A succession of major ethnic groups have held sway down the ages across the territory that now makes up Myanmar, with the Bamar only coming into prominence in the 11th century. Civil war erupted between minority groups after independence from British colonial rule in 1948; on the fringes of the nation, the unrest continues today. The country is now emerging from nearly 50 years of military rule into an era of democracy and economic growth.
The Earliest Inhabitants
Archaeologists believe humans have lived in the region as far back as 75,000 BC.
In 2003 a 45-million-year-old fossil (possibly the anklebone of a large ape-like animal) was found in central Myanmar that might just prove the area to be the birthplace of all humans. The implication of this research is that our primate ancestors may have had Asian rather than African origins.
There's no debate that 2500 years ago the area was a key land link between traders from China, India and the Middle East. Ancient Greeks knew of the country, too.
The First Burmese Empire
Bagan was nearly 200 years old when its 'golden period' kicked off – signalled by the energetic, can-do King Anawrahta taking the throne in 1044. His conquest of the Mon kingdom and the adoption of Buddhism inspired a creative energy in Bagan. It quickly became a city of glorious temples and the capital of the First Burmese Empire.
Anawrahta's successors (Kyanzittha, Alaungsithu and Htilominlo) lacked his vision, and the kingdom's power slowly declined. In 1273 King Narathihapate made the diplomatic mistake of offending the growing power of Kublai Khan by executing his envoys. When the Mongols invaded in 1287, Narathihapate fled south to Pyay (Prome) where he committed suicide.
In the ensuing chaos, Shan tribes (closely related to the Siamese) from the hills to the east grabbed a piece of the low country, while the Mon in the south broke free of Bamar control and re-established their own kingdom.
The Second Burmese Empire
It would be another 200 years before the Bamar were able to regroup to found their second empire. During this time, a settlement of Bamar refugees in central Taungoo survived between the Mon to the south and the Shan to the north and east, by playing the larger forces off against each other.
In the 16th century, a series of Taungoo kings extended their power north, nearly to the Shan's capital at Inwa, then south, taking the Mon kingdom and shifting their own capital to Bago. In 1550 Bayinnaung came to the throne, reunified all of Burma and defeated the neighbouring Siamese so convincingly that it was many years before the long-running friction between the two nations resurfaced.
Following Bayinnaung's death in 1581, the Bamar's power again declined. The capital was shifted north to Inwa in 1636. Its isolation from the sea – effectively cutting off communication around the kingdom – ultimately contributed to Myanmar's defeat by the British.
The Third Burmese Empire
With all the subtlety of a kick to the groin, King Alaungpaya launched the third and final Burmese dynasty by contesting the Mon when the latter took over Inwa in 1752. Some say Alaungpaya's sense of invincibility deluded the Burmese into thinking they could resist the British later on.
After Alaungpaya's short and bloody reign, his son Hsinbyushin charged into Thailand and levelled Ayuthaya, forcing the Siamese to relocate their capital to what would eventually become Bangkok. Hsinbyushin's successor, Bodawpaya (another son of Alaungpaya), looked for glory too, and brought the Rakhine under Burmese control. This eventually led to tension with the British (who had economic interests in Rakhine territory) that the dynasty would not outlive.
Wars with the British
With eyes on fresh markets and supply sources in Southeast Asia, Britain wrested all of Burma in three decisive swipes. In the First, Second and Third Anglo-Burmese Wars they picked up Tanintharyi (Tenasserim) and Rakhine (Arakan) in 1824, Yangon (Rangoon) and southern Burma in 1853, and Mandalay and northern Burma in 1885.
The first war started when Burmese troops, ordered by King Bagyidaw, crossed into British-controlled Assam (in India) from Rakhine to pursue refugees. General Maha Bandula managed some minor victories using guerrilla tactics, but eventually was killed by cannon fire in 1824. Burmese troops then surrendered. The Treaty of Yandabo, helped by missionary translator Adoniram Judson (whose name is still on many Baptist churches in Myanmar), gave Rakhine and Tenasserim to the British.
Two Burmese kings later, Bagan Min started his reign in the same manner that many did: with mass executions to rid the capital of his potential rivals. An 1852 incident involving the possible kidnapping of two British sea captains (some argue it never happened) gave the British a welcome excuse for igniting another conflict, and an opportunity for more land. The British quickly seized all of southern Burma, including Yangon and Pathein (Bassein). They then marched north to Pyay (Prome), facing little opposition.
The Final Two Kings
The unpopular Bagan Min was ousted in favour of the more capable and revered Mindon Min, who moved the capital to Mandalay. Palace intrigues, including the murder of Mindon's powerful half-brother by Mindon's own sons, stayed the king's hand in naming his successor. When Mindon suddenly died following an attack of dysentery in 1878, the new (rather reluctant) king, Thibaw Min, was propelled to power by his ruthless wife and scheming mother-in-law. The following massive 'massacre of kinsmen' (79 of Thibaw Min's rivals) made many British papers. Alas, previous kings hadn't had to face the consequences of world media attention, and this act did little to generate public backlash in the UK against Britain's final, decisive war against the Burmese.
In 1885 it took Britain just two weeks to conquer Upper Burma, exile Thibaw and his court to India, and establish control over all the country. Direct colonial rule was implemented only where the Bamar were the majority (ie in the central plains). The hill states of the Chin, Kachin, Shan, Kayin and Kayah were allowed to remain largely autonomous – a decision that would have ramifications in the run-up to independence in 1948 and beyond.
The Impact of British Rule
Burma was henceforth administered as part of 'British India'. Indian immigrants flooded into the country, acting like second colonisers, building businesses and taking rare, low-level government jobs from the hostile indigenous population. In 1927 the majority of Yangon's population was Indian. Chinese immigration was also encouraged, further subjugating and marginalising the Burmese people.
Cheap British imports poured in, fuelled by rice profits. Many key cities and towns were renamed by the British with Yangon becoming Rangoon, Pyay becoming Prome and Bagan renamed Pagan.
Much of Burma was considered a hardship posting by British colonial officials, who found the locals difficult to govern. On the other hand, many of the British officials were incompetent and insensitive, and refused to honour local customs such as removing shoes to enter temples, thus causing grave offence to the majority Buddhist population. Inflamed by opposition to colonial rule, unemployment and the undercutting of the traditional educational role of Buddhist monasteries, the country had the highest crime rate in the British Empire.
Rise of Nationalism
Burmese nationalism burgeoned in the early days of the 20th century, often led by Buddhist monks. University students in Yangon went on strike on National Day in 1920, protesting elitist entrance requirements at British-built universities. The students referred to each other as thakin (master), as they claimed to be the rightful masters of Burma. One thakin – a young man called Aung San – was expelled from university in 1936 for refusing to reveal the author of a politically charged article.
Growing demands for self-government and opposition to colonial rule eventually forced the British to make a number of concessions. In 1937 Burma was separated administratively from India and a new legislative council including elected Burmese ministers was formed. However, the country continued to be torn by a struggle between opposing political parties and sporadic outbursts of anti-Indian and anti-Chinese violence.
Aung San & WWII
More famous in the West as Aung San Suu Kyi's father, Bogyoke (General) Aung San is revered as a national hero and his likeness is seen throughout the country. He was born in Natmauk in Burma's central zone on 13 February 1915, the youngest of six children in a farming family.
An intelligent child, Aung San went on to study at Rangoon University. Here he edited the newspaper and led the All Burma Students' Union. At 26 years old, he and the group called the Thirty Comrades looked abroad for support for their independence movement. Although initially planning to seek an alliance with China, they ended up negotiating with Japan and receiving military training there. The Thirty Comrades became the first troops of the Burmese National Army (BNA) and returned to Burma with the invading Japanese troops in 1941.
By mid-1942 the Japanese had driven retreating British-Indian forces, along with the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT), out of most of Burma. But the conduct of the Japanese troops was starting to alienate the Burmese. Aung San complained at Japan's 15th Army headquarters in Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin): 'I went to Japan to save my people who were struggling like bullocks under the British. But now we are treated like dogs'.
Aung San and the BNA switched allegiance to the Allied side in March 1945. Their assistance, along with brave behind-enemy-lines operations by the Chindits, an Allied Special Force, helped the British prevail over the Japanese in Burma two months later. Aung San and his colleagues now had a chance to dictate postwar terms for their country.
In January 1947 Aung San visited London as the colony's deputy chairperson of the Governor's Executive Council. Meeting with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, a pact was agreed, under which Burma would gain self-rule within a year.
A month later, Aung San met with Shan, Chin and Kachin leaders in Panglong, in Shan State. They signed the famous Panglong Agreement in February 1947, guaranteeing ethnic minorities the freedom to choose their political destiny if dissatisfied with the situation after 10 years. The agreement also broadly covered absent representatives of the Kayin, Kayah, Mon and Rakhine.
In the elections for the assembly, Aung San's Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) won an overwhelming 172 seats out of 225. The Burmese Communist Party took seven, while the Bamar opposition, led by U Saw, took three. (U Saw was Burma's prime minister between 1939 and 1942, and was exiled to Uganda for the rest of WWII for secretly communicating with the Japanese following a failed attempt to gain British agreement to Burmese home rule.) The remaining 69 seats were split between ethnic minorities, including four seats for the Anglo-Burman community.
On 19 July 1947, 32-year-old Aung San and six aides were gunned down in a plot ascribed to U Saw. Some speculate that the military was involved, due to Aung San's plans to demilitarise the government. Apparently U Saw thought he'd walk into the prime minister's role with Aung San gone; instead he took the noose, when the British had him hanged for the murders in 1948.
U Nu & Early Woes
While Myanmar mourned the death of a hero, Prime Minister Attlee and Aung San's protégé, U Nu, signed an agreement for the transfer of power in October 1947. On 4 January 1948, at an auspicious middle-of-the-night hour, Burma became independent and left the British Commonwealth.
Almost immediately, the new government led by U Nu had to contend with the complete disintegration of the country, involving rebels, communists, gangs and (US-supported) anticommunist Chinese KMT forces.
The hill-tribe people, who had supported the British and fought against the Japanese throughout the war, were distrustful of the Bamar majority and took up armed opposition. The communists withdrew from the government and attacked it. Muslims from the Rakhine area also opposed the new government. The Mon, long thought to be totally integrated with the Burmese, revolted. Assorted factions, private armies, WWII resistance groups and plain mutineers further confused the picture.
In early 1949 almost the entire country was in the hands of a number of rebel groups, and there was even fighting in Yangon's suburbs. At one stage the government was on the point of surrendering to the communist forces, but gradually fought back. Through 1950 and 1951 it regained control of much of the country.
With the collapse of Chiang Kai-Shek's KMT forces to those of Mao Zedong, the tattered remnants of the KMT withdrew into northern Burma and mounted raids from there into Yunnan, China. But being no match for the Chinese communists, the KMT decided to carve their own little fiefdom out of Burmese territory.
The First Military Government
By the mid-1950s the government had strengthened its hold on the country, but the economy slipped from bad to worse. U Nu managed to remain in power until 1958, when he voluntarily handed the reins over to a caretaker military government under General Ne Win. Considering the pride most of the country had in the Burmese army, which had helped bring independence, this was seen as a welcome change.
Freed from the 'democratic' responsibilities inherent in a civilian government, Ne Win was able to make some excellent progress during the 15 months his military government operated. A degree of law and order was restored, rebel activity was reduced, and Yangon was given a massive and much-needed clean-up.
In The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U writes that Ne Win's first period of government was considered by some 'the most effective and efficient in modern Burmese history'. Sadly, the same would not be true for the general's second, much more extended, stint at Burma's helm.
The Burmese Road to Socialism
Free elections were held in December 1960 and the charismatic U Nu regained power with a much-improved majority, partly through a policy of making Buddhism the state religion. This, and politically destabilising moves by various ethnic minorities to leave the Union of Burma, resulted in an army coup in March 1962.
U Nu, along with his main ministers, was thrown into prison, where he remained until he was forced into exile in 1966. Ne Win established a 17-member Revolutionary Council and announced that the country would 'march towards socialism in our own Burmese way', confiscating most private property and handing it over to military-run state corporations.
Nationalisation resulted in everyday commodities becoming available only on the black market, and vast numbers of people being thrown out of work. Ne Win also banned international aid organisations, foreign-language publications and local, privately owned newspapers and political parties. The net result was that by 1967 a country that had been the largest exporter of rice in the world prior to WWII was now unable to feed itself.
Riots & Street Protests
Opposition to Ne Win's government eventually bubbled over into a strike by oil workers and others in May 1974 and, later that same year, riots over what was seen as the inappropriate burial of former UN secretary-general U Thant in Yangon. Responding with gunfire and arrests, the government regained control and doggedly continued to run the country – further impoverishing the people with successive demonetisations.
In late 1981 Ne Win retired as president of the republic, retaining his position as chair of the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), the country's only legal political party under the 1974 constitution. But his successor, San Yu, and the government remained very much under the influence of Ne Win's political will.
In 1988 the people again took to the streets en masse, insisting that Ne Win had to go. Public protests reached a climax on the auspicious date of 8 August 1988 (8-8-88), after which the government steadily moved to crush all opposition, killing an estimated 3000 and imprisoning more. Tens of thousands, mainly students, fled the country.
Slorc Holds an Election
In September 1988 a military coup (widely thought to have had the blessing of Ne Win) saw the formation of the State Law & Order Restoration Council (Slorc) and the promise to hold a multiparty election within three months.
Although 235 parties contested the election (which was delayed until May 1990), the clear front runner from the start was the National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD was led by several former generals, along with Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of hero Aung San), who had made such a public impression at rallies during the 1988 protests.
In the run-up to the election, Slorc tried to appease the masses with construction programs, adding a coat of paint to many buildings in Yangon and abandoning socialism in favour of a capitalist economy. In 1989 it changed the name of the country to Myanmar, then placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and detained many other prodemocracy leaders.
Convinced it had effectively dealt with the opposition, the government went ahead with the country's first election in 30 years. The voter turnout – 72.59% – was the highest in Myanmar's history. The result was a resounding victory for the NLD, which took 392 of the 485 contested seats (or about 60% of the vote), with the military-backed National Unity Party gaining just 10 seats with just over 25% of the vote.
NLD Under Attack
Slorc barred the elected members of parliament from assuming power, decreeing that a state-approved constitution had to be passed by national referendum first. In October 1990 the military raided NLD offices and arrested key leaders. Five years later Slorc deemed it safe enough to release Aung San Suu Kyi; at the same time, many other high-level dissidents, including the NLD's Tin U and Kyi Maung, were also released from prison.
In May and September 1996, a congress of NLD members was held in a bold political gambit to show that the party was still an active force. The military junta responded by detaining hundreds who attended the congress; the street leading to Suu Kyi's residence was also blockaded, prohibiting her from making speeches at her residence.
In 1998 Suu Kyi attempted to leave Yangon to meet with supporters, but was blocked by the military and forcibly returned to the city. A second attempt to drive to Mandalay in September 2000 again saw the Lady (as she is affectionately known) detained at a military roadblock and later placed under house arrest. Save for barely a year (between 6 May 2002 and 30 May 2003), she would spend the next decade shut away from the public.
Than Shwe Takes Over
Due to the tourism boycott launched by the NLD and others, there was a disappointing turnout for the junta's official 'Visit Myanmar Year 1996'. Increased sanctions from the West led the government to seek other sources of income: namely trade with China, India and Thailand.
Khin Nyunt, feared head of military intelligence, became prime minister in 2003. The man known as the Prince of Darkness took the lead on the junta's seven-step 'roadmap towards discipline-flourishing democracy'. But only a year later hard-liner Senior General Than Shwe ousted Khin Nyunt and many of his fellow intelligence officers; at a secret trial, Khin Nyunt was sentenced to 44 years in jail.
Than Shwe initially promised to continue the transition to democracy, but instead his activity showed a focus on negotiating multimillion-dollar trade deals with China, India and Thailand, and importing weapons and military know-how from Russia and North Korea.
In 2005 an entirely new capital city was created in the arid fields near Pyinmana. The junta named the city-in-the-making Nay Pyi Taw (Royal Capital), leaving little doubt that Than Shwe's strategies and inspirations were aligned less with the modern world than with Burmese kings of centuries past.
The 'Saffron Revolution'
In mid-2007 natural gas prices rose by 500% (and petrol by 200%), leading to price hikes for everything from local bus tickets to rice. In late August a group of '1988 generation' protestors were arrested for staging a march against the inflation. On 5 September, when monks denounced the price hikes in a demonstration in Pakokku, the protests escalated. The military responded with gunfire and allegedly beat one monk to death.
In response, the All Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA) was formed, denouncing the ruling government as an 'evil military dictatorship' and refusing to accept alms from military officials (a practice called pattam mikkujana kamma). By 17 September, marches were happening daily, swelling in numbers across major cities, including Yangon, Mandalay, Meiktila and Sittwe.
Unexpectedly, monk-led crowds were allowed to pray with Aung San Suu Kyi from outside her house gates on 22 September. Two days later, anything from 50,000 to 150,000 protestors marched through the streets of Yangon in what would become known as the Saffron Revolution. All the while the government watched, photographing participants.
On 26 September, the army began shooting protestors and imposed a curfew. By the end of the week, monasteries had been raided, around 3000 people had been arrested and over 30 were dead, including a Japanese photographer whose killing in central Yangon was captured on video.
In the aftermath of the 2007 demonstrations, Than Shwe finalised the long-delayed new constitution, which had been under discussion since 1993, and announced a national referendum for it on 10 May 2008. But on 2 May, Cyclone Nargis – the second-deadliest cyclone in recorded history – tore across the Ayeyarwady Delta.
Cyclone Nargis' 121mph winds, and the tidal surge that followed, swept away bamboo-hut villages, leaving over two million survivors without shelter, food or drinking water. Damages were estimated at US$2.4 billion. Yangon avoided the worst, but the winds (at 80mph) still overturned power lines and trees, leaving the city without power for two weeks.
The government was widely condemned for its tepid response to the disaster. Outside aid groups were held up by a lack of visas and the Myanmar military's refusal to allow foreign planes to deliver aid. Locals stepped into the breach, heroically organising their own relief teams. In the meantime, the government kept the referendum more or less on schedule, outraging many locals and outside observers.
A New Constitution
Even before the cyclone, activist groups and NLD members had urged the public to vote 'no' at the referendum to change the constitution. They feared that it would enshrine the power of the generals. Others worried that not voting would only deepen the military hold on the government and leave no wiggle room for other political parties to contribute.
Voting took place in two rounds during May 2008, while a reported 2.5 million people still required food, shelter and medical assistance. The military announced that 98.12% of those eligible had voted and that 92.48% had approved the new constitution – even though very few would have even seen the document in advance of the referendum.
With Than Shwe's roadmap towards discipline-flourishing democracy in place, and yet another reason found to keep his nemesis, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest (beyond her scheduled release in 2009), Myanmar's first general election in 20 years went ahead in November 2010.
Roadmap to Democracy
Over 30 different political parties jumped through a considerable number of hoops to contest the 2010 election, including the National Democratic Force (NDF), a breakaway group from the NLD that, unlike its parent party, decided to participate in the poll. As expected, the USDP triumphed in an election the UN called 'deeply flawed'. Not surprisingly, many considered the change of government to be largely cosmetic, but one good result was that, with victory in the bag, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and was permitted contact with the international media.
In February 2011 a quasi-civilian parliament convened for its initial sessions, replacing the military regime's State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). A new president, former general and old prime minister Thein Sein, was 'chosen' by the elected reps to take over from Senior General Than Shwe, Myanmar's supreme ruler for the past two decades. Than Shwe has since quietly faded into the background and in December 2015 even met with Aung San Suu Kyi, his former nemsis.
Post election 2010
Given how glimmers of democratic hope for Myanmar had been so cruelly snubbed in the recent past, many could be forgiven for taking with a pinch of salt Thein Sein's inaugural address to the new parliament, which promised meaningful reforms for the country, including tackling corruption and poverty.
However, a year later, after the president had met with Aung San Suu Kyi, started to release political prisoners, diminished state censorship and enacted various laws to begin liberalising the economy (including allowing the kyat to float), it was becoming clear that positive changes really were afoot in Myanmar. International sanctions were dropped, world leaders flew into Yangon, and it seemed the country might well be on the way to coming in from the cold.
A ceasefire in 2012 with Karen rebels also provided a hiatus to the longest-running insurrection in contemporary history. However, inter-ethnic and religious violence in Rakhine State and central Myanmar has since tempered the feel-good factor about Myanmar's reforms, reminding everyone that there are significant difficulties for the country to overcome.
NLD in Parliament
By-elections in April 2012 saw a landslide victory for 42 NLD candidates, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who became de facto leader of the opposition. The economy developed rapidly as foreign investors rushed to gain a foothold in a market largely cut off from the world for nearly half a century. The easing of censorship also witnessed an explosion in new media, largely unafraid to document the country’s multiple failings as well as its successes. In 2014 Myanmar chaired the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a privilage it had been denied in 2006.
However, initially cordial relations between Suu Kyi and Thein Sein soon turned sour. The president appointed the new member of parliament as chair of a commission to investigate a dispute at the Letpaudaung copper mine that had resulted in the authorities injuring many protesters. There was a public outcry when the commission's report in 2013 allowed mining at the site to continue and included only mild criticism of the police's actions.
Suu Kyi and the NLD's near silence about the violence that had broken out between Buddhists and Muslims, initially in Rakhine State and later in other parts of the country, also drew criticism. The party's decision not to include any Muslims among the over 1000 candidates they put up for the 2015 national and regional election didn't help and has cast the NLD as neither so democratic nor anti-discriminatory as previously thought.
Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement
On coming to power, Thein Sein made putting an end to the civil wars that have plagued Myanmar in the modern era a top priority. In October 2015, weeks before the national elections, a ceasefire deal was signed with eight out of the 16 main rebel ethnic groups that had participated in the previous four years of negotiations. The door was also left open for political dialogue and inclusion of other ethnic groups at a later point in time.
Thein Sein claimed the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) an 'historic gift from us to the generations of the future'. This neatly ignored the fact that the Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Army and United Wa State Army had refused to sign and that these key rebel armies continued to control the most territory and arms. As the date of the election approached, the Tatmadaw was still fighting these rebel groups on several fronts.
The government's cancellation of a by-election in 2014 and the purge in August 2015 of Shwe Mann as speaker of the lower house of parliament and USDP party chair (he'd become too conciliatory to Aung San Suu Kyi in the eyes of serving and fellow former generals) rang warning bells about the November 2015 general election. However, despite a last-minute government attempt to delay the poll under the pretext of flooding in Chin State, the election went ahead as scheduled.
While it was far from perfect, local and international observers agreed that this election was free and fair. Everyone had expected the NLD to do well, but when the results began to come through, the scale of its victory became apparent: Aung San Suu Kyi's party had won 79% of the elected seats (235 in the lower House of Representatives and 135 in the upper House of Nationalities), securing it an outright majority in both houses. Celebrations broke out across the country as the president and military accepted defeat and indicated that they would honour the result.