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On the seemingly willful merging of fact and fiction in the history of Burma laid out in the royal chronicles, Aldous Huxley wrote:
‘It is as though a committee of Scaligers and Bentleys had assembled to edit the tales of the nursery. Perrault’s chronicle of Red Riding Hood is collated with Grimm’s and … the credibility of the two several versions discussed. And when that little matter had been satisfactorily dealt with, there follows a long and incredibly learned discussion of the obscure, the complex and difficult problems raised in Puss in Boots …’
Leaving aside flying dragons and divine intervention – for now at least – there is still much of Myanmar’s history that we can be sure of …
Burmese school children are taught that their country’s history begins in the town of Tagaung in the north of Myanmar on the banks of the Ayeyarwady. It was here, the royal chronicles parport, that the first ever Kingdom of Myanmar was founded by the Sakiyan prince Abhiraja, who arrived from India millennia ago with his family and a motley band of followers.
After his death, one of Abhiraja’s sons went on to found the Kingdom of Arakan, while the other succeeded his father and was followed in turn by 31 more kings. Descendants from this dynasty, the chronicles go on to state, founded the Kingdom of Prome to the south of the country, which lasted for 500 years before the succession of the medieval Bagan Empire.
Colonial scholars in British Burma and their successors today have taken a sceptical stance towards the story of Abhiraja. What is agreed upon, is that if thousands of years ago there ever was an Abhiraja, he would not have found the Burmese plains empty …
Archeologists estimate that humans were likely to have lived in the region since 75,000 BC. In 2003 the BBC reported the discovery in Myanmar of a 45 million year old fossil, believed to be an ankle bone, that could suggest that our primate ancestors may have come out of not Africa but Asia, perhaps even Myanmar itself. Naturally there are many in the country who are more than happy to embrace this line of thought.
What is believed to have happened in the land we now call Myanmar between then and the Bagan Empire is mainly conjecture. It is estimated that by 1500 BC the inhabitants of Myanmar had moved along the Ayeyarwaddy and Chindwin Rivers. Bronze was being smelted in the Shan Hills to the East and those in the Ayeyarwady Delta were some of the first in the world to domesticate the chicken.
In the years when Rome, Persia, the Mauryans in India and the Han Empire in China reigned from the north of England to the Sea of Japan, the valleys around the Ayeyarwady Delta were one of the rare patches left in peace. Not only made up of obscure and disparate tribes, around the Ayeyarwady there would also have been city states with cultures and languages quite distinct from their larger neighbours to either the east or west.
One of the largest (and possibly oldest) of these would have been the Pyu city of Hanlin (in today’s Saging District), the oldest known place of civilisation in Myanmar. It is believed that the people of Hanlin later migrated south towards Sri Ksetra (near present-day Pyay or ‘Prome’) where much of the ancient city and stupas can be seen. Chinese travellers to the city reported that the citizens of Sri Ksetra were marked for their piety and lived by the custom to ‘love life and hate killing.’
The people of Sri Ksetra appeared to have existed largely untroubled until the 8th Century when hordes of the war-loving Nanzhao from the limestone hills around Lake Dali in Western China raged through the land. Though bloody, Nanzhao supremacy was relatively short-lived. By the 10th Century they have faded from history, with their entire royal family being murdered in 902.
However, with the city-states of Myanmar in disarray, others from the north came where the Nanzhao had led, attracted by the fertile land and warm climate. Amongst these were the ‘Strong Horseman’, or in their own language, the ‘Myanma’.
The Burmese Chronicles claim that one of these Myanma, Pyusawthi, founded the Bagan Empire after vanquishing a great boar, a great bird, a great tiger and a flying squirrel, all of which had been terrorizing the local population.
It is believed that Pyusawthi had Nanzhao royal lineage and with the lifestyle and customs he found on the banks of the Ayeyarwady created a fusion of the two that was to be the foundation of modern Burmese culture. From this point on, Burma history becomes a little clearer.
It was a couple of centuries later that the city of Bagan became the Bagan Empire. Anawrahta, a descendant of Pyusawthi’s and Myanmar’s first ‘Great King’ (a celebrated Bamar “unifer” and “nation-builder”), had seized the throne when still a teenager after killing his cousin in single combat, “his mother’s milk still wet upon his lips.” Anawrahta was to subjugate the surrounding principalities and unify a kingdom which well reflects the borders of modern-day Myanmar.
The great scalp for Anawrahta came in 1057 when Thaton, capital of the Mon Empire to the South, was conquered, and the king Manuha was brought back to Bagan as captive. Alongside Manuha were 30,000 other Mon slaves, amongst them crafstmen and artists who would be instrumental in designing and building the temples of Bagan.
At the height of the Empire, Bagan became a centre of commerce, learning and spiritualism, with students, scholars and monks travelling from as far away as Ceylon and the Khmer Empire. Over the next couple of centuries the people of Bagan underwent a mind-boggling spree of pagoda and temple construction, up to almost 10,000, the ruins of which continue to draw scores of pilgrims and tourists today, almost a millennium later.
The Bagan Empire also established Theravada Buddhism as the dominant strain in the country. Additionally, the earliest examples of Burmese script in its present form are dated back to Bagan.
Anawrahta’s successors Sawlu, Kyansittha, Alaungsittha and Narapatisithu continued to push out the borders of Bagan and the Empire reached its greatest geographical extent under the reign of Narapatisithu (1174-1211) stretching down south to the Malay peninsula.
However in 1273 King Narathihapate made the crucial error of executing the envoys of Kublai Khan. The Mongols eventually saw to the fall of the great Bagan Empire in 1287. Narathihapate fled south to Pyay where he committed suicide.
Shan tribes from the hills to the east rushed in to take control of the low country while the Mon from the south re-established their own kingdom around Hanthawaddy (modern-day Bago), as did the Arakanese in modern-day Rakhine State.
In the 16th Century, with Portuguese assistance, the country was united once more under the Toungoo Dynasty. After having subjugated the entirety of the land, King Tabinshweti picked up an insatiable thirst for alcohol, first introduced to him by a Portuguese courtier. With no longer an appetite for ruling, Tabinshweti began to lose the territories he had conquered, while his conduct in court became more manic and erratic.
Matters were eventually taken in hand. The king was killed when out in the woods searching for a White Elephant, the Portuguese courtier was dismissed, and Tabinshweti’s general and long-standing friend Bayinnaung took the throne.
Bayinnaung was the son of a lowly toddy-tapper but had risen through the ranks due to his force of character and military prowess. He was the second Great King of Myanmar and upon coming to power set about reconquering the land Tabinshweti had lost. Bayinnaung brought fire and sword to every renegade city, town and village, wielding the country together and reaching deep into Laos and the Kingdom of Siam, creating the largest empire in Southeast Asia of the time.
One historian described Bayinnaung’s life as ‘the greatest explosion of human energy ever seen in Burma.’ Schoolboys in Myanmar read of his conquests as those in the West do of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. The legend of Bayinnaung feeds into the ensuing belief that a strong unified Myanmar requires iron-fisted rule.
Two centuries later, Bayinnaung’s descendants were unable to quell a Mon rebellion from the south. Once the Mon had overthrown the Toungoo Dynasty, the Mon themselves then faced their own uprising, and were soon meshed into war with the Burmese north, led by one Aung Zeyya from modern day Shwebo.
In May 1755 Aung Zeyya took the fishing village of Dagon and renamed it ‘Rangoon’, meaning ‘end of strife.’ Shortly afterwards, Bago, the Mon capital, was also taken and Aung Zeyya rechristened himself ‘Alangpaya’, meaning ‘the future Buddha.’ He is the founder of the last ever Burmese Kingdom, the Konbaung Dynasty, and the third Great King of Myanmar.
For the Mon, their long held dreams of their own empire were sundered forever. The destruction of Mon-speaking society in the south not only doused the chances of another uprising but also led to a more compact ethnic nationalism throughout the Ayeyarwady Delta.
Alangpaya continued fighting his way south, eventually sacking the great Siam city of Aythaya in 1766. The Siamese retreated back to form a new base, which was later to be known as Bangkok.
British Imperialism in the guise of the East India Company had always been cautiously observed by the Konbaung Dynasty. Similarly, the possibility of French commerce gaining the upper hand in Burma was an ever-present concern in the corridors of Westminster. In the end it was attempts at expansion on the part of the Burmese kings both on the borders of Arakan and Bengal and that of Chin State and Northern India that proved the final catalyst for war between the two nations.
In January 1824, the British governor-general told the East India Company Board of Directors that war was inevitable so ‘to humble the overweening pride and arrogance of the Burmese monarch.’ The First Anglo-Burmese War from 1824-26 was to be longer and more expensive than any war the British were to fight in India.
Despite disease striking the British camps, the tenacity of the Burmese General Maha Bandoola, and the use of novel warfare tactics on the part of the Burmese such as trenches, in the end the Burmese were utterly outclassed by British weaponry, including the new congreve rockets. The poorly armed Burmese soldiers were cut down in their thousands. At the Treaty of Yandabo, Burma ceded the Arakan coastal strip from Chittagong to Cape Negrais, allowing it to be absorbed into British India.
A dispute over customs violations in Rangoon and the claimed abduction of two British sea captains gave the British an excuse to commence the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852, which was briefer than the first and resulted in the British taking Rangoon and the port towns in the south of the country, utterly humiliating the Konbaung Dynasty.
Five years later in 1857, Mindon Min, the penultimate and highly revered king of “Upper Burma”, moved his capital from Ava (modern-day Inwa) to Mandalay. Mindon is principally remembered as one of the most devout kings of Myanmar, but he was also the instigator for sweeping political and administrative reform.
The Court of Mandalay, unlike that of Ava, responded to the increasingly Europe-centric global balance of power. Mindon accepted and engaged with the new world order, sending sons of the court to be educated in Europe and a delegation to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.
Due to fear of assassination, Mindon held off naming an heir until it was too late. When he died suddenly in 1878, quick maneuvering by one of his wives led to the young and nondescript Prince Thibaw taking the throne. Thibaw was conveniently infatuated with the schemer’s daughter, Supayalat.
The subsequent massacre of 79 of Thibaw’s kinsmen seen to be potential rivals, including women and children, shocked the nation and was even reported in aghast editorials of European newspapers. Both Thibaw’s mother-in-law and wife were strong-minded, ambitious and paranoid, and between them drove the young king into an emasculated, gin-soaked state of depression – or at least, so it was reported by London editorials. Whatever the truth, Thibaw remained within the palace walls from his coronation to the day the British arrived.
In 1885 one of the biggest meteor showers in modern history shot across the Burmese sky, perceived by many locals as an omen for the end of their kingdom …
Tensions began to rise between the British and the Burmese, as the former harboured suspicions that King Thibaw was cosying up to the French. Furthermore, the young king had greatly aggravated the Imperialists through the “Great Shoe Question”, whereby British officials who had refused to take off their shoes upon entering the Royal Palace had been banished from Mandalay.
This, coupled with further trade disputes and some rash diplomacy on the part of the young Burmese king, incited the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. The war lasted just two weeks; the elephants of Mandalay were no match for the world’s first ever machine guns.
The last king of Burma and his court were swiftly exiled to India. Thibaw was to never again set foot upon his homeland, dying in Barrackpore not far from Calcutta in 1916. Following the fall of Mandalay the British annexed the entirety of the country. On March 1st 1886, to add insult to injury, Burma became not a crown colony but a province of British India.
Though inhabitants of Mandalay were relieved and surprised that bloody massacre didn’t follow the fall of the Konbaung Dynasty, there was bitter resentment against their new overlords which, especially in the first few years, constantly erupted into skirmishes and fierce patches of revolt. Any opposition was mercilessly put down with entire rebellious villages razed to the ground.
The partial dismantling of the Buddhist education system, coupled with an influx of Christian missionaries provoked further rancour and discontent. On the role of the Burmese monk post-annexation, Donald Eugene Smith in Religion and Politics in Burma writes:
“There was no place for him in the new western-oriented social hierarchy, his education functions were assumed by other agencies, an unknown foreign language prevented him from understanding what was going on, and westernized Burmese laymen increasingly regarded him as irrelevant to modern life.”
Consequently, monks were often at the forefront of protests against British rule. In 1919 some monks evicted Europeans from the Eindawya Paya in Mandalay for refusing to take off their shoes. The British saw this ‘Second Shoe Question’ as the start of a nationalist movement and sentenced the monk leader U Kettaya to life imprisonment.
Ten years later, the revolutionary monk U Wizaya died in prison after a 163-day hunger strike protesting against monks being forbidden to wear their robes in prison. U Kettaya and U Wizaya are just two of the most famous monks who clashed with colonial authorities.
How to manage the diversity of ethnicity that was now encapsulated in the new Province of Burma was another challenge for the colonialists. It is a challenge that on the surface they appeared to overcome with ease by ‘unifying’ the country.
As Alastair Lamb (an authority on the borders of Asia) puts it, ‘the British did something in Burma which all the king’s men could not do for Humpty-Dumpty.’ They took a fragmented kingdom and put it together again. ‘Indeed, they did more: they gave Burma all sorts of bits and pieces which it is extremely unlikely it had ever held before with any firmness.’
Sweeping colonial rule was only extended to the areas where the Bamar were in the majority. The hill states of the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Shan and Karenni kept their autonomy to a certain extent. This policy of divide and rule sowed the seeds for bloody strife, and resulted in the 1930s pro-independence movement of young Burmese, displaying an ethnic-chauvinism towards non-Bamar.
Today there are many in Myanmar who squarely hold the British responsible for the current ethnic conflict in the country. Previously fluid notions of ethnicity, they claim, were calcified by colonial rule, and the diversity of the country post-independence came to be regarded as something imposed, as opposed to having evolved organically.
A third tension that quickly emerged in British Burma was the influx of foreign labour. Under colonial rule British Burma saw a huge amount of immigration, principally from India and China. These wealthier arrivals who were savvier when it came to British customs, began to rapidly set up businesses and take the majority of the lower level civil service jobs at the expense of the increasingly hostile Burmese. By 1927, the majority of Yangon’s population was Indian, and little of the country’s new-found wealth was finding its way into Burmese pockets.
Burma was seen as a hard posting by many of the British, who found the population difficult to govern. A variety of factors including high unemployment led to British Burma seeing the highest crime rate in the entirety of the Empire.
In 1937, Britain separated the administration of India and Burma and the latter officially became a crown colony. However the Second World War was soon to erupt, shaking the British Empire to its foundations and dramatically changing the course of Burmese history.
In the early years of the 20th Century there were protests throughout British Burma. The first major uprising was in the 1930s, led by a farmer called Saya San who aimed to force out the British and crown himself king. He attracted thousands of peasants to his cause and it was only suppressed by the British with great difficulty. However, suppressed it eventually was, culminating in Saya San and over one hundred other rebels being hanged.
Following Saya San, most organised dissent was instigated by students, both against colonial rule and in response to Indian and Chinese immigration. These students referred to each other as thakin – a term for ‘master’ usually reserved for the British – as a way of stating their claim to be the true masters of the country.
Their first major protests erupted around 1938, known as the 1300 Revolution due to the date in the Bhuddhist calendar. Strikes by employees of the Burmah Oil Company led to nationwide protests. The British crackdown claimed 33 lives, including 13 unarmed protestors shot dead in Mandalay.
Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, was one such thakin. He was also the editor of the student newspaper at Rangoon University and president of the All Burma Students’ Union. At 26 years old he left with 29 others to Japan, there to seek support for the struggle against colonial rule and to receive military training.
After the Japanese entered the Second World War, the ‘30 Comrades” returned to Burma with the invading Japanese in 1941. These 30 were now the first troops of the Burmese Independence Army (BIA).
The Japanese had already invaded Malaya and Singapore, with the intention of kicking the Euopeans out of Asia and forging ‘The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’. Many Burmese – not just Aung San and the other leaders of the BIA – welcomed the Japanese.
The Japanese invasion of Burma was swift and clinical. By March 7th 1942 the Allies were retreating from a burning Rangoon, and by May the Japanese had taken control of the country.
Rather than handing over governance of the country directly to the Burmese, Aung San was told that a period of Japanese rule was necessary. It soon became clear to Aung San – now General or ‘Bogyoke’ Aung San – that the new occupying force was worse than the British. Aung San said that though under the British the Burmese had been handled like oxen, under the Japanese they were treated as dogs.
Led by Aung San, the BIA renamed themselves the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) and turned their sights upon those who were supposed to be their country’s saviours.
Over the border in India, General Slim reformed and galvanised the Allied Forces. The tide of war changed at the battles of Imphal and Kohima in 1944, when an attempted Japanese invasion of India was turned on its head. The Allied Forces marched back into Burma in pursuit of a depleted and demoralised Japanese Army, and the “race for Rangoon” ensued.
With the assistance of the BIA and the many guerilla forces amongst the Kachin, Chin, and Kachin who had remained loyal to the British, the Allies eventually drove the Japanese out of Burma in 1945.
In January 1947, General Aung San visited British Prime Minister Clement Atlee at 10 Downing Street and negotiated terms for Burma to gain independence within the year. Back in Burma, Aung San met with Shan, Chin, and Kachin leaders (but not the Karen with who relations had been sorely tested during the war) to sign the Panglong Agreement, bringing them into the independent Union of Burma but also promising that these ethnic races could dictate their own political future if they were unhappy with the situation after a decade.
On the 19th of July 1947, an armed group of paramilitaries of Aung San’s political rival U Saw broke into a meeting of the Executive Council chaired by the General, and assassinated him and six of his cabinet ministers, including his older brother Ba Win. Aung San was only 32.
Despite his short life, Aung San’s leading role in bringing about Burmese independence and thus shaping modern Myanmar cannot be understated. Of this, Maurice Collis, a British administrator in Burma during colonial rule, wrote:
‘His coming […] was a symptom of the age. […] so it is always in the careers of great men. They appear when the moment is ripe. The British were all set to grant Burma her liberation. They had their plan how this should come about, and wanted the satisfaction of carrying it out themselves. The role of liberator was in the air; there was rivalry for it. Dorman-Smith planned for years in the hope of filling it. Mountbatten was not indifferent to its attractions. Attlee and the Labour Government recognized that it would suit them to perfection. On the Burmese side there were many competitors, Paw Tun for one and U Saw for another. Yet the historical process which produced all these would-be liberators had its central figure in Aung San.’
U Saw was swiftly arrested and hanged by the British. Much mystery still surrounds the assassination. Due to the fact that weapons had recently been sold to U Saw by low-ranking British officers, there are conspiracy theories that the assassination was an act of the British Government. Others point the finger at the Burmese General Ne Win, who would later cease power.
Aung San continues to be regarded as a national hero today, celebrated as the ‘architect of Burmese freedom.’ The 19th of July, ‘Martyrs’ Day’, remains a day of national mourning. Although it is anyone’s guess how Aung San would have ruled if he had been given the chance, due to his success as a unifying figure directly after WW2, many believe that much of the civil conflict and strife that the country has since suffered might have been averted had he lived.
Following the assassination, U Nu, the country’s foreign minister during Japanese occupation, was asked to lead both the AFPFL and the government, and the following year was sworn in as the country’s first Prime Minister.
At midnight on January 4th 1948, Sir Hubert Rance, the last Governor of British Burma, met with Burmese politicians in Fytche Square (now Maha Bandoola Square) and in the presence of cheering crowds the Union Jack was lowered for the final time and the new flag of the Union of Burma was hauled up in its place.
Burma had left the British Commonwealth and become an independent nation once more.
U Nu had to deal with the disintegration of the newly liberated country right from the start, contending with regional rebels, communists, resistance groups and plain mutineers. In time the government managed to gain partial control and commenced making some progress towards a functioning state in the 1950s.
Much remained in disorder however and in 1958 U Nu invited General Ne Win to form a caretaker government which ruled until U Nu was re-elected in 1960. Two years later Ne Win took back control through a bloodless coup d’etat.
The Burmese historian Thant Myint-U writes that Ne Win’s first period of government is considered by some as ‘the most effective and efficient in modern Burmese history’. This was not to be the case second time around.
The federal system was abolished and Ne Win inaugurated ‘the Burmese Way to Socialism’ by nationalizing the economy, banning independent newspapers and all other political parties save for the Socialist Programme Party. Around 15, 000 private companies were nationalized, foreign agencies including the World Bank were expelled, the teaching of English in schools was cut back, and visitors granted only 24-hour visas.
Over 200, 000 expatriate Chinese, Indians, and Westerners left the country, as well as almost the entirety of the country’s Jewish population. In a sign of what was to come, a peaceful protest at Rangoon University was tackled by the military by killing over 100 students and blowing up the Student Union building.
By 1967, Myanmar, a country that had been the largest exporter of rice in the world leading up to the Second World War, was unable to feed itself.
In 1974 a new constitution was realised transferring the power from the army to the People’s Assembly headed by Ne Win. Resistance bubbled over into violence on the streets, but the government responded with heavy gunfire and mass arrests. The following year the Opposition National Democratic Front was founded by regionally-based minority groups who began to mount guerilla insurgencies.
Discontent bubbled sporadically over the surface in the following decade, however it was not until the late 1980s that the people of Burma came out en masse to demand freedom from the dictatorship.
In 1987 the UN downgraded the country to “Least Developed Country” status provoking violent rural protests. Demonstrations in 1988 were sparked by a students’ fight at the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIOT). Police intervened and some students were killed.
Not long after in March, students gathered to demonstrate on Pyay Road and the authorities responded by beating over 100 of them to death. Eyewitnesses claim that female students were taken away and gang raped, while forty-one students suffocated to death in an overcrowded police van before they could be taken to prison.
On the auspicious date of 8th of August 1988, at 8 minutes past 8 in the morning, dockworkers along the Rangoon River went on strike. The news spread fast and soon thousands of people were making their way to sites such as Maha Bandoola Park in the town centre and Shwedagon Pagoda. Pro-democracy speeches were made and the national anthem was sung.
When night fell, electricity in downtown Rangoon was cut off and loud speakers demanded that the protesters return home. Many, principally the young, remained where they were. Not long after army vans pulled up and opened fire on the crowd. Over 3,000 protestors were killed.
General Ne Win had said in a public broadcast: “If the army shoots, it has no tradition of shooting into the air. It shoots straight to kill.” However instead of quelling the revolt, the military’s use of violence inflamed the situation further. Protests continued and multiplied throughout the country, met with bloody repression by the army, who in one incident fired upon doctors and nurses outside Rangoon General Hospital.
Over the next month others went on strike including the police, top diplomats, and the Burmese Broadcasting Corporation. The army went quiet and a state of near anarchy took over the country.
Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, was in Burma at the time, having remained in England after studying at the University of Oxford and marrying and bearing two sons with British academic Michael Aris. In 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi was back in her homeland to tend to her ailing mother. However as she began to see injured and bloodied protesters admitted into the hospital where her mother was being treated, she rapidly became embroiled with the pro-democracy movement.
Her re-introduction to the people of Burma took the form of a speech in front of a crowd of thousands outside Shwedagon Pagoda, proclaiming the current protests as ‘a second struggle for national independence.’
By directly quoting her father, Aung San Suu Kyi was ripping him away from the military he had founded and who had since appropriated his image to justify their iron-grip on the country; Aung San Suu Kyi was aligning Aung San once more with the fight for Burmese freedom. As her biographer Peter Popham writes, her speech was a declaration of war.
And on the 18th September the army responded in full force … Over two days of bloody suppression the revolutionary atmosphere was seemingly put to rest. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) was formed, declaring martial law and arresting advocates of democracy and human rights.
In 1989 Slorc re-christened the country ‘Myanmar’ and Rangoon became ‘Yangon’. Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been named leader of the newly-formed National League for Democracy, was swiftly put under house arrest while many of her colleagues were incarcerated in Insein Prison.
Ne Win resigned the same year, though many believed that he was pulling the strings of government policy until his death in 2002.
In 1990 the NLD won a landslide in the surprise election called by Slorc. The result was swiftly disregarded. In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the following year was released from house arrest. Though officially free, she was barred from leaving Yangon to meet supporters in 1998 and 2000.
When her husband was diagnosed with cancer in 1999 she was told she was free to leave the country but Aris himself was denied a visa to come to Myanmar. Fearful of never being able to return to her country if she left, Aung San Suu Kyi stayed put. Despite pleas for mercy from the international community including Prince Charles, the Vatican, the U.N., Slorc held firm. Aris died later that year and at the turn of the millennium Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest again.
In 2003, Khin Nyunt, the head of the military intelligence known as the ‘Prince of Darkness’ became Prime Minister and proposed to hold a convention the following year to draft a new constitution as part of a ‘roadmap to democracy’. The NLD boycotted the convention and soon after Khin Nyunt was replaced as Prime Minister and himself placed under house arrest.
General Than Shwe – described by some as an idiot, and by others as a mastermind – now took hold of the reigns of power. Despite initially promising to push ahead towards democracy, he began to focus on negotiating multimillion dollar trade deals with China, India, and Thailand, as well as importing weapons and military know-how from Russia and North Korea.
This brutish man wanted to eliminate Aung San Suu Kyi and orchestrated an attack when she was travelling through the town of Depayin north of Mandalay in 2003.
The NLD convoy was halted by two men pretending to be monks when an ambush of 4,000 thugs poured upon them. Wunna Maung, one of Suu Kyi’s bodyguards, described what happened next:
‘Because we had been told to never use violence, we tried to protect Suu’s car by surrounding [it] with our bodies in two layers… The attackers appeared to be either on drugs or drunk [and] struck down everyone including youths and women … When victims, covered in blood, fell to the ground, the attackers grabbed their hair and pounded their heads on the pavement until their bodies stopped moving.’
Suu Kyi narrowly escaped with her life, but seventy of her party did not. She was detained for a month in Insein Prison before returning to house arrest.
In 2007 there was more public unrest, sparked by a rise in fuel prices. Buddhist monks held a series of anti-government protests which came to be known around the world as the ‘Saffron Revolution.’ Protests in the streets were combatted with gunfire and there were reports that soldiers had beaten one monk to death.
In response, the All Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA) was founded, denouncing the government as ‘an evil military dictatorship’, and refusing to accept alms from military officials. By autumn, daily marches were taking place in the cities of Yangon, Mandalay and Sittwe. Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the demonstrating monks from the front of her house near Inya Lake in the north of Yangon, her first public appearance since 2003. On 24th September, somewhere around 100, 000 protesters marched through the streets of Yangon. You can read here the diary of photojournalist Thierry Falise in Rangoon at the time.
It was rumoured that Than Shwe personally took charge of the army after senior officers refused to use more force against the demonstrators. There were also rumours that military personnel were shaving their heads and donning monastic robes to infiltrate the ranks of protesting monks.
The huge crack-down sparked international outrage and condemnation, fueled further when the shooting of a Japanese photojournalist was caught on camera.
The following year, in what many within the country saw as divine retribution for the spilling of monks’ blood, Myanmar suffered its greatest natural disaster in the entirety of its recorded history.
On May 3rd 2008 Cyclone Nargis swept in from the Bay of Bengal killing an estimated 130,000 people. Due to the paranoia of the junta, international aid supplies were barred from entering the country. While US and European naval ships waited off the coast of the Ayeyarwady Delta, hundreds of thousands of survivors of Nargis died from starvation, dehydration and disease.
Later that year, against all expectations, the government proposed new legislation to open up parliament to other political parties, while reserving 25% of the seats to military appointees. In 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest however she was barred from becoming president due to the stipulation that the president cannot have a spouse or children which hold another nationality to Burmese.
The NLD boycotted the election in 2010 and the main military-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), claimed a vast victory in the first election for 20 years. All the main opposition groups alleged widespread fraud and the election was widely condemned as a sham by the international community.
In March the following year, U Thein Sein was sworn in as president of a new, nominally civilian government.
Following the tentative steps to a more democratic system made on the part of the USDP, at the end of 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she and other NLD candidates would stand for election to parliament.
That same year the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar and held talks with both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein, saying that the US hoped to improve diplomatic relations with the country so long as the progression towards democracy continued.
On Suu Kyi, Clinton went onto say that she will no longer merely personify the Burmese people’s dreams of peace, happiness and prosperity but will begin to be responsible for making them come true. ‘I know that route’, Clinton said, adding that she also knew ‘how hard it is to balance one’s ideals and aspirations’ with the demands of practical politics.
In April the following year the NLD candidates swept the board in parliamentary by-elections and Aung San Suu Kyi was elected as a member of the national parliament and the de facto leader of the opposition. Following the election the European Union suspended all non-military sanctions against Burma for a year.
In 2012, US President Barack Obama visited the country to offer “the hand of friendship” in return for more reforms and Thein Sein was invited to Washington the following year. A significant strike for democracy was claimed when four private daily newspapers appeared in 2013. At this point there had been no free press in the country for 50 years
In October that same year, as President Thein Sein accepted his nation’s role as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a promotional film ran with the line, ‘Now is Myanmar’s time in the sun.’ After almost half a century cut off from the world, Myanmar was opening up and both foreign business and intrepid tourists rushed to the country.
In June 2015 the Myanmar parliament voted to keep the army’s veto over constitutional change, suffering a blow to those who hoped for a speedy transition to democracy. However the general election in November that year was held smoothly and regarded as free and fair by international monitors. The NLD won a landslide victory and took their seats in the much transformed parliament in February 2016.
Since then the fairy-tale story (which has always been an overly simplistic picture of the country’s progress) has soured.
Tensions between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State (stoked by Islamophobic authorities) erupted in 2017. In August that year, attacks coordinated by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on police outposts and an army camp, incited a fierce retaliation by the Burmese military.
This clearance operation led almost 700,000 Muslims – overwhelmingly Rohingya – to flee across the Bangladesh border to an area south of Cox’s Bazar, and provoked Ms Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, to report that it had “the hallmarks of genocide”.
Tension continued to break into violence between the Burmese army and various ethnic groups vying for independence or greater autonomy, principally in Kachin and Shan states. A large amount of political prisoners remained incarcerated and the NLD government came under widespread international condemnation for the degeneration of press freedom – particularly over the case of the two Burmese journalists of Reuters News Agency, Wa Lone & Kyaw Soe Oo, jailed in 2018 while investigating atrocities committed by the Burmese Military.
Despite all of this, Aung San Suu Kyi remained wildly popular and in 2020 secured a consecutive landslide victory. This election – despite its imperfections – was accepted as free and fair by international electoral monitors. However the result was not accepted by the Myanmar military. On 1 February 2021, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing announced a State of Emergency, arresting the top hierarchy of the NLD and assuming control of the country.
Sampan Travel remained in Myanmar throughout the political turbulence of 2021. Here is one of our letters from Yangon as demonstrators took to the streets and the police responded in force.
Whatever is in store for this country next, there are likely to be more twists and turns. As old Burmese hands like to say, in Myanmar, always expect the unexpected.
Five Britons who lived in Burma, with stories more interesting than that of Rudyard Kipling.
Kipling, the man who created the romantic veil, and Orwell, who tried to rip it away.