Not much is known about the oldest inhabitants of the Ayeyarwady basin. Archaeological findings show that hunters and food gatherers must have lived there as early as around 3000 BC. They were probably negritos (Negritos belong to the semi-nomadic peoples nowadays only found in Southeast Asia), who belonged to the proto-Malays. From the north, these earliest inhabitants of Myanmar were chased away by the Mon and the Pyu in particular a few centuries BC.
Besides the delta of the Ayeyarwady, the Mon settled at the mouths of the Thanlwin and Sittoung rivers. The Mon were rice farmers and called their kingdom, whose capital was Thaton, Savannabhumi, the Golden Land. From Thaton, the Mon traded with peoples on the Indian subcontinent and thus came into contact with Buddhism.
The Pyu came from Tibet or the north-east of India and settled around the year zero in Upper Burma with Sri Ksetra as their capital. This kingdom also traded extensively by sea with countries such as Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka and the island kingdom of Indonesia. The capital of the Pyu was moved to Halin in the north in the 8th century AD. The reason for this was the silting up of the Ayeyarwady, which meant that trade contacts were lost. The Pyu, who already had their own script and currency system, practised Buddhism, mixed with Hindu elements from India. In 832 the capital Halin was destroyed by armies of the Thai kingdom of Nan Chao. All Pyu were taken as slaves to China.
First Burmese Kingdom: The Bagan Dynasty (1044-1287)
The power vacuum created by the demise of the Pyu kingdom was filled by the Burmese. They came from the northwest of China and were driven south by the Chinese. They settled in Nan Chao, in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, and after the fall of the Pyu moved further south. They drove out the Mon and founded the capital of the Burmese Empire, Bagan, in 849.
In 1044, King Anawrahta ascended the throne and this was the beginning of the First Burmese Kingdom. From Bagan, he conquered large tracts of land, which grew into the current Burmese territory, which from then on would be under one central authority. The reign of King Kyanzittha (1084-1112) is known as the Golden Age of the First Burmese Kingdom, during which Bagan was dotted with thousands of monasteries, pagodas and temples. During the reign of the last king of the Bagan dynasty, Narathihapati (1254-1287), the First Burmese Kingdom fell into decline. The gigantic efforts put into the many constructions depleted the treasury. Moreover, Narathihapati was a tyrannical leader, resulting in rebellions throughout the country.
In 1283, Kublai Khan's Mongols invaded northern Burma after Narathihapati refused to pay due assessments. Narathihapati fled and wanted to surrender to Kublai Khan. By this action, he lost the last respect of his people and was killed by his own son. The Mongols then occupied the capital and the First Burmese Kingdom came to an end.
After the fall of Bagan, a very restless period followed, especially in the north of the country. The Mongols soon withdrew and all sorts of small states immediately formed that were constantly at war with each other. The Shan occupied large areas of the lowlands and ruled over a large part of Upper Burma, with Ava as its capital since 1364. However, the Shan Empire was also far from united and the central authority was unable to keep warring factions apart at all times. Rebellions against the central authority also occurred regularly.
The Mon, whose founder was Wareru (1287-1296), founded the kingdom of Hanthawady in the south, the most famous being King Dhammazedi (1472-1492). During his reign, Buddhism experienced a revival. Between the two new kingdoms was a small Burmese state, with Toungoo as its capital, founded by the Burmese leader Thinhakaba (1347-1358). Here lived mainly refugees who had fled the constant violence of war in the north. Toungoo was to play an important role in Burma's history in the 16th century and developed into the Second Burmese Empire.
The Toungoo dynasty (1531-1752)
The founder of the Toungoo dynasty was King Tabinshwehti (1531-1551), who cleverly managed to take advantage of the Shan-Mon disputes. In 1539, he took Bago, the capital of the Mon kingdom of Hanthawady, and proclaimed it the capital of his own kingdom. Not long afterwards he took Tanintharyi in the south and Pyay in the centre of the country. In 1546 he proclaimed himself king of all Burma, although the north remained in the hands of the Shan.
The real founder of the Second Burmese Kingdom was King Bayinnaung (1551-1581), who succeeded in defeating the Shan and reuniting Upper and Lower Burma into one kingdom. After a dispute over a white elephant, he captured the Siamese (now Thailand) capital Ayutthaya in 1555.
After Bayinnaung's death, the Second Burmese Kingdom slowly declined. In 1635 the capital Bago was moved to Ava to stop the increasing influence of western maritime powers, a self-chosen isolation.
In 1740 the Burmese were driven out of the south by the Mon and in 1752 they conquered Ava, bringing an end to the Second Burmese Kingdom. Ava became the new capital.
Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885)
By 1753, the Mon rule had ended. Alaungpaya (1752-1760) of the Burmese state of Shwebo conquered Ava, crowned himself king and became the founder of the Konbaung dynasty. He conquered all the territories of the Mon and founded the Third Burmese Kingdom. In 1755, Alaungpaya captured the city of Dagon in the Ayeyarwady delta and renamed it Yangon.
The Kobaung dynasty took a very aggressive stance against its neighbours, especially Siam (later Thailand). This cost Alaungpaya his life, however, when he was wounded during the siege of the Siamese capital Ayutthaya in 1760. Alaungpaya was succeeded by his son Hsinbyushin (1763-1776), who continued his father's policy and took Ayutthaya in 1767 and then totally destroyed it.
Under the long reign of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819), the Third Burmese Kingdom reached the height of its power with Amarapura as its capital. In 1784, Bodawpaya conquered the kingdom of Arakan (now Rakhine). The Burmese empire thus bordered on the British Indian subcontinent and this would ultimately lead to a number of Anglo-Burmese wars, which were fatal for Burma..
Wars between Burma and Great Britain
The enslavement of Arakan by the Burmese brought many refugees. Many fled to the British-occupied Bengal (now Bangladesh), from where they launched attacks on the Burmese army in Arakan. In response, the Burmese army pursued the rebels into Bengal, which the British did not like very much, to say the least. Things escalated under King Bagyidaw (1819-1837), which led to the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824, which Burma lost without a chance. Moreover, by the Treaty of Yandabi in 1826 they had to cede Arakan and Tenasserim to the British, who thus gained control over the Bay of Bengal.
After King Bagyidaw, the rulers Tharawaddy Min (1837-1846) and Pagan Min (1846-1853) were mainly engaged in eliminating many thousands of opponents. The arrest of two British ship captains by the Burmese was used by the British to start the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. In reality, the British wanted nothing more and nothing less than to further expand their power in Asia. First they occupied key port cities and then the whole of Lower Burma was conquered and added as a province to the British-Indian empire. Pagan Min was deposed by the British and succeeded by Mindon (1853-1878), who normalised relations with the British and set about developing the country. The capital at that time was Mandalay.
Under Mindon's weak successor, Thibaw (1878-1885), the Third Anglo-Burmese War broke out. One of the reasons for this was Thibaw's rapprochement with the French, which could become dangerous for the British East Indies. Mandalay was taken without much trouble and on 1 January 1886 Burma was completely under the colonial administration of the British.
Burma under British rule (1886-1948)
Under the colonial administration of the British, the economy made great strides: roads, railways and factories were built at a rapid pace. The manpower for this was brought from India to Burma, in particular to Yangon, Burma's capital since 1886. Money traders (chettyars) from India got hold of a lot of agricultural land by giving the Burmese people non-repayable loans. The British also governed Burma using the successful divide and rule policy. This meant that in areas where the Burmese formed the majority, the British formed the government. In minority areas, the population was under the authority of British-loyal Burmese leaders. This policy naturally intensified nationalistic feelings among the Burmese, which led in 1906 to the founding of the nationalistic movement Young Men Buddhist Association (YMBA), which focused mainly on the disrespectful behaviour of the British towards Buddhism. The 1930s saw many more protest movements and uprisings in both the cities and the countryside. A peasant uprising in 1930 was put down by the British with a great deal of money. The students, especially in Yangon, also made themselves heard. Among others, they founded the association Dobama ('We Burmese'), from which the later Burmese leaders Aung San and U Nu emerged. The British were now somewhat forthcoming and gave the Burmese a limited form of self-government with the proclamation of the 'Government of Burma Act' in 1935. Things then moved quickly: in 1936 the first elections for a Burmese parliament were held and in 1937 the administrative separation from the British East Indies followed. The first government was led by Dr Ba Maw. However, there was still no question of complete independence; the British were still very harsh on supporters.
In January 1942, Japanese troops invaded Burma from Thailand and sucked the country into World War II. The Japanese received help from the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), which was led by the nationalist Aug San. The main objective of the Japanese was to close the Burma Road, over which the Chinese troops in South China were supplied. In May 1942 this plan succeeded and not long afterwards the British-Indian army withdrew from Burma to India.
Burmese nationalists initially supported the Japanese occupying forces. They saw independence coming closer now that the British had sounded the retreat. In August 1943, the Japanese did indeed declare Burma independent, with a cabinet led by Ba Maw and Aug San as Minister of Defence. However, this soon turned out to be a puppet government; the real power still rested with the Japanese, who were also increasingly ruthless and cruel to the Burmese people.
Nationalist elements now turned against the Japanese occupiers and founded the resistance movement 'Antifascist League for the Liberation of the People'. In March 1945, Aug San and the BIA also joined the Allies and together they conquered Yangon. In July 1945, the Japanese surrendered.
After the Japanese surrender, the League was the most important political movement. Of course, they made use of the momentum by immediately demanding independence from the British. The British initially remained obstructive, but after a general strike in September 1946 they finally gave in. In January 1947, Aung San and British Prime Minister Atlee agreed that a constitutional assembly would be held that same year and that Burma would be fully independent within a year. In February, consultations were held in Panglong between Aung San and the leaders of ethnic minorities. Everyone voted for a unified Burma, but with autonomy for the minorities and the right to secede after ten years. In April, as agreed, elections for the Constituent Assembly followed. These were won by the League and a provisional government came into being, led by Aung San. This government was to lead the country to independence, but first suffered a major setback. On 17 July 1947, Aug San and six ministers were assassinated, but there was no turning back in the process towards independence.
Burma independent under the U Nu government (1948-1962)
On 4 January 1948, Burma officially became independent and the first prime minister was the chairman of the AFPFL, U Nu. The first official government immediately faced difficulties. Communist rebels and insurgent minorities threatened the new government. However, the rebels were so divided that by 1951 the government had the situation somewhat under control again. Another problem was the very poor economic situation. The Second World War and the fight against the rebels had cost so much money that Burma was on the verge of bankruptcy.
The political situation remained fairly stable until 1958, when there was a split in the AFPFL. Because elections were not scheduled until 1960, U Nu asked General Ne Win, the commander-in-chief of the army, to form an interim government. This military interim government managed to govern the country reasonably well until the elections in February 1960. The elections were won by U Nu, who again became Prime Minister. However, the economy collapsed again and the ethnic minorities threatened to secede. The situation became so serious that General Ne Win could not stand it any longer and staged a military coup on 2 March 1962.
Burma under Ne Win (1962-1988)
General Ne Win took no half measures: the 1947 Constitution was abolished, parliament dissolved and U Nu and a number of ministers arrested. Ne Win himself became Chairman of the Revolutionary Council, which took power. The only party tolerated was the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). The Council was also given full authority over the economy, but this turned out to be fatally flawed.
The new economic policy plunged the country into a deep depression. Outside help was not accepted, the borders were closed and Burma isolated itself from the rest of the world. In the new constitution of 1974, the Revolutionary Council was abolished and replaced by a State Council, which was again chaired by Ne Win, who also became president of Burma. The name of the country was changed to 'Socialist Republic of Burma Union'.
From 1974 to 1981, Burma was plagued by strikes and student demonstrations in response to its disastrous economic policies. As a result, Ne Win surprisingly withdrew as Chairman of the State Council, but he remained as Chairman of the BSPP and effectively pulled all the strings behind the scenes.
Monetary measures to curb inflation, which was getting out of hand, however, led to major unrest, which got completely out of hand in 1988. The death of several students, caused by the army, led to numerous demonstrations which the army put down with a very heavy hand. To prevent further escalation, Ne Win resigned from his position in July, but that did not help. As his successor, Sein Lwin, the head of the hated riot police, was appointed Chairman of the State Council.
On 8 August 1988 the situation escalated completely. Demonstrations in several cities ended in bloodshed when the army unexpectedly opened fire on the demonstrators. Weeks of total chaos followed, until on 18 September 1988 General Saw Maung staged a coup, with or without Ne Win's knowledge. The new military junta called itself State Law and Order Restoration (SLORC) and almost immediately changed the name of Burma to the Union of Myanmar.
Period SLORC (1988-1997)
Measures taken immediately by the SLORC included a ban on demonstrations, a ban on gathering, and a curfew. The junta also promised that elections would be held soon. The demonstrations continued unabated in the first days after the military seized power, and hundreds more died. The opposition united in the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Generals Aung Gyi and Tin U. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, the founder of independent Burma, became the opposition's most important spokesperson. In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In September 1988, the NLD registered as a political party, with the intention of participating in the 1990 elections. Aung San Suu Kyi's popularity quickly grew, leading the junta to place her under house arrest for the first time in July 1989. The first free elections in 30 years were won by the NLD on 27 May 1990 with 82% of the vote, but little changed for the time being. According to the SLORC, the elections were only intended to convene a National Convention to draft a new constitution.
Power would remain in SLORC hands until the new constitution was promulgated, and that soon became clear. Hundreds of elected opposition members were thrown in jail and many others fled to Thailand to set up a counter-government. In April 1992, Saw Maung resigned as Prime Minister and was succeeded by Than Shwe, who relaxed his grip.
In January 1993, the 700-member National Convention finally met. The problem, however, was that the majority of the members had been appointed by SLORC while the members of the NLD were a strong minority. The task of the convention was therefore that the army should remain the determining factor in the political constitution of the country. A special requirement was that the future president should not be (or have been) married to a foreigner. This provision was clearly created to take the wind out of the sails of Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been married to a Briton.
Between 1989 and 1994, a ceasefire was agreed with various resistance groups, in return for which they were granted a limited degree of autonomy and some other small favours. Because of the divisions that existed between the many resistance groups, the resistance was not much of a threat to the government. In 1995, the Karen National Union (KNU) was the main armed resistance group, but in January of that year its headquarters in the city of Manerplaw were captured by the government army.
Period SPDC (1997-now)
In November 1997, the SLORC brought some internal order. The SLORC was dissolved and replaced by a 19-member State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). However, little changed in terms of policy and Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, was boycotted in every possible way and restricted in her freedom of movement, including being placed under house arrest on several occasions.
In March 2002, a number of Ne Win's relatives were arrested on charges of high treason. The whys and wherefores of this action have never been clarified, but in any case it meant that Ne Win's role in the incumbent regime was over. Until May 2003 things were fairly calm in Myanmar. The house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi was lifted once again and many opposition members were released from prison. On 30 May of that year, after a clash between the opposition and the government, Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned and all NLD offices were closed.
In August 2003, the head of military intelligence, Khin Nyunt, was appointed prime minister. He too promised the population democratic change, but this too came to nothing. In October 2004, following tensions within the junta over democratic reforms, he was dismissed as Prime Minister and in 2005 was sentenced to 44 years' suspended imprisonment, which was effectively life imprisonment. He was succeeded by Soe Win, a military officer and confidant of Than Shwe, the de facto boss in Myanmar. In November 2004, Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest was extended by a year, but thousands of unjustly imprisoned opposition members were released. At the same time, the government moved to the new capital of Pyinmama, which is located some 400 km north of Yangon. Nearby, the junta built a new government town with its own airport, Naypyidaw. On 27 March 2006, Armed Forces Day was held there for the first time, when General Than Shwe once again stressed that only the army could bring democracy to Myanmar.
At the end of September 2007, a protest movement was launched by a growing number of Buddhist monks. With non-violent marches they expressed their desire for a democratically governed country. After a few days, many civilians joined them, not only to support their call but also to protect them from possible military violence by the junta. An estimated 25,000 to 50,000 people took part in the protests in several major cities.
This placed the government in a major dilemma. In Myanmar, the monks have a very high, almost sacred status and great authority where moral values are concerned. Without intervention, their action could lead to major, possibly uncontrollable disturbances throughout the country. However, suppressing the movement (by force) could lead to the same thing. On 26 September, the army did intervene when the protesting crowd tried to reach the Sule Pagoda in Yangon. According to reports, five people were killed and, earlier that day, about 200 monks and civilians were arrested in Yangon. On 27 September, security forces in Myanmar stormed at least two monasteries in Yangon. An estimated 200 monks were arrested, and later in the afternoon nine people were killed. On 1 October, reports emerged of thousands of deaths and mass executions by the army. According to eye witnesses, hundreds of monks 'disappeared'. According to defecting officers, many monks were forced into trucks to be executed in the jungle. Many others were trapped in their monasteries and in Yangon University, which had been converted into a prison complex.
In October 2007, peace returned to some extent in Yangon, watched by a large number of soldiers. In January 2008, several bombs exploded throughout the country. The state media blamed the explosion on the Karen National Union (KNU), a group fighting for greater autonomy for the ethnic Karen. In April the government published a new constitution, in which a quarter of the seats in parliament were given to the military.
In May 2008 a cyclone hit Myanmar, killing more than 100,000 people. The relief effort was difficult, and the rulers allowed very little aid under many conditions. Despite the state of emergency in the country, a referendum was held on the new constitution. According to the government, 92% of the population voted in favour of the new constitution. Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest was extended again in August 2009 after allegations that she violated house arrest rules because of an uninvited visit by an American. In October 2009, Aung San Suu Kyi speaks with military leaders and is allowed to meet with Western diplomats. In March 2010, the authorities announced that the election law had been passed. In November 2010, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released after 15 years of alternating prison and house arrest. In March 2011, Thein Sein became president of Myanmar. In December 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. In November 2012, Obama visited Myanmar. In July 2013, President Thein Sein says that all political prisoners will be released soon. In April 2014, there is fighting with Kachin rebels in the north. In May 2014, the US extends some sanctions because despite progress, the army's influence remains too great. In November 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party wins the parliamentary elections. In March 2016, Htin Kyaw becomes the new president, bringing an end to more than 50 years of military dominance. The year 2017 is marked by the Rohyngia crisis, this Muslim minority is persecuted by the army and more than a million Rohyngia' s flee to neighbouring Bangladesh where they live in miserable conditions in camps. In November 2017, Pope Francis visited Myanmar but he disappointed the Rohyngia by not talking about them.
The military gives no support in 2019 to explore reform of the 2008 military constitution. The 2020 elections, which will see further gains for the NLD, are labelled fraudulent by the military. Supreme Leader General Min Aung Hlaing stages a coup in February 2021. Myanmar returns to authoritarian rule. Aung San Suu Kyi is arrested.
Hulst, H. / Birma: (Myanmar)
KIT Publishers/Oxfam Novib
Köllner, H. / Myanmar (Birma)
Myat Yin, S. / Burma
Peterse, L. / Birma (Myanmar)
Reid, R. / Myanmar (Burma)
CIA - World Factbook
BBC - Country Profiles
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