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As early as in the 3rd century B.C. Ashoka, the Emperor of India, sent missionaries to Suvannabhumi, the 'Golden Land'. The inhabitants of Suvannabhumi most probably were Mon people, which ruled over wide areas of present Thailand and Myanmar. They belong to the same ethnic group as the Khmer of Cambodia, but contrary to their Cambodian brothers the Mon did not found an empire; instead, they were organized in a number of more or less powerful small states.

One after another those states embraced Buddhism. Some of those states, as for example Dvaravati in Thailand or Thaton (near to modern Mawlamyine), had considerable influence, namely on the cultural side.


At about the same time the Pyu people had settled in the Ayeyarwaddy River Basin. The Pyu most probably were related to the ethnic Burmans. Similar to the Mon they practiced Buddhism alongside Hinduism.

The last powerful state of the Pyu (Srikshetra or Tharekittaya, as the Burmese call it) col-lapsed in the 9th century A.D. under the onslaught of the Nanchao (Thai) empire. For seve-ral hundred years Burman tribes had migrated from their homelands in Tibet down to the fertile plains of Burma. After the fall of Srikshetra the surviving Pyus found refuge in an area that later became known as Bagan. Pyu and Burmans together founded the city-state of Bagan.

From humble beginnings as one of more than a dozen similar states in the Ayeyarwaddy basin, under its ruler Anawrahta Bagan quickly rose to subdue all rivals and became the most powerful state in the region. At the height of their power the kings of Bagan ruled over most of what is now Myanmar.


Under King Anawrahta Theravada Buddhism had become the state religion and the kings as well as high ranking officials got into a building frenzy: When the empire collapsed in the late 13th century A.D. under Mongol pressure, more than 7,000 pagodas dotted the plain of Bagan. Until today still more than 2,500 temples and stupas remain and bear witness to the importance of this early Burmese state.

In the two centuries following the downfall of Bagan the country was separated into several small power centers. Only in the 16th century A.D. the Burman King Bayinnaung managed to bring the whole country under his control. He also invaded Thailand and other neigh-bouring states. Bayinnaung’s main concern was to end the centuries-old conflict between the two major ethnic groups, Burman and Mons. The king shifted the capital from Toungoo to the old Mon city of Bago. However, under Bayinnaung's successors Burman power eroded visibly and the kings withdraw to the old capital Ava. Around the mid 18th century the power of Burman kings had receded so far that the Mon controlled nearly all of Burma.

All of Burma? Well, not exactly: There was a little town named Moksobo (nowadays: Shwebo)  in Upper Burma. Its chief Alaungpaya managed to drive the Mon away from the Burmese heartland and in the ensuing campaign he conquered the arch enemy’s land. One of Alaungpaya’s most important victories was the conquest of the village of Dagon, home to the majestic Shwedagon pagoda. It was renamed Yangon - 'End of Strife' - by the victorious Burmans.

The last Mon capital Bago was besieged and finally conquered by the Burmans and razed to the ground. This was the end for the Mon and they ceased to be a political power in the country. Until today Bago is still suffering from this disastrous defeat. Alaungpaya's successors expanded the empire to the best of their abilities.

In 1767 the Burmans even conquered Ayutthaya, the capital of the old rival Siam. So complete was the destruction that the Siamese abandoned their old capital and removed their residence to Thonburi and finally to Bangkok. A few years later the Burmans invaded the kingdom of Rakhine. This proved to be the beginning of the end: With this conquest Burma became a neighbour of British India.



Not even 50 years after the annexation of Rakhine by the Burmese the first Anglo-Burmese war broke out. In altogether three wars Burma first lost parts of her territory and finally her independence in 1885. The country became a province of British India and the last king was sent into exile to India. The Burmese never accepted the conquest of their country and subsequently started regular uprisings against their new masters.

In the 1930s the Burmese nationalists managed to secede their country from British India - a very important step on the way to independence. The Japanese invasion of 1942 drove out the British in no time at all and dramatically boosted the push for independence.

Among all South East Asian countries Myanmar suffered most during World War II; its infrastructure had suffered large-scale destruction. In 1945 the British finally re-conquered their old colony. However, it was clear to everybody that the age of colonialism was over.


On January 4, 1948 Burma regained her independence after more than 60 years of colonial rule. But the joy was overshadowed by the tragic loss of General Aung San; he and eight comrades had been murdered about six months earlier by a political rival and the country was left without a leader. Soon a number of long-boiling conflicts that had been kept under the blanket by the British broke out.


A fierce struggle ensued between warring factions that followed all kinds of goals: Ethnic rebels, communists, socialists, insurgents, etc... The country plunged into a devastating civil war. U Nu, one of Aung San’s 30 comrades, took over but he lacked his predecessor’s charisma and the situation deteriorated dramatically.

In 1962 the army took power and its leader General Ne Win led the country onto the way of 'Burmese Socialism' which soon proved to be a 'dead end street'. The country sank into poverty and the population responded with occasional riots.

In 1988 the last of these riots expanded into an all-out national rebellion. The old government stepped down, but the military remained in control: A junta called SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) took over and promised free elections in 1990. The military leaders kept their promise and the main opposition party NLD (National League for Demo
cracy) won with a huge margin. However, the party was denied access to power.

For a long time the power remained in the hands of the generals: They renamed the country as well as various cities, rivers, etc... Burma became Myanmar, which in fact had been the old name of the country before the British took over. In 1997 SLORC changed its name to SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), thus hinting that they didn't consider their

task as accomplished yet. No matter how one views the military government, it cannot be denied that the country’s infrastructure has improved considerably: Bridges were built and roads and railway lines improved. Furthermore the government opened the country to investment and tourism - most by extending the period of stay for tourists. Probably because of the long military rule with an iron fist Myanmar can be considered as one of the safest countries in the world!

Knowing that their rule could not last forever, the generals decided to return to civil rule and drew a ‘road map to democracy’. Their motifs have been the topic of many discussions: I believe the ever growing Chinese influence during the time of isolation played an important role in it… The generals simply had to counterbalance this influence. The first step was the summoning of a legislative assembly (handpicked by the government) to discuss a new constitution that would replace the old one. Finally, the new ‘democratic’ constitution was put to the vote in May 2008 and - not really surprising - more than 90 % of the voting population consented to it. Even though 25 % of the seats in the new parliament were reserved for - the army! In November 2010 the country went to the polls and as could be expected the government party USDP garnered a big majority - not at least due to the fact that the major opposition party NLD refused to participate because they rejected the constitution. Two years later, however, the NLD contested in a by election and won 42 out of 45 seats. One of those who won a seat in the parliament was Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the NLD. Since then she is an MP and has entered the political arena - not always successfully as now she is exposed to the political infighting in Myanmar. In November 2015 new elections will be held and it remains to be seen how the political landscape will look afterwards.


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2008 Axel Bruns