New Internationalist

Burma - the facts

Issue 411

Burma is a country with very poor reporting on most basic indicators. International agencies have limited access.

the basics

Population: reported variously as 48.37 million (2006), 49 million (current) and 51 million (2006) by UNICEF, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific, and the World Bank respectively. The last nationwide census was in 1931, with a partial census in 1983.

People: There are about 120 different ethnolinguistic groups in Burma. Estimates for the main groups are: Bamar or Burman (69.0%), Shan (8.5%), Karen (6.2%), Rakhine (4.5%), Mon (2.4%), Chin (2.2%), Kachin (1.4%), Karenni (0.4%), other indigenous groups (0.1%) and groups of foreign extraction (such as Burmese Indian and Sino-Burmese people) 5.3%.1

Religions: Buddhism predominates, followed by Christianity, Islam and Animism.

Government: Military junta – State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Head of state: Senior General Than Shwe.



The military junta’s corruption and economic mismanagement, combined with low investment, guarantee Burma’s continued poverty despite a wealth of natural resources, including petroleum, natural gas, timber and gemstones.
• Burma is the world’s second largest producer of opium and a major supplier of methamphetamines.1
• Annual Gross National Income per person (2006): $220.2
• Average annual rate of inflation, 1990-2006: 24%.2
• Major trading partners: Thailand, China, Singapore, India, Hong Kong. Trade with China alone was worth $209 billion in 2005.1
• There is an exodus of impoverished workers into neighbouring countries. In Thailand alone they are conservatively estimated to number 2 million.5



Burma is bottom of the spending league for health provision.
• Life expectancy: 61.
• Under-five mortality rate (per 1,000 live births, 2006): 104 (Australia and Canada: 6). This means one in every 10 Burmese children will be dead before they reach the age of five.
• Under-five-year-olds who are underweight (2000-2006): 32%.2
• Public spending on health (as % of GDP, 2004): 0.3.3

HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate: 1.3%.
People living with HIV/AIDS: 360,000.



Just 11% of Burmese people live in areas with electricity supply, however halting.
In 2005, the population without electricity was estimated at 45.1 million.3


human rights

refugees and internal displacement

Burma has no enemies among its neighbouring countries. Instead the regime deploys soldiers extensively in states dominated by ethnic minorities, especially in eastern Burma. They are used to quash armed movements for autonomy, clear areas for commercial projects (such as dam building and mining), and extract forced labour and resources from civilians. Widespread rape by soldiers has been reported, particularly in Karen, Shan and Chin states.

Number of battalions active in eastern Burma in 2006 – 273.
3,000 villages destroyed, forcibly relocated or otherwise abandoned in eastern Burma (1996-2006).



• 488,000 members of armed forces, 12th in the world ranking of active troops on service.
• Defence spending is not known but is estimated at 22% of central government expenditure2 and Burma is estimated to rank within the top 15 countries in terms of total military expenditure.8
• Countries supplying arms to Burma: Russia, Ukraine, China and India.
• Forced recruitment is common and Burma is believed to have the world’s highest number of child soldiers.
• Morale, as well as pay, remains low. In 2006 there was an 8% increase in the desertion rate.1


• Burma has 43 prisons and 91 labour camps.6 In the latter, numerous prisoners have been worked to death.
• The prison population in 2007 was 60,000.3 In addition, large numbers of people are detained for spells of interrogation lasting up to two weeks.
• There are 39 known interrogation (torture) centres; but interrogation can take place in Government buildings used for other purposes.7

investing in burma

Despite numerous sanctions, foreign investment in Burma continues, providing funds for the regime.
Among those doing business in Burma are:

Chevron: US oil giant which owns Texaco. One of the partners developing the Yadana offshore gas field, which earns the junta millions of dollars.
China National Petroleum Corporation: China’s largest oil and gas company, active in Burma for over a decade.
Daewoo: has numerous investments, including gas exploration and car production.
Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand: involved in the construction of five mega-dams on the Salween river which will cause massive displacement.
Ivanhoe Mines: Canadian corporation operating Monywa copper mine with the regime. Rail and power infrastructure in the area was built using forced labour.
• Mitsui: Japanese conglomerate in joint venture with regime.
Suzuki: in partnership with a regime-controlled company to manufacture engines.
Total Oil: French corporation, one of the largest players in Burma and being sued over forced labour.10

Elections were last held in 1990, when the National League for Democracy secured a landslide, winning over 82% of parliamentary seats. The results were annulled by the military regime.

  1. Burma country profile, British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, revised 21 December 2007,
  2. UNICEF, State of the World’s Children 2008.
  3. UNDP, Human Development Report 2007/2008.
  4. National AIDS Program, Response to HIV & AIDS in Myanmar: Progress Report 2005,
  5. Burmese Women’s Union, Caught Between Two Hells, 2007.
  6. Figure provided by Bo Kyi of AAPP(B).
  7. AAPP(B), Eight Seconds of Silence: The Death of Democracy Activists Behind Bars, Mae Sot, May 2006.
  9. Thailand Burma Border Consortium, Internal Displacement in Eastern Burma: 2007 Survey, October 2007.
  10. Burma Campaign UK’s Dirty List:

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This article was originally published in issue 411

New Internationalist Magazine issue 411
Issue 411

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