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The troubled history of modern-Myanmar
The military jeep carrying four soldiers ran through the guard post by the side of the road. The soldiers fired at the bodyguards and barged into the compound. They killed Bogyoke Aung San, a man who devoted his life to Burma's independence outside the British Commonwealth. Three months earlier, he was elected as a prime minister after Burma and Britain went their separate ways.
Burma may have taken its name from the Bamar people, who make up two-thirds of its population. However, it is one of the world's most diverse countries, with more than 135 ethnic groups who speak over 100 different languages. This diversity is the product of its geographic position, bordered by Bangladesh, India, Tibet, China, Laos, and Thailand. Long before these borders existed, the country attracted immigrants from various backgrounds who settled in its remote areas.
Burma was annexed into British-India in 1886 after the second Anglo-Burmese war. The British brought in Indians to fill civil-service jobs, fueling resentment among the locals. Protests of university students in the 1920s were the first signs of resistance against foreigners. More demonstrations followed, with Buddhist monks playing a prominent role and leading armed forces. The separatist groups arose with the Japanese invasion during World War II. The nationalists saw the war as an opportunity to gain concessions towards autonomy. Their leader, Bogyoke Aung San, drew his inspirations from Marxism. While planning to contact the Chinese communists, he was approached by the Japanese, offering military training and aid. Aung San and 29 other young men left for Hainan Island in China, then under Japanese control. There the group formed the Burma Independence Army (BIA).
The Japanese invaded Burma in 1942 to liberate them from the British. However, Aung San outmaneuvered by cooperating with the British to expel the Japanese in 1945. Political oppositions suggested prosecuting Aung San for his involvement with the Japanese imperialists. The British refused due to the public support the 32-year-old general enjoyed. In January 1947, Aung San negotiated Burma's independence from Britain and made a pact with the ethnic minorities regarding unified Bhutan. His party won 248 of 255 assembly seats in the interim government. On July 19 of 1947, he was sitting down with several ministers to draft the country's constitution when the assassins arrived to kill all of them.
His colleague, U Nu, then took over the reins after his death and announced the Burmese independence the following year. The country didn't join the British Commonwealth, like other colonies that gained independence. The 12-year rule of U Nu, a devout Buddhist, was characterized by political instability. Nu's religious policy excluded ethnic minorities, causing uprisings. With civil war raging in various parts of the country, General Ne Win seized power in 1962. His military regime isolated Burma for 26 years from the outside world, impoverishing the country.
In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi, the assassinated leader's daughter, landed in Rangoon, Burma's former capital. She had two sons with her English husband, whom she met while studying in Oxford. Aung San returned to Burma to look after her dying mother. Seeing the protests against the military dictatorship, she couldn't resist joining. As a daughter of modern Burma's forefather, she quickly became the rebels' spokesperson and leader of the opposing party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). General Ne Win stepped down due to a public uproar, leaving his subordinates in charge. The military regime placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest when she refused to leave the country. They also changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar and the capital's name from Rangoon to Yangon. The name change was meant to erase the memories of the British colonial era.
The house arrest earned Aung San Suu Kyi global support. The international pressure eventually forced the military junta to call a general election in 1990. However, when Aung San Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory, the military refused to step down. Furthermore, they left her under house arrest and even increased the security around her home. Western countries responded by imposing military and economic sanctions on Burma. Aung San won a Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
In 1992, the military placed General Than Shwe at the top, who immediately convened a National Convention to draft a new constitution that would prepare the country for democracy. The general released Aung San Suu Kyi after six years of house arrest. However, he soon faced minorities' uprising along the border. The Kayan tribes, known for their "longnecked" women, demanded autonomy, followed by Shan, Rohingya, Kachin, and Wa people. Due to instability, the general placed Aung San under house arrest again in 2000. He announced his roadmap to democracy to counter backlash, which provided a seven-step process, but no time frames. The situation further deteriorated with the Buddhist nuns initiating a demonstration in 2007 and the cyclone Nargis hitting the country in 2008.
The years of upheaval crashed the economy in 2011. The military freed Aung San Suu Kyi and discussed with her the country's future. Consequently, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, visited Myanmar. It was followed by a visit of Barack Obama a year later, marking the first-ever visit of a U.S. president. In 2015, the country held its first general election since 1990. Aung San's party, the NLD, won a landslide victory again. The military retained a quarter of the parliament seats and insisted that at least 85% of parliament vote is needed to amend the constitution. They also took senior government positions, including the first vice president, ministers of internal affairs and defense, and maintained their full-control over border areas. The constitution, specially rendered for this day, prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president because her two sons are British citizens. Thus, Htin Kyaw became the first elected president to hold the office with no military ties since the 1962 coup d'état. Aung San appointed herself as State Counsellor, an equivalent of prime minister. The day after the election, she said in an interview, "I'll be above the president, who will be told exactly what to do."
Aung San Suu Kyi has been leading her country in a joint administration with the military since the election. While the Burmese were still considering her a national hero, the West started to question her administration. The guerrilla warfare continued with over 20 rebel militia groups among the minority. Meanwhile, Aung San only spoke for the Bamar people, who make up nearly 68% of the population. She remained silent when the army cracked down on minorities who strived to earn autonomy. The most internationally known incident is the Rohingya crisis. There have been reports of military raping, looting, and burning down Rohingya villages. The West wondered how Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, can stand behind such inhumane attacks. In 2018, president Htin Kyaw resigned due to health issues. Myint Swe, a military junta member, took office but was replaced by Win Myint a week later.
On the Rohingya genocide, Aung San Suu Kyi dismissed the allegations and argued that the foreigners couldn't understand the complexity of the relationship between the Rohingya and the Burmese people. In interviews, she refrained from calling the victims Rohingya and referred to them as "the Muslim population from the state of Arakan." Later, she declared that she was a politician, not a human rights activist. Some suggested that she remained aloof about the Rohingya crisis to maintain the collaboration between her party and the military. Others said that she should be stripped off from her Nobel prize.
The Rohingya people are an ethnic minority living mainly in the northern region of Myanmar's Rakhine State. The Myanmar government rebuffed their citizenship in 1982 and labeled them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The "cleansing" operation against Rohingya started in late 2016 after the Muslim militant forces attacked more than 30 police stations and army bases. The insurgents looted guns, bullets, bayonets, and bullet cartridges. It convinced the government that the Rohingya activists were planning to launch more assaults, giving the army an excuse to strike. The clash between the opposing sides quickly got out of control. Harvard University estimated that 24,000 Rohingyas had been killed and 18,000 Rohingya women had been raped. The chaos caused nearly a million Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh.
In November 2020, Myanmar held general elections. Once again, Aung San Suu Kyi's party won a landslide victory – taking 80% of all available seats (the military takes a quarter of seats without an election). The pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party suffered a humiliating loss. Subsequently, another military coup hit Burma on February 1 of 2021. It took people by surprise as the army wasn't losing any of its power after the election. Some think it is due to the humiliating loss, while others say it is to crush the opposition once and for all. Either way, the first parliament session was supposed to convene on the day that the coup took place to validate the election results. However, the military took over the parliament and again installed Myint Swe as the first vice minister. Min Aung Hlaing became the Chairman of the State Administration Council of Myanmar, making him the country's de facto leader. Aung San Suu Kyi currently remains in custody with the other senior member of her party.
Unlike the last time, it will be difficult for Aung San and her allies to gain international sympathy. Some people may say that she left her bed, so she shall now lie in it. However, the Burmese fear that they are left alone to face to horrors of military rule as long as their lady who led the freedom movement and has experience in rallying foreign support remains in custody. The situation in Myanmar is still tense. Fifty-five million Burmese citizens are waiting anxiously to see how things will turn out.
MYANMAR DELIGHTS | MYANMAR PRIVATE TOUR
Myanmar, often referred to by its old name, Burma, is a cluster of unique ethnicities nestled amid stunning landscapes. After being locked under international sanctions for over a decade, the country is now slowly opening up for travelers from the West, offering an insight into its complex social structure, ancient traditions, and unique natural beauty.View tour