Myanmar Information Guide

October 8 2015 | Version 1.0

How to Use This Guide

Myanmar represents a new focus region for STAND Canada for 2015–16. This guide has been designed as a ‘handbook’ on one of STAND’s newest and most important focus region for the organization’s university volunteers. It provides a background and overview, Frequently Asked Questions, links to additional resources, as well as STAND’s policy recommendations for the region. It is to be used as a reference and discussion launch point for our volunteers.

This guide was written by Amy Reidy, Cyrus Sie, and Maria Simeonova. It was revised by Katarina Todic.

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Country and Regional Profiles

Full name Republic of the Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma)
Official language Burmese
Ethnic groups Burmese (68%), Shan (9%), Karen (7%), Rakhine (4%), Chinese (3%), Indian (2)%, Mon (2%), Other (5%)
Religion Theravada Buddhism (89%), Christian (4%), Muslim (4%)
Government Presidential Constitutional Republic
Ruling party Union Solidarity Development Party (backed by the military)
President Thein Sein
Population Approx. 53,700,000 (UNFPA, as of 2014)
Borders Bangladesh (Northwest), India (Northwest), China (Northeast), Laos (East), Thailand (East & South)
Region Rakhine (formerly Arakan) Kokang
Status State Autonomous/self-administered area (part of Shan State)
Population 3,188,807 (2014 Census) 150,000 (100,000 Burmese nationals, 50,000 Chinese nationals)
Ethnic groups Buddhist Rakhine (60%), Muslim Rohingya (20%); the remaining 10% is made up of Chin (Buddhist,Christian or animist), Kaman (Muslim), and other small minorities. Of Burmese nationals: Kokang (90%); the remaining 10% is made of minority groups including Shan, Palaung, Hmong, Wa, Lisu, Bai and Bamar.
Borders Bangladesh (Northwest) China (East)

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Background & Overview


After decades of brutal military dictatorship between 1962 and 2011, Myanmar remains one of the least developed countries in the world and a pariah, known for its record of widespread, systematic human rights violations, long-running armed conflicts, and ethnic rebellions. In the last five years, Myanmar has taken many positive steps towards reformation, including the 2011 dissolution of the military junta, the release of the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners in 2010, a relaxation of media censorship, ceasefire agreements with rebel groups, and the formation of the Myanmar Human Rights Commission. Yet despite the country’s continued development and democratization, ethnic tensions still threaten to derail Myanmar’s social, political, and economic future. Of note, the sectarian violence between the Rakhine and Rohingya peoples in Rakhine State has brought international attention to Myanmar yet again.

Poverty-stricken Rakhine state has had a long history of tensions and armed violence between its two largest groups, the Muslim Rohingya and the native Rakhine Buddhists – both minority groups who have endured decades of oppression under Burmese authoritarian rule. Although the Rohingya have resided in Myanmar since British colonial times, they are still widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are openly discriminated against through national legislation that restricts their movement, employment, family size, and religious freedom. Under the provisions of the Burma Citizenship Law of 1982, the Rohingya were not included as an official minority. As such, they were denied citizenship by the government and were disenfranchised. These conditions have also permitted the Rakhine to perpetrate their own discrimination against their neighbours, which more recently has led to violence.

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2012 Rakhine State Rioting

After years of simmering tensions in Rakhine State, serious violence erupted in June 2012 following news that a young Buddhist woman had been raped and murdered by a group of Muslim men, who were presumed to be Rohingya. In retaliation, a group of Buddhists attacked a bus of Muslim pilgrims travelling through Rakhine State and beat ten men to death. The conflict, requiring the intervention of military forces (the Tadamaw), resulted in countless deaths, arson, and the displacement of 140,000 people. In October 2012, coordinated attacks were carried out against Muslims of all ethnicities, with reports implicating both members of the Rakhine ethnic community and national security forces in the killing of at least 80 people and the destruction of entire villages. This statewide violence resulted in another 22,000 people (mostly Rohingya, but also Rakhine) being forced to leave their homes and relocate to government-controlled IDP camps.

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Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

According to the Internally Displaced Monitoring Centre, in March 2015 there were as many as 662,400 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar. The majority of these people came from the Rakhine, Kachin, and northern Shan states, as well as the southeastern parts of the country. They were displaced due to ethnic violence or natural disasters.

It is estimated that around 146,000 people, mostly Rohingya, have been living in IDP camps in Rakhine state since 2012. In these camps, sanitation, access to healthcare and the ability to earn a living are inadequate. Moreover, IDPs are forbidden from leaving the camps without government permission. The inhabitants of these camps depend heavily on humanitarian aid and medical treatment provided by the international community, yet this aid does not always reach the camps. In February 2014, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the largest non-governmental medical provider in the state, were expelled by the government amid accusations of showing favouritism to the Rohingya over other groups. A month later, other international NGOs were driven out of the state capital of Sittwe by angry Rakhine mobs, following rumours that an aid worker handled a Buddhist flag with disrespect. While most aid agencies were quickly allowed to return (but not to the same capacity as prior to the attacks), MSF was only allowed to resume its aid program nine months later.

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The ‘Boat People’ Crisis

Over the past few years, the tensions and violence have moved thousands of Rohingya to flee Myanmar by sea: a phenomenon which has overwhelmed neighbouring Thailand. Stories of derelict boats and overcrowded conditions on board have become well-known, yet many Rohingya still attempt the passage.

But even for those who successfully complete such a journey, the hardship does not end at landfall. Reports of abuse and extortion are widespread as many refugees are held for ransom by smugglers in “jungle camps.” If the captive’s family cannot provide the money, the captive is killed. These deaths are confirmed by the mass graves left behind by smugglers  in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In addition, single women have been particularly taken advantage of as they try to flee Rakhine.  Due to a shortage of Rohingya brides in neighbouring countries, refugee Rohingya men have been offering to pay a single woman’s ransom to the smugglers in exchange for marriage: a practice tantamount to forced marriage and sexual slavery.

While the discovery of the jungle camps and mass graves elicited international attention and a more assertive response from the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), it gave rise to additional issues. First, the crackdown on human smuggling has forced many smugglers to simply abandon their boats, leaving refugees stranded at sea. Second, it has highlighted the human rights violation of stripped citizenship committed against the Rohingya, which continues to complicate efforts to repatriate or resettle refugees. The Malay and Indonesian authorities have only agreed to accept Rohingya migrants on the condition that they be either resettled or repatriated within a year: a stipulation which has placed survivors in political limbo, ensuring their long-term residence at IDP camps.

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2015 Flooding

Prospects are not much better for the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar. With thousands confined to IDP camps in Rakhine, nearly all face the challenges of overcrowded living quarters, lack of basic necessities, and systematic abuse. In addition, the inadequate camp conditions only enhanced their vulnerability to the elements as the monsoon season approached in 2015.

Heavy rainfall over the Bay of Bengal dropped over one metre of rain, prompting the government of Myanmar to declare a state of emergency in its northern states as roads became inundated and as bridges were swept away. The Rohingya living in camps and shelters saw entire homes and emergency supplies wash away. Adding to their suffering was the limited capacity of the government to respond. Although the government has been accused of refusing international aid while other nations offered relief, infrastructure damage presents a very real obstacle to both government and international aid groups in reaching critically affected areas.

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November 2015 Elections and the Disenfranchisement of the Rohingya

On the political landscape, the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar are not faring any better than those who have fled by sea. Ahead of the 2015 elections, the Myanmar government disenfranchised ethnic Rohingya voters and candidates. Although the government argues that this move as consistent with the privilege of citizenship, which ethnic Rohingya are denied, the international community views this as yet another institutional effort to marginalize the Rohingya. Ironically, recognized formally as a democratic and multicultural party, the NLD recently rejected Muslim candidates’ consideration for office which observers believe is a result of a growing anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the country. Failing to speak out is the country’s most notable democracy advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi. Whether she tacitly agrees with the government’s move to deny the Rohingya the right to vote or whether she is strategically silent to protect her domestic political reputation, Ms. Suu Kyi has thus far not issued an unequivocal statement on the situation.

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The Kokang Conflict

Although the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists occupy most of the international attention on the sectarian violence in Myanmar, another conflict, this one in Myanmar’s northeast, has also disrupted the lives of thousands. The Kokang conflict erupted in February 2015 when the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a rebel army, attempted to win back control of the region from the Myanmar state army. Fighting ensued between the rebel army and the Burmese national army following the declaration of martial law, which has given the local population no other option other than to flee to neighbouring states in Myanmar or seek refuge in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan. According to reports, even though the Chinese have been reinforcing their border patrol while urging the use of restraint in Myanmar, they have generously delivered food and medical supplies to those seeking refuge – a tactic perceived by the Myanmar government as a Chinese effort to destabilize the already unstable Kokang region.

According to Myanmar media, several other rebel armies have joined the MNDAA in the struggle to regain local autonomy of the Kokang. While the fighting has challenged humanitarian efforts in the area – even causing the closure of a Chinese refugee camp which housed thousands of displaced persons – it has also become a source of tension between the governments of Myanmar and China. Meanwhile, Myanmar President Thein Sein has stated that he will not concede any territory to the MNDAA. Further confrontation has the potential to create a conflict that would not only trap thousands of civilians in war zones, but could lead to major tensions between Myanmar and China, which could affect regional stability.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the difference between Burma and Myanmar?

A: Known as Burma since pre-colonial times, the military junta changed the country’s name to Myanmar in 1989. Although the names are now used interchangeably, some feel that the two are politicized, wherein “Burma” expresses sympathy for the people oppressed by the military, and “Myanmar” indicates a condoning the military regime. For this reason the United States, the United Kingdom, and even Aung San Suu Kyi deliberately ignore the government’s insistence that the country be referred to as “Myanmar” in the Anglosphere, to protest the military junta and its anti-democratic crackdown prior to the name change.

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Q: Why is there hostility between the Rakhine and Rohingya?

A: Following the colonization of Burma by the British Empire in 1824, the Muslim Rohingya were encouraged by the British to migrate from present-day Bangladesh to the Rakhine state in order to work and settle the sparsely populated region. Since this mass resettlement in the 1820s, there have been uneasy relations between the Rakhine and the Rohingya due to social, cultural and religious differences. The Second World War was a watershed moment as the groups took up arms against each other: the Rohingya supported the British while the Rakhine backed the invading Japanese forces. This fighting altered the demographics of Rakhine state: after the war, the Rakhine moved to the south of the state while the Rohingya fled to the north, where they became the majority.

These sentiments have continued throughout the years and have been complicated by the state’s widespread poverty, the lack of economic opportunities, and the marginalization and oppression of both groups by the Myanmar government. According to a study conducted by Crisis Group International, an additional motivation for Rakhine hostility is the belief that Muslim populations pose a serious threat to their cultural and religious identity. Furthermore, the Rakhine are concerned that they may lose their majority position in the state as a result of higher Muslim birth rates, the perceived flow of illegitimate Muslims from the Bangladeshi border, and the increasing number of young Rakhine men becoming migrant laborers overseas.

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Q: Why have the Rohingya been stripped of citizenship?

A: In 1982 the Burma Citizenship Law was introduced, which outlined three new categories of citizenship: full citizenship, associate citizenship, and naturalized citizenship. Full citizenship is granted to those who come from any of the ‘official’ national ethnic groups or whose ancestors settled in Myanmar before the British conquest of 1824. Associate citizens are those who qualified for citizenship under the 1948 Citizenship Law, while naturalized citizens are people who can prove that they have lived in Myanmar prior to 1948 and who applied for citizenship after 1982.

Under this act, the majority of Rohingya do not qualify for  citizenship since they are not recognized as one of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups, and most cannot produce evidence of their ancestors settling in Burma before the British conquest. The Rohingya were instead given temporary registration certificates (TRCs or ‘White Cards’). However, TRC-holders do not have the same rights as citizens and have been subjected to extensive restrictions on their movement and freedom, including barriers to higher education and running for public office. Many have also been subjected to forced labour and arbitrary land confiscation.

Despite their official loss of citizenship and other fundamental rights, those who held White Cards were still permitted to vote until 2015, when the government made the decision to begin revoking these cards. This move completely disenfranchising the Rohingya people and left them politically powerless.

Q: How have Myanmar officials reacted to the violence in Rakhine State?

A: Following recommendations from a committee formed to investigate the 2012 violence, the government developed the Rakhine State Action Plan with an eye for future development and post-conflict reconstruction of the state. However, the plan was leaked to the public, revealing discriminatory instruments in the scheme and earning the government criticism from human rights organizations. Proposals for a citizenship verification process have prompted concerns that the plan could further entrench segregation, increase the vulnerability of the Rohingya to human rights abuses, and even worsen inter-communal tension. In addition, the government has taken a relaxed approach to ultranationalist rhetoric, causing speculation that they sympathize with anti-Muslim views. By forgoing the acknowledgment of the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar altogether, in addition to the already imposed restrictions on the movement of the Rohingya IDPs, the government is drawing attention to its reluctance to effectively address the situation.

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Q: Why is there a growing Anti-Muslim rhetoric at a national level?

A: In the past two years Muslims have also been the targets of violence in other parts of Myanmar, particularly in the Mandalay region where in 2013 violence in Meiktila and surrounding townships resulted in the deaths of 44 people and the displacement of over 12,000 people. This violence demonstrates the growing anti-Muslim sentiment throughout the country, which has largely been attributed to a rise of the notorious monk Ashin Wirathu, leader of the 969 Movement (an extremist group known for promoting Islamophobia and encouraging Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses). Described by Time magazine as ‘The Face of Buddhist Terrorism,’ Wirathu is on a personal mission to rid Myanmar of Muslims, whom he sees as a threat to Buddhist nationalism.

Although Wirathu was jailed by the military junta in 2003 for inciting religious hate, since his release in 2010 the government has been more tolerant of his views. In fact, Wirathu and the League to Protect Race and Religion (better known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha) take credit for the government’s proposal to introduce new legislation which overtly discriminates against Muslims and prohibits inter-faith marriages and religious conversion.

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Q: How have neighbouring countries responded to the ‘Boat People’ crisis?

A: ASEAN members generally subscribe to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other member states. As such, when confronted with boats of Rohingya migrants out at sea, the initial response from Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia was to let them be, and occasionally to resupply them with rations. However, the discovery of jungle camps in Thailand prompted officials in all three countries to undertake their own investigations, which uncovered more camps as well as mass graves, and led to coordinated efforts to intercept and stop the human smuggling. Unfortunately, this led to an increase in the number of boats abandoned at sea with its passengers still on board, necessitating the organization of regional rescue efforts and assistance for the ‘migrants’– a distinction important for the countries involved as it places less obligation on them than the term ‘refugee.’ At present, Thailand has agreed to provide medical aid offshore while Indonesia and Malaysia have agreed to accept migrants on condition that they will be repatriated or resettled within one year.

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Q: What are the international dimensions of the Kokang conflict?

A: The ethnic Kokang of northern Myanmar are closely related to the Han Chinese that form the majority in China. While Myanmar has accused China of supporting the Kokang rebels’ attacks on the Burmese military, bombs dropped by Burmese forces also fell on Chinese territory. This leading to tensions between the Myanmar and Chinese governments. With domestic pressure on the Chinese government to retaliate, internationalization of the conflict is a possibility that may lead to targeted and institutionalized violence perpetrated against the Kokang, replicating the violence against the Rohingya.

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Q: How has Myanmar’s international status changed since the end of military rule?

A: Under its military junta, Myanmar was subjected to economic and trade sanctions from the international community. In light of its recent moves towards democratization and reformation, these sanctions have been lifted, although arms embargoes still continue. President Thein Sein has been repairing diplomatic relations with both neighbouring and Western nations, including ASEAN, the United States and Britain, and the country has seen an influx of foreign investment. Nevertheless, the continued mishandling of the stateless Rohingya, as well as other high-profile human rights abuses, have garnered fresh criticism from Myanmar’s potential trade partners. However, thus far the international community has not taken any action to economically or politically reprimand Myanmar for its discriminatory treatment of minority groups.

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Q: What is the relationship between the governments of Canada and Myanmar?

A: As a gesture of goodwill, Canada has removed all economic sanctions against Burma and is hoping to reinstate Canada’s General Preferential Tariffs, which will help to restore Burma’s most-favored-nation (MFN) eligibility and duty-free access to imports from Canada through the Least-Developed-Country Tariff (LDC). To further normalize relations with Burma’, in 2013 Canada named its first ambassador to the country. Bilateral trade began to steadily increase from that point on. Moreover, Canada’s Global Market Action Plan (GMAP) has labelled Burma as a preferential market due to the significant opportunities for Canadian businesses. Sectors such as infrastructure, information and communication technologies, mining, oil and gas are all considered to be priority markets.

Canada’s emphasis on corporate social responsibility by Canadian business abroad is widely respected and lauded in Burma, where local companies have the ability to source Canadian businesses to obtain required goods, services, or even technology to improve their operations. Fostering mutually beneficial economic cooperation between the two countries is a priority for Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service, as any economic benefit has the potential to spill over into the political sphere and further the development of democracy. Moreover, Canada has created ceasefire, open media, and other initiatives to support the government and ethnic groups of Myanmar to reach a lasting peace, engage citizens in the democratic process, and promote freedom of expression. The aim of the Government of Canada is to ensure that Canadian businesses in Burma will convey their expertise while simultaneously encouraging the formation of an economic environment that is conducive to innovation and sustainable growth.

Myanmar stands to extensively benefit from its and ASEAN’s relationship with Canada. Canada has announced millions of dollars in propositions intended to assist “ASEAN’s community-building objectives” through the implementation of the Canada–ASEAN Joint Declaration on Trade and Investment. Subsequently, in the fall of 2014 the Canadian government launched three focus areas pinpointed by the Myanmar government that require further support: foster economic development; establish a suitable foundation for democratic institutions and governance; and prioritize the care for maternal and child health. According to Export Development Canada, the informal power sharing between the political elites and the ongoing peace dialogue with armed rebel groups may attract short-term foreign investment but continue to keep long-term investment away, pending a firm resolution to the country’s internal conflicts. In spite of the endemic corruption and inexperience with Western companies, the right mix of consistency and the strengthening of institutions will gradually bring foreign investment to Burma.

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STAND Canada’s Policy Recommendations

Regarding the challenges facing Myanmar, STAND Canada proposes the following policy recommendations:

  1. The Canadian Government must work with the Government of Myanmar, humanitarian actors, the United Nations and international human rights organizations to direct its development efforts in the country towards the Rakhine State to rebuild its infrastructure and bolster its economy;
  2. The Government of Canada should put pressure on the Government of Myanmar to allow humanitarian organizations access to populations in the IDP camps of Rakhine to slowly begin the process of resettling people in the state and bettering the conditions of the camps while they continue to function;
  3. The Canadian Government must work with other international voices to urge the Government of Myanmar to grant the Rohingya Muslims citizenship rights. This request for citizenship includes access to basic healthcare, education, voting rights, and freedom to move freely through the country.

Please view the entire policy recommendation here.

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Links and Resources

General Info on the Rohingya Situation

IDPs Camps in Rakhine State

The ‘Boat People’ Crisis

General Info on the Kokang Conflict

Canada and Myanmar Relations

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Contact Information

Name Position Contact Information
Priya Ramesh & Katarina Todic Policy Co-Directors

For a printable version of this document, please visit Myanmar Informational Guide. You will be able to download the document as a PDF.