Burma, also known as Myanmar, is ruled by a military junta which suppresses almost all dissent and wields absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions.
The generals and the army stand accused of gross human rights abuses, including the forcible relocation of civilians and the widespread use of forced labour, which includes children.
A popular uprising was forcibly crushed in 1988 and mass demonstrations were not seen again until 2007, when a small string of protests about living standards gained momentum among a public normally too cowed to voice any dissent.
Prominent pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, has had various restrictions placed on her activities since the late 1980s.
Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide victory in 1990 in Burma's first multi-party elections for 30 years, but has never been allowed to govern.
The next elections, held in 2010, were boycotted by the NLD on the grounds that they were bound to be a sham.
Under the constitution brought in by the junta in 2008, a quarter of seats in both parliamentary chambers are reserved for the military, and three key ministerial posts - interior, defence and border affairs - must be held by serving generals.
Military-run enterprises control key industries, and corruption and severe mismanagement are the hallmarks of a black-market-riven economy.
The armed forces - and former rebels co-opted by the government - have been accused of large-scale trafficking in heroin, of which Burma is a major exporter.
The largest group is the Burman people, who are ethnically related to the Tibetans and the Chinese. Burman dominance over Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Chin, Kachin and other minorities has been the source of considerable ethnic tension and has fuelled intermittent separatist rebellions.
A largely rural, densely forested country, Burma is the world's largest exporter of teak and a principal source of jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires. It is endowed with extremely fertile soil and has important offshore oil and gas deposits. However, its people remain very poor and are getting poorer.
Activists argue that French oil interests fuel oppression by co-operating with the junta in a joint venture to exploit gas. They allege that France has been blocking tough European Union sanctions against the military.
The country is festooned with the symbols of Buddhism. Thousands of pagodas throng its ancient towns; these have been a focus for an increasingly important tourism industry.
But while tourism has been a magnet for foreign investment, its benefits have hardly touched the people.
* Official name: Republic of the Union of Myanmar (previously Union of Myanmar / Burma )
* Population: 50.5 million (UN, 2010)
* Capital: Nay Pyi Taw
* Largest city: Rangoon (Yangon)
* Area: 676,552 sq km (261,218 sq miles)
* Major languages: Burmese, indigenous ethnic languages
* Major religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam
* Life expectancy: 62 years (men), 67 years (women) (UN)
* Monetary unit: 1 kyat = 100 pyas
* Main exports: Teak, pulses and beans, prawns, fish, rice, opiates, oil and gas
* GNI per capita: Estimated to be low income: $995 or less (World Bank, 2009)
* Internet domain: .mm
* International dialling code: +95
President: Thein Sein
Thein Sein was sworn into office in March 2011, officially launching a nominally civilian government to replace almost 50 years of military rule.
He succeeded Senior General Than Shwe, who had been paramount leader since 1992, as the new head of state.
The new cabinet lineup, announced on the same day as Mr Thein Sein's swearing-in, included several ex-military men, many of whom were ministers in the military junta.
State television said the junta's State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) had been dissolved. The SPDC, previously known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, seized power in 1988, but Burma has been under military authority since 1962.
Mr Thein Sein, who held the rank of general and who was prime minister in the previous administration, competed in parliamentary elections in November 2010.
The elections were marred by the absence of the National League for Democracy party which won the previous election of 1990 by a landslide and which is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest at the time of the election. The NLD opted to boycott the vote.
From : BBC News