The Republic of the Union of Myanmar (also known as Burma) is one of the largest countries in Southeast Asia, with an estimated population between 54 and 56 million people. It is one of the least developed countries in the region, although its emerging economy has been consistently growing. Myanmar is one of the world’s most disaster prone countries with its geographical location exposing it to multiple hazards including floods, cyclones, earthquakes, landslides, strong wind, lightening, soil erosion, forest fire, drought, and industrial and technological hazards. Poverty and poor infrastructure compound Myanmar’s vulnerability to natural hazards.
Myanmar ranks third out of 184 countries most affected by climate change in the last 20 years in the 2019 Global Climate Risk Index. The country is also one of the five priority countries in Asia that are highly vulnerable to large-scale natural disasters.
Myanmar’s predominant ethnic group is Burmese (Burman/Bamah/Bamar), who are Buddhist, although it is very ethnically diverse with more than 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in addition to others. The dynamic of myriad ethnic groups plays a significant role in armed conflict between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces) and various ethnic armed organizations, particularly near the border areas. While some of the ethnic conflict dynamics are a partial legacy of divide-and-rule tactics from the era of British colonialism, it does not entirely explain the complex ways ethnic and religious factors have continued to infuse internal conflict for more than the past seventy years. Imposed categories were used to treat different groups differently in Myanmar. Ethnic categorization and ethnic identity narratives has also contributed to systems and structures that have produced a country with deep fractures, inter-group competition, and distrust.
Myanmar’s largest group, the Bamar, make up approximately 68% of the population. They comprise the main holders of government power, and Burmese has long been the national language. Myanmar is categorized as a lower middle income country, with gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of US$1,326 in 2018. The economy is relatively diversified, with the most important sector being services, which accounts for over 38% GDP. The share of agriculture has been declining, and now represents 36% of GDP. An emerging economy, Myanmar has had relative high annual GDP growth rate in the last several years: 8.0% in 2014, 7.0% in 2015, 5.9% in 2016, 6.8% in 2017, 6.8% in 2018, 6.6% forecast for 2019, and 6.8% forecast for 2020.
Tourism is significantly increasing, and estimates place Myanmar as approximately the world’s seventh-fastest growing economy. Among the economic challenges are that large portions of the wealth remain among the military and business elite. The average income in Myanmar is less than half that of Thailand. Despite the economic growth of recent years, poverty remains a significant issue. Myanmar is one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia, with a quarter of the population living below the poverty line and total poverty estimated at 32%. Additionally, Myanmar’s rural areas which are susceptible to various natural hazards – tropical cyclones, flooding, drought, etc., has a substantially higher (38.8%) rate of poverty than that in its urban areas (14.5%). Disaster risk is exacerbated for these populations by the lack of resources accompanying poverty.
Myanmar joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997. The country is one of the three most disaster-prone countries in the ASEAN region, alongside Indonesia and the Philippines, with a high probability of disaster occurrence and the possibility to severely impact the population. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis, a category 4 storm struck Myanmar’s Irrawady Delta resulting in the deaths of 140,000 people, displacement of 800,000 and devastation of the area affecting millions. The initial government response was slow and the delays left millions of people injured, without food and clean water or shelter. Under pressure from regional leaders and the international community, ASEAN brokered an agreement to allow international organizations to provide food and other relief. As a result of this tragedy, laws were passed aimed at building national, state, and local disaster response mechanisms in the country. In recent years, the country has made significant progress in disaster preparedness including several regional storm risk-reduction programs signed into international agreements to boost its disaster resiliency and joined the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Myanmar participates in national and regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises.