Myanmar, known as Burma until 1989, when the name was officially changed, is the western most country of Southeast Asia's Indochina peninsula. It faces the Bay of Bengal on the south and is bounded on the northwest by Bangladesh and India, on the east by China and Laos, and on the southeast by Thailand.
RANGOON (now known as Yangon), the capital, is the largest city and chief port. The country was at one time the world's leading exporter of rice and remains one of the few developing countries that is a net exporter of food. Cut off from the outside world in ancient times by its mountains and its kings. Because of much ethnic intermarriage, Myanmar's population is best described as composed of ethnolinguistic groups rather than segregated racial or ethnic stocks.
Its peoples speak more than 100 distinct languages. Most of this linguistic variety, however, is found among the hill peoples. The dominant (and official) tongue is Burmese, the language of the lowlanders. It is the medium of trade, communications, and education. Until modern times the only indigenous written languages were Burmese (a Sino-Tibetan language), Shan (of the Tai group), and Mon (Mon-Khmer). Large minorities include the KARENS and Kayahs (10%), SHANS (8%), Chins and Kachins (4%), Indians (2%), and Chinese (3%).
Most Burmese speakers are Buddhists; Theravada Buddhism is the practiced religion of about 85% of the population. Historically, Myanmar Buddhists have perceived themselves as a bastion of Buddhist orthodoxy. In rural Myanmar, most males spend time as bhikkus ("monks") in monasteries. The folk religion of many Buddhists also includes adherence to astrology and "nat" spirit worship. About 5% of the population is Christian. Indians adhere to either Hinduism or Islam, and the Chinese to Buddhism or traditional Chinese religions. Most others practice forms of animism.