Magazine article New Internationalist

A History of Burma

Magazine article New Internationalist

A History of Burma

Article excerpt

1 Four million pagodas

The nation we know as Burma was first formed during the golden age of Pagan in the eleventh century. King Anawrahta ascended the throne in 1044, uniting Burma under his monarchy. His belief in Buddhism led him to begin building the temples and pagodas for which the city of Pagan (above) is renowned. Pagan became the first capital of a Burmese kingdom that included virtually all of modern Burma. The golden age of Pagan reached its peak during the reign of Anawratha's successor, Kyanzitta (1084 - 1113), another devout Buddhist, under whom it acquired the name 'City of Four Million Pagodas'.

However, the megalomaniac temple - building activities of some later kings, combined with the enrichment of monasteries, were to impoverish the country and Burma became increasingly vulnerable to Mongol and Tartar incursions. But to this day Buddhism has remained at the heart of Burmese culture and 80 per cent of the population are followers.

2 British offences

Although Burma was at times divided into independent states, a series of monarchs attempted to establish their absolute rule, with varying degrees of success. Eventually, an expansionist British Government took advantage of Burma's political instability. After three Anglo - Burmese wars over a period of sixty years, the British completed their colonization of the country in 1886, taking the last of a long line of Burmese kings into custody. Burma was immediately annexed as a province of British India, and the British began to permeate the ancient Burmese culture with foreign elements (right). The British rulers trained the neighbouring Indians to take over civil - service jobs previously filled by Burmese. Burmese customs were often weakened by the imposition of British traditions. The British also encouraged both Chinese and Indians to migrate into Burmese cities in order to profit from new business opportunities. By the start of the First World War, colonial architecture had become prominent throughout Rangoon, and foreign religious monuments and practices grew alongside traditional forms of Burmese Buddhism. Rich in natural resources, Burma became known as 'the rice bowl of Asia'. It was in fact, the world's largest exporter of rice.

3 Sparks of resistance

The British also further divided the numerous ethnic minorities by favouring some groups, such as the Karen, for positions in the military and in local rural administrations. During the 1920s, the first protests by Burma's intelligentsia and Buddhist monks were launched against British rule. By 1935, the Students Union at Rangoon University was at the forefront of what would evolve into an active and powerful movement for national independence. A young law student named Aung San (right), executive - committee member and magazine editor for the Students Union, emerged as the potential new leader of the national movement. In the years that followed, he successfully organized a series of student strikes at the university, gaining the support of the nation. To demonstrate his conviction that Burma was rightfully Burmese and not British, he and his closest associates defiantly called themselves thakins, or 'masters', which was a title previously used only for addressing the British.

4 A man named Aung San

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Aung San seized the opportunity to bring about Burmese independence. He and 29 others, known as the Thirty Comrades, left Burma to undergo military training in Japan. In 1941, they fought alongside the Japanese who invaded Burma. The Japanese promised Aung San that if the British were defeated, they would grant Burma her freedom. Then it became clear that the Japnese would not follow through with their promise, Aung San quickly negotiated an agreement with the British to help them defeat the Japanese. Working together, the British, Indians and Burma's Thirty Comrades successfully expelled the Japanese from Burma in May 1945. …

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