The Konbaungs, who dominated Burma from 1752 until the British invasion of 1885, were the country’s last independent rulers. Founded by the legendary Alaungpaya, the dynasty had humble beginnings but went on to create an empire stretching from the borders of India to the Gulf of Thailand, even conquering Siam in 1767. The courtly culture and, later, reforms promoted by the Konbaungs have left a lasting effect on Myanmar’s government, tradi- tional arts, and sense of national identity.
The Court of the Konbaungs
The court was where the king demonstrated his absolute power, embodied most dramatically in the gilded Sihasana, literally “Lion Throne,” before which other royals, the nobility, and courtiers would have prostrated them selves. The ultimate symbol of Burmese sovereignty, the Lion Throne once formed the focal point of the Great Audience Hall of Mandalay Palace .
Thibaw and Supayalat
King Thibaw (1859–1916) and his queen are seen as the Lord and Lady Macbeth of Southeast Asian history for their massacre of their royal relatives to consolidate their power.
Konbaung Art and Architecture
As well as being the kingdom’s political hub, the court was also a crucible for the tradi- tional arts, from dancedrama, music, and song to puppetry, poetry, and calligraphy. Burma’s finest architects and craftsmen created and embellished won drous teak buildings in Mandalay’s walled city, of which only a few fragments still survive.
In common with most Burmese rulers, the Konbaungs were an expansionist dynasty. While its founding father Alaungpaya pushed his kingdom’s borders to the limits of modern Myanmar, his successors extended them into India and Siam. Only with the arrival of the British were their territorial ambitions thwarted.
First and Second Anglo-Burmese Wars
Bagyidaw (1784–1846), Bodawpaya’s grandson, pursued an equally aggressive policy of expansion, targeting Manipur and Assam in India.
The British East India Company regarded these states as a buffer against Burmese invasion of their empire in the subcontinent and reacted by send- ing troops to support the Assamese and Manipuris. But it was only when the Burmese targeted the hill state of Cacher that direct conflict became inevitable.
Declared in 1824, the First AngloBurmese War lasted two years and was a catastrophe for both sides: 15,000 BritishIndian troops and many more Burmese perished. The bill, which ran to over £5 million (US$19 billion in modern money), nearly ruined the East India Company before its forces prevailed and the Treaty of Yandabo brought the bloodshed to a close. The treaty’s terms were punitive: huge swaths of Burmese territory were lost (including all of Arakan) and massive indemnities set, crippling the Konbaung economy for generations. Heavyhanded gunboat diplomacy was to blame for the Second AngloBurmese War of 1852, which erupted after the Burmese governor of Rangoon fined two British captains for customs violations. The ensuing conflict dragged on for a year and only ended when a coup in the Burmese capital, Amarapura, brought to power King Mindon (1808–78), by which time the whole of Lower Burma had been annexed by the British. A devout, scholarly Buddhist, Mindon is most remembered for the splendid monasteries and pagodas he founded in his new capital, Mandalay. He was also a determined modernizer, implementing a program of forward- looking reforms. The changes, however, were to prove powerless in the face of the cataclysmic events about to unfold.
Third Anglo-Burmese War
Mindon died in 1878 without naming a successor. After months of intrigue, the throne went to Thibaw (1859–1916), a prince chosen for his perceived pliability, and because he had fallen in love with Supayalat, the daughter of Mindon’s most senior and influential queen. However, the new king and queen proved far from biddable. Shortly after their coronation, to eliminate any potential threat to their rule, the couple oversaw the killing of scores of young royals in a massacre that outraged world opinion. The British called for regime change, but finally it was a dispute over timber taxes on Scottish teak importers that ignited the third, and decisive, AngloBurmese war of 1885. This time, the Konbaung king offered no more than token resistance to the army that steamed up the Ayeyarwady. Without a single shot being fired, General Henry Prendergast accepted Thibaw’s surrender in Mandalay. As the royal family sailed to exile in India, looters plundered the palace and the country descended into anarchy.
Burma was now officially part of British India, ruled by a government from Calcutta which, to keep the Burmese majority in check, deployed similar divide and rule tactics to those used in the subcontinent – a ploy that would have a dramatic effect over the coming century.
Meanwhile, the economy had begun to revive. The Ayeyarwady Delta region was developed, and waves of Indian immigrants poured in to take advantage of the boom. By 1927, Indians were in the majority while the Burmese, denied administrative posts by the British, suffered mounting poverty and unemployment. The consequent growth of Burmese opposition to British rule was spearheaded initially by radical Buddhist monks, and later by groups from Yangon University. Among the latter was an association called the 30 Comrades, led by the young socialist Aung San, future leader of the country and father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Rejecting Gandhian-style nonviolence in favor of military action, they turned to the Japanese for support.
World War II
The main goal of the Japanese invasion of Burma in December 1941 was to close off the “Burma Road,” the supply line from Assam to Yunnan by means of which the Allies were able to re-provision Chinese forces. The north of the country was also regarded as a potential back door to British India and total domination of Asia.
As the Japanese forces pressed north, British and Indian soldiers were pushed back 930 miles (1,500 km) to the jungles and mountains of the Indian border. They were accompanied by hundreds of thousands of Indian refugees who were harassed and murdered by the Burmese as they struggled to regain their home land. Around 12,000 troops and over 30,000 civilians perished in the mass retreat – one of the forgotten disasters of World War II.
Once the Japanese army had been halted at Kohima in northeast India, the Allies were reinvigorated by improved air support and forced the Japanese back across the Chindwin, while deep-penetration units, such as Orde Wingate’s Chindits and their American counterparts, Merrill’s Marauders, attacked them from behind their own lines. The battle then spilled across the central plains of Burma before the Japanese finally surrendered on August 28, 1945.
During the Japanese occupation, Burma had become a de facto puppet state, with leaders of the former Burmese Liberation Army nominally at the helm. But in March 1945, Aung San switched allegiances, placing his troops at the disposal of the Allies during the final stages of the cam- paign. After the war, Burma pressed for full independence. Talks were concluded in January 1947, with Britain agreeing to grant Burma its freedom the next year.
Three months later, Aung San’s party won the general election, but the cele- brations were short lived: on July 19 gunmen shot dead Aung San and six of his ministers. U Nu, a friend of Aung San’s since their student days, took over to become inde pen dent Burma’s first prime minister. However, the country descended into civil war almost immediately as conflicts erupted between the army and various regional forces, from communists and Chinese Kuomintang rebels to former resistance fighters and ethnic minorities such as the Shan, Kachin, and Chin, who had been promised full autonomy but now saw the government dominated by Burmese.
Military Rule and the 8888 Uprising
Meanwhile, the economy went into rapid decline as rice exports plummeted and expenditure on arms rose. U Nu handed over control in 1958 to a temporary military government under General Ne Win, a move widely welcomed at the time, leading to consider able improvement in Burma’s chaotic political situation.
In elections two years later, U Nu was restored to power, but regional calls for autonomy were threatening to drag the country into civil war, so Ne Win and the army stepped in again. The 1962 coup marked the start of radical military dictator- ship under the Burma Socialist Programme Party. Private property was confiscated by the state; businesses, agriculture, and the media were national ized; and foreign aid groups and opposition parties were banned. As a result, Burma became one of the poorest nations in the world. In July 1988 Ne Win resigned after a spate of public protests started by students and monks in Yangon. By August, the demon strations had spread nationwide, leading to the declaration of martial law. Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, emerged as the popular leader of what became known as the 8888 Uprising (after the date of the strike). In the ensuing crackdown, thou- sands of protesters were imprisoned, killed, or forced to flee abroad.
In September 1988, another army coup brought the hardline State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to power under General Saw Maung. The following year, SLORC changed the country’s official English name to Myanmar. In 1990, confident that it had the support of the people, and having confined mem- bers of the oppo sition parties under house arrest during the campaign, the military govern ment held free elections, only to lose by a crushing margin, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) polling 60 per cent of the votes. Instead of respecting the results, the regime rounded up dissidents and NLD activists: many were sent to forced labor camps or “disappeared.” Aung San Suu Kyi spent most of the 1990s imprisoned in her own home, as Myanmar became ever more distanced from the outside world.
General Than Shwe dominated politics in the 2000s, and promised a transition to democracy, but is best known for his multi- billiondollar military and trade deals with the Russians and Chinese, and for moving the capital from Yangon to Naypyitaw.
The Saffron Revolution and Road to Democracy
A dramatic rise in gas and fuel prices in 2007 sparked a popular uprising which, because it was led by monks, was dubbed the Saffron Revolution. Protests were held across Myanmar before the army launched a brutal clampdown in which 31 people were killed and thousands arrested.
A Constitutional Referendum was held in 2008, and although opposition groups condemned the result as a sham, this his- toric poll paved the way for major political reforms. These included the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010, amnesties for political prisoners, new labor laws, and a relaxation of press censorship. The international community was quick to respond to the changes: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama visited for talks, and Myanmar saw a huge surge in foreign tourism. Aung San Suu Kyi entered parliament in 2012 for the first time after byelections. The same year, ceasefire agree ments with several minority groups fighting for autonomy also brought peace.
However, the country has continued to see sporadic eruptions of communal strife. In Rakhine State in 2012, thousands of Rohingya Muslims were displaced by rioting and scores left dead.
Despite these outbreaks of sectarian violence, international pressure and a need for foreign investment has maintained the reforming momentum. In 2015 Myanmar held a general election which saw sweeping victories for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, and though the military retains considerable influence, there seems to be a genuine push for improved human rights and greater transparency. Whether this new openness will survive the challenges posed by greater freedom of speech remains to be seen, but for the time being the spirit in Myanmar is one of optimism for the future.