Muddle in Myanmar too?

One of our readers in the US, Ezra Steinberg, provides this comment on the situation in Myanmar.

“There was a lively discussion on the USMA mailing list about Burma and whether they have finally converted to metric. One writer who publishes a column in the UK (Peter Hitchens blog, Mail on line, 11 February 2010. Ed) stated flatly that they have converted based on what he observed from his last recent visit. He also excoriated those who suggest that the UK should abandon Imperial weights and measures in favor of metric, which presumably makes his assertion about Burma all the more credible.

So, to get more information, I just bought and downloaded the Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar (Burma) or at least the chapter on practical matters. (It cost me less than two bucks for just the one chapter and my curiosity got the better of me). Here is what they say about weights and measures:

1 Burmese viss or 100 ticals = 3.5 lbs; 1 gaig = 36 in; petrol is sold by the gallon [sic]; distances are in miles, not kilometres.

Since I believe the books are published in the UK, they must be referring to an Imperial and not a U.S. gallon.

I noted in one of their (free) excerpts from another part of the book that they referred to the length of a particular railway journey in kilometres, which I presume was done for the benefit of their (UK) readers.

In the chapter I downloaded they also refer to customs regulations as follows (in part):

Visitors are permitted to bring in the following items duty free:
400 cigarettes, 100 cigars, 250 g of tobacco, 2 L of liquor and 0.5 L of perfume.

While these values may be conversions to metric for the UK reader, I suspect that the rational amounts listed indicate that these are the values announced and enforced by the customs authorities, which I presume means the officers look at the metric values listed on the labels of the goods brought into the country and ignore any Imperial or USC indications. But of course I cannot know this for sure just from this excerpt.

I also learned from this chapter that Myanmar has one of the highest rates of death by snakebite in the world. Be careful!

They also say that the local Myanmar Standard Time (MST) is 6.5 hours ahead of GMT/UTC (1 hour ahead of India and half an hour behind Thailand). And they say that twenty-four hour time is often used for train times.

I won’t reproduce what they say about toilets. Suffice it to say it’s not up to North American or Western European standards.

Most Myanmar Buddhists use an eight-day week in which Thursday to Tuesday conform to the Western calendar but Wednesday is divided into two 12-hour days (Wow! Ezra).

All Myanmar traffic goes on the right-hand side of the road. This wasn’t always so. In an effort to distance itself form the British colonial period, the military government instigated an overnight switch form the left to the right in 1970. By far, most cars either date from before 1970 or are low-cost Japanese models, so steering wheels are perilously found on the right-hand side — this becomes particularly dicey when a driver blindly zooms to the left to pass a car!

There was no mention of whether Fahrenheit or Celsius is used … or something else altogether!

Oh, and last but not least, the Burmese word for “help” is “keh-bah!” (They also list many other useful phrases in translation, including “I’m lost’, “I’ve been robbed”, and “Go away!”)”

MetricViews is curious to know if any of our readers have first-hand experience of metrication progress in Myanmar, or Liberia for that matter. We suspect that both countries, like the UK and the US, have made progress along the continuum from customary to metric measures; the crucial question is “How far?”

9 thoughts on “Muddle in Myanmar too?”

  1. I did a Google search on the topic and was lead to this thread on the USMA mail server from 2001-01-31:

    In the response to the original poster, who also sited a reference found in Lonely Planet:

    …… there is an article on Burma/Myanmar (B/M) in the Nov-Dec 1997 issue [of Metric Today] on page 5. It was authored by Michael D. Payne, who visited there. Basically, anything new is metric and anything that is a relic from the British is still imperial.

    Since road signs are all in Burmese, only a person able to read Burmese
    would be able to know the units given are kilometres and kilometres per
    hour. Thus, metric usage might be transparent to a visitor, unless they
    either asked someone or had to deal directly in the economy. So, due to
    both the economic and political situation in Myanmar, it is no surprise that
    the US and others, because of lack of proper information assume the country is still imperial.

    If you search the mail archives further on B/M and you can find more information. It is also claimed the Liberia uses USC, but Michael who visited there also found differently. See link:

    You will also find from this link that B/M legalized the use of metric in 1920:

    Someone from the USMA should be able to provide the article from the 1997 Nov-Dec issue of Metric Today to see exactly what was written.

    I would estimate that B/M is as metric as its neighbours. Any trade between B/M and its neighbours would be in metric as the neighbouring countries are not going to supply B/M with special products in imperial because they are on a list of countries that is claimed they have not changed.

    In May 2008, Yangon was devastated by a cyclone. It would be interesting to see if any rebuilding that took place was done in metric or imperial.


  2. I found some more references:

    [USMA:39682] Non-metric countries other than the USA
    ezra . steinberg
    Wed, 07 Nov 2007 19:57:28 -0800

    ————– Original message ———————-
    From: “Paul Trusten, R.Ph.”

    Thank you for the correction, Michael. Come to think of it, this fact sets
    even more of an example for the U.S., since it can thus be said that the U.S. is the only remaining nation that does not use the metric system as its primary, everyday system of measurement, be it official or not.

    Quoting Michael Payne:

    It’s misinformation to state that Burma and Liberia avoid the metric system. They don’t, they are predominately metric. The only reason they are on this list of non-metric countries (CIA website) is that they don’t have an ‘Official Policy of Conversion’. Despite having no official policy, they have both become predominantly metric, including metric speed limits, signs with km/h and speedometers with km/h, fuel sold in liters, etc. I wish we would not give out the misinformation that they are not metric when they are.

    I wrote an article on this for Metric Today about 10 years ago after visiting both countries.

    Michael Payne

    I also found this on Wikipedia:

    But check out the same article in German:

    It seems the assumption that Burma uses imperial is equally wrong. Burma has its own system that may be used in parallel to metric. The only two units used from imperial are acre and furlong and what ever remnant still persists from colonial times, such as outdated petrol pumps that don’t function correctly.

    The German article lists all of the units in the Burmese system but shows different colours to denote those in common use. Some of the Burmese units have 1:1 relationships with imperial, but it appears they are not used as they are not coloured.

    This should clear up some of the confusion.


  3. I found this article in the Myanmar Times:

    Note the use of “hectares” in the article.

    I also checked some online listings for property in Burma. Some listings used square meters (either correctly with m2 and the 2 as a superscript or as sqm) and some used sq ft.

    If someone has time to do some more research online, it might be possible to get a better sense of what the mix of units are in the press and other English language publications.

    Of course, there is still the questinon of what mix of units are used in Burmese language publications, on hand made signs in the market, on the roadways, and in everday conversation.


  4. I found this intersting story in the Myanmar Times:

    It seems the government of Burma is going to privatize its fuel stations. Here is an excerpt from the article:

    Private car owners are currently able to purchase up to 2 imperial gallons (about 4.5 litres) of fuel every day at about K2700 per gallon. By contrast, 1 litre of petrol in Singapore on January 27 cost S$1.78, or about US$1.27. Converting that figure to gallons and US dollars, gives an approximate cost of US$5.71 a gallon, or more than double the price of subsidised fuel in Myanmar. Diesel was cheaper at around $4.22 a gallon but still much higher than the subsidised rate.

    It seems the government stations still use the imperial gallon. If a local private company decides later to go ino partnership with an international oil company, such as BP or Shell they may decide to replace the aging imperial gallon pumps with new digital metric ones.


  5. It is also reported ( that the unit of mass widely used in street markets in Yangon is “viss”, corresponding to roughly 1.6 kg. The viss is often used in supermarket ads to help people compare prices; presumably, price labels in supermarkets normally give the price per kilogram.


  6. I think that Britain needs to revert to Imperial units. They deserve to be different from Europe. A bunch y’all over there like Imperial units- the metric advocates have only 15%- look 74% of Brits can give their height in feet and inches, while only 26% can only do so in metres (of course here in the USA it’s spelled meters). European visitors to the UK are actually interested in road signs in Imperial units- and there was a story on a website here in the US about the American person’s French friends who toured London- and when they saw various metric signs, they got disappointed. Imperial is an American and British thing, so it should’nt be gone. And Britain needs to have Europe’s cheapest petrol (in Imperial gallons). While the US & Britan have the world’s cheapest petrol (gasoline).


  7. Harvey’s suggestion that the there should be a total reintroduction of imperial sounds a good idea – it would keep British computer programmers gainfully employed having to match every new release of EXCEL and many other software packages with UK-specific versions to cope with imperial units. Just think – in addition to the manipulation of decimal numbers, we could have special codes that could automatically be recognised by EXCEL for stone/lbs/oz, another for miles/furlongs/chains/yards/feet/inches, another for floz/gills/pints/quarts/gallons, another for square measure – EXCEL can already recognise that 15:23:15 is a time and knows how to add that to 3:04:22!

    Of course there would be a few drawbacks – the newest UK version of EXCEL would probably be released just as Microsoft was about to retire the international version on which it was based, but that would not matter as the UK would be living in a total time-warp, not the partial one that we are in at the moment.


  8. Britain reverting to Imperial measures would be economic suicide. The cost to industry would be considerable. It certainly wouldn’t be worth it just to please the odd tourist.

    True enough people predominantly weigh themselves in stones and lb and measure their height in ft and in, but that is one of the few areas of British life that is staunchly imperial. Road signs is the other.

    The metre and kilogram have been around in Britain for a long time and anyone who claims them to be unfamiliar is just being willfully ignorant.

    The case for a single system of measurement that everyone can understand and use is overwhelming.

    Britain would be far better off distinguishing itself as a humane intelligent society not some eccentric enclave with no sense of proportion.


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