chapter  6
16 Pages

Myanmar/Burma

History Morck and Yeung (2007: 354) believed in order for foreign business practitioners to be successful in Asia they needed to understand Asia, and “Asia must be understood on its own terms. This requires a deep respect for, and understanding of, Asian history.” This would seem to be especially important for individuals from outside the region who are interested in the Theravada Buddhist countries with their unique political situations and business practices. Along the same way of thinking, Myint-U (2006: xiii-xiv) believed it is necessary to take a historical view to understand the current complex situation in Myanmar/Burma. The further back in time, the murkier history becomes. This is also true in the territory that now comprises present-day Myanmar/Burma. It appears the Pyu civilization evolved out of a pre-existing Iron Age culture in the dry areas of central parts of Burma between 200 bc and ad 900. By the fourth or fifth century,  Buddhism had become the main religion of the Pyu, who spoke a Sino-Tibetan language and used Indian scripts in their written language. Three major cities of the Pyu are known, Beikthano, Sri Ksetra, and Halin, all of which were located on tributaries to the Irrawaddy River (Higham 2001). The legends of the origins of Burmese civilization state the history of modern-day Myanmar/Burma began in Tagaung, north of present-day Mandalay, where a kingdom was started by immigrants from India. While there may be little empirical evidence to support this version of the arrival of civilization into the country, there is considerable archeological evidence that there had been a continuously evolving culture in upper Burma from the first century bc up until the end of the Bagan (Pagan) period in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ad. Colonial scholars tended to believe the ancestors of the current residents of Myanmar/Burma moved southward from Tibet and mixed with immigrants from India, creating a separate ethnic identity (Dautremer 1913: 35; Myint-U 2006: 42-7; Hudson 2006). In the early eighth century ad much of the Irrawaddy Valley was controlled by the Kingdom of Nan Chao, who competed with the Mon for political supremacy. However, around ad 849, the Burmese empire known as Bagan (Pagan) was established. The empire slowly gained power until it was transformed by the

legendary ruler Anawrahta into a Buddhist empire (Chanthanom 1998: 38; Myint-U 2006: 48-57). “The Burmese people traditionally saw Anawrathta [Anawrahta] as the ‘founder’ of the first Burmese empire and the one who established Buddhism as the national religion” (Goh 2007: 1). Anawrahta was considered a ruler with non-violent Buddhist attitudes and soon Bagan was on flourishing trade routes in which the values and teachings of Buddhism as well  as goods traveled. Chinese records show Bagan had frequent contacts with China in which goods, religious practices, and political support were exchanged. Buddhist monks and scholars in Bagan also kept close contact with Buddhist monks and scholars in both Sri Lanka and the newly formed kingdoms in present-day Thailand. While the spread of Buddhism and the Burmese language throughout Myanmar/Burma probably did not begin or end with the establishment of Bagan, it is generally felt by the people of the country that their culture of today is the result of an evolution that began during this period of history (Goh 2007: 19, 25, 40, 44; Myint-U 2006: 52-62). In 1253, the armies from the Mongol Yuan dynasty were ordered by Kublai Khan to begin their campaign of conquest into Yunnan, and then the campaign expanded toward the territory controlled by the Kingdom of Bagan. When the king of Bagan refused to pay tribute to the Yuan Empire, the Mongols and their armies attacked and eventually conquered the capital at Bagan in 1287. However, by 1303, the Mongols and their armies withdrew and Bagan again became independent (Dai 2004: 149-50). By 1330, Bagan’s position as the center of the Burmese world had diminished. Throughout the Irrawaddy Valley and the rest of present-day Myanmar/ Burma, a number of small kingdoms arose. The richest and most powerful of these was the Mon-speaking Kingdom of Pegu, which was located not far from present-day Yangon/Rangoon. Other kingdoms of the period located in presentday Myanmar/Burma included Ava, Prome, and Toungoo. Contact with the rest of the world slowed during this period (Goh 2007: 37; Myint-U 2006: 64-5). Traditionally, the Kingdom of Ava had been considered a Shan kingdom and this time period was thought of as an era of disunity and warfare within the lands now comprising Myanmar/Burma. However, Aung-Thwin (1996) disagreed with this assessment and traced the origins of this myth to the assumption of the ethnicity  of  three  brothers  often  thought  to  have  been  influential  in  the  post- Bagan  period. In fact, Aung-Thwin pointed out the high-level use of the Burmese language, the continuation in Ava of arts and economic activities used in Bagan, and political cooperation with Pegu, all of which provide support for the notion of Ava being a Burmese as opposed to a Shan-dominated kingdom. Therefore, the case was made that this period was not as chaotic as generally reported by historians. Aung-Thwin attributed the continuation of this myth to a bias of historians to think of periods of political consolidation as more advanced than periods of political fragmentation, and also due to colonial political considerations at the time of the British historians who initiated the study of the country’s history. The nation became again reunited under the leadership of Tabinshweti and his successor Bayinnaung in the sixteenth century. These leaders were from the

Burmese-speaking Kingdom of Toungoo. During the reign of Bayinnaung, much use was made of Portuguese mercenaries and their European weaponry to consolidate political power over territory in present-day Myanmar/Burma and also to lay waste to the Thai kingdoms of Lannathai and Ayutthaya to the east. The Shan, who had previously been constantly at war with the Burmese, were also defeated and brought into a Burmese-dominated political unit. The military victories of Tabinshweti and Bayinnaung continue to inspire the current military leadership of today as these victories show Myanmar/Burma was not always a less developed nation, but instead once was a regional power (Chanthanom 1998: 39; Myint-U 2006: 63-71). Once again, the country’s political system fragmented and was then consolidated under Alaungpaya, who founded the Konbaung dynasty in 1752. Alaungpaya conquered the city of Pegu in 1757. The Konbaung dynasty’s first attack on  the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya took place in 1759 and 1760, but was prematurely abandoned due to the illness of Alaungpaya, who personally led the assault. However, in 1763, the Burmese had overrun the Kingdom of Lannathai and another attack against Ayutthaya, this time successful, was launched in 1776, bringing an end to the Thai kingdom (Dai 2004: 154; Myint-U 2006: 97-9). However, the attention of the country’s military shifted as the armies of the Qing dynasty began threatening its northern borders. The Qing dynasty of China launched numerous military expeditions into Burma, all of which were repelled by the local military forces and tropical disease. The defeat of the army led by the elite forces of the Manchu bannermen was a major blow to the rulers of the middle kingdom, and eventually both sides, weary of war, reached a peace agreement that included the sending of tribute to China, so that the Chinese could save face and claim a victory was achieved, when in reality the campaigns were military defeats for the Qing dynasty (Dai 2004). Emboldened by the military victories over Ayutthaya and the Qing dynasty, the Burmese empire of the day launched a series of military campaigns that would eventually result in confrontation with the growing power of the British Empire in India. The Burmese became militarily involved in Arakan and Assam; these actions were seen as an approach upon British interests by the colonial rulers of South Asia. The British began to feel their position in eastern India was threatened and from 1822 to 1824 the British and the Burmese engaged in an expensive and bloody war that resulted in the loss for the Burmese of territory to the British, agreement to cease interference in Assam, Jaintia, and Cachar, and the payment of a huge indemnity. A second brief war between the two sides was conducted in 1852, which resulted in an internal split in the Burmese royal family that eventually resulted in King Mindon coming to power (Myint-U 2006: 113-34). The political consolidation of Burma was not to last for long. The relationship between the British in India and Burma during the reign of King Mindon (1852-78),  a  noted  patron  of  Buddhism,  was  peaceful.  However,  the  fight  over his succession, which resulted in the coming to power of King Thibaw,

weakened the state, which encouraged the thoughts of the British for further eastward expansion. The British used as an excuse for their aggression the immorality and ineffectiveness of the king to justify their actions. The British also made the claim that it was necessary to invade Burma to protect British interests in India. In a situation that in many ways resembles the more recent US-led invasion of Iraq, removal of the “tyrant” was accomplished fairly easily, but subduing the population proved to be much costlier and lengthier than expected. The British arrived in Mandalay on November 28, 1885, and abducted King Thibaw without any resistance. However, for the next three years, a fierce  insurgency continued to attack the British forces with surprisingly effective results (Dautremer 1913). The ethnic divisions of today have many of their roots in the era of British domination. One example is the British policy of organizing ethnic minorities and using these minorities to help fight the initial insurgency. The Karens, most  probably because of the significant numbers that had already converted to Christianity, became key allies of the British in maintaining British control of the country (Smeaton 1920). To this day, the Karens for the most part have not integrated into mainstream society in either Myanmar/Burma or Thailand and armed  conflict  between  some of  the Karens  and  the government  of Myanmar/ Burma continues. Although the British thought of Burma mostly as a backwater of little importance after the initial prospects of economic gain proved to be ill-founded, the British domination of the nation brought many changes. One was the large immigration of Indians into the country, who came to dominate government positions, and like ethnic Chinese in other parts of Southeast Asia, many became extremely successful in business. Another change was the increasing importance of secular education and the diminished importance of the Buddhist monasteries in the lives of students. The British also eliminated the monarchy and changes were made in the legal system that deemphasized the role of the traditional authorities (Carbine 2004: 131; Kaw 2005; Myint-U 2006: 186-7). The British Empire in Asia was broken apart during World War II. Burma was  “sacrificed”  by  the British  as  the  priority was  placed  on  the  unsuccessful  defense of Singapore, which could be used to protect the strategically important Strait of Malacca. Aung San, Ne Win, and other Burmese nationalists ended up in Japan, underwent training by the Japanese military, and eagerly joined in the Japanese drive to “liberate” the country. The Japanese military replaced the British and formal “independence” was granted in 1943 with Dr. Ba Maw being the first prime minister. However, quickly the euphoria of being free from British  rule faded as it became obvious the Burmese had traded a European colonial master for an Asian one (Myint-U 2006: 220-33). However, the Japanese victory was short-lived. A massive British-led counterattack coming out of India resulted in large-scale engagements in the mountainous principality of Manipur in which over 80,000 Japanese soldiers out of a force of around 200,000 were killed. As the tide began turning, Aung San, Ne Win, and many others began switching sides and the Anti-Fascist People’s

Freedom League headed by Aung San was formed. On May 3, 1945, the Britishled Twenty-Sixth Indian Division took Rangoon without any resistance (Myint-U 2006: 236-41). Although the Japanese were eventually defeated, the initial collapse of the British Army, much like the defeat of the French in Indochina, brought to an end the aura of the invincibility of the white man. War weariness and a change in government in Britain brought to power those with less relish for colonial domination, providing an opportunity for Burmese independence. In early 1948, a Burmese  delegation  in  London  led  by Aung  San  negotiated  a  deal  to  finalize  Burmese independence. However, the joy of independence didn’t last long as a communist rebellion began within months of the British withdrawal and the Karen struggle for an independent state broke out in 1949 (Min 2009: 1061; Myint-U 2006: 248-53).   Conflicts  between  ethnic  groups  have  plagued Myanmar/Burma  since  independence. In 1947, an agreement was signed in Panglong by Aung San and leaders of a few ethnic groups, which was intended to be the foundation for an ethnically diverse political union. The agreement is often thought of as the original blueprint for a peaceful, ethnically diverse, and democratic country that somehow was pushed aside; however, this view may be more of a romanticized view of a golden past rather than an accurate reflection of the agreement. At the  conference, there were delegations of Shan, Kachin, and Chin leaders, but other ethnic groups, most noticeably the Karen and Karenni, were absent. The communist rebellion, the death of Aung San, and the beginning of the Karen armed struggle for independence resulted in the promises and spirit of the Panglong conference not having the opportunities to grow into a peaceful multi-ethnic political union (Walton 2008). In the struggle for independence, Aung San had emerged as one of the most influential political actors in the country. He had support from many sections of  society and various ethnic groups. He was also viewed by many British as someone who they could work with during and after the transition to independence. However, the history of the nation took a major turn on the morning of July 19, 1947, when gunmen stormed a meeting of the interim government’s executive council, killing Aung San and wounding four other council members. It was found that U Saw, a bitter rival of Aung San, and rogue elements of the British Officer Corp were behind the killings (Myint- U 2006:  254-5). The years immediately following independence were the years of Myanmar/ Burma’s experiment with parliamentary democracy. The leader of democratic Burma during all but one year when he temporarily stepped aside was U Nu. U Nu was born in 1907 in the town of Wakema, approximately 50 miles from Rangoon, to a moderately wealthy family. While attending Rangoon University, where he was well liked, he developed a taste for wine, literature, women, sports, politics, and Buddhism. After leaving university, he worked at a private school in Pantanaw, where he taught English and history and was known for his anticolonial viewpoint. He later returned to seek a graduate degree in law, which is when he met and became close friends with Aung San. U Nu became enamored

with communism during his youth and remained pretty much an idealist during his time as head of the government. U Nu was prime minister and the leading political  figure  during  Burma’s  days  of  democracy.  He  had  a  vision  for  the  country governed by a mixture of Buddhist philosophy and socialist programs designed to aid the poor. U Nu was the first prime minister after independence  and remained in that position while his Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League won numerous parliamentary elections. Although U Nu promised to retire from politics, and actually stepped down for one year, the lure of power was too great and he returned as prime minister. Over time, the League’s political cohesion began to collapse, and under threat of a military coup (and to prevent his opponents from within his own party from seizing power?), U Nu appointed a caretaker military-led government led by Ne Win. In 1960, when elections were again held, U Nu’s faction won overwhelmingly and he returned to the prime minister’s office (Hlaing 2008; Myint- U 2006:  265-87). Ne Win and the military apparently developed a taste for political power while in office and decided on March 2, 1962 it was time to seize power from  the elected government on their own. U Nu and other leaders were arrested and the country’s democratic experiment ended. U Nu was released in 1966 and later traveled abroad, attempting to garner foreign support for his return to power, but this movement quickly fizzled out. Ne Win and the government’s Burmese Way  to Socialism became the path the country would be destined to follow (Myint-U 2006: 290-309). Ne Win, original name Shu Maung, was born in 1911 in the small town of Paungdale. After dropping out of university after failing his exams, Ne Win attempted to go into the coal business but was unsuccessful; he found himself working in a post office. Soon after he became swept up in the times and joined  Aung San in training with the Japanese military and joined in the Japanese invasion which drove the British out of the country. He quickly rose up the ranks in the military and from independence until the coup of 1962 Ne Win was the head of the nation’s armed forces (Myint-U 2006: 294-5). Under Ne Win’s direction, the Burma Socialism Programme Party (BSPP) was formed. In 1974, Ne Win announced a transfer of power from the state, headed by Ne Win, to the representative of the people, also led by Ne Win. Despite a number of challenges, Ne Win remained in control of the country until 1988 (Hlaing 2008). On July 23, 1988, the world was shocked by Ne Win’s complete reversal in public attitude when he unexpectedly called for a return to multi-party elections and resigned, effective immediately. However, he also chose as his successor Sein Lwin, a military hard-liner. On August 8, 1988, student-led demonstrations calling for a return to democracy began. This led to a violent military crackdown, the sacking of Sein Lwin, and further protests. Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of national hero Aung San, became the international face of the democracy movement. However, the military was not willing to relinquish control and brutally suppressed the calls for democracy, and a new government, calling itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and led by General Saw Maung, took control of the country (Myint-U 2006: 31-6). Within a few years,

Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she has for the most time remained, and other leaders of the democracy movement were jailed, killed, or driven out of the country. Although Ne Win was gone, the military remained firmly in power. In 1992, Than Shwe took over the chairmanship of SLORC. SLORC evolved into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and Than Shwe consolidated his power with the ouster of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in 2004 (Hlaing 2008). In what seems to be a bizarre move, reportedly on advice from his personal astrologer, Than Shwe decided to move the government and capital of the country from Yangon/Rangoon to the remote area now called Naypyidaw (Seekins 2009: 173). Another uprising, often referred to as the Saffron Rebellion after the color of the robes worn by the Buddhist monks who took part, surfaced in 2007; however, the hopes of the citizens who supported democracy in the country were dashed and the military retained power. Although to the outside world, it would appear the main struggle in the country is between the military and proponents of democracy, Hlaing (2008: 149) believed:

In modern Burmese history, power and factional struggles were more the rule than the exception, for they were present in almost all postindependence governments. Various rival groups and factions in postindependence governments constantly sought to marginalize and undermine the role of their opponents in the governments.