History of Myanmar


Just one of the many things that attract people to Myanmar is its colorful history, which has been well-preserved, and evident in its current points of interest.

Before Myanmar became an empire, there were three main civilizations that occupied it. These people who shaped the history of Myanmar are the Pyus, Mons, and Burmans.

In recorded history of Myanmar, the earliest inhabitants of a country then known as Burma, were the Pyus. They entered the country through the Irrawaddy Valley in 2nd century BC. They originated from Yunnan. During the 4th century, they founded several city states in the far south. The Pyus are considered as a peaceful civilization. They even wore silk cotton clothes instead of using silk so they would not have to kill silkworm. The Pyus practiced Theravada Buddhism.

The Mons arrived from Thailand in the 6th century. They were driven here by their aggressive Tibetan and Chinese neighbors. By 9th century, the Mons had created two kingdoms centered on Pegu and Thaton. Many historians believe that the kingdom of Thaton is actually the legendary kingdom of Suvarnabhumi, which means Golden Land. The Mons practiced Theravada Buddhism.

Also in the 9th century, the Burmans arrived, also through the Irrawaddy Valley, from the Eastern Himalaya. Midway through this century, they have founded the kingdom of Pagan, currently known as Bagan.

The Birth of an Empire

In the beginning of 9th Century, the Pyus was constantly attacked by the kingdom of Nanzhao (coming from Yunnan) and was eventually vanquished. The Burmans took their place and extended the kingdom of Pagan. In 1044, Anawrahta took the throne and initiated what is called “the golden period” of Pagan. He first conquered the kingdom of Shan.

In 1056, he was converted to Therevada Buddhism after a visit of a monk sent by the king of Mon. He was so devoted to his new religion that he asked the Mon king for a copy of the tripitaka, a Therevada Buddhist scripture.

When the Mon king Manaha refused, Anawrahta decided to march south and conquered Thaton in 1057, bringing back with him the scripture and also the Mon king. Pagan was hailed as the capital of Theravada Buddhism.

The Fall of Pagan

After the death of Anawrahta, who was killed by a buffalo, his successors Kyanzittha, Alaungsithu and Htilominlo consolidated the kingdom. Unfortunately, none of them had the former leader’s intelligence and vision. Because of this, Pagan’s power slowly declined.

In the middle of 13th century, Mongol troops moved all across Asia, invading one country after another. They finally invaded Nanzhao (Yunnan) the northeastern neighbor of Pagan in 1253, and the Pagan kingdom in 1283. This was after King Narathihapati offended them by executing some of their diplomats.

After the fall of Pagan, Burma was once again divided. In lower Burma, the Mons built a new kingdom in Martaban. The first was in 1287 and the second was in Pegou (also called Bago) in 1369. This was called the kingdom of Hanthawaddy. In upper Burma, the kingdom of Sagaing and Pinya were reunited in a kingdom called Ava, also known as Inwa.

For 40 years (1385-1424), Hanthawaddy and Ava waged war against each other for the domination of Burma. Neither was successful. After the war, the kingdom of Ava began to decline whereas the kingdom of Hanthawaddy, led by king Dhammazedi became a center of commerce and Theverada Buddhism.

Finally, the Shan took the kingdom of Ava in 1527 and the Burmans invaded the kingdom of Hanthawaddy in 1539.

Taungou Kingdom

The survivors of the Ava kingdom led by king Tabinshwehti built a new kingdom around Taungou by reunifying the small kingdoms which was created after Pagan fell. Established was the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia.

For him to achieve this, he first defeated Hanthawaddy (1535-1541) and moved his capital to Pegu (1539). He then defeated all the kingdoms up to Bagan but couldn’t conquer Arakhan kingdom (1546) and Siam kingdom (1564, 1569).

His successor Bayinnaung continued his policy of expansion by conquering mainly Ava (1555), Lan na (1558), Manipur (1560), Siam (1564-1569) and Lan Xang (1574). After his death, the kingdom started to weaken and by 1593, they lost Manipur, Lan xang and Siam. By 1597, all the regions revolted.

However Bayinnaung’s son Nyaunggyan managed to reunify some part of the kingdom in upper part of Burma and nearer Shan states. Bayinnaung’s grandson, Anaukpeitlun managed to reunify the country and defeat the Portuguese in 1613.

His successor Thalun, the brother of Anaukpeitlun re-established the rules of former Pagan kingdom and set up a very successful political and economic system. Sadly, he was too focused on spending money on religious purposes and ended up neglecting his duties to the country.

Encouraged by the French, Pegou started to rebel against Ava , the kingdom then start to weaken and eventually collapsed in 1752.

Konbaung dynasty

Meanwhile, Alaungpaya, considered by many as the greatest king and a popular Burman leader, broke the Pegou’s offense in 1753. He defeated Pegou in 1759 and exterminated a large part of the Mon population. He also conquered south of Burma and Manipur, and took possession of Yangon and Tenasserim.

He also managed to drive out the French and the English. While trying to take over Ayutthaya, he was wounded and died. His son Hsinbyushin followed in his footsteps and defeated Ayutthaya in 1767.

Meanwhile, China started to be interested in Burma and the kingdom needed to break four attempts of invasion from 1766 to 1769. The Siamese used this diversion to get back their territory in 1770, and captured much of Lanna in 1776.

Another son of Alaunpaya Bodawpaya conquered Arakan and brought some tensions with the British, who also had their eyes set upon the region. His grandson Bagyidaw took Assam in 1824, and was confronted for the first time to the British interest in India.

The Anglo-Burmese War

English and Siamese decided to make an alliance. During the first Anglo-Burmese war, the coalition successfully took Assam, Arak, Manipur and Tenasserim.

The second Anglo-Burmese war, provoked by the English who had some interest in Burma’s natural resources, ended up with the annexation of Pegou province.

The third Anglo-Burmese war, initiated by the British after King Thibaw Min got closer to the French, ended up with the conquest of all Burma.

The British Domination

Burma became a province of British India in 1886 and the capital was set up in Yangon. Although the war finished quickly, there was still resistance in North of Burma until 1890. The British decided to destroy villages to stop the guerilla warfare. Its set of rules changed drastically the Burmese society with the end of the monarchy and the separation between state and religion.

With the opening of Suez Canal, the demand for Burma rice increased and Burmese economy were improving. All these factors attired many Indians people and most of the jobs went to them.

Whereas the economy of Burma grew, all the wealth and power were still under British’s hand. To know better about this period, please read the famous book from Georges Orwell “Burmese days”.

By the start of the 20th century, Burmese high society people were authorized to go to study in London and consequently gave birth to a new Burmese class of leader. With peaceful demonstrations that were set off in the 1920s, they were able to obtain a legislature with limited powers.

The Birth of “Thakin” Movement

Many students still thought that the reforms were not going fast enough and they decided to create the Thakin. In 1930, a peasant reform gave them opportunity to take the lead of the nationalist movement by gaining the trust of the farmers.

In 1937, the British decided to remove Burma from India and decided to grant a new constitution with an elected assembly. The Burmese nationalist saw the Second World War as a great opportunity to extort concessions from the British in exchange of a war effort but British refused and issued an arrest warrant against one of the Thakin leader Aung San who was forced to flee to China.

The Japanese helped him come back to Burma and to enroll 29 young men to have a military training in Hainan Island with him. This group of 30 became the well known “thirty comrades”.

The Japanese Domination

When Japan declared war to Great Britain in December 1941, Aung San announced the formation of the “Burma Independence Army” to fight beside Japan.

The Japanese invaded Yangon in 1942, while the Thai army occupied the eastern part of the country. The Japanese dissolved the “Burma Independence Army” and replaced it by the “Burma Defense Army.” Aung San remained at the head.

On August 1, 1943, the independence was announced, Ba Maw became head of state and his government included Aung San and Thakin Nu.

But Japanese made a fake promise, and Ba Maw was only a puppet. The disillusioned Aung San started to negotiate with British Lord Mountbatten and decided to join the allies in March 1945. In the meantime, Aung San also created two political parties, one of which is the Anti-Fascist Organization renamed later the Anti-Fascist freedom league. The Japanese were routed from most of Burma by May 1945.

Aung San’s Assassination

The Japanese’s surrender brought a military administration to Burma and brought some demands to judge Aung San as a past Japanese collaborator. But Lord Mountbatten, aware of the popularity of Aung San, understood it was impossible and appointed Sir Hubert Rance as the new governor.

Sir Hubert Rance succeeded to gain back the trust of Aung San and of Burmese population. Negotiation about Burma independence started and each part reached an agreement in January 1947.

However U-Saw, a pre-war minister considered that Aung San conceded too much to the British and engineered the assassination of Aung San and of almost all of his cabinet members on July 19, 1947.

Burma became independent on January 4, 1948, and Thakin Nu became the head of state.