When you hear of Myanmar, what comes to mind? Maybe its military rule? Its political struggle? Aung San Suu Kyi? While these may be what we hear most often about the country, there is a vast and rich history beyond these topics.
In fact, in the past this land was referred to as the Golden Land, reflecting its former glory. When you visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is said to be more than 2,500 years old, you will see glimpses of its past glory.
It's plated with gold and decorated with numerous precious stones including diamonds and rubies.
Pagan Dynasty (1044–1287)
The history of civilization in Myanmar goes back a long way, but what we know as Myanmar was mainly formed in the Pagan Dynasty in the 11th century. King Anawrahta, who reigned at the time, united Burma under his monarchy. He promoted a common language – Burmese – and also promoted the practice of Buddhism.
It was during this time that many pagodas and temples were built in the city of Pagan (Bagan), which at that time was the capital city of the Burmese kingdom.
The area now boasts over 2,200 ruins of temples and pagodas and is listed as a World Heritage Site although it is said that there used to be more than 10,000 pagodas and temples there.
An invasion by the Mongols ended this dynasty. After they left, the kingdom had been broken up and the power centers were scattered, eventually becoming several kingdoms. The following era was marked by a series of wars and instability.
Taungoo Dynasty (1510–1752) and Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885)
In the 16th century, the Taungoo Dynasty reunified the empire and initiated significant economic and administrative reforms. These developments were then continued by the Konbaung Dynasty.
The Mingun Pahtodawgyi, the world’s largest unfinished stupa, is a relic from this period of time. The project was started by King Bodawpaya, the sixth king of the Konbaung Dynasty.
This project is seen as a reflection of the eccentricities of King Bodawpaya. Its building took a huge toll on the people and was shrouded with superstition. Once the king died, the project was stopped. It now serves mainly as an attraction rather than a religious site.
Colonial Rule (1825–1948)
The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–26) was the beginning of the century long British colonial rule in Burma. By 1885, the British succeeded in occupying the area and established it as a province of British India.
You will be able to see remnants of this period in the “Colonial District” in downtown Yangon. Colonial-era buildings, such as the High Court Building (built in 1914) and the Strand Hotel (built in 1896), serve as a reminder of the British’s former presence in Myanmar.
While the Burmese economy grew during this period, the wealth and power were mainly concentrated amongst the Indian migrants and British firms. The ethnic Burmese were largely left out. Japan partially invaded Burma in 1942, but the British troops were able to regain control over most of the colony by 1945.
Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, was credited as the engineer of the country’s independence, and referred to as the “Father of the Nation” of modern-day Myanmar, but he was assassinated 6 months before the independence declaration on January 4th, 1948.
The first years following Burma's independence were unstable and marked by successive insurgencies by various factions.
In 1962, the military staged a coup and took over the state. It turned out to be the beginning of a long and dark period of time where Burma shied away from the rest of the world. Ne Win took leadership of the country and made efforts to transform Burma into a socialist state.
Burma’s economic development continued to suffer, so much so that it was classified as the “Least Developed Country” by the UN in 1987. Erratic leadership of the government was at fault.
For example, in September 1987, Ne Win suddenly canceled most currency notes, allowing only those divisible by nine due to superstitious belief. This caused a huge downturn in the economy.
In early 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the assassinated Aung San, stood against the military rule. For this act, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but she was also put under house arrest by the government for 15 years. The house is now an attraction site for tourists.
2011 to Now
In 2011, things started to change through democratic reforms. One of the reforms included the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Changes have accelerated since then and, in 2016, the first non-military president of the country since 1962 was elected, while Aung San Suu Kyi herself assumed the role of State Counselor.
It is hoped that this will be the beginning of the restoration of Myanmar’s past glory.
Visit Myanmar with Asia Highlights
We provide tailor-made tours to Myanmar. Tours typically start or end in Yangon or Mandalay and last approximately 9 days; visiting Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake.
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