Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. Burma was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate, self-governing colony; independence from the Commonwealth was attained in 1948. Gen. NE WIN dominated the government from 1962 to 1988, first as military ruler, then as self-appointed president, and later as political kingpin. In September 1988, the military deposed NE WIN and established a new ruling junta. Despite multiparty legislative elections in 1990 that resulted in the main opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – winning a landslide victory, the junta refused to hand over power. NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient AUNG SAN SUU KYI, who was under house arrest from 1989 to 1995 and 2000 to 2002, was imprisoned in May 2003 and subsequently transferred to house arrest. She was finally released in November 2010. After the ruling junta in August 2007 unexpectedly increased fuel prices, tens of thousands of Burmese marched in protest, led by prodemocracy activists and Buddhist monks. In late September 2007, the government brutally suppressed the protests, killing at least 13 people and arresting thousands for participating in the demonstrations. Since then, the regime has continued to raid homes and monasteries and arrest persons suspected of participating in the pro-democracy protests. Burma in early May 2008 was struck by Cyclone Nargis which official estimates claimed left over 80,000 dead and 50,000 injured. Despite this tragedy, the junta proceeded with its May constitutional referendum, the first vote in Burma since 1990. Parliamentary elections held in November 2010, considered flawed by many in the international community, saw the junta’s Union Solidarity and Development Party garnering over 70 percent of the seats. Parliament is constitutionally mandated to convene within 90 days of the election; the president, two vice presidents, and ministers will be selected at that time.
After the First Burmese War, the Ava kingdom ceded the provinces of Manipur, Tenassarim, and Arakan to the British. Rangoon and southern Burma were incorporated into British India in 1853. All of Burma came directly or indirectly under British India in 1886 after the Third Burmese War and the fall of Mandalay. Burma was administered as a province of British India until 1937 when it became a separate, self-governing colony. The country became independent from the United Kingdom on 4 January 1948, as the “Union of Burma”.
It became the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” on 4 January 1974, before reverting to the “Union of Burma” on 23 September 1988. On 18 June 1989, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) adopted the name “Union of Myanmar” for English transliteration. This controversial name change in English, while accepted in the UN and in many countries, is not recognised by the Burmese democracy movement and by nations such as Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Archaeological evidence suggests that civilisation in the region which now forms Burma is quite old. The oldest archaeological find was of cave paintings and a Holocene assemblage in a hunter-gatherer cave site in Padah Lin in Shan State.
The Mon people are thought to be the earliest group to migrate into the lower Ayeyarwady valley, and by the mid-10th century BC were dominant in southern Burma.
The Tibeto-Burman speaking Pyu arrived later in the 1st century BC, and established several city states – of which Sri Ksetra was the most powerful – in central Ayeyarwady valley. The Mon and Pyu kingdoms were an active overland trade route between India and China. The Pyu kingdoms entered a period of rapid decline in early 9th century AD when the powerful kingdom of Nanzhao (in present-day Yunnan) invaded the Ayeyarwady valley several times.
Tibeto-Burman speaking Burmans, or the Bamar, began migrating to the Ayeyarwady valley from present-day Yunnan’s Nanzhao kingdom starting in 7th century AD. Filling the power gap left by the Pyu, the Burmans established a small kingdom centred in Bagan in 849. But it was not until the reign of King Anawrahta (1044–1077) that Bagan’s influence expanded throughout much of present-day Burma.
After Anawrahta’s capture of the Mon capital of Thaton in 1057, the Burmans adopted Theravada Buddhism from the Mons. The Burmese script was created, based on the Mon script, during the reign of King Kyanzittha (1084–1112). Prosperous from trade, Bagan kings built many magnificent temples and pagodas throughout the country – many of which can still be seen today.
Bagan’s power slowly waned in 13th century. Kublai Khan’s Mongol forces invaded northern Burma starting in 1277, and sacked Bagan city itself in 1287. Bagan’s over two century reign of Ayeyarwady valley and its periphery was over.
Small kingdoms (1287–1531)
The Mongols could not stay for long in the searing Ayeyarwady valley. But the Tai-Shan people from Yunnan who came down with the Mongols fanned out to the Ayeyarwady valley, Shan states, Laos, Siam and Assam, and became powerful players in Southeast Asia.
The Bagan empire was irreparably broken up into several small kingdoms:
- The Burman kingdom of Ava or Innwa (1364–1555), the successor state to three smaller kingdoms founded by Burmanised Shan kings, controlling Upper Burma (without the Shan states)
- The Mon kingdom of Hanthawady Pegu or Bago (1287–1540), founded by a Mon-ised Shan King Wareru (1287–1306), controlling Lower Burma (without Taninthayi).
- The Rakhine kingdom of Mrauk U (1434–1784), in the west.
- Several Shan states in the Shan hills in the east and the Kachin Hills in the north while the north-western frontier of present Chin hills still disconnected yet.
This period was characterised by constant warfare between Ava and Bago, and to a lesser extent, Ava and the Shans. Ava briefly controlled Rakhine (1379–1430) and came close to defeating Bago a few times, but could never quite reassemble the lost empire. Nevertheless, Burmese culture entered a golden age. Hanthawady Bago prospered. Bago’s Queen Shin Saw Bu (1453–1472) raised the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda to its present height.
By the late-15th century, constant warfare had left Ava greatly weakened. Its peripheral areas became either independent or autonomous. In 1486, King Minkyinyo (1486–1531) of Taungoo broke away from Ava and established a small independent kingdom. In 1527, Mohnyin (Shan: Mong Yang) Shans finally captured Ava, upsetting the delicate power balance that had existed for nearly two centuries. The Shans would rule Upper Burma until 1555.
Reinforced by fleeing Burmans from Ava, the minor Burman kingdom of Taungoo under its young, ambitious king Tabinshwehti (1531–1551) defeated the more powerful Mon kingdom at Bago, reunifying all of Lower Burma by 1540. Tabinshwehti’s successor King Bayinnaung (1551–1581) would go on to conquer Manipur (1556), Shan states (1557), Chiang Mai (1557), Ayutthaya (1564, 1569) and Lan Xang (1574), bringing most of western South East Asia under his rule. Preparing to invade Rakhine, a maritime power controlling the entire coastline west of Rakhine Yoma, up to Chittagong province in Bengal.
Bayinnaung’s massive empire unravelled soon after his death in 1581. Ayutthaya Siamese had driven out the Burmese by 1593 and went on to take Tanintharyi. In 1599, Rakhine forces aided by Portuguese mercenaries sacked the kingdom’s capital Bago. Chief Portuguese mercenary Filipe de Brito e Nicote (Burmese: Nga Zinga) promptly rebelled against his Rakhine masters and established Portuguese rule in Thanlyin (Syriam), then the most important seaport in Burma. The country was in chaos.
The Burmese under King Anaukpetlun (1605–1628) regrouped and defeated the Portuguese in 1611. Anaukpetlun reestablished a smaller reconstituted kingdom based in Ava covering Upper Burma, Lower Burma and Shan states (but without Rakhine or Taninthayi). After the reign of King Thalun (1629–1648), who rebuilt the war-torn country, the kingdom experienced a slow and steady decline for the next 100 years. The Mons successfully rebelled starting in 1740 with French help and Siamese encouragement, broke away Lower Burma by 1747, and finally put an end to the House of Taungoo in 1752 when they took Ava.
King Alaungpaya (1752–1760), established the Konbaung Dynasty in Shwebo in 1752. He founded Yangon in 1755. By his death in 1760, Alaungpaya had reunified the country. In 1767, King Hsinbyushin (1763–1777) sacked Ayutthya. The Qing Dynasty of China invaded four times from 1765 to 1769 without success. The Chinese invasions allowed the new Siamese kingdom based in Bangkok to repel the Burmese out of Siam by the late 1770s.
King Bodawpaya (1782–1819) failed repeatedly to reconquer Siam in 1780s and 1790s. Bodawpaya did manage to capture the western kingdom of Rakhine, which had been largely independent since the fall of Bagan, in 1784. Bodawpaya also formally annexed Manipur, a rebellion-prone protectorate, in 1813.
King Bagyidaw’s (1819–1837) general Maha Bandula put down a rebellion in Manipur in 1819 and captured then independent kingdom of Assam in 1819 (again in 1821). The new conquests brought the Burmese adjacent to the British India. The British defeated the Burmese in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826). Burma had to cede Assam, Manipur, Rakhine (Arakan) and Tanintharyi (Tenessarim).
In 1852, the British attacked a much weakened Burma during a Burmese palace power struggle. After the Second Anglo-Burmese War, which lasted 3 months, the British had captured the remaining coastal provinces: Ayeyarwady, Yangon and Bago, naming the territories as Lower Burma.
King Mindon (1853–1878) founded Mandalay in 1859 and made it his capital. He skilfully navigated the growing threats posed by the competing interests of Britain and France. In the process, Mindon had to renounce Kayah (Karenni) states in 1875. His successor, King Thibaw (1878–1885), was largely ineffectual. In 1885, the British, alarmed by the French conquest of neighbouring Laos, occupied Upper Burma. The Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885) lasted a mere one month insofar as capturing the capital Mandalay was concerned. The Burmese royal family was exiled to , India. British forces spent at least another four years pacifying the country – not only in the Burmese heartland but also in the Shan, Chin and Kachin hill areas. By some accounts, minor insurrections did not end until 1896.
Colonial era (1886–1948)
The British conquest of Burma began in 1824 in response to a Burmese attempt to invade India. By 1886, and after two further wars, Britain had incorporated the entire country into the British Raj. Burma was administered as a province of British India until 1937 when it became a separate, self-governing colony. To stimulate trade and facilitate changes, the British brought in Indians and Chinese, who quickly displaced the Burmese in urban areas. To this day Rangoon and Mandalay have large ethnic Indian populations. Railways and schools were built, as well as a large number of prisons, including the infamous Insein Prison, then and now used for political prisoners. Burmese resentment was strong and was vented in violent riots that paralysed Yangon on occasion all the way until the 1930s.
Much of the discontent was caused by a disrespect for Burmese culture and traditions, for example, what the British termed the Shoe Question: the colonisers’ refusal to remove their shoes upon entering Buddhist temples or other holy places. In October 1919, Eindawya Pagoda in Mandalay was the scene of violence when tempers flared after scandalised Buddhist monks attempted to physically expel a group of shoe-wearing British visitors. The leader of the monks was later sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder. Such incidents inspired the Burmese resistance to use Buddhism as a rallying point for their cause. Buddhist monks became the vanguards of the independence movement, and many died while protesting. One monk-turned-martyr was U Wisara, who died in prison after a 166-day hunger strike to protest a rule that forbade him from wearing his Buddhist robes while imprisoned.
Eric Blair (George Orwell) served in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma for five years; his experience yielded the novel Burmese Days (1934) and the essays “A Hanging” (1931) and “Shooting an Elephant” (1936). An earlier writer with the same expansive career path was Saki. During the colonial period, intermarriage between European male settlers and Burmese women, as well as between Anglo-Indians (who arrived with the British) and Burmese caused the birth of the Anglo-Burmese community. This influential community was to dominate the country during colonial rule and through the mid-1960s.
On 1 April 1937, Burma became a separately administered territory, independent of the Indian administration. The vote for keeping Burma in India, or as a separate colony “khwe-yay-twe-yay” divided the populace, and laid the groundwork for the insurgencies to come after independence. In the 1940s, the Thirty Comrades, commanded by Aung San, founded the Burma Independence Army. The Thirty Comrades received training in Japan.
During World War II, Burma became a major front-line in the Southeast Asian Theatre. The British administration collapsed ahead of the advancing Japanese troops, jails and asylums were opened and Rangoon was deserted except for the many Anglo-Burmese and Indians who remained at their posts. A stream of some 300,000 refugees fled across the jungles into India; known as ‘The Trek’, all but 30,000 of those 300,000 arrived in India. Initially the Japanese-led Burma Campaign succeeded and the British were expelled from most of Burma, but the British counter-attacked using primarily troops of the British Indian Army. By July 1945, the British had retaken the country.
Although many Burmese fought initially for the Japanese, some Burmese, mostly from the ethnic minorities, also served in the British Burma Army. In 1943, the Chin Levies and Kachin Levies were formed in the border districts of Burma still under British administration. The Burma Rifles fought as part of the Chindits under General Orde Wingate from 1943 to 1945. Later in the war, the Americans created American-Kachin Rangers who also fought against the Japanese. Many others fought with the British Special Operations Executive. The Burma Independence Army under the command of Aung San and the Arakan National Army fought with the Japanese from 1942–1944, but switched allegiance to the Allied side in 1945.
British soldiers waged a guerrilla war against Japanese forces in Burma. Chindits were formed into long range penetration groups trained to operate deep behind Japanese lines. A similar American unit, Merrill’s Marauders, followed the Chindits into the jungle in 1943. Although roughly 150,000 Japanese were to be killed in Burma, only 1,700 were taken prisoner, of whom only 400 could be described as physically fit.
In 1947, Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Burma, a transitional government. But in July 1947, political rivals assassinated Aung San and several cabinet members.
Democratic republic (1948–1962)
On 4 January 1948, the nation became an independent republic, named the Union of Burma, with Sao Shwe Thaik as its first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister. Unlike most other former British colonies and overseas territories, it did not become a member of the Commonwealth. A bicameral parliament was formed, consisting of a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Nationalities, and multi-party elections were held in 1951–1952, 1956 and 1960.
The geographical area Burma encompasses today can be traced to the Panglong Agreement, which combined Burma Proper, which consisted of Lower Burma and Upper Burma, and the Frontier Areas, which had been administered separately by the British.
In 1961, U Thant, then the Union of Burma’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and former Secretary to the Prime Minister, was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations; he was the first non-Westerner to head any international organisation and would serve as UN Secretary-General for ten years. Among the Burmese to work at the UN when he was Secretary-General was a young Aung San Suu Kyi, who went on to become winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Rule by military junta (1962–present)
Ne Win year
Democratic rule ended in 1962 when General Ne Win led a military coup d’état. He ruled for nearly 26 years and pursued policies under the rubric of the Burmese Way to Socialism. Between 1962 and 1974, Burma was ruled by a revolutionary council headed by the general, and almost all aspects of society (business, media, production) were nationalized or brought under government control (even the Boy Scouts). In an effort to consolidate power, Ne Win and many other top generals resigned from the military and took civilian posts and, from 1974, instituted elections in a one-party system.
Between 1974 and 1988, Burma was effectively ruled by Ne Win through the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), which from 1964 until 1988 was the sole political party. During this period, Burma became one of the world’s most impoverished countries. The Burmese Way to Socialism combined Soviet-style nationalisation and central planning with the governmental implementation of superstitious beliefs. Criticism was scathing, such as an article published in a February 1974 issue of Newsweek magazine describing the Burmese Way to Socialism as ‘an amalgam of Buddhist and Marxist illogic’.
Almost from the beginning, there were sporadic protests against the military rule, many of which were organised by students, and these were almost always violently suppressed by the government. On 7 July 1962, the government broke up demonstrations at Rangoon University, killing 15 students. In 1974, the military violently suppressed anti-government protests at the funeral of U Thant. Student protests in 1975, 1976 and 1977 were quickly suppressed by overwhelming force.
Ne Win’s rise to power in 1962 and his relentless persecution of “resident aliens” (immigrant groups not recognised as citizens of the Union of Burma) led to an exodus/expulsion of some 300,000 Burmese Indians. They migrated to escape racial discrimination and wholesale nationalisation of private enterprise a few years later in 1964.The Anglo-Burmese at this time either fled the country or changed their names and blended in with the broader Burmese society.
A new constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was adopted in 1974.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled Burma and many refugees inundated neighbouring Bangladesh including 200,000 in 1978 as a result of the King Dragon operation in Arakan.
Uprising of 1988 and the SPDC
In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression by the government led to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country known as the 8888 Uprising. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators, and General Saw Maung staged a coup d’état and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989, SLORC declared martial law after widespread protests. The military government finalised plans for People’s Assembly elections on 31 May 1989. SLORC changed the country’s official English name from the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” to the “Union of Myanmar” in 1989.
In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats(i.e., 80% of the seats), but the election results were annulled by SLORC, which refused to step down. Led by Than Shwe since 1992, the military regime has made cease-fire agreements with most ethnic guerilla groups. In 1992, SLORC unveiled plans to create a new constitution through the National Convention, which began 9 January 1993. In 1997, the State Law and Order Restoration Council was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
On 23 June 1997, Burma was admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The National Convention continues to convene and adjourn. Many major political parties, particularly the NLD, have been absent or excluded, and little progress has been made. On 27 March 2006, the military junta, which had moved the national capital from Yangon to a site near Pyinmana in November 2005, officially named the new capital Naypyidaw, meaning “city of the kings”. The CIA World Factbook, however, still considers the capital to be Rangoon.
In November 2006, the International Labour Organization (ILO) announced it will be seeking at the International Criminal Court “to prosecute members of the ruling Myanmar junta for crimes against humanity” over the continuous forced labour of its citizens by the military. According to the ILO, an estimated 800,000 people are subject to forced labour in Myanmar.
The 2007 Burmese anti-government protests were a series of anti-government protests that started in Burma on 15 August 2007. The immediate cause of the protests was mainly the unannounced decision of the ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council, to remove fuel subsidies which caused the price of diesel and petrol to suddenly rise as much as double, and the price of compressed natural gas for buses to increase fivefold in less than a week. The protest demonstrations were at first dealt with quickly and harshly by the junta, with dozens of protesters arrested and detained. Starting 18 September, the protests were led by thousands of Buddhist monks, and those protests were allowed to proceed until a renewed government crackdown on September 26. During the crack-down, there were rumours of disagreement within the Burmese armed forces, but none were confirmed. Some news reports referred to the protests as the Saffron Revolution.
During the 2007 anti-government protests a significant role was played by Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition to the Burmese military government. Aung San Suu Kyi was under periods of house arrest from 1989-2010. In September 2007, hundreds of monks paid respects to her at the gate of her home, which was the first time in four years that people were able to see her in public. She was then given a second public appearance on 29 September, when she was allowed to leave house arrest briefly and meet with a UN envoy trying to persuade the junta to ease its crackdown against a pro-democracy uprising, to which the Myanmar government reluctantly agreed.
On 7 February 2008, SPDC announced that a referendum for the Constitution would be held and Elections by 2010. The Burmese constitutional referendum, 2008 was held on 10 May and promised a “discipline-flourishing democracy” for the country in the future.
World governments remain divided on how to deal with the military junta. Calls for further sanctions by Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and France are opposed by neighbouring countries; in particular, China has stated its belief that “sanctions or pressure will not help to solve the issue”. There is some disagreement over whether sanctions are the most effective approach to dealing with the junta, such as from a Cato Institute study and from prominent Burmese such as Thant Myint-U (a former senior UN official and Cambridge historian), who have opined that sanctions may have caused more harm than good to the Burmese people.
In 1950, the Karen became the largest of 20 minority groups participating in an insurgency against the government of Burma. The conflict continues as of 2009.In 2004, the BBC, citing aid agencies, estimates that up to 200,000 Karen have been driven from their homes during decades of war, with 120,000 more refugees from Burma, mostly Karen, living in refugee camps on the Thai side of the border. Many accuse the military government of Burma of ethnic cleansing. As a result of the ongoing war in minority group areas, more than two million people have fled Burma to Thailand.
On 3 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated the country when winds of up to 215 km/h (135 mph) touched land in the densely populated, rice-farming delta of the Irrawaddy Division. It was the worst natural disaster in Burmese history. Reports estimated that more than 200,000 people were dead or missing, and damage totaled to 10 billion dollars (USD). The World Food Programme reported, “Some villages have been almost totally eradicated and vast rice-growing areas are wiped out.”The United Nations projects that as many as 1 million were left homeless; and the World Health Organization “has received reports of malaria outbreaks in the worst-affected area.” Yet in the critical days following this disaster, Burma’s isolationist regime hindered recovery efforts by delaying the entry of United Nations planes delivering medicine, food, and other supplies. The government’s action was described by the United Nations as “unprecedented.”
On 4 May 2009, an American, John Yettaw, allegedly swam across the lake uninvited to the house of Aung San Suu Kyi and remained there for two nights, resulting in the arrest of Yettaw and Suu Kyi, who were held in Insein Prison near Yangon. As a result, Suu Kyi is being charged with violating the terms of her house arrest, and faces a sentence of up to five years. Suu Kyi’s house arrest was due to end on 27 May 2009. On 11 August 2009, Suu Kyi was sentenced to an additional 18 months of house arrest following conviction on charges of violating the terms of her previous incarceration. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated, “This is a purely political sentence designed to prevent her from taking part in the regime’s planned elections next year.” On August 12, 2009, U.S. Senator Jim Webb negotiated Yettaw’s release on humanitarian grounds because of Yettaw’s health. Myanmar authorities commuted Yettaw’s sentence in half, suspending the remaining three-and-a-half years upon Yettaw’s deportation. On August 14, Senator Webb flew with Yettaw to Thailand.
In early August 2009, a conflict known as the Kokang incident broke out in Shan State in northern Burma. For several weeks, junta troops fought against ethnic minorities including the Han Chinese, Va, and Kachin. From 8–12 August, the first days of the conflict, as many as 10,000 Burmese civilians fled to Yunnan province in neighbouring China.
On 13 August 2010, Junta announces the election date for 2010 is 7 November.
In October, 2010, a new flag was adopted and the official name of the country changed to “Republic of the Union of Myanmar”, replacing the old “Union of Myanmar” from 1989.
On November 9, 2010, Myanmar’s ruling junta stated that the Union Solidarity and Development Party won 80% of the votes. This claim is widely disputed by pro-democracy opposition groups, asserting that the military regime engaged in rampant fraud to achieve its result.
On November 13, 2010 the military authorities in Burma released the pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
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