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History of Myanmar

People have lived in what is today known as Myanmar since 11,000 BC and as early as 1500 BC they had domesticated chickens and pigs. The ancestors of today's Burmese people didn't arrive until about the 100s BC when the Pyu entered the region.

After this point, about 100 BC, the people began to trade with China and India as they held one of the largest overland trade routes between these people. From them, they adopted Buddhism and by the 300s AD nearly the entire population of the region was Buddhist. They continued a peaceful existence of trade through the 800s when their northern border was threatened by people from Yunnan (in modern day China), including the Burmans and Nanzhaos.

At this same time the Mon people settled in the southern reaches of modern day Myanmar from Siam (Thailand). The Mon, like the Pyu were Buddhist and had an economy based on trade; however the Mon were more attached to the seas.

In the 800s the Burman people moved south to what is today the city of Bagan (or Pagan). It was here that they formed the Bagan Empire. During the 1000s and 1100s the Bagan rulers spread Theravada Buddhism and firmly established this in the culture and mentality of the people, a significant aspect of the culture today; in Bagan alone they built over 10,000 temples. During this time the Bagan Empire also slowly expanded, integrating the Pyu people into the empire as the Pyu languages slowly died and the Burmese language and customs slowly took control over the region. By 1100 the empire expanded to the Malay Peninsula and constituted much of modern day Myanmar.

In the 1200s the kingdom began its decline as all religious donations and work were tax free and nearly two thirds of the land was dedicated to Buddhism by 1275. This led to a broke empire with no money to hire soldiers and protects its borders, something that eventually led to the Mongol invasion in 1277, quickly taking the capital of Bagan.

After the fall of Bagan the empire fell into numerous small kingdoms, four of which were large and held enough power to maintain control for more than century. The Ava Kingdom, which lasted until 1555, the Mon people's Hanthawaddy Kingdom in the south, which lasted until 1539, the Mongol Shan States in the north, which lasted until 1557, and the small, but independent Arakan Kingdom, which lasted until 1784.

The Ava, Hanthawaddy, and Shan States all fell to the Burman Toungoo Dynasty in the 1500s. Throughout the 1500s the kingdom expanded rapidly, partially with the assistance of the Burmese people in other kingdoms, event taking over Siam. Eventually, this empire grew to become one of the largest empires in the history of Southeast Asia. This quick expansion was unstable though and after King Bayinnaung's death in 1581 most of the empire collapsed. This led to Siam revolting and warring with the Toungoo Dynasty until the early 1600s. During this collapse some locals claimed kingdoms, while others enlisted the help and support of the Portuguese.

By 1606 the Toungoo Dynasty was back on its feet, even defeating the Portuguese in 1613. However with this wave of domination, extent wasn't the goal, but rather control. This led to a longer-lasting empire as growth was slow and each region was solidified. This expansion, for the most part, ended in the late 1600s as they held off Siam attacks. Like its predecessor state, this second attempt by the Toungoo Dynasty ended when, in the 1700s, their slow decline began and the Mon, in the south rose up to restore their lost kingdom, the Hanthawaddy Kingdom.

To counteract the Mon in the south, the Konbaung Dynasty arose in 1752. This empire successfully held off European powers for some time as they focused on regional domination. They went to war with Siam and China, with Siam regularly through the 1800s. The wars with Siam and China ended in stalemates, encouraging the leadership to turn west for expansion as they attacked British India in the late 1700s and early 1800s, taking numerous lands as far inland as Assam.

Attacks on British India led to the Anglo-Burmese War in the 1820s with a decisive British victory. This led to a second war in the 1850s when Britain took more land from Burma. Then in the 1880s the British took the rest of Burma due to French involvement in the east (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).

Under British control, the British and their close Burmese allies controlled the economy and political situation in the country. This led to a very defined class system as most Burmese were poor farmers while the British and their Burmese allies dominated the region. It also separated Buddhism from political rule, which diminished the influence Buddhism had on the people.

A benefit from British rule was that education was expanded and numerous Burmese studied in the United Kingdom. This had a backlash though as these educated people sought greater freedoms in Burma and began protesting the British, although violent revolts were refrained from, the British at times fired into peacefully protesting crowds, most notably in 1938 when 17 monks were killed. This led to a stronger representative government body in the country in the 1930s as the colonies of India and Burma were separated.

With the outbreak of World War II the people of Burma were heavily divided as some supported Japan in order to gain freedom, some supported Britain, and others simple defended themselves and their country. The Japanese did take over the region and in 1943 declared them independent, although the Japanese stayed there and continued to control the region with no local voice. In 1945 the Burmese people rose up against the Japanese government and shortly after the war had ended.

After the war, Britain again took control of the region as the people somewhat united to gain independence. As negotiations were progressing, the Burmese leader, Aung San was assassinated and the independence movement took a step back to reorganize. Despite this, Burma (today called Myanmar) gained independence in 1948.

After independence the unity broke down as numerous parties began fighting for power. This led to unofficial international intervention and the country's declaration of neutrality with a special effort to stay out of international affairs. This continued through the 1950s as the country strove to recover from WWII.

By the late 1950s the country was politically falling apart though and power exchanged hands a number of times as parties fought for power. This ended in 1962 with a communist military coup led by Ne Win. At first this coup was peaceful, but after a few too many protests, the military government killed over 100 student protestors in Rangoon (Yangon) then bombed the student union.

In 1974 the military leaders stepped down from the military and took over the country as politicians, in 1974 drafting a new constitution as Ne Win took on the title President and declared martial law. This led to another wave of protests, most commonly in the capital of Rangoon. Again the government came down hard in 1976 as they arrested numerous student protesters. In 1978 the government fought Muslims, leading to nearly a quarter million people to flee to Bangladesh.

In 1981 Ne Win retired from the presidency and stepped out of politics completely in 1988. The new government opened its doors slightly as the economy slowly grew. However by 1988 the economy had again taken a turn for the worse; this led to further protests in 1988 as the government killed thousands of people. The government blame opposing communists for this uprising and communists across the country fled to China as the government no longer held communist ideologies, but rather were just repressive to maintain control.

In 1990 the government allowed elections, but then refused to let the representative assembly convene as some of those elected were held under house arrest. One of those under house arrest was Aung San Suu Kyi, who was granted the Noble Peace Prize in 1991, putting increasing international pressure on the government. In the late 1990s numerous countries, including the United States and European Union placed a number of economic embargoes and restrictions on the country.

In 2003 Kyin Nyunt announced that the country is in a slow process to implement democracy. In 2005 they allowed the National Convention to meet in order to write a new constitution (which didn't finalize anything), but didn't allow numerous parties to be present. In the same year the military oddly moved the capital to Naypyidaw without any real announcement.

In 2007 protests again arose when the government raised gas prices by five times as they removed the subsidies they had on gas. These protests were met with the death of many protesting. Since this time nothing has truly been resolved. The government seems to be taking steps towards democracy, but then as these changes are implemented they tend alter their policies and revoke their earlier statements. These small steps are seen as a positive sigh by some, but since no true action has been taken by the government, most see these changes as a facade.

This page was last updated: March, 2013