Myanmar Overview: History
Early History through World War II
Myanmar's early history is mainly the story of the struggle of the Burmans against the Mons, or Talaings (of Mon-Khmer origin). In 1044, King Anawratha established Burman supremacy over the Ayeyarwady delta and over Thaton, capital of the Mon kingdom. Anawratha adopted Theravada Buddhism from the Mons. His capital, Bagan,
the city of a thousand temples, was the seat of his dynasty until it was conquered by Kublai Khan in 1287. Then Shan princes predominated in upper Myanmar, and the Mons revived in the south.
In the 16th cent. the Burman Toungoo dynasty unified the country and initiated the permanent subjugation of the Shans to the Burmans. In the 18th cent. the Mons of the Ayeyarwady delta overran the Dry Zone. In 1758, Alaungapaya rallied the Burmans, crushed the Mons, and established his capital at Yangon. He extended Burman influence to areas in present-day India (Assam and Manipur) and Thailand. Myanmar was ruled by his successors (the Konbaung dynasty) when friction with the British over border areas in India led to war in 1824.
The Treaty of Yandabo (1826) forced Myanmar to cede to British India the Rakhine and Tanintharyi coasts. In a second war (1852) the British occupied the Ayeyarwady delta. Fear of growing French strength in the region, in addition to economic considerations, caused the British to instigate the third Anglo-Burman War (1885) to gain complete control of Myanmar. The Burman king was captured, and the remainder of the country was annexed to India. Under British rule rice cultivation in the delta was expanded, an extensive railroad network was built, and the natural resources of Myanmar were developed. Exploitation of the rich oil deposits of Yenangyaung in central Myanmar was begun in 1871; the export of metals also became important.
Until the 20th cent. Myanmar was allowed no self-government. In 1923 a system of
dyarchy, already in effect in the rest of British India, was introduced, whereby a partially elected legislature was established and some ministers were made responsible to it. In 1935 the British gave Myanmar a new constitution (effective 1937), which separated the country from British India and provided for a fully elected assembly and a responsible cabinet.
During World War II, Myanmar was invaded and quickly occupied by the Japanese, who set up a nominally independent Burman regime under Dr. Ba Maw. Disillusioned members of the Burmese Independent Army (which the Japanese had formed secretly before the war to assist in expelling the British) under Aung San formed an anti-Japanese resistance movement, the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL). Allied forces drove the Japanese out of Myanmar in Apr., 1945.
Independence and Civil Strife
In 1947 the British and Aung San reached agreement on full independence for Myanmar. Most of the non-Burman peoples supported the agreement, although the acquiescence of many proved short-lived. Despite the assassination of Aung San in July, 1947, the agreement went into effect on Jan. 4, 1948. Myanmar became an independent republic outside the Commonwealth of Nations. The new constitution provided for a bicameral legislature with a responsible prime minister and cabinet. Non-Burman areas were organized as the Shan, Kachin, Kayin, Kayah, and Chin states; each possessed a degree of autonomy.
The government, controlled by the socialist AFPFL, was soon faced with armed risings of Communist rebels and of Karen tribespeople, who wanted a separate Karen nation. International tension grew over the presence in Myanmar of Chinese Nationalist troops who had been forced across the border by the Chinese Communists in 1950 and who were making forays into China. Myanmar took the matter to the United Nations, which in 1953 ordered the Nationalists to leave Myanmar. In foreign affairs Myanmar followed a generally neutralist course. It refused to join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and was one of the first countries to recognize the Communist government in China.
In the elections of 1951–52 the AFPFL triumphed. In 1958 the AFPFL split into two factions; with a breakdown of order threatening, Premier U Nu invited General Ne Win, head of the army, to take over the government (Oct., 1958). After the 1960 elections, which were won by U Nu's faction, civilian government was restored. However, as rebellions among the minorities flared and opposition to U Nu's plan to make Buddhism the state religion mounted, conditions deteriorated rapidly.
In Mar., 1962, Ne Win staged a military coup, discarded the constitution, and established a Revolutionary Council, made up of military leaders who ruled by decree. While the federal structure was retained, a hierarchy of workers' and peasants' councils was created. A new party, the Myanmar Socialist Program party, was made the only legal political organization. The Revolutionary Council fully nationalized the industrial and commercial sectors of the economy and imposed a policy of international isolation.
Insurgency became a major problem of the Ne Win regime. Pro-Chinese Communist rebels—the
White Flag Communists—were active in the northern part of the country, where, from 1967 on, they received aid from Communist China; the Chinese established links with the Shan and Kachin insurgents as well. The deposed U Nu, who managed to leave Myanmar in 1969, also used minority rebels to organize an anti–Ne Win movement among the Shans, Karens, and others in the east. However, in 1972, U Nu split with minority leaders over their assertion of the right to secede from Myanmar.
By the early 1970s the various insurgent groups controlled about one third of Myanmar. Ne Win and other top leaders resigned from the military in 1972 but continued to retain power. A new constitution, providing for a unicameral legislature and one legal political party, took effect in Mar., 1974. At that time the Revolutionary Council was disbanded and Ne Win was installed as president. Economic strife and ethnic tensions throughout the 1970s and 80s led to antigovernment riots in 1988, which caused Ne Win to resign from office. The series of governments that followed failed to restore order, and the military seized control under the name of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC); some 3,000 were killed when the demonstrations were suppressed. In June, 1989, the military government officially changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar.
In elections held in May, 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a large majority of assembly seats. However, the SLORC declared the election results invalid and arrested many leaders and members of the NLD. Aung San Suu Kyi , the leader of the NLD, had been placed under house arrest in 1989; she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In 1992, General Than Shwe became head of the junta and assumed the position of prime minister; many political prisoners were released, most martial law decrees were lifted, and plans to draft a new constitution were announced. However, there was little evidence that the army was prepared to return the government to civilian control. A UN General Assembly committee unanimously condemned the military regime for its refusal to surrender power to a democratically elected parliament.
During the mid-1990s the military government signed cease-fires with the insurgent ethnic minorities except the Karens; the government launched a major offensive against their stronghold in E Myanmar along the Thai border in 1997. Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 1995 and became active as an opposition leader; the military government denounced her and harassed her followers. In Jan., 1996, Khun Sa, a major opium lord and leader of a private army, surrendered and allowed government troops to enter his jungle headquarters; it was speculated that he might have been granted amnesty and allowed to continue drug activities in return for ending his insurgency.
In 1997 the SLORC changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Myanmar moved toward closer political and economic relations with neighboring India and Thailand in the 1990s, and in 1999 it was accepted as a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Human-rights groups continued to report numerous abuses, including the jailing of trade unionists and the increased use of members of ethnic minority groups as forced laborers, and harassment of and crackdowns on the opposition were regular occurrences. In Nov., 2000, the International Labor Organization called for sanctions against Myanmar because of the country's use of forced labor, but significant economic measures were not imposed because they would be barred by the World Trade Organization, to which Myanmar belongs.
Aung San Suu Kyi was again placed under house arrest from Sept., 2000, to May, 2002. Although many of her supporters had hoped that her 2002 release signaled a new attitude on the part of the SPDC, talks between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government, which had begun during her confinement, did not resume as expected. As she increased her criticism of the SPDC in 2003, her motorcade was attacked in May, her supporters were blamed for the violence, and she and other NLD leaders again placed in detention or under house arrest. The renewed repression led to new international sanctions and criticism of the government; like the earlier sanctions, these did not have a significant effect, in large part because of significant trade with and investments from China, Thailand, India, and Singapore. A number of NLD leaders were freed beginning in November. Meanwhile, in Aug., 2003, Gen. Khin Nyunt, who headed military intelligence, succeeded Than Shwe as prime minister; the latter remained head of the junta.
In May, 2004, the government convened a constitutional convention, but the NLD boycotted the convention because of Aung San Suu Kyi's continuing detention. The convention adjourned in July. Khin Nyunt, who was regarded as one of the more moderate SPDC members, was forced from office in Oct., 2004. Lt. Gen. Soe Win replaced him. Khin Nyunt was subsequently (2005) secretly tried on corruption and bribery charges and given a suspended sentence.
The country did not suffer significant damage as a result of the Dec., 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami. The government reconvened the constitutional convention in Feb., 2005, but adjourned it again at the end of March. The government arrest of Shan leaders on treason charges in Feb., 2005, following a government call for Shan forces to disarm, led the Shan that had signed a 1995 cease-fire with the government to resume their struggle and declare (May, 2005) Shan State independent. In Nov., 2005, the government announced that the capital would be moved to near Pyinmana from Yangon and that it had begun relocating ministries there. The move was presented as a transfer of the government to a more central location, but outside observers regarded it as an attempt to relocate to a more isolated and secure site.
The constitutional convention was again reconvened from Dec., 2005, to Jan., 2006, from Oct., 2006, to Dec., 2006, and from July to Sept., 2007, which the government announced that it had completed its work of writing the detailed guidelines for a new constitution. Under the guidelines the military would control important government ministries and sizable blocks of legislative seats. Meanwhile, in Apr., 2006, the government accused the NLD of having ties to terrorist groups, a charge the NLD denied. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which usually raises issues of concern confidentially with national governments, publicly criticized Myanmar's military regime of major human rights abuses in June, 2007.
In May, Lt. Gen. Thein Sein became acting prime minister; Soe Win, the prime minister, was seriously ill, and died in October. Fuel price rises in Aug., 2007, led to antigovernment demonstrations that came to involve large numbers of Buddhist monks. The protests continued into September, when the government brutally suppressed them and arrested some 3,000 people (the official figure). In Feb., 2008, the government announced that the new constitution was completed and that a national referendum on it would be held in May. The proposed constitution was not published, however, until April.
In May, 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated areas of Myanmar bordering the Andaman Sea, especially in the Ayeyarwady delta and greater Yangon regions. An estimated 138,000 persons were killed, and rebuilding costs were estimated at $1 billion. The junta initially appeared reluctant to accept international aid and for a time refused international help in distributing the aid. Despite the cyclone, the constitutional referendum went ahead as scheduled (with a two-week delay in devastated areas); the vote, criticized internationally as a sham, overwhelming approved the charter, which entered into force later in the month. In Nov., 2008, Myanmarese oil-and-gas exploration ships in disputed waters in the Bay of Bengal were confronted by the Bangladeshi navy; both nations subsequently withdrew their vessels.
The government broke a 20-year cease-fire with the rebels in Kokang, in NE Shan State, in Aug., 2009; the small rebel force was soon defeated, but some 37,000 refugees fled across the Chinese border. (Fighting continued with Wa rebels, who had joined the conflict; an accord was signed with the Wa in 2013.) China called on Myanmar to maintain stability in the border region, and most refugees soon returned. The government's move was part of its campaign to force the members of the various ethnic rebel armies to join the border guards and to have members of the ethnic groups participate in the elections under the new constitution.
In Mar., 2010, in advance of expected elections under the constitution adopted in 2008, the government announced election laws forbidding civil servants, members of religious orders, and persons imprisoned for crimes from being members of political parties. These and other restrictions appeared intended to abolish the NLD or force it to oust Aung San Suu Kyi and other prominent jailed members. At the same time, the government also officially annulled the 1990 election that the NLD won. In April, Thein Sein and other government leaders resigned from the army prior to run as civilians in upcoming elections; additional senior officers resigned in August.
The NLD refused to reregister under the new election laws, and it and several other parties were dissolved by the government later in 2010. An NLD faction that objected to the election boycott formed the National Democratic Force to run in the November elections. The Union Solidarity and Development party (USDP), the main party aligned with the military, won more than three quarters of the nonappointed seats in parliament in November; opposition parties, including a second party aligned with the military, accused the USDP of fraud, and the elections were widely condemned internationally. Following the election, Aung San Suu Kyi was released.
In Feb., 2011, the new parliament elected Thein Sein president. The military junta was officially dissolved the following month when the new government took office, but it was unclear if Than Shwe remained the country's real leader as head of the State Supreme Council, a shadowy extraconstitutional body. In June, significant fighting erupted in Kachin and Shan states with Kachin rebels (who had maintained a cease-fire since the 1990s); the conflict was centered on the Momauk area in S Kachin State, where China was building a hydroelectric project. In September the government halted work on another Chinese-funded hydroelectric project that had aroused much opposition, Myitsone, in central Kachin. In addition to these and other projects on the tributaries of the Ayeyarwady, proposed dams on the Thanlwin also became a sources of tension with ethnic groups, and the army was used to forcibly residents from construction areas.
The second half of 2011 saw a number of improvements in relations between the government and the opposition, including a meeting between the president and Aung San Suu Kyi and the release of some political prisoners (nearly all political prisoners were released by the end of 2013), and in Jan., 2012, the NLD received approval to run candidates in the upcoming April elections. A cease-fire was signed in early 2012 with Karen rebels, who had been fighting government forces since the country's indepedence in 1948. The agreement was perhaps the most significant of the several cease-fires reached between the government and ethnic rebel groups in 2011–12, but many groups remain at war with the government. The national cease-fire agreement signed in Oct., 2015, included only eight of the country's rebel groups; a few additional groups signed in subsequent years. Aung San Suu Kyi and more than 40 NLD candidates won seats in parliament in the Apr., 2012, voting; the NLD captured nearly all the seats that were up for election. The changes in the political situation in Myanmar led to the easing or removal of sanctions that had been imposed on the country, and revived contacts with Western nations.
In June, 2012, ethnic violence between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingyas in Rakhine State in W Myanmar displaced tens of thousands and led the government to declare a state of emergency there. Tensions between the groups continued, however, and in October significant violence again erupted. Many Rohingyas ended up living in squalid camps. Beginning in Mar., 2013, recurring violence erupted between Buddhists and Muslims, first in Meikhtila, central Myanmar; mainly involving attacks against Muslims, the violence spread to a number of towns and villages elsewhere in the country. In early 2015, fighting erupted with the Kokang rebels in Shan State, leading to a new surge of refugees across the Chinese border. In the Nov., 2015, elections, the NLD won solid majorities in both houses of the Assembly of the Union, giving it the power to elect the next president. Htin Kyaw , a close aide to Suu Kyi, was elected president in Mar., 2016; he became Myanmar's first civilian head of state since U Nu was overthrown in 1962. Suu Kyi, constitutionally barred from the presidency, became foreign minister, and was then named state counselor, a position with prime ministerial powers that was created by parliament.
After a Rohingya insurgent group mounted a deadly attack against police in Oct., 2016, military forces in the subsequent four-month government crackdown in N Rakhine State were accused of committing atrocities against Rohingya villagers. The crackdown led in Aug., 2017, to Rohingya insurgent attacks against police posts and an army base in N Rakhine, which then sparked attacks on Rohingyas by the military and Buddhist mobs. Rohingya villages were burned, some 7,000 Rohingyas were believed to have been killed, and hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh; the military claimed Rohingya insurgents were burning the villages. Htin Kyaw stepped down as president in Mar., 2018; Win Myint, the speaker of the House of Representatives and a close Suu Kyi ally, succeeded him.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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