“”In 2016, the Myanmar military intensified its decades-long persecution of the Rohingya, setting fire to their villages, throwing their babies into fires, raping their women, and decapitating their boys.
|—Charles Dunst, American Southeast Asia policy journalist.
Burma, officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is a repressive and oligarchic state in Southeast Asia wedged between India and China. It has spent several decades since independence from the British Empire flitting between various authoritarian regimes, even after dictatorships became less fashionable with the end of the Cold War. It's not a functioning country as it is a Buddhist version of the Soviet Union, meaning a corrupt regime that uses police-state tactics to suppress a diverse ethnic makeup. Burma's capital city is Naypyidaw, and its largest city is Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon and formerly Burma's capital).
Although the group we now think of as the Burmese set up shop here around the ninth century and brought Theravada Buddhism with them, the region has always been ethnically and culturally diverse. The region's ethnic minorities, including the Bamar, the Chin, the Shan, the Mon, the Karen, and the Rakhine, maintained their own cultures even through a succession of powerful Burmese-majority kingdoms. As that was going on, people in the Arakan region of Burma traded with the Muslim caliphates to the east. They decided that they quite liked this new religion, with much of the population converting.
By the nineteenth century, the Burmese Konbaung dynasty had established a state that bumped up against the Qing dynasty to the east and the British Empire to the west. That was a bad place, and it didn't take too long for the Brits to start bumping back. After three rapid wars, the British East India Company seized control of the entire Burmese region and integrated it into its Indian subcontinental holdings. Burma didn't regain its independence until 1948, during the same process as the absolute clusterfuck that was the partition of the subcontinent between India and Pakistan. Before independence, the situation had begun to go off-the-rails with the assassination of the country's de facto leader and national hero, Aung San. Nonetheless, the country did manage to limp onwards as an unstable democratic republic with substantial internal conflicts until a coup in 1962 brought the Burma Socialist Programme Party into power as a military-backed dictatorship. Ethnic civil war broke out between Burma's various peoples, and the ruling regime committed a nice little batch of crimes against humanity.
Then, in 1988, Burma's great hope emerged: Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San. Suu Kyi emerged as a leading figure in the pro-democracy protests of 1988. When the military dictatorship finally caved and held surprisingly free elections in 1990, Suu Kyi's party won in a landslide. That would have been a nice end to things, but then the dictatorship panicked, arrested Suu Kyi and most of her party, and decided that the best way to restore order was with extra dictatorship. That didn't really work for them, and by 2010, more elections followed, and the military junta finally disbanded itself. In 2015, elections brought Aung San Suu Kyi's party into both houses of the legislature and made her "State Counsellor", which is equivalent to Prime Minister.
So, that's the happy ending, right? Nope. The military (or Tatmadaw, as they are known in Burmese) still dominates Burma's politics, human rights abuses have continued, and Suu Kyi quickly became an international pariah for seemingly doing nothing to stop her country's escalating genocide against the Muslim Rohingya people in Arakan. By February 2021, the military got rid of her and put the nation right back where it started. Nothing changed under Suu Kyi's iron hammer, regardless of whether you think she was a liar or corrupted by power, and nothing will change with the military back in charge. So it goes.
Oh, it is also worth noting that, since 2016, Burma's democracy index score went down bad. This makes Suu Kyi's claims of democracy even more preposterous, and with her out of power, it's not as if the score will climb. Indeed, with the military in charge, it will keep going down fast.
About the name
You've probably noticed that we're stubbornly calling the country "Burma" in this article, although the United Nations and most maps have it listed as "Myanmar." That's because the name of this country is actually a matter of strong dispute within it and abroad. Technically, the naming thing shouldn't even matter since Bama and Myanma sound basically the same in the Burmese language, and both refer to the dominant Burmese ethnic group. In practice, the naming issue became a political football tossed between Suu Kyi's democracy movement and the military junta.
In 1989, to curry popular support after the pro-democracy uprisings, the military dictatorship changed the country's name from "Burma" to "Myanmar", ostensibly because the former name was what the British used. The regime also changed some city names from their old colonial labels, most notably "Rangoon" to "Yangon."
The problem was that the pro-democracy movement and Suu Kyi, in particular, didn't believe that the military dictatorship had the endorsement of the people, thus meaning that its laws were illegitimate and its renaming shouldn't have been honored. Several notable countries like the United States and the United Kingdom sided with Suu Kyi and stuck with Burma.
Usually, we here at Rationalwiki would use the UN definition, but in this case, we're taking the position that military dictators can go fuck themselves. Both names are still considered legitimate even when Suu Kyi was in power. The names are increasingly used interchangeably in the West as the usage of "Myanmar" in English has consequently shed much of its baggage.
Humans have existed in Burma for around 25,000 years, although other hominid species long predated ours. The ancient inhabitants of Burma seem to be among the first groups of people to start making bronze and domesticating poultry and pigs. There's also cultural evidence indicating that the ancient residents of Burma had fairly extensive contact with the ancient peoples of China and India.
By the 2nd century BCE, the ancient peoples built city-states across much of the Burma region. Many of these communities were founded by the Pyu people, who probably migrated from somewhere in Tibet or southern China. After spending a few centuries intermarrying with the locals, the Pyu people became what we now know as the modern Burmese ethnic group. The Pyu script evolved into the modern Burmese script.
One of the smaller city-states, Pagan, located on the Irrawaddy River, started growing in size and power due to its advantageous geographical location. By the 9th century, it was the capital of a large kingdom, and by about 1044, it had conquered most of what is now considered Burma. The Burmese intensified their cultural relations with India during this time, and Theravada Buddhism became entrenched here for centuries.
The Pagan rulers solidified their legitimacy by becoming lavish patrons of Buddhist practices and structures. That initially worked well, but when problems came, the state had to choose between spending money it didn't have or angering the citizenry. This caused the empire to decline and lose the loyalty of the various ethnic groups it had conquered. The last nail in the coffin came when it suffered invasions at the hands of the Mongols in the 13th century.
Beginning of European colonialism
The Burmese region was fragmented into a variety of states after the downfall of the Pagan Empire. Around 1510 or so, however, Burma rose again under the Toungoo dynasty. During the reign of Tabinshwehti, the Toungoo state became powerful enough to once again unify the Burmese region by conquering the neighboring ethnic groups. It then got even bigger in the 1580s by conquering what is now Thailand and becoming the largest Southeast Asian empire.
Things weren't perfect, though, as Portugal started sending trade ships into the seas around Burma. In 1511, Portugal conquered the city of Malacca, placing much of Southeast Asian trade under its control. The Toungoo state suffered raids from Portugal and other regional threats, losing control of most of its holdings and becoming a political irrelevancy until about the early 18th century.
Shortly after the Toungoo dynasty fell apart, the last Burmese dynasty rose to prominence to make one last go of it. The Konbaung dynasty under King Alaungpaya reconquered the Burmese region around the early 1800s. It became wealthy and powerful, establishing a great capital in the city of Mandalay and undergoing a cultural renaissance. Unfortunately for them, the British East India Company had recently conquered much of the Bengal region of India and was seeking to expand its influence eastward. In 1824, Britain and Burma disagreed over where their border should be drawn. As is almost always the case in a British imperial border dispute, the redcoats declared war. What followed was the longest and costliest war in the history of British India; the high expenditures ended up ruining the British East India Company for decades afterward and lost the trust of the Crown. The Burmese, meanwhile, lost the war and were forced to pay a large indemnity that crippled their entire economy.
In 1852 and 1883, the British fought less costly wars against a much weaker Burmese state, finally destroying its sovereignty and bringing it entirely under control.
Resistance among the various ethnic groups in the Burmese region continued for about 10 years after the full British occupation, lasting until 1895. Ultimately, the British proved better organized and equipped than the disunited resistance groups. That being said, the resistance did succeed in making the administration of occupied Burma very difficult. Burmese partisans twice set fire to the city of Mandalay in 1886, destroying much of the city. Resistance was so ubiquitous that the British Empire dispatched about 40,000 troops and colonial police into the region. The British responded with typical colonialist brutality. They branded any resistance fighters they could find and then executed anyone they captured who already had a brand. These harsh tactics aided them in suppressing resistance, although at least one leader of a resistance cell, Bo Cho, eluded the conquerors until 1920.
As in India, the British ruled according to the principle "never get something done by a European when an Oriental can do it." Thus, most administrators and officials in Burma were Burmese, although they did ultimately report to the British colonial overlords. In terms of economics, the British set about plundering Burma of its natural wealth, mainly rice, minerals, and oil. Wages for the indigenous stagnated, and British colonial taxation increased while the natives' share of the profits for resource production declined. Peasants went bankrupt in droves, and by 1936 half of Burma's land was owned by British banks and businesses. As a result of this poverty and breakdown in the social order, crimes of desperation spiked.
World War II and the Burma Independence Army
Worst of all, Burma became one of the largest ground battlefields in the Pacific Theatre of World War II. Burma was one of Japan's prime targets in the war, firstly because the British supplied China through Burma and secondly because Japan hoped to spark an anti-colonial uprising in India. Japan thus invaded Burma through its ally Thailand in 1941, initially meeting with great success and forcing the British into a scorched-earth retreat.
Meanwhile, many of the Burmese decided that their fellow Asians were clearly fighting to liberate them from the European man, and some of them went so far as to ask the Japanese for military training. The first of the Burmese to do so were the "Thirty Comrades", led by a man named Thakin Aung San, and these men later formed the Burma Independence Army (BIA) to fight against the British. The BIA was effective against the British, but it did suffer from ethnic divisions. The BIA was majority Burmese, so many of Burma's minority ethnic groups decided that they'd rather be oppressed by the British than the Burmese again. The BIA retaliated against non-cooperation by flattening villages.
As Japan came to occupy most of Burma, it became clear that the Japanese weren't more interested in liberating Burma than the British. Asian imperialists are still imperialists. Japanese military police started disappearing members of the BIA who seemed most likely to join a Burmese independence government, and Japanese forces stopped cooperating with the Burmese in military operations. The Japanese also violently mistreated Burmese civilians, murdering about 250,000 people. By 1944, Aung San had a change of heart, and he contacted the Allies to say that he would help them push the Japanese back out if the British would promise more autonomy for Burma. The British reluctantly agreed, and the two sides cooperated until Japan's surrender in 1945.
Independence and early democracy
The first major event leading to Burma's independence actually came long before that event was a certainty. In 1937, the British decided that Burma was a separate colony from India, which is like declaring that the United States is separate from Mexico. That decision was motivated by rising anger among Burmese nationalists, who didn't like that the British allowed vast numbers of ethnic Indians to move into Burma and get jobs that paid shitty wages.
After the war and the UK's realization that the empire was unsustainable, the Brits decided to start working with the Burmese on transitioning to independence. Aung San became one of the foremost figures in the transitional government. However, someone apparently took exception to his quasi-socialist ideals and assassinated him and most of his advisors in 1947. Six months later, the British Parliament passed the Burma Independence Act.
So unpopular were the British in Burma that the newly-independent Burma refused to join the British Commonwealth of Nations. At first, things looked hopeful. Burma was relatively successful in rebuilding its economy, and it became one of Asia's wealthiest nations, with a good healthcare system and high literacy. However, Burmese democracy was fragile, and ethnic tensions still ran high. Communists became powerful, especially after Mao Zedong won the Chinese Civil War. Ethnic uprisings also began after Aung San's death. Aung San had negotiated an agreement with the ethnic minorities promising to uphold their rights, but these agreements were disregarded after his assassination.
While the Burmese military dealt violently with ethnic separatists, its corrupt leaders also took the opportunity to start increasing their influence in government. In 1958, they demanded the expulsion of all foreigners from Burmese soil, and by 1962 they were powerful enough to make a move for absolute power.
Coup and consolidation
In 1962, Burma's delicate democracy ended when General Ne Win and his Revolutionary Council seized control of Burma by arresting most of its politicians and sending troops into the streets to ensure no citizens intervened. Despite being described by the European press as "bloodless", the coup actually saw multiple members of the old government murdered. Meanwhile, the military quelled civilian dissent by shooting protesters and blowing up buildings in Rangoon University. Thus became Burma's era of totalitarian military dictatorship.
After his takeover, General Ne Win started an economic program he called the "Burmese Way to Socialism" - which, despite its name, rejected both communism and social democracy, with the former continuing to fight an insurgency against the government despite abortive peace talks. This involved the nationalization of almost everything the government could get its grubby hands on, including tiny mom-and-pop retail shops. Despite a few good points like capping rent payments, his program had a disastrous effect on Burma's economy. The worst part came when the government decided that all of its investments should go to the industry while leaving rice farmers to fend for themselves; industrialization went slowly, and food prices skyrocketed. Resource shortages became commonplace, and the people became miserable. Within a decade, Burma went from relative prosperity to being one of the world's poorest countries.
Warfare and brutality
Meanwhile, Burma's ethnic civil war worsened due to Ne Win's brutal tactics. The Karen and Mon people rose up along the border with Thailand alongside one of Burma's former prime ministers, and China gave military aid to a Maoist party that they happened to like more than they liked Ne Win. The cycle of rebellion and crackdown continued.
By 1988, things had gotten so bad both economically and politically that the people rose up in the "8888 Uprising." The catalyst for this was Ne Win, who, even by the standards of dictators, was an extremely bizarre man, consulting an astrologer and becoming convinced his lucky number was 9; he, therefore, invalidated all currency that was not divisible by 9, abruptly beginning to issue 45 and 90 kyat notes without bothering to replace the old currency. Understandably, people did not take kindly to their hard-earned cash savings in 50 and 100 kyat notes suddenly becoming worthless. These protests, which started on 8 August 1988 (which by both common Western date formats works out to 8/8/88, so timed because their leaders considered 8 their lucky number), were met with horrific violence, as soldiers murdered thousands of people in the streets and put many more in prison to be gruesomely tortured. One of the most influential protest leaders was Aung San Suu Kyi, who was the daughter of Aung San. During the movement, her leadership role and speeches turned her into a national hero and won her the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite the military's attempt to terrorize them, the protesters stayed out in the streets. Within a month, the old socialist regime collapsed under public pressure. It seemed like things would get better, but then the ambitious General Saw Maung seized power in another coup, put the whole country under martial law, and massacred as many as 10,000 people over two weeks to break up the protests.
Coup part deux
Even after protests were quelled, it was clear that something needed to change. In 1990, the military regime finally agreed to hold actual elections for Burma's legislature. The regime placed all opposition figureheads under house arrest but didn't stop the opposition parties from campaigning and didn't make any successful attempt to stuff the ballot boxes. As a result, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party won over 58% of the popular vote and took the majority of the open legislative seats. Despite that overwhelming mandate for Suu Kyi's leadership, the military junta refused to cede power because Suu Kyi had been arrested before and thus wasn't eligible to be president and then shot anybody who disagreed. Things went on the same way.
Towards its final years, the regime did a few more things. In 1989, the military leaders renamed the country from Burma to Myanmar to appease nationalists by removing the old names used by colonial authorities. In 2006, the government randomly relocated the capital from Yangon to some random town in the middle of bumfuck nowhere, which they built out into the surrounding jungle (hooray for destroying yet more environment!). It then renamed it "Naypyidaw", meaning "seat of kings". (We suspect they gave it that name just to fuck with non-Burmese speakers.) The generals celebrated that move by holding a giant goose-stepping parade and patting each other on the back. Go, team!
In 2007, the country experienced a wave of protest after the government doubled fuel prices. Although smaller than the 8888 Uprising, the protests saw the widespread participation of Buddhist monks, leading to the events gaining the moniker of the "Saffron Revolution" because of the color of their robes. Once again, they were eventually greeted by another wave of bloody suppression in late September and October, killing at least 31 people, although the actual toll was likely higher.
New boss, same as the old boss
“”There are falls from grace, and then there is Aung San Suu Kyi... The feted Nobel peace prize winner has become a global pariah at the head of a regime that has excused a genocide, jailed journalists and locked up critics, leaving the international community wringing its hands as Myanmar remains as repressive as ever.
|—Hannah Ellis-Petersen, South-east Asia correspondent for The Guardian.
Under heavy international pressure in the aftermath of the Saffron Revolution, the military government finally started instituting some liberalization reforms to pave the way for democratic elections. In 2010, they finally released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, loosened press censorship in 2011, and started releasing political prisoners in 2012. In 2015, elections were held again, and Aung San Suu Kyi's party predictably won a comfortable majority. Suu Kyi could not become president, though, since two of her sons own foreign passports, which apparently disqualifies her. Instead, Burma created the "State Counsellor" position, making her head of government without technically admitting it.
Suu Kyi's electoral victory was hailed by international observers as a turning point for Burma. Unfortunately, it really wasn't. A year after Suu Kyi assumed office, the military began a violent ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims, which Suu Kyi denied and then ignored. Her government also jailed journalists, persecuted critics, and thoroughly alienated international allies who had hoped Suu Kyi would be a force for good in Burma. Bill Richardson, a US diplomat who worked closely with Suu Kyi for 25 years, turned against her and denounced her refusal to address the Rohingya genocide and her small-minded and authoritarian leadership style.
The old boss is back in the saddle
In February of 2021, the military just dropped the pretense of democracy and seized power outright in a coup. After Suu Kyi's democratic party won power in a landslide in the 2020 election, the military declared the results fraudulent and overthrew the government. They then placed Suu Kyi under house arrest and charged her with bogus crimes like "violating import and export laws" and "possessing unlawful communications devices." She is now at risk of being tossed in jail for three years for improperly imported walkie-talkies, while President Win Myint also faces charges of violating COVID-19 regulations. All of this is absurd, but history proves that the guys with guns often get away with absurdities.
Burma will have to endure another year of martial law. The military's long-term plans are currently unknown. The last election had a 70% turnout overwhelmingly for Suu Kyi, and the Burmese public quickly demonstrated that they were pretty pissed off with what happened. Burma's election commission boldly denounced and rejected the military's claim that fraud decided the 2020 election. In response to public outrage, the military shut down Facebook access for all of Burma. Because that'll fix everything right up.
Civilian lawmakers from the legislature established a rival provisional government, with the participation of minority ethnic groups that had long been victimized by the Tatmadaw. Within a few months, the government-in-exile signed agreements and established alliances with the country's various ethnic minority rebel groups, even supporting equality for the Rohingya people. Meanwhile, since the coup took place, the military has massacred demonstrators regardless of ethnicity. By 21 May, at least 810 people had been killed by the military, including children as young as six.
As of summer, many young city-dwelling Bamar joined ethnic rebel groups in the countryside as the situation began to approach an outright guerilla war. Ironically, the events of a few months had fostered a greater degree of inter-ethnic unity and solidarity than the military junta, Ne Win, or even Aung San Suu Kyi had ever achieved - because, of course, nothing brings people together like a common enemy.
Ethnic groups in Burma
The Bamar, also known as the Burmese, are the dominant ethnic group in Burma. Their Burmese language is the nation's only official language. They are mostly concentrated in the Irrawaddy River region and in the central regions surrounding Mandalay. Mainstream culture in Burma is also dominated by Burmese traditions and expectations. Their traditional emphasis on the importance of social hierarchies has translated into a system whereby Burma's ethnic minorities are oppressed and denied opportunity. These power differences were exacerbated during British rule, as the British preferred to work with the wealthier and more literate Burmese groups.
The Karenni are a group of Sino-Tibetan people concentrated mainly in the Kayah State and currently number about 250,000. The Karenni have historically maintained a large degree of independence from the Burmese and were thus considered by the British as a separate entity. As a result of this history and their cultural distinctiveness, the Karenni was one of the most anti-integration ethnic groups (although a sizable number converted to Christianity). They've been oppressed and at war ever since. Even after cease-fires in 1995, 2002, 2012, and now 2015, the Karenni are still occasionally attacked by the military, and they are consistently denied access to economic opportunity. Only one of the groups, the Red Karen, wears the neck rings to extend women's necks (though its true effect is to compress the upper ribcage and only make the neck look longer) that people commonly associate with all Karenni people.
The Kachin are thought to have migrated into Burma from southern China, and they largely inhabit the Kachin State. Like the Karenni, the Kachin have historically been independent of Burmese rulers. Although the Kachin didn't make too much trouble early in Burma's independent period, the post-1962 military dictatorship made enemies of the Kachin by discriminating against them and attacking them.
The Kachin are also notable for being between two-thirds and 90% Christian, which has pitted them against the Burmese state, which declares Buddhism as its state religion. They were converted during the era of British rule.
Like the Kachin, the Chin are also majority Christian. They've long been isolated since they mostly live in the rugged mountains of the Chin state in western Burma. The Chin initially kept to themselves for the most part until the general country-wide crackdown after the 1988 protests. The military started forcing the Chin out of their homes, destroying their villages and churches, and forcing them into slave labor. Forced labor is particularly cruel as it takes farmers away from their fields, leaving residents unable to afford food, healthcare, or education. Chin who go bankrupt are legally obliged to take out loans, incurring personal debt to pay for basic services.
The Mon, mostly concentrated in the Mon State, are closely related to their neighbors in Thailand and Laos. The Mon originally had their own kingdoms, but they were gradually overtaken by the Burmese empires. Although mostly Theravada Buddhists like the Burmese, the Mon were still excluded from regional representation early on. They were one of the first groups to rise against the government in an armed insurgency. Although open warfare has ceased after a cease-fire in 2012, arbitrary land confiscation by the government continues, and the courts largely ignore Mon rights.
The Shan people live in their namesake state, and they combine their Buddhist practices with elements of animism. The Shan are also thought to have migrated from southern China. Other than that, it was basically the same old story. The Shan were excluded from government and abused, so they rose up and were met with a face-full of war crimes. Fighting continues as the military broke a two-decade peace in 2011 to clear them away from planned national-level construction projects, and violence is still ongoing. More than 100,000 people have been displaced.
Burma also has a fairly significant Muslim minority, most of whom live in the Rakhine State. They tend to follow Sunni Islam and refer to themselves as "Rohingya." Despite that uniform title, the Rohingya aren't exactly homogeneous. They seem to be split between the people who were converted by trade with the Abbasid Caliphate and Muslims who immigrated to Burma more recently during British rule. The Burmese blanketly consider all Rohingya to be the latter variety, and they continually deny them citizenship and consider them foreigners. Due to the lack of citizenship and ubiquitous discrimination, it's almost impossible for Rohingya to get higher education, get healthcare, or even get married. The Rohingya also face genocide and attacks by the military, which began around 2017.
Starting around 2017, the Burmese military launched an extremely violent crackdown against Rohingya Muslim citizens of the Rakhine state. As early as 2018, foreign investigators started finding mass graves with horrifying contents; many thousands of bodies had been blasted with bullets or dunked in acid. The United Nations also uncovered evidence of mass murder, burning villages, and even sprees of gang rapes. The UN described the pace of ethnic cleansing as "frenzied."
The country's head of government, the former human rights crusader-turned-villain, Aung San Suu Kyi, hasn't said or done anything to prevent the violence. This seems inevitable since recollections of her close former allies concerning her personal Islamaphobia have become much more relevant. Her anti-Muslim bias had been ingrained within her due to her status as an elite Burmese woman who benefited from the same ethnic hierarchies that led to hatred against the Muslims. As early as 2013, she had been stoking fears of "global Muslim power" and Islamic terrorism in Burma.
The end result is that Rohingya have fled from Burma in waves, creating the worst refugee crisis in Southeast Asia since the Vietnam War. Most have fled to Bangladesh. Meanwhile, investigators from the UN Human Rights Council have called for the prosecution of Burmese generals on genocide charges for crimes including gang rape, the torching of hundreds of villages, enslavement, and killings of children.
Uppatasanti Pagoda, allegedly containing a tooth relic from Buddha.
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