A Brief History of Myanmar

By Tim Lambert

Early Myanmar

By 300 BC a rich civilization existed in southern Myanmar. A people called the Mon lived in the estuaries of the rivers Sittang and Saliveen. The Indians called it the Land of Gold. This civilization in Myanmar was also known to the Chinese.

Then after 100 BC, a people called the Pyu settled in northern Myanmar. Between the 1st century BC and the 9th century AD, they created city-states there.

In the 9th century AD a people called the Bamar from the borders of China and Tibet arrived in north Myanmar. In 849 they founded the city of Pagan. In 1044 Anawrahta became king of Pagan and he united the Bamar people. Then in 1057 Anawrahta conquered the Mon kingdom of Thaton so founding the first Myanmarese Empire. Nevertheless the Bamar assimilated Mon culture and they were heavily influenced by it.

The 12th century was the golden age of Myanmar but in the mid-13th century, the empire began to decline. Then in 1287, the Mongols invaded Myanmar. They soon withdrew but afterwards, the Myanmarese empire broke up. The Mon people in the south became independent and a people called the Shan from what is now Thailand seized part of Myanmar.

In the 15th century, the first Europeans reached Myanmar. An Italian named Nicolo di Conti traveled to Bago.

Later, in the 16th century, the Bamar people revived. They conquered the Shan and created a second Myanmarese Empire. Then in the 17th century the French, British, and Dutch made trading contacts with Myanmar.

Yet the Second Empire declined and in 1752 the Mon people of the south, with help from the French captured the Bamar capital of Inwa bringing it to an end.

However, the Mon triumph did not last long. A Bamar called Alaungpaya led a counterattack. He took Inwa in 1753 and captured the Mon capital in 1755. (He renamed it Yangon). In 1785 his successor Bodawpaya conquered western Myanmar. So he came to rule all of Myanmar.

The British in Myanmar

However, the Myanmarese then came into conflict with the British in India. The British conquered Myanmar in stages and then added it to their colony of India. The British and the Myanmarese fought three wars. After the first Anglo-Myanmarese War of 1824-1836, the British took parts of western Myanmar. In 1852 after another war they took parts of southern Myanmar. Finally, after a third war in 1885, the remaining part of Myanmar was formally annexed by Britain on 1 January 1886.

Not surprisingly the Myanmarese were resentful and in the early 20th century nationalism grew. In 1932 there was a rebellion in Myanmar but it was crushed. However, in 1937, the British made Myanmar a separate colony from India. They also granted Myanmar a legislative council.

The Japanese invaded Myanmar in January 1942. They gradually drove back the British and they captured Mandalay on 1 May 1942. Then in December 1942 and in February 1943, the British launched two offensives. Both failed. However, in March 1944 the Japanese invaded India but failed. Then from June 1944, the British pursued them into Myanmar. The British captured Mandalay on 20 March 1945 and they occupied Rangoon (Yangon) on 3 May 1945.

However, by 1945 it was clear that the British could no longer hold onto Myanmar. In 1947 they agreed to make Myanmar independent. Elections for a constituent assembly were held in April 1947 and work began on drawing up a new constitution. Myanmar became independent on 4 January 1948.

Independent Myanmar

However, Myanmar faced several years of near-anarchy because some ethnic minorities distrusted the Bamar and rose in rebellion. However, the government managed to restore order in most of Myanmar in the 1950s.

However, during the 1950s Myanmar went through an economic crisis. Finally in 1962 General Win seized power. He announced that Burma (Myanmar) would follow the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. However, it turned out to be the ‘Burmese Way to Poverty’. As in other countries socialism did not work and the standards of living in Myanmar fell.

Eventually, the people of Myanmar lost patience. Demonstrations were held in 1987 and 1988. Ne Win stepped down in July 1988 but the military continued to rule Myanmar. On 8 August 1988, a popular demonstration was held but it was crushed by the military. Thousands of people were killed.

Nevertheless, the military government in Myanmar promised to hold elections. The opposition rallied around Aung San Suu Kyi. However, she was banned from participating in the election and was placed under house arrest.

Not surprisingly the opposition won the election but the military government refused to let the elected parliament take power.

Moreover, in 1999 the International Labor Organisation recommended sanctions against Myanmar because of its government’s use of forced labor.

Myanmar remained a very poor country after decades of economic mismanagement even though Myanmar is rich in resources. Furthermore, Myanmar suffered from mass unemployment and high inflation.

21st Century Myanmar

In 2007 price rises prompted Buddhist monks to demonstrate and the long-suffering Myanmarese people flocked to support them. However, the military government brutally suppressed the demonstrations. Many people were killed or detained.

In 2008 Myanmar was devastated by Cyclone Nargis, which killed tens of thousands and left many more homeless. Nevertheless, the junta went ahead with a referendum on a new constitution. They claimed that 92% voted yes.

Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 2010. In 2012 by-elections were held in Myanmar and she won a seat in parliament. A general election was held in 2015 and in 2016 Htin Kyaw was sworn in as president. Win Myint replaced him in 2018. Meanwhile, Myanmar is rich in minerals. It has gas and oil deposits. Furthermore, the soil in Myanmar is fertile. So there is every reason to be optimistic about the future of Myanmar.

In 2023 the population of Myanmar was 54 million.

Last revised 2024