History & Culture of Myanmar

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Myanmar is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country with the rest of the population practicing Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and various ethnic religions often influenced by the Chinese.  It should be noted that Christian and Muslim minorities are subject to discrimination, despite the promise of religious freedom in the country.  There is also a great deal of tension between the Buddhist community and the Muslim community within the country. It is a good idea to practice modesty when dressing in Myanmar.  Covering shoulders and knees is recommended and you will gain more respect among the locals the more you cover up.  It can get quite hot in Myanmar, so, for women, long dresses and skirts are advisable.  Most Burmese people wear traditional garb, though more “western-style” clothing is becoming popular in the cities and especially amongst the country’s youth.  Age is very important in the culture of Myanmar and their speech is based around honoring people based on their age.  The use of honorifics before a personal name is considered to be the norm and it is good to associate yourself with these honorifics as a way of acknowledging and appreciating the the people and the culture of the country in which you are traveling.  Honor, respect, and power are also important cornerstones in Burmese culture.  As in many other Buddhist countries, it offensive to touch another’s head (the highest point in the body) or feet (the lowest point of the body).  Avoid making any gestures with the feet or sitting with your feet facing another person.  Public displays of affection are very common among friends and families but less so among lovers.  As in most countries, the urban areas tend to be more relaxed when it comes to some of these rules, but it is a still a good idea to practice these customs as a way of appreciating the Burmese people and their culture.


Myanmar has a long and complicated history starting as far back as 11,000 years ago.  Long before the country was known as Burma, Myanmar’s history started as a series of kingdoms and empires that spread across Southeast Asia.  These kingdoms and empires are responsible for many of the values and traditons that are still cherished and practiced in Burmese culture today.  The modern era of the country began with the British occupation that bean in the early 19th century.  While the British helped to improve the economy, the judicial system, and various societal issues, the British presence in the country disregarded and demeaned the local people, their traditions, and their culture, cultivating a deep resentment for the British within the Burmese communities.  Myanmar continued to be a British colony for 75 years before the Japanese took over during World War II.  Finally, in 1948, Burma gained independence.  However, independence failed to unify the country, leading to the beginning of the Junta Era in Burma.  In 1962, a military coup was staged, overthrowing the elected government and establishing “the Burmese way to Socialism”.  This one-party system led to decades of military dictatorship within the country.  This period led to discrimination and targeting of various ethnic groups as well as civil, political, and social unrest within the country.  Western powers placed strict sanction on Burma, alienating them on an international scale and leading the country to improve ties with other Asian countries, most notably, China.  Aung San Suu Kyi, the co-founder of the National League for Democracy, became a symbol of government opposition within the country, resulting in years of house arrest and denial of citizenship privileges for the popular leader.  In 2008, the military government began to weaken and crumble leading to a referendum that set the stage for a multi-party democracy.  This new constitution had overwhelming support from the Burmese population and led to an election in which the National League for Democracy won nearly every contested seat in the government.  The new president, Thein Sein, made great leaps in unifying the country: making peace with Suu Kyi, arranging ceasefires with the ethnic fighting cadres in the north, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, as well as loosening restraints on the media.  With an ever-improving economy and a democratically elected government, the future of Myanmar is bright and the power is finally being returned to the people of the country.

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