The History of Modern-Day Myanmar (Burma)

Cargo boats on the Irrawaddy River in Mandalay
Cargo boats on the Irrawaddy River in Mandalay, Myanmar. Busakorn Pongparnit / Getty Images

Burma is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, which officially has been named the Union of Myanmar since 1989. This name-change is sometimes seen as part of an attempt by the ruling military junta to stamp out the populist, colloquial form of the Burmese language, and promote the literary form.

Geographically situated along the Bay of Bengal and bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand and Laos, Burma has a long history of odd decisions and peculiar struggles for power. Strangely, the military government of Burma suddenly moved the national capital from Yangon to the new city of Naypyidaw in 2005, on the advice of an astrologer.

From Prehistoric Nomads to Imperial Burma

Like many East and Central Asian countries, archeological evidence suggests that humanoids have wandered Burma from as long as 75,000 years ago, with the first record of homo sapien foot traffic in the area dating back to 11,000 B.C. By 1500, the Bronze Age had struck the peoples of the region as they began producing bronze tools and growing rice, and by 500 they began working with iron as well. 

The first city-states formed around 200 the Pyu people — who could be attributed as the land's first true inhabitants. Trade with India brought with it cultural and political norms that would later influence Burmese culture, namely through the spread of Buddhism. However, it wouldn't be until the 9th century A.D. that internal war for territory forced the Burmese to organize into one central government.

In the mid-to-late 10th century, the Bamar settled a new central city of Bagan, collecting many of the rival city-states and independent nomads as allies, finally unifying in the late 1950s as the Pagan Kingdom. Here, the Burmese language and culture were allowed to dominate the Pyu and Pali norms that came before them.

Mongol Invasion, Civil Unrest and Reunification

Although the leaders of the Pagan Kingdom led Burma to great economic and spiritual prosperity — erecting over 10,000 Buddhist temples across the country — their relatively long reign came crashing to an end after repeated attempts by the Mongol armies to overthrow and claim their capital city from 1277 to 1301.

For over 200 years, Burma fell into political chaos without a city-state to lead its people. From there, the country fractured into two kingdoms: the coastline empire of the Hanthawaddy Kingdom and the northern Ava Kingdom, who was eventually overrun by the Confederation of Shan States from 1527 to 1555.

Still, despite these internal conflicts, Burmese culture greatly expanded during this time. Thanks to the shared cultures of all three groups, scholars and artisans of each kingdom created great works of literature and art that still live on to this day. 

Colonialism and British Burma

Although the Burmese were able to reunify under the Taungoo for much of the 17th century, their empire was short lived. The First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824 to 1826 suffered Burma a massive defeat, losing Manipur, Assam, Tenasserim and Arakan to British forces. Again, 30 years later, the British returned to take Lower Burma as a result of the Second Anglo-Burmese War. Finally, in the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885, the British annexed the rest of Burma.

Under British control, the rulers of British Burma sought to keep their influence and culture present despite their overlords. Still, the British governance saw a destruction of social, economic, administrative and cultural norms in Burma and a new era of civil unease.

This continued up until the end of World War II when the Panglong Agreement forced other ethnic leaders to guarantee Myanmar independence as a unified state. The committee who signed the agreement quickly assembled a team and formed a doctrine to govern their newly unified nation. However, it wasn't quite the government the original founders were hoping for that actually came to be.

Independence and Today

The Union of Burma officially became an independent republic on January 4, 1948, with U Nu as its first Prime Minister and Shwe Thaik its president. Multi-party elections were held in 1951, '52, '56, and 1960 with the people electing a bicameral parliament as well as their president and prime minister. All seemed well for the newly modernized nation — until unrest shook the nation yet again.

Early in the morning on March 2, 1962, General Ne Win used a military coup d'état to take Burma. Since that day, Burma has been under a military governance for most of its modern history. This militarized government sought to streamline everything from business to media and production to form a hybrid nation built on socialism and nationalism.

However, 1990 saw the first free elections in 30 years, allowing the people to vote for their State Peace and Development Council members, a system which remained in place until 2011 when a representative democracy was instated throughout the country. The military-controlled days of government were over, it seemed, for the people of Myanmar. 

In 2015, the citizens of the country held their first general elections with the National League for Democracy taking the majority in both national parliament chambers and placing Ktin Kyaw as the first elected non-military president since the coup of '62. A prime minister-type role, called the State Counsellor, was established in 2016 and Aung San Suu Kyi took the role.