A Short History of Southeast Asia: Myanmar


1990: Elections declared null and void by SLORC

1988: State Law and Order Restoration Council [SLORC] assumes control under General Saw Maung. Union of Myanmar formed

1974: New Constitution and formation of Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma

1962: Military coup led by General Ne Win ushers in "Burmese Way to Socialism"

1948-62: Period of democratic governments

1948: Independence granted and the Union of Burma formed

1886: Britain annexes what is left of Myanmar

1824-26 & 1850's: First and Second Anglo-Burmese Wars result in loss of territory to the British East India Company

mid 18th century: New kingdom emerges at Ava [near Mandalay]

mid 16th century: New kingdom emerges at Pegu [near Rangoon]

end 13th century: Mongols from China attack Pagan and empire is destroyed

1044: Pagan empire founded


Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a unique country in Southeast Asia. For most of the five decades since achieving independence in the aftermath of the second world war, Myanmar has isolated itself from the outside world. From its pre-war position as a relatively rich agricultural colony and a major exporter of rice it has slumped to being the poorest nation in Southeast Asia. Mineral rich, in the 1990s it is dependent on oil imports to keep its economy running. Ruled by a military regime since 1962, for more than thirty years it deliberately isolated itself from the political, social and economic forces that have swept over the rest of Southeast Asia in the past three decades. However, in the mid 1990s there are signs that economic imperatives and political pressure from both inside and outside the country are leading to more outward looking economic policies.

Myanmar is the most ethnically diverse state in mainland Southeast Asia. The Burmese comprise around 68 per cent of the population, but there are more than one hundred ethnic groups in the country. The Burmese dominate the alluvial plains and the major towns and cities. The hills bordering the neighbouring countries of India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand are populated by ethnic minorities. These peoples have long resisted Burmese domination. The largest of the ethnic minorities are the Shans, the Karens and the Arakanese. The multi-ethnic nature of Myanmar and the antipathy by the ethnic minorities towards Burmese domination is one important theme in Myanmar’s history.

The Burmese are predominantly Buddhist, whereas the Karen and the Shan are predominantly Christian and the Arakanese are split between Buddhists and Muslims. Buddhism entered Myanmar from India from the seventh century and along with it came Hindu-Buddhist cosmological ideas. The ethnic Burmese began their migration from southern China in the ninth century and over the succeeding thousand years steadily spread through the lowland plains of present-day Myanmar. The Burmese embraced Buddhism. Christianity was introduced during British rule, with British missionaries evangelising among the animistic hill peoples, converting the Shan, Karen and other ethnic minorities to the Christian faith. The coincidence of ethnicity and religion has deepened the divisions between ethnic groups in Myanmar.

A second major theme in Myanmar’s history is a deep concern about its neighbours. The Burmese and the Thais have competed for territory, power and wealth over hundreds of years, resorting to war where necessary and thoroughly distrusting each other in periods of peace. The Burmese have also ingrained fears of their huge northern neighbour China (remembering the Mongol conquest at the end of the thirteenth century) and still fresh memories of Indian migrants during the colonial period, who dominated the modern sector of the economy.

Pre-colonial history

The territorial boundaries of Myanmar are the creation of British colonialism. Prior to British conquest no indigenous kingdom controlled the territory that now makes up Myanmar. The division between the alluvial plains (the lowlands) and the mountainous regions (the highlands) is central not just to the history of Myanmar but to the history of all mainland Southeast Asian states. Lowland Myanmar is dominated by the Irrawaddy river and the rich alluvial plain was created and re-created by thousands of years of annual monsoonal flooding.

The first known kingdoms emerged in the lower Irrawaddy valley from the 5th century. They were non-Burmese kingdoms but strongly influenced by Hindu-Buddhism ideas. The first major kingdom was founded around 1044, on the banks of the Irrawaddy river at Pagan (now known as Bagan), north of the present day capital of Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon). For over two hundred years, until the end of the 13th century, the Pagan empire flourished, at its peak controlling much of the territory of present-day Myanmar. It was a Buddhist kingdom whose temple remains at Pagan attest not only to its great agricultural wealth but also to its people’s knowledge of mathematics, geometry and engineering. The temples of Pagan stretch along a forty square kilometre zone on the banks of the Irrawaddy river. Some are as large as medieval European cathedrals, though built a century or more earlier. Pagan remains a golden era in the Burmese mind, when a strong, prosperous Burmese kingdom created beautiful temples and religiously inspired works of arts, and was a renowned centre for Buddhist scholarship.

The first major Burmese kingdom was destroyed by a northern invader when Pagan was attacked by the Mongols from China at the end of the 13th century. The city of Pagan itself was sacked and subsequently abandoned. Only the temples remained, under the control of Buddhist monasteries. In its place for the next three hundred years were a series of small competing rulers all of whom failed to re-create the glories of Pagan. In the middle of the 16th century a new Burmese kingdom emerged at Pegu, near Rangoon, and tried to reunite the Burmese. It quickly exerted control over much of lower Myanmar and north to the Shan states. But it was a short-lived state, collapsing after only fifty years. Once again the Burmese were divided by a number of small, competing kingdoms.

In the middle of the 18th century a new Burmese kingdom emerged at Ava (near Mandalay). It gradually extended its control over much of what is now Myanmar, including conquering the hill states of the Shan people. It became a major regional power, competing with the Thai kingdom of Ayudhya for territory and people. The Thai/Burmese rivalry was strong and often bitter. In 1767 Ava was strong enough to despatch an army to the Thai capital of Ayudhya. The capital was sacked, treasures were looted (with many finding a home today in Burmese museums), and tens of thousands of Thais captured and transported back to Myanmar as slaves. The Thai kingdom collapsed, to be replaced a few years later by a new kingdom, the Chakri dynasty, which continues today in Thailand and whose capital was built further south at Bangkok away from the threat of Burmese attack.

At the end of the 18th century Myanmar was the strongest state in mainland Southeast Asia. The Chakri dynasty in Thailand was in its infancy, recovering from the Burmese destruction of Ayudhya, and the Vietnamese kingdom was torn by rebellion. The balance changed in the early nineteenth century: the Thai and Vietnamese kingdoms flourished while the Burmese kingdom declined. The Burmese ruling elite was noticeably more inward-looking than its Thai and Vietnamese counterparts and less involved in commercial relations with the outside world. As Britain increased its presence in Southeast Asia in the 19th century the Burmese elite proved less able than the Thais to appreciate the threat posed to them and therefore less able to adopt strategies to cope with them.

The colonial period

The British East India Company (EIC) steadily extended its territory in India from early in the 17th century. Bengal, on the east coast of India adjacent to the Burmese kingdom of Ava, was the British stepping stone into India. Calcutta was the capital from which emanated EIC influence, territorial expansion and commercial dealings. Myanmar was primarily seen by the EIC as a buffer zone. It had potential commercial importance but its greater importance was strategic. No other European power could be allowed to gain influence there and the Burmese rulers were expected to acknowledge the superiority of British India and create stable conditions for successful trade.

The Burmese king and elite had a very different view of the world and the Burmese place in it. Fresh from conquering Ayudhya, in the 1820s the Burmese kingdom extended its control over Arakan, bordering Bengal. Refugees fled across the border from where they organised resistance to the Burmese. The Burmese king finally demanded the British return them. For their part, the British became increasingly concerned about political instability on their colonial frontier.

The Burmese court greatly underestimated the strength of the EIC. In 1822 Burmese forces invaded Bengal and threatened to march on Chittagong in a dispute over the return of political refugees from Ava. The result was a British expedition to Myanmar. The Burmese were no easy opponents. The first Anglo–Burmese war lasted two years, from 1824 until 1826. Eventually superior British weaponry and tactics, backed by a strongrear base in Bengal, ensured a British victory. The Burmese were forced to cede a large amount of territory on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. The EIC now controlled the Bay of Bengal from both sides. Over the next two decades the EIC exploited the agricultural potential of its new territory, increasing rice production four-fold and developing a strong export trade in rice, timber and shipbuilding.

Despite this defeat and loss of territory, the Burmese elite still underestimated British power in Bengal, demanding respect as equals and taking whatever opportunities they could to remind British envoys, traders and visitors of their equal status. In the 1850s a second Anglo–Burmese war broke out, the immediate cause of which was a conflict between British traders and the Burmese governor of Rangoon. The result was that Bengal acquired more territory in lower Myanmar. The final act in the British acquisition of Myanmar occurred in 1885 when Mandalay was captured and the King and his family exiled to Calcutta. Myanmar was formally annexed by Britain on 1 January 1886.

The British impact on Myanmar was profound. At the political level the monarchy was abolished and the Burmese aristocracy were stripped of their power. Myanmar was ruled from Calcutta, as a minor part of the British Indian empire. Indian models of administration were imposed by the British who, by and large, had no understanding of or respect for local social structures. Lower Myanmar, that is the alluvial plains which were ethnically Burmese and the heart of the Burmese empires, was ruled directly by the colonial government with the powers of traditional regional and local elites destroyed. It was here that the full force of British political and economic policies were felt.

In Upland Myanmar, in areas populated by ethnic groups such as the Shan and Karen, a policy of indirect rule was introduced. Social structures and local elites were more or less left intact with administrations separate from that of the Burmese heartland. A major consequence was to strengthen the division between the Burmese and ethnic minorities, with the latter developing a stronger sense of identity under British rule.

It has been argued that one of the most important consequences of British conquest was that the two most vital institutions of Burmese society, which together defined what it meant to be Burmese, were destroyed or seriously weakened. The exile of the king and his family meant that the ritual and symbolism of the Court was abruptly ended. The Burmese state no longer had a centre, indeed the throne itself was transported to a museum in Calcutta. The king was also the patron and in many senses the head of the Buddhist hierarchy. His demise reduced the authority of the religious hierarchy, leaving Buddhist religious institutions with a much weakened central leadership. As a consequence they fragmented. These two binding forces in Burmese society were eliminated with no indigenous replacements.

British colonial rule introduced a strong bureaucracy supported in its maintenance of social control by an efficient police and army. The British distrusted the Burmese. The police and the army were largely composed of ethnic minorities who would have few qualms about quashing Burmese dissent. The bureaucracy was British supervised but staffed largely by Anglo–Burmese and Indians. The new bureaucratic elite created by Britain was dominated by Anglo–Burmese, whose cultural models were influenced more by Britain than by Myanmar. This was to pose considerable problems after independence.

British rule increased the ethnic diversity of Myanmar. The administrative link with India meant that Indians were free to migrate. By 1931, about 7 per cent of the population of Myanmar was Indian, predominantly from Bengal and Madras. Yangon was an immigrant city. Two-thirds of its population in 1931 were immigrants, including 53 per cent Indians. Much of the capital for the agricultural expansion in the Myanmar Delta came from Indian moneylenders. Chinese immigrants were recruited from British Malaya and Singapore. In 1931, they composed about 2 per cent of the total population of Myanmar. They worked in the mines in the Shan states, provided much of the urban labour force, operated small businesses and built rice mills in central Myanmar. On the eve of British conquest the Myanmar lowlands were populated predominantly by ethnic Burmese. By 1941, this ethnic homogeneity had given way to a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.

The British transformed Myanmar’s economy. They encouraged the settlement of the Myanmar Delta, largely malarial infested jungle and swamps, in the 1850s. Roads and bridges were built, land was opened up at cheap prices with significant tax concessions and the infrastructure of ports and communications was greatly improved to enable crops to be exported to world markets. The result was a dramatic southward migration of Burmese from the dry northern zone to the fertile delta.

The Myanmar Delta became a major producer of rice and little else, commercialised and dependent on the vagaries of international markets. The extent of the transformation can be gauged by the raw economic statistics. In 1855 lower Myanmar exported 162,000 tons of rice: in 1905–6 it exported two million tons, with the price of rice increasing threefold in that time. The area under rice cultivation expanded from around 800,000 acres to around 6 million acres and the population grew from one million in 1852 to four million in 1901.

Land was plentiful until the 1920s when the limits of cultivation were reached. Until then the Myanmar Delta was generally prosperous, for those who tilled the land as well as for those who financed the development and traded rice and teak on world markets. From the 1920s population pressure on the land became a major problem, as did farmer indebtedness. Tensions between Burmese and immigrant Chinese and Indians then became more open and at times more violent.

Britain was content for Myanmar to be a rice, teak and mineral exporter and there was no attempt to industrialise. In 1941 Myanmar was still a relatively prosperous agrarian society, though serious indebtedness and population pressure had expressed themselves in peasant protests and violence in the 1930s. What capitalism existed was in foreign hands: European companies controlled the export trade, the petty traders and small scale capitalists were Chinese and the financiers and rural moneylenders were Indians. Myanmar was a plural society in which economic position was coterminous with ethnicity.

Economic development under colonial rule was accompanied by the spread of western education. A new western-educated, urban elite emerged in the 20th century out of which came a nationalist movement. As part of the Indian empire, until its separation into an independent colony in 1937, Myanmar’s political development closely paralleled that of India. The political reforms introduced in India from the beginning of the 20th century were extended to Myanmar. In 1935 a new Constitution was introduced into Myanmar under which limited self-government was permitted. The first elections for a Burmese Parliament were held in 1936 and a Westminster-style parliamentary government operated until the Japanese occupation in 1942.

The nationalist movement in Myanmar had a number of distinctive characteristics. First, it was dominated by the ethnic Burmese. Their promotion of Burmese language, literature and cultural symbols as ‘national’, led to an ambiguous relationship with the ethnic minorities who were suspicious of the nationalist movement. They feared Burmese domination of an independent Myanmar and their assimilation into Burmese majority culture. Second, the nationalist movement was strongly anti-Chinese and anti-Indian, in reaction to these groups’ domination of the economy. Third, the domination of the Myanmar economy by foreign capital stimulated the development of socialist ideology among all strands of Burmese nationalism. Fourth, the stress on Buddhism as being at the core of Burmans’ cultural, religious and personal identity further alienated the non-Burmese minorities, especially those who were Christians.

On the eve of the Second World War there was a strong urban based, western-educated nationalist elite which had developed no single or widely accepted view of what independent Myanmar would look like, apart from a stress on the unity of Myanmar, the Burmeseness of Myanmar and the need to take control of the economy out of the hands of foreigners. Two of the most prominent nationalists in the 1930s were Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) and U Nu, the latter of whom was to be the first Prime Minister and who died in his 80s in early 1995. Another member was Ne Win, who in 1962 led the coup that placed the military in power, where they remain in the 1990s. Japan became a magnet for many nationalists in the 1930s. They were impressed by its propaganda support of anti-colonial movements in Southeast Asia. When the Second World War broke out Aung San was one of a group known as the Thirty Comrades who accepted Japanese-sponsored military training in Hainan. The Thirty Comrades returned to Myanmar in 1942 along with the invading Japanese army as leaders of the Myanmar Independence Army. From the Thirty Comrades came many of the political and military leaders of post-independent Myanmar.

Japanese Occupation

The Japanese occupation was welcomed by many Burmese, including, of course, the Thirty Comrades. The attraction of Japan in the 1930s was shared by most Southeast Asian nationalists. Not only did the Japanese decisively end European colonialism but their slogans of ‘Asia for the Asians’ and building a ‘Co-Prosperity Sphere’ were seductive. The destruction of white rule was itself a major fillip to Southeast Asian nationalists. The introduction of military training, the promotion of locals to administrative positions far higher than they could achieve under colonial rule and the promotion of indigenous languages all contributed to a growing self confidence among nationalists throughout the region.

The realities of the Japanese exercise of power were far different from the promises held out by the propaganda. Southeast Asians quickly found Japanese rule to be no less exploitative and far more brutal than that of their former European colonial masters. In 1944, Aung San and fellow members of the Thirty Comrades group established the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League which opposed the Japanese and worked to develop a vision of an independent Myanmar.


The activities of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League against the Japanese made its leader Aung San a Burmese hero and ensured that at the end of the war Britain would have to negotiate with them. In May 1945, just two weeks after Yangon had been reconquered, Britain announced its plans for post-war Myanmar. Its stated intention was to move Myanmar towards full self-government within the British Commonwealth, but in the meantime to suspend the political reforms of the 1930s and rule directly in order to reconstruct the economy. The plan had no timetable for independence.

Britain’s position was unrealistic. It took no account of the political and psychological impact of the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia. Southeast Asians were no longer prepared to acquiesce in colonial rule. In Myanmar, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, the Burmese Communist Party and parties based on ethnic minorities campaigned for independence and struggled with each other for dominance. In January 1947 Aung San led an Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League delegation to London and negotiated the election of a constituent assembly to prepare a constitution for an independent Myanmar. In April 1947 the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League won the election handsomely, but in July Aung San and six of his Cabinet were assassinated by political rivals. The assassinations created a national martyr but made it even more difficult for Myanmar to create a consensus on the structure of the independent State.

Aung San was replaced by his deputy U Nu and the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League led Myanmar into independence on 4 January 1948. The Union of Burma was constituted as a federal state composed of the large Burmese area and four upland states, home to the ethnic minorities. These states were promised a great deal of autonomy. In practice, power over the states was quickly concentrated in the central government. The failure of the federal system and the concentration of power in Yangon has been a major cause of the instability Myanmar has suffered since 1948.

Shortly after independence was declared the Burmese Communist Party and the Karen nationalist movement launched insurrections. The insurrections continue through to the 1990s, though in recent years there have been some conciliatory moves by Yangon to accommodate the rebels and the scale of the fighting has, temporarily, been reduced. The cause of the insurrections remains. Many of the minorities see independent Myanmar as a Burmese state. The army, the police and the apparatus of government are controlled by Burmese. The substantial ethnic minorities fear absorption and the consequent disappearance of their separate and distinct cultural identities.

Myanmar was a democratic state between 1948 and 1962. Governments were elected, accepted the need to operate within the limits of the Constitution, held national elections and abided by the results and accepted decisions of the Supreme Court when it ruled against the government. Power was in the hands of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League which drew on the name of Aung San to bolster its support. There was a sixteen month period of military rule between 1958 and 1960, but General Ne Win abided by the Constitution and fulfilled an undertaking to hold elections in 1960. The political party favoured by the military did not win the elections but the military accepted the decision and returned to barracks.

The failings of the democratic period were critical. The declining economy and the stress on the Burmeseness of Myanmar were the prime causes of regional insurrections and social unrest in both urban and rural areas. All efforts to create a social consensus on the kind of society that should be created failed. Corruption became rampant as inflation remorselessly ate away at civil servants’ salaries, forcing them to resort to illegal impositions in order to survive.

In March 1962 a military coup led by General Ne Win overthrew the elected government of U Nu. It ushered in a period of military rule that has lasted for over thirty years. The ostensible reason for the coup was the military’s fear that Prime Minister U Nu’s government would allow the Shan and other ethnic minorities to secede from Myanmar. Many Burmese cautiously welcomed the coup because it promised to put an end to the corruption, instability, inflation and social unrest of the previous decade and a half.

The coup leaders arrested political and ethnic minority leaders, closed down the parliament and demolished the federal structure. Opposition from Yangon students and from Burmese monks was ruthlessly suppressed. The country was ruled by a Revolutionary Council composed entirely of military officials loyal to General Ne Win. The military created its own political party, the Burma Socialist Program Party, as the only legal party in the country and described its ideology as the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’.

In 1974 a new Constitution was put into practice, creating the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. An elected parliament was formed, but only one candidate was allowed to stand for each constituency and that candidate had to be approved by the Burma Socialist Program Party.

The military officers who overthrew the elected government in 1962 argued that in the existing chaos the army was the only cohesive and disciplined organisation in society able to provide the strong leadership needed. It was fiercely anti-foreign and determined to rid Myanmar of all vestiges of colonialism by refocussing on Burmese culture, language, tradition and religion.

Like the royal elite that had ruled Myanmar in the 1800s, it was (although this now appears to be changing) an inward looking elite, suspicious of its immediate neighbours and determined to keep outside political, cultural and economic influences to a minimum. It moved quickly to eliminate the business class, because it was predominantly Indian and Chinese, seeing state socialism as the only way to deliver economic independence to the country.

The westernised, often Anglo–Burmese, elite that had run the country under colonial rule and through the 1950s fled the country, along with the Indian and Chinese communities. In the early 1990s they were followed by the Muslim minority on the western border with Bangladesh who too became a target for a Burmese government intent on removing all non-Burmese elements from society.

Ne Win’s military government was even less successful than the democratically elected governments before it in developing the Burmese economy. Indeed, the economy worsened acutely under military rule, with the expulsion of Indians and Pakistanis, the prohibition on foreign investment and the efforts of the one-party State to impose a command economy. In 1987 the United Nations gave Myanmar ‘Least Developed Nation’ status, recognising it as one of the world’s ten poorest countries with a per capita income of no more than US$200. There were, however, two Burmese economies: a legal, largely state controlled economy and a black market economy.

It has been estimated that in the late 1980s illegal trade in Myanmar was three times the official trade, and that the total, non-drug, illegal trade made up about forty per cent of GNP, or about US$3 billion annually. The illegal trade filters through Myanmar’s porous borders with China, Thailand, Bangladesh and India. The illegal drug trade would add considerably to the black market figures as the Golden Triangle, centred on Myanmar, is the world’s major opium producer. The black market has been crucial to Myanmar’s economic survival.

There were sporadic student protests and riots in the 1970s, but these were quelled by the military. A new series of protests began early in 1988, led by students and Buddhist monks. The usual tough reaction from the military this time failed to stop the riots growing in intensity. In August and September 1988 they culminated in widespread strikes and massive demonstrations in the urban areas, coalescing into a demand for an end to military rule. The army reacted, killing thousands of protesters. The horrors of these acts were relayed daily to the television screens throughout the world, eliciting widespread international protests. A new organisation, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took over government under the control of the army chief of staff, General Saw Maung. Nevertheless, Ne Win, who had resigned as chairman of the Burmese Socialist Program Party in August 1988, was thought by many to be the real power behind General Saw Maung.

SLORC decided to hold elections in 1990, presumably because it was concerned at the strong international reaction to the repression of August and September 1988 and it thought it could influence the results of the election. The election campaign did not go as planned. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the revered national martyr Aung San, returned from London and quickly became the major spokesperson for the National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD campaigned vigorously in 1989, drawing large crowds to its meetings despite the restrictions placed by the government.

Aung San Suu Kyi was a powerful orator and magnetic public figure able to draw on the aura surrounding her father’s name. In July 1989 she was placed under house arrest and thousands of NLD supporters, students and other political activists were arrested.

Despite the tough military line the NLD won over three-quarters of the seats when the elections were eventually held in May 1990. The re-named Burmese Socialist Program Party – now the National Union Party – won only 10 seats. SLORC responded by arresting NLD leaders and declaring the election null and void. The military subsequently stated that they would retain power. Aung San Suu Kyi, in early 1995, remains under house arrest, refusing the military government’s offer of freedom in return for leaving the country. In October 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace prize.

The military seems determined to retain political power. Discussions on a possible new Constitution are focussed on legitimising a powerful place for the military while at the same time responding to international criticism of treatment of opponents. The first steps towards some form of reconciliation between the SLORC and Ang San Suu Kyi were taken in mid 1994 although, at the time of publication of this book in mid 1995, she remains under house arrest without an end in sight.

Myanmar’s history continues to haunt it and a stable and prosperous future will, to a large extent, depend upon establishing a political system which skillfully handles the aspirations of the various ethnic groups.

Copyright © Asean Focus Group Pty Limited. All rights reserved.

About this edition:

This is the complete text of the 2nd edition of the book. Short History of South East AsiaThe first edition of "Focus on Southeast Asia" was published in 1997 and the second edition, which was renamed "A Short History of South East Asia", was published in 1999. With so much change taking place in South East Asia over the last few years we recently decided to update the book and a fifth edition was published by John Wiley and Sons (www.wiley.com) in 2009. The cover set out is of the fifth edition.

The 5th edition of "A Short History of South East Asia" is available to purchase from Amazon, as both an e-book and a paperback, and via its publisher, Wiley.


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