Like most of Southeast Asia’s countries, Myanmar’s people and history is a glorious mishmash of settlers and invaders from all fronts. The Mon and the Pyu are thought to have come from India, while the now dominant Bamar (Burmese) migrated through Tibet and, by 849, had founded a powerful kingdom centred on Bagan. For the next millennium, the Burmese empire grew through conquests of Thailand (Ayutthaya) and India (Manipur), and shrank under attacks from China and internal rebellions.
Eventually, Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. It was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate self-governing colony. During the Second World War, Burma was a major battleground as the Allies fought the Japanese for dominance over Asia. The Burma Road was built to get supplies to China. The Thailand-Burma railroad (the so-called “Death Railway”) from Kanchanaburi in Thailand over the River Kwai to Burma was built by the Japanese using forced labour — Allied prisoners-of-war, indentured Thai labourers, and Burmese people. They had to work in appalling conditions and a great number of them died (estimated at 80,000) during construction of the railway. Large parts of Western Burma, particularly the hilly areas bordering India and the city of Mandalay were severely damaged during the war.
While the Burmese independence fighters led by Aung San initially cooperated with the Japanese to oust the British, with the Japanese promising to grant independence to Burma in exchange, it soon became apparent that the Japanese promises of independence were empty. The Japanese occupation was more brutal than the British colonisation, and many Burmese were killed, such as in the Kalagong massacre. Aung San subsequently switched alliegance and helped the British win Burma back from the Japanese. Aung San subsequently led negotiations with the British for Burmese independence after the end of World War II, and the British agreed in 1947 to grant independence to Burma the following year, though Aung San himself was assassinated later in the year and never lived to see his dream come true. Independence from the British under the name Union of Burma was finally attained in 1948, and till this day, Aung San is regarded by most Burmese people to be the father of independence.
The new union brought together various states defined by ethnic identity, many of whom had centuries-long histories of autonomy from and struggles against each other. In the interest of securing their collective independence from Britain, the tribes reached an agreement to submit to collective governance — with power sharing among the ethnicities and states — for ten years, after which each tribe would be afforded the right to secede from the union. The terms of this “Panglong Agreement” were enshrined in the 1947/1948 constitution of the new Union of Burma. The new central government of the nation quickly worked to consolidate its power, marginalizing and angering tribal leaders and setting off more than a decade of armed conflict. In 1961, more than 200 ethnic leaders from the Shan people, Kachin people, Red Karen, Karen people, Chin peoples, Mon people and Rakhine people met with ethnic Bamar (Burmese) central government authorities to draft a new form of government which would ensure the tribes both autonomy and self-determination within a federal system.
The new government was never formed. Military leader General Ne Win led a coup d’etat which ousted the democratically elected government in 1962, and subsequently installed himself as leader. General Ne Win dominated the government from 1962 to 1988, first as military ruler, then as self-appointed president, and later as political kingpin. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 were violently crushed, with general Saw Maung taking over in a coup and installing the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country, now renamed Myanmar.
Multiparty legislative elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – winning a landslide victory (392 of 489 seats). But SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, which she has endured for 14 of the last 20 years.
Today Myanmar, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has since slumped into poverty due to widespread corruption. The junta took steps in the early 1990s to liberalize price controls after decades of failure under the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” but had to reinstate subsidized prices on staples in the face of food riots, upon which the democracy movement grafted its agenda. The government called out troops and the rioters were defiant until the monks intervened: standing between both sides, they told everyone to go home and they did. The riots caused overseas development assistance to cease and the government subsequently nullified the results of the 1990 legislative elections.
In response to the government’s attack in May 2003 on Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy, the USA imposed new economic sanctions against Myanmar, including bans on imports of products from Myanmar and on provision of financial services by US citizens.
The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started in August, apparently in an uncoordinated manner, as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of petrol, but morphed into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in the town of Pakokku. The monks demanded an apology but none was forthcoming and soon processions of monks with begging bowls held upside down filled many cities (including Sittwe, Mandalay, and Yangon). Yangon, particularly the area around Sule Pagoda in the downtown area, became the centre of these protests. While the monks marched, and many ordinary citizens came out in support of the monks, the world watched as pictures, videos, and blogs flooded the Internet. However, the government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks and closing monasteries, and temporarily shut down Internet communications with the rest of the world. This led the USA, Australia, Canada and the European Union to impose additional sanctions, some targeting the families and finances of the military leaders. Dialogue between the UN and the military government has stalled.
Despite international condemnation, Aung San Suu Kyi was back under house arrest after being charged of breaching the conditions of her house arrest. She was released from house arrest on 13 November 2010. As of November 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi is participating in politics and the prospects for democracy look better than ever.
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Myanmar’s culture is largely a result of heavy Indian influences intertwined with local traditions and some Chinese influences. This can be seen in the various stupas and temples throughout the country, which bear a distinct resemblance to those in northern India. Like neighbouring Thailand, Theravada Buddhism is the single largest religion, and even some of the most remote villages will have a village temple for people to pray at. Other religions which exist in smaller numbers include Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
The dominant ethnic group in Myanmar is known as the Bamar, from which the original English name of the country, Burma, was derived. Besides the Bamar, Myanmar is also home to many minority ethnic groups and nationalities which have their own distinct cultures and languages. In addition to the native ethnic minorities, Myanmar is also home to ethnic Chinese and Indians whose ancestors migrated to Myanmar during the colonial period, most visible in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Generally speaking, the divisions in Myanmar are Bamar-dominated, while the states are dominated by the respective ethnic minorities.
Generally speaking, most Burmese people are incredibly friendly and polite, and will do their best to make you feel welcome in their country.
Myanmar is considered to have 3 seasons. The hot season is usually from March-April, and temperatures then cool off during the rainy season from May-October. The peak tourism season is the cool season from November-February. Temperatures can climb as high as 36°C in Yangon in the hot season while in the cool season, noontime temperatures are usually a more bearable 32°C, with night temperatures falling to around 19°C. Mandalay is slightly cooler in the cool season, with temperatures falling as low as 13°C, while temperatures in the hot season can go as high as 37°C. Generally, Lower Myanmar, the area around Yangon, receives more rainfall than the drier Upper Myanmar (around Mandalay).
In the highlands such as Inle Lake and Pyin U Lwin, winter temperatures can fall below 10°C at night, while daytime temperatures tend to be very pleasant. Even in the summer, temperatures rarely climb above 32°C. Near the Indian border in Kachin State, there are mountains which are permanently snow capped throughout the year.
* The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U. Easily the most accessible history of Myanmar available. Read it before you go and you will marvel at how the once great and rich cities (like Martaban, Syriam, and Mrauk-U) have been transformed into the dingy and smoky villages of today. (ISBN 0374163421)
* From the Land of the Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe. A Cambridge-educated writer who gives a very touching account of his growing up as a Paduang-Hilltribe-Guyand in the difficult political environment before turning into a rebel himself. (ISBN 0 00 711682 9)
* The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. A novel that spans a century, from British conquest to the modern day. A compelling account of how a family adapted to the changing times; provides much insight into Burmese culture.
* Burmese Days by George Orwell. An absolute must read, classic novel about Burma.