What Should I Know About Burma?

Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan
In 1962, Burma was declared a socialist state by military leaders.
In 1962, Burma was declared a socialist state by military leaders.

Myanmar is a large country in Southeast Asia. It covers 261,200 square miles (676,600 sq. km), making it a bit smaller than the state of Texas. It shares borders with Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, and Thailand, and has coastline on both the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.

The country is officially known as the Republic of Myanmar, a name that has been in use for more than 700 years, but was only made officially in 1989 by decree of the military junta ruling the country. As a result, the name itself is a somewhat politicized issue. Many groups which do not wish to endorse the junta have chosen to continue to refer to the country by its previous name, Burma. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia also continue to refer to the country as Burma. The United Nations, however, refers to the country as Myanmar.

Early humans first settled Burma some 11,000 years ago, but left no real records of any civilizations they may have had. The Pyu people arrived sometime around the 1st century BCE and established a number of cities, but never formed a true kingdom. The Mon may also have arrived in Burma early on, perhaps as early as 1500 BCE, though some sources suggest their arrival was in fact much later. By the 6th century, however, the Mon had formed a sizable kingdom in Burma, continuing through the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries as well.

Further north a new ethnic group, the Bamar, had moved into the area that is now northern Myanmar, and formed a kingdom by the middle of the 9th century. By the mid-11th century their Pagan Kingdom had become powerful enough that it was able to conquer the main Mon outposts and consolidate the country. The Pagan Kingdom became the second large power in the region over the next two centuries, and along with the Khmer Empire they controlled virtually all of Southeast Asia. The Pagan Kingdom eventually fell to the Mongols in the late 13th century.

A separated Burma reformed over the next few centuries, with various dynasties controlling differing amounts of land. Eventually Burma was reunited in the beginning of the 17th century, repelling the newly-arrived Portuguese who were trying to conquer the kingdom.

Burma then moved into its strongest, and most expansionist, phase yet, throughout the second half of the 18th century. During the Konbaung Dynasty the kingdom expanded its lands far and wide, successfully repelling the Chinese and conquering all who stood in their way. This eventually led to Burma capturing the Indian state of Assam, in the process posing a direct threat and annoyance to the British Empire.

The British response was swift, and in a joint effort with Siam, the British began driving Burmese forces back. By the mid-19th century Britain had conquered part of Burma, and by the end of the century they had captured the entire kingdom and turned it into a British province. The British era was not good to the Burmese, resulting in loss of land, loss of freedoms, and a general discontent with being under foreign rule. By the beginning of the 20th century a widespread nationalism movement had begun, with the ultimate goal of kicking the British out.

During World War II nationalist factions with Socialist leanings within Burma supported the Japanese in return for a promised independence. Although this independence never came from the Japanese, within a few years the British allowed Burma its independence, which was formally declared in 1948. The next 14 years were tumultuous, with various political factions vying for power. In 1962 power was seized in a bloodless coup by a number of military leaders, who declared Burma a socialist state.

In 1974 a one-party Constitution was adopted, granting virtually all power to a People’s Assembly. Violence continued to sweep the nation, with protests and government crackdowns growing. In 1988 the situation reached a boiling point, and a revolution seemed imminent. In the midst of this, the military seized power, declared martial law, and disbanded the Constitution. In 1989 the new military junta officially declared the name of the country to Myanmar, and continued cracking down on all protest.

Whether or not one should travel to Burma is a very difficult question, even putting aside security concerns, which are very real. Many people point out that unlike many industries, which are owned and operated exclusively by the junta, tourism is something many locals have direct access to and profit from directly. It is also pointed out that a country which has an active tourist economy is less likely to have severe human rights abuses, as there are always international witnesses around.

Others point out that the leader of the opposition movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, has explicitly asked people to stop visiting the country, believing it to condone the junta and economically support them. There have also been widespread allegations that the government uses forced labor to operate many facets of the tourist industries, essentially making visitors culpable to slavery. Until the situation resolves itself, it is probably best either not to visit, or to visit neighboring countries such as Thailand or Laos and get a direct feel for the situation.

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Discussion Comments


Do you know, I was never really interested in Burma until I read that book "Eat, Pray Love" and read about the author's time there. The coolest part to me was how the Burmese saw their community and their use of ancient herbal methods and religion to heal illnesses.

Gilbert described that people on the road in Burma always ask each other where they are coming from and where they are going. Knowing this information, of where everyone and everything belongs at all time, gives the Burmese a sense of safety and belonging which is the core of their worldview. Burmese who leave Burma and travel to other countries have difficulty adapting to the lifestyle and culture of those countries because Burma is so unique in this way.

The other aspect of life in Burma that I learned from Gilbert were the "medicine men" and "medicine women" who have centuries old information about herbs, spices and natural methods and medications to heal different illnesses and ailments, passed on from their families. When someone suffers from a health problem, they visit a medicine man or woman. Medicine is not seen purely scientifically as we do in the West though. Medicine is understood also in the context of religion and superstition. You don't simply drink a special mixture for your headache, you also go and pray to the Gods for it to work.

I think Burma sounds like a fascinating place and I hope I can visit it sometime to experience the kinds of things that Gilbert talked about, for myself.


Is Burma a Buddhist country? It certainly has the world's most impressive and most magnificent temples and pagodas.

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    • In 1962, Burma was declared a socialist state by military leaders.
      In 1962, Burma was declared a socialist state by military leaders.