Myanmar (Burma)



Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar is the second largest country in Southeast Asia. Colonized by Britain in the 19th century, the country achieved its independence in 1948 and has been involved in internal sectarian conflict ever since. The country's modern history has been a mixture of military rule and human rights abuses. Recent events, suggesting an emergence of democracy, have been marred by reports of the Buddhist majority government targeting the Rohingya, a Muslim minority population. Join Active Minds as we explore the country's history and importance in the world today. 

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.
  • In 1886 Burma was colonized by Britain and annexed as a province of British India.  It became a separate crown colony in 1937.  Burma gained independence in 1948 and since independence to the present, Burma/Myanmar has been beset by ethnic strife and civil war.
  • Burma/Myanmar was ruled by the military from 1962 to 2011.  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 because of its human rights violations.
  • The military government changed the name of this country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989.  Some Burmese pro-democracy activists continue to use the name Burma as a sign of protest saying the military had no authority to change the country’s name. The governments of the US, UK and Canada have likewise continued to use the colonial name Burma.
  • Burma/Myanmar is geographically positioned between China and India.  As economic competition increases between these two growing powers, Burma/Myanmar takes on strategic interest.  Also Burma/Myanmar is located along the Malacca Straits, a vital link between the Middle East and East Asia.  Current Chinese port and pipeline projects will provide an alternative route for shipping Burmese oil and gas directly to southwestern China.
  • The first general election in 20 years was held in November 2010.  A new, nominally civilian government was seated in 2011, led by President Thein Sein, a retired General. Parliamentary elections were held in April 2012.  The pro-democracy National League for Democracy, led by the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi (pronounced Ong San Soo Chee), won 43 of the 45 seats up for election.  The elections provided evidence of the commitment to reform by the new government.  In May, 2012, the US lifted all economic sanctions against Burma/Myanmar, crediting the reforms since 2011, and following the lead of the European Union and others that had already lifted              their sanctions a month earlier.
  • In 2015 in a free and fair election, the NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won parliamentary elections in a landslide.  Suu Kyi was barred from serving as president because her two children are foreign nationals.  Instead, she leads the government in her role as State Counselor.
  • 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 silence on the plight of the Rohingya has tarnished her international reputation as a defender of human rights.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the geo-political and economic factors that have made Burma/Myanmar and China long-term allies?
  • Describe Aung San Suu Kyi’s role in the pro-democracy movement.  How did she come to this role? How has her role changed now that she is in the government?
  • What are the obstacles Burma/Myanmar needs to address before it can reach its economic potential?
  • What factors created the current Rohingya refugee crisis?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you think Burma/Myanmar will continue on a path to democracy?  Why or why not?
  • Do you think the Rohingya refugees will return to Myanmar/Burma?   Why? Why not?
  • 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.
    Click here to order
  • 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