Archive for world history

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


What about Burma?

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

**Written shortly after the monks took to the streets 18 September of 2007 for the people in protest of a 500% hike in fuel costs instituted by the military junta, the finished eight parts of an unfinished fourteen began with this article. These first eight parts deal with the history of Burma up to the 20th Century. I believe it is time now to continue to write the rest, including the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and the recent re-arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi.


I am not surprised that people in the U.S. are suddenly concerned about Burma. It is just now making the news in a serious way for most people when the issues the Burmese have currently been facing have been going on since 1962. That’s 45 years. Suddenly GW and Laura BUsh raise concerns about the plight of the monks – and oh, yeah, the Burmese people, too, come to think of it. Why? Because they’re playing the religion card at a time when it is becoming clearer and clearer that this U.S. administration’s warmongering in the Middle East completely disregards religious tolerance and intolerance.

Let’s talk about Burma. Let’s really talk about Burma.

I’ve been writing away from here about Burma/Mayanmar since 1992. Before that, I was aware when they won the right to open parliament and to seat the prominent and popular National League for Democracy (NLD) in 392 of its 489 seats. I was also aware that the governing military junta quashed the reopening of parliament and has been spearheading the retention of military control, most recently by cutting off mobile and Internet access, threatening journalists, and promoting heavy-handed security that is resulting in increased deaths and “injuries”.

We no longer have an Ambassador there. This is our slap on the wrist of the ruling military junta. We have brought sanctions. This is our slap in the face of the people who live there and can barely eke out enough to survive.

It amazes me. It truly amazes me how the scale of uprisings and demonstrations now catches the eye of the media, and brings out the people all over the world – not then – but now.

We are all – as a world community – late to the party. The few of us that have supported the need for change for more than 40 years, and have supported the NLD for the past 20 years are but a drop in the bucket. While we are glad the issue has been brought to the fore, we are fully aware that Burma’s plight remains simply a trendy issue to the bulk of the American people in particular. It’s the hotspot for now, but in a few days (I am already seeing the attenion fade) people will run like bulsheep to the next hot spot and circulate petitions and fluff their feathers and show their angst for a few days there. They won’t come back to Burma. They won’t support, as I do, their parallel government in exile. They won’t give a hot damn one way or the other.

Burma? What about Burma?

I’ll tell you. It all started in about 950 B.C….