Historically known as Burma, the origins of the people of Myanmar can be traced to the Indo-Aryans who first settled the area in the 7th century BC and Mongolians who invaded the region under Khan in the 13th century AD, which some English influence added in during the British Empire era. The Kingdom of Pagan was the first unified version of Burma to be created by King Anawratha. The kingdom reached its height of power in the 11th-13th centuries AD and is attributed for volume of religious structures in Bagan. This empire is then conquered by the Mongolians, who control the region until the mid-16th century. In the early 17th century, the British East India Company sent representatives into Burma attempting to establish trading posts along the Bay of Bengal, and met with firm opposition by the Burmese people. Not easily defeated, the British continued their efforts which led to the Anglo-Burmese War in 1824-1826. Eventually Burma would be annexed into British India and become a separate colony by 1937.
20th Century Events
During World War II, the Japanese occupied Burma for a time, but were later thrust from power with the help of British forces through the help of Aung San in exchange for the country’s independence. In 1948, Burma officially became its own sovereign nation. Members of Aung San’s political party are assassinated and an affiliated leader, U Nu, is appointed to lead the country. Various factions continue to vie for control of the country.
The following is a brief timeline of key events since Myanmar’s independence. Those on a Myanmar tour may hear common reference to some of these figures, particularly to Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San and current leader of the NLD, the party holding the vast majority of seats in parliament.
1962 – “bloodless” coup by socialist group Union Revolutionary Council. General Ne Win, the leader, instituted changes such as isolating country from rest of the world, establishing a one-party system, and nationalizing commerce across the country.
1974 – A New Constitution is written creating one ‘People’s Assembly” which holds all executive, legislative, and judiciary power. This essentially sets the stage for a military dictatorship.
1989 – The military changes the name of the country Burma to Myanmar and opts to revise the constitution to allow for multiple parties again, though it maintains strict control on media as well as selects which parties may be active in the political process.
1990 – The first multiparty elections are held since the coup to create an assembly commissioned with creating a new constitution. Constant military interference (including placing certain leaders under house arrest) leads to the main party (National League for Democracy, or NLD) walking out on the assembly in 1996 before a constitution can be completed. Many human rights violations are reported during military’s rule, and international pressure for change is heightened through sanctions.
After international pressures heightened for the military leader to release certain people from house arrest, tensions between the government and NLD continue to rise, leading to crackdowns and slews of house arrest for the NLD’s leaders. Aung San Suu Kyi is one of those placed under house arrest for nearly 15 years in varying intervals.
1991 – Aung San Suu Kyi is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest.
2005 – The military convenes an assembly of parties to re-write constitution again, but barrs certain parties (including the NLD) from participating.
2007 – Many anti-government protests occur, including the widely reported “Saffron Revolution”.
2008 – Cyclone Nargis devastates the country. 130,000 people die and it causes over 10 billion dollars in destruction. 1 million are left homeless and outbreaks of malaria start to occur. Military regime delays entry for UN and other aid from international NGOs, further delaying relief efforts.
Certain political changes start to be made by the military regime, including general amnesty is given for certain political prisoners, loosening of censorship of the media, the creation of a National Human Rights Division, and new labor laws.
2011 – Myanmar receives its first visit by a US Secretary of State in over 50 years, Hilary Clinton. This leads to a following visit by the first US President ever in
2012. The NLD wins elections by a landslide after certain restrictions are lifted, newest election in 2015 shows NLD holding some close to 70% of the seats. Some strife still exists in certain areas with military clashing with local insurgent groups, and progress is still shaky, but democracy appears to finally be taking root.