Myanmar (Burma)

Republic of the Union of Myanmar

  • Capital: Naypyidaw
  • Government: Unitary Presidential Constitutional Republic
  • President: Thein Sein
  • Official Language: Burmese
    • Other languages spoken: Karen, Kuki/Chin
  • Population: 60 million (24th most populated country)
  • Population density: 191.5/sq mile

Learn more about Myanmar

Location

Republic of the Union of Myanmar is the northernmost country of Southeast Asia and is bordered by Bangladesh, 

Brief History & Background

“Burma or Myanmar?”

Most English-speaking countries continue to use the name “Burma” when discussing Myanmar.  However, during 1989, the military government changed “Burma” back to the original Myanmar, the name of the country since the 13th century and before they were colonized. The culture of Myanmar has been highly influenced by Buddhism, the Mon people, India, Thailand, China, and more recently, Great Britain.

Myanmar has a very complex history. For much of its contemporary history, Myanmar has been ruled by a military dictatorship, leading to international isolation and criticism. Since the inauguration of a civilian government in 2011, significant steps have been taken towards political reform, with the release of hundreds of political prisoners, peace talks between all major armed ethnic groups, and new laws that provide for an improved freedom of expression and assembly, labor rights and political participation. 

After independence in 1948, communists, guerilla soldiers and various ethnic groups continuously challenged Myanmar’s newly democratic government. There were long periods of intense civil wars due to previous military chaos, government instability and the clashing of different ethnic groups. Between the years of 1958-1960, the Tatmadoaw (under the rule of the Myanmar Armed Forces) killed 9,000 to 15,000 communists and Karens due to their previous relationship with the British Empire.  The Karen, along with the Chin, are continually forced to retreat further into the mountains and forest. In addition to the Chin and Karen, currently hundreds of Rohingya Muslims are being killed and thousands are displaced. People are calling this abuse of human rights a “neglected genocide.”

History Timeline 

Human Rights & Refugee Information

The term “Burmese” is generally used to describe the majority ethnic group in Burma.  Minority ethnic groups of Myanmar prefer to be referenced as a member of their particular ethnic group (e.g. Karen, not Burmese). In 1962, the Burmese military took control of the country and still remains in power today.  During the military rule, human rights have been massively abused. Ethnic oppression through executions, torture, forced labor and relocation occurred for decades. Additionally any demonstrations against the government rule were suppressed and punished. People working with the Burmese populations need to be aware of the historical and current relations amongst the various ethnic groups. Millions of Burmese have fled persecution for neighboring countries, almost 300,000 are in refugee camps, and it is estimated that a further 500,000 are displaced within the country. Since the late 1990’s and increasing from 2007, the United States has resettled about 100,000 refugees from Myanmar. 

Genocide

The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group of Myanmar originated from Bengal and Bangladesh, have consistently faced human rights abuses by the Burmese regime who do not consider them to be Burmese citizens. Hundreds of Rohingya people are dead and thousands displaced. 

Ethnic Groups of Myanmar 

Myanmar is a highly ethnically diverse country.  The government of Myanmar recognizes 135 distinct ethnic groups. The Bamar are the dominant ethnic group and make up for more than half of the population.  The Bamar tend to live in the Irrawaddy River valley and speak the Burmese language (also the official language).  The Bamar are often called Burmese, put this term is inaccurate, as it means any citizen of Burma from any ethnic background. 

Religion

Myanmar is predominantly a Theravada Buddhist country (89%).  Islam (4%) was brought to Myanmar around the same time as Buddhism, but was not as popular outside a small isolated area near modern day Bangladesh. Christianity was brought to Myanmar in the 1800s by European missionaries and was adopted by some ethnic minority groups such as the Chin, Karen, and Kachin (4%). 1% of the country practices Hinduism and 2% practice traditional religions. 

Language

Myanmar has four main language families: Sino-TibetanTai–KadaiAustro-Asiatic, and Indo-European. Sino-Tibetan languages are the most spoken and include Burmese, Karen, Kachin, Chin, and Chinese. SLPs in the Pacific Northwest will most likely be serving students and clients who speak Karen, Chin, and Burmese. However,  most of the students and clients will not speak Burmese as a first language.

Burmese

Burmese is the official language of Burma spoken by 32 million as a first language and 10 million as a second language (in ethnic minority cultures and neighboring countries Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore). Burmese is the native language of the ethnic majority population the Bamar, related to sub-ethnic groups of the Bamar, and to some ethnic minorities like the Mon. It is a member of the Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Burman language family.

Burmese language has been greatly influenced by the language Pali of Theravada Buddhism, Mon language, and English. Many words become “loanwords” or are spoken alongside of traditional Burmese. Since the end of British rule, Myanmar government has replaced many English words by coining new words or neologisms. 

Consonants


Bilabial

Dental

Alveolar

Post alveolar
and palatal

Velar and
labiovelar

Glottal

Placeless

Nasal

m̥    m

n̥    n

ɲ̥      ɲ

ŋ̊     ŋ

 

ɴ

Stop/affricate

pʰ p b

tʰ t d

tɕʰ tɕ dʑ

kʰ k ɡ

ʔ

 

Fricative

 

θ (ð)1

sʰ s z

ʃ

 

h

 

Approximant

 

(ɹ)2

j

w (w̥)3

 

Lateral

 

l̥    l

 

  • /ð/ is uncommon
  • /w/ is rare, used only in foreign words
  • /ɹ/ is used only in place names that have retained in Pali or Sanskrit pronunciations
  • In some compound words, the phoneme /dʑ/, when following the nasalized final /ɴ/, can shift to a /j/ sound.
  • The phonemes /p, pʰ, b, t, tʰ, d/, when following the nasalized final /ɴ/, can become /m/ in compound words.
  • In many Burmese verbs, pre-aspiration and post-aspiration distinguishes the causative and non-causative forms of verbs, whereby the aspirated initial consonant indicates active voice or a transitive verb, while an unaspirated initial consonant indicates passive voice or an intransitive verb

Vowels

 

Monophthongs

Diphthongs

Front

Back

Front off glide

Back off glide

Close

i

u

 

 

Close-mid

e

o

ei

ou

Mid

ə

 

 

Open-mid

ɛ

ɔ

 

 

Open

 

a

ai

au

Monophthongs /e/, /o/, /ə/, and /ɔ/, only occur in open syllables.

Diphthongs /ei/, /ou/, /ai/, and /au/ occur only in closed syllables.

Tones

Burmese is a tonal language; therefore, the phonemic contrasts can be made on the premise of the tone of a vowel. For Burmese, phonemic contrasts involve not only pitch, but also phonation, intensity, duration, and vowel quality.  There are four contrastive tones in Burmese: 

Tone

Symbol
(shown on a)

Description

Low

à

Normal phonation, medium duration, low intensity, low (often slightly rising) pitch

High

á

Sometimes slightly breathy, relatively long, high intensity, high pitch; often with a fall before a pause

Creaky

tense or creaky phonation (sometimes with lax glottal stop), medium duration, high intensity, high (often slightly falling) pitch

Checked

Centralized vowel quality, final glottal stop, short duration, high pitch (in citation; can vary in context)

  • For syllables ending with /N/, the tone is excluded.
  • Many linguists only classify two real tones: high (applied to words that end with a stop or check, high-rising pitch) and ordinary (unchecked and non-glottal words, with falling or lower pitch). 

Syllable Structure

Syllabic structure of Burmese is C(G)V((V)C).  It consists of consonant optionally followed by a glide, and the rime consists of a monophthong alone, a monophthong with a consonant, or a diphthong with a consonant. /ʔ/ and /ɴ/ are the only consonants to end in a coda.

Alphabet

Burmese alphabet has 33 letters and 12 vowels and is written from left to right. Between words there are no spaces, but there are usually spaces between clauses. Letters and diacritics are circular and all letters have a natural vowel. There are six consonant groups and tone markings and vowel changes are written in diacritics surrounding the letters.

Grammar

  • Burmese word order is subject-object-verb and is monosyllabic.
  • Sentence structure defines syntactical relationships and verbs are not conjugated.  Burmese does not contain adjectives; instead the verb carries the meaning (e.g. “to be X”).
  • Adjectives are combined with the noun.
  • Comparatives are usually ordered.
  • Superlatives are indicated with the prefix.
  • Numbers follow the noun they modify.
  • Burmese makes prominent usage of particles, which indicates level of respect, tense, and mood.
  • Reduplication is prevalent in Burmese to make meaning stronger or weaker or to indicate plurality.
  • Verbs: Verbs are almost always suffixed with at least one particle that tells the listening information about tense, intention, politeness, mood, etc. Verbs are conjugated differently than most European languages; instead the root of the Burmese verb always remains unchanged.  It also does not have to agree to subject, person, number, or gender.
  • Nouns: Nouns are pluralized by suffixing the particle and the particle is also suffixed to modify the known. Plural suffixes are not used when the noun is quantified. Burmese does not have masculine or feminine nouns, but makes a difference between sexes by means of suffix particles.
  • Numerical classifiers: Burmese, like their neighboring languages Thai, Bengali, and Chinese, uses numerical classifiers when nouns are quantified. An English equivalent is an expression such as “two slices of bread.” The word order for quantified words is: quantified noun + numeral adjective + classifier, except in round numbers that end in zero where the quantified noun goes after the classifier.

Karen

Chin (Hakha & Falam Chin)

There are 40 to 45 dialects of the Chin languages. The most frequently spoken are Tedmin (Northern Chin), Hakha and Falam (Central Chin), and Mindat Cho (Southern Chin). Each Chin dialect is so different that people from different regions may not understand each other. The majority of the Chin who live the United States speak Hakha Chin and are called the Hill People. The Chin, who have fled their country are predominately Christian tribes who were converted by missionaries.  They have been religiously persecuted for and many have fled as refugees to neighboring countries India, Thailand and Malaysia. Chin spent many years either hiding in the forest amd hills or in refugee camps in order to get their family out. The US allows a certain amount of political refugees. Hakha Chin and Falam Chin are phonetically very similar; about 85% of the phonemes and the accent are exactly the same which makes it very easy for the Hakha and Falam Chins to communicate. Hakha and Falam Chin are the most prevalent languages of the Chin living in the United States. Words in the Hakha Chin Language are mostly monosyllabic and full syllables are either open or closed, with a tone. Hakha Chin differentiates between voiced, voiceless, voiceless aspirated obstruents and two sets of sonorants.

Consonants

 

Labial

Alveolar

Retroflex

Palatal

Velar

Glottal

Nasals

voiced

m

n

 

 

ŋ

 

voiceless

 

 

ŋ̊

 

Plosives

tenuis

p

t

ʈ

 

k

ʔ

aspirated

t

ʈʰ

 

 

voiced

b

 

 

(ɡ)

 

Central affricates

tenuis

 

t͡s

 

 

 

 

aspirated

 

t͡sʰ

 

 

 

 

Lateral affricates

tenuis

 

 

 

 

 

aspirated

 

tɬʰ

 

 

 

 

Fricatives

voiceless

f

 

 

 

h

voiced

v

 

 

 

 

Approximants

voiced

 

l

 

j

 

 

voiceless

 

 

 

 

 

Trills

voiced

 

r

 

 

 

 

voiceless

 

 

 

 

 

Consonants /p, t, k, m, n, ŋ, l, r, j, w/ are allowed in syllable codas. With exception to Proto-Chin, all other Chin languages do not have a voiced velar plosive but they are present in loanwords. 

Vowels

 

 

Front

Central

Back

Close

i

 

u

Mid

e

 

o

Open

 

a

 

The 5 vowels in Hakha can be long or short and allophones occur for closed syllables. 

Diphthongs

 

Front

Near-Front

Central

Near-Back

Back

Close

ia iu

 

 

 

ui ua

Mid

 

ei eu

 

oi

 

Open

 

 

ai au

 

 

Considerations for SLPs

Some Karen, Chin and Mon people will understand and speak Burmese, but it is not necessarily their first language. They have also been oppressed by the majority Burmese culture and may not wish to speak the language. It is also not an assumption that all Burmese people speak English.  It may be problematic to use members of one ethnic group as interpreters for members of another ethnic group, particularly using a Burmese interpreter for someone from a minority group. SLPs need to be aware of the challenges the refugees may face including: 

  • Possible adjustment from rural to urban life
  • Cultural and language barriers
  • Many refugees have experienced violence and oppression
  • Mental health issues
  • Fear of police and law force
  • Some refugees may be reluctant to ask for what they need

Speech & Language Customs

  • Age-oriented
  • Use honorifics before personal names
  • Young men addressed as Maung or Ko (brother), young women as Ma (sister), older men as U (uncle), and older women as Daw (aunt)

Face work – “ana”

Society operates on “ana” which has no English equivalent.  Ana is characterized by a manner of hesitation, reluctance or avoidance, and to act based on the fear that you will offend someone or cause some to lose face.

Power distance – “hpon”

To describe the different degrees of ethnic, socioeconomic and gender power in the society, the Burmese use the term “hpon,” which is an idea that power comes from merit earned in previous lives.  Men are considered to have more hpon, thus having higher social position. Age is extremely respected in Burmese society.

Myanmar is a masculine culture with distinct social roles by gender. Men are expected to work outside the home to support family, and women are to stay at home and take care of the family and house. Women are often discouraged to work outside the home, especially if they have young children.

Interesting Cultural Characteristics

  • Myanmar is one of three countries along with Liberia and the US that has not adopted the International System of Units (SI) metric system as their official system of measurements.
  • Many women and children wear Thanakha, which is a thick pasted made of ground thanakha tree to block the sun and as make-up.
  • The typical garment of majority cultures in Myanmar is the Indian lungi or longyi, which is a sarong worn by both men and women.
  • Many families prefer to sleep in the same room even if they have multiple bedrooms.  
  • Many Chin continue to practice traditional medicine while in the United States.  This may include the traditional healing custom of cupping and coining, using hot oil on the skin, or binding and pricking skin and tongue tissue to release “bad blood”. There may be marks on children you work with that may startle you, so be aware of this medicine traditions.
  • Direct eye contact is viewed as an act of challenge, not a sign of good listening and politeness. Most Chin will not the speaker directly in the eye. 

 

Local Resources & Information on Burmese, Karen and Chin 

References and Resources

Original Contributor: McKenna Miller, Spring 2014