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The Burmese speak a Sino-Tibean language, more closely related to Tibetan and Karen than to Chinese itself. But, despite frequent political and military involvement with China, Burma has always been a sub-Indian culture, with Theravadin Buddhist religion and a Sanskrit based alphabet. The interesting circular form of Burmese letters is a consequence of the original writing materials. These were strips of leaves that would spliteasily if straight lines were made along the grain. Circular forms avoid or minimize this danger.
The earliest civilization in Burma was on the coast of Arakan. This was occasionally subject to the strong Burmese states in the Irrawaddy valley and eventually was aborbed.
After the fall of Pagan and a transitional kingdom, the next great Burmese state was Ava. Ava, however, would never dominate Burma. It was precariously surrounded by the Shan states in the north, Arakan in the west, and Pegu in the south, sometimes advancing, as against Arakan in 1379-1430, sometimes retreating, and sometimes dominated by China.
These lists were largely derived from Bruce R. Gordon’s Regnal Chronologies, with some details added from An Encyclopedia of World History (William L. Langer, Houghton Mifflin, 1952). The Maps are based on the Oxford Atlas of World History (Patrick K. O’Brien, General Editor, 1999, pp.64-65). Good lingustic information is in The Atlas of Languages (Facts On File, 1996, pp.62-64); and a descripiton of the Burmese language and its alphabet is in The World’s Major Languages, edited by Bernard Comrie [Oxford University Press, 1987, pp.834-854].
The Shan were among the Thai-Lao people who streamed into Southeast Asia in the 13th century, perhaps driven out of Yunnan by the Mongols. Shan states destablize Burma, and their aggressiveness may be responsible for the newly aggressive state of Taungu that creates a bit of a Burmese Empire in the 16th century.
The revival of a unified Burmese state under Konbaung led to some triumphs, as for a while over Siam again, and then to a series of setbacks. Defeated in Siam, the Burmese then had to face an enemy even more formidable than China — the British in India.
All the British ever wanted to do was trade and make money, but ideas of private property and free trade were more than a little foreign to Burmese sovereigns. Hassling British subjects in the 19th century, however, brings down the wrath of Britain, with all its modern military superiority.
Three wars with Britain led to the dismemberment and then annexation of Burma. And as the century progressed, the British became increasingly more interested in conquest than just in trade. The First Burmese War meant in 1826 the loss of Assam, still today part of India, Arakan, only recently secured, and Tenasserim, only more recently secured. These territories were not exactly integral to the Burmese state; but the Second Burmese War led to the annexation of Lower Burma, with Rangoon and Pengu, in 1853. The British general Sir Harry Prendergast finally entered Mandalay in 1885, and the whole country was annexed the following year.
In World War II, Burma ended up conquered and occupied by a power that previously had had nothing to do with Burmese history — Japan. The Japanese may have done this to cut off supplies to China over the famous “Burma Road.” It also put them on the border of India, where enemies of Britain, from Napoleon to Hitler, had always dreamed of being. To supply their position in Burma, the Japanese employed prisoners-of-war to built a railroad from Thailand. Many, many died in this project, immortalized in the movie, Bridge on the River Kwai. But by the time the Japanese got around to invading India in 1944, they were well past their prime; and the army that was sent, and defeated, didn’t even have enough supplies to make a regular retreat. The British reconquest of Burma was then set in motion. Directing that operation was Louis Mountbatten, who was subsequently made Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Mountbatten then served as the last Viceroy of India. Only a “life peerage,” there are no subsequent Earls of Burma running around.
It was no trouble for the Japanese to find anti-British Burmese to set up a puppet government, which dutifully declared war on the Allies in 1943. After the War, the bitter feelings were reflected in the fact that independent Burma did not choose to join the British Commonwealth. Since then, Burma has suffered from its isolationist tendencies, especially after a military coup in 1962 and one-party socialist state was decreed in 1974. The present military government, with General Shaw Maung as President since 1988, has gained the reputation of one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, setting aside democratic election results in 1990. In an attempt to stir up fascist-style nationalism, the government changed the name of the country in 1991 to something more “authentic,” Myanmar, but this has done little, of course, to ease the sting of dictatorship.
The living symbol of Burmese resistance to their government is Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. A remarkable political lighning rod for so small a woman, Aung San has been arrested and kept under house arrest by the Burmese government more than once. Since she had a British husband (who died in 1999), the government rather wished she would just leave the country and stay away, but for some reason it has not simply expelled her. After her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Aung San has become such an interational figure that the government has apparently become shy of going too far with her. She is currently free to move around the country and speak to crowds, though the government usually harrasses and threatens these gatherings. This is progress. Aung San would get no such tolerance in Cuba, North Korea, Iraq, or Iran.
Copyright (c) 2000, 2003 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved
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