(Reuters) - Myanmar is gearing up for its first election in 20 years to end nearly five decades of military rule in one of Southeast Asia’s biggest and most ethnically diverse countries.
Here are some key facts about Myanmar, a resource-rich former British colony that has spent most of its post-independence history under authoritarian dictatorships.
COUNTRY NAME: It was changed last month to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. Previously it was the Union of Myanmar, having been changed from the Union of Burma in 1989 in what the junta said was a move to appease minority non-Burman ethnic groups. A new flag and national anthem were also introduced last month.
POPULATION: About 50 million: estimates vary from 48 million to 58 million. The biggest ethnic group is Burman (about 68 percent), followed by Shan (9 percent) and Karen (7 percent). The population is mostly Theravada Buddhist (89 percent), the rest being Christian, Muslim, Hindu and animist.
AREA: At approximately 678,000 sq km (261,800 sq miles), it is the second largest country in Southeast Asia. Less than two percent of land is under permanent crops and pasture. About 15 percent is arable. Forests make up nearly 50 percent.
BORDERS: Myanmar has borders with Bangladesh (193 km, 120 miles), China (2,185 km, 1,360 miles), India (1,463 km, 910 miles), Laos (235 km, 145 miles) and Thailand (1,800 km, 1,120 miles). It also has nearly 2,000 km (1,240 miles) of coastline on the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal.
CAPITAL: Naypyitaw. In 2005, the military government moved the capital 390 km (240 miles) north from colonial-era Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) to remote, purpose-built Naypyitaw. However, Yangon remains the economic hub.
ARMED FORCES: Active forces estimated at 375,500 in 2006, making the country’s military one of Asia’s largest after China and India. The military relies mostly on older Russian and Chinese technology and enjoy a huge slice of the national budget.
ECONOMY: Long-isolated Myanmar joined the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), comprising its major trade partners, in 1997. It embarked on a market economy in 1988 after 26 years of central planning. Though impoverished, Myanmar is rich in natural resources, including petroleum, natural gas, timber, tin, zinc, copper and precious stones. The economy relies heavily on the export of natural gas, agricultural, marine and forest products and textiles. Its biggest trade partners are Thailand, China and India.
There are few accurate economic statistics available and the country has a large black-market economy. Independent economists say decades of corruption and mismanagement by the military have left Myanmar with negligible growth, rampant inflation and a currency, the kyat, considered worthless outside the country.
Myanmar has undergone a big selloff of hundreds of state assets in recent months, but the process has been highly opaque and it appears most have ended up in the hands of junta cronies.
POLITICS: Myanmar has faced political and economic isolation since the military refused to recognize the results of a democratic election in 1990, won by the pro-democracy National League for Democracy of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Foreign donors are reluctant to help, saying the country’s human rights record is abysmal. Most have urged the junta to ensure the November 7 election is free, fair and inclusive and an estimated 2,200 political prisoners are released beforehand. It remains highly unlikely any of these requests will be granted.
Many Western countries, including members of the European Union, the United States and Australia, maintain economic and military sanctions on the country. Neighboring China is its biggest political and economic ally and has capitalized on the West’s reluctance to trade with the junta. It relies heavily on Myanmar for its energy needs and has ensured the regime has its backing in the international arena.
Compiled by Bangkok Newsroom; Editing by Robert Birsel