10: Myanmar’s Illustrious History



Myanmar: “First I’d prefer to be called Myanmar. It was the imperialist British that called us Burma. They named our country after the Burmese, which comprise a majority, but not all, of our population. In fact we have always been a country of diverse cultures and languages. For the last millennia, my country has had four distinct language groups with their own distinct geographic regions battling for dominance or at least to maintain local autonomy.

Before relating the history of my people, let me tell you a little about my geography. It has had a huge effect on my development, just like everywhere else. I am Southeast Asia’s western most political entity. India is to my west and Thailand is to my east. But I am also bordered by Tibet in the northwest and southern China in the northeast. With all these major powers as my neighbors, you might wonder why I was never absorbed by one of their many empires. How did I maintain my autonomy, you might ask? It was simple. I am surrounded on 3 sides by huge mountain ranges and on the fourth side by water. Two arms of the enormous Himalayas in the north embrace my landmass until it reaches the Andaman Sea in the south. The nature of my geography has isolated my people from the rest of the world.

There are many rivers draining into my southern delta area from the mountains to the north. However, the most important one by far is the Irrawaddy River. It is navigable 870 miles upstream. Many of my great cities have been built along the banks of this enormous river. It has effectively divided my country in two. The upper plateau has been devoted to agriculture, primarily rice growing, while the southern delta has been primarily been utilized for trade. Our many rivers empty into the Andaman Sea, which is adjacent to the Bay of Bengal where Sri Lanka and India are located.

As with the rest of the important cultures of Southeast Asia, much of my prosperity came from being the middleman between the behemoth cultures of India and China. In the 1st millennium CE, my territory was used as an overland route between India and China. Also in these earlier days, merchant ships from the West used my ports as stepping-stones to the treasures of the East. I have been the western gateway to the wealth of Southeast Asia and China for a long time.

Initial Residents: Mon, Pyu, Shan & Hill Tribes

Most scholars believe that Austroasiatic speakers were probably the original inhabitants of the Southeast Asian mainland. Due to mountainous barriers and large rivers, this language family split into 3 major groupings. The Vietnamese lived in the east, the Khmer in the middle, and the Mon in the west.  It was the Mon who probably set up trading centers on my coast. Heavily influenced by Indian traditions, they were also the first converts to Buddhism.

Even before the Common Era, the Pyu, speaking a language in the Tibeto-Burman family, migrated south from Tibet. A rice-growing culture like the rest, they thrived on the northern plains. Indeed for almost one thousand years, the Pyu ruled a mini-empire of sorts. Influenced by the Mon, they were a literate Buddhist culture that created vaulted temples. They even borrowed the Mon script for their literature. For most of the 1st millennium, the Pyu ruled the agricultural plains in the north, while the Mon inhabited and governed the coastal ports in the south.

Just north of Southeast Asia, Tai speakers formed the kingdom of Nan Chao in what is now southern China. Nan Chao became a dominant political force in the 8th century. Nan Chao expanded both eastward into northern Vietnam and southwest into Burma. The Tai speakers captured the Pyu capital in 832, effectively bringing their mini-empire to an end.

This political expansion of the Nan Chao kingdom also spread Tai speakers into these diverse parts of the world. They eventually became known as the Shan in Myanmar, the Thai in Thailand and the Lao in Laos. Those who remained in southern China were called the Lu Yünnan and Yünnan Tai, after their province. Many Tai speakers also continue to live in North Vietnam, speaking tribal Tai. At present there are 75 million Tai speakers world wide: 45 million in modern Thailand, 3 million in Laos, 4 million in Myanmar, 3 million in Vietnam and 21 million in China.

The Tai cultural identity has remained strong in Burma, Thailand, and Laos. As a group, Tai speakers are rice-growing farmers, who practice Buddhism and live in semi autonomous villages. These are governed by communal leadership, which consists of an elected headman, Buddhist monks and elders. Collections of villages were ruled by chiefdoms, who in turn were ruled by princes with semi-divine attributes. Nan Chao emerged as a regional empire when princes with small kingdoms joined together as one.

Buddhism is very important to Tai speakers. Buddhist temples, i.e. wats, are the center of the community. All young men must enter a monastery for a brief time when they come of age. In addition to Buddhism, the Tai also believe in ancestral and environmental spirits. They differ from the Hindu societies in that they have no caste system and the status of women is relatively high. Although they have no caste system, their society is roughly broken down into peasants, artisans, merchants, government officials, and omnipresent Buddhist monks. The Tai have retained this social structure even unto modern times.

Already in the 1st millennium, 3 distinct ethno-linguistic groups inhabited my land: the Mon in the south, the Pyu in the northwest, and the Shan in the northeast. There were also an uncountable number of Hill Tribes who lived in the foothills of the Himalayas, each with their mutually unintelligible languages and unique traditions. Assimilation was difficult then and now, as each of the 4 groupings spoke languages that were as different as English and Chinese.

The Burmese entry

Myanmar: “During the 6th century, as the Tai speakers were forming small kingdoms in Nan Chao, the Burmese moved from Tibet into the northwest of my land. They eventually became so dominant that the English named me Burma, much to the irritation of the Tai speaking Shan of the northeast and the Mon of the south - not to mention the myriad Hill Tribes that had lived in my high mountain borders since time immemorial. This is why I prefer to be called Myanmar. Because this name is neutral, it is less offensive to my many cultures - more PC.

The Burmese settled in the fertile Irrawaddy River valley. For protection they built a fortified capitol. The city was strategically located between the Irrawaddy and Sittang Rivers. This convenient location also allowed the Burmese to control the flow of commerce between India and China. Their middleman status on this overland route was a basis of the prosperity and resultant power of the Burmese. The other foundation of their political power was the cultivation of rice. The Burmese built many irrigation canals in the river valleys that enhanced this form of agriculture. The name of their capitol was Pagan.

After the Tai kingdom of Nan Chao defeated the Pyu, the Burmese moved into the political vacuum previously filled by their linguistic cousins to the east. The Burmese learned to defend themselves due to regular battling with the Tai kingdom of Nan Chao. While the Tai wave had reached the limit of its growth and was now consolidating, the powerful Nan Chao kingdom provided an important function for the growing Burmese culture. It acted as a military buffer between the Burmese and the Chinese. This allowed the Burmese to expand into the south.

With their superior military powers, refined by fighting the Tai speakers of Nan Chao, the Burmese were able to easily conquer the Mon. They had already created an alliance with the Shan in the east through marriage. In this way, the Burmese were the first to unite our culturally diverse geographic territory. This unified territory basically consists of the Irrawaddy River Valley surrounded by high mountains.”

The Golden Age of Pagan

Because of the linguistic, hence cultural differences, of my people, they tend to regularly fragment and then unite. This is a cyclic process that has continued through to the present day. My birth year as a unified political territory is considered to be 1044 CE. In this year, our great king Anawrahta established his capital at Pagan. He continued the unification process that had already begun. He finally conquered Thaten, the Mon trading capitol, in 1057. The addition of this coastal trading center provided our kingdom with increased prosperity - allowing us to become really great.

The Burmese conquest of the Mon capitol at Thaten solidified the economy and culture of their kingdom centered at Pagan. The Burmese were an agrarian based culture, while the power of the Mon came from their many trading ports. This combination of trade and agriculture was unbeatable. The Mon of Thaten supplied their ports for international commerce. These ports connected my landlocked Burmese with the rest of the planet– providing them with a more cosmopolitan perspective.

The Burmese in the north were more martial and less cultured than the Mon in the south. The Burmese king Anawrahta recognized this. Instead of exterminating, enslaving, or vilifying the Mon, the king decided to learn from them. As such, he moved them north to his capitol at Pagan.

The Mon had long been champions of Theravada Buddhism. They spread these teachings to the surrounding cultures. This included the Burmese, as well as the Shan and the Khmer. The Mon religious scholars also taught Pali and Buddhist scripture to the Burmese. The Burmese had never really accepted Hinduism - as they were not king oriented like the rest of the Indianized states. The Burmese king Anawrahta even issued a decree in 1056 that Theravada Buddhism was to be the religion of the country. Eventually the Burmese became Theravada scholars themselves, turning their capitol of Pagan into a spreading center for Theravada.

Anawrahta also transported Mon monks and craftsmen, including artists, architects, goldsmiths and wood carvers, from southern Burma to his capital of Pagan in Northern Burma to build brick and stucco temples in the Indian style. The Mon artists were so masterful that they worked on every great temple of the era. Their artists and style influenced the Buddhist art of the Khmer and Thai cultures. Their craftsmen also traveled to Java to help with the sculpture on their famous temples. Their artisans also taught the Burmese their crafts.

The Mon artists were instrumental in building the famous temples of Pagan. Pagan rates with Angkor and Borobudur as one of the most impressive religious sites in the world. Three to four thousand temples were constructed, of which hundreds still stand nearly a millennium later. For you feminists out there, women took part in all activities. Construction continued until the Mongol invasion of 1287 permanently halted work.

The splendor of Pagan is still considered my Golden Age. During this time period, principles of religion, government and society were established. My later cultures adopted these customs without question. My kingdom with its center in Pagan eventually became an equal to the surrounding kingdoms. It was a splendid time for my part of the planet. The many great kingdom/empires included the Khmer culture at Angkor to the east of us, the Tai of Nan Chao to the north of us, and the Srivijaya Empire in the islands to the south of us. Each of us reigned supreme - thriving in our respective areas. Then the dreaded Mongols upset our balance of power in the late 1200s.


The Mongol Disruption

The process of disintegration began when the Mongols conquered Nan Chao, our northern buffer, in 1253. This started a chain reaction that was to permanently change our political groupings. Due to the disruption the Tai speakers of southern China flooded south. They had already been migrating into the Khmer and Mon territories of Thailand and Cambodia, but this accelerated the process.

Although second to the Mongols, these Tai were great warriors. They were able to easily dominate the Khmer and Mon cultures. The migrations of these displaced Tai speakers initiated the beginning of the modern day countries of Thailand and Laos. To indicate their feeling of cultural superiority to the indigenous cultures that they supplanted, the Tai called them Kha, which meant slaves.

Bolstered by this influx of fellow Tai speakers, the Shan seriously undermined the kingdom of Pagan. Then the Mongols attacked our homeland in 1287. By 1300 there was nothing left of my former splendor, except my gorgeous architecture.

But to be honest our respective kingdoms of Pagan, Angkor, and Srivijaya had already begun to decline. Unfortunately, the legitimacy of our respective states was dependent on our constant construction projects. Inevitably and inexorably all of our marvelous temple building had drained our resources. By the late 13th century we had all become fragile. As long as there was nobody to challenge our power, everything went smoothly. However, as soon as the Mongols destabilized our region, we didn’t have the resources to defend ourselves. Plus we had been living in such a peaceful and prosperous age that our marital abilities had declined. While we were easily able to dominate the local tribes, we weren’t able to stand up to the Tai, and especially the Mongols. After all, the Mongol tribes were so powerful that they nearly dominated the entire Eurasian continent, including the mighty Chinese and Muslim Empires.

Our glory was great - seeming to last forever. But as is inevitable, the external world proves that it is transient by disintegrating rapidly. However our temples still stand as a testament to our greatness. Hopefully they continue to inspire peoples of every culture to integrate and manifest artistically, rather than militarily. But I’m not hopeful. The military urge seems to rise periodically to humble our peaceful artistic endeavors. Ah well. If we can just inspire a few humans to abandon the way of the warrior for the way of the artist to seek peace within creativity, then we have succeeded.

Post Pagan

After the fall of Pagan, my country fragmented into 3 centers, based in language, as always. The Tai speaking Shan dominated my east and northwest from the 13th to the 16th century. The Burmese moved their capitol south to Ava in 1364 and attempted to resurrect their glory days of Pagan. Although there was a great resurgence of Burmese literature, their impact was local, as they couldn’t control the coasts.

And the coasts were where the money was. The Chinese had become increasingly active in the Indian Ocean trade after the Mongol invasions. The Chinese continued this policy during the beginning of the following Ming dynasty. Due to the huge Chinese market, great fortunes were being made at all the Southeast Asian ports.

The ancient Mon culture inhabited my coast. They had reestablished themselves at Pegu on my southern delta. They had their own golden age of literature and commerce in 15th century. Their international port at Pegu became a major center for Theravada Buddhism.

Since the fall of Nan Chao, Tai speakers had been migrating south - moving down the Chao Phraya and Irrawaddy Rivers. The Thai established their trading capitol at Ayutthaya in 1351. Then in 1400, Malacca, the super star of ports, was founded on the Malay Peninsula. These three ports - Malacca, Pegu and Ayutthaya, were the primary ports of Southeast Asia’s mainland during this time period.

Then in the early 1400s, China had its infamous fire. The conflagration destroyed its capitol and killed the Emperor’s favorite concubine. The Emperor was convinced that this sign indicated that the gods were not happy with him. The Chinese decided that Heaven disapproved of their extensive ocean trade. They withdrew their fabulous wealth into their landmass and banned international travel by sea.

This had a huge impact on Southeast Asian trade. Previously there had been plenty to go around due to the huge Chinese market. But with the shrinking markets, the ports became rivals for international trade. Then the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1512. This increased the importance of Ayutthaya and Pegu. The international traders, especially the Arab Muslims, attempted to avoid the aggressive Europeans.

In the meantime, the Shan continued to move down the Irrawaddy River, sacking Ava, the Burmese capitol, in 1527. The refugees fled to the city of Toungoo on the northern Irrawaddy River and formed a new Burmese dynasty in 1531. The Toungoo dynasty eventually reunited my country again - reconquering my north from the Shan and the south from Mon in the late 16th century. In an attempt to unite my 3 cultures, the Burmese moved their capitol to the international port of Pegu .

There was a growing rivalry between my Burmese kingdom centered in Pegu and the Thai kingdom centered in Ayutthaya. However they had reached a military equilibrium. With the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese, the Burmese were introduced to the new improved European military technology based in guns. The Burmese decided to use these European weapons of destruction to take advantage of their Thai neighbors. Using Portuguese mercenaries and cannons, the Burmese marched on Ayutthaya and conquered the Chao Phraya river valley in 1564. I can’t believe what these humans will do to ruin the paradise that we have given them.

I, Myanmar, have such a bounty of natural resources - from my fertile plains in the north to the abundance of fish in my waters in the south. This natural abundance combined with the wealth from the international ports should have provided my people with everything they needed. But the human condition is such that they always want more. Consequently, they can’t restrain their urge to dominate and enslave their neighbors.

I would have thought that the Buddhists would have been elevated enough to resist the temptation of employing the military solution against fellow Buddhists. But I guess they are really just like the rest of the humans. They seize any opportunity to expand their worldly power. I guess  religions help them to restrain their natural warlike instincts - but I’m not sure. The evidence seems to indicate otherwise. Peace and war seem to alternate regularly despite the vast amount of wisdom available, which counsels the advantages of peaceful negotiation.

It’s almost as if humans get bored with peace and must disturb their heaven on earth. That damned Boredom Principle. It has inspired these creatures to such artistic heights and to equally deep holes of depravity.

I’m afraid this species is heading to an early extinction – if they continue on their present course. I hope not. I find them very interesting. They have provided me with thousands of years of amusement.

But they have started to destroy our beautiful vegetation and interesting wildlife in their quest for wealth and power. These external drives provide an emotional rush, initially. But they never produce any lasting satisfaction and must be constantly renewed. Woe be to our misguided humans with their Left Brain afflictions – regularly mistaking the idea of external pleasure for the experience of internal joy.

But the chickens always come home to roost - no matter which part of the vast world they come from. The militarism can never be sustained for long and leaves such lasting scars. Many times the victor is left half dead himself. Unfortunately these wars against Siam exhausted the Burmese resources, as wars do. Then due to internal dissension their kingdom broke apart once again and the Thai people regained their independence.

So typical of these humans. The Burmese gained a temporary advantage over their rivals, the Thai, but in the process weakened themselves so much that they lost their entire kingdom.

It didn’t keep them down too long. Within only a few generations the Burmese regrouped in Ava, their old capitol, forming a new dynasty. This government reunited my diverse cultures again under their leadership in 1613. Attempting to emulate Pagan, they embarked upon a temple building frenzy. These heavy religious expenditures weakened the Burmese political mandala.

Then the Mon still living in my southern regions, strengthened by the growing British and Dutch trade, revolted against the Burmese Ava dynasty in the north. It fell in 1752. This was the last time the Mon were to have independence. The entire delta was all under Mon rule for less than a decade. In 1758 the resilient Burmese overthrew the Mon and reunited my country. They established their new capitol in Upper Burma at Konbuang. This was the beginning the Burmese’s last real dynasty.

Attempting to exploit the instability of the new government, the Siamese incited a rebellion by their brothers, the Shan. Because of this alliance of Tai speakers - the Thai and the Shan, the Burmese leaders decided they couldn’t retain coastal ports with Siam in power. Accordingly, the Burmese sent armies into Siam in 1761. They captured Ayutthaya in 1767, thus ending the 400-year old Thai kingdom. The Thai people regrouped to throw the Burmese out, but moved their capitol to Tonburi, and then Bangkok, for defensive purposes. However the Burmese kingdom was still strong enough to appear threatening. To neutralize our growing power, China attempted to invade 4 times between 1766 -> 1769, but with no success.

Read on to see how the British exploited my people’s craving for political power.”


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