Myanmar was ruled with an iron fist long before the current regime came to power. From the early 19th century until WWII, the insatiable machine that was the British Empire held sway over Burma. Before the British, there were the kings of old, who rose to power by eliminating rivals with claims to the throne. Tracing the conflicts back to the 9th century, we find the Himalayan Bamar people, who comprise two-thirds of the population, at war with the Tibetan Plateau’s Mon people. The fight went on for so long that by the time the Bamar came out on top, the two cultures had effectively merged.
The 11th-century Bamar king Anawrahta converted the land to Theravada Buddhism, and inaugurated what many consider to be its golden age. He used his war spoils to build the first temples at Bagan (Pagan). Stupa after stupa sprouted under successive kings, but the vast money and effort poured into their construction weakened the kingdom. Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes swept through Bagan in 1287, hastening Myanmar’s decline into the dark ages.
There’s not much known about the centuries that followed. History picks up again with the arrival of the Europeans – first the Portuguese, in the 16th century, and then the British, who had already colonised India and were looking for more territory in the East. In three moves (1824, 1852 and 1885), the British took over all of Myanmar. The Burmese king and queen were exiled to India and their grand palace at Mandalay was looted and used as a barracks to quarter British and Indian troops.
The colonial era wrought great changes in Myanmar’s demographics and infrastructure. Large numbers of Indians were brought in to work as civil servants, and Chinese were encouraged to immigrate and stimulate trade. The British built railways and ports, and many British companies grew wealthy trading in teak and rice. Many Burmese were unhappy with the colonial status quo. A nationalist movement developed, and there were demonstrations, often led, in true Burmese fashion, by Buddhist monks. Two famous nationalist monks, U Ottama and U Wizaya, died in a British prison and are revered to this day.
During WWII, the Japanese, linked with the Burmese Independence Army (BIA), drove the British out of Myanmar and declared it an independent country. But the Japanese were able to maintain Burmese political support for only a short time before their harsh and arrogant conduct alienated the Burmese people. Towards the end of the war, the Burmese switched sides and fought with the Allies to drive out the Japanese.
Bogyoke Aung San emerged from the haze of war as the country’s natural leader. An early activist for nationalism, then defence minister in the Burma National Army, Aung San was the man to hold the country together through the transition to independence. When elections were held in 1947, Aung San’s party won an overwhelming majority. But before he could take office, he was assassinated by a rival, along with most of his cabinet. Independence followed in 1948, with Aung San’s protégé U Nu at the helm. Ethnic conflicts raged and chaos ensued.
In 1962 General Ne Win led a left-wing army takeover and set the country on the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. He nationalised everything, including retail shops, and quickly crippled the country’s economy. By 1987 it had reached a virtual standstill, and the long-suffering Burmese people decided they’d had enough of their incompetent government. In early 1988, they packed the streets and there were massive confrontations between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military that resulted in an estimated 3000 deaths over a six-week period. Once again, monks were at the helm. They turned their alms bowls upside down (the Buddhist symbol of condemnation) and insisted that Ne Win had to go. He finally did, in July 1988, but he retained a vestige of his old dictatorial power from behind the scenes.
The shaken government quickly formed the Orwellian-sounding Slorc (State Law and Order Restoration Council), declared martial law and promised to hold democratic elections in May 1989. The opposition, led by Bogyoke Aung San’s charismatic daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, organised an opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Around the same time, Slorc changed the country’s official name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar, claiming ‘Burma’ was a vestige of European colonialism.
While the Burmese population rallied around the NLD, the Slorc grew increasingly nervous. It placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and postponed the election. In spite of this and other dirty tactics, the NLD won more than 85% of the vote. Sore losers, Slorc refused to allow the NLD to assume its parliamentary seats and arrested most of the party leadership.
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and was finally released from house arrest in July 1995. She was arrested again in 2000 and held in her home until the UN brokered her unconditional release in May 2002. She was rearrested in May 2003 and released in November 2010 by the military authorities. During her arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi continually refused offers of freedom in exchange for exile from the country and, despite an ongoing debate in the pro-democracy movement over future strategy, her stature throughout Myanmar is as great as ever. In moves symbolic of the positive momentum in the country, in 2011 Suu Kyi left Yangon for the first time in eight years, and in May 2012 Suu Kyi entered the lower house of the Burmese parliament as an MP. Much more remains to be done, but the hope is that decades of isolation may be coming to an end.