Country located south of the Himalayas between India and Thailand. Myanmar has roughly 45 Million people in an area about 676,000 Square Kilometers in size.
The majority of the population is Buddhist, with Muslim, Christian and Shaman sects making up the minority. The Ayeyarwaddy River cuts the country into an eastern and western half and finally breaks into the Ayeyarwaddy Delta at the Andaman Sea. The land itself is protected on three (Northwest, Northeast and Southeast) sides by nearly impassable mountains and on the fourth (and southern) side by the Andaman Sea.
People of Myanmar
The Burmese country of Myanmar is a racially diverse area with a long history of chaos and disunity. What many people consider one group is in fact hundreds of separate nationalities, though several main groups stand out are generally the only ones truly mentioned.
The Burmans make up 68% percent of the country’s population. They are not the original inhabitants of the area, having moved there from a Tibetan region now in southern China. The original inhabitants of the area, the Pyu were absorbed into the Burman culture and no longer exist as a distinct nationality. Most of the Burman people are settled in and around the Ayeyarwaddy Delta. Ethnically the Burmans belong to the Tibeto-Burman group.
The Mon are a distinct ethnic group from the Burmans, belonging to the MonKhmer group, related to the people of Cambodia. They are settled in and around Bago in the southeast portion of the nation. The Mon were also responsible for the introduction of Buddhism to Southeast Asia, due to their ancient trade routes with India.
The Shan are the largest minority group in Myanmar, making up more than 11% of the population. They are almost completely related to the Sino Thai group that makes up the majority of the population in Thailand. They are settled in the east, along the northern border of Thailand.
The Shan areas are notoriously well known for their opium fields and for the Heroin factories hidden in the jungles of the area. The current Shan leader, of the Shan Independence Army, in fact is considered the head of one of the largest drug cartels in the world. The Shan have recently asked the Thailand government to annex the area, but the request was declined.
Like the Shan, the Karen are another of the rebellious minorities of Myanmar. Making up just 7% of the population, they live along the Myanmar and Thailand border though some live in the Ayeyarwaddy Valley. The traditional Karen capitol is at Manerplaw, along the Thailand and Myanmar border, and about 300 kilometers east of Yangon.
The Karen had been expecting to become a separate nation when England granted the area independence, but as they weren’t granted that right have been fighting for it since. The current leader of the Karen National Liberation Army is Bo Mya.
The Karen are also distinctly separate from most of the rest of Buddhist Myanmar in the fact that the majority are Christians.
Another Tibeto-Burman group, the Kachin live along the northern mountainous areas of Myanmar. They, like the Shan and the Karen have been fighting for independence through the 5000 man Kachin Independence Army. The Kachin make up roughly 6% of the Myanmar population and much of the population is Animist or newly converted.
Together these groups of Tibeto-Burman make up 3% of the Myanmar population. They are settled in the highlands along the Myanmar and Indian border (though a significant number live in India as well). They are in majority a shamanistic group, though many are being converted to Christianity.
A group settled along the coast of the Indian ocean in what was once Arakan. They make up 20% of the Arakan province’s population and are predominately Muslim. For the past 200 years (including the present) the Rohingyas have been seen as illegal immigrants and not allowed citizenship. In the last decade, a large amount were run from the country into Bangladesh, but as they face the same problem of not being accepted there they are in a bad situation.
The Bagan Era
The earliest settlers of what is present day Myanmar (which many know as Burma), the Mon and the Pyu left little in the way of records behind, thus it is best that I start with the invasion of the area by the people we now refer to as Burmese. These settlers founded the town of Bagan on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy.
In the year 1044 AD, the King Anawratha ascends to the Burmese throne. A Mon monk, Shin Arahan, converts him to Buddhism in the year 1056. This conversion will provide a valid reason for war against the Mon people in Myanmar. In the year 1057, just one year after his conversion, King Anawartha declares war on the Mon city of Bago (Pegu). His proclaimed goal is to reclaim the Tripitaka, which the Mon King Manuha refused to relinquish.
The war lasts only a few months, in which time the city of Bago is conquered. Manuha is captured and Bago is razed to the ground. The 30,000 or so remaining citizens of the town are forcibly transported to Bagan, the Tripitaka is transported on the backs of 32 White Elephants and Manuha himself is presented as the slave of the Shwezigon pagoda.
The Mon people, of Bago, actually make more of an impact upon the Burmese culture by being conquered than they probably would have otherwise. The Mon form of writing is adopted, along with Mon architecture. The next few years see conquests by Anawartha against the Shan realm to the north and Arakan realm to the west. Anawartha himself though is killed at the age of 33 by a wild buffalo.
His son Sawlu extends the land only slightly, and in 1084 King Kyanzittha extends the realm a bit further to the south.
The Bagan realm though is brought to a bloody end when the Mongol armies under Kublai Kahn destroy the realm in 1287.
The Taunngu Dynasty
The Burmese nation would finally be resurrected in the town of Taungu in 1486, when the reign of King Minkyino began. Before that time, the area was split by bloody fighting between the lands of the Burmans the Shan and the Mon. While Minkyino does not expand the realm in any noticeable way, it is the first truly stable period in the recent Burmese history. His son Tabengshweti though is a different story altogether.
Tabengshweti is aggressive in his actions. His absolute aim is the reestablishment of the former Bagan borders. By 1535 Burmese troops conquer the Mon port city of Bassein and by 1539 the Mon town of Bago falls to Tabengshweti. Further advances are made to the north, and the borders of Bagan are rather well remade. Unfortunately this progress will not last Tabengshweti's death.
Shortly before Tabengshweti's death, troubles arise between the Burmese kingdom and several powerful Shan states to the north. It is unfortunate that Tabengshweti dies during the beginning of this conflict. Many areas, including Bago, withdraw from the control of Taungu after Tabengshweti's death. His successor, Bayinnaung is forced to re-conquer these areas.
In 1564, Bayinnaung expands his control to Siam, when he conquers the Siamese capitol of Ayutthaya. The Siamese king is taken back to Myanmar, along with several valuable white elephants, but the new lands are not content with their lot. In 1569 Bayinnaung is forced to again invade Siam. His force of 200,000 men sieges Ayutthaya for seven months, through which the city stands, finally Bayinnaung resorts to assaulting the city and the Siamese capitol falls again.
Once again, the gains made by one king are only temporary. Bayinnaung's son Nandanaung cannot manage to hold the conquered regions, and Myanmar loses much of its size. In the year 1592, Siam once again declares its independence. Several campaigns are launched against Ayutthaya, lasting until 1592, but none are successful and the Taungu Dynasty slowly begins to decline.
In the year 1636, under pressure from the now independent Mon kingdom (again ruling from Bago), the Burmese transfer their capitol from Taungu to Ava in the north (Near present-day Mandalay). The Mon still manage to reach Ava, and the city falls in 1752. The control by the Mon is short lived though.
The Konbaug Dynasty
In 1753 a man by the name of Alaungpaya, an official of the town of Shwebo, begins a revolt against the Mon. The revolt is a great success and Ava falls to the Alaungpaya a short while later. By 1757, Bago is back in the hands of Burmese people. Two years later, Alaungpaya begins his campaign against the kingdom of Siam. Alaungpaya is injured in battle and the forces of Myanmar are forced to retreat. The king never makes it back home though, dying during that retreat.
It will be Alaungpaya’s grandson Hsinbyushin who defeats the kingdom of Siam convincingly. The Myanmar troops again invade Siam, this time under the lead of Hsinbyushin and, after a 14-month siege, the Siamese capitol city of Ayutthaya falls to the invaders. Ayutthaya is razed and almost completely destroyed, and the Myanmar armies retreat from Siam, the city is never rebuilt and the Siam kings move to their new capitol of Bangkok.
This dynasty remains strong. It is Bodawpaya, the fifth king in the dynasty, who conquers Arakan to the west and brings the country of Myanmar into contact with the British colonial government. The British at this time already have a secure hold on India and the border clashes by the Myanmar kingdom causes war.
The first Anglo-Burmese War begins in 1824. The war goes well for the British forces and Myanmar is forced to lose territory in the Contract of Yandabo in 1826. Here, Arakan and Tenasserim are surrendered to the British. The Second Anglo-Burmese War breaks out in 1852, when two British captains are arrested by the Burmese and only allowed to leave after a considerable ransom is paid.
The British forces quickly occupy Yangon and much of southern Myanmar. Though no peace is made, the British maintain their occupation of southern Myanmar. In 1853, the King Mindon Min rises to the throne of Myanmar. Peace is maintained with the British during this period, and the capitol is moved to the new city of Mandalay. It is under the reign of Thibaw, which starts in 1878, that war will again break out. Beginning with Thibaw’s reign, relations between the British and Myanmar steadily deteriorate. In 1886 a trade conflict causes the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Again the British win easily. Their troops now add the northern areas of Myanmar to their conquests, bringing the whole of the nation under their control.
Following the conquest of Myanmar by the British forces, the colonial power begins to develop the country’s infrastructure. Actually, British occupation leads to a huge boom in the industrial and economic capacities of the nation. The rice farming area of Myanmar is increased to roughly ten times its previous size and Myanmar becomes one of the largest exporters of rice in the world.
Starting in the 1930’s revolts begin to break out, in isolated areas, against British rule. The revolts are in particular directed at the large number of Indian immigrants the British brought with them as administrators. These administrators eventually brought their families with them and the Burmese people found this influx of immigrants a thing to bind them together over. Many small groups sprung up between 1930 and 1942, all of which seemed to desire independence. One such group was the All Burma Student Movement, under the leadership of Aung San and U Nu.
The British respond by granting slight autonomy to Myanmar in 1936, which up till then had been considered a part of the Indian colony. In 1937 Myanmar is still maintained as a colony, but is completely separated into a separate holding, distinct from that of India. A parliament is established and the Burmese people are given slight self-rule. These advances though, as it was with many British colonies which had been steadily moving towards independence, were halted by the outbreak of World War II.
The Japanese 15th army invades Myanmar in 1942, with the help of a small group of Burmese nationalists; among them are Aung San and his college Ne Win. The British, in their retreat into India use a scorched earth policy, destroying much of the infrastructure that they had funded and the Burmese people had come to rely upon. The Japanese then use the British retreat as a chance to declare Myanmar an independent state. Aung San is made Burmese Minister of War and Ne Win becomes the Chief of the General Staff of the Pro-Japanese Burmese army.
The three years of Japanese rule are accompanied by British attacks. Myanmar had become the battleground for Southeast Asia. As the Japanese loses become clearer across the Pacific, Aung San switches sides and declares himself with the Allies. The Burmese army then supports the re-conquest of Myanmar by the British forces. The Japanese surrender in August 1945 leaves Myanmar back in the British hands. Immediately colonial administration is reinstated, but is met with much resistance by Burmese nationalist forces under Aung San. The Burmese are finally given their independence by the British Prime Minister Atlee in a 1947 conference at London.
Independence and the Modern Era
The first independent parliamentary elections held in 1947 are a landslide victory for Aung San. His AntiFacist People’s Freedom League wins 248 of the 255 seats. The future of Myanmar looks bright under the charismatic and caring leadership of Aung San. Unfortunately on July 19, 1947, Aung San and five of his closest advisors are assassinated by the order of the prewar Prime Minister, U Saw.
The Burmese flag was finally raised over Yangon on January 4, 1948 and the country of Myanmar formally celebrated its independence. U Nu is made the first Prime Minister of the independent state. Within only months though Myanmar has descended into chaos. The subject peoples, the Karen, under pro Communist and Muslim leadership begin large-scale revolts in an attempt to separate their state from Myanmar. Though the Karen people formally declare their independence on May 5, 1948, the Burmese government does not recognize their claim. The smoldering civil war that is fought there continues to destroy stability. In 1951 U Nu finally regains some semblance of control via military action.
Over the next few years, the land still simmers in between open civil war and revolts. The government begins to fracture, and Prime Minister U Nu, in an attempt to maintain power, orders the Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff of the army, Ne Win to create a temporary military government. By 1961, the rebellions reach a peak, with Kachin and Shan in the north in open revolt now.
Within a year, the military has seized control of the government and proceeds to arrest many political minorities then participating in a conference bound to try to peacefully end the struggles in Myanmar. The council is broken up and the parliament disbanded, a 17 member “Revolutionary Council” is set up in the place of Parliament. A month later “The Burmese Way to Socialism” is published, in which Myanmar is sent down a path somewhere between a Marxist and Buddhist state.
In 1958, internal conflicts inside the government party cause U Nu to order the Minister of Defense and Chief of the General Staff of the army, General Ne Win, to create a temporary military government. This arrangement survives until 1972 when Ne Win and 20 of his followers resign their military posts and form a civilian government. Two years later Myanmar is renamed the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma and a new constitution is ratified. Ne Win creates the country’s sole political party, the Burma Socialist Program Party and becomes Head of the State Council and President.
A 1976 coup d'etat attempt by a few army officers fails and the country continues to hobble along under the same leaders. In 1981, Ne Win resigns as President of the State, yet he still remains at the head of the party, thus being the one that makes all ultimate decisions.
Still Myanmar survived in relative stability for a few years, and then began a massive economic downturn. By 1988 the people were fed up and Yangon broke into open demonstrations. Though the government tolerated the demonstrations for a short while, eventually (August 8, 1988) the people were dispersed through military force. It is estimated that in putting down the demonstrations, there were 3000 – 4000 deaths and over 12000 people injured.
The government is taken over by a new military group in September of ‘88. Under General Saw Maung, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) is formed. The new government promises quick elections. Within a year though those promises are put in doubt. Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of Aung San and founder of the National League for Democracy), who had been one of the hardest fighting leaders for free election, is placed under house arrest.
Elections are held though, if only for parliamentary seats. The National League for Democracy wins with 82% of the 13 million votes and gains 392 out of 485 seats in the parliament. Finally in October 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi is given the Nobel Peace Prize and is released from house arrest in June 1995. Upon her release strong restrictions were put on her movements, forcing her to stay in Yangon. She was arrested again in September 2000 when she attempted to leave the city. Hopes seemed dim, but much later it was revealed that secret talks have actually been taking place since October 2002 between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military government through the moderation of the UN.
In May 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi was again released from house arrest again and this time without the restrictions in place. Both sides have pledged to continue negotiations and Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged additionally that democracy will arrive in Myanmar.