Myanmar History


Myanmar (Burma)
The western most country in the Southeast Asian peninsula is Myanmar or Burma, as it was known in history. A study in contrast, it is a coun- try that developed as a divided state of conflicting ethnic beliefs that continue to this day. This contradicts the serenity of its devotion to Theravada Buddhism. Just as in other parts of the peninsula, the Irrawaddy River Valley saw a succession of people from other parts of Asia and who would pattern their society and culture after its Indian neighbor. The first of these would be the Mon, who came from the Khmer region of Southeast Asia as early as 5,000 years ago. They settled in the Irrawaddy delta in the southern and eastern parts of Burma stretching down the Tenasserim into the Malay Peninsula and parts of Thailand. 

The first kingdom of the Mon was know as Suwarnabhumi, the Golden Land and centred around the port city of Thaton. It was there that they received the emissaries from India. It was the Great emperor of India, Asoka that is credited with introducing Theravda Buddhism to the Mon civilization and establishing the ancient monastic settlement of Kalasa.

Between the 1st century BC and 7th cen- tury AD a second group of people began migrating from the north. Speakers of Tibeto-Burman languages and known as the Pyu, they established their capital in Prome on the western banks of the Irrawaddy River. Like the Mon, the Pyu were indianized and, in all likelihood, were Buddhist. Being a peace loving society there were no rivalries or conflict be- tween the two kingdoms until the mid 9th century. At that time another Tibeto-Burman speaking people from the north, known as the Burmese moved into the Irrawaddy valley and absorbed the Pyu kingdom. 

The Burmese established the capital of their kingdom at Bagan, 400 miles from the mouth of the Irrawaddy. As the power and influence of this kingdom grew, they conquered their neighbours to the south- east, the Mon. It was the Mon craftsman and artisans that would define the Bagan culture. The Bagan dynasty became known for the large number of temples, shrines and monasteries built and maintained during this period. This was the kingdom that united all of present day Myanmar. The Bagans would continue there conquests to include the Shan realm to the east and the Arakan region to the west until they succeeded in uniting all of what is present day Myanmar. This period of peace would last until the 1287 when the Mongols under Kublai Khan defeated the Bagan kingdom. In the ensuing centuries the Mon would re-establish their kingdom in Pegu while the north be- came divided into the various splinter groups.

For two centuries the Burmese, the Shan and the Mon were at war with each other. By the 16th century, a new dynasty emerged from the capital city Toungoo in central Burma. Under its third king Bayinnaung, the Toungoo dynasty would extend as far as Laos when it conquered the LanNa (Chiang Mai) and Ayutthaya kingdoms in Thailand. After his death they lost much of their conquered territory and the capital was moved north to Ava. In 1752 a Mon rebellion succeeded in taking over the capital of Ava. A few short years later the Konbaung dynasty defeated the Mon kingdom for a final time. During this period there was an on going struggle against the British in the west and the Thais at Ayutthaya in the east. The Burmese army completely destroyed the city of Ayutthaya and it was never rebuilt. The defeat of the Arakan kingdom in the west brought it into conflict the British in neighboring Bengal. In the 19th century there were three Anglo-Burmese wars and by 1886 the entire territory of Burma fell under the authority of British colonial India. 

During the Second World War the Japanese drove the British from Burma. Following the war, Burma achieved independence in 1948. Almost immediately the new government faced a revolt from the northern factions. Even after democratic elections a split in the ruling party caused the new prime minister, U Nu , to create a temporary military government under General Ne Win. In 1962, an army revolt lead by Ne Win re-established military rule. After 25 years, a pro- democracy demonstration led to clashes with the military and the deaths of over 3000 people. The leadership promised elections in 1989 and in spite of efforts to control the outcome, the National League for Democracy achieved an overwhelming victory. The elected officials were prevented from taking office. Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest until just recently and won a seat in Parliament in the last by-election.  The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) has held power for the last four decades but it appears to have relaxed some of its control and the rest of the world has openly embraced some of the changes that are happening there.