Republic, SE Asia. Lying on the western edge of Indochina, Myanmar is on the ancient overland trade route between India on the W and China on the N. Laos and Thailand are to the E, the Bay of Bengal to the S. The country’s land borders are guarded by mountains, and its isolation has fostered a distinctive culture.
The first major culture in Burma was that of the Mons, who occupied the Me Nam River valley. By the third century b.c. they had also settled in the Sittang Valley and had a major port capital at Thaton. Thaton had much commerce with India, and Mon culture developed into the most advanced in Southeast Asia. In upper Burma a rival society of Tibeto-Burmese immigrants gained control of the major overland trade route between India and China. The Pyu state controlled the entire Irrawaddy valley from Sri Ketra, near the river’s mouth. As the huge river delta silted up, the Pyus lost their sea access, found themselves isolated, and went into a decline. The successor to the Pyu state was the Burmese kingdom of Pagan, founded in a.d. 849.
Two centuries later the Burmese under Anawrahta established an empire controlling the entire modern country. Pagan was conquered by Kublai Khan’s Mongol armies in 1287, and the Burmese Empire was split into many small contending states of Burmese, Shan, and Mon leadership. In the mid-16th century the Burmese established a second empire under King Bayinnaung, who used Portuguese mercenaries and artillery. After his death the empire fragmented until 1605, when the Burmese crown reestablished control. In 1750 a rebellion of the subjugated Mons, with French backing, succeeded in briefly controlling the country. The Burmese overthrew the Mons and were roused to secure their kingdom from future upheaval. They successfully attacked Siam, conquering Ayutthaya in 1767, and extended their control in all directions. The capture of Assam brought Burma into conflict with the British and resulted in the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1824. British Indian troops put an end to Burma’s expansion, and Great Britain became more interested in the region’s potential. The Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852 secured the coastline of lower Burma for the British, and the Third Anglo-Burmese war in 1885, lasting only a week, ended with Burma’s annexation as a province of British India.
Under British rule traditional Burmese society disintegrated, as the country was run for commercial profit and transformed into a huge exporter of rice. Early in the 20th century nationalist movements actively began to resist the British. A peasant rebellion in 1931 took two years to put down. In World War II Burma was under Japanese rule, and the government nominally supported Japan until 1943. In 1945 Burmese troops entered the war on the British side, and in 1947 Great Britain accepted Burma’s independence.
The sovereign Union of Burma was declared on January 4, 1948. Burma maintained a neutralist international policy. In 1962 the army in a coup d’etat led by General Ne Win seized control of the country, and for 10 years the military ruled unchallenged as it transformed Burma into a socialist state. A new constitution was adopted in 1973, but the military continued to dominate the civilian government of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. In 1987, the people revolted after a devaluation of the currency. There were antigovernment riots and demand s that Ne Win resign. Ne Win did step down and retire in July 1988, but only after antigovernment riots in March and June of 1988. After more protests and police and military massacres of protestors, there was a general uprising on August 8, 1988. The uprising was crushed on September 18, 1988, when the Defense Minister (General Maung) declared the establishment of a State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The name of the country was changed to Myanmar, and a policy of repression and isolation was pursued.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (imprisoned in 1989) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, which brought great pressure on the SLORC. Although the NLD had won the majority of seats and votes in 1990, the SLORC ignored the results of the election. In 2005 the government announced that the capital was moving from Yangon to Pyinmana. The government continues to be one of the more repressive in Asia, while the economic growth lags behind that of its neighbors in Southeast Asia.