Archive for the Burma/Myanmar Category

What about Burma? (Unwinding)

Posted in Burma/Myanmar with tags , , , on 8 June 2008 by Maggie

I’m sitting here after Burma VI staring at the screen. I want to do another. My brain says, “You must be nuts. I’m tired!”

There’s a reason this is so exhausting.

Imagine, if you will, watching a movie and feeling like you’re there right in the middle of the action.

Make it 3D.

That’s what is going on while I write this, especially starting now. See, in 1961 when I was 8 years old, some of the events that I speak of here bring back memories of other events, other places in the world, other discussions I remember overhearing that had little or nothing to do with Burma, but had to do with SEATO and the Bandung Conference, things I remember Ethel talking about happening in Pakistan at this time – and her thinly veiled comments about the Western world and their disregard for certain Asian and African nations.

I remember Zhou Enlai. I remember Jawarharlal Nehru. I remember U Thant.

I remember integrity and respect, and sometimes I remember the lack of both.

I remember being so irritated with my mother once when I was 12 that when she said there were starving children in China, I got a shoebox, packed my dinner in it, and was ready to ship it off. If there were children starving, why were we eating so damned much?? I was serious.

My grandfather was once a missionary in Japan. He wrote about that. I have it somewhere in my things.

Aunt Daisy was an ambassador to eastern Europe. Somewhere I still have the letter of introduction from William Jennings Bryan, then Secretary of the State, and something she wrote about Poland prior to World War I.

Ethel worked for the U.N. many places – Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, many places in the Middle East. I used to have things she brought back from there. They were stolen.

I remember our friends from Egypt, Korea, and Bengal. I distinctly, in fact, remember what I knew as the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

In all cases, I have memories of conversations, discussions, and some very strongly expressed opinions from that time in 1961 through the early 1970s. As I go through this period in Burmese history, up to the present time, they will come flooding back and I will have to stop and breathe. It may take a few days to write because of this, but I am not stopping.

Lael said to me tonight that I have lived a rich life. It has been diverse. It will continue to be diverse because I intend for it to stay that way. God is not finished with me yet, and until he is, I am not finished with the world.

**Additional note:  7 June 2008:

The series will continue.  Since I’ve written these parts, much has happened.  I was not wrong that Americans in particular walked away from the situation in Burma after a couple of weeks, but then they have come back since the devastation of Cyclone Nargia.  America’s appetite for sensationalism has yet to be quenched.  They care only that the U.S. makes it look like an attempt was made to help, and that the U.S. government (in the white hats) has been turned away by the evil junta (in the black hats) while the Burmese (the settlers) suffer.  The truth is that many NGOs and foreign aid workers have been going in from many nations and giving their assistance.  The U.S. could be less stupid about this, give their aid to the NGOs and foreign aid workers and let the process work this way.  How much simpler could that be?  Instead, we take our chocolate bars and go home in a huff.  More on that a little later.


What about Burma? Part Seven

Posted in Burma/Myanmar with tags , , , on 8 June 2008 by Maggie

As noted in the previous installment, Burma/Mayanma’s democratic rule ended in 1962 when General Ne Win led a military coup d’état. Very little has been said about his “Burmese Way to Socialism” slogan or the time in which he ruled, except for the anti-government protests which occurred at the funeral of U Thant, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.

I mentioned before that I had access to diplomatic discussions during the period of time U Thant was Secretary-General, and his death in 1974 was very hard for me to take. However, it was not surprising that there would be uprisings, nor a shock that the military would put down those uprisings with unmitigated violence. The protesters used U Thant’s funeral as a platform from which to launch their push for the former democratic rule, as his personal philosophies were representative of that period of time and the thoughts of Aung Wan when the democratic regime was first beginning.

Ne Win, of course, considered this a threat to his reign.

When Ne Win first took power, he declared Burma/Myanma be renamed The Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. By 1964 he had abolished all political parties and named the only official Burmese party to be the Burma Socialist Programme Party, to which he had, conveniently, been “elected” president shortly after his rise to power in 1962. He claimed to rule in the name of nationalism, Marxism, and Buddhism, but quite frankly, he had no interest in the philosophies of those platforms or religious tenets. His intent was to isolate Burma/Myanma from the rest of the world and rule as dictator. To that end, the economy was nationalised, foreigners were removed, political parties were abolished (as mentioned already), political activists – or anyone perceived to be in disagreement with Ne Win’s rule – were imprisoned primarily at Insein Prison, and any sort of ethnic or socialist insurgency was put down without a shred of mercy. Anyone from outwith Burma/Myanma was allowed into the country only for a period of 24 hours, with a few allowed three days. Any contact with the West was viewed as suspicious and potentially threatening to Ne Win’s government.

Despite the threat of military force at every turn, students continued with periodic protests that would result in the automatic shutdown of the universities. These occurred with most impact in 1965, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975, and 1987.

Most noted was the unrest in 1974. The effect U Thant’s death had on the nation of Burma/Myanma was telling. Ne Win refused a state funeral for this great man, holding it, instead, at a race course. U Thant’s coffin was stolen by students and raised up in a quickly constructed mausoleum on the grounds of the former Rangoon University Student Union. The military stormed the university and killed scores of students, with the end result of burying U Thant’s body at the foot of Shwedogan pagoda. Also in 1974, a Labour Strike incurred more killings and uprisings. It seemed to be a no-win situation at every turn.

The people were oppressed. Ethnic insurgencies occurred most frequently in the Shan states where the ethnic Karens had been originally promised their independence by the British so many years before. The devaluation of the kyat caused massive insurgencies by the Karens all the way to 1987. By cutting Burma off from the rest of the world, no trade could occur. The ability to survive on resources strictly within their country was impossible. The educated among the people emigrated. The black market and racketeering were rampant (as was also the case in the former Russian states at the time of the breakdown of the U.S.S.R.). In 1963, as a claim to put down the black market – and his further claim that insurgencies were funded with these notes, Ne Win declared the 50 and 100 kyat notes to be illegal tender, offering little or no compensation. In a matter of hours, people’s life savings were wiped out. He later installed the 15, 35, 45, and 90 kyats based on the foretelling of an astrologist that if he did this, he would live to be 90.

Discontent increased, Karen insurgencies were gaining strength, and with the 1987 statement by the United Nations that Burma was one of the poorest countries in the world, Ne Win finally stepped down as chairman of the Burma Socialist Programme Party. His resignation speech can be found anywhere on the Internet and includes these words: [if the protests and disturbances continued the] “Army would have to be called and I would like to declare from here that if the Army shoots it has no tradition of shooting into the air. It would shoot straight to hit.” In addition to that portion of the statement he placed the blame for the destruction of the Rangoon University Student Union squarely on his former deputy Brigadier Aung Gyi, and said that because it had happened and he was leader he had to take responsibility for the orders and thus gave the sword with sword speech (referenced in Burma VI). In essence he was foisting all responsibility for military violence onto others in an effort to leave his position “blameless”.

He was right about the Army’s shooting straight to hit. Thousands of demonstraters were shot, killed, and maimed between the 8th and 12th of August, 1988, the period known as the 8888 Uprisings.

From March of 1988 to September there were brief periods in which it appeared democracy might once again gain a foothold, but – with Ne Win’s orchestration from the background – General Saw Maung staged yet another coup d’état and took over, forming the military junta, State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).

I am not the only one to believe that Ne Win continued for several years to manoeuvre through General Saw Maung and retain control. Once a dictator, always a dictator, until the day he dies. He fell out of grace with the SLORC ten years later, and eventually found himself under house arrest after some of his children were found guilty of allegedly plotting to overthrow the SLORC (renamed the SPDC) sometime later.

Please note that we do not refer to Ne Win’s time of command as a military junta. It is safe enough to refer to it as a dictatorship. He was a military officer, and he used basic socialist and Buddhist principles as a guise for the operation of Burma/Myanma, but this was not a junta. The junta comes under General Saw Maung with the advent of the SLORC. Unlike Ne Win’s shadowy Burma Socialist Programme Party, the SLORC was a committee of military leaders – a true military junta.

This does not make them any better.

More about the 8888 Uprisings, Karen ethnic states, the SLORC, Aung San Suu Kyi, Than Shwe, and the still pending constitution to come.

(to be continued)

What about Burma? Part Six

Posted in Burma/Myanmar with tags , , , on 8 June 2008 by Maggie

The Union of Burma was officially named and became an independent republic on the 4th of January 1948. Unlike most other territories and colonies created by the British empire, the Union of Burma did not become a part of the Commonwealth. There are several schools of thought as to why Burma was not included in the Commonwealth. Some believe that all of Southeast Asia fell outwith the Commonwealth. Others believe that including Burma would be unfair to the independence of the region. Still others believe it was a hotbed of insurgency and strife and the British Empire could well do without it. Then there are those who think that Aung San was just a darned good negotiator.

In any event, a bicameral parliament was formed with a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Nationalists. (Doesn’t that just strike you right there with a bit of foreboding as to what comes later?)

The boundaries for Burma/Myanma today can be traced to the Panglong Agreement, first signed by Aung San in 1947. In that same agreement, the Shan states were promised their own independence 10 years past the date of the agreement. This was to happen before 1957. When Aung San was assassinated chaos ensued and so the promises made to the Shan states didn’t happen. They still to this day say, “Wait a minute. A deal’s a deal, and why do we not have our own nation?” They’re not Burmese. They are essentially closer to being Thai. And yet the land agreed upon, the deal struck, to this day still belongs to Burma/Myanma and to this day the Shan are still there.

This is a clear reminder to me that Israel and Palestine are not alone in their angst over who gets what territory as a nation, do they deserve to be a nation, and so forth. It also is clear to me that the old adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” applies in spades. It is the same principle that applies to orphan diseases. They’re not popular, and so receive less funding and less attention. Israel/Palestine – Shan/Burma. You see? More detail about the Shan states will be forthcoming. There is much more to them than meets the eye, as with the Karen.

Burma suffered economically through the many insurgencies by various Chinese communist party groups, the Karen National Union, Arakanese Muslims, all attempting to take over different regions in the early years of its independence. Burma did accept foreign assistance during these times, but became so frustrated with the American support of Chinese Nationalist military forces in Burma/Myanma that it refused to join the Western-sponsored Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and instead supported and attended the Bandung Conference.

The Bandung Conference was held in Indonesia in April of 1955. The aims of the conference were to promote Afro-Asian economic and cultural cooperation, and to oppose colonialism or neocolonialism by the US, the then USSR, or any other nation that appeared “imperialistic”. What was striking to the Western World was that half the population of the world at that time was represented by the 29 nations in attendance. What a blow that would be/could be to Western civilisation’s egoncentric notion that everyone should “be like them” and bow to their will! This conference was followed by the Belgrade Conference in 1961, and eventually led to the establishment of the Nonaligned Movement. Fifty years later, while many struggles had diminished the value of the original strength these nations had between them, the essential philosophies of this group of nations was rekindled and the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership was developed just a few years ago.

An important public figure in the newly formed government was Aung San’s wife, Ma Khin Kyi, starting before the official date in January 1948 in the areas of social planning and social policy. She continued in this role until she was appointed Burma’s ambassador to India in 1960. It was fortuitous that this happened when it did, as it removed the family from Burma just before the military coup of 1962, and launched Aung San Suu Kyi’s educational experience into a new phase.

One thing we must not forget is the impact Burma/Myanma had on international events. Burma’s Permanent Representative to the UN and former Secretary to the Prime Minister, U Thant, was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1961. This event impacted me greatly. This was the first year I remembered UNICEF. It was the first year I felt a serious attachment to the world in chaos and the world in development. I was eight years old. Probably the most striking feature of this election was that U Thant was the first non-Westerner to stand as head of any world organisation. He would hold this office with the UN for 10 years. He was the Secretary-General with which I was most familiar, the one whose international philosophies formed a great deal of what I believed. Again, Aung San Suu Kyi was an important figure. She worked at the UN during this time.

Do you see how a life in international politics, diplomatic circles, and in a form of ambassadorship can influence one’s view of the world?

While all of this was going on, Ne Win, who had been appointed Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces in 1949, became the head of the “caretaker government” in October 1958. In this position he was able to manoeuver and stage a coup in 1962 and appoint himself Chairman of the Revolutionary Council and Prime Minister of the Revolutionary Government, thus ending Burma/Myanma’s democratic government.

It can happen. Watch our government carefully, and you can see the potential for such things happening here.

In Burma, at the time, it wasn’t as difficult as one would think. When the people are either in turmoil or completely snowed, this happens. It was essentially “bloodless”, according to Western media, but why would the West care? By this point, Burma/Myanma had shown its frustration with the West’s “my way or the highway” form of “diplomacy”.

In fact, the youngest son of then President Sao Shwe Thaik was killed by a soldier that first day, the 2nd of March, 1962. On the 8th of July, more than 100 students and protesters were killed just in Rangoon.  Ne Win’s military force was ruthless; no dissention was tolerated. That same day, the historic Rangoon University Student Union was blown up. Between the time of the massacre and the destruction of the Student Union, Ne Win gave a speech whose final statement was one which, in reading it again today, I remember distinctly: “If these disturbances were made to challenge us, I have to declare that we will fight sword with sword and spear with spear.” What he meant was, we will shoot you in the back faster than you can turn around, and that is what the military under his control did. Until the heat of protests were quelled, universities were closed. They did not open again until the fall of 1964. Two years.

And from here we launch into the “Burmese Way to Socialism”.

(to be continued)

© 2007 Maggie Stewart-Grant and Silver City Press


What about Burma? Part Five

Posted in Burma/Myanmar with tags , , , on 8 June 2008 by Maggie

Once Upper and Lower Burma were put forth as one province in British India, the British set about making the province profitable. Burmese unrest in the major cities was inevitable. How to quell that unrest? Displace the people. Split up the potential for an effective uprising. The Burmese were displaced in urban areas by Indians and Chinese. Railroads and schools were constructed. “Modernisation” of the savage province of Burma was underway. Included in the construction projects were a number of prisons. The most famous of these is still in use today for the same purpose: Insein Jail, which houses political prisoners.

Key to the issues of violent uprisings that brought Yangon to a screeching halt at times was the disrespect for Burmese culture by British citizens. Mind, the Chinese and the Indians were not at fault. It was the – once again – white Europeans. The British. If any of you have read a bit about the British Empire during this time, you might remember something dubbed “The Shoe Question”. Colonisers refused outright to remove their shoes when entering any Buddhist holy places, including pagodas. Some accounts call this a “perceived disrespect”. It was not “perceived”. It was blatant. In a later blog I’ll tell you about the research I’m finding beyond what I already had on the entire colonisation of Southeast Asia by the British Empire. Basically, it boils down to this. It was the Coloniser’s Club…no natives allowed…or deserving of respect!

The complete disregard and refusal by the colonisers to do something as simple as remove their shoes before entering a Buddhist temple caused such a flare of tempers that Eindawya Pagoda in Mandalay was the scene of violence when scandalised Buddhist monks attempted to physically remove a British group still wearing their shoes. It was so bad that the leader of the monks was eventually sentenced to life in prison for “attempted murder”. Of course this sentence was handed down by a “civilised” British court. The Burmese resistance saw this happening here and in other places across Burma/Myanmar and they were inspired. The Buddhist monks did then, as they have recently, become leaders in centering a rallying point. Many died for the cause of independence. U Wisara protested the inability to wear his Buddhist robes while imprisoned during a rally, and thus died a martyr for the movement after a 166-day hunger strike.

Most people know only of Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” when they think of this time of colonisation. It speaks nothing to the cruelty and difficulty of this period of time before 1935. In a more specific way, I will address this in detail later in another blog. It is sufficient to say that the British were an unkind, arrogant, stupid, and ignorant lot. But, then, when looking at our own American government, the rise of our nation, and our treatment of others, we should not be surprised.

On April Fools Day 1937 Burma/Myanma was finally separated administratively from India. After 50 years within the Indian system, the population in Burma/Myanma now fairly well assimilated and congealed thanks to British displacement efforts over this period of time, the vote to separate was hotly contested and laid the groundwork later for insurgencies leading to and coming after “independence”. On the heels of Burma/Myanma becoming a separate colony, Aung San (yes, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) founded the Burma Independence Army, also known as The Thirty Comrades, which got their training out of Japan.

It appeared as though the independence of Burma/Myanma was not far behind when it discovered itself as a major front line in the Southeast Asian Theatre during World War II. The British government crumpled ahead of the Japanese troops advancing through the area. Jails and asylums were unlocked and left standing open. The city of Yangon/Rangoon was a virtual ghost town with the exception of a few still at their posts. In all, an estimated 300,000 refugees were a part of what was known as “The Trek” through the jungles in the west to India. About 10 percent of them didn’t make it. While it looked like Japan’s Burma Campaign was a success, it didn’t take long for the British to retake the country in a counter attack that included primarily troops of the British Indian Army. As in many conflicts, you find that there are people of the same nationality fighting equally on one side or the other. The same was true of the Burmese. Many fought with the Japanese. Some fought with the British. The Chin Levies and Kachin Levies were formed in the border districts still under British control. The Burma Rifles fought with the Chindits under General Wingate from 1943 to 1945. The Americans (not able to keep our noses out, of course) created American-Kachin Rangers also fighting for those who were occupying the area – the Allied Forces. The Burma Independence Army, under the command of Aung San, fought with the Japanese until 1944, but switched allegiance to the Allied side in 1945.

Someone saw the writing on the wall….

When the war was over, deals were made. Burma would receive its independence. Aung San became Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council of Burma, the transitional government, indeed, on its way to independence, on 27 January 1947, a little over two weeks before his 32nd birthday.

He was assassinated on 19 July 1947, six months before Burma/Myanma would become a democratic republic, free from British rule.

His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, was just two.

(to be continued)

What about Burma? Part Four

Posted in Burma/Myanmar with tags , , , on 8 June 2008 by Maggie

This will take you from the early 16th Century to the start of Colonial Rule late 19th Century. When we left our fearless citizens of Burma/Mayanma, the organised communities of Shans in the hills had just sacked Ava. One would think this would be a tremendous change for the smaller groups in taking over the big cities. Perhaps not. As I said in Part Three:

It caused a domino effect. The “little man” ruled. Or so they thought.

The Burmans in Ava were obviously running – where, I don’t know, but out of Ava. Word of this spread to the dynasty of Taungoo, whose king was inspired, defeated Bago, and thus unified Lower Burma under his rule. His name was Tabinshwehti. He ruled until the mid-1500s, stabilising the area after more than 200 years of the kingdom split apart. His successor was King Bayinnaung, who continued expansion through the former empire, taking back Upper Burma, the Shan states, Ayutthaya, and other areas, bringing most of western Southeast Asia into his nearly-complete empire. He died planning the invasion of Rakhine – remember Rakhine? – which controlled the entire coastline west of Yoma up to the Chittagong province in Bengal. Unfortunately, his death caused a major breakdown of the empire he created, and it went like this:

The Siamese of Aytthaya drove out the Burmese and continued to take Tanintharyi.
Rakhine sacked Bago, and then the first overthrow by “outsiders” occurred.

Rakhine had used Portugese mercenaries to take on Bago. One of the primaries was Filipe de Brito e Nicote, who rebelled against Rakhine and established Portugese rule in the most strategically and economically important seaport in Burma/Myanma, Thanlyin, in 1599.  Note the location of Portugal on the Atlantic. Note the location of Thanlyin clear on the other side of India. Make sense? Needless to say, Burma/Myanma was in chaos. Does this not always happen when some greedy git decides he needs to be in control somewhere other than home?

The Burmese would have none of this, and under King Anaukeptlun, took back Thanlyin from the Portugese 12 years later, 1611. He rebuilt a smaller version of the kingdom consisting of Upper Burma, Lower Burma and the Shan states, using Ava as the centre. The reestablished kingdom held together and continued to grow until after the death of Anaukpetlun’s successor, Thalun. Though there seems to be no one specifically to pin it on, a decline under Burmese rule occurred over the next 100 years. In 1740, the Mons then began rebelling successfully, with the help of – guess what – another outsider, Portugal’s neighbour France. The neighbouring Siamese (modern Thailand), enocouraged the rebellion and the Mons were able to break off Lower Burma seven years later and effectively destroy the state of Taungoo when they took Ava in 1752.

Ava’s had a whole lot of sacking going on, have you noticed? Ava…Bago…back and forth…

The Konbaung dynasty was established, then, in 1752. King Alaungpaya founded Yangon, and by his death in 1760, he had effectively reuinfied the country of Burma/Myanma. The next king, Hsinbyushin sacked Ayuttya and took it into the kingdom. Meanwhile, the Qing Dynasty in China invaded four times without success. While Burma/Myanma had its collective attention placed on these invasions, Siam was able to repel the Burmese and by the late 1770s, their new kingdom was well established and operating. Of course this didn’t set well with the Konbaung Dynasty, and so they attempted to go in and reconquer Siam several times, to no avail. They were, however, able to capture independent Rakhine, annex the protectorate of Manipur, and continue to capture independent Assam, all between 1790 and 1821.

Lovely. Now they were right up against British India. So who was trying to conquer who at that point, eh? The British felt threatened (the British used to always feel threatened), and so it appears they decided to “protect their interests” by launching the First Anglo-Burmese War. They defeated the Burmese and thus Assam, Manipur, Rakhine and Taninthary were all acquired by the Brits. Wait a minute. Were they part of British India to begin with? Noooooo….they were part of Burma/Myanma! I guess that settles that question – the Brits weren’t “protecting their interests”, they were acquiring more! Well, of course, all of this was so that the poor people of Burma/Myanma could be civilised and know what to do with their tea…

It was during this period that European conquests in Southeast Asia began to grow. The Brits continued and took the remaining coastal provinces of Ayeyarwady, Yangon and Bago during a three-month period known as the Second Anglo-Burmese War. Pressure was then put on Konbaung Dynasty king Mindon to move inward, where he founded Mandalay and was able to parlay through the interests of both the British and French coming in from the other side. He gave up the Kayah states in 1875 in the process.

The next king was relatively ineffective.

In 1885 the British launched their month-long third Anglo-Burmese War and took Upper Burma and the capital of Mandalay. This came rapidly after reports reached them that the French took Laos in their own struggle for European supremacy in the world.

The Burmese royal family of the Konbaung Dynasty was exiled to Ratnagiri, India, and the British then spent until 1896 putting down insurrections and pacifying the country (Are you kidding? These people still did not know how to make proper tea!) At this time the British united Upper and Lower Burma and made them a single province within British India despite the fact Burma had had a completely independent history and separate traditions.

Let’s put this in perspective up to this point. No, we are not looking at acquisition similarities between the British Empire and the current American attempts to create an empire in the Middle East under the guise of protecting “the people’s” interests. What we’re looking at is what has been happening so far in Burma/Myanma and how this fits into the rest of the history. When outsiders came in – Portugese, French, British – the culture of the area took direct hits.   Note that in Part Three when 200 years of conflict was going on, the culture continued to grow and prosper outwith European “influence”.  At least in some ways in the fighting and gaining and regaining control of the area known as Burma/Myanma amongst their own people and other Asians, the cultures were known and understood. Religion was not an issue, though ethnicity may have been. Still, a certain level of respect prevailed.

That respect was reduced to zilch with the egocentric cultural dominance of the Europeans. One of the worst was the British. They had no respect for the religions of other nations, perceived anyone NOT European were heathens, and were hellbent to “fix” the rest of the world.

And you thought Hitler had the corner on trying to make everyone the same…

(to be continued)

© 2007 Maggie Stewart-Grant and Silver City Press

What about Burma? Part Three

Posted in Burma/Myanmar with tags , , on 8 June 2008 by Maggie

This history will take you from 950 BC to the early 16th Century and hopefully give some insight as to the progression of dynastic/empirical rule before the English – oh excuse me, the BRITISH – got involved. This part of the series and the next part are likely to be longer than the two previous. Anyone who has to go to the bathroom, please go now. Be back in five. Minutes. That’s five minutes.

It is generally thought that the Mon people were the first to settle in what is now the southern part of Burma/Myanma. They were also one of the first in Southeast Asia to accept Theravada Buddhism as their religion. Thus started the very long history of Buddhism in Burma/Myanma, becoming a strong contributor to the way the Burmese viewed life. In the 1st Century BC the Pyu entered the area, settling along the lower Ayeyarwady valley. The Mons and the Pyu seem to have lived together without conflict (would that we could all do that, you know). It could be because their views of life were similar. The Pyu were a Tibeto-Burman speaking people. The two communities together were responsible for maintaining a very active overland trade route between India and China. If you look at a map of the region, you can understand how that could be. (Remember Marco Polo centuries later followed this route to bring silks, teas, etc. to the rest of Europe.)

As is the case in all lands where things are going along nicely, someone has to come along and spoil it with violence and – shall we say – a differing point of view. That would come for the Pyu with the invasions from the kingdom of Nanzhao located in Yunnan, currently part of China. To say they were barbaric would be a bit of an understatement. They were the quintessential “my way or the highway” kind of people. Why the Pyu, you ask? Because the Pyu were in the very fertile Ayeyarwady Valley. It was sort of like a Garden of Eden. The Nanzhao pretty much finished off the Pyu in 835 (CE) by forcing them into service in their military and taking them back to Yunnan. It seems to me other countries have been doing this lately, primarily in Africa.

Hot on the heels of this invasion process the Tibeto-Burman speaking Bamar eased their way into the Pyu region. They started to find their way in just about the same time as the Pyu were finding their way out, mid-to-late 9th Century CE. Coincidentally, they also came from the Nanzhao kingdom in Yunnan. They filled in the power gap left by the Pyu. Don’t look surprised. After all, they spoke the same language, and I’m sure they figured they had lived under Nanzhao rule long enough. The Nanzhao wanted fresh meat? Fine, they took the Pyu. The not-so-fresh meat swung down into Burma/Myanma. What’s interesting about this group is that they took the name of the region they inhabited – the Bagan region. The Bagans did not really expand their influence until Anawrahta became king sometime in the 11th Century CE. The expansion under Anawrahta included the capture of the Mons capital of Thaton in 1057, at which time the Bagans adopted Theravada Buddhism. It wasn’t much after that while the next king, Kyanzittha, ruled, that they then created the Burmese script, based on the Mon script. This occurred still during the 11th Century.

Do you see, then, what happened just at the end of the Dark Ages in Europe? Pagans lost in Europe, but in Southeast Asia, Bagans ruled. And while they ruled from the late 9th Century to the middle of the 13th Century, their trade routes continued to prosper and they built stunning temples and pagodas, some still in existence today. There are many in the Christian world who forget that the world did not revolve around the Dark/Middle Ages as it was occurring in Europe. Not every civilisation came to a screeching halt. The Middle East/Muslim world flourished, as did many, many areas of Southeast and Eastern Asia. Art, science, mathematics, and philosophy rocked while a dark, heavy curtain surrounded and oppressed European culture. I’d almost call it an Iron Curtain, but that was used later in history, so I can’t really use it here. (Possible trademark infringement.) Do you know where algebra came from? The Arabs during the “Dark Ages”. Ever heard of Omarh Khyyam? One of the best mathematicians that came out of that era. An Arab.

But I digress.

So far so good for Burma/Myanma until Kublai Khan got wind of the riches involved. In the late 13th Century hordes of Mongols invaded the Bagan empire until it was completely sacked in 1287. Still, you know how the Mongols are with their furs and heavy clothing. They couldn’t take the heat. Coming with the Mongols, though, were the Tai-Shan, who came from….three guesses and the first two don’t count…Yunnan. Imagine that! These people spread quickly through the Ayeyarwady Valley, and out into Laos, Siam (Thailand) and Assam. In the end they would become a powerful entity in the future development of Southeast Asia.

Needless to say, the Mongols permanently destroyed Bagan. The empire broke up into smaller kingdoms. Predominant were Ava – controlling much of Upper Burma, Bago – controlling most of Lower Burma, Mrauk U in the west, and several Shan states in the Shan hills in the east and the Kachin hills in the north. Wars were constant between Ava and Bago, and also somewhat between Ava and the Shans. Although Ava took control of Mrauk U for awhile, it didn’t last. They came close to defeating Bago on a few occasions, but in the end couldn’t quite bring the Bagan empire back together.

Amazingly through all the wars and conflicts during the two centuries in which all of this was happening, Burma/Myanma went through a golden age. That’s almost literal, really, when you consider the Shwedagon Pagoda raised by Queen Shin Saw Bu in Bago. It is still standing today, in spite of everything that has transpired since – two World Wars, English – British – occupation, the military junta…everything. Really, you would think that Bago could really have taken over. They were prospering, building, advancing.

In the end, it was the organised communities of the Shans coming out of the hills that destroyed the kingdoms as they were. They surprised and sacked a very strong Ava in 1527. By sacking Ava, they took out the very sensitive balance of power.

It caused a domino effect. The “little man” ruled. Or so they thought.

(to be continued)

© 2007 Maggie Stewart-Grant and Silver City Press

What about Burma? Part Two

Posted in Burma/Myanmar with tags , , on 8 June 2008 by Maggie

There are a few things to know about Burma, including how they got in the situation in which they find themselves.

First, though, let me correct a misconception about their name.

A big announcement came in 1989 that the name would be changed to the Union of Myanmar, rather than the Union of Burma. Potayto, potahto, as I have said before. In the Burmese language, the name Myanma is the short form of Mranma Prañ, and has been used since the 13th Century when the Bagan kingdom was broken up into smaller kingdoms by the Mongols. While it is true the military junta officially announced there was a “change”, there was none. Behind their hands they are snickering at the English-speaking world for making such a big deal out of this. Burma is simply the oral, colloquial version of the name. The literary, written version is Myanma. Again, potayto/potahto. So call it Myanma. Call it Burma. It comes out the same. The land mass with either English interpretation of the name of the country is still under domestic siege.

Burma/Myanma is the largest country in Southeast Asia. It’s longest land borders are with Tibet and Yunnan of China, amounting to 1,358 miles. The Hengduan Shan mountains form that border with China. Its coastline covers 1,199 miles, bordering the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. If you ever thought it rained alot in India, think about Burma/Mayanma. They get 5,000 mm annually along the coastline. In the Dry Zone, which is in central Burma/Myanma, there is less than 1,000 mm. So as you can see, rainfall can vary. That is because the three river systems that run through Burma/Myanma is split through mountainous regions. As with the U.S. where there are desert regions and quite wet regions, the mountains seem to make the call. North in Burma, the average temperatures are about 70ºF. Along the coast and in the delta, the temperatures average 90ºF.

This of course means their agriculture, industry, and services are quite varied in a space about the size of – maybe a little larger than – Texas. Forests, tropical growth and teak, cover almost 50% of the country. Because their economy has grown so slowly, their ecosystem is well preserved. Their animal population runs the gamut frm tigers and leopards to rhinoceros, wild boar, deer antelope, elephants, and wild buffalos (you know – the ones with the crazy horns). They also have gibbons, monkeys, flying foxes, tapirs, crocodiles, geckos, cobras, pythons, turtles, pheasants, crows, herons, parrots, peafowl…I could go on, but you get the idea. Their wildlife is more likely to be related to the jungle than anything else.

Yes, if you can imagine paradise, this could quite possibly be it.

Except for the government, and our action and reaction to it.

The economy is 70% agriculture. They cannot export much, thanks to the US and UK, but they can export some to nations with whom we would rather they did NOT trade. Imagine trying to survive importing and exporting goods and knowing that your best friends are not exactly the world’s best friends.

But they’re the only ones who will play in your playground.

And that is the fault of your government.

And the governments of other nations.

But I digress. We’re not ready to talk about the economy yet, or politics. Just know this. The food sources, the goods to export, the capability to grow rice after having been the 8th largest rice supplier to the world are all there. Couple that with the potential (upcoming blog) to grow the new green super rice and feed starving nations and you have the future – if it weren’t for countries like the UK, the US, your own Burma/Myanma….

The troubles started early, though. As with all growing nations, pulling together, splitting apart, and pulling together again were the norm. I haven’t touched this yet, have I?

It all started around 950 B.C….

(to be continued)

© 2007 Maggie Stewart-Grant and Silver City Press