Myanmar Business Guide: People & Culture

An overview of the people and culture of Myanmar


3.1 Population

The present boundary that constitutes Myanmar captures a diverse group of cultures, languages and ethnic groups. It is estimated that there are some 135 ethnic groups that can be found in present day Myanmar. However, the origins of many of the different ethnic groups can be traced back to three main ethnic lines: the Tibeto-Burman (Burmans, Arakanese, Chin, Naga, Kachin, Akha and Lahu), the Mon-Khmer (Mon, Palaung and Wa) and the Thai-Shan (Shan). The Burmans account for nearly two-thirds of the population with the other main ethnic groups being the Shan (9%), Karen (7%), Kachin (6%), Arakanese (4%) and Chin (2%).

The Burmans are believed to have migrated from the Tibetan plateau to the Ayeyarwardy plain during the ninth and eleventh centuries. They were mainly an agrarian based culture but over the centuries engaged in repeated warfare against the Mon, who had settled in the southern coastal regions of Myanmar, and the Shan who had established themselves in upper Burma. The Burmese eventually conquered the Mon in 1067 and returned to their capital of Pagan with 30,000 Mon scholars, religious leaders, artists and slaves. These Mon contributed significantly to the development of Burma as they introduced religion (Theravada Buddhism), written script and the arts. The Burmans adopted Buddhism shortly thereafter and modified the script used by the Mon to develop written Burmese.

Apart from the ethnic groups that have developed from the Tibeto-Burman, the Mon-Khmer and the Thai-Shan ethnic lines, there was a significant migration of Indians and Chinese to urban centers under the British occupation. However, many Indians, and to a lesser extent the Chinese, returned to their countries following the hand-over of Burma by the British and again shortly after the establishment of Burma’s socialist government.

The dominance of the ethnic Burmans is reflected in the pattern of settlement throughout Myanmar. The topography of Myanmar can be viewed in simple terms as a relatively flat fertile central portion of land, hugging each side of the Ayeyarwardy river, with mountainous regions or high elevation plateaus framing the central flatlands in a horseshoe manner. The dominant ethnic Burmans have come to settle in the fertile central areas of Myanmar while many of the different ethnic groups occupy the mountainous outer-ring. This fact is reflected in the partitioning of Myanmar into states, the boundaries of each state roughly outlines the geographical regions of the major ethnic minorities, and divisions that serve as administrative partitions in predominately Burman populated areas. The central areas comprise six of the seven divisions while the seven ethnic states ring the cluster of divisions. Beginning from the south-west corner of the ring and moving clockwise can be found the Rakhine State, the Chin State, the Kachin State, the Shan State, the Kayah State, the Kayin State and the Mon State.

3.2 Language

The official language is Burmese which is a monosyllabic language spoken in three tones. This means that the same word when spoken with a different tone can take on three entirely different meanings. The Burmese alphabet contains twenty-seven common consonants, eight vowels and a few additional letters used for sentence endings. As with other languages, pronunciation varies from region to region.

Some of the ethnic minorities have their own languages and dialects and Chinese and Indian is also spoken in different parts of the country. Reflecting earlier educational practices, English is usually understood and spoken by older, educated Burmese in the major urban centers.

The arrangement of a sentence in Burmese is significantly different from one in English. For example, "The white dog bit the black cat" is spoken in Burmese as "Dog white cat black bit".


  • Good morning.   —   Min ga la baa.
  • How are you?   —   Maa yeh laa?
  • Goodbye. (as in I am leaving)   —   Pyan dor may.
  • Excuse me.   —   Kwin pyu-baa.
  • Please.   —   Chay-zoo pyu-baa.
  • Thank you.   —   Chay zoo tin-baa day.
  • How much?   —   Bah lout lay?
  • Yes.   —   Hoke ket.
  • No.   —   Ma hoke boo.
  • I do not understand.   —   Chun note nar lai boo.
  • Do you understand?   —   Kin byar nar lai tha laa?
  • Too much.   —   Myar day.
  • Where is .............?   —   ..........beh mah lay?
  • Very good.   —   Ah lung kaung pa da.
  • No good.   —   Mah kah-oong boo.
  • May I have the bill?   —   Sayin logindee?

3.3 Religion

The majority (89%) of the population is Buddhist and many also worship a variety of spirits or nats which can come from nature or from ancestors and ancient gods. Religion is important in the life of the people and the monasteries and monks play a key role in village life. Every boy should spend some time in a monastery and "initiation day" is both important and, for the family, expensive as the boy is dressed in the finest clothing and jewelry that the family can afford with a feast to follow the ceremony. This earns merit for the boy and his family. Gilding stupas and Buddhist images also gains merit and, as in other parts of Asia, is a common practice.

Islam and Christianity are also practiced.

3.4 Conduct

Being a Buddhist country, it is considered bad manners to touch someone on the head or to point your feet at someone. Shoes should be removed when entering a pagoda or monastery and traditional Burmese homes. It is also considered bad manners to show too much emotion, especially by losing your temper, or by displaying excessive affection in public.

3.5 Festivals

There are many festivals and celebrations throughout the year. Buddhist festivals follow the Lunar calendar and accordingly the dates vary from year to year. National holidays tend to follow the Gregorian calendar and, consequently, occur on the same day each year. For example, if you are in Myanmar in April - at the time of Thingyan (Water Festival) celebrating the Buddhist New Year, be prepared to be doused with water. Far from being excluded, foreigners are often prime targets.

Festivals are often celebrated with the staging of a pwe which is a form of theatre. Almost any event becomes an excuse for a pwe - weddings, funerals, sporting events and religious occasions. There are a number of different types of pwe including Buddhist history, ancient legends, slapstick comedies, musicals and puppet shows.

3.6 Food

A typical Burmese meal consists of steamed rice served with a variety of curries and accompaniments. The curries are similar to Indian curries and can be based on either fish, chicken, beef, lamb or pork. Soups and noodle dishes can also be served. There is no set rule as to the order in which dishes are served or which dishes should be served together. However, rice should always be served hot and fluffy.

Traditionally a Burmese meal is eaten with the fingers, but nowadays a spoon and fork is usually used.

3.7 Dress

The longi, a sarong like garment, is traditionally worn by both men and women. The male longi is made from plain or checked material and is tied in front while the female version usually has a floral pattern and is tied on the hip. Men also often wear a kaungbaung - which is a head covering made from brightly colored material wrapped around a small wicker basket.

3.8 Crafts

Traditional crafts include silk weaving, embroidery, lacquerwear and wood carving. The begging bowls used by the monks to collect their food every morning are made from lacquerwear. These handicrafts can be readily bought at markets in Yangon and Mandalay.

3.9 Sports

The national game is chinlon in which a small ball of cane has to be kept in the air using only your feet, head or shoulders and without using your hands.