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Journeys

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A Brief History of Myanmar (Burma)

Myanmar didn’t come out of nowhere only to find itself on a path to oblivion. It has a storied past, rich and exalted, has survived battles that both scarred and informed its character, and today is building a future that will surely rival its past.

Its national history to date is summarized by a big U, as in U-turn. It is an ancient nation characterized by Ubiquitous good character, Universal truths, Unique ethnic multiplicity, and Umongous potential (OK, so we fudged the last one). The point is - the glory Burma once knew is somewhere on the horizon for Myanmar (Burma).

The nation’s history actually predates history. Cultural shards have been uncovered along the central river plains that date to some 11,000 years ago. Evidence of continuous occupation of the land from the Stone Age right on through the start of the Common Era is testimony to Myanmar’s ancient claim as a place of civilization.

The Golden Era

Before it was a nation called Burma, the rich and beautiful land was domesticated through a series of remarkable kingdoms and empires of unique breadth across Southeast Asia. These progressive cultures instilled ideas and habits that still permeate Myanmar’s society, including a love of literacy and an egalitarian belief in the equality of men and women.

The modern era of Burma began when the last dynasty looked west to neighboring India in the early 19th century and bumped into another dynasty, the British Empire. The resulting clash of powers ended with Burma being incrementally taken over by the British, first as an Indian province and then as a crown colony.

British Occupation

The next 75 years under British rule were both a blessing and a bane for the people of Burma. The opening of the Suez Canal meant new markets for Burmese rice, which brought prosperity to the country. Under the tutelage of the British, a system of laws and civil service were established, and the separation of church and state reordered society. These were not incidental contributions to the future of the country.

However, the flowering of Burma during this pre-World War II era was largely superficial. Neither prosperity nor civil respect ran deep, with Burmese natives being shortchanged financially and socially by their English and Indian overlords. Resentment of these interlopers became a fixture in the thinking of the various peoples of Burma, an attitude that didn’t begin to subside until the 1960s.

After being occupied yet again, this time by the Japanese in World War II, Burma finally gained independence in 1948. Revolutionary General Aung San is credited with uniting Burma, but many of the ethnic groups in the valleys and highlands of Burma also contributed to the effort to throw off the yoke of colonialism.

Jaded Times

Independence did not immediately spawn national unification. It might have had General San and several of his allies not been killed by political rivals months before the country was cut loose from the British Empire. He or a similarly charismatic native leader might have unified the people and, by so doing, avoided a deep and dark era.

The first government of an independent Burma briefly flourished—at one point co-founding the Movement of Non-Aligned States along with the leaders of India, Indonesia, Yugoslavia and Egypt—but the interference of military leaders began within 10 years of independence. Promotion of Buddhism and tolerance of ethnic movements irked watching generals.

Junta Era Begins

In 1962, the military-civilian tension came to a head with a coup that toppled an elected government and established what the coup leaders called “the Burmese way to Socialism.” One-party politics followed. Newspapers were closed, which consolidated the transformation from an open society to a closed one.

A decade of military dictatorship ended in 1974 when Army leaders gave themselves constitutional credibility in a new People’s Assembly. In other words, nothing changed. Burma continued to be personally exploited by people at the top, while ethnic groups scattered around the country continued to be marginalized. Guerrilla insurgencies gained new momentum.

Another dozen years of Burmese life on a short and barbed leash ended with major student-led eruptions in 1988. A resulting coup seemed providential because it called for revision of the self-serving 1974 constitution and multi-party elections. However, the tactic boomeranged when an anti-military party called National League for Democracy easily prevailed at the polls. Military leaders simply refused to honor the vote.

In the aftermath of the demonstrations and the spurning of credible election results, most of the Western powers imposed economic and political sanctions on Myanmar. The resultant drying up of exports crippled the Burmese economy and deepened poverty. Refusing to capitulate, the ruling junta instead cultivated deeper economic relationships with some Asian countries, notably China.

During the following 20 years, things changed only in the margins. Ethnic groups on the borders gained strength and the co-founder of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, became a symbolic leader of the opposition. As the daughter of General Aung San, the novice politician leveraged her heritage as a national champion. Her reward was years of house arrest and denial of citizenship privileges. Winning the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 gave her international standing but didn’t end the harassment.

Lustrous Future

In 2008, almost 50 years of darkness began to be pierced by the bright light of hope. Somewhere in the deeper recesses of the uniformed ruling establishment, a sense of fatigue had set in. A mini-dawning of the futility of their course apparently occurred. A public protest led by Buddhist monks in 2007 was dispersed, but even violent reprisals against those demonstrators were less sustained than in the past.

So the announcement in 2008 of a referendum on yet another constitution was greeted skeptically, even though the new national document seemed to set the stage for a multi-party democracy. The national vote overwhelmingly approved the constitution, an electoral event that, as usual, was deemed to be less than transparent. However, parliamentary elections were duly approved for 2012—and Suu Kyi was allowed to be a part of them!

The forward movement accelerated when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won nearly every contested seat. This time the results were validated by the generals. Their former colleague, Thein Sein, was elected president, which was also skeptically received by the public after decades of dismal leadership by generals in civilian executive positions.

Peacemaker

However, Sein electrified the country. He made peace with Suu Kyi, arranged ceasefires with nearly all the ethnic fighting cadres in the mountains, released hundreds of political prisoners, loosened restraints on media, and even challenged China as a usurper of Myanmar’s natural resources. These decisions were not only breathtaking in their scope, but seemed to challenge the power of the still-dominant military leadership.

Though Sein operated only on the margins of limits agreed upon between him and his former military colleagues, the fact is he was pushing forward and not standing still. Each of his initiatives dulled a blade that had been pushed against the throats of his fellow citizens of Myanmar for decades. He established undeniable credentials as a reformer, and his reforms were the kinds that codify fairness and build trust.

A general election scheduled for 2015 is seen as a watershed one. It will show if the generals are committed to returning power to the people and again becoming the nation’s security arm instead of its strong-arm boss.

Economy is Key

Economic initiatives that began under the leadership of the ruling junta are key to delivering genuine prosperity and opportunity to the nation’s long-suffering citizens. These include Special Economic Zones to be built around deep-sea ports that will make Myanmar a global logistics and transshipment capital. Tourism is being cultivated in a sustainable way, with hotels being built and ancient historical attractions being readied. Full membership in ASEAN is certain to spawn new regional trade arrangements with global implications.

So a return to the former greatness of Burma finally seems a real possibility. Political foundations are being laid that promote individual respect and integrity of national purpose. Economic security and opportunity are in the wings. Myanmar is poised to become a modern civilization, one grounded in the egalitarian values Burma used to practice and in the literacy the country never relinquished despite decades of enforced ignorance.

Myanmar is not headed to a new future but, perhaps, to a familiar one it knew in the past.


For more insight into the workings of the Burmese economy and political climate - be sure to check out our section on Business in Myanmar.

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