A brief history
Myanmar is the largest country by geographical area in mainland Southeast Asia. It is also known as Burma. As the "Union of Burma," Myanmar achieved independence from the United Kingdom on 4 January 1948.
It became the "Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma" on 4 January 1974, before reverting to the "Union of Burma" on 23 September 1988. On 18 June 1989, the State Law and Order Restoration Council adopted the name "Union of Myanmar."
The Mon people are thought to be the earliest group to migrate into the lower Ayeyarwady valley, and by the mid-900s BC were dominant in southern Burma.
The Pyu arrived later, in the 1st century BC, and established several city kingdoms which traded with India and China. The most powerful Pyu kingdom was Sri Ksetra, which was subsequently abandoned in 656 AD. The Pyu re-established themselves, but in the mid-800s were invaded by the Nanzhao kingdom.
The Burmans, or Bamar, began migrating to the Ayeyarwady valley from present-day Tibet sometime before the ninth century AD. By 849, they had established a powerful kingdom centred on Bagan. During the reign of Anawratha, Burman influence expanded throughout much of present-day Myanmar.
By the 1100s, large portions of continental Southeast Asia were controlled by the Pagan Kingdom, commonly called the First Burmese Empire. In the late 1200s, Mongols under Kublai Khan invaded the Pagan Kingdom, but by 1364 the Burmans re-established their kingdom at Ava, where Burmese culture entered a golden age. However, in 1527, the Shan pillaged Ava. Meanwhile, the Mon re-established themselves at Pegu, which became a major commercial and religious centre.
Burmans who had fled from Ava established the Toungoo Kingdom in 1531 at Taungoo, under Tabinshwehti, who re-unified Burma and founded the Second Burmese Empire. Because of growing European influence in Southeast Asia, the Toungoo Kingdom became a major trading centre.
Bayinnaung expanded the empire by conquering the states of Manipur, Chiang Mai, and Ayutthaya. But internal rebellion and lack of resources to control the acquisitions led to the downfall of the Toungoo Kingdom. Anaukpetlun, who had expelled Portuguese invaders, founded a new dynasty at Ava in 1613. Internal rebellion by the Mon, aided by France, led to the kingdom's downfall in 1752.
Alaungpaya established the Konbaung Dynasty and founded the Third Burmese Empire in the 1700s. In 1767, King Hsinbyushin conquered Ayutthaya kingdom. The Qing Dynasty of China, fearful of growing Burman power, invaded four times from 1766 to 1769 without success. Later monarchs lost control of Ayutthaya, but acquired Arakan and Tenasserim.
During the reign of King Bagyidaw, in 1824, Burmese general Mahabandoola captured Assam, adjacent to British territory in India, leading to the First Anglo-Burmese War. The Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 ceded control of the coastal territories of Rakhine (Arakan) and Tanintharyi to British interests.
In 1851, King Bagan imprisoned some British officials for murder, which the British used as an excuse for the Second Anglo-Burmese War. This time, the British annexed the remaining coastal provinces — Ayeyarwady, Yangon and Bago, naming the territories they now governed as Lower Burma.
Under King Mindon Min, Upper Burma skilfully negotiated the growing threats posed by the competing interests of Britain and France. His successor, King Thibaw Min, was not so effective and a series of crises might have led to war but for the moderating hand of Lord Ripon, Gladstone's Viceroy of India (1880-1884) and an arch-Midlothianist determined to halt imperial expansion.
In 1885, however, Burmese tax collectors, acting for the King, discovered that the Bombay-Burma Trading Company had been illegally logging and hiding teak in the hope of evading taxes. King Thibaw Min fined the company.
This was seen by the new Secretary of State for India, Lord Randolph Churchill, as an insult and direct provocation. Influenced by the commercial lobby which had long pressed for a British takeover of the upper Irrawaddy to open access for British chambers of commerce to the markets of China (and deny them to advancing French colonial power in the region), Churchill used the squabble over timber duties as a pretext to take over what still remained of independent Burma.
In November 1885, the Third Anglo-Burmese War was launched with a rapid advance up the River Irrawaddy by the Burma Field Force under the command of Major General Harry Prendergast VC. Mandalay was quickly taken and the royal family were exiled to India, first to Madras and then to Ratnagiri.
Upper Burma was annexed by Churchill as a New Year present to Queen Victoria on 1 January 1886 and reunited with Lower Burma in a single province within British India. The capital may have been captured and the king deported, but Burma had not been defeated and annexation unleashed widespread resistance that proved very hard to control, let alone crush.
Not until 1896 was the war finally over, making the Third Burmese War the largest and longest of the "small wars" fought by the British during the 19th century. Kipling's poem 'Mandalay' is now all that most people in Britain remember of it.
On 1 April 1937, Burma became a separately administered territory, independent of the Indian administration. The vote for keeping Burma in India, or as a separate colony "khwe-yay-twe-yay" divided the populace, and laid the ground work for the insurgencies to come after independence. In the 1940s, the Thirty Comrades, commanded by Aung San, founded the Burma Independence Army. The Thirty Comrades received training in Japan.
During World War II, Burma became a major frontline in the Southeast Asian Theatre. The British administration collapsed ahead of the advancing Japanese troops, jails and asylums were opened and Rangoon was deserted except for the many Anglo-Burmese and Indians who remained at their posts. A stream of some 300,000 refugees fled across the jungles into India; known as 'The Trek', all but 30,000 of those 300,000 arrived in India.
Initially the Japanese-led Burma Campaign succeeded and the British were expelled from most of Burma, but the Allies counter-attacked. By July 1945, the Allies had retaken the country. The Burmese fought for both sides in the war. Although many Burmese fought initially for the Japanese, some Burmese also served in the British Burma Army.
In 1943, the Chin Levies and Kachin Levies were formed in the border districts of Burma still under British control. The Burma Rifles fought as part of the Chindits under General Orde Wingate from 1943-1945. Later in the war, the Americans created American-Kachin Rangers who also fought for the Allies.
Many other Burmese fought with the British Special Operations Executive. The Burma Independence Army under the command of Aung San and the Arakan National Army fought with the Japanese from 1942-1944, but switched allegiance to the Allied side in 1945.
In 1947, Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Burma, a transitional government. But in July 1947, political rivals assassinated Aung San and several cabinet members. On 4 January 1948, the nation became an independent republic, named the Union of Burma, with Sao Shwe Thaik as its first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister.
Unlike most other former British colonies, it did not become a member of the Commonwealth. A bicameral parliament was formed, consisting of a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Nationalities. The geographical area Myanmar encompasses today can be traced to the Panglong Agreement, which combined Burma Proper, which consisted of Lower Burma and Upper Burma, and the Frontier Areas, which had been administered separately by the British.
In 1961, U Thant, then Burma's Permanent Representative to the United Nations and former Secretary to the Prime Minister, was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations; he was the first non-Westerner to head any international organization and would serve as UN Secretary-General for ten years. Among the Burmese to work at the UN when he was Secretary-General was a young Aung San Suu Kyi.
Democratic rule ended in 1962 when General Ne Win led a military coup d'état. He ruled for nearly 26 years and pursued policies under the rubric of the Burmese Way to Socialism. In 1974, the military violently suppressed anti-government protests at the funeral of U Thant.
In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression by the government led to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country known as the 8888 Uprising. In response, General Saw Maung staged a coup d'état and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989, SLORC declared martial law after widespread protests. The military government finalized plans for People's Assembly elections on 31 May 1989.
In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats, but the election results were annulled by SLORC, which refused to step down. SLORC renamed Burma 'Myanmar' in the English language in 1989.
Led by Than Shwe since 1992, the military regime has made cease-fire agreements with most ethnic guerrilla groups. In 1992, SLORC unveiled plans to create a new constitution through the National Convention, which began 9 January 1993. To date, this military-organized National Convention has not produced a new constitution despite well over ten years of operation. In 1997, the State Law and Order Restoration Council was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
On 23 June 1997, Myanmar was admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The National Convention continues to convene and adjourn. Many major political parties, particularly the NLD, have been absent or excluded, and little progress has been made.
On 27 March 2006, the military junta, which had moved the national capital from Yangon to a site near Pyinmana, officially named it Naypyidaw, meaning "city of the kings."
In September of 2006, the US led effort to include Burma on the United Nations Security Council Agenda finally passed allowing the UNSC to discuss officially how it will deal with the human rights situation in Burma.
In January of 2007, Russia and China vetoed a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would have urged Burma to ease repression and release political prisoners. In November of 2006, the International Labor Organization announced it will be seeking charges against Myanmar over the continuous forced labour of its citizens by the military at the International Court of Justice.
Power struggles have plagued Burma's military leadership. Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was sacked and arrested in 2004. The former premier, who said he supported Aung San Suu Kyi's involvement in the National Convention, was seen as a moderate who was at odds with the junta's hardliners.
The state controls Burma's main broadcasters and publications. For the most part, the media are propaganda tools and tend not to report opposing views except to criticise them. Editors and reporters are answerable to the military authorities.
The English-language daily New Light of Myanmar does publish many heavily-edited foreign news reports from international agencies, but its domestic news content strictly adheres to and reinforces government policy.
All forms of domestic public media are officially-controlled or censored. This strict control, in turn, encourages self-censorship on the part of journalists.
The BBC, Voice of America, the US-backed Radio Free Asia and the Norway-based opposition station Democratic Voice of Burma target listeners in Burma.
Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders has placed Burma among the bottom 10 countries in its world press freedom ranking. It says the press is subject to "relentless advance censorship".