mar

Environmental Issues

Recycling and making use of every little thing is part of most people's daily life in Myanmar, disposability being a luxury of the rich. That said, essentially no environmental legislation was passed from the time of independence in 1948 until after 1988, and government dictums such as 'green the dry zone' and 'protect wildlife' were mostly words rather than action.

Slowly, things are changing. Previously off-limit topics related to Myanmar's environment are now covered in the media, leading, occasionally, to reviews of government policy. The decision to suspend construction of the Myitsone Dam in September 2011 is one example of this.

The 2012 foreign-investment law requires environmental-impact statements for all major investment projects. The Environmental Conservation Law was also passed in 2012, and in 2014 Environmental Conservation Rules were issued. An Environmental Conservation Department has been established, but – as with many areas of government in Myanmar – its officers need training and it lacks adequate funding and technical knowledge.

Deforestation

Myanmar supposedly contains more standing forest, with fewer inhabitants, than any other country in Indochina. That said, it's also disappearing faster than almost anywhere else in Asia. Under military rule the forests were plundered. Illegal logging continues and is particularly difficult to combat in the areas where civil insurrections are ongoing. At a conference in Yangon in June 2016, U Nyi Nyi Kyaw, director general of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, admitted that his department was powerless to stop illegal logging.

Exports of raw timber have been banned from Myanmar since 2014, and at the time of research the ministry was proposing a one-year moratorium on timber extraction by logging operations run by the government's Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE), which has a monopoly on the formal timber sector.

According to a 2015 report by UK-based watchdog the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), Myanmar lost a total of 1.7 million hectares of forest cover from 2001 to 2013. If nothing is done, the prediction is that 30 million hectares could be lost by 2030. One of the most troubled areas is the so-called 'dry zone', made up of heavily populated Mandalay, lower Sagaing and Magwe divisions. Little of the original vegetation remains in this pocket (which is about 10% of Myanmar's land, but home to a quarter of the population), due to growth in the area's population and deforestation.

Deforestation is also blamed for exacerbating damage from Cyclone Komen, a natural disaster in 2015 that forced 384,900 families to relocate and destroyed 972,000 acres of farmland.

Air & Water Pollution

Uncontrolled gold and other mining means that the release of pollutants into rivers and the sea is steadily increasing. The most noticeable aspect of pollution to travellers will be the piles of non-biodegradable waste, such as plastic bags, dumped at the edge of towns and villages and seen fluttering across the fields. Bans on the production and sale of polythene bags and cord exist in both Yangon and Mandalay but they are not strictly enforced.

Environmental experts are also concerned about the excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture and the run-off of these pollutants into the water supply. This has become an acute problem over recent years at Inle Lake, where there's been exponential growth in the number of commercial floating farms producing vegetables. Combined with pollution from chemical dyes used in textile processing and garbage related to increased tourism, the effect has been to turn placid Inle into a toxic pool in which fish die or struggle to survive.

On top of this, the expansion of rice cultivation near the lake and the building of more hotels is draining its water supply, causing it to shrink. In November 2012 a report entitled Inlay Lake Conservation Project: A Plan for the Future was released by the Institute for International Development-Myanmar (www.iid.org/myanmar.html). It outlines proposals to rehabilitate the lake by 2025, but also notes that an unchecked rise in tourism in the area is likely to put further strain on Inle's fragile environment.

Dams & Pipelines

In the last decade the authorities have embarked on a series of hydroelectric dam projects along the country's major rivers, creating a crescendo of economic, social and environmental problems. In a nod to public opinion in September 2011, a halt was called on the controversial Myitsone Dam on the headwaters of the Ayeyarwady River in Kachin State, a project that was being developed in conjunction with China.

Pressure is now on the NLD government to restart construction of the 6000-megawatt-generating dam. If the project is cancelled, Myanmar is liable to pay US$800 million to China in compensation. If work is resumed and the dam is completed, Myanmar is looking at earning either the much-needed annual revenue of US$500 million from China for the power generated, or having access to that power for the country's electrification.

In September 2013, the Indian government also cancelled its deal with Myanmar over the building of the Thamanthi Dam on the Chindwin River; if it had gone ahead, the construction of this dam would have flooded parts of Tamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary and Hukaung Tiger Reserve, the habitats of several endangered species, including tigers, elephants and the very rare Burmese roofed turtle.

Mining, Oil & Gas

In November 2012, locals protesting about the environmental and social impact of the Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region, a joint venture between a Chinese company and a Myanmar military enterprise, were subjected to a brutal police crackdown. The mine's construction was subsequently suspended pending the investigation and conclusion of a parliamentary commission, chaired by Aung San Suu Kyi. The commission's recommendation was that the mining company resume operations, but only if certain conditions were met, such as better transparency and an environmental impact plan.

In 2014 Suu Kyi accused Thein Sein's government of ignoring the commission’s recommendations. That same year clashes between police and farmers at the site left one farmer dead and dozens injured. Protestors were out in force again in May 2016, as the mining company reattempted to restart production at the site. The NLD's position is that operations can resume once the recommendations of the inquiry commission are met, but many locals want nothing less than the mine's cancellation.

Such democratic levels of transparency are something new for Myanmar's extractive industries. Also facing criticism for its adverse environmental impact is the Shwe Gas Project, a joint venture between the government's Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) and Indian and South Korean companies for the underwater extraction of natural gas and oil from the Bay of Bengal and its piping across Myanmar to China. The natural gas pipeline became operational in 2013, the oil pipeline in 2014.

Feature: Myanmar's Eco Treasure Chest

Myanmar has long intrigued scientists, who believe that many critically endangered species, or even species that are new to science, might be living in closed-off parts of the country. As remote parts of the country have opened up, the scientists' hopes have been proven correct.

Myanmar snub-nosed monkey In 2010 this new species of colobine monkey was discovered. It's estimated there's a population of between 260 and 330 of these primates living by the Mekong and Thanlwin Rivers in Kachin State.

Arakan forest turtles In 2009 a team of World Conservation Society scientists discovered five of these critically endangered species, less than a foot long and with a light brown shell, amid thick stands of bamboo in a sanctuary set up originally to protect elephants. In modern times, researchers had only previously seen a handful of captive examples.

Kitti's hog-nosed bat Prior to 2001, when it was located in Myanmar, the species that is also known as the bumblebee bat was thought to live only in a tiny part of western Thailand. At a length of 1.25in to 1.5in and weighing in at just 0.07oz, this is the world's smallest bat.

Gurney's pitta This stunningly bright, small bird underwent a dramatic decline during the 20th century, until only a single population in Thailand was known. However, it was also discovered in Myanmar in 2003, and is now thought to have a population there of as many as 26,000.

Leaf deer Also known as the 'leaf muntjac', this 25lb, 20in-tall mammal was confirmed in northern Myanmar in 1999. Its name was given because it can be wrapped up in a large leaf.

Feature: Saving the Big Cats

In 2003, when the National Tiger Action Plan for Myanmar was published, it was reckoned there were as few as 150 of the big cats living in the country. The vast majority of them were concentrated in the Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, the Htamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary and the Tenasserim Range in Southern Myanmar.

By 2010 this number was believed to have dropped to 85; more recent survey data is unavailable and the situation is believed to very grim.

There are a few flicker of hopes, however. A 2013 expedition to Myanmar sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute and filmed by the BBC in its Wild Burma program found evidence of tigers in two separate parts of the country. The Tiger Corridor, a joint initiative between Panthera (www.panthera.org) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org), also aims to create a 4660-mile-long 'genetic corridor' for tigers stretching from Bhutan to Malaysia, with a large part of the corridor passing through Myanmar.

Feature: Myanmar's Working Elephants

Myanmar is home to between 6000 and 10,000 Asian elephants, the second-largest population of this endangered species after India. This figure includes a captive population of approximately 5000, most of whom work in camps run by the government's Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE; www.myanmatimber.com.mm).

Elephants have long been employed in Myanmar's logging industry. Some may find this an abuse of wild animals, but there is an argument that using elephant power to extract timber is more sustainable since roads don't need to be built into forests thus minimising damage of the environment. Also these working elephants are protected from poaching (unlike their wild cousins).

According to the Myanmar Timber Elephant Project (http://elephant-project.science), based at the University of Sheffield in the UK, the elephants typically work shifts of five hours after which they are free to forage, socialise and mate with wild elephants overnight in the forest. Low reproduction rates and deaths of calf elephants, however, have meant that wild elephants are still caught to maintain the working population.

The Myanmar Timber Elephant Project is working with the authorities to improve elephant management and healthcare so that the ideal balance can be found between the animals' working ability, survival and fertility, and to minimise calf deaths. The aim is for a self-sustaining working population, so no more wild elephants need to be captured.

Near to Kalaw in Shan State is Green Hill Valley, a retirement home for elephants no longer fit for work in the timber camps. Founded by a family with a history of working with MTE, the project also embraces reforestation; as well as interacting with the elephants, helping to feed and bathe them, visitors can plant a tree in their nursery.

Sidebar: Environmental Impact Assessments

In January 2016 Myanmar's Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry announced new requirements for environmental impact assessments (EIAs), with fines of up to US$5000 for companies failing to provide the necessary information.

Sidebar: Irrawaddy River Conservation Commission

In February 2013 the Mandalay Region Legislative Assembly Committee set up the Irrawaddy River Conservation Commission, prompting environmentalists to call for the creation of a similar commission covering all of Myanmar's rivers.

Sidebar: Himalaya Mountain Chain

One end of the 1860-mile-long Himalaya mountain chain, formed when the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates collided 140 million years ago, extends to Myanmar's Kachin State.

Sidebar: Myanmar's Mammals, Reptile & Bird Species

According to the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (www.aseanbiodiversity.org), Myanmar is home to 300 species of mammal, 400 species of reptile and around 1000 bird species.

Sidebar: Life in the Valley of Death

Life in the Valley of Death (2008) by Dr Alan Rabinowitz is about his efforts to save Myanmar's rapidly dwindling tiger population by setting up the Hukuang Valley Tiger Reserve.

Sidebar: Illegal Timber Trade

Organised Chaos, a report published in 2015 by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agencey (EIA; https://eia-international.org), documents surging illegal timber trade between Myanmar’s Kachin State and China’s Yunnan Province, worth almost half a billion dollars.

Sidebar: Reforestation of Myanmar's Dry Zone

Since 2009 the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) has been supporting a reforestation project across Myanmar's dry zone (www.dryzonegreening.gov.mm/eng).

Sidebar: Burma Rivers Network

Find out more about Myanmar's rivers and the environmental problems they face, including dams, at Burma Rivers Network (www.burmariversnetwork.org), an umbrella group of organisations.

Sidebar: Earthrights International's Burma Project

Earthrights International's Burma Project (www.earthrights.org) collects information about the human rights and environmental situation in the country, focusing on large-scale dams, oil and gas development, and mining.

Sidebar: Elephant Lady of Burma

The documentary Of Oozies and Elephants (http://vimeo.com/77426318) and an episode of the BBC's Wild Burma: Nature's Lost Kingdom feature the vet Khyne U Mar, known as 'the elephant lady of Burma' for her studies of captive working elephants in Myanmar. Her research is supported by the Rufford Foundation (www.rufford.org/rsg/projects/khyne_mar).

Sidebar: Documentation & Conservation of Myanmar's Plant Diversity

In 2014 the New York Botantical Garden launched a conservation and training program to document and conserve plant diversity in Myanmar. Such a wide-ranging survey of the county's biodiversity hasn't been carried out since the 1920s.

Sidebar: Elephant Conservation

WWF Myanmar (www.wwf.org.mm/en) has partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society to work on an elephant conservation strategy for Myanmar.

Sidebar: Burma Environment Working Group

For in-depth coverage of the major environmental issues facing Myanmar, download the report published by the Burma Environment Working Group (www.bewg.org), a coalition of environmental organisations and activists working in the country.

Arts & Architecture

The arts in Myanmar were sponsored for centuries by the royal courts, mainly through the construction of major religious buildings that required the skills of architects, sculptors, painters and a variety of artisans. Such patronage was cut short during British colonial rule and has never been a priority since independence. Even so, traditional art and architecture endures in Myanmar, mainly in the temples that are an ever-present feature of the landscape. There's also a growing contemporary-art scene.

Architecture

Traditional Myanmar architecture is accomplished and artistic. Myanmar is a country of zedi (stupas), often called 'pagodas' in English. Wherever you are – boating down the river, driving through the hills, even flying above the plains – there always seems to be a hilltop zedi in view. Bagan (Pagan) is the most dramatic result of this fervour for religious monuments – an enthusiasm that continues today, as the mass rebuilding of temples at the site attests.

In the past, only places of worship were made of permanent materials. Until quite recently, all secular buildings – and most monasteries – were constructed of wood, so there are few original ones left to be seen. Even the great royal palaces, such as the last one at Mandalay, were made of wood. All the palaces you see today are reconstructions – often far from faithful – such as the Bagan Golden Palace, made of concrete and reinforced steel.

Even so, there are still many excellent wooden buildings to be seen. Builders continue to use teak with great skill, and a fine country home can be a very pleasing structure indeed.

Zedi Styles

Early zedi were usually hemispherical (the Kaunghmudaw at Sagaing near Mandalay) or bulbous (the Bupaya in Bagan). The so-called Mon-style pahto is a large cube with small windows and ground-level passageways; this type is also known as a gu or ku (from the Pali-Sanskrit guha, meaning 'cave'). The more modern style is much more graceful – a curvaceous lower bell merging into a soaring spire, such as the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon (Rangoon) or the Uppatasanti Paya in Nay Pyi Taw.

The overall Bamar concept is similar to that of the Mayan and Aztec pyramids of Mesoamerica: worshippers climb a symbolic mountain lined with religious reliefs and frescoes.

Style is not always a good indicator of the original age of a zedi, as Myanmar is earthquake-prone and many (including the Shwedagon) have been rebuilt again and again. In places, such as Bagan and Inthein, near Inle Lake, ruined temples have been rebuilt from the base up with little or no respect for what the original would have looked like. In Bagan, for example, all zedi would have been traditionally covered with white or painted stucco, not left as the bare brick structures they are today.

Colonial & Modern Architecture

While many buildings erected during the British colonial period have been demolished or are facing the wrecking ball, those that survive are often well worth seeking out. They range from the rustic wood-and-plaster Tudor villas of Pyin Oo Lwin to the thick-walled, brick-and-plaster, colonnaded mansions and shophouses of Yangon, Mawlamyine (Mawlamyaing) and Myeik.

Yangon in particular is stocked with spectacular, if often crumbling, colonial gems, such as the Ministers Office, seat of British colonial power, and Sofaer's Building. Some such as the Strand Hotel and the Moseah Yeshua Synagogue have been spruced up either by commercial investment or private donations and overseas grants.

It wasn't just under British rule that Myanmar's architects thought on a grand scale. Post-independence Yangon in the 1950s saw the construction of some still stylish, modern buildings, such as the Nay Pyi Taw cinema and the Technical High School designed by British architect Raglan Squire. This latter building has recently been renovated and reopened as Singapore-Myanmar Vocational Training Institute (SMVTI), with the colourful and beautifully designed mosaic murals of traditional Myanmar life, applied to its courtyard walls, a particular highlight.

Contemporary Architecture

In the early 21st century, the military junta turned its back on Yangon to construct a new capital at Nay Pyi Taw. Starting from a clean slate, the government built on a grandiose, but unimaginative scale. Some buildings are copies of those in Yangon, such as Nay Pyi Taw's City Hall and Uppatasanti Paya, a replica of Shwedagon Paya. Practically empty 10-lane highways make for a surreal sight, while key buildings such as the mammoth National Assembly remain off-limits to mere mortals.

It has been left to more sophisticated architects and builders to take Myanmar's architectural legacy forward. These include the husband-and-wife team of Stephen Zawmoe Shwe and Amelie Chai, partners in SPINE Architects (http://spinearchitects.com). Most of their work, which includes residential and commercial projects, is in Yangon; Union Bar & Grill and Gekko are good examples of their style. They also designed the Amata Resort & Spa in Ngapali and the Bay of Bengal Resort at Ngwe Saung Beach.

Potentially exciting projects going forward include Yoma Strategic's Landmark Development in downtown Yangon, which will incorporate the old Burma Railways building by turning it into a heritage hotel.

Arts

Sculpture & Painting

Early Myanmar art was always a part of the religious architecture – paints were for the walls of temples, sculpture to be placed inside them. Many pieces, formerly in paya or kyaung (Burmese Buddhist monasteries), have been sold or stolen and, unfortunately, you'll easily find more Myanmar religious sculpture for sale or on display overseas than in Myanmar.

In the aftermath of the 1988 demonstrations, the government forbade 'selfish' or 'mad art' that didn't have clear pro-government themes. One artist, Sitt Nyein Aye, spent two months in custody for sketching the ruins of the former student union, which Ne Win had blown up in 1962. Subsequently many artists chose to play safe with predictable tourist-oriented works.

Censorship of art exhibitions is now in the past, allowing artists more freedom of expression and a mini-boom of galleries in Yangon. Among Myanmar artists attracting international are the couple Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung, who create paintings, video art and installations based on their memories of growing up under the socialist-military regime. They have been written about in the New York Times and had their work purchased by the Guggenheim Museum. Nge Lay and Po Po represented Myanmar at the 2014 Singapore Biennale with pieces about education and spirituality.

A student activist in the late 1980s, Htein Lin (www.hteinlin.com) is a pioneer of performance art in Myanmar and had his work shown at the Singapore Biennale in 2016. Since moving back to Myanmar in 2013 he has worked on a project entitled A Show of Hands, capturing in plaster the arms of hundreds of former political prisoners, and acted as a co-curator of the first Yangon Art and Heritage Festival (www.yangonartandheritage.com) in 2015.

Traditional Crafts

Apart from the following, other Myanmar crafts you may come across are paper parasols, silver- and metalware, and wood carvings.

Kammawa & Parabaik

Kammawa (from the Pali kammavacha) are narrow, rectangular slats painted with extracts from the Pali Vinaya (the Pitaka concerned with monastic discipline); specifically, these are extracts to do with clerical affairs. The core of a kammawa page may be a thin slat of wood, lacquered cloth, thatched cane or thin brass, which is then layered with red, black and gold lacquer to form the script and decorations.

The parabaik (Buddhist palm-leaf manuscript) is a similarly horizontal 'book', this time folded accordion-style, like a road map. The pages are made of heavy paper covered with black ink on which the letters are engraved.

Lacquerware

The earliest lacquerware found in Myanmar can be dated to the 11th century and sports a very Chinese style. The techniques used today are known as yun, the old Bamar word for the people of Chiang Mai, from where the techniques were imported in the 16th century (along with some captured artisans) by King Bayinnaung. An older style of applying gold or silver to a black background dates back to, perhaps, the Pyay era (5th to 9th centuries) and is kept alive by artisans in Kyaukka, near Monywa.

Many lacquerware shops include workshops, where you can see the lengthy process involved in making the bowls, trays and other objects. The craftsperson first weaves a frame (the best-quality wares have a bamboo frame tied together with horse or donkey hairs; lesser pieces are made wholly from bamboo). The lacquer is then coated over the framework and allowed to dry. After several days it is sanded down with ash from rice husks and another coating of lacquer is applied. A high-quality item may have seven to 15 layers altogether.

The lacquerware is engraved and painted, then polished to remove the paint from everywhere except from within the engravings. Multicoloured lacquerware is produced by repeated engraving, painting and polishing. From start to finish it can take up to five or six months to produce a high-quality piece of lacquerware, which may have as many as five colours. A top-quality bowl can have its rim squeezed together until the sides meet without suffering any damage or permanent distortion.

Tapestries & Textiles

Kalaga (tapestries) consist of pieces of coloured cloth of various sizes heavily embroidered with silver- or gold-coloured thread, metal sequins and glass beads, and feature mythological Myanmar figures in padded relief. The greatest variety is found in Mandalay, where most tapestries are produced.

Good-quality kalaga are tightly woven and don't skimp on sequins, which may be sewn in overlapping lines, rather than spaced side by side, as a sign of embroidery skill. The metals used should shine, even in older pieces; tarnishing means lower-quality materials.

Tribal textiles and weavings produced by the Chin, Naga, Kachin and Kayin can also be very beautiful, especially antique pieces. Among traditional hand-woven silk longyis, laun-taya acheik, woven on a hundred spools, are the most prized.

Dance & Theatre

Myanmar's truly indigenous dance forms are those that pay homage to the nat (spirit beings). Most classical dance styles, meanwhile, arrived from Thailand. Today, the dances most obviously taken from Thailand are known as yodaya zat (Ayuthaya theatre), as taught to the people of Myanmar by Thai theatrical artists taken captive in the 18th century.

The most Myanmar of dances feature solo performances by female dancers who wear strikingly colourful dresses with long white trains, which they kick into the air with their heels – quite a feat, given the restrictive length of the train.

Pwe is the generic word in Myanmar for theatre or performance, and it embraces all kinds of plays and musical operas as well as dancing. An all-night zat pwe involves a recreation of an ancient legend or Buddhist Jataka (story of the Buddha's past lives), while the yamazat pwe pick a tale from the Indian epic Ramayana. In Mandalay, yamazat performers even have their own shrine.

Myanmar classical dancing emphasises pose rather than movement and solo rather than ensemble performances. By contrast, the less common but livelier yein pwe features singing and dancing performed by a chorus or ensemble.

Most popular of all is the a-nyeint, a traditional pwe somewhat akin to early American vaudeville, the most famous exponents of which are Mandalay's Moustache Brothers and the satirist and film actor and director Zarganar.

Marionette Theatre

Youq-the pwe (Myanmar marionette theatre) presents colourful puppets up to 3.5ft high in a spectacle that some consider the most expressive of all the Myanmar arts. Developed during the Konbaung period, it was so influential that it became the forerunner to zat pwe as later performed by actors rather than marionettes. As with dance-drama, the genre's 'golden age' began with the Mandalay kingdoms of the late 18th century and ran through to the advent of cinema in the 1930s.

An expert puppeteer generates great respect: some marionettes may be manipulated by a dozen or more strings. The marionette master's standard repertoire requires a troupe of 28 puppets, including Thagyamin (king of the gods); a Myanmar king, queen, prince and princess; a regent; two court pages; an old man and an old woman; a villain; a hermit; four ministers; two clowns; one good and one evil nat; a Brahmin astrologer; two ogres; a zawgyi (alchemist); a horse; a monkey; a makara (mythical sea serpent); and an elephant.

It's rare to see marionette theatre outside tourist venues in Yangon, Mandalay or Bagan.

Music

Traditional Myanmar music, played loud the way the nat like it, features strongly in any pwe. Its repetitive, even harsh, harmonies can be hard on Western ears at first; Myanmar scales are not 'tempered', as Western scales have been since Bach. The music is primarily two-dimensional, in the sense that rhythm and melody provide much of the musical structure, while repetition is a key element. Subtle shifts in rhythm and tonality provide the modulation usually supplied by the harmonic dimension in Western music.

Classical Music

Classical-music traditions were largely borrowed from Siam musicians in the late 1800s, who borrowed the traditions from Cambodian conquests centuries earlier. Myanmar classical music, as played today, was codified by Po Sein, a colonial-era musician, composer and drummer who also designed the hsaing waing (the circle of tuned drums, also known as paq waing) and formalised classical dancing styles. Such music is meant to be played as an accompaniment to classical dance-dramas that enact scenes from the Jataka or from the Ramayana.

Musical instruments are predominantly percussive, but even the hsaing waing may carry the melody. These drums are tuned by placing a wad of paq-sa (drum food) – made from a kneaded paste of rice and wood ash – onto the centre of the drum head, then adding or subtracting a pinch at a time till the desired drum tone is attained.

In addition to the hsaing waing, the traditional hsaing (Myanmar ensemble) of seven to 10 musicians will usually play: the kye waing (a circle of tuned brass gongs); the saung gauq (a boat-shaped harp with 13 strings); the pattala (a sort of xylophone); the hneh (an oboe-type instrument related to the Indian shanai); the pa-lwe (a bamboo flute); the mi-gyaung (crocodile lute); the paq-ma (a bass drum); and the yagwin (small cymbals) and wa leq-hkouq (bamboo clappers), which are purely rhythmic and are often played by Myanmar vocalists.

Folk

Older than Myanmar classical music is an enchanting vocal folk-music tradition still heard in rural areas where locals may sing without instrumental accompaniment while working. Such folk songs set the work cadence and provide a distraction from the physical strain and monotony of pounding rice, clearing fields, weaving and so on. This type of music is most readily heard in the Ayeyarwady Delta between Twante and Pathein.

Rock & Rap

Western pop music's influence first came in the 1970s, when singers such as Min Min Latt and Takatho Tun Naung sang shocking things such as Beatles cover versions or 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree'. This led to long-haired, distorted-guitar rock bands such as Empire and Iron Cross (aka IC) in the 1980s. Over 25 years later, Iron Cross are still rocking, the Myanmar equivalent of the Rolling Stones.

Bands can have a stable of several singers who split stage time with the same backing band. Iron Cross, for example, features one of Myanmar's 'wilder' singers, Lay Phyu, but it can also tone it down as a backing band for the poppier stuff of other singers.

Female singers like Sone Thin Par and actor Htu Aeindra Bo win fans for their melodies – and looks – but the most interesting is the Celine Dion-esque Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein (www.phyuphyukyawtheinonline.com). She sang with Jason Mraz at a concert in Yangon in December 2012, and serves as general secretary of the Myanmar Musician Association.

Rap and hip-hop are huge with stars such as J-Me, Barbu, Myo Kyawt Myaung and heart-throb Sai Sai Kham Leng. Also look out for the female rap duo Y.A.K. Thxa Soe is a popular hip-hop singer whose 2007 hit 'I Like Drums' merged nat music with trance. Breaking out internationally are Me N Ma Girls, a toned-down Spice Girls–style troupe. Although dismissed initially as prepackaged pop, the Girls have gone on to somewhat distinguish themselves by being signed up by a US independent record label and playing a show at New York's Lincoln Center in 2013.

Also making a name for themselves overseas is the indie rock band Side Effect, who are based in Yangon. It's in this city that you're most likely to catch a live music gig. Check out the ones organised by Jam It!.

Literature

Religious texts inscribed onto Myanmar's famous kammawa (lacquered scriptures) and parabaik (folding manuscripts) were the first pieces of literature as such, and began appearing in the 12th century. Until the 1800s, the only other works of 'literature' available were royal genealogies, classical poetry and law texts. A Burmese version of the Indian epic Ramayana was first written in 1775 by poet U Aung Pyo.

The first Myanmar novel, Maung Yin Maung Ma Me Ma, an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, by James Hla Kyaw, was published in 1904. It's popularity spurred on other copycat works, such as the Burmese detective Maung San Sha, based on Sherlock Holmes.

More recently, Myanmar-born Nu Nu Yi Inwa, one of the country's leading writers with at least 15 novels and more than 100 short stories to her name, made the shortlist for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize with Smile as They Bow. The story, set at the Taungbyon Festival held near Mandalay, follows an elderly gay transvestite medium who fears losing his much younger partner to a woman in the heat of the weeklong festivities.

Also check out the poetry of Ko Ko Thett (www.kokothett.webs.com) and the novels of Myanmar-born, US-based Wendy Yone-Law, including The Road to Wanting.

Cinema

Myanmar has had a modest film industry since the early 20th century and it continues today producing low-budget action pics, romances and comedies that are a staple of cinemas, village video-screening halls and DVD sellers across the country. There's even an annual Academy Awards ceremony, which is one of the country's biggest social events, and a growing independent film and documentary scene with several film-related festivals in Yangon.

Among recent documentaries available on video or doing the festival rounds are Nic Dunlop's Burma Soldier, the moving story of a military recruit who loses two limbs to land mines and switches sides to become a democracy activist; the Oscar-nominated Burma VJ; Youth of Yangon (https://vimeo.com/58578845) about the city's skateboard scene; and Nargis – When Time Stopped Breathing (http://nargis-film.com), released in 2009 and the country's first feature-length documentary.

Going back to 1954, Myanmar actor Win Min Than was cast opposite Gregory Peck in The Purple Plain, the most credible of several WWII dramas set in Myanmar. Beyond Rangoon (1995; director John Boorman), a political tract/action flick set during the 1988 uprisings, had Georgetown, Penang, do a credible turn as the nation's then-turbulent capital. It starred several Myanmar actors, including Aung Ko, who plays an elderly guide to Patricia Arquette's American tourist galvanised into political activist.

Luc Besson's The Lady (2011) is a biopic about Aung San Suu Kyi, staring Michelle Yeo in the title role. Screened at film festivals around the world is the 2013 thriller Kayan Beauties (www.kayanbeauties.com), which paints a generally realistic portrait of Kayan life in Myanmar. All of the characters in the film are played by Kayan actors. Also look out for the delicate character study The Monk (2014), directed by poet and artist The Maw Naing.

There was controversy in June 2016 when Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess was pulled from the Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival, following government censorship. The Austrian-produced film is based on the life of Inge Eberhard (now Sargent), who married the Shan prince Sao Kya Seng and lived happily with him in Shan State until the military coup of 1962. Detained by the army, Sao Kya Seng died in mysterious circumstances.

Feature: Myanmar's Sporting Life

Martial arts are perhaps the longest-running sports that the people of Myanmar have patronised: the oldest written references to kickboxing in the country are found in the chronicles of warfare between Burma and Thailand during the 15th and 16th centuries. The British introduced football (soccer) in the 19th century and it remains Myanmar's most popular spectator sport.

Football

The Myanmar National League (MNL; www.themnl.com) was launched in 2009 and currently consists of 12 teams in the premier league and 10 in MNL-2. In MNL-1, Yangon United were the 2015 champions. Local TV broadcasts European games and teashops are invariably packed when a big match is screened.

Martial Arts

Myanma let-hwei (Myanmar kickboxing) is very similar in style to muay thai (Thai kickboxing), although not nearly as well developed as a national sport.

The most common and traditional kickboxing venues are temporary rings set up in a dirt circle (usually at paya pwe rather than sports arenas). All fighters are bare-fisted. All surfaces of the body are considered fair targets and any part of the body except the head may be used to strike an opponent. Common blows include high kicks to the neck, elbow thrusts to the face and head, knee hooks to the ribs and low crescent kicks to the calf. Punching is considered the weakest of all blows and kicking merely a way to soften up one's opponent; knee and elbow strikes are decisive in most matches.

Before the match begins, each boxer performs a dance-like ritual in the ring to pay homage to Buddha and to Khun Cho and Khun Tha, the nat whose domain includes Myanmar kickboxing. The winner repeats the ritual at the end of the match.

Chinlon

Also known as 'cane ball', chinlone is a game in which a woven rattan ball about 5in in diameter is kicked around. It also refers to the ball itself. Informally, any number of players can form a circle and keep the chinlone airborne by kicking or heading it soccer-style from player to player; a lack of scoring makes it a favourite pastime with locals of all ages.

In formal play, six players stand in a circle of 22ft circumference. Each player must keep the ball aloft using a succession of 30 techniques and six surfaces on the foot and leg, allotting five minutes for each part. Each successful kick scores a point, while points are subtracted for using the wrong body part or dropping the ball. The sport was included in the South East Asian Games held in Myanmar in December 2013.

A popular variation – and the one used in intramural or international competitions – is played with a volleyball net, using all the same rules as in volleyball except that only the feet and head are permitted to touch the ball.

Feature: Zargana

Myanmar's most popular comedian is Maung Thura, better known by his stage name Zarganar (also spelled Zargana) meaning tweezers. Born into an intellectual and politically active family, he trained as a dentist in Yangon in the 1980s, a period during which he also worked as a volunteer literary teacher in Chin State, and formed part of a comedy troupe of students performing a-nyeint skit routines. Such was his success in the last role that he ended up on television, where he took astonishing risks for the time with his satirical material lampooning the military rulers.

His first stint in jail followed the 1988 street protests in Yangon. There were several other prison terms leading up to his last incarceration in 2008 when he criticised the government for its poor response to the tragedy of Cyclone Nargis. For this he was sentenced to 35 years in jail. This Prison Where I Live (http://thisprisonwhereilive.co.uk), a documentary by Rex Bloomstein, includes interviews with Zarganar filmed in 2007 before he was imprisoned. During his time in jail, Zarganar was awarded the inaugural PEN Pinter Prize for his writing.

After November 2011, when Zarganar was released, This Prison Where I Live was updated to include footage of him meeting with German comedian Michael Mittermeier, who also features in the documentary.

More recently, Zarganar is one of the founders of House of Media and Entertainment (HOME), a Yangon-based centre to train and support young filmmakers as well as encourage a new generation of fearless comedians. He also wrote a screenplay for a so-far ill-fated biopic of Aung San.

Feature: Traditional Burmese Music CDs

  • Mahagitá Harp & Vocal Music from Burma (2003; Smithsonian Folkways)
  • Various artists Music of Nat Pwe: Folk & Pop Music of Myanmar (2007; Sublime Frequencies)
  • Pat Waing The Magic Drum Circle of Burma (1998; Shanachie)
  • Various artists Burma: Traditional Music (2009; Air Mail Music)
  • White Elephants & Golden Ducks Enchanting Musical Treasures from Burma (1997; Shanachie)

Sidebar: Yangon Architecture Books

  • 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon by Sarah Rooney
  • Relics of Rangoon (www.relicsofrangoon.com) by Philip Heijmans
  • Yangon Echoes: Inside Heritage Homes by Virginia Henderson and Tim Webster

Sidebar: Myanmar Evolution Contemporary Arts Website

Yangon-based art researcher Nathalie Johnson has created the website Myanmar Evolution (http://myanmartevolution.com) to support the growth of contemporary arts in the country.

Sidebar: Lacquerware Centres

  • Kyaukka (near Monywa)
  • Myinkaba (Bagan)
  • New Bagan (Bagan Myothitl; Bagan)
  • Kyaingtong (Shan State)

Sidebar: Illusion of Life: Burmese Marionettes

The Illusion of Life: Burmese Marionettes by Ma Thanegi gives readers a glimpse of the 'wit, spirit and style' of this traditional Burmese performance art.

Sidebar: Myanmar National League

A US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks revealed that Senior General Than Shwe had thought it would be politically more popular to instruct crony businesses to create the Myanmar National League rather than spend US$1 billion on buying Manchester United, as his grandson had advised.

Sidebar: Amazing Wood Structures

  • Shwenandaw Kyaung (Mandalay)
  • U Bein's Bridge (Amarapura)
  • Bagaya Kyaung (Inwa)
  • Youqson Kyaung (Salay)
  • Pakhanngeh Kyaung (Pakokku)

Sidebar: Architectural Guide Yangon

Architectural Guide Yangon, by Ben Bansai, Elliot Fox and Manuel Oka, covers 110 buildings and has insightful essays that provide the full historical scope of the former capital's built legacy and potential.

Sidebar: Best Buddhist Buildings

  • Shwedagon Paya (Yangon)
  • Ananda Pahto (Bagan)
  • Shwenandaw Kyaung (Mandalay)
  • Shwesandaw Paya (Pyay)
  • Shittaung Paya (Mrauk U)

Sidebar: Burmese Art

Old Myanmar Paintings in the Collection of U Win is one of the illustrated publications of the Thavibu Gallery (www.thavibu.com) specialising in Burmese art.

Sidebar: Mahamuni Buddha

The bronze Mahamuni Buddha, in Mandalay's Mahamuni Paya, may date back to the 1st century AD and is Myanmar's most famous Buddhist sculpture.

Sidebar: Burmese Crafts: Past and Present

Burmese Crafts: Past and Present by Sylvia Fraser-Lu details the foundations of Myanmar's artistic traditions and catalogues the major crafts from metalwork to umbrella making.

Sidebar: George Orwell

Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) worked in Myanmar from 1922 to 1927 as a policeman, an experience that informed his novel Burmese Days. First published in 1934, the book is sharply critical of colonial life in the country.

Sidebar: Kite Tales

An interesting developing project documenting Myanmar arts, culture and individual life stories is The Kite Tales (www.facebook.com/kitetalesmyanmar), which also has feeds on Twitter and Instagram.

Sidebar: Parasols

The beautifully painted little parasols you see around Myanmar are often made in Pathein – in fact, they're known as Pathein hti (Pathein umbrellas).

Sidebar: Irrawaddy Literature Festival

To catch up on the latest in local literature, visit the website of the Irrawaddy Literature Festival (www.irrawaddylitfest.com).

Sidebar: Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets

Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, co-edited by James Byrne and Ko Ko Thett, is the first anthology of Burmese poetry ever to be published in the West.

Sidebar: Documentary: This Kind of Love

The 2015 documentary This Kind of Love (www.thiskindoflovefilm.org), directed by Jeanne Hallacy and produced in association with Equality Myanmar, follows Burmese human rights educator and activist Aung Myo Min as he returns home after 24 years in exile.