Myanmar, or Burma as it was officially known until 1989, is a fascinating multi-ethnic country in south east Asia, bordering, clockwise from the top, Tibet, China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India. It has a total area of 676,578 km² and a long coastline of around 1,930 kilometres, along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The Ayeryawady (Irrawaddy) River, over 2,100 kilometres long, almost bisects the country and, on the border with Tibet and Assam (India) is South East Asia's highest mountain, Hkakabo Razi, rising to 5,889 metres.
One of the most fascinating aspects and also the major source of conflict in the country is its ethnic diversity. Of the over 60 million inhabitants, 68% is Bamar or Burmese with officially recognised minorities of Shan, Kayin (or Karen), Rakhine (formerly called Arakanese), Mon, Kayah (or Karenni), Chin and Kachin; there are many subgroups, like the Padaung (Kayan Lahwi, the people whose women wear brass neck coils) whereas the Kayan are themselves a subgroup of Red Karen or Karenni people, a Tibeto-Burman minority. Many of these groups have been striving for autonomy or outright independence from their Bamar rulers and faced dreadful human rights abuses. The Muslim Rohingya people in the state of Rakhine (Arakan) are described as one of the most prosecuted in the world; they are ethno-linguistically related to people of India and Bangladesh and the Burmese government refuses to recognise them although their region and its people have been under Burmese rule since the 1700s.
It has been proved that the region was home to Homo Erectus as far as 750,000 years ago and that around 10,000 BCE a stone age culture existed here. Around 500 BCE there were iron-working settlements near present-day Mandalay and rice growing seems to have started soon after that. City states emerged in central Myanmar around the second or first century BCE of the Pyu, a Tibeto-Burman people that had migrated southward from the Tibetan plateau or India. They traded and imported Buddhism from India. The Mon people arrived in the 6th Century and formed states along the southern coastline. Between 750 and 830 the Pyu came under attack by the Kingdom of Nanzhao, based in China's Yunnan region and in the 9th century the Mranma or Bamar (Burmese) formed a small settlement in Bagan (Pagan); the Burmese had been arriving from the eastern Himalaya region during the 8th and 9th century, supplanting the Pyu.
The Burmese King Anawrahta (1015-1078) of Pagan took the throne in 1044 and consolidated the various principalities into the first Burmese empire - he is considered the father of the nation. He embraced Theravada Buddhism, conquered the Mon and stopped the advance of the Hindu Khmer Empire. By late 12th century Burmese culture and language had become dominant in the upper Irrawaddy valley. After Anawrahta's death the kingdom's power declined and Mongol invasions in late 13th century caused the collapse of Pagan. Shan tribes from the east formed states that came to dominate the area to the northwest and east of the Irrawaddy valley. The Mon established the kingdom of Hanthawaddy at Bago (Pegu) in 1287, while in 1364 the Shan founded the kingdom of Inwa (or Ava) near Mandalay and the Rakhine people in 1437 united the Arakan coastline, establishing the kingdom of Mrauk U.
In the mid-16th century political unity returned when Tabinshweti, the King of Toungoo (or Taungoo), that had been a vassal state of Inwa, defeated Hanthawaddy, thus founding the second Burmese Empire with its capital in Bago; his successor Bayinnaung then managed to conquer a huge area of South East Asia, including the Shan states and most of present-day Thailand and Laos. But following Bayinnaung's death in 1581, what had been the largest empire in south east Asia fell apart and completely collapsed in 1599. Siam (Thailand) occupied Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) and Portuguese ruled Syriam (Thanlyin), a port near Yangon. The Toungoo dynasty however managed to defeat the Portuguese and Siamese and established a smaller kingdom; its capital became Inwa (Ava) in 1636. The kings created a legal and political framework that survived into the 19th century, reduced the power of the Shan chiefs and built a prosperous economy. However, raids from Manipur (India), a rebellion in Lanna (northern Thailand) and finally the sacking in 1752 of Inwa by the Mon, who, 12 years earlier had re-established the Hanthawaddy Kingdom, brought it to an end. The Mon executed the last Toungoo King, ending the dynasty.
King Alaungpaya (1714-1760) was a chief of Moksobo (Shwebo), a small village in Upper Burma but became a national leader when the authority of Inwa declined; he managed to reunify Burma, subdue Manipur, recover Lanna and even drive out the French and English who by that time were giving help to the Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom. He started the Konbaung dynasty and in 1755 founded Yangon (Rangoon). He ransacked Manipur in 1756 and 1758 and invaded Siam (Thailand) in 1759, reaching their capital Ayutthaya in 1760. King Alaungpaya fell ill here and died soon after. The Burmese withdrew from Ayutthaya but formally annexed the upper Tenasserim coast (Tanintharyi). In 1767 Ayutthaya was destroyed by the Burmese army under Alaungpaya's son Hsinbyushin, who had ascended to the throne in 1763. He had rebuilt the city of Ava (Inwa) and in 1765 officially moved the kingdom's capital there from Sagaing. Hsinbyushin waged military campaigns against Manipur, the Laotian states, Siam and the Chinese between 1764 and 1769 with victories over both the Siamese and Chinese; this laid the foundation of Myanmar's present border with China. Bodawpaya, another of Alaungpaya's sons, had become king in 1782; he founded a new capital at Amarapura the following year and conquered Rakhine (Arakan) in 1785, Manipur in 1814 and Assam in 1817. His was the second largest Burmese empire, but it sowed the seeds of conflict with the British, who by now had established themselves in India.
Based in Calcutta, the British had their own designs on the region, and actively started to support rebellions against the Burmese in Manipur, Assam and Arakan. The First Anglo-Burmese War began primarily over the control of northeastern India and lasted from 5 March 1824 to 24 February 1826. It ended in a complete British victory and total British control of Assam, Manipur, as well as Arakan and Tenasserim. But the cost was high: around 15,000 European and Indian soldiers died and there were a huge number of Burmese army and civilian casualties. For the Burmese, this was the beginning of the end of their independence. An incident in which it was alleged two British sea captains had been kidnapped triggered the Second Anglo-Burmese war; it was fought from 5 April to 20 December 1852, resulting in the annexation of the whole of Lower Burma. The unpopular Burmese King at the time, Bagan Min, was overthrown in 1853 by his half brother Mindon Min; Mindon moved his capital to Mandalay in 1857. He became a popular and revered King, instituted reforms and modernised his kingdom, all the while trying to defend the upper part of Burma from British encroachments. He died in 1878 and was succeeded by Thibaw, one of his sons; almost all possible heirs were killed, on the orders of Hsinbyumashin, one of Mindon's queens, so that her daughter Supayalat and son-in-law Thibaw would be Queen and King.
Thibaw was suspected by the British of trying to align his country more closely with the French, who had established themselves in Indochina. In 1885 King Thibaw issued a proclamation calling upon his countrymen to liberate Lower Burma from the British; this was conveniently seized upon by the British to complete the conquest that had started in 1824. The Third Anglo-Burmese War took place from 7-29 November 1885, resulting in the occupation of Mandalay; King Thibaw was taken prisoner and the British organised the looting of the palace and the city. Burma was formally annexed by the British on 1 January 1886. But the annexation was only the beginning of an insurgency which would last until 1896. As Burma was now part of "British India", many Indians arrived as soldiers, civil servants, workers and traders; this caused strong Burmese resentment. By 1930 the capital Rangoon (Yangon) had a mostly Indian population. Chinese too were encouraged to immigrate and set up businesses. Riots often paralysed the capital; some of this was caused by disrespect by the British for the local culture and Buddhist religion - Buddhist monks became leaders in the resistance.
Burma became a separate colony on 1 April 1937 with Ba Maw the First Prime minister and Premier. He was outspoken for Burmese self rule and opposed participation in the war against Japan. Bogyoke Aung San, born in 1915 and a student at Rangoon University, became a leader in the independence movement and ended up forming the Burmese Independence Party in Japan in 1940, before that country entered the Second World War; he returned with invading Japanese troops the following year. The country was devastated in the war; although many Burmese initially fought with the Japanese against the British, some, mostly from ethnic minorities, fought with the British. The Burmese National Army switched sides in 1945. After the war Aung San negotiated the Panglong Agreement, an agreement with ethnic leaders to guarantee independence as a unified state, but with the freedom for ethnic minorities to choose their own destiny after 10 years if they were dissatisfied with the government; he was to be deputy chairman of a transitional government, but was assassinated by political rivals in July 1947.
On 4 January 1948 the Union of Burma became an independent republic, combining Upper- and Lower Burma with the Frontier Areas, previously administered separately: the Shan States, Chin Hills and Kachin tracts, inhabited by ethnic minorities. Almost straight away there were revolts - rebels, communists and anti-communist Chinese soldiers who had fled after Mao's takeover. The hill tribes, who in the war had fought with the British against the Japanese mistrusted the Bamar government and ethnic armies were formed. Gradually the government, under Prime Minister U Nu, regained control, but the economy was a mess and in 1958 control was handed to the military under General Ne Win. Elections in 1960 brought U Nu back to power but, following more political turmoil, Ne Win took full control in a coup d'état on 2 March 1962 and the country was now ruled by a military council that nationalised almost all aspects of society in what was called the "Burmese Road to Socialism". The country, once rich, became an economic basket case and a repressive dictatorship. In 1974 a new constitution proclaimed the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, ruled through a one-party system by military officers. Protests were violently suppressed and, after unrest in 1988 over economic mismanagement, political repression and a prophesy that the country would become free on 8 August 1988 (the 8888 Uprising), thousands were killed; a military coup on 18 September that year by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) ended the uprising.
The SLORC established martial law under army commander-in-chief General Saw Maung, who promised to hold democratic elections in May 1989. It also abandoned socialism, changed the name of the country to "Union of Myanmar", renamed towns and cities, changing English names to Burmese ones. An opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had been formed with Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of murdered independence hero Aung San, emerging as a national icon. As her popularity was clear to the generals, she was placed under house arrest in July 1989. The elections were held in May 1990 and the NLD won overwhelmingly with 80% of the contested seats. The SLORC however refused to cede power and continued to rule, renaming itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). On 27 March 2006 the military junta, that had built itself a new capital 320 kilometres north of Yangon, officially named it Naypyidaw, "city of kings". In August 2007 protests, triggered by fuel price increases led to a heavy crackdown; hundreds of Buddhist monks defied Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest in their saffron robes, leading it to be called the "Saffron Revolution". International sanctions followed; in May 2008 Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy delta; 200,000 people were killed or missing, the government delaying aid by the U.N., causing further international outrage.
However, on 10 May 2008 a constitutional referendum was held and the country's name changed to "Republic of the Union of Myanmar". General elections were held in 2010 and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party declared victory although there were allegations of irregularities. Nevertheless, the government embarked on a series of reforms, a new flag was adopted and on 30 March 2011 the military junta was dissolved with Aung San Suu Kyi released. Thein Sein, a former military commander who had retired from the military the previous year, became President; he met with Aung San Suu Kyi on 19 August 2011, the press became free and international recognition brought visits by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, in 2011 and 2012. There is hope that at last Myanmar will become a more free and democratic country; however, the ethnic conflicts are still going on, with the conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and the government flaring up again in 2011 and the dreadful riots between Buddhist and Muslim Rohingya (labeled by the government as "non-human beings" and illegal immigrants, although they lived in Rakhine State for centuries). Conflicts between the "Tatmadaw", the Myanmar Armed Forces and Shan, Lahu and Karen people also continue and it may still be a long time before Myanmar will be the free, open, democratic and peaceful country it so richly deserves to be.