Myanmar (Burma)



In February of 2021 the democratically elected government of Myanmar, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, was toppled in a military coup that was widely condemned by the international community. Since achieving its independence in 1948, Myanmar’s post-colonial history has often been characterized by military rule and human rights abuses, including reports of the Buddhist majority government targeting the Rohingya, a Muslim minority population. Join Active Minds as we explore the current situation as well as the history of this important Southeast Asian country, formerly known as Burma. 

Key Lecture Points

  • The Began Dynasty (1044-1297) is considered the Golden Age of Burmese history.  The Bagan kings introduced Buddhism to the region and built thousands of pagodas and monasteries along the Irrawaddy River.  The Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885) was the final royal Burman dynasty.  It was a time of constant warfare against ethnic minorities as well as invasions from China and wars with Great Britain.
  • Today’s nation of Myanmar is the legacy of cultures that established themselves along the banks of the Irrawaddy River and its highland tributaries in SE Asia.  Although dominated by the ethnic Burman population, the area also saw the rise of rival ethnicities, such as the Rakhine and Kachin.
  • After three wars over a period of 62 years, the area was annexed in 1886 as Burma, a province of British India, later becoming a separate crown colony in 1937.  During British rule, ethnic populations were resettled and set against each other, sowing the seeds of present-day conflict.  Since independence, Burma gained independence in 1948, the nation has been beset by ethnic and religious strife.
  • Burma was ruled by the military from 1962 to 2011 (officially renamed Myanmar in 1989).  Under the military regime the country was isolated, diplomatically and economically, because of its harsh treatment of its ethnic minorities and its crushing of its political opposition.  In 1988 the US, European Union, and others imposed economic sanctions on the government in the aftermath of a brutal crackdown.
  • In 2012, the pro-democracy National League for Democracy, led by the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Ong San Soo Chee), won elections leading the US and the EU to lift all economic sanctions against Myanmar.
  • Hopes were high for the Suu Kyi government when it came to power in 2016 but have since dimmed. The ongoing civil war with ethnic minorities, the brutal repression of the Rohingya minority plus the military’s continued grip on power raise questions that the country will continue its democratic evolution.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won elections held in November 2021, retaining its control on Myanmar’s government. Before the newly elected government could be sat, the military, led by Min Aung Hlaing, declared the elections illegitimate and overthrew the government. Protesters took to the streets thereafter and the military government cracked down upon the protests.  As of April 2021, over 700 have been killed by security forces in Myanmar.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the geo-political and economic factors that have made Burma/Myanmar and China long-term allies, and how will the recent coup influence this relationship?
  • What are your opinions of Aung San Suu Kyi? Is she a human rights champion, a shrewd politician willing to compromise, or a genocide-enabling hypocrite?
  • How do you think the coup will conclude?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think Burma/Myanmar will continue on a path to democracy?  Why or why not?
  • What similarities does the current coup have to other political events around the world?
  • Have you ever been to Burma/Myanmar?  What were your impressions? How does it compare to other Southeast Asian countries?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Popham, Peter. The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi. Experiment, 2012. 464 pages. Biography of Aung San Suu Kyi.
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  • Farzana, Kazi Fahmida.  Memories of Burmese Rohingya Refugees: Contested Identity and Belonging.  Palgrave MacMillan, 2017.  262 pages.  This book explores the Rohingya identity within the context of the Myanmar state building process.  It discusses the marginalization, statelessness, forced migration, exile life and resistance of this ethnic minority.
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  • Larkin, Emma. No Bad News for the King: the True Story of Cyclone Nargis and Its Aftermath in Burma (paperback). Penguin (Non-Classics), 2011. 288 pages. This book tells the tragic story of what happened after Cyclone Nargis hit Yangon and the Iraawaady Delta.
    Click here to order