Kingdoms like the Arakan flourished as major commercial hubs along trade routes from the Ayeyarwady River to the Ganges. Burmese, Hindu, Muslim, and eventually European cultures had strong presences here. This particular mixture of cultures sets Myanmar apart from other countries in Southeast Asia.
When the British colonized what they called “Lower Burma,” they brought together several very different ethnic groups. The name “Burma” came from the ancient Bamar people. Today, some of Myanmar’s native people — including the Kachin, the Karen, and the Chin people — maintain their own cultural identities, which are separate from mainstream Myanmar culture.
Ancient Myanmar and the First Burmese Empire
Stone tools found along the Ayeyarwady River date the first humans in Myanmar back to 11,000 B.C., which is known as the Anyathian Era.
Fast forward to around 1,500 BC, when rice cultivation begins to take root in the area. This led to a period of sustained population growth.
The Pyu, from China's Yunnan region, invaded the upper regions of Burma around 200 BC. They begin to build walled cities as the Ayeyarwady River. Pyu architecture and religious beliefs fell under the influence of India's Andhra Kingdom. The Pyu created an astrological calendar, Burmese script, and pagoda designs that are still in use today. In many ways, the Pyu put down the groundwork for future dynasties in this region.
Around the same time, two other areas of present-day Myanmar were settled by separate cultures, known as the Rakhine and the Mon. The Rakhine created an empire based on rice cultivation and trade with India. Remnants of their large city walls date back to the 4th century.
The Mon came from Indochina (modern-day Thailand) and settled in southeast Mynamar vast coastal lands.
In the 9th century, a new group attacked and conquered the Pyu. They were the Mranmar, or Myamars. Along a bend in the Ayeyarwady River, they build a fortified capital called Bagan. From here, the first Burmese Empire ruled for the next several centuries.
Each regime change has come with a new capital city. New capital cities get their own great temples — built to honor Buddha as much as the founders.
King Anawrahta and Theravada Buddhism
The Burmese Empire came into its golden age in 1044 when Anawrahta, whose name means "The Ungovernable," ascended to the throne. Over the next twenty years, Anawrahta unified his territory, laying the foundation for modern-day Myanmar. After conquering the Mon, he brought back 30,000 slaves to Bagan, including the royal family. Many of these slaves were artisans, and over the next twenty years they built marvelous monasteries, temples, and pagodas. At its height, Bagan is said to have had 10,000 structures, of which 2,000 still remain today.
A Buddhist monk by the name of Shin Arahan arrived in Bagan around 1050, and converted Anawrahta to Theravada Buddhism, and by extension the rest of the Myanmar kingdom. Eventually Theravada Buddhism grew more popular than Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism. These had all flourished among Myanmar’s different cultures, but Theravada Buddhism endures today as the country's dominant religion.
The Fall of Bagan
After almost two centuries of prosperous rule, the Bagan Empire fell into decline. The nail in the coffin for this first empire was Kublai Khan’s invasion in the 13th century, which destroyed Bagan.
Decades of instability followed the fall of Bagan. The region found itself fractured into four kingdoms. In 1336, the King Thadominbya established the capital of Inwa(Ava) Island, and took the reigns of the Burmese-Bagan dynasty. Opposing forces surrounded his kingdom, and he lacked the control of previous rulers. Ultimately, he was unsuccessful in his bid to reassemble the former Bagan Empire.
To the south, the Mon emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Victorious over Inwa from a forty-year war on trade, they successfully ruled the Southern Bago region for a century. To the east, ancestors from the Mongol invasion dominated the area now known as Shan State. To the west, prosperity blossomed as the kingdom of Arakan became the wealthiest in Southeast Asia. Arakan is the old name for what is now known as Rakhine State. It successfully established trade routes that linked the Ayeyarwady to the mouth of the Ganges. In 1433, King Min Saw Mon founded a new Arakanese (Rakhine) capital at Mrauk U.
Second Burmese Empire — Taungoo Dynasty
In 1527, a group of Shan chiefs drove the Burmese out of Inwa, forcing them north to Taungoo. The ruler of this upper region of Burma, King Tabinshwehti, had tremendous ambition. By 1545, he ruled upper and lower Burma, an area of land that covers nearly as much as modern-day Myanmar. This marked the start of the second Burmese Empire, which is also known as the Taungoo Dynasty. In the west, Arakan (Rakhine State) remained free from the new Burmese Empire.
King Tabinshwehti was assassinated in 1550 and was succeeded by his brother-in-law, King Bayinnaung. He expanded the kingdom even more to create the largest empire in Southeast Asia's history. Under his rule, the kingdom now stretched from upper and lower Burma all the way to modern-day Laos and Thailand.
Europeans begin to land on the shores of the Bay of Bengal in the 16th century. The Arakan (Rakhine) King, who remained in power despite the great success of the neighboring Burmese Empire, employed these new visitors as mercenaries. To solidify his new allies, he gave Portuguese Filipe de Brito a governorship. Brito was quick to use his newfound power to strip Buddhist temples of valuables, and in 1613 the Burmese king killed him.
The Mons and King Alaungpaya
The last ruler of the second Burmese Empire, King Anaukperlun, saw his kingdom fall under rebellion. The Mon recaptured lower Burma and began to make their way towards the empire's current capital of Inwa(Ava) Island in 1752. Traveling up the Ayeyarwady River, the Mons seemed on track to destroy the Taungoo dynasty. They were thwarted when a young village chief named Aung Zeya assembled an army and marched against the advancing Mon. Declaring himself the new Burmese King, he gave himself the honorary title of Alaungpaya, or "Embryo Buddha."
Third Burmese Empire — Konbaung Dynasty
King Alaungpaya went on to recapture all of upper and lower Burma, and commenced the third Burmese Empire known as the Konbaung Dynasty in 1760. Over the next century, Chinese invaders challenged his sons, but the Konbaung reign persisted. King Bodawpaya, the fourth son of King Alaungpaya, attempted to build the world's largest brick stupa in Mingun, which today still stands unfinished.
King Bodawpaya conquered the Arakan in 1784. To add insult to injury, the Burmese stripped Arakan of its most sacred relic, the Mahamuni, which is believed to be a statue of Buddha made during the Buddha’s lifetime. According to legend, the Buddha breathed on the statue and it took on his exact likeness. The giant Buddha was carried to Mandalay, where it still resides today.
British Rule and Burmese Uprising
King Bagyidaw, the grandson of King Bodawpaya, continued to seek more lands, but unwittingly knocked on the wrong door when he attempted to expand to Assam, India. Burma had the misfortune of being an area that the British considered strategically important. The British East India Company saw this area as a necessary buffer between their business interests in India.
In 1824, the first Anglo-Burmese war began, and two years later the British prevailed. After the Burmese signed a treaty, the British took large amounts of Burmese territory and caused the collapse of the Konbaung economy for generations.
A second Anglo-Burmese war began in 1852 over a small skirmish over custom violations. This would last a year and resulted in the British gaining even more territory.
To free itself from the encroaching British rule, the ruling Burmese moved their capital to Mandalay. When a young Burmese prince and princess came to power and brutally killed all would-be challengers to their reign, popular global opinion turned against the Burmese. Populists in England started calling for a regime change, and then the third and final Anglo-Burmese war ignited over taxes on teak wood. This proved to be the final blow to the Burmese royal ruling class. The British took over the rest of the Burmese Kingdom without firing a shot.
Burma would become part of British India in 1885. Scores of Indians immigrated to the Ayeyarwady Delta region to participate in the boom of this newest British colony. The British set up their base in Yangon, which they renamed Rangoon.
By 1927, Burmese resentment reached a fever pitch after they saw few benefits from the boom. The British denied them administrative posts, which led to widespread poverty and unemployment among the Burmese. A young leader by the name of General Aung San emerged as the head of this growing rebellion.
World War II
During World War II, the Japanese invaded Burma in order to disrupt and shut down the "Burmese Road." This road served as an important Allied supply artery to the war effort in China. General Aung San and his Burmese fighters joined forces with the Japanese and were able to push the British and Indians out of Burma through a murderous conquest. An allied counter attack, backed with heavy air support, halted the progress of the Japanese until their eventual surrender in 1945.
General Aung San switched allegiance months before Japanese capitulation. Upon the Allied victory, he pressed the British for independence. Burma declared their independence from the British in 1947. General elections were held, and General Aung San's Communist Party of Myanmar won. The celebrations were short-lived, and he and six other leaders were assassinated by a rival political party mere months after the election.
20th Century Coups and Military Rule
After General Aung San’s assassination, a former associate of General Aung San and foreign minister U Nu became prime minister. He signed a treaty with the British. Fearing a civil war, U Nu temporarily gave power to General Ne Win. The country was stabilized long enough for new elections, which put U Nu back in power. But the situation quickly descended into chaos.
General Ne Win and the military took power in a 1962 coup. The military government called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). This began an era of military rule that lasted until 2011.
Private property was confiscated and most sectors of the economy and press were nationalized. In 1988, under nationwide protest, General Ne Win stepped down from power. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, emerged as the leader of a pro-democratic movement. Not liking this potential shift in power, the military declared martial law and murdered or imprisoned political dissidents.
The army coup led by General Saw Maung officially changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar. Confident his party would win any election, he again held open elections in 1990. The results were resoundingly against the regime, showing again the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi's party. The military, not wanting to give up control, again imprisoned or killed key activists.
Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of the 90s under house arrest, as Myanmar shuttered itself off from the outside world. She was released in 2002, and her political party soon began to draw a huge amount of support.
Saffron Revolution and Aung San Suu Kyi
Under the decades of military rule, Myanmar went from the richest country in Southeast Asia to one of the poorest. In 2007, due mainly to rising fuel and rice prices, the starving population pushed back against the regime. This time monks led the charge — they marched through the streets in a movement called the "Saffron Revolution,” a name that comes from monk’s saffron-colored robes. The army responded with a brutal crackdown and imprisonment of political dissidents.
In 2008, a constitutional referendum planted the seed of major political change in the country. Amnesty was given to political prisoners. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and was elected to parliament in 2012. As of 2011, Myanmar transitioned from a military government to a civilian government.
Due to a constitutional law, Aung San Suu Kyi is not allowed to be president. Today she holds the second-highest governmental position. She is widely considered to be the de-facto leader of the country.
Modern Day Myanmar and the Future
According to the new constitution, the army still retains half the seats in parliament and wields tremendous political power. The military chose to move the country's capital out of Yangon to Naypyidaw. This move will help the military keep close tabs on the rising political powers. Most recently there have been allegations of genocide by the military against the minority Muslim population called the Rohingyas.
Even with its significant challenges, there is a new openness to Myanmar that has been lacking since the middle of the 20th century. With visits from world leaders such as President Obama, Myanmar is in a political and cultural spring. And with the number of visitors doubling over the last few years, there is a great sense of hope that better times are ahead for this enchanted land.