A Fun Yet Factual History Lesson on Myanmar
Amrita KunduHistory buff or not, knowing the history of a country adds a completely different dimension to any travel experience. This holds especially true for Myanmar, a country where history is preserved with pride.
Myanmar was an integral part of the overland trade route between India and China in the 1st millennium. Merchant ships from Sri Lanka, India, and even the west passed through the ports of Myanmar before making their way through the Gulf of Thailand and the Isthmus of Kra. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Myanmar of this era as the ‘western gateway of mainland Southeast Asia.’
The first human settlements
Humans settled in Myanmar for the first time around 11,000 years ago although little is known about them. Historians concluded that they followed a Paleolithic culture where they used stone and wooden tools which are called Anyatha (meaning Upper Burma) in Myanmar.
Formation of the Pyu State
Somewhere between the 1st century and 9th century, a group of Tibeto-Burman people migrated from the Tibetan plateau to Myanmar and established the Pyi city kingdoms of Shri Kshetra, Binnaka, Mongamo and Halingyi. They soon claimed sovereignty over 18 kingdoms across the region, many of which were located in Southern Myanmar.
Myanmar is one of the first countries where Buddhism was spread and the roots of the religion were sown in the country around this time. Records reveal that Myanmar emerged as a centre for Theravada Buddhism by the 11th century.[To add link to Pyu Article]
The Mon People
To the south of the Pyu States, lived the Mon people who spoke an Austroasiatic Language – a term used to denote the 150 languages spoken in modern Southeast Asia, including Khmer, Vietnamese and Mon. The lifestyle of the Mon people was pretty similar to the Khmer, who lived towards the east, which is now known as Cambodia. Thaton was the capital of the Mon kingdom that was visited by a mission of Buddhist monks from the great Mauryan empire of India, sent by the famous King Ashoka. Descriptions of Mon settlement are found in the scripts of writers of the Maurya kingdom as well as early Sinhalese records in Sri Lanka.
The Pagan Kingdom
While the Pyu people dominated central Myanmar and the Mon settled in eastern and southern Myanmar, a group of Tibeto-Burman speaking people moved towards the dry zone in the north. These were Burmans or Pagans who created a small settlement near the Ayeyarwady River. The Pagans learned much from the Pyu kingdom and slowly started consolidating their empire. By the mid 9th century, they became extremely powerful. Burma, the erstwhile name of Myanmar was derived mainly from the language spoken by these people. While the Mons dominated southern Myanmar, the Pagans dominated the rest of the country during this time.
The unification of the country
Much of the credit of Myanmar that we see today goes to King Anawrahta who ascended the throne of the Pagan kingdom in 1044. He started the unification process of the different ethnic races of the country which continued till 1886, well after Anawrahta’s death. Through strategies such as harnessing economic relations with northern Myanmar and creating alliances through marriage with people in the Shan region, he brought the entire country together and finally declared himself as the king of all. He managed to defeat the Mons and conquer their capital in 1057. Although the era of Theravada Buddhism had ended in India around this time, King Anawrahta declared himself as the champion of Theravada Buddhism to justify his reign over the country.
The era of colonialism
After the third Anglo-Burmese War which lasted for less than 2 weeks in November 1885, King Thebaw, the then ruler of Myanmar surrendered to the British. He was the last royal of Myanmar, who spent the rest of his life on exile in India. The British annexed the entire Myanmar in 1886, further establishing Rangoon (now Yangon) as the capital. The loss of independence was a bitter blow to the people of the country along with the way Myanmar’s royals were treated by the British. Thus emerged several guerrilla groups who fought with the British, refusing to accept them as their rulers. Nationalism slowly emerged in the country which gave birth to famous leaders such as General Aung San.
The effects of World War 2
The nationalist leaders thought of World War 2 as an ideal way to bargain for their independence and promised to fight for Britain only in return for the independence of the country. An arrest warrant was issued by the colonial government for General Aung San, who had to flee from the country. The arrest warrant was not taken well by the locals, giving birth to several radical groups. The Japanese government found this as a golden opportunity and started supporting this nationalist movement.
Soon, the Japanese invaded Myanmar and by the end of 1942, conquered the country. Japan declared Myanmar as a sovereign state and a government was formed, headed by Ba maw as the prime minister. The cabinet included General Aung San and several other celebrated leaders of Myanmar. However, this government was a mere façade, while the country was being ruled by the Japanese.
Understanding the failure of the government, General Aung San and a few others contacted the Allied commander in Southeast Asia, Lord Mountbatten and joined the British. They fought bravely against the Japanese, supported by the British army and finally brought Japan to their defeat in 1945. Finally, in January 1947, the British granted independence to Myanmar and by June 1947, Myanmar left the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Myanmar has moved through a series of idealistic changes since its independence. However, through thick and thin, the 135 ethnic groups have lived together in a cultural, ethnic and religious melting pot. Today, the friendliness and charm of locals is what sets this country apart and fills each visitor with a strong urge to return.