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Author(s): M. Ismael K. Maung

Source: Southeast Asian Affairs, utheast Asian Affairs (1979), pp. 95-102
Published by: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27908369
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M. Ismael .

Burma became an independent sovereign state on 4 January 1948 with U Nu as Prime

Minister. The country had been under British colonial rule since 1856. Its population
is predominantly of Mongolian stock with an Indo-Buddhist culture, and ethnic and
racial diversity is an important feature of the population. With an essentially agrarian
economy concentrated on rice production, the bulk of the population lives in rural
Burma has an area of approximately 262,000 square miles. Geopolitically it is
bounded by Bangladesh and India in thewest and northwest, the People sRepublic of
China (PRC) in the north and northeast, and Laos and Thailand in the east and
southwest. The of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to the south and southwest
provide the country with approximately 1,200 miles of seacoast. For political and
administrative purposes the country is divided into Burma proper, consisting of seven
divisions, four constituent states and one division. The seven divisions are Man
Tennasarim, Arakan and the five states are
dalay, Irrawady, Pegu, Mergui, Sagaing;
Shan, Kawthule, Kayah, Kachin, and the Chin Special Division.
Instability in political conditions prevailed for several years after independence was
gained. In March 1962, General Ne Win, as Chairman of the Revolutionary Council,
took control of the country and adopted a policy termed the "Burmese Way to Socia
lism". The Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) is the only recognized party and
the party's ideology contained in the document of April 1962 is known as "The
Burmese Way to Socialism". The core of the party philosophy, formulated in January
1963, is known as the "System of Correlation of Man and His Environment". The pro
fessed objective of the BSPP is to reconstruct Burmese society and its institutions in
accordance with Marxist and Buddhist values.
Since Burma's has been one of neutrality and non
independence, foreign policy
alignment. Thus the country has not been allied with any single nation or block of
nations in order that itmight refrain from international situations which would call
for compromising itsnonaligned position. This foreign policy continued after the 1962
Ne Win new dimensions to it
coup and General added by further reducing its cultural
and economic contacts with the outside world. Thus Burma was shut off from the rest
of the world and remained aloof from the modern world for nearly two decades. The
social, economic and within the country since 1962
demographic developments
remain a mystery to the rest of the world. The government, however, has considerably
relaxed its policy of strict isolationism in recent years. Burma in the
World Population Year of 1974 and has recently consented to participate in theWorld
Fertility survey.
The of Burma around 1800 was estimated at around 4.7 million,
concentrated in Burma at the confluence of the and the
mainly Upper Irrawady
Chindwin rivers. Lower Burma was an at that time.
largely undeveloped swampland

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96 M. Ismael .

The annexation of Burma by the British took place in two stages. In 1852 Lower
Burma was annexed. The of Lower Burma, with the opening
development together
up of this region to foreign trade, stimulated streams ofmigrants from Upper Burma.
On 1 January 1886, Upper Burma became a colony of the British, and remained part
of India until 1937.
Burma, by virtue of its being a part of British India for sometime, has a reasonably
good statistical record, although thisdoes not imply that its censuses and vital statistics
were accurate and complete by modern Western standards.
The firstorganized census was taken in Burma in 1872 under the British. Censuses
within approximately the same territory as the present boundaries were taken at ten
year intervals from 1901 to 1941. These censuses provided basic information on age,
sex, infirmity, religion, nationality, race, caste, tribe, and of birth of
language, place
the population. The statistics gathered by the census were used primarily as the basis
for reports, regularly required of British colonial officers, on the civil conditions of the
Thus the prewar censuses lacked information useful for research and
planning of social and economic development.
After the Second World War, a countrywide census was planned to be taken in
three stages over the three-year period from 1953 to 1955. The first stage of the census
was carried out in 1953 as planned, and covered almost the entire urban population of
the country. The total number of towns covered was 252. The second stage of the
census followed in 1954, and covered over 2,000 village tracts comprising about 15%
of the total rural population of the country. The third stage was intended to cover the
remaining portions of the rural areas in 1955, but because of continued disruption of
civil conditions in the countryside, itwas never carried out as planned. The first and
the second censuses covered a of about 5.6 million, out of an
stage together population
estimated total of 19 million.
Under the revolutionary government, the Ministry of Immigration and the
Departments of National Registration and Census were formed. The Immigration
Department is concerned with the alien population, the National Registration
Department with the Citizens, and the Census Department primarily with analysis of
population information. The Census Department was formerly under theMinistry of
Planning and was responsible forplanning and administration of the Census as well as
its analysis and tabulation. The primary responsibility of the National Registration
Department is to register and issue registration cards to any of the population twelve
years old and over. The card states name, location, marital status,
age, parentage,
and of the
nationality occupation subject.
The most recent countrywide census was taken in 1973. Under the Census Act of
1972, the government was vested with full powers to and conduct the census.
The Central Census Commission (CCC) was set up accordingly by the cabinet and the
Immigration and Manpower Department of the Ministry of-Home and Religious
Affairs. The CCC was charged with the full responsibility of carrying out this census.
Details of the planning and organization of this census are described in "A Summary
Report of the Population of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma".
The 1973 census, almost the entire was not as
although covering population,
in scope as the censuses of 1953-54. a limited number of questions
comprehensive Only
on demographic, social and economic characteristics of the population were included.

Population Growth
Burma's grew over most of the prewar The low growth rate
population steadily years.
during the period 1911 21 is largely due to the influenza epidemic of 1918?19.
According to the 1921 Census Report, the estimated loss from the influenza epidemic
was well over 300,000 persons.

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Trends in Burma 97

Both and natural increase were for this growth. The main
immigration responsible
flow of immigration during the prewar years was by sea from India. The Indian immi
grants were adult males who in the country for two to three
years. As a
largely stayed
result, aside from their own contribution to the the contri
population, immigrants
buted small numbers of births to the "native-born" The Indian
population. immigra
tion has been studied in depth by James Baxter in his "Report of the Indian
Immigration" (1941). This report gave the estimated average.annual gain in the
Indian population of Burma to be:73,000 during 1913-20, 61,000 in 1921 -31 and
28,000 in 1931 38. Another current of immigration originated fromChina across the
land frontier in the northern portions of Burma. Unlike the Indians, the Chinese
immigrants tended to settle permanently. The subject of Chinese immigration to
Burma has not been studied in detail due to lack of reliable statistics.
Although immigration has been negligible, the population has grown at an
increasing rate since 1950. Natural increase played a major role since 1950. The
recent growth rate, based on the estimated midyear populations of 1970 and 1976,
stands at 2.2% (United Nations, Demographic Yearbook, 1976, New York, 1977).
The high growth rates of the postwar years are a direct consequence of the lowered
death rate and the lowered infant mortality rate. This pattern of accelerated
growth is also observed in the other Southeast Asian countries. The following figures
summarize the growth of the population in Burma since itsfirst census in 1872.

Population Land Area Average % Annual

(inmillions) (in sq. miles) Density Growth Rate
2.75 1872 88,556 31
1881 43
7.72 1891 171,43045
10.50 226,20946
12.101911 230,839 1.5 52
13.101921 233,707 0.8 56
14.50 1931 233,492 1.05 62
1941 16.90 (adjusted) 261,757 65
1951 19.05 - - 1.15
1961 22.78 (projected)
- 1.80-
1963 23. 3 . (projected) - - 1.80
28.89 1973 261,228 111
31.001976** 261,328 2.20

based on the projected of 29.56 million.

*Computadon population
**From United Nations, Yearbook, 1976.

Fertility and Mortality Levels

Due to the lack of reliable vital statistics, Burma's fertilityand mortality levels are not
known precisely. From 1937 to 1939 Burma reponed a crude birth rate above 32, and
an infant mortality rate above 200 (United Nations, Yearbook, 1948,
New York, 1949.).
A uniform vital registration system was established in British India in 1864. The
was first introduced in some of Lower Burma and extended to
system parts gradually
other parts of the country. By 1907 the vital registration systemwas functioning in all
of Burma, but the coverage was never complete. In 1931, a littleover 80% of the total
population came under the vital registration system. Underregistration of both births
and deaths was common, even in areas where the system functioned.

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98 M. Ismael Maung

Sundrum estimateci that over 20% of the births remained unrecorded in theMandalay
area, where one would expect the to function (R.M.
registration system effectively.
Sundrum, Statistics Burma, Statistical No. 3, Economics,
Population of Paper
Statistics and Commerce Department, The University of Rangoon, 1957.) The
statistics of births and deaths were collected under the authority of the Department of
Public Health.
In the postwar years, however, the vital system functioned only in some
towns. The total number of towns covered varied from to year. the
year During period
1961 70, the number of towns covered varied from a lowest of 50 towns to a
highest of 119. The postwar birth rate generally fluctuated around fortyper thousand
but the death rate showed a steady decline to about twenty. Since vital registration in
the postwar years was in effect for a small fraction of the total correct
only population,
inferences concerning the fertilityand mortality levels of the country cannot be made
Based on the limited data available, however, the general trend of vital rates
has been that while fertility remained high at the level of forty, both the death rate
and the infant mortality rate have declined substantially. Factors influencing the
decline in the death rate include a rise in nutritional level, improved sanitation,
medical advances in the and cure of infectious diseases innocu
prevention through
lation and antibiotics, and the reduction of malaria through DDT spraying. The
the available estimates of vital information for urban areas.
following gives
The "Abridged Life Table, Burma (Urban Area)- 1963," prepared by the Vital
Statistics Division of the Central Statistics and Economic Department (CSED) gives the
at birth for the urban population of Burma: males,
following expectation of the life
43.6 females, 45.9 years, both sexes 45.4 years. Birth/death rates of 1969 for 66
towns Greater the midyear as a base to calculate
including Rangoon, using population
the rates, the Crude Birth Rate 39.9, Crude Death Rate 12.2, and
gives following:
Infant Mortality Rate 65.0. This information ispublished jointly by the CSED and the
Directorate of Health Statistics. The total population covered in the vital registration
of 1969 is less than 10%.
The following estimates of vital rates for Burma were prepared by the United
Nations Population Division for the period 1970 75: Crude Birth Rate 39.5, Crude
Death Rate 15.8, and Infant Mortality Rate was estimated to be as low as 195 and as
high as 300 per 1,000 live births. The expectation of life at birth formales is 48.6,
for females 51.5. Except for the Infant Mortality Rate, the two independent sets of
vital rates provided by the CSED and the United Nations tend to be of the same order
of magnitude. In view of the fact that the of vital events in Burma suffers
from serious defects of underregistration and incomplete coverage, theU.N. estimates
are for assessing fertility and mortality levels in the country.
The Census Department has also prepared population projections for the period
? 2001. The
1961 projections are based on the 1941 total population with adjustments
for undernumeration of infants and children under 5, and for 450,000 evacuees
who were from Burma before the Japanese The mortality
repatriated Occupation.
level was calculated using figures from the period 1926 31, which implied an
expectation of life at birth formales of 27.3 and females of 30.4, each increasing by
2.5 years quinquennially except for a temporary pause during the war period of
1941 ?45. The assumed fertility level was 43 per thousand from 1947 onward. The
projected total population for Burma by the year 2001 was 63.2 million.

The first demographically significant migratory movement within the country started
in the midnineteenth century after the British annexation of Lower Burma. The

drifted from the zone area, on to the fertile

population dry centring Mandalay.

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Trends in Burma 99

delta and the towns of Rangoon, Moulmein and Bassein. The cause of
Irrawady major
this migratory move from the north to the south was the abundance of economic
Burma to foreign trade
opportunity in the delta region as a result of the opening up of
and the development of the region for rice cultivation. The second major shift of
occurred after when the urban areas a
population independence experienced huge
influx of refugees from politically disturbed frontier areas. Nearly a million people
moved into urban areas between 1848-53 (see.Sundrum, cited above).
With the coming of British rule, Burma was opened up to foreign influence. The
economic in the delta also acted as a magnet to attract a
prosperity region foreign
population to the country. A large number of Indian immigrants, particularly from
East India, came into the Most of these were
congested country. immigrants
residents in Burma. New labourers in Rangoon and other
temporary began arriving
parts of the delta in November and December at the beginning of the harvest, and
those who had completed their employment began leaving about the months of
March, and May when the harvest season.was over. the immigrants
April Usually
in the country for two or three harvest seasons, since it was not economical to
pay passage to and from Burma for a short period.
The foreign population increased from about 7% in 1901 to about 10% in 1931.
International contributed to the of urban centres in Burma. Greater
migration growth
familiarity with British ways and the English language and theirwillingness to do hard
manual labour to the native Burmese, the Indians in a better
compared placed
to compete and assume roles in the country's economic structure.
position important
Economic between the groups created a number of riots, the most serious one
being in 1938.
Indian was banned after Recent international
immigration independence.
migration has involved-large numbers of skilled professionals leaving the country.
There has also been an informal entrance from theChittagong Hills since the Second
World War of large numbers of Lushai Chins who probably came to join their
kinsmen as well as to seek land.
The Chinese to Burma came later than the Indians. Unlike the Indians,
the Chinese interbred with the Burmese and were more assimilated
immigrants readily
into the Burmese social structure than the Indians. The Chinese adopted the ways of
the Burmese and, often, names of the indigenous population.

Population Distribution
The four "Natural Divisions" (Coast, Delta, Centre, North) suggested in 1891
continued to appear without major boundary changes until the Census of 1931. The
system of "Natural Divisions" was formed of "administrative districts"
by groupings
within Burma proper (that is, excluding the Eastern States of Northern and Southern
Shan, Karenni [nowKayah] State and Wa State). The four "Natural Divisions" may be
referred to as to study the distribution within Burma proper during
regions population
the prewar years. The 1931 Census the percentage distribution of popula
report gave
tion and density by regions since 1901 (Census of India, 1931, vol. XI, Burma, Part I).
The most areas are the mountainous North and the Coast, while
sparsely populated
Delta ismore populous than the lowlands of the Centre. This pattern of population
distribution remained virtually unchanged from 1901 to 1931.
The density of population, or the ratio of people to land area, lines up with the
differences in the populations of the respective regions. The population density
increases from the rugged hills of the North region through the Centre to the fertile
flat land of theDelta region. The Coast, while made up of rocky headlands and plains,
is sparser than the Centre but denser than the North. In part this reflects the greater

of the Coast as to the North region.

accessibility compared

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100 /. Ismael .

1911 1921

Regions % Density % Density % Density % Density

Delta 41 105 41 122 42 135 42 152
Coast 13 33 14 38 14 42 14 49
Centre 40 83 39 93 38 100 38 109
North 6 15 6 17 6 18 6 19
Total Population 9.15 10.49 11.50 12.86

The history, culture and ethnography of these regions are different. Relative back
wardness in communications and transport in the country limits dissemina
tion of mass media and geographic mobility of the population. As a result, assimi
lation of these into a common culture has been slow.
The 1953 First Stage Census for 252 towns gives data on urban population within
each region. As may be expected the overall level of urbanization in Burma is low,
urban population was 13.5% of the estimated total population of 19 million. For the
prewar years the percentage of urban population in Burma were: 1901 : 9.5%,
1911 : 9.3%, 1921 : 9.8%, and 1931 : 10.4%. The percentage of urban to the total
was almost uniform for the prewar
population years.

_ of 1953 Number of Area in

^ total Urban
Population Towns Square Miles

Delta 120
Coast11.3 29 37,806
Centre27.8 88 44,066
North 38,778 15

The largest region, theCentre, has slightlymore than one-fifth of the total urban
in towns. In contrast, the smallest the Delta,
population residing eighty-eight region,
has almost six-tenths of the total urban population residing in 120 towns. Omitting
Rangoon, the Delta still has the largest percent urban population of all the four
regions (33.9%). The rapid growth of the Delta is largely a consequence of rice
The Advanced Release of the 1973 Census gives only the breakdown of the total
population by States and Divisions. The proportionate share of the total population
among the Divisions and States is: Irrawady: 14.4%, 12.7%,
Mandalay: Rangoon:
11.0%, Pegu: 11.0%, Sagaing: 10.8%, Mergui: 9.1% and Tenasserim: 2.5%, Shan
State: 11.0%, Arakan State: 5.9%, Mon State: 4.5%, Karen State: 3.0%, Kachin
State: 2.5%. Chin State: 1.1% and Kayah State: 0.5%.

Concluding Observations
A full of the nationwide census of 1973 has not as yet been released. However,
"A Summary of the Population of the Socialist Republic of Burma" was issued in 1975.
According to this report the total population of the country stood at about 28.9
million as of April 1973. with an average density of 110 persons per square mile. Of
this total population, about 14.4 million are males and 14.5 million females, yielding
a sex ratio of 99 males 100 females for the entire The feminine sex ratio
per country.
reflects the dwindling influence of immigration into the country in recent times; the

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Trends in Burma 101

male sex ratio of Burma was consistently above 100 prior to 1950. Using the 1963 pro
jected population as the base year, the enumerated population of 28.9 million implies
an annual rate of about 2.3%.
The tabulation by age and other characteristics for the population of 1973 has not
been released. Based on the projection made for official use, the age structure as of
1973 is of an "expansive" type, with a broad base indicating a high proportion of
children and a rapid rate of population growth. About 40% of the population isunder
15 years of age, 54% is in potentially working age groups, and 6% in the age category
of 60 years old and over. The total dependency rate is high, as is to be expected.
Burma's recorded is below the rates set its Asiatic nations,
growth by neighbouring
for example, the Philippines and Malaysia with 3.1% and 2.7% respectively.
Nevertheless, the current growth rate of 2.3% is high enough and, ifcontinued, will
double the population in about thirtyyears.
It is true that Burma has a vast amount of vacant land and other natural resources
relative to its present population size, and that the problem of population pressure is
not an immediate concern except in those cities which have grown rapidly over the last
two decades. This fact has tended to bring about a complacent attitude towards
population growth among planners and policy makers. Growth is cumulative, and
failure to plan ahead for fertilitycontrol will only present the next generation with the
problem of population pressure and urban congestion in a much more severe form.
Burma's rate of economic production isnot high enough at the present time to cope
with the rapidly growing population. The present level of population growth will
create for its economy which has deteriorated The rice
problems severely. country's
exports, according to press reports, have dwindled from 3million to only 400 thousand
tons annually. The gross national product yields a per capita income which is barely
above US$75 per year. to press reports, its economy is stagnant, in part
because of lack of capital and in part because of unsuccessful planning attempts.
Rapid population growth will only prolong the economic stagnation and make
modernization more difficult and Burma, in its attempt to
attempts complicated. plan
the transition to a modern industrial state, cannot overlook this crucial of
rapid population growth, and hence fertility.
Burgeoning population growth means thatmore of the national income has to be
spent on total "social overhead", food, education and health. An
housing, interesting
and important study by Ansley J. Coale and Edgar M. Hoover, Population Growth
and Economic in Low-Income Countries (Princeton, Princeton
Development N.J.:
Press, 1958), Indian data as a case in showed how overall
University using point,
economic development would be facilitated if the birth rate, instead of remaining
constant, were to fall
by 50% in one It was shown that under the assump
tion of reducing the birth rate by 50% between 1966 and 1981 and between 1956 and
1981, the population would increase from the 1951 figure of 357 million to 634 and
590 million 1986. On the other hand, were the birth rate to remain
respectively by
constant at its 1951 level, the population in 1986 would reach 775 million, a more than
twofold increase from the 1951 figure. The authors showed that a reduction of the
birth rate 50% would raise the gross national hence, real income
by product; per
capita would accordingly be raised. Analysis such as this is enough to bring to
awareness the of population factors in modernization
importance attempts.
There is no definitive on the part of the present Burmese Government
concerning any programme oriented towards regulating fertility and
The attitude is one of ambivalence, but more towards
growth. tending pronatalist
orientation. According to an International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF)
report, a family planning association set up by doctors at the Rangoon Dufferin
has been forced to close down. Government controls over the of
Hospital import

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102 Ai. Ismael .

contraceptives, setting a limit in terms of dollar value on import of pills, and the
penalization of both patient and doctor for sterilization, indicate prevailing attitudes.
The official policy is that no couple is allowed to seek family
planning unless the
parents have at least four children, including deceased children. Such policies in the
long run will raise the fertilityrate even higher than that at the present level. In view of
the fact that the government places vigorous emphasis on promoting
public hygiene
and implementation of programmes oriented toward controlling disease and
improving nutritional level, the increased fertility rate would mean an even higher
rate than the present 2.3% annum.
growth per

M. ISMAEL . MAUNG. Ph.D is currently Associate Professor in the

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Western Illinois University. Apart from
having extensive teaching and research experience, he is also Associate Editor o? Inter
national Journal of Sociology of theFamily. In 1978 he spent his sabbatical leave at the
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) to conduct research on the historical
demography of Burma.

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