Burma, also known as Myanmar, was long considered a pariah state, isolated from the rest of the world and with an appalling human rights record.
However, a new constitution brought in by the junta in 2008 entrenched the primacy of the military. 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.
The largest ethnic group is the Burman people, who are distantly related to the Tibetans and the Chinese. Burman dominance over Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Rohingya, Chin, Kachin and other minorities has been the source of considerable ethnic tension and has fuelled intermittent protests and separatist rebellions.
Military offensives against insurgents have uprooted many thousands of civilians. Ceasefire deals signed in late 2011 and early 2012 with rebels of the Karen and Shan ethnic groups suggested a new determination to end the long-running conflicts, as did Chinese-brokered talks with Kachin rebels in February 2013.
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 has highly fertile soil and important offshore oil and gas deposits. Little of this wealth reaches the mass of the population.
The economy is one of the least developed in the world, and is suffering the effects of decades of stagnation, mismanagement, and isolation. Key industries have long been controlled by the military, and corruption is rife. The military has also been accused of large-scale trafficking in heroin, of which Burma is a major exporter.
The EU, United States and Canada imposed economic sanctions on Burma, and among major economies only China, India and South Korea have invested in the country.
Burma's wealth of Buddhist temples has boosted the increasingly important tourism industry, which is the most obvious area for any future foreign investment.
© 2011 BBC News (www.bbc.co.uk)