About 65% of the people in Burma belong to the Tibeto-Burmese group of peoples. In the highlands is a host of minorities, each with its own language and customs. The restlessness of the hill peoples, such as the Karens, against the ruling Burmese has been constant. Most Burmese are Buddhists. The population is increasing by about 2.2% a year.
The Pyus and the Mons of the lower Irrawaddy valley were the earliest known inhabitants of Burma. By the 11th century the Burmese kingdom in the north began to expand and the country was first united under the Pagan dynasty (840-1287) which introduced Buddhism.
Mongols invaded Burma and for the next five centuries it was split into warring states. By 1800, however, a Burmese empire founded by Aleungpaya extended into Assam and Thailand.
After a series of wars in 1824-86 the country was annexed by Britain, though many of the hill tribes never accepted British rule and it was strongly resisted throughout Burma.
The Japanese invaded in 1942 and granted Burma nominal independence. The people were soon disillusioned, and Aung San, a nationalist leader who had sided with the Japanese, helped the British to defeat them in 1945.
The Second World War and the savage political dissensions that followed have reduced Burma from one of the most prosperous countries in Asia to one of the poorest. In 1940 it was the world's leading rice exporter, but now has difficulty in satisfying even its home market.
There are five landscape regions. In the mountainous north are peaks of nearly 6096 meters, and from here the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers flow south. To the west the Paktai and Chin Hills form the border with India. The central plain includes the Irrawaddy delta, one of the world's major rice-producing areas. To the east lies a continuation of the Yunnan plateau of China, with an average height of 609 meters.
To the south of the plateau is the long coastal strip of Tenasserim which provides further agricultural land.
Burma has a typical monsoon climate.
The coastal regions and mountains receive up to 530 cm a year, most of it from May to October. The delta, including Rangoon, receives about 250 cm a year and has temperatures averaging 27°C all the year. In the central valley, rainfall is as little as 50 cm.
Natural vegetation varies with the rainfall and altitude. Tropical rain forest covers much of the country. In drier regions there are monsoon forests which produce valuable cabinet wood, including teak. In the dry central area the forest degenerates into scrub.
Tropical rain forests dominate Burma's coastal areas, but the interior lowlands have extensive deciduous monsoon forests which degenerate in the Dry Zone to open jungle and drought-resistant scrub.
On the Shan Plateau the denser forests of the lower altitudes give way to open woodland and savanna, though rain forests extend for some distance up the Salween valley. Subtropical and temperate forests of pines, oaks, chestnuts and ferns occur above 1,000 meters in the northern mountains. The waterlogged soils of the deltaic zone support wide tracts of swamp vegetation and mangroves.