Burmese Americans are immigrants or American descendants of people from Burma (also called Myanmar), a country in Southeast Asia. Officially renamed Myanmar by the country's military government in 1989, Burma is bordered on the north by China; on the west by India, Bangladesh, and the Bay of Bengal; on the east by Thailand, Laos, and China; and on the south by the Indian Ocean and Thailand. Mountain ranges largely encircle the nation and enclose an expanse of hills, valleys, and forests. With an area of approximately 261,220 square miles (676,550 square kilometers), Burma is about the size of the state of Texas.
Estimates by the Myanmar military government and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency placed the country's population at about 55 million in 2012. The majority of the people, almost 90 percent, are Buddhist, and no more than 4 percent are Christians or Muslims. There are more than 130 ethnic groups in Burma, but the largest—the Burman ethnic group—accounts for more than two-thirds of the population. Other notable ethnic groups are the Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Chin, Mon, Arakanese, Rohingya, and Shan, as well as Chinese and Indians. Despite abundant national resources, Burma is the poorest country in Southeast Asia.
Since the early 1960s, there have been three waves of migration of Burmese to the United States. The first wave occurred following the military's takeover of the Burmese government in 1962. Predominantly composed of ethnic Chinese and non-Burman ethnic minorities, this group included educated professionals and skilled workers. Many of them emphasized their Chinese heritage. In the late 1980s a second wave of Burmese arrived. This group was more diverse and included Burman, Chin, Kachin, Karen, and other ethnic groups as well as Chinese. Beginning in 2006, the third wave of migration has consisted primarily of refugees escaping harsh governmental repression in Burma. This third wave, which has included many people from the Karen and Chin ethnic groups, numbered more than 70,000 by the time of the 2010 U.S. Census, which counted 100,200 Burmese in the United States.
The areas of the United States with the largest populations of Burmese Americans are the Los Angeles metropolitan area and the San Francisco Bay area. New York City, Chicago, and the state of Florida contain smaller communities. Burmese refugees have settled in significant numbers in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, Indiana; Utica, New York; Baltimore and Rockville, Maryland; and Phoenix, Arizona, with smaller numbers also settling in Fort Worth, Texas, and Elizabeth, New Jersey.
HISTORY OF THE PEOPLE
Early History Since prehistoric times, people have inhabited Burma's coastal areas and river valleys, and as early as the ninth century CE, the Pyu people established various city-states and kingdoms. Northern Myanmar became popular as part of a trade route between China and India. The Mon people established large cities in the south and gained power, and in 1044 the leader Anawrahta took up residence in Pagan and began the first unification of Burma. In the process, Anawrahta made Theravada Buddhism the official religion and established the nucleus of modern Burma. This was Burma's classical age, as government, art, and religion flourished. Temples were built and scholars and monks dedicated themselves to the study of Theravada Buddhism. This age ended in 1364 CE with the Court of Ava, when increased interkingdom warfare divided the country. Nevertheless, by 1613 the Ava kingdom had returned and reunited Burma. For the next 200 years, Burma gained power and territory, and between 1766 and 1769 it successfully repelled four attacks by the Chinese.
In the nineteenth century the British sought to expand their colonial empire and targeted Burma. After defending itself but losing territory to the British in two wars (1824–1826 and 1852–1853), Burma fell in the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885). Britain made Burma a colony, eliminating the monarchy, reducing the power of the Buddhist church and the Sangha (the religious community), and weakening the education system. The British expanded transportation systems and colonial industries for rice, rubies, oil, and timber; however, these colonial policies did not help the predominantly poor Burmese people.
The Burmese began to develop a nationalist outlook in the early 1900s. Anticolonial politics flourished among Burmese student and urban groups who Page 374 | Top of Articlebuilt the We Burmans Association. Student unions and many Buddhist monks spread anticolonial sentiments among the Burmese peasantry. In the late 1930s, Burmese peasants fought British and Indian colonial troops for two years, and Aung San and Nu became leading figures in the struggle against colonialism. When World War II began in 1939, Burmese leaders did not support the British colonial government, which issued an arrest warrant for Aung San. Escaping to Japan, Aung San accepted Japanese aid to secure Burmese independence from the British and he helped form the Burma Independence Army (BIA). Once the Japanese army occupied Burma, however, Japan refused to grant the country independence and leave. In 1945, near the end of the war, Aung San led the BIA in a campaign with the British to expel the Japanese. After the conclusion of World War II, Britain withdrew its military administration but maintained political control. Burmese anticolonialist and nationalist organizations, which demanded full independence from Britain, formed the Anti- Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) and pressured the British government. Under Aung San, the AFPFL negotiated a transfer of power from British to Burmese officials. The British agreed to Burma's independence in January 1947, and a constitution was approved on January 4, 1948. As internal political rivalries escalated, however, one faction assassinated Aung San. Modern Era With independence, Burma
Modern Era With independence, Burma adopted a parliamentary system of government. It formed the Union of Burma, with Nu as the first prime minister, but internal strife and ethnic conflicts riddled the country. The Karen National Union argued for a separation from Burma, which resulted in a civil war between disaffected ethnic groups and the official government. In 1958 General Ne Win assumed the premiership in an effort to stabilize the country's security and military. Nu won the election in February 1960, but Ne Win led a coup d'etat in 1962 and arrested several government officials including Nu, who later fled in exile to India in 1969. Suspending the constitution and placing Burma under a Revolutionary Council, Ne Win instituted a military dictatorship and a socialist state. He nationalized much of the country's industry and commerce and further isolated Burma from the outside world and international aid and investment. Facing oppression and economic challenges, many Burmese left the country. With a committee composed of representatives from several ethnic groups, Ne Win drafted a new constitution, which was ratified in December 1973. Elected president in early 1974, Ne Win and his military dictatorship then offered amnesty to political insurgents in May 1980.
During the 1980s Burma's isolation increased, its economy stagnated, and the military increased its repression of non-Burman ethnic groups. Demonstrations broke out in Rangoon and major cities on August 8, 1988. Popularly known as “8-8-88,” the peaceful demonstrations included students, dissident military officials, and prodemocracy politicians who protested against the military government. In response, soldiers opened fire on unarmed protestors. General Saw Maung, who then took control of the government, imposed martial law, and established a new military regime called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). These events also led many Burmese to leave Burma.
To appease public and international disapproval of their repression, the SLORC offered to hold elections. The daughter of Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi, emerged as the figurehead of the prodemocracy movement. She joined democratic activists in forming the National League for Democracy (NLD). Even though the military placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest before the 1990 elections, the NLD won a land-slide victory, but the military government chose to ignore the results. In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for her democratic, nonviolent activism. The military regime renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and officially changed the country's name to “Myanmar.” Many Burmese opposition groups and a number of other countries (including the United States) continue to use “Burma,” however, because they refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the military government. The SPDC continued its campaign of political, ethnic, and religious repression, and many more refugees fled Burma. The government received the condemnation of the United Nations, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, and foreign governments such as the United States. Meanwhile, Burmese activists remained active in national and international opposition groups.
SETTLEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES
In 1965 the U.S. Immigration Act allowed for an increase in the number of Asian immigrants to the United States. Around the same time, political oppression, economic hardships, and the closing of universities in Burma pushed professionals, skilled workers, and entrepreneurs to seek better opportunities in the United States. This first wave of Burmese immigrants settled in large cities such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Fort Worth, and Washington, D.C.
The increased repression of non-Burman ethnic groups and political dissidents by Burma's military regime in the 1980s gave rise to a second wave of Burmese migration to the United States. Some were members of the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and other ethnic groups that were fleeing persecution, and others were escaping the military government's oppression of prodemocracy activists following the “8-8-88” demonstrations. The U.S. government, however, did not usually grant them refugee status, which would have included permission to work in the United States. Many persons in the second wave of migration
therefore did not have the same professional opportunities as the first wave of Burmese immigrants, and they were largely unable to obtain suitable occupations. Still, many remained in the United States illegally out of fear of returning to life under Burma's government. Some of these refugees settled near previous communities of Burmese immigrants; others settled in different locations, including Indianapolis, Indiana, which became home to the largest group, numbering an estimated nine thousand in 2012.
The third wave of migration has consisted overwhelmingly of Karen refugees, who beginning in 2005 became the target of the military regime's escalated repression of non-Burman ethnic groups. In the hill-and-valley regions of Burma, the military has harassed farmers, abused and raped women, and suppressed separatist or ethnic movements. For the most part, Karen, Mon, and other ethnic Burmese refugees did not have the professional expertise or educational background of previous Burmese immigrants. Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, Indiana, have continued to welcome large numbers of Burmese refugees, and significant numbers have also settled in Elizabeth, Fort Worth, Phoenix, and Utica.
Burmese is the primary language of Myanmar, but more than one hundred languages are spoken in the country. Burmese belongs to the Tibeto-Burmese group of languages. Speakers of Burmese first arrived from China around the ninth century CE. The language was later influenced by the Mon language, which was a source for the writing system of Burmese, and by Buddhist scriptures.
The professional, entrepreneurial, and well-educated immigrants in the first and second wave of Burmese migration are generally bilingual, speaking fluent Burmese and English. British rule before World War II had demanded instruction in both English and Burmese, and many of these immigrants spoke English as their first language. Nevertheless, Burmese is the primary language used at gatherings of immigrants and American-born Burmese Americans. Their proficiency in English has allowed many of these Burmese Americans to develop business contacts and build professional societies in the United States.
Burmese from the second and third waves of migration generally experience anxiety regarding English. Following Burma's independence, English was no longer the primary language taught in Burma, although many people continued to use it. The military regime that took power closed universities and schools and banned books and literature. Most Burmese refugees to the United States, especially those from villages and more isolated communities, had little exposure to English. This lack of familiarity with the language has severely limited their educational and professional opportunities in the United
States, not only hindering their acculturation into American society but also reinforcing the differences between them and earlier Burmese immigrants to the United States.
There is relatively little opportunity for American-born Burmese Americans to receive formal instruction in Burmese in the United States. Four places where Burmese is taught are Northern Illinois University in DeKalb; Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State; and the Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute (SEASSI) summer language program, which takes place at a different university every two summers.
Almost 90 percent of the population in Burma is Buddhist. Buddhism is a nontheistic religion that claims that suffering is unavoidable and that the root of suffering is attachment, greed, and desire. Freedom from suffering can be obtained by following what is known as the Noble Eightfold Path: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Buddha's teachings are known as the Dharma, and they are given to a collective body of followers or a religious community called the Sangha.
Burmese Americans have established churches and other worship centers almost everywhere they have settled. For instance, there are numerous Buddhist temples and worship centers serving communities of Burmese Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fort Worth, and Fort Wayne. The Chin people, who constitute the second-largest Burmese ethnic group in the United States, are mostly Christian. They have founded more than twenty local churches in Indianapolis alone.
The veneration of ancestors is important among Burmese Americans who retain Burmese culture. Buddhist Burmese American families display pictures of ancestors. Burmese American families of other faiths may engage in similar practices but with less intensity. Second generation Burmese Americans generally take on the religious practices of their parents. Because there are fewer religious sites for Buddhists in the United States than in Burma, the role of officials at such sites differ in the United States. In some places, Page 377 | Top of Articlereligious officials such as monks serve as both religious and community leaders.
CULTURE AND ASSIMILATION
Burmese American culture and assimilation varies depending on ethnicity, religion, and time of arrival. Burmese of Chinese and Indian ethnicity classify themselves based upon their ethnicity rather than their country of origin. Because of their relatively small numbers, non-Buddhist Burmese Americans, such as Christians, commonly join groups that are more broadly based on southeast Asian identity and religion.
Burmese Americans from the first and second waves of migration tend to classify themselves in a variety of ways. Most interestingly, they often identify themselves as “Asian American” in order to belong to an acculturated group that has more options than a smaller ethnic group. Burmese refugees in the third wave of migration have taken a longer time to assimilate to American culture, partly because they have had fewer educational and professional opportunities than those in the first and second waves of migration.
Cuisine Traditional Burmese food consists primarily of rice, vegetables, and fish, and it has been influenced by Indian and Chinese culinary traditions. Burmese use ngapi, a preserved fish paste, to accent meals, and they commonly add garlic, ginger, fish sauce, or dried shrimp for flavoring. Popular dishes include mohinga, a fish soup with rice noodles, and khaukswe, noodles typically served with chicken stewed in coconut milk. The Burmese enjoy spicy foods and they favor fruits over processed sweets. Green tea and regular black tea are the most popular drinks.
Burmese American cuisine is primarily available in local, communal, or religious settings. Burmese Americans typically dine at home or at religious sites, a custom that is more common among Buddhists. Although few Burmese restaurants emerged with the first wave of migration, more Burmese restaurants have appeared more recently. Because of the association between Indian, Chinese, and Burmese food, the visibility of Burmese food has benefitted from the growing popularity of Chinese and Indian dining in the United States. Burmese cuisine features prominently at Burmese American professional and political gatherings.
Holidays Burmese Americans commonly observe Burma Independence Day, which commemorates the official end of British colonial rule in Burma on January 4, 1948. To celebrate, Burmese wear their traditional costume, the lorgyi, a tube of cloth worn by both sexes and tucked in at the waist. Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu Burmese Americans also observe the traditional holidays of their respective religions.
Of note are several holidays celebrated by Buddhist Burmese Americans. The Kason Festival, or the Watering of the Banyan Tree, is celebrated on
the day of the full moon during the month of Kason (April–May) and marks the enlightenment of the Buddha at the foot of the Banyan tree. On this day, people make pilgrimages to monasteries to offer food and gifts to monks. On Thingyan, or the Water Festival of the Burmese New Year, people throw water on each other, symbolizing the washing away of bad luck and the sins of the old year. Vesak, the holiest of Buddhist holidays, celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. These three celebrations, centered on Buddhist temples, generally take place on April 8, December 8, and February 15.
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY LIFE
Immigrants who have assimilated as Burmese Americans consider the family to be very important and show great respect for their elders as well as for educators, community leaders, and religious leaders. Because Burmese immigrants were fewer in number than many other immigrant groups, they did not settle in large groups. However, they maintained contact and built community associations with other Burmese Americans in their respective regions. The Burmese Association of Texas serves the Fort Worth area, the Burmese American Professional Society links those in the San Francisco Bay Area, and other groups emerged elsewhere.
Others who have arrived in the United States from Burma share the communal and family goals of these immigrants, but they differ in other respects. Refugees fearing deportation from the United States and a return to life under Burma's military regime were less able to organize themselves. However, outside organizations formed to assist the refugees with acculturation, assimilation, and educational information. For example, in Indiana, which is home to the largest influx of Burmese refugees, organizations such as the Burmese American Community Institute and local educational and religious institutions were set up to provide language classes and information on essential services.
EMPLOYMENT AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
A majority of those in the first and second waves of Burmese migration benefited from their former experience as academics, professionals, and skilled workers. After their arrival, many found employment and built professional organizations for social and cultural support. However, refugees in the second and third waves of migration lacked the educational and professional opportunities of the earlier immigrant groups. Some refugees found themselves taking employment in jobs beneath their actual educational and professional qualifications. Refugees also lacked the language skills of the first- and second-wave immigrants, hindering their employment opportunities. Nevertheless, these refugees have sought to improve their economic conditions, participating in language classes and pursuing available opportunities. The Burmese American Association of Texas provides classes to immigrants and refugees to improve their language skills in the job market, and the Burmese American Community Institute operates programs Page 379 | Top of Articleand resources to develop educational and professional opportunities. The programs assist not only Burmese high school students but also parents by providing essential information on post-high school careers and employment.
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
There is little information on how Burmese Americans vote in the United States. However, Burmese Americans are very active in international politics. Both Burmese immigrants and refugees overwhelmingly oppose Burma's military regime, and they have built numerous organizations in the United States to lobby for change in Burma. The Burmese American Democratic Alliance, the Burmese American Women's Alliance, and other organizations rally for support, engage in fund raising, and disseminate information about Burmese politics. In 2008 some of these activists publicized how the military government had refused international aid offered to help victims of Cyclone Nargis in Burma. In 2012 political and professional organizations of Burmese Americans promoted the visit of the prodemocracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi to the United States when she awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal.
Academia Born in New York in 1966 and the grandson of the UN Secretary-General U Thant from Burma, Thant Myint-U is a Burmese American historian who has served at Cambridge University and in the United Nations. His writings on Burma include The Making of Modern Burma (2001), The River of Lost Footsteps (2007), and Where China Meets India (2011).
Journalism Julie Chen (1970–) has served as a reporter and news anchor on CBS. She also has hosted The Talk, a daytime talk show that features a panel of women who discuss various topics.
Daughter of a Burmese immigrant, Alex Wagner (1977–) is a prominent reporter for the network MSNBC. Her work with the nonprofit organization Not on Our Watch took her to Burma to monitor and report on the country's military regime.
Literature Wendy Law-Yone (1947–) is a Burmese American fiction writer whose experiences in fleeing the Burmese military government shape much of her writing. The Coffin Tree (1983) concerns two Burmese refugees from a political coup, and Irrawaddy Tango (1993) relates the story of a young woman who
rises up against a dictator. Her latest book, The Road to Wanting (2010), focuses on a woman who lives in a boom town at the Chinese-Burmese border.
There is very little information published about the Burmese American community. In addition, there are no American newspapers or periodicals published in Burmese. Some material about the political situation in Burma concerning human rights is available from the National League for Democracy and on various social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube.
From Burma to New York: The Stories of Burmese Refugees
Website built by graduate students in journalism at Columbia University, provides information on refugees from Burma who make the transition to the United States. Resources include information on select refugees, the resettlement process, and Burma's history.
Founded in Thailand by exiled Burmese journalists, this news website and magazine is perhaps the most widely read source of Burma-related news worldwide. It is published in Burmese and English.
National League for Democracy (NLD)
Website that provides links and information regarding the democratic movement in Burma, including discussion of human rights and political activities and developments within Burma.
Voice of America (VOA), Burmese Service
A segment of the International Broadcasting Bureau, provides information about programming broadcast to Myanmar and the United States. VOA's International Broadcasting Bureau broadcasts several programs with a Burmese focus.
ORGANIZATIONS AND ASSOCIATIONS
American Burma Buddhist Association
Serves as a religious, educational, and cultural resource center to promote Buddhist thought, beliefs, and practices. Has centers in New York and New Jersey.
619 Bergen Street
Brooklyn, New York 11238
Phone: (718) 622-8019
Burma Project/Southeast Asia Initiative
Linked through the Open Society Foundations network, provides information on human rights in Burma.
400 West 59th Street
New York, New York 10019
Phone: (212) 548-0632
Burmese American Community Institute (BACI)
Works with Burmese refugees in Indiana. Provides information on educational and professional opportunities.
1503 Quinlan Court
Indianapolis, Indiana 46217
Phone: (317) 215-4979
Burmese American Democratic Alliance (BADA)
Promotes discussion on human rights and political activism, particularly in regard to the government of Burma.
1952 McNair Street
Palo Alto, California 94303
Phone: (415) 895-2232
MUSEUMS AND RESEARCH CENTERS
Center for Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University
Catherine Raymond, Director
101 Pottenger House
520 College View Court
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, Illinois 60115
Phone: (815) 753-0512
SOURCES FOR ADDITIONAL STUDY
Aung San Suu Kyi. Freedom from Fear and Other Writings, ed. Michael Aris. New York: Viking, 1991.
———Letters from Burma. London: Penguin, 1996.
Bajoria, Jayshree. “Understanding Myanmar,” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, July 10, 2012.
Fink, Christina. Living Silence: Burma under Military Rule. London: Zed, 2001.
Steinberg, David I. Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Thant Myint-U. The Making of Modern Burma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Thomas, William. Aung San Suu Kyi. Milwaukee: World Almanac Library, 2005.