Exploring Myanmar history will somewhat explain the sort of time warp one will step into if visiting the country. From Burma to Myanmar, from oppressive regimes to gentle Buddhist monks, and from a backdrop so natural there’s not an internet café or 7-11 in sight, Myanmar is a welcome step back in time. History relays a troubled past, and modern times, though changing, still see this country as one of the most oppressed and politically troubled. Yet being welcomed like long-lost family member, seeing breathtaking temples and stupas, and peering into traditional ways of life maintained from bygone eras is a welcome change from the banana-pancake-laden and guesthouse-ridden trails of many other Southeast Asian countries.
The Pyu, from Yunnan China, were the first people to enter the region called Burma and known as Myanmar today in the second century BCE via the Irrawaddy River. In around the ninth century, the Mon began establishing their own states further south near borders along the coast. The Pagan Empire, built by the Burmans, ruled in the early ninth century, unifying the entire Irrawaddy Valley and surroundings. Slowly, Burmese culture and language evolved, displacing Mon and Pyu influences. It was during this period that many of the beautiful temples and pagodas were built.
Wars and constantly changing alliances became the norm after the Pagan’s fell in 1287. The Toungoo (1510-1752) built the biggest of all empires in Southeast Asia history. Economic and administrative reform instilled by the Toungoo brought peace and prosperity throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Between 1752 and 1885, the Konbaung Dynasty revitalized the kingdom, continuing improvements. Their rule spanned beyond the kingdom to peripheral areas. Many years saw wars and conflict with neighboring countries including China and Siam (now Thailand). It took almost sixty years for the Toungoo to fall to the British Forces. At this point, Myanmar history took a radical change.
British rule changed everything, bringing forth economic, administrative, and social change. Then called Burma, Myanmar was made into a province of India by the British in 1886. The demise of the monarchy and the separation of state and religion completely changed society and major resistance by the Burmese continued on in seemingly endless civil strife, especially in the north, up until 1890. To stop Burmese guerillas, the British systematically destroyed towns and villages and assigned new officials. Eventually the Japanese overtook Burma and drove out both Chinese and British forces during 1942 through 1945 forming a Burmese bureaucratic government during occupation.
Independence & Military Rule
Between 1948 and 1962 in Myanmar history, the country enjoyed independence. In 1962 a coup was staged by Army General Ne Win to dethrone the civilian government and consequently many industries were run by the military. Traveling to and from Burma was virtually impossible as the country was closed off to the rest of the world. This led to severe economic deterioration. The despotic rule of the general lasted until 1988, after he declared himself Burma’s president.
The daughter of Myanmar’s founder Aung San, called Aung San Suu Kyi, held a prominent role as a leader of the democratic party rising up against the Burmese governments human and political rights violations. Today, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient is prominent in the news as a agent of change and reform. The party managed to provoke such civil unrest that the general retired himself and the military became directly in control of the government.
The military’s SLORC (State Law and Restoration Council), ruled by top military officials, changed Burma’s name to Myanmar. Civil protests led to curfews, jailing, universities and school’s closing, and eventually alarming rates of military massacres. On July 20, 1989 in more recent Myanmar history, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under military house arrest where she remained for almost two decades.
2010 to Present Reform
Burmese democratic reforms have been ongoing since 2010-2011. They are a series of economic, political, and administrative reforms in Myanmar implemented by USDP (Union Solidarity & Development Party). The long-standing issue of the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratic leader and Nobel laureate, is part of them - as is the release of hundreds of political prisoners, and the instillation of several key laws; a more tolerable attitude to the press with less censorship, the allowance of unions and strikes in labor forces, and more. These reforms are met with many considering they are to be enacted by the USDP government that came into power in 2010. Today, tourism is a new and developing part of the country, with emphasis on the temples, pagodas, precious gems, and Irrawaddy river cruises.