Myanmar, or Burma as it is still more familiarly known in the West, is a country where magnificent and ancient Buddhist temples gaze out serenely over a nation restless for change. Myanmar has plenty of wonders for the eye–sinuous, life-giving rivers, lush mountain forests, and intricately-drawn cities–but it can also trouble the soul. For the last 30 years, its people have been ruled by a notoriously repressive military government, the tatmadaw.
Travel to Myanmar is as a result a rather vexed moral question, as the bulk of tourist revenue falls into the government’s coffers. Against this coldly financial argument, however, is the notion that interaction with Myanmar’s people and culture helps to encourage change. Both perspectives have their defenders; we at Interknowledge leave the decision to you.
Location, Geography, Climate
Myanmar’s coastline defines the eastern shore of the Bay of Bengal, running from the Bangladesh border in the northwest down to the Malay Peninsula and Thai territory in the southeast. Southern Myanmar consists largely of the western slopes of the Bilauktaung Range, which constitutes the northern base of the Malay Peninsula. Northern Myanmar, which comprises the great bulk of the country’s area, consists largely of the broad river valley of the Irrawaddy. Originating high up in the very eastern extremity of the Himalayas, the Irrawaddy rushes down through great mountain gorges in northern Myanmar before spreading out into one of the largest river deltas in Asia. Both of Myanmar’s principal cities–Rangoon and Mandalay–are situated along the Irrawaddy, and the 1,000 mi (1,600 km) river is navigable for almost two thirds of its length. The Irrawaddy valley is surrounded by a great horseshoe of mountain ranges, which rise in the east to the highlands of the Shan Plateau.
The vast majority of Myanmar’s people live in the lowland regions of this river valley, in the Irrawaddy basin. This fertile expanse, which sits within the tropical monsoon belt, is one of the world’s great rice-growing regions. Myanmar’s population includes dozens of different racial and ethnic groups, including the Mon, Burmans, Kachins, Chins, Shans, Rakhine, and Karens, each of which have historically dominated a particular area of the country. Although Burmese is the major and official language, more than a hundred local and regional dialects are spoken throughout Myanmar
History and Culture
Sometime in the first few centuries before Christ, a people called the Mons wound their way out of central Asia and down to the Thanlwin and Sittoung rivers. They spoke a dialect of the Mon-Khmer family of languages, and they were the first people known to inhabit what is now Myanmar. The Mons called the region the land of gold, practiced Buddhism, and traded with India’s great king Ashoka.
The Mons were not to be the only people in Mynamar for long. A few centuries later, the Pyu people arrived from Tibet, and they were followed by the Bamars who settled along the rich Irrawaddy river, which they controlled from Pagan.
It was the Bamars who established the First Burmese Empire. Under King Anawrata, they conquered the Mon capital of Thaton and took a legendary 30,000 prisoners back to Pagan. The subtle appeal of the Buddhism the Mon practiced became a powerful conduit of their culture (a pattern seen in India as well) and Anawrata himself converted to Buddhism. The Bamars even adopted the Mon language. The Mons were not, apparently, very much appeased by these signs of cultural appreciation, as they later rebelled and killed Anawrata’s son. They were quickly crushed by Kyanzitta, a Bamar general who soon assumed rulership.
Kyanzitta’s rise marked the beginning of Burma’s golden age, when the bounty of rice irrigated by the Irrawady nourished civilization as it never had before. Thousands of temples were built, and the arts flourished. The kingdom’s health didn’t last long, however. Within a century, Kublai Khan appeared on the horizon, at the head of Mongol armies that were in their time the most powerful military forces on earth. The Khan’s demand for tribute was met with defiance by the Burmese King Narathihapate, and the Mongol invasion started to roll in. Ironically, it was not the ferocious Mongols who posed the greatest threat to Narathihapate: he was poisoned by his son, who later lost the kingdom to the Mongols in 1287 at the battle of Vochan.
The Mons and the Bamar withdrew to the South, where they founded the enchanting city of Bago. In the North, descendants of the Tai people, called the Shan, founded a kingdom at Innwa. Soon the Mons and the Shan went to war, at almost exactly the time the Europeans started moving into Asia.
It was Nicoto di Conti, a Venetian, who was the first European to encounter Myanmar. Di Conti visited Bago in 1435 and stayed for four months. In 1498, the Portugeuse Vasco de Gama found a sea route to India, opening wide the path to Asia. Soon the Portugeuse had a colony in India at Goa, which they used as a base for eastern trade. De Gama’s countryman Anthony Correa made the first trade agreement in Myanmar with the viceroy of Martaban in 1519. The viceroy’s king, Tabinshweti, disapproved of the agreement, which was settled without his consent. Tabinshweti attacked Martaban in 1541, and, surprisingly, 700 Portuguese fought on his side. The Loyalist Portuguese retreated to Rahkine, another of the region’s kingdoms, and allied themselves with the monarch of Myohuang.
In 1600, a Portuguese cabin-boy named Philip de Brito y Nicote came to Myanmar, beginning one of the most legendary tales in Burma’s history. De Brito took a job with the king of Rahkine, who had by that time conquered Bago, and soon started constructing forts in the city. De Brito then took a trip to Goa, married the viceroy’s daughter, and returned to Bago with men and weapons. As a wedding present to himself, he conquered Myanmar, declared himself king, and set about destroying Buddhist temples. De Brito ruled for 13 years, until the locals finally laid siege to his fortress. After 34 days the bastion fell, and the foreign tyrant was coolly impaled on a wooden stake, his grueling execution lasting three days.
Despite the fall of De Brito’s personal kingdom, the European presence in Myanmar was there to stay, especially that of the British. Along the with French and Dutch, the British had colonies in Myanmar by the mid-17th century, although a Bamar king named Alaungpaya kicked out both the French and the British later in the century. Alaungpaya conquered Rahkine, extending his border all the way to the Bengal border, until the British Raj in nearby India decided that he had come too close for their comfort. The British invaded Burma in 1819, conquering Rahkine, Tanintharyi, Assam, and Manipur. In 1852, they extended their control to Lower Burma. By 1886, they had annexed the entire country as a province of India and ruled it through the Raj.
As Asian independence movements began to cause problems for the British empire around the turn of the century, the British decided that it might be wise to grant some degree of autonomy in Burma. The symbolic gesture was unsurprisingly insufficient, and in 1930 a Burman named Saya San led a major armed rebellion against the British. The revolt was quashed and San executed, but the experience did inspire Britain to make Burma a separate colony. This slight rise in status was not enough, however, for Thakin Aung San, a student leader who spoke out eloquently for independence.
San was eventually arrested for his statements, but he escaped to China, where he collaborated with the Japanese. The Japanese made him promises of independence, provided he help them oust the British. In 1941, the Japanese and San did exactly that. In a legendary retreat, the British lost thousands of men, vowing to return. The allies were eventually able to take Burma back, but only after four years of incredibly arduous and deadly fighting. Aung San, who realized that the Japanese had their own imperialistic interests in his country, eventually sided with the allies.
The British granted independence to Burma in 1947, though they were worried that local fighting would erupt soon afterward. Aung San, who was ostensibly to have been the new leader, was assassinated the same year, and his colleague Thankin Nu became president. Thankin Nu stayed in power only briefly, asking General Ne Win to assume control as soon as the first signs of civil unrest erupted in 1958. Nu returned to power in 1960, partly because he promised the Mon and Rakhine semi-autonomy. Nu’s refusal to grant the same status to the Shan and the Kayins prompted another rebellion in 1962, and this time General Ne Win assumed control without waiting to be asked.
Ne Win, a radical communist, had Nu arrested and isolated the country, at the same time declaring the tatmadaw, or military government. After Nu was released in 1966, he fled the country and began to organize a rebellion. His forces managed to hold some land in 1971, but they were eventually thrown out. In 1981, Ne Win stepped down, granting amnesty to all political enemies. Nu returned home and died peacefully.
In 1988, a huge demonstration led by students resulted in a violent crackdown by the tatmadaw, who agreed to democratic elections in 1989. When the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 60 percent of the votes, however, the tatmadaw declared the elections invalid, as no agreement had been reached on the role of the new leaders. Since that time the military government has made repeated gestures toward democratic government, although they have in fact taken no real steps in that direction. The democracy movement’s current leader, Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of Aung San), was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest. Suu Kyi continues to lead the movement today.