New Internationalist 280
5 June 1996
New Internationalist Issue 280
A History of Burma
1. Four million pagodasThe nation we know as Burma was first formed during the golden age of Pagan in the eleventh century. King Anawrahta ascended the throne in 1044, uniting Burma under his monarchy. His belief in Buddhism led him to begin building the temples and pagodas for which the city of Pagan is renowned. Pagan became the first capital of a Burmese kingdom that included virtually all of modern Burma. The golden age of Pagan reached its peak during the reign of Anawratha's successor, Kyanzitta (1084-1113), another devout Buddhist, under whom it acquired the name 'City of Four Million Pagodas'.
However, the megalomaniac temple-building activities of some later kings, combined with the enrichment of monasteries, were to impoverish the country and Burma became increasingly vulnerable to Mongol and Tartar incursions. But to this day Buddhism has remained at the heart of Burmese culture and 80 per cent of the population are followers.
2. British offencesAlthough Burma was at times divided into independent states, a series of monarchs attempted to establish their absolute rule, with varying degrees of success. Eventually, an expansionist British Government took advantage of Burma's political instability. After three Anglo-Burmese wars over a period of sixty years, the British completed their colonization of the country in 1886, taking the last of a long line of Burmese kings into custody. Burma was immediately annexed as a province of British India, and the British began to permeate the ancient Burmese culture with foreign elements . The British rulers trained the neighbouring Indians to take over civil-service jobs previously filled by Burmese. Burmese customs were often weakened by the imposition of British traditions. The British also encouraged both Chinese and Indians to migrate into Burmese cities in order to profit from new business opportunities. By the start of the First World War, colonial architecture had become prominent throughout Rangoon, and foreign religious monuments and practices grew alongside traditional forms of Burmese Buddhism. Rich in natural resources, Burma became known as 'the rice bowl of Asia'. It was in fact, the world's largest exporter of rice.
3. Sparks of resistanceThe British also further divided the numerous ethnic minorities by favouring some groups, such as the Karen, for positions in the military and in local rural administrations. During the 1920s, the first protests by Burma's intelligentsia and Buddhist monks were launched against British rule. By 1935, the Students Union at Rangoon University was at the forefront of what would evolve into an active and powerful movement for national independence. A young law student named Aung San, executive-committee member and magazine editor for the Students Union, emerged as the potential new leader of the national movement. In the years that followed, he successfully organized a series of student strikes at the university, gaining the support of the nation. To demonstrate his conviction that Burma was rightfully Burmese and not British, he and his closest associates defiantly called themselves thakins, or 'masters', which was a title previously used only for addressing the British.
4. A man named Aung SanAt the outbreak of the Second World War, Aung San seized the opportunity to bring about Burmese independence. He and 29 others, known as the Thirty Comrades, left Burma to undergo military training in Japan. In 1941, they fought alongside the Japanese who invaded Burma. The Japanese promised Aung San that if the British were defeated, they would grant Burma her freedom. Then it became clear that the Japanese would not follow through with their promise, Aung San quickly negotiated an agreement with the British to help them defeat the Japanese. Working together, the British, Indians and Burma's Thirty Comrades successfully expelled the Japanese from Burma in May 1945.
Hailed as the architect of Burma's new-found independence by the majority of the Burmese, Aung San was able to negotiate an agreement in January 1947 with the British, under which Burma would be granted total independence from Britain. An election was held to form an interim government, in which Aung San's party (the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League) won 248 of 255 assembly seats. Only 32 years old at the time, an eloquent and determined Aung San made an historic trip to London during this period of transition. Although a controversial figure to some ethnic minorities, he also had regular meetings with ethnic leaders throughout Burma in an effort to create reconciliation and unity for all Burmese.
5. Freedom and deathAs the new leader drafted a constitution with his party's ministers in July 1947, the course of Burmese history was dramatically and tragically altered. Aung San and members of his newly formed cabinet were assassinated when an opposition group with machine guns burst into the room. The man responsible, motivated by political rivalry, was apprehended, tried and executed one year later. A member of Aung San's cabinet, U Nu, was delegated to fill the position suddenly left vacant by Aung San's death. Although the nation was shaken by this monumental loss, Burma was finally granted independence on 4 January 1948, at 4.20 am - a moment selected as the most auspicious by an astrologer.
6. Ne Win moves inFor the next ten years, Burmas fledgling democratic government was continuously challenged by communist and ethnic groups who felt under-represented in the 1948 constitution. Periods of intense civil war destabilized the nation. Although the constitution declared that minority states could be granted some level of independence in ten years, their long-awaited day of autonomy never arrived. As the economy floundered, U Nu was removed from office in 1958 by a caretaker government led by General Ne Win, one of Aung Sans fellow thakins. Born Shu Maung, he had changed his name to Ne Win, meaning the sun of glory. In order to restore law and order to Burma, Ne Win took control of the whole country including the minority states, forcing them to remain under the jurisdiction of the central government. Although he allowed U Nu to be re-elected Prime Minister in 1960, two years later he staged a coup and solidified his position as Burmas military dictator.
7. Despotic ruinNe Win's new Revolutionary Council suspended the constitution and instituted authoritarian military rule. Full attention turned to the military defeat of communist and ethnic-minority guerrilla groups. The country was closed off from the outside world as the new despot promoted an isolationist ideology based on what he called the Burmese Way to Socialism. Superstitious, xenophobic and ruthless, for the next three decades Ne Win set a thriving nation on a disastrous path of cultural, environmental and economic ruin. Outside visitors were few and restricted to Rangoon, Mandalay and a handful of other tightly controlled towns close to the central plains. Insurgency remained endemic and in many areas of Burma armed struggle became a way of life.
8. The fight for democracyIn July 1988 Ne Win suddenly announced that he was preparing to leave the stage. Seeing at last a possible escape from military rule, economic decline and routine human-rights abuses, thousands of people took to the streets of Rangoon. Demonstrations broke out across the country during the so-called 'democracy summer' that followed. But on 8 August 1988 troops began a four-day massacre, firing into crowds of men, women and children gathered in Rangoon. At least 10,000 demonstrators were killed across the country. Thousands of students and others fled to the 'Liberated Areas' and forged alliances with ethnic resistance movements. Back in Rangoon Aung San Suu Kyi - daughter of independence hero Aung San - began her public support for the struggle for democracy. Just when democratic changes seemed imminent Ne Win commandeered the army from behind the scenes to take over the country in a staged 'coup'. Control of the country was handed to a 19-member State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and a vicious crackdown followed. Although committed to non-violence, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house-arrest in July 1989 for 'endangering the state' and kept there for the next six years. Multi-party elections were held in 1990, as the SLORC had promised, and Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party swept to victory. Surprised and outraged, the SLORC refused to acknowledge the election results and has retained its repressive grip on power since.
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