A Brief History of Burma (Myanmar)

Iran and North Korea have made the news lately for their alleged nuclear weapons research or production, and all the twists and turns surrounding attempts to sanction both countries for various proscribed activities. But lost amid the bluster, sanctions,

Iran and North Korea have made the news lately for their alleged nuclear weapons research or production, and all the twists and turns surrounding attempts to sanction both countries for various proscribed activities. But lost amid the bluster, sanctions, accusations and counter–accusations, is the secretive, junta-controlled Southeast Asian nation of Burma (Myanmar).

Burma, too, has recently come under scrutiny for possibly having a clandestine nuclear program of its own, with an assist from North Korea. If so, it will mark only the most recent provocative act from this two-thousand-year-old land which has often found itself torn apart by internecine battles, or in the middle of regional “chess matches” between various more powerful neighbors and colonial rulers.

Early History

Though evidence exists of human habitation in the region some 11,000 years ago, archaeologists generally mark the period between 500 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. as the beginning of settled activity and early civilization along the northern reaches of the Irrawaddy basin, most notably the founding of a series of city-kingdoms under a people called the Pyu.

These generally peaceful city-kingdoms never coalesced into a true Pyu kingdom, though the city of Sri Ksetra achieved a kind of dominance over its rivals due to its size and influence in the region. Sri Ksetra was largely abandoned in the mid 600s, and the Pyu’s influence waned by the mid-9th century.

About the time the Pyu were fading, a rival group from the east, the Mon, moved west from modern-day Thailand and took root in southern Burma. Concurrently, a new linguistic-ethnic group, the Bamar (from which the words “Burma” and “Myanmar” are both derived) moved down from the north, displacing/absorbing the Pyu, and founded a new state, known as the Pagan (now spelled “Bagan”) Kingdom.

Rise and Fall of the Pagan Kingdom

As the Bamar people (aka “Burmans”) settled into the Irrawaddy River region, they spread out from their fortified settlement at Pagan, and over the next 200 years conquered the surrounding areas, including the Thaton Kingdom of lower Burma, held by the Mon people for generations.

As they spread, the Burmans’ language and customs displaced those of the Pyu and Mon, becoming the dominant culture down the length of the country, rivaling even the Khmer Empire (modern-day Cambodia) to the east by the late 12th century.

Unfortunately, internal discord and economic pressures weakened the Pagan dynasty to such an extent that early in the 13th century a rival northern group, the Shans, were successfully challenging Pagan power in the north, and the whole Kingdom fell to the Mongols, with the sack of Pagan in 1287. The Mongols installed a puppet government, but this only lasted roughly 75 years.


After the fall of Pagan, several new power centers organized themselves along roughly north-south-east-west lines, and fought among themselves, and against neighboring dynasties and states from Thailand, Cambodia and China, for the next 300 years.

Of note were the Kingdoms of Ava, Hanthawaddy and Arakan, and the Shan States. These principal players would rule over the majority of what would become modern Burma, raiding each other’s territories, establishing towns and temples, solidifying much of the culture and language that survives in the region to this day.

Ava in particular tried to reclaim all the land of Pagan under their banner, but was under constant pressure from the Shan, which would rule most of Upper Burma by the early 16th century. Arkan (in the west) would get rolled-up into a larger confederation in 1430 known as the Mrauk-U Kingdom that would persist as a largely-independent entity into the late 18th century, while the Hanthawaddy (in the south) would flourish as the most successful and prosperous post-Pagan kingdom until its sudden end at the hands of the Toungoo Dynasty.

The Toungoo

In the early 1500s constant pressure from the Shans broke away two principalities from Ava, and after Ava fell to the Shans in 1527, the King of Toungoo defeated two lesser states and consolidated power in the principal south-central city of Pegu.

The Kingdom of Toungoo would go on to forge the largest empire in Burma’s history, absorbing the Hanthawaddy, Shan States and Ava, as well as numerous other Southeast Asian kingdoms as far as modern-day Laos and Thailand (Siam).

Unfortunately, the death of their king in 1581 led to the Toungoo’s undoing. Siam declared independence and went to war with Toungoo three years later, while the Kingdom of Arakan would team-up with Portuguese mercenaries to sack Pegu in 1599.

The country was wracked by internal conflict for the next 14 years until the first king’s grandson defeated the Portuguese and reestablished a smaller Kingdom including the former regions of Ava (Upper and Lower Burma) and the Shan States. This king’s brother continued to rebuild and defend the Toungoo’s territory, including against a series of attacks from Siam in 1665.

But the Kingdom of Toungoo would decline over the next 70 years, ultimately ending when the Mons of the lower Irrawaddy valley rebelled and established a new kingdom centered on Pegu in 1747. The Toungoo were finally finished off in 1752 when the Hanthawaddy conquered Ava and reestablished their own kingdom. But that independence was to be short-lived.

The Konbaung

As Ava fell in 1752, a new group arose in the north-central city of Shewbo––the Konbaung. This group went on to rule over the second-largest empire in Burmese history, eliminating the Hanthawaddy dynasty and driving out various European interlopers who had been providing arms to the Hanthawaddy.

Burma under the Konbaung went to war in the southeast against Siam in 1759, and fought against them intermittently for decades, capturing and re-taking each others’ border regions until the two warring states finally reached a stalemate in 1854.

During this time due to pressure from China in the north, and the near-constant struggle with Siam, the Konbaung rulers looked west for conquest, and took Arakan, Manipur and Assam from the mid 1780s through 1819. This led to Burma finally coming in contact with the British Empire’s possessions in India.

The British

Beginning in 1819 Burma was in conflict with the British in the form of cross-border raids, insurgencies and British-backed rebellions in Manipur and Assam. This period concluded in 1824-1826 when the British decisively defeated Burma, taking all four western provinces, and levying a huge indemnity. A second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852 left the British in possession of Pegu province as well. The end came in 1885 when the British overtook the rest of Burma, despite years of major territorial concessions on the part of Burmese rulers. Attempts at organized resistance (mostly in the north) were finally quashed in 1890.

Britain administered her new Burmese provinces as a part of India from the city of Rangoon, displacing local traditions and rulers, requiring farmers to borrow money from Indian moneylenders and consolidating power in the hands of British companies, the new class of Anglo-Burmese elite and Indian migrants.

By the turn of the 20th century religious and nationalist movements began to spring up in Burma, often led by London-educated Burmese who saw opportunities for constitutional reform and an increase of native citizens in the Civil Service.

Change came too slowly for many, however, and throughout the 1920s and ‘30s protestors and strikers agitated against the government and their colonial masters. Student strikes and armed uprisings were met with detentions, trials and executions, until the British negotiated the separation of Burma from Indian administration, under its own constitution, in 1937.

Though some Burmese saw separation from India as a good step forward, many others felt it did not go far enough, and strikes continued in central Burma in 1938, leading to several police actions that left many protesters dead. The situation would change radically three years later with the approach of the Japanese.

World War II to Independence

As war approached various movements began to coalesce around Communist and Socialist ideals, as well as nationalist and Buddhist monk-led groups. Socialist leader Aung San forged a series of alliances with other parties, and avoided a government crack-down by escaping to China. While travelling, he was contacted by the Japanese military and given a deal: aid Japan’s impending advance into Southeast Asia in return for the chance to form a new government when Japan made its move.

Through late 1941 into the summer of 1943 Aung San and his group organized the Burma Independence Army (BIA), which was molded into the Burma Defence Army (BDA) by the Japanese. This organization was renamed again in 1943 to the Burma National Army (BNA) on the advent of Burma being declared “independent” by Japanese authorities in August. But this independence was a ruse.

As it became clear that the Japanese intended to rule Burma as a puppet state, Aung San, other Socialist leaders, the Communists (BCP) and others banded together to resist Japanese occupation, eventually making contact with exiled leaders in India and with British Intelligence. In March of 1945 the BNA led a successful nationwide uprising, and by May the Japanese military had been chased from Burma. The British governor and much of the government-in-exile returned at the end of the war and prepared for reconstruction and (hopefully) reconciliation between Burma's fractured parties.

Unfortunately the various factions fell to arguing and clashing over policy and power-sharing, and the reinstalled government actively sought Aung San's arrest, much to the distress of the British governor who convinced the Burmese authorities to concentrate on reconstruction and political reform.

This turmoil persisted through 1946 with the replacement of the Governor, a strike by Rangoon's police force, and deepening divisions between the Socialists, Communists and conservative elements of the former government. The strikes threatened to spread by September when the Governor invited Aung San to join a new Executive Council.

Although some factions were dissatisfied with the Council, it successfully hammered-out an independence agreement with the British government (formally granted as of January 4, 1948), negotiated agreements with various disaffected ethnic groups and held an assembly election, which cemented the popular Aung San and his Socialist coalition. But popular though he was, Aung San had powerful enemies, including the former pre-war Prime Minister who had him assassinated in July, 1947.

Post Independence

The history of Burma from 1948 through 1962 was marked by internal strife and insurgencies, ranging from Communist-led uprisings led by former associates of Aung San, to Muslim separatists, to American-backed Chinese Nationalists led by a former Kuomintang general. This situation was particularly nettlesome as it ultimately led Burma's leadership to reject most foreign aid and associations.

By 1958, though the economy was improving, the political situation in Burma was deteriorating as the major party (the AFPFL) began splitting, destabilizing the government to the point where the military was “invited” to intervene in the name of stability. Hundreds of opposition leaders were exiled at that time and several newspapers were shutdown, but over the next three years the situation had settled enough to allow for general elections in 1960. Unfortunately, another separatist movement (the Shan Federal Movement) began agitating for autonomy, destabilizing the government again.

Years of Coups and Conflicts

In 1962 Ne Win led a group of 16 officers in a coup d'etat, arresting several prominent leaders, and declaring Burma to be a socialist state, run by a Revolutionary Council. There followed a series of uprisings, protests, and insurgencies from 1962 through '64, some violent.

Through the 1960s into the 1970s Ne Win sought to grow his Burma Socialist Programme Party 's (BSPP) power, nationalize industries and restrict international contacts. Once his party's power was consolidated Ne Win retired from the military (in 1972), but after the BSSP pushed through a new constitution and assembly, he returned to power as president in 1974.

As the '70s progressed Burma was wracked by a series of food shortages and strikes, protests, student marches, and an attempted assassination of Ne Win, culminating in the military moving against Muslims in the western state of Arakan, which caused an estimated 250,000 refugees fleeing into Bangladesh. Also in 1978, armed raids, led since 1972 by exiled former leaders coming across the border from Thailand, came to an end with a limited amnesty and secret negotiations.


The government began to allow more international aid in the early 1980s, resulting in economic growth for a time, and a series of reforms spurred on by crises in 1987-88. But currency devaluations and central bank mismanagement stunted efforts at continued reform and growth.

The spring and summer of 1988 saw another widespread series of protests and demonstrations break out across Burma, leading to the deaths of over a hundred students, and a breakdown of civil society, that took the country to the brink of revolution. In order to restore order the military staged a coup, and during the ensuing 8888 Uprising killed thousands. In addition, the Constitution of 1974 was overturned in favor of martial law. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was founded as result, with with Saw Maung as its leader. The military government also changed the formal name of the country from Burma to “Myanmar.”

In 1989 the SLORC Secretary claimed the uprisings of 1988 had been orchestrated by the underground Communist Party, but the BCP was torn by its own internal conflicts, and lost its bases in central Burma as its leaders fled into exile in China.

1990s and Beyond

In 1990 the SLORC continued the reforms attempted in the 1980s, and called for a new Constitution and Assembly. But when a coalition of opposition parties, led in part by Aung San's daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, won in a landslide over the successor to the BSSP, the military suspended the election results and put the oposition leaders under house arrest.

Through the mid-90s the military periodically relaxed the restrictions on opposition groups and leaders, but continued to interfere and prevent any real democratization or reform. In addition, the military had to suppress a series of insurgencies among minority hill tribes and narco-warlords. Fighting finally ended in 1995 with the signing of a tentative peace deal.

In 1996 and '97 more tensions between the junta and the opposition over attempts to create a new constitution lead to crackdowns on the major opposition parties. The SLORC was disbanded in late 1997, but its replacement, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), was essentially just the SLORC, reorganized, and by 2000 Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest again. She was put under house arrest once more in 2003 during another crackdown (in spite of more attempts at political reform), and remains there to this day.

In 2005 another National Convention was announced, but most opposition parties were barred from participating. 2005 also saw the move of the national capital from Yangon (old Rangoon) to a new location, officially named Naypyidaw Myodaw.

Most recently in 2007, a series of protests resulting from rising petroleum and gas prices was dealt with harshly, with dozens of arrests and detentions, even after the protests were led by Buddhist monks, though the monk-led protest were allowed more latitude and the crackdown on these came somewhat later.


The current leadership of Burma is secretive and resistant to change from the authoritarian model they have known since the 1960s. This can lead to clearly counterproductive behavior, as when the junta would not allow international aid after Cyclone Nargis in 2008. And it is likely this sense of isolation and being pressed from all sides, forged over centuries of internal and external conflict, that leads Burma's leaders to seek the cold comfort of nuclear weapons.

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