Myanmar is an ethnically diverse nation with 135 distinct ethnic groups officially recognised by the Myanmar government. While it is extremely difficult to verify this statement, there are at least 108 different ethno-linguistic groups in Burma, consisting mainly of distinct Tibeto-Burman peoples, but with sizeable populations of Daic, Hmong-Mien, and Austroasiatic (Mon-Khmer) peoples. The Bamar form an estimated 68% of the population; 10% of the population are Shan; the Kayin make up 7% of the population; the Rakhine people constitute 4% of the population. Overseas Chinese form approximately 3% of the population.
Mon, who form 2% of the population, are ethno-linguistically related to the Khmer. Overseas Indians comprise 2%. The remainder are Kachin, Chin, Anglo-Indians and other ethnic minorities. Included in this group are the Anglo-Burmese. Once forming a large and influential community, the Anglo-Burmese left the country in steady streams from 1958 onwards, principally to Australia and the UK. Today, it is estimated that only 52,000 Anglo-Burmese remain in the country. There are currently 110,000 Myanmar refugees in Thai border camps.
Burmese, the mother tongue of the Bamar and official language of Myanmar, is related to Tibetan and to the Chinese languages. It is written in a script consisting of circular and semi-circular letters, which were adapted from the Mon script, which in turn was developed from a southern Indian script in the 700s. The earliest known inscriptions in the Burmese script date from the 1000s. It is also used to write Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism, as well as several ethnic minority languages, including Shan, several Karen dialects, and Kayah (Karenni), with the addition of specialised characters and diacritics for each language. The Burmese language incorporates widespread usage of honorific and is age-oriented. Myanmar society has traditionally stressed the importance of education. In villages, secular schooling often takes place in monasteries. Secondary and tertiary education take place at government schools.
Many religions are practised in Myanmar. Religious edifices and orders have been in existence for many years, and festivals can be held on a grand scale. The Christian and Muslim populations do, however, face religious persecution and it is hard, if not impossible, for non-Buddhists to join the army or get government jobs, the main route to success in the country. Such persecution and targeting of civilians is particularly notable in Eastern Myanmar, where over 3,000 villages have been destroyed in the past 10 years. More than 200,000 Rohingya Muslims have settled in Bangladesh, to escape persecution, over the past 20 years.
89% of the population embraces Buddhism, mostly Theravada. Other religions are practised largely without obstruction, with the notable exception of some ethnic minorities such as the Muslim Rohingya people, who have continued to have their citizenship status denied and therefore do not have access to education, and Christians in Chin State. 4% of the population practices Christianity; 4%, Islam; 1%, traditional animistic beliefs; and 2% follow other religions, including Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, Chinese religions and the Bahá'í religion. However, according to a US State Department’s 2006 international religious freedom report, official statistics underestimate the non-Buddhist population which could be as high as 30%. Muslim leaders estimated that approximately 20% of the population was Muslim. A tiny Jewish community in Yangon had a synagogue but no resident rabbi to conduct services.