A brief history of Myanmar

Below you will find a few key dates that offer some perspective on the history of Myanmar and how the country has developed over the last thousand years or so. As a brief history it is by no means exhaustive and if you feel the need for a bit more detail please consult our reading list for some interesting books. See the country for yourself on one of our holidays in Myanmar.

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The Bagan Era
In 849 the Burmans founded the town of Bagan on the banks of the Irrawaddy about 310 miles north of Yangon. Bagan was the first Burmese kingdom about which there are historical records. Before Bagan there were other kingdoms in the Irrawaddy valley but there is little or no information on them. Before the Burmans the people of the Mon, who were related to the Cambodians, and the Tibeto-Burman people of the Pyu had founded kingdoms in the Irrawaddy valley or delta, but they came to be conquered by the Bagan Burmans.

In 1044 King Anawratha ascends the throne of Bagan and in 1056 he is converted to Buddhism by a Mon monk, Shin Arahan. Shortly afterwards he starts a war against the Mon town of Bago to gain possession of holy Buddhist scripts (the Tripitaka) which the Mon King Manuha is unwilling to give up voluntarily. After a siege of Bago, which lasted a few months, Manuha finally surrenders. Bago is destroyed and the Tripitaka is carried off to Bagan on the backs of 32 white elephants. The Burmese army brings 30,000 captured Mons to Bagan, among them numerous craftsmen and artisans, who in the following decades not only enrich, but even determine the culture of Bagan. During that time pagodas are almost exclusively built in the Mon style. The Burmese even incorporate the script of the Mon. Mon King Manuha is offered to the main pagoda of Bagan, Shwezigon, as a temple slave. After his campaign against the Mon, King Anawratha makes successful conquests against the Shan realm of that time, which is adjacent to the Burmese realm in the North, and against the Arakan realm to the West of Bagan thereby consolidating the Burmese Kingdom.

After a reign of 33 years King Anawratha is killed by a wild buffalo in 1077. He is succeeded by his son Sawlu, who further extends the borders of the realm.

After King Sawlu's death in 1084 King Kyanzittha ascends the throne and extends the boundaries of the kingdom to the South.

In 1287 hordes of Mongolian horsemen under Kublai Khan bring the Bagan realm to a graceless and bloody end.

Taungu Dynasty
After two centuries, during which the realms of the Burmans, the Shan and the Mon fight ceaselessly, King Minkyino ascends the throne of the Burmese town of Taungu in 1486. His reign sees a resurgence of the Burmese kingdom. After King Minkyino's death in 1530 his 16-year-old son Tabengshweti becomes Taungu's new King. Tabengshweti aims to return the Burmese kingdom to the size it was in its glory days.

In 1535 Tabengshweti's troops conquer the Mon port town of Bassein, and in1539 he takes the most important Mon town of that time, Bago. Further conquest in the north sees Tabengshweti reign over an area roughly equivalent to today's Burma. Tabengshweti dies in 1550 and his conquests prove to be temporary, as his son-in-law Bayinnaung has to re-conquer a number of towns when he ascends the throne of Taungu.

In 1564 Bayinnaung lays siege to the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya until it surrenders. The Siamese King and his family are abducted and taken to Burma along with a number of highly valued white elephants. As Siam is not content with the role of being a tributary to the Burmese, in 1569 Bayinnaung is forced to invade Siam again, this time leading an army of 200,000 men. After a siege of seven months Ayutthaya is taken by force.

King Bayinnaung dies in 1581. His successor, his son Nandanaung, is not a successful military leader and during his 18-year reign he loses most of the regions his father had previously conquered. 15 years after the fall of Ayutthaya, in 1584, Siam once again declares its independence. Several campaigns to recapture Siam, the last in 1592, are unsuccessful. During the following decades the realm of the Taungu Dynasty disintegrates.

In 1636 the Burmans transfer their capital from Taungu to Ava in the North (close to today's Mandalay). The realm of the Burmans continues to lose influence. At the same time the realm of the Mon, whose capital is still at Bago, grows in strength. The Mon conquer Ava in 1752 and make it temporarily their own capital.

Konbaug Dynasty
In 1753 Alaungpaya, a Burmese official in the small town of Shwebo, about 65 miles north of Ava, starts a revolt against the reign of the Mon in Ava. The revolt is successful and he succeeds in conquering Ava. Only a few years later, in 1757, King Alaungpaya conquers the Mon capital Bago. In 1759 Alaungpaya starts a campaign against Siam but during the siege Alaungpaya is injured and dies on the way back to Burma. He is succeeded, briefly, by his eldest son Naungdawgyi as in 1763 Naungdawgyi's younger brother Hsinbyushin becomes the Burmese King. In 1767 after a siege of 14 months the Burmese army finally succeeds in conquering the Siamese capital Ayutthaya. The city is so completely destroyed that after the retreat of the Burmese army the Siamese abandon its restoration. After a few years of transitory confusion they turn Bangkok into their new capital. In 1782 Alaungpaya's fifth son, Bodawpaya becomes King of the Burmese. During his reign, which lasts until his death in 1819, the Burmese realm expands, with the conquest of Arakan to the West. This leads to conflicts with the British Empire, which at the time is already securely established in Bangladesh and wields a strong influence over the Indian subcontinent from its base in Calcutta.

Colonial Times
In 1824 the first Anglo-Burmese war breaks out but peace is restored with the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 under which the Burmese cede the old fiefdom of Arakan and the southern province of Tenasserim to the British. In 1852 the Burmese arrest two British captains and release them only after payment of a ransom. This sparks the second Anglo-Burmese war. With little effort the British occupy Yangon and southern Myanmar.

In 1853 Mindon Min succeeds his notorious brother, Bagan Min, as king and starts to modernise the Burmese state. In 1857 he transfers the seat of his government to Mandalay, which he has newly founded.

After the death of Mindon Min in 1878, Thibaw becomes the new Burmese King and during his reign relations with the British Empire deteriorate.

In 1886 another trade conflict causes a military confrontation between the British Empire and the part of Burma not yet occupied by the British. After a short campaign (the third Anglo-Burmese war) the British occupy northern Burma and the capital Mandalay. Now Burma is entirely under British colonial rule. In the following decades there is an unprecedented economic boom in Myanmar. From 1855 to 1930 the area of the Irrawaddy Delta, which is used for the cultivation of rice, sees production increase ten-fold.

In 1930, first in Yangon, then in other towns, anti-Indian feeling starts to grow. During the previous decades the British had brought a large number of Indian administrative officials to Burma, who were followed by Indian settlers in even larger numbers.

Between 1930 and 1942 Burmese nationalists increasingly agitate for an end to colonial reign and a return to Burmese sovereignty under the leadership of Aung San and U Nu.

In 1936 the British grant Myanmar a certain degree of autonomy. After decades being part of the crown colony India, in 1937 Burma finally becomes an autonomous colony of the British Empire. The British allow Burma a constitution and a parliament of its own.

World War II & Post-war Period
In 1942 the Japanese army invades Burma. It is initially supported by a small troop of Burmese nationalists, among them Aung San and his comrade in arms Ne Win. While the Japanese troops quickly gain control of the Burmese central regions, the British colonial forces retreat to India but not without destroying a large part of the infrastructure built in the decades of colonial rule. The Japanese declare Burma independent. Aung San becomes Burmese Minister of War and Ne Win is appointed Chief of the General Staff of the pro-Japanese Burmese army. During the three-year occupation of Burma by the Japanese, the British attack the Japanese and the Burmese administration installed by them, in a kind of guerrilla warfare. Both sides suffer enormous losses.

In March 1945 when it becomes obvious that Japan is going to lose the war, the Burmese army, led by Aung San, changes sides and declares itself allies of the allied forces. In the following months Burmese troops support the recapture of Burma by the British forces.

The Japanese surrender in August 1945 and the British temporarily reinstate their colonial administration, but meet with strong opposition from Burmese nationalists under the leadership of Aung San.

In January 1947 at a conference in London the British Government, under Prime Minister Atlee, concedes to the Burmese demand for independence.

During parliamentary elections held in April 1947 Aung San's Anti Fascist People's Freedom League wins 248 out of 255 parliament seats.

But on 19 July 1947, Aung San and five of his closest advisors are assassinated by the pre-war Prime Minister U Saw.

At 4.20 am on 4 January 1948, a time recommended by Burmese astrologers, the Burmese flag is raised over Yangon and the country formally gains its independence. U Nu, who has played a significant part during the Burmese student revolts in the 1930s, becomes the first Prime Minister of the new state. But, within the next few months Burma falls into chaos. Rebellions of Communists and Muslim separatists in Arakan arise. The Karen declared their independence from the Burmese state on 5 May 1948, but this is not acknowledged by the Burmese government (ever since the civil war between Karen and Burmese armies has been smouldering). Only in 1951 does the government under U Nu succeed in gaining a semblance of control over the country by military means.

In 1958 internal conflict inside the government cause Prime Minister U Nu to order the Minister of Defence & Chief of the General Staff of the army, General Ne Win, to create a temporary military government.

Rebellions by the Kachin and the Shan in the North of Myanmar reach a peak in 1961. On 2 March 1962, Ne Win and a group of Generals seize political power in a coup d'état. Numerous politicians and delegates of the ethnic minorities, who at that time are present in Yangon attending a conference to find a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflicts, are arrested. All parliamentary institutions are dissolved and are replaced by a Revolutionary Council consisting of 17 members.

In April 1962 the military government publishes a communiqué entitled ‘The Burmese Way to Socialism’ in which Myanmar is prescribed a cocktail of Marxism and Buddhism as state philosophy.

In 1972 Ne Win and 20 of his followers from the Burmese army resign from their military posts and form a civilian government. On 3 January 1974, the country is re-christened the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma and a new constitution is validated. The Burma Socialist Program Party, formerly founded by Ne Win, is admitted as the sole political party. Party Chief Ne Win takes the newly created post of Head of the state council and becomes President. In 1976 a coup d'état attempt by young officers fails and is followed by numerous executions. In 1981 Ne Win resigns as President of State, but remains at the head of the Burma Socialist Program Party thus remaining the power behind the government.

The Modern Era
After Myanmar's fall into the economic abyss in previous years, March 1988 sees massive demonstrations against the government start in Yangon. The demonstrations continue for several months and are tolerated for a while but on 8 August 1988, the army uses violence against demonstrators in Yangon, resulting in many deaths. In the days that follow demonstrations in other towns around Myanmar are quelled by the use of force. The international media report that 3,000 to 4,000 are dead and 12,000 injured. The Burmese military, under the leadership of General Saw Maung, take over political power on 18 September 1988 and form the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) as the new government. SLORC promises free elections within a short space of time. In July 1989 the co-founder of the Burmese opposition party National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, is placed under house arrest in Yangon. During the parliamentary elections on 27 May 1991 the National League for Democracy wins, with 82% of the vote, 392 of 485 parliament seats. However they are not allowed to form a government. In October 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi is awarded the Peace Nobel Prize. She is released from house arrest in June 1995 but is subsequently re-arrested, only to be released in 2010 as Myanmar starts to open up and usher in a new era of 'fledgling' democracy.

The 'fledgling' democracy that grew out of these early elections has continued to grow since 2010 and in 2016, after the most democratic process in Myanmar’s history, Htin Kyaw was sworn in as president, finally ending Myanmar’s long and arduous path towards the implementation of a democratic system.