‘The Origins of Myanmar’
This series of three articles concerning the Republic of the Union of Myanmar aims to provide the audience with an understanding of a fascinating country that has kept to the shadows for the majority of the past century. Only recently has the nation emerged from the bleak depths of a suppressive military dictatorship. This first article will briefly outline the country’s tormented history, whilst the second will illuminate what is currently happening. The final article will seek to predict what the future holds, and whether or not true peace and democracy can be established.
Myanmar is a curiously beautiful country, from the torrid, bustling Yangon streets that converge towards the iconic Sule Pagoda to the thousands of serene pagodas in the ancient cities of Bagan. However, it has only recently opened itself up to the rest of the world after falling under a coups d’état in 1962, only fourteen years after the country became independent. Currently, the entire country is in a state of change. This transformation is dramatic; it is evident from the proliferation of smart phones clutched in millions of Burmese hands to the lack of military presence on the streets. Still, the complex intricacies of this nation remain relatively unknown to the rest of the world, and much more change needs to occur before the nation catches up to the rest of the world.
The nation that is now universally recognized as Burma was first formed during the golden age of Pagan during the 11th century. King Anawrahta Minsaw, the founder of the Pagan Empire and the father of the Burmese nation, is an important figure in Burmese history. King Anawrahta introduced key social and economic reforms, which contributed to the successful unification of the Irrawaddy valley for the first time in history. The success and longevity of Pagan’s dominance over this crucial piece of land laid the foundations for the propagation of Burmese culture and language throughout surrounding regions. Additionally, King Anawrahta’s strong Buddhist beliefs instigated the construction of the thousands of temples and pagodas for which Pagan is now renowned.
Myanmar has always been a country consisting of multiple ethnicities and races, with a series of monarchs attempting to establish absolute rule across independent states, all with varying degrees of success. However, the ever-opportunist British Government took advantage of Burma’s segregation and inherent political instability during the 19th Century. After three Anglo-Burmese wars from 1824 to 1886, the British successfully colonized the nation. From then, Burma became officially annexed as a province of British India and subsequently, the ancient Burmese culture and their way of life became tainted with British influence and foreign traditions.
Under British rule, the numerous ethnic minorities became even more divided. Around the start of the 20th Century, a movement centred on nationalist spirit was born in the form of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) as the colonial authorities permitted the gathering of religious practices. The authority of colonial rule became increasingly challenged as Burma’s intelligentsia and Buddhist monks organised the first protests against the British. This was compounded with the generation of new Burmese leaders who were permitted to study law in London. These educated few were instilled with the idea that the Burma could be dramatically improved through reform. As such, progressive constitutional reforms around this time were introduced into a legislature with limited powers and more liberty for Burma within British India.
A majority of these nationalist ideas began in Yangon University, the oldest university in Myanmar’s modern education system and famous for being the centre of anti-colonial sentiment. All three nationwide strikes against the British colonial government which occurred in 1920, 1936 and 1938 respectively, were held at the university. Furthermore, the university produced a number of prominent Burmese politicians including General Aung San, who later became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Myanmar, the transitional government between colonial and independent Burma. It can be argued, however, that General Aung San’s greatest legacy is his youngest daughter, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the current State Counsellor of Myanmar. Where General Aung Sang is generally considered as the father of modern day Myanmar, his daughter would grow up to be the leader of Myanmar’s democracy.
The Burmese coup d’état on March 2nd 1962 marked the beginning of an oppressive military junta within the country, as well as the political of dominance of the army. The previous civilian government, which was led by Myanmar’s first Prime Minister U Nu was replaced by the Union Revolutionary Council headed by General Ne Win. This regime lasted a total of 26 years, where the first 12 years were regulated by martial law and saw an exponential increase in the military’s role within the nation’s economic and political interests.
As a consequence, the federal system was abolished and “the Burmese Way to Socialism” was inaugurated, along with a single-state party. Independent newspapers were banned, and as the repression continued to worsen with every year, thousands of innocent civilians and advocates of human rights and democracy were arrested and other protesters killed in anti-government riots. In the midst of it all, General Aung’s daughter fuelled the nation’s desire for democracy and lead the National League for Democracy (NLD), which ultimately won a landslide victory in 2010.