The history of Burma began in the 9th century when the Myamma or Bamar people migrated from the China-Tibet border region into the valley of the Irrawaddy.

The Burmese Kingdom

The Burmese soon converted to Buddhism and created the state which in 1057 became the First Burmese Empire. The two names by which this people were known gave rise to the names Myanmar (in Burmese) and Burma (in English).

After the devastating invasion by the Mongol army of Kublai Khan in 1287, Burma broke up into several states. Ever since, the Burmese inhabitants of the Irrawaddy valley have sought to regain control of the neighbouring hill peoples such as the Shan and the Karen, but these peoples have usually maintained de facto independence.

The Portuguese reached Burma in the late 15th century, and established trading posts, but their attempts to extend their control were repelled. This external threat galvanised the Burmese to establish a stronger state, and in 1613 King Aukhpetlan decisively defeated Portuguese attempts to take over Burma.

By the 18th century conflicts had begun to occur along the Burmese border with British India, and the British proved a far greater threat than the other European powers. The First Burmese War (1824-26 ended with Burma ceding territory to the British, and the Second Burmese War (1852) resulted in the annexation of Lower Burma (in the south) and its conversion to a province of British India.

King Mindon of Upper (northern) Burma (ruled 1853-78) tried to modernise the Burmese state and economy to resist British encroachments better, and he fortified the northern capital, Mandalay. But in 1886 his son Thibaw was unable to prevent the Third Burmese War, which resulted in the annexation of the whole country and the abolition of the Burmese monarchy.

British rule

Burma benefitted economically from British rule, but Burmese nationalism remained powerful. In 1935 the British separated Burma from India and promised that self-government would be introduced. But in early 1942 the Japanese invaded the country and rapidly drove the British out.

Burmese nationalists, led by Aung San, at first welcomed the defeat of the British, but soon realised that the Japanese had no intention of allowing Burmese independence. Aung San then established contact with the British and transferred the support of his 10,000 strong army to the Allied side, in exchange for a promise of immediate independence after the war.

Independent Burma

Following a 1947 conference in London, Burma gained its independence from the United Kingdom on January 4, 1948. Attempts by the non-Burmese minorities to secede from the Burmese state were prevented, but the Burmese government had no more control over the hill territories than the British had done.

National elections in April 1947 had returned Aung San with an overwhelming majority. But while the new constitution was being drawn up Aung San was assassinated by a political rival. He was succeeded by his close associate U Nu. Under his government Burma enjoyed a period of peace and democratic government, but in 1958 he was succeeded by General Ne Win. When elections in 1962 gave U Nu a majority, Ne Win staged a coup and brought Burmese democracy to an end.

Under Ne Win, Burma became an isolated military dictatorship, in which the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) imposed a version of socialism which soon reduced a prosperous country to poverty. The regime conducted many fruitless wars against the Karens and Shans, against the Burmese Communists, and later against drug bosses such as Khun Sa.

In 1974 Ne Win declared the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, with a facade of popular government to conceal the reality of military rule. Demonstration against the regime broke out in 1988, and hundreds, possibly thousands, of people were killed. The military then removed Ne Win from power and promised free elections. Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San’s daughter, returned from exile and established the National League for Democracy (NLD).

After further disturbances the promised elections were held in 1990, the military apparently believing that they could rig the results in favour of the National Unity Party, the old BSPP renamed. But the NLD won a landslide victory. After a period of indecision the military in effect staged a second coup. Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest, the NLD banned, and a body called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took power headed by General Saw Maung.

Renewed dictatorship

The military regime has ruled Burma ever since, with Saw Maung being succeeded in 1992 by General Than Shwe and the SLORC being replaced in 1997 by a State Peace and Development Council. In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and under international pressure the regime released her from house arrest in 1995. Plans were announced for a national convention to draft a new constitution, but this body has never produced any results.

The regime has survived due to strong economic and military support from the People's Republic of China, covert support from Thailand and other ASEAN states, and the proceeds of smuggling drugs and valuable timber resources. Since 1996 the regime has been subject to international sanctions by bodies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But the regime has clung to power; Aung San Suu Kyi continues to have her activities restricted and her supporters are routinely harassed or jailed.

Burma and Myanmar

In 1989 the Burmese regime announced that the official name of the country was henceforth to be Myanmar, and the United Nations now uses that name. Myanmar has always been the name of the country in the Burmese language, whereas Burma has always been used in English. Governments such as the United States and Australia, which disapprove of the military regime, continue to call it Burma, and this is the name that Aung San Suu Kyi - seen by some as the elected leader of the country - uses.

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