A Short History of Burma

Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, the oldest and holiest Buddhist shrine in Burma.

Dinyar Godrej / New Internationalist


Colonial historians of Burma claimed that its earliest civilizations had been founded under Indian influence and could not date back much beyond 500 CE. However, recent research indicates that civilization in Burma’s Irawaddy valley is very old – 3,500 years ago its inhabitants were farming rice, raising livestock and using bronze implements. In the fourth century, however, this civilization underwent its defining moment when it adopted South India’s Theravada style of Buddhism. Today over 80 per cent of Burma’s people are Buddhist and the country has the largest number of monks as a percentage of the total population.

Burma emerges

By the ninth century a group of people from the north, the Bamar, gained prominence and founded the powerful kingdom of Pagan (today’s Bagan). Old city states gave way to a more unified administration, which reached it’s apogee during the reign of king Anawrahta (or Aniruddha) who successfully unified all of Burma by 1057. The line of kings that followed him constructed thousands of pagodas, and also monasteries, libraries and colleges. Their harnessing of water resources led to a surge in rice production.

However, the Buddhist kingdom was isolated from its geographical neighbours who followed other religions. The growing influence of the monkhood over resources prompted a decline, inviting Mongol and Tartar invasions. The succeeding centuries would be marked by divisions, as various ruling dynasties rose and fell, and territories under their control underwent constant permutation.

Bayinnaung’s empire

The next unifier of Burma would emerge in the mid-sixteenth century. Bayinnaung was an expansionist ruler who waged relentless war in order to gain increasingly larger areas of territory. His aggression is much admired by the military rulers of today’s Burma, for whom he is a role model. Upon his death in 1581 at 66 years of age his rule stretched over almost all of Burma, Thailand and Laos. But such dominion, won at great cost, was difficult to hold on to, and soon after his death sections of his empire began to fall away.

Wars with Britain

Burmese expansionism in the late eighteenth century caused strife with China, but it was Burmese general Maha Bandula’s conquest of Assam in 1824 that would pit Burma against an enemy that would come to occupy it – Britain. Whereas the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) was fought to regain territory that Burma had wrested away from British India, by the time of the third war in 1885, which resulted in the total annexation of Burma, other factors were at play. The British viewed Burma not so much as land that they definitely needed to control, but as a market they needed to capture and as a backdoor to lucrative trade with China.

A province of India

The British made Burma a province of India in 1886 and instigated far-reaching changes to the country’s make up. Indians were brought in to fill civil-service jobs and the business interests of Indians and Chinese in Burma were encouraged, which bred resentment in many Burmese people. Agriculture was geared towards export and Burma became the world’s largest exporter of rice. Resistance to British rule continued in the northern territories up until 1890, when the British finally destroyed entire villages in order to halt guerrilla activity – a tactic still favoured by today’s military junta. Here, as elsewhere, divide-and-rule was characteristic of British governance, with certain ethnic groups being favoured over others, creating clashes of loyalties.

The new masters

Protests by university students in 1920 were the first signs of renewed resistance against British rule. Strikes and anti-tax protests followed, with Buddhist monks playing a prominent role and even leading armed rebellion. Rangoon University was a hotbed of radicalism and a young law student, Aung San, gained increasing prominence in the movement for national autonomy. He and fellow student Nu (a later Prime Minister of Burma) joined the thakin movement. The name, which translates as ‘master’, was an appropriation of the term colonial subjects in Burma had to use for the British. Now it signified that Burmese citizens wanted to be masters of their own destiny.

World War manoeuvres

The start of the Second World War saw the administration of Burma separated from India. For some nationalists the War presented an opportunity to gain concessions towards autonomy in return for Burmese support in the hostilities, but the thakins rejected any participation in the war. The nationalists drew much inspiration from Marxist ideas and the Sinn Féin movement in Ireland. Aung San co-founded the Communist Party of Burma. He sought contact with Chinese communists, but the Japanese authorities got to him first, promising military training and support for a national uprising. Aung San and 29 other young men, known as the Thirty Comrades, left for Hainan Island in China (which was under Japanese occupation) for the promised training. The deal was that the Japanese would help Burma rid itself of the British colonialists and grant independence. But with the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942 came the growing realization that one set of colonialists had been exchanged for another. Aung San then quickly changed sides and negotiated with the British to drive out the Japanese. Having had his brush with the imperial ambitions of Japan, he was also one of the founders of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL). The Japanese were successfully expelled from Burma in May 1945. However, many parts of the country lay in ruins, devastated by warfare.

Freedom – and a leader lost

A military administration resumed in Burma under the British and there were calls to prosecute Aung San for his involvement in a murder during military operations in 1942. However, the British were pragmatic about the popular support this 32-year-old man enjoyed and Aung San eventually managed to negotiate Burma’s independence from Britain in January 1947. Aung San also concluded an agreement with the country’s ethnic nationalities for a unified Burma. There were already dissatisfied splinter groups of the AFPL which had either gone underground or into opposition. An elected interim government saw Aung San’s AFPFL win 248 of 255 assembly seats. Aung San and his ministers got down to the business of drafting the country’s constitution – but not for long. On 19 July 1947, at the instigation of an opposition politician, Aung San and several members of his cabinet were gunned down. Aung San’s colleague, the charismatic U Nu, now took over the reins and Burma finally became independent on 4 January 1948 at 4.20 am – the odd hour was chosen for its auspiciousness by an astrologer. Anti-British sentiment was so strong that Burma decided not to join the British Commonwealth, unlike other colonies that had also gained independence.

A brief democracy

U Nu’s government faced many challenges from the outset – disgruntled communist factions and ethnic groups, who felt excluded from the deeply Buddhist Nu’s vision of the country, began insurgencies, as did Kuomintang Chinese nationalist forces in Northern Burma. In the international arena Nu sought co-operation while steering his country on a non-aligned course. Despite the civil war raging in parts of the country, the 1950s was a progressive decade for Burma, with the economy beginning to recover. The Burmese Constitution had guaranteed a level of autonomy for the ethnic minority states after a period of 10 years, but this didn’t materialize under Nu’s stewardship, leading to widespread unrest. There were also political schisms within the ruling AFPFL and in 1958 the army took over for the first time under General Ne Win, one of the thakins. This ‘caretaker government’ purged ‘communist sympathizers’ and forced the minority states to bow to central government. Elections in 1960 brought U Nu back as Prime Minister but the days of democracy were numbered. Having had his taste of power, Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, and the country’s decline under military dictatorship began.

The tiger’s tail

The constitution was suspended, opposition political parties and the All Burma Student’s Union were banned, the press was muzzled and the country was closed off to the rest of the world. Ne Win and his military cohorts in the newly formed Burma Socialist Programme Party followed what they called the Burmese Way to Socialism. Human rights abuses intensified and all dissent was crushed. Early in his career Ne Win had failed in business due to competition from Indian traders; now he purged the country of people of Indian extraction who had formed a significant part of its commercial and administrative backbone. All major industry was nationalized. Insurgency continued and was answered by state force. Ne Win called it ‘healthy politics’. Ne Win and his generals lacked knowledge of world economics and they didn’t seem interested in gaining any, driving the country to ruin. Later Ne Win would admit to journalists that his policies had been misguided but that ‘it was like having caught hold of a tiger’s tail… there was nothing else to do but hang on to it.’

A dutiful daughter

In September 1987 a ‘demonetization’ robbed most Burmese people of their savings and the UN admitted Burma to the club of Least Developed Countries. In July 1988 Ne Win suddenly announced that he would be stepping down. Driven by economic desperation and seeing a chance for change, demonstrations broke out in the country in the ‘democracy summer’ of 1988. But on 8 August 1988 troops began firing into the crowds, eventually killing over 3,000 people. Thousands of politically engaged people were forced to flee the country, but they continued their resistance, forging alliances with the ethnic nationalities’ resistance movements. In Rangoon, Aung San’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, who had returned to the country to nurse her dying mother, was approached to join a burgeoning democracy movement. The military imposed martial law; the country was to be led by a 19-member State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Aung San Suu Kyi, who had captured the people’s hearts with her non-violent stance and political integrity, was placed under house arrest. Surprisingly, SLORC honoured its promise to hold multi-party elections in May 1990 and, even more surprisingly, they were free and fair. But when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won overwhelmingly the military refused to hand over power.

Roadmap - or dead-end

In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The following year the military placed the uncompromising General Than Shwe at the helm. A National Convention was convened in 1993 to draft a new constitution and prepare the country for eventual democracy. This was a stage-managed exercise which sought to preserve military dominance. Members of the National League of Democracy walked out of the process. During the 1990s the military regime managed to negotiate ceasefire agreements with many of the insurgent groups, promising them benefits which for many are yet to materialize. In 1997 SLORC morphed into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), but despite the name change, the beast remained the same. In 2003 an open-ended seven-step ‘roadmap to democracy’ was announced and the sham National Convention reconvened in 2005. In September 2007 there were widespread street protests in Rangoon and across the country, after a huge increase in fuel prices. Today, Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, having spent 12 of the last 18 years in this condition. Burma’s civil war has become the longest running in the world. The SPDC has announced that a new constitution is complete and that it will hold a referendum on it in May 2008, even though the people have no opportunity to read it or criticize it. Multi-party elections have been promised for 2010, but this is seen as yet another diversionary manouevre. Meanwhile, the military regime is busy selling off the country’s resources to its neighbours in a bid to finance its continued rule.