PREHISTORY 

Archaeological evidence places human presence in the country now known as Myanmar to around 11,000 BC. Neolithic tools dating as far back as 10,000 BC have been found in the caves of the Shan Plateau. Bronze working appears at around 1,500 BC, by rice growing communities who had also mastered sophisticated animal husbandry. The appearance of Iron artefacts at around 500 BC close to Mandalay also confirms trade with China at this time.

EARLY KINGDOMS

The first written record of human occupation begin with the influx of the Tibetan speaking Pyu people into the Irrawaddy valley, at around 200 BC, who set up city states on the emerging trade routes between India and China, which would also transplant Buddhist culture into the civilisation, centred on the capital Sri Ksetra, close to modern day Pyuy.

To the south, a separate group of Theravada Buddhist peoples from the Mon Kingdom, in present day Thailand, began to occupy the southern Irrawaddy Delta from around 500 AD.

It appears, from largely Chinese records of the time, that the Pyu lived peaceably without significant interference until sporadic harassment from the Nanzhou Kingom of Yunnan in 754 AD, eventually culminated in the complete invasions of 832 and 835 AD, leaving the area in devastation.

The Puy people continued to occupy the area, but were gradually subsumed by successive migratory waves of Baman (Burman) peoples from the Himalayan regions who set up a city state at Bagan in 849 AD.

THE BAGAN EMPIRE

After a period of gradual development, the ‘Golden Age’ of Bagan began with the reign of King Anawratha, having slain his brother for the throne in 1044 AD. He went on to conquer the Mon in 1057, gaining control of the entire Irrawaddy and founding the Bagan Empire, and adopted Buddhism, engendering the vast plethora of temples for which Bagan is world famous today.

The meteoric rise of the Bagan Empire reached its peak with Anawratha’s successors, achieving the height of its military might and architectural prowess during the reigns of Narapatisithu (1174 -1211 AD) and Htilominlo (1211 – 1235 AD), by which time the empire was one of the two major Southeast Asian civilisations of the era, the other being the Khmer Empire of Angkor, in present day Cambodia.

With the accession of King Narathihapate in 1256, a series of rebellions began to rock the empire. Meanwhile, a delegation from the Mongol Empire of Kublai Khan was executed by the King in 1273 AD, and understandably began an antipathy, which would eventuate in the Mongol invasion of 1287, which brought the mighty Bagan Empire to a rapid decline.

The Mongols, however, having subdued the Empire, declined to occupy the area, and after the King’s suicide in 1289, his son Kyawswa took the throne of a greatly diminished kingdom, but the real power in the area was now that of the Myingsaing Kingdom, established by three former commanders of Bagan, brothers Athinhkaya, Yazathingyan and Thihathu who overthrew the King, prompting another Mongol invasion, which this time was repelled.

The younger brother, Thihathu, eventually poisoned Athinhkaya and became ruler of the subsequent Pinya Kingdom, establishing his capital in the city of the same name in the Irrawaddy Delta. Pinya in turn was itself overthrown by the Shan in 1364, who had also begun to fill the vacuum left by the Mongols.

LATER KINGDOMS

The Baman (Burmese) lands dissipated into a collection of smaller states such as Ava, in the north, the Shan states to the northwest, and the Hanthawaddy Pegu Kingdom of the Mon culture to the south, and it would take another 200 years for a new empire to emerge.

In 1510, Ava was under constant harassment from the Shan, and faced internal rebellions, with the area of Taungoo declaring independence.

With the final fall of Ava to the Shan in 1527, Taungoo began its rise to dominance, defeating the Hanthawaddy Kingdom, and establishing its new capital at Pegu in 1539, subsequently conquering not only Ava and the Shan States, but also Siam (Thailand), controlling a vast swathe of Southeast Asia, but fatefully overextended itself in the process.

Siam broke free in 1584, and the small Arakanese Kingdom to the west, with Portuguese backing, invaded Pegu and brought the brief empire to seeming ruin in 1599. Within a few years, however, Taungoo pulled itself from the brink, defeating the Portuguese in 1613, and re-establishing a new Taungoo dynasty under King Anaukpetlun, with an evolving geographical shape broadly similar to that of present day Myanmar.

The kingdom existed in relative peace for a time, enabling it to concentrate on establishing a new legal and social system, but from the 1720’s increasing violations of its borders brought the Kingdom to decline, with the Lanna Kingdom rebelling in the east. The Mon rebellion of 1740, which restored the Hanthawaddy Kingdom to the south, began a movement which eventually overcame upper Burma in 1752, resulting in the capture of Ava.

Soon after the fall of the Taungoo Dynasty, however, a new Burmese dynasty soon arose in Shwebo under King Alaungpaya and by 1759 had conquered Hanthawaddy and its French and English Arms suppliers. The military ambitions of the revived Burmese Empire then began to turn its attention to Siam (Thailand), with a series of wars, which proved unsuccessful, in large part due to Chinese Qing Dynasty invasions to the north.

In 1785, the frustrated kingdom, now under the rulership of King Bodawpaya, turned westward for conquest, defeating Arakan, and later conquering Assam in India, a move that would fatefully bring the Kingdom up against the might of the British Empire and result in the Anglo Burmese War of 1824-1826, during which the Burmese would lose their new gains in the west.

In the second war of 1852, the British would also take control of the southern Pegu Province. Despite concessions offered by Burma, the British, in part as a response to the French occupation of Indochina, overtook the remainder of the country in 1885, forcing Burma’s last king, Thibaw, into exile in India.

COLONIAL RULE

With Burma now part of the British Empire, Yangon was re-named Rangoon and established in 1886 as capital, and waves of Indian migrants were brought in to administer the territory as part of British India, which together with considerable Chinese immigration would irrevocably change Burma’s ethnic makeup, and marginalise the native communities.

With the profits of the country divided among a handful of British controlled enterprises, the largely excluded Burmese languished in poverty, their cultural identity sidelined and denigrated.

By the twentieth century, Buddhist leaders began a nationalist movement and challenged ‘Christian’ rule. In 1920, the elite classes of Burmese Society began a student protest against colonial rule, which would gradually accumulate and lead to an armed insurrection, known as the Galon Rebellion.

In 1936, a young student activist, Aung San, was questioned over a seditious pamphlet, refusing to expose its authorship, and was consequently expelled from university, provoking another student protest, which successfully led to some concessions by the British, including a shift of administration from India to Burma, with a constitution, elected assembly and Burmese Prime Minister, under British rule.

Increasing anti-immigrant violence against the resented Indian and Chinese populations, began to erode governability, and strikes and protests increased, during which a British mounted-police countermeasure created the first Martyr of Independence, by killing student Aung Kyaw, in Rangoon in 1938.

With the outbreak of World War II preoccupying British interests, Aung San founded the Communist Party of Burma and the People’s Revolutionary Party, forming alliances with other nationalist movements, and calling for an overthrow of the British, a move that provoked an attempt to arrest the ringleaders, with Aung San escaping to China, only to be intercepted by the Japanese.

The Japanese offered to train Aung San and 29 of his comrades on Hainan Island, which led to him founding the Burma Independence Party and returning to Burma during the Japanese invasion in 1941, which would successfully drive the British out of most of Burma by the following year.

The emptiness of Japanese promises over Burmese rule were soon apparent however, and disillusion quickly set in when it transpired that the reality of Japanese rule was found to be considerably more brutal than that of the British.

When the tide of fortune eventually turned against the Japanese, Aung San and his allies created an anti-fascist movement, sought talks with the ousted British, and rose up militarily against the Japanese in 1945, with considerable success.

With the settlement of the War, the British re-instated their rule of Burma and began the work of re-construction but, crucially, this time sought negotiations on the future of the country with its leaders towards independence as it also would with neighbouring India.

In January 1947, Aung San visited London, and elections for an interim assembly toward full independence were agreed, which took place in April of the same year, overwhelmingly won by Aung San and the socialists.

Within two months, however, Aung San and much of his cabinet were assassinated by gunmen acting on behalf of the former colonial era prime minister, U Saw, and did not live to see the Independence of on Burma January 4th, 1948, under the socialist leader Thakin U Nu. A National hero in Burma, Aung San also left a future legacy in the shape of his famous daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, aged only 2 years old at his death. Many unresolved issues surround the killings to this day, with more than a hint of British involvement.


INDEPENDENCE

Independence for Burma was undermined at an early stage, with the victory of Chairman Mao’s Communist victory over the northern border with China emboldening the communist elements within Burma itself, a situation that would worsen in the 1950’s aided by a disappointing economy fuelling unrest.

U Nu remained in power until 1958, when he voluntarily relinquished office to the military, led by Ne Win, who successfully imposed better order within the country.

In the elections of December 1960, U Nu returned to power on a popular mandate of establishing Buddhism as the official state religion, but the resultant ethnic unrest led to a full-scale military coup by Ne Win in March 1962. Throwing U Nu and his ministers into jail, Ne Win began his second period of military rule, which would see the banning of political parties and newspapers, and the country’s economy ruinously turned over to military state companies.

Significant protests erupted in May 1974, but were suppressed and the military government continued its inept impoverishment of the country. In 1981, Ne Win retired as president, though remaining a force within the background, and was replaced by San Yu.

In 1988, another popular uprising was brutally suppressed, but later in the same year, another factional military coup assumed power and declared that free elections would take place within three months.

During the following election campaign, the Government's own party, the National Unity Party was clearly overshadowed by the overwhelming popularity of the National League for Democracy, in which Aung San Suu Kyi had shown herself a popular and highly effective campaigner. Alarmed, the government delayed the election and arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, placing her under house arrest.

Believing they had effectively regained control of the situation, the country was re-named Myanmar as part of a government repackaging of national identity, reinforced by conspicuous construction works, and the promised elections were held in 1990. The miscalculation was immediately apparent as Ang San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party achieved 60% of the vote, with the government flailing on around 25%.

Acting quickly, the military government hastily ended all pretence of democracy and prevented the elected party from assuming office, arresting its key leaders.

In 1991, imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and together with international economic sanctions brought about by the governments ethnic ‘cleansing’ of the Karen people together with other hill tribes, the country began to feel the mounting pressure.

In 2005 the capital was removed from Yangon to a new location at Naypyidaw Myodaw, formerly known as Kyetpyay.

REFORMS

In 2007 a popular uprising driven by political and economic dissatisfaction was again brutally suppressed, but led to the announcement of a referendum for the future constitution of the country, to be held in 2008.

In the meantime, the country was devastated by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, leading to the widespread homelessness of over a million citizens in the Irrawaddy Delta, during which the military regime initially thwarted attempts by the UN to bring aid, bringing it further international condemnation.

During the referendum, held in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, the government’s constitution was ‘approved’. Interestingly, this document excluded the military leadership of any future legal accountability for their actions during their rule.

The highly flawed ‘elections’ of 2010, this time boycotted by Ang San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, saw the predictable superficial victory of the government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party.

From a commanding position of ‘democratically elected’ security, the government now felt comfortable enough to let Aung San Suu Kyi free from house arrest and allowed to talk with an eager world press. In discussions with her, the government allowed the release of political prisoners and the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission and Labour reforms.

With the government leaning toward the inevitability of reform, the then US secretary of State, Hillary Clinton visited the country in 2011 to offer encouragement to the process. In the 2012 by-elections, after persuading the government to repeal the laws which led to her party’s boycott of the previous election, Ang San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 41 out of 44 contested seats.

With Myanmar continuing to edge cautiously to reform, tourism began to open up and the country joined the ASEAN group of nations, and even took over its chairmanship in 2014, holding the promise of a better future. However, to this date, the aspiration of many for true democracy in Myanmar remains elusive. 

In November, 2015, Ang San Suu Kyi’s, party again won a landslide election, though she herself was barred from assuming the Presidency, through a rule introduced by the military barring anyone with ‘foreign’ children from office. Nevertheless, the military made an accommodation with the famed Nobel laureate, in which power was shared between her and the Generals.


Despite the progress made in opening up the country and the relaxation of international sanctions however, the once lauded Lady rapidly became the focus of international condemnation over the military's campaign to drive the Muslim minority Rohingya people from their Rakhine State homeland, with many fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh, amid widespread reports of atrocities.

 

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