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A short history of Burma

23 December 2016

This is Burma', wrote Rudyard Kipling. 'It will be quite unlike any land you know about.'

Ancient Temples in Bagan, Burma
Ancient Temples in Bagan, Burma

This statement has rung too true over the years as Burma's history blazed a trail of glorious dynasties, colonial struggles and political conflict that scorched the country and made it pretty much a no-go area for tourists for many years.

However, the country has recently opened its gates to tourism with holiday-makers keen to explore this enchanting land of sacred stupas, beautiful temples and breath-taking landscapes.

Keen to know more? Read on for a short history of Burma…

The Golden Era

An assortment of progressive kingdoms ruled this region long before it became Burma. The Pagan Dynasty was the first kingdom to unify the regions as one. The principle city became a hub for Buddhism where thousands of temples were built, though it fell from grace after years of battle with the Mongols when the country slid into a Dark Age.

Colonialism takes hold

From 1824-1885 the British took steps to conquer the country and colonial rule brought in a large India population as civil servants as well as a hefty contingency of Chinese traders.

Railways and ports were constructed and British companies made their fortunes in rice and teak. However, Burmese monks led demonstrations against the colonial status quo as a nationalist movement developed.

Early independence

WWI saw the Japanese join forces with Burma to drive out the British and declare independence. However, Burma ended up switching back to the Allies to drive out the Japanese by the end of the war after losing faith with the country.

Nationalist Bogyoke Aung San, steered the country on this journey to independence but was assassinated by a rival before he could take elected office in 1947. Political conflict ensued.

Ne Win and the coup

Socialist General Ne Win led a coup in 1962 and nationalised everything in his path, effectively crippling the economy of the country and stirring mass demonstrations from the people.

In 1988, huge conflicts occurred between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military, resulting in thousands of deaths. The Buddhist monks condemned the dictatorship and finally Ne Win had to go.

Aung San Suu Kyi

The government formed the State Law and Restoration Council and declared martial law, changing the country's name to Myanmar. Growing increasingly nervous about the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Bogyoke Aung San and leader of the popular National League for Democracy (NLD), they placed her under house arrest and put off the democratic elections they had promised the people. When the election finally took place, the NLD took 85% of the vote, but Slorc refused to honour the result.

A new age dawns

Despite various releases and rearrests, Aung San Suu Kyi consistently refused freedom in exchange for exile, and was eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Modern reforms eventually began to take place when Thein Sein was sworn in as president of a new government, beginning with the abolishment of pre-publication censorship and the return of international engagement with global powers beginning to reestablish ties with Myanmar. A final landmark was the 2015 elections which marked the first democratically elected government in more than 50 years.

Burma's new government may still have problems to fix, but the hope of a new future hangs in the air of this beautiful region.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.