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Demographic Data

Myanmar has a population of 55,123,814 (2017) and is one of the least populated countries in Southeast Asia, with approximately 81.5 inhabitants per km2. Myanmar has a relatively young population with an average life expectancy of about 68.2 years (men 66.6 years; women 69.59 years). (2017) The population grew by an average of 1% per year from 2000 to 2014.

Major cities in 2017:

Rangoon: 5,2157,000 inhabitants
Mandalay: 1,374,000 inhabitants
Nay Pyi Taw 992,000 inhabitants


More than half the population lives around Rangoon, on the central plain around Mandalay and in the delta of the Ayeyarwady River. The least populated states are Chin in the northwest and Kachin in the north. Just over 30% of the population lives in the cities, but this is changing rapidly due to the large migration from the countryside to the cities.

Rangoon, with more than five million inhabitants, is the largest city in Myanmar. Due to the migration to the cities, the population has almost tripled since 1980.

Ethnic groups

There are three main groups in Myanmar's fairly heterogeneous population: Mon-Khmer, Tibeto-Birmanen and Sino-Tai. These main groups can be divided into eight races: Burmese, Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan. In total, more than 130 subgroups have been counted. Shan State is an ethnic patchwork, with more than 4 million people divided into 30 ethnic groups.

The Mon-Khmer originated in Central Asia and eventually settled in southern Myanmar. The most important group of the Mon-Khmer are the approximately 1 million Mon, who are considered the oldest inhabitants of Myanmar and the founders of Burmese culture and; for example, the Burmese script is derived from the Mon script. After the arrival of the Tibetan Burmese, they mixed with the Burmese and are now hardly distinguishable.

The Padaung form a small minority around Loikaw in the state of Kayah. The older women of this population are in the habit of wearing a large number of heavy copper rings around their necks, and are therefore called 'longnecks' or giraffe women. The shoulders of the women collapse due to the great weight of the rings, which gives the impression of a very long neck.

The Palaung live in the Kalaw area on the Shan Plateau in the east of the country. They still often live together with some families in 'long houses' on poles, but more and more stone houses are being built. They practise a mixture of Buddhism and animism.

The Tibetans were driven out by the Mon Khmer and settled in the south of Myanmar. The most important peoples are:

The Buddhist Burmese or Bamar originally come from south-western China and now live mainly in and around Rangoon and on the central plain. They are the largest ethnic group with almost 70% of the population and have a dominant presence in the army, the state apparatus and try to impose their culture on the minorities in Myanmar. This is done mainly through education and through the state media.

The Bamar language is dominant in Myanmar and is understood by almost all other ethnic groups.

The Karen (also Kayin) are Myanmar's largest ethnic minority with 7% of the population. Their origins are uncertain, but it is assumed that they used to live around the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. This people consists of Black, White and Red Karen, which refers to the colour of the clothes they wear. The three groups each have their own language, which is not understood by the other groups. Most Karen live in the state of Kayin, in the delta of the Ayeyarwady around Pathein and on the Tanintharyi peninsula. The Red Karen generally live in Kayah state on the southern part of the Shan plateau. Approximately 20% of the Karen (of animistic origin) are Christian, making them the largest Christian population group in Myanmar. The Karen have been in armed conflict with the Burmese army through the Karen National Union for more than 60 years. In addition to the KNU, there are also a few small armies active. As a result, tens of thousands of Karen are in Thai refugee camps.

The predominantly Buddhist Rakhine or Arakanese live in the coastal area behind the Chin Hills. A small minority, the Rohingyas, are Muslims and come from Bangladesh. However, the Burmese government does not recognise the Rohingyas as a minority and in the 1990s tried to drive them out to Bangladesh, but only partially succeeded.

The approximately 600,000 Kachin (officially: Jinghpaw) come from western China and now live in the north in the mountainous state of Kachin. They are mainly animists with a small Christian minority (approx. 10%) and live from dry rice cultivation and hunting. Here too, there has long been resistance to the military regime via the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), but since a ceasefire the Kachin now have a reasonable degree of autonomy.

The relatively isolated Chin live in the western state of Chin, in the hilly region bordering India and Bangladesh. The majority Christian Chin are related to ethnic groups in Assam in north-east India. The many Chin tribes are distinguished by their costumes, dialects and traditions and are known for their colourful cotton cloths made on communal looms.

The Sino-Tai were the last immigrants from Indo-China to enter Myanmar and settle on the Shan Plateau. The most important group is the Shan, from south-western China. They ruled the Shan Plateau from the 15th century to 1959 and are related to the Laotians and the Thai. They speak a Thai dialect. Several Shan armies resisted the government, the most important being the Shan State Army North and the Shan State Army South. In retaliation to this armed resistance, the state army burns down Shan villages. Tens of thousands have fled to Thailand as a result and are living in refugee camps with little prospect of survival.

In the 19th century, Indians migrated in large numbers to Myanmar, which then belonged to British India. They were economically very successful, but that changed rapidly when the government decided to nationalise the entire economy in the 1960s. The Indians, mostly Muslims, left en masse and now make up only 2% of the total population.

At the same time as the Indians, the Chinese came to Myanmar and settled mainly in Yangon as merchants or shopkeepers. After anti-Chinese riots in 1967 many Chinese left, but since trade relations have improved again, there are more than one million Chinese living in Myanmar. The Chinese are particularly economically active on the border with China and in the northern town of Mandalay. Almost half of the inhabitants of Mandalay are already Chinese, and a middle class consisting entirely of Chinese is threatening.


Hulst, H. / Birma: (Myanmar)
KIT Publishers/Oxfam Novib

K├Âllner, H. / Myanmar (Birma)
Het Spectrum

Myat Yin, S. / Burma
Times Books

Peterse, L. / Birma (Myanmar)

Reid, R. / Myanmar (Burma)
Lonely Planet


CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
Copyright: Team The World of Info