Humans lived in the region that is now Burma (officially known as Myanmar now) as early as 11,000 years ago, but the first identifiable civilization is that of the Pyu although both Burman and Mon tradition claim that the fabled Suvarnabhumi mentioned in ancient Pali and Sanskrit texts was a Mon kingdom centered on Thaton in present-day Mon state. Artifacts from the excavated site of Nyaunggan help to reconstruct Bronze Age life in Burma and the more recent archaeological evidence at Samon Valley south of Mandalay suggests rice growing settlements between about 500 BC and AD 200 which traded with Qin and Han dynasty China. The Pyu arrived in Burma in the 1st century BC and established city kingdoms at Binnaka, Mongamo, Sri Ksetra, Peikthanomyo, and Halingyi. During this period, Burma was part of an overland trade route from China to India. Chinese sources state that the Pyu controlled 18 kingdoms and describe them as a humane and peaceful people. War was virtually unknown amongst the Pyu, and disputes were often solved through duels by champions or building competitions. They even wore silk cotton instead of actual silk so they would not have to kill silkworms. Crime was punished by whippings and jails were unknown, though serious crimes could result in the death penalty. The Pyu practiced Theravada Buddhism, and all children were educated as novices in the temples from the age of seven until the age of 20. The Pyu city-states never unified into a Pyu kingdom, but the more powerful cities often dominated and called for tribute from the lesser cities. The most powerful city by far was Sri Ksetra, which archaeological evidence indicates was the largest city that has ever been built in Burma. The exact date of its founding is not known, though likely to be prior to a dynastic change in AD 94 that Pyu chronicles speak of. Sri Ksetra was apparently abandoned around AD 656 in favor of a more northerly capital, though the exact site is not known. Some historians believe it was Halingyi. Wherever the new capital was located, it was sacked by the kingdom of Nanzhao in the mid 9th century, ending the Pyu’s period of dominance. The 6th century Mon kingdom of Dvaravati in the lower Chao Phraya valley in present-day Thailand extended its frontiers to the Tenasserim Yoma (mountains). With subjugation by the Khmer Empire from Angkor in the 11th century, the Mon shifted further west deeper into present-day Burma. Oral tradition suggests that they had contact with Buddhism via seafaring as early as the 3rd century BC and had received an envoy of monks from Ashoka in the 2nd century BC. The Mons adopted Indian culture together with Theravada Buddhism and are thought to have founded kingdoms in Lower Burma including the Thaton Kingdom circa 9th century AD and Bago (Pegu) in 825. The Kingdom of Raman’n’adesa (or Ramanna), referenced by Arab geographers in 844-8, is believed to be Thaton. The lack of archaeological evidence for this may in part be due to the focus of excavation work predominantly being in Upper Burma.
To the north another group of people, the Bamar (Mranma/Myanma), also began to settle in the area. By 849, they had founded a powerful kingdom centred on the city of Bagan, filling the void left by the Pyu. Bamar tradition maintains that the Bamar were originally of three tribes, the Pyu, the Thet, and the Kanyan. Indeed, Pyu as a language and as a people simply disappeared soon after the Myazedi Inscription of 1113. The word ‘Mranma’, in both Mon and Myanmar inscriptions, came into being only at about the same time, lending support to this claim that the Pyu were an earlier vanguard of southward Tibeto-Burman migration who were entirely absorbed into a newly formed identity by later waves of similar people . The Bagan kingdom grew in relative isolation until the reign of Anawrahta who successfully unified all of Burma by defeating the Mon kingdom of Thaton in 1057. Consolidation was accomplished under his successors Kyanzittha and Alaungsithu, so that by the mid-12th century, most of continental Southeast Asia was under the control of either the Bagan kingdom or the Khmer empire. The Bagan kingdom went into decline as more land and resources fell into the hands of the powerful Sangha (monkhood) and the Mongols threatened from the north. The last true ruler of Bagan, Narathihapate felt confident in his ability to resist the Mongols and advanced into Yunnan in 1277 to make war upon them. He was thoroughly crushed at the Battle of Ngasaunggyan, and Bagan resistance virtually collapsed. The king was assassinated by his own son in 1287, precipitating a Mongol invasion in the Battle of Bagan; the Mongols successfully captured most of the empire, including its capital, and ended the dynasty in 1289 when they installed a puppet ruler in Burma.
After the fall of Bagan, the Mongols left in the searing Irrawaddy valley but the Bagan Kingdom was irreparably broken up into several small kingdoms. By the early 15th century, the country became organized along four major power centers: Upper Burma, Lower Burma, Shan States, and Arakan. Many of the power centers were themselves made up of (often loosely held) minor kingdoms or princely states. This era was marked by a series of wars and switching alliances. Smaller kingdoms played a precarious game of paying allegiance to more powerful states, sometimes simultaneously.
Founded in 1364, Ava (Innwa) was the successor state to earlier, even smaller kingdoms based in central Burma: Myinsaing (1298-1312), Pinya (1312-1364) and Sagaing (1315-1364). Ava viewed itself as the rightful heir to the Kingdom of Bagan, and in order to reassemble the lost empire, waged continuous wars against Hanthawaddy Pegu and Shan States in the late 14th to early 15th centuries. But by the late 15th century, it was Ava that was under repeated Shan raids. By the early 16th century, hitherto regional princely states like Prome (Pyay) and Toungoo (Taungoo) broke away from Ava. In 1527, Ava fell to a confederation of Shan States led by Mohnyin, which ruled much of Upper Burma from Ava until 1555. The Burmese language and culture came into its own during the Ava period. Founded in Martaban (Mottama), Hanthawaddy was first to emerge out of Bagan’s ashes. The capital was shifted to Pegu (Bago) in 1369. As was the case in Upper Burma, the kingdom too consisted of regional power centres in Pegu, Bassein (Pathein), and Martaban. King Razadarit successfully held off Ava in the Forty Years’ War. In the second half of 15th century, Hanthawaddy, under Queen Shin Sawbu and her successor King Dhammazedi, entered its golden age. The kingdom, with a flourishing Mon language and culture, became a centre of commerce and Theravada Buddhism, making it the strongest and most prosperous of all the post-Bagan kingdoms. The Shans, who came down with the Mongols, stayed and quickly came to dominate much of northern to eastern arc of Burma – from northwestern Sagaing Division to Kachin Hills to the present day Shan Hills. The most powerful Shan states were Mohnyin (Mong Yang) and Mogaung (Mong Kawng) in present-day Kachin State, followed by Theinni (Hsenwi), Thibaw (Hsipaw) and Momeik (Mongmit) in present-day northern Shan State. Minor states included Kalay, Bhamo, Nyaungshwe and Kengtung. Mohnyin, in particular, constantly raided Ava’s territory throughout 15th and early 16th centuries and captured Ava itself in alliance with Prome in 1527. Mohnyin-led confederation of Shan states ruled much of Upper Burma (except for the Toungoo Kingdom) until 1555. Although Arakan had been de facto independent since the late Bagan period, the Laungkrat dynasty of Arakan was ineffectual. Until the founding of the Mrauk-U Kingdom in 1430, Arakan was often caught between bigger neighbours, and found itself a battlefield during the Forty Years’ war between Ava and Pegu. Mrauk-U went on to be a powerful kingdom in its own right between 15th and 17th centuries, including East Bengal between 1459 and 1666. Arakan was the only post-Bagan kingdom not to be annexed by the Toungoo dynasty.
In the early 16th century, Toungoo and Prome broke away from the Ava kingdom, which was under constant Shan raids from late 15th century on. After the conquest of Ava by the Monhyin Shans in 1527, many Burmans fled southeast to King Mingyinyo’s Toungoo, which became the new centre for Burmese rule. The upstart Toungoo led by King Tabinshwehti defeated the more powerful Pegu in 1539 and Prome in 1541 but failed to conquer Arakan in 1546 or Siam in 1548. With the coming of European traders, Burma was once again an important trading centre, and Tabinshwehti moved his capital to Pegu due to its strategic position for commerce. King Bayinnaung went on to found the largest empire in Burmese history. He conquered Ava in 1555, Shan States (1557), Lan Na (Chiang Mai) (1558), Manipur (1559), Ayutthaya (Siam) (1564, 1569), and Lan Xang (Laos) (1574), bringing much of western and central mainland Southeast Asia under his rule. Bayinnaung’s massive empire unraveled soon after his death in 1581. Siam declared independence in 1584 and went to war with Burma until 1605. By 1593, Toungoo had lost its possessions in Siam, Lang Xang and Manipur. Taking advantage of Burma’s preoccupation with Siam, Arakanese forces aided by Portuguese mercenaries sacked Pegu in 1599. Chief mercenary Filipe de Brito e Nicote promptly established Goa-backed Portuguese rule at Thanlyin in 1603. The country was in chaos. Bayinnaung’s grandson King Anaukpetlun defeated the Portuguese in 1613, and re-established a smaller, more manageable kingdom based in Ava covering Upper Burma, Lower Burma (to Tavoy), Shan States and Lan Na. His brother King Thalun rebuilt the war torn country. In 1665, Burma defeated Siam’s attempt to take Lan Na. The kingdom entered a gradual decline, starting in the late 17th century. From the 1730s onwards, the Upper Chindwin valley was under annual raids by the Manipuris. The Mons in lower Irrawaddy valley began a rebellion in 1740, and in 1747 established a new Hanthawaddy Kingdom based in Pegu. In 1752, Hanthawaddy conquered Ava, putting an end to the House of Toungoo.
Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885)
Soon after the fall of Ava in 1752, a new dynasty rose in Shwebo to challenge the power of Hanthawaddy. Over the next 70 years, the highly militaristic Konbaung dynasty went on to create the largest Burmese empire, second only to the empire of Bayinnaung. By 1758, King Alaungpaya’s Konbaung forces had reunited all of Burma (and Manipur), extinguished the Mon-led Hanthawaddy dynasty once and for all, and driven out the European powers who provided arms to Hanthawaddy – the French from Thanlyin and the English from Negrais. From 1759 to 1776, Burma and Siam were involved in continuous warfare. In 1760, Alaungpaya captured the Tenasserim coast. King Hsinbyushin sacked Ayutthaya in 1767, and successfully defended against China’s invasions between 1765 and 1770. The Siamese used the Burmese preoccupation with China to recover their lost territories by 1770, and in addition, went on to capture Lan Na in 1776, ending over two centuries of Burmese suzerainty over the region. Burma and Siam went to war again in 1785-1787, 1792-1793, 1804, 1808, and 1852-1854 but all resulted in a stalemate. After decades of war, the two countries essentially exchanged Tenasserim and Lan Na. With a powerful China in the northeast and a resurgent Siam in the southeast, King Bodawpaya turned westward for expansion. He conquered Arakan in 1784, annexed Manipur in 1813, and captured Assam in 1817-1819, leading to a long ill-defined border with British India. Bodawpaya’s successor King Bagyidaw was left to put down British instigated rebellions in Manipur in 1819 and Assam in 1821-1822. Cross-border raids by rebels from the British protected territories and counter-cross-border raids by the Burmese led to the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826).
The longest and most expensive war in British Indian history ended in a decisive British victory. Burma ceded all of Bodawpaya’s western acquisitions (Arakan, Manipur, and Assam) plus Tenasserim. Burma was crushed for years by repaying a large indemnity of one million pounds. In 1852, the British unilaterally and easily seized the Pegu province in the Second Anglo-Burmese War. After the war, King Mindon tried to modernize the Burmese state and economy and made trade and territorial concessions to stave off further British encroachments, including ceding the Karenni States to the British in 1875. Nonetheless, the British, alarmed by the consolidation of French Indo-China, annexed the remainder of the country in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 and sent the last Burmese king Thibaw and his family to exile in India.
British Colonial Rule
Britain made Burma a province of India in 1886 with the capital at Rangoon. Traditional Burmese society was drastically altered by the demise of the monarchy and the separation of religion and state. Though war officially ended after only a couple of weeks, resistance continued in northern Burma until 1890, with the British finally resorting to a systematic destruction of villages and appointment of new officials to finally halt all guerrilla activity. The economic nature of society also changed dramatically. After the opening of the Suez Canal, the demand for Burmese rice grew and vast tracts of land were opened up for cultivation. However, in order to prepare the new land for cultivation, farmers were forced to borrow money from Indian moneylenders called chettiars at high-interest rates and were often foreclosed on and evicted losing land and livestock. Most of the jobs also went to indentured Indian laborers, and whole villages became outlawed as they resorted to ‘dacoity’ (armed robbery). While the Burmese economy grew, all the power and wealth remained in the hands of several British firms, Anglo-Burmese and migrants from India. The civil service was largely staffed by the Anglo-Burmese community and Indians, and Burmese were excluded almost entirely from military service. Though the country prospered, the Burmese people failed to reap the rewards. Throughout colonial rule through the mid 1960’s, the Anglo-Burmese were to dominate the country, causing discontent among the local populace. By the turn of the century, a nationalist movement began to take shape in the form of Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA), modeled on the YMCA, as religious associations were allowed by the colonial authorities. They were later superseded by the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA) which was linked with Wunthanu athin or National Associations that sprang up in villages throughout Burma Proper. A new generation of Burmese leaders arose in the early 20th century from amongst the educated classes that were permitted to go to London to study law. They came away from this experience with the belief that the Burmese situation could be improved through reform. Progressive constitutional reform in the early 1920s led to a legislature with limited powers, a university and more autonomy for Burma within the administration of India. Efforts were also undertaken to increase the representation of Burmese in the civil service. Some people began to feel that the rate of change was not fast enough and the reforms not expansive enough. In 1920 the first university students strike in history broke out in protest against the new University Act which the students believed would only benefit the elite and perpetuate colonial rule. ‘National Schools’ sprang up across the country in protest against the colonial education system, and the strike came to be commemorated as ‘National Day’. There were further strikes and anti-tax protests in the later 1920s led by the Wunthanu athins. Prominent among the political activists were Buddhist monks (pongyi), such as U Ottama and U Seinda in the Arakan who subsequently led an armed rebellion against the British and later the nationalist government after independence, and U Wisara, the first martyr of the movement to die after a protracted hunger strike in prison. In December 1930, a local tax protest by Saya San in Tharrawaddy quickly grew into first a regional and then a national insurrection against the government. Lasting for two years, the Galon rebellion, named after the mythical bird, Garuda – enemy of the Nagas i.e. the British – emblazoned on the pennants the rebels carried, required thousands of British troops to suppress along with promises of further political reform. The eventual trial of Saya San, who was executed, allowed several future national leaders, including Dr. Ba Maw and U Saw, who participated in his defense, to rise to prominence. May 1930 saw the founding of the Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association) whose members called themselves Thakin. The second university students strike in 1936 was triggered by the expulsion of Aung San and Ko Nu, leaders of the Rangoon University Students Union (RUSU), for refusing to reveal the name of the author who had written an article in their university magazine, making a scathing attack on one of the senior university officials. It spread to Mandalay leading to the formation of the All Burma Students Union (ABSU). Aung San and Nu subsequently joined the Thakin movement progressing from student to national politics. The British separated Burma from India in 1937 and granted the colony a new constitution calling for a fully elected assembly, but this proved to be a divisive issue as some Burmese felt that this was a ploy to exclude them from any further Indian reforms whereas other Burmese saw any action that removed Burma from the control of India to be a positive step. Ba Maw served as the first Prime Minister of Burma, but he was succeeded by U Saw in 1939, who served as prime minister from 1940 until he was arrested on January 19, 1942 by the British for communicating with the Japanese. A wave of strikes and protests that started from the oilfields of central Burma in 1938 became a general strike with far-reaching consequences. In Rangoon student protesters, after successfully picketing the Secretariat, the seat of the colonial government, were charged by the British mounted police wielding batons and killing a Rangoon University student called Aung Kyaw. In Mandalay, the police shot into a crowd of protesters led by Buddhist monks killing 17 people. The movement became known as Htaung thoun ya byei ayeidawbon (the ‘1300 Revolution’ named after the Burmese calendar year), and December 20, the day the first martyr Aung Kyaw fell, commemorated by students as ‘Bo Aung Kyaw Day’.
World War II
Some Burmese nationalists saw the outbreak of World War II as an opportunity to extort concessions from the British in exchange for support in the war effort. Other Burmese, such as the Thakin movement, opposed Burma’s participation in the war under any circumstances. Aung San co-founded the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) with other Thakins in August 1939. Marxist literature as well as tracts from the Sinn Féin movement in Ireland had been widely circulated and read among political activists. Aung San also co-founded the People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP), renamed the Socialist Party after World War II. He was also instrumental in founding the Bama Htwet Yat Gaing (Freedom Bloc) by forging an alliance of the Dobama, ABSU, politically active monks, and Ba Maw’s Sinyètha (Poor Man’s) Party. After the Dobama organization called for a national uprising, an arrest warrant was issued for many of the organization’s leaders including Aung San, who escaped to China. Aung San’s intention was to make contact with the Chinese Communists but he was detected by the Japanese authorities who offered him support by forming a secret intelligence unit called the Minami Kikan, headed by Colonel Suzuki with the objective of closing the Burma Road and supporting a national uprising. Aung San briefly returned to Burma to enlist 29 young men who went to Japan with him in order to receive military training on Hainan Island, China, and they came to be known as the “30 Comrades”. When the Japanese occupied Bangkok in December 1941, Aung San announced the formation of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in anticipation of the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942.
The BIA formed a provisional government in some areas of the country in the spring of 1942, but there were differences within the Japanese leadership over the future of Burma. While Colonel Suzuki encouraged the 30 Comrades to form a provisional government, the Japanese military leadership had never formally accepted such a plan. Eventually the Japanese Army turned to Ba Maw to form a government. During the war in 1942, the BIA had grown in an uncontrolled manner, and in many districts officials and even criminals appointed themselves to the BIA. It was reorganised as the Burma Defence Army (BDA) under the Japanese but still headed by Aung San. While the BIA had been an irregular force, the BDA was recruited by selection and trained as a conventional army by Japanese instructors. Ba Maw was afterwards declared head of state, and his cabinet included both Aung San as War Minister and the Communist leader Thakin Than Tun as Minister of Land and Agriculture as well as the Socialist leaders Thakins Nu and Mya. When the Japanese declared Burma, in theory, independent in 1943, the Burma Defence Army (BDA) was renamed the Burma National Army (BNA). It soon became apparent that Japanese promises of independence were merely a sham and that Ba Maw was deceived. As the war turned against the Japanese, they declared Burma a fully sovereign state on August 1, 1943, but this was just another façade. Disillusioned, Aung San began negotiations with Communist leaders Thakin Than Tun and Thakin Soe, and Socialist leaders Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein which led to the formation of the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) in August 1944 at a secret meeting of the CPB,the PRP and the BNA in Pegu. The AFO was later renamed the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League(AFPFL). Thakins Than Tun and Soe, while in Insein prison in July 1941, had co-authored the Insein Manifesto which, against the prevailing opinion in the Dobama movement, identified world fascism as the main enemy in the coming war and called for temporary cooperation with the British in a broad allied coalition which should include the Soviet Union. Soe had already gone underground to organise resistance against the Japanese occupation, and Than Tun was able to pass on Japanese intelligence to Soe, while other Communist leaders Thakins Thein Pe and Tin Shwe made contact with the exiled colonial government in Simla, India. There were informal contacts between the AFO and the Allies in 1944 and 1945 through the British organisation Force 136. On March 27, 1945 the Burma National Army rose up in a countrywide rebellion against the Japanese. March 27 had been celebrated as ‘Resistance Day’ until the military renamed it ‘Tatmadaw (Armed Forces) Day’. Aung San and others subsequently began negotiations with Lord Mountbatten and officially joined the Allies as the Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF). At the first meeting, the AFO represented itself to the British as the provisional government of Burma with Thakin Soe as Chairman and Aung San as a member of its ruling committee. The Japanese were routed from most of Burma by May 1945. Negotiations then began with the British over the disarming of the AFO and the participation of its troops in a post-war Burma Army. Some veterans had been formed into a paramilitary force under Aung San, called the Pyithu Yèbaw Tat or People’s Volunteer Organisation (PVO), and were openly drilling in uniform. The absorption of the PBF was concluded successfully at the Kandy conference in Ceylon in September 1945.
Democratic Republic (1948-1962)
On 4 January 1948, the nation became an independent republic, named the Union of Burma, with Sao Shwe Thaik as its first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister. Unlike most other former British colonies and overseas territories, it did not become a member of the Commonwealth. A bicameral parliament was formed, consisting of a Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Nationalities, and multi-party elections were held in 1951-1952, 1956, and 1960. The geographical area Burma encompasses today can be traced to the Panglong Agreement, which combined Burma Proper, which consisted of Lower Burma and Upper Burma, and the Frontier Areas, which had been administered separately by the British. In 1961, U Thant, then the Union of Burma’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and former Secretary to the Prime Minister, was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations; he was the first non-Westerner to head any international organization and would serve as UN Secretary-General for ten years. Among the Burmese to work at the UN when he was Secretary-General was a young Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Democratic rule ended in 1962 when General Ne Win led a military coup d’état. He ruled for nearly 26 years and pursued policies under the rubric of the Burmese Way to Socialism. Between 1962 and 1974, Burma was ruled by a revolutionary council headed by the general, and almost all aspects of society (business, media, production) were nationalized or brought under government control. In an effort to consolidate power, Ne Win and many other top generals resigned from the military and took civilian posts and, from 1974, instituted elections in a one-party system. Between 1974 and 1988, Burma was effectively ruled by Ne Win through the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), which from 1964 until 1988 was the sole political party. During this period, Burma became one of the world’s most impoverished countries. The Burmese Way to Socialism combined Soviet-style nationalization and central planning with the governmental implementation of superstitious beliefs. Criticism was scathing, such as an article published in a February 1974 issue of Newsweek magazine describing the Burmese Way to Socialism as ‘an amalgam of Buddhist and Marxist illogic’.
Almost from the beginning, there were sporadic protests against the military rule, many of which were organised by students, and these were almost always violently suppressed by the government. On 7 July 1962, the government broke up demonstrations at Rangoon University, killing 15 students. In 1974, the military violently suppressed anti-government protests at the funeral of U Thant. Student protests in 1975, 1976 and 1977 were quickly suppressed by overwhelming force. Ne Win’s rise to power in 1962 and his relentless persecution of “resident aliens” (immigrant groups not recognised as citizens of the Union of Burma) led to an exodus of some 300,000 Burmese Indians. They migrated to escape racial discrimination and wholesale nationalisation of private enterprise a few years later in 1964. A new constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was adopted in 1974. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled Burma and many refugees inundated neighbouring Bangladesh including 200,000 in 1978 as a result of the King Dragon operation in Arakan. In 1988, unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression by the government led to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country known as the 8888 Uprising. Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators, and General Saw Maung staged a coup d’état and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989, SLORC declared martial law after widespread protests. The military government finalised plans for People’s Assembly elections on 31 May 1989. SLORC changed the country’s official English name from the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” to the “Union of Myanmar” in 1989. In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats, but the election results were annulled by SLORC, which refused to step down. Led by Than Shwe since 1992, the military regime has made cease-fire agreements with most ethnic guerilla groups. In 1992, SLORC unveiled plans to create a new constitution through the National Convention, which began 9 January 1993. In 1997, the State Law and Order Restoration Council was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). On 23 June 1997, Burma was admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The National Convention continues to convene and adjourn. Many major political parties, particularly the NLD, have been absent or excluded, and little progress has been made.
On 27 March 2006, the military junta, which had moved the national capital from Yangon to a site near Pyinmana in November 2005, officially named the new capital Naypyidaw, meaning “city of the kings”. The CIA World Factbook, however, still considers the capital to be Rangoon. In November 2006, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) announced it will be seeking – at the International Criminal Court – “to prosecute members of the ruling Myanmar junta for crimes against humanity” over the continuous forced labor of its citizens by the military. According to the ILO, an estimated 800,000 people are subject to forced labor in Myanmar. The 2007 Burmese anti-government protests were a series of anti-government protests that started in Burma on 15 August 2007. The immediate cause of the protests was mainly the unannounced decision of the ruling junta, the State Peace and Development Council, to remove fuel subsidies which caused the price of diesel and petrol to suddenly rise as much as double, and the price of compressed natural gas for buses to increase fivefold in less than a week. The protest demonstrations were at first dealt with quickly and harshly by the junta, with dozens of protesters arrested and detained. Starting 18 September, the protests were led by thousands of Buddhist monks, and those protests were allowed to proceed until a renewed government crackdown on 26 September. During the crackdown, there were rumors of disagreement within the Burmese armed forces, but none were confirmed. Some news reports referred to the protests as the Saffron Revolution. During the 2007 anti-government protests a significant role was played by Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition to the Burmese military government. Aung San Suu Kyi had been under strict house arrest since 1989. In September 2007, hundreds of monks paid respects to her at the gate of her home, which was the first time in four years that people were able to see her in public. She was then given a second public appearance on 29 September, when she was allowed to leave house arrest briefly and meet with a UN envoy trying to persuade the junta to ease its crackdown against a pro-democracy uprising, to which the Myanmar government reluctantly agreed. On 7 February 2008, SPDC announced that a referendum for the Constitution would be held and Elections by 2010. The Burmese constitutional referendum, 2008 was held on 10 May and promised a “discipline-flourishing democracy” for the country in the future. World governments remain divided on how to deal with the military junta. Calls for further sanctions by Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France are opposed by neighboring countries; in particular, China has stated its belief that “sanctions or pressure will not help to solve the issue”. There is some disagreement over whether sanctions are the most effective approach to dealing with the junta, such as from a Cato Institute study and from prominent Burmese such as Thant Myint-U (a former senior UN official and Cambridge historian), who have opined that sanctions may have caused more harm than good to the Burmese people.
In 1950, the Karen became the largest of 20 minority groups participating in an insurgency against the government of Burma. The conflict continues as of 2009. In 2004, the BBC, citing aid agencies, estimates that up to 200,000 Karen have been driven from their homes during decades of war, with 120,000 more refugees from Burma, mostly Karen, living in refugee camps on the Thai side of the border. Many accuse the military government of Burma of ethnic cleansing. As a result of the ongoing war in minority group areas, more than 2 million people have fled Burma to Thailand. On 3 May 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated the country when winds of up to 215 km/h (135 mph) touched land in the densely populated, rice-farming delta of the Irrawaddy Division. It was the worst natural disaster in Burmese history. Reports estimated that more than 200,000 people were dead or missing, and damage totaled to $10 billion dollars. The United Nations projects that as many as 1 million were left homeless. Yet in the critical days following this disaster, Burma’s isolationist regime hindered recovery efforts by delaying the entry of United Nations planes delivering medicine, food, and other supplies. The government’s action was described by the United Nations as “unprecedented”. On 4 May 2009, an American, John Yettaw, allegedly swam across the lake uninvited to the house of Aung San Suu Kyi and remained there for two nights, resulting in the arrest of Yettaw and Suu Kyi, who are currently being held in Insein prison near Yangon. As a result, Suu Kyi is being charged with violating the terms of her house arrest and faces a sentence of up to five years. Suu Kyi’s current house arrest was due to end on 27 May 2009. On 11 August 2009, Suu Kyi was sentenced to an additional 18 months of house arrest following conviction on charges of violating the terms of her previous incarceration. In early August 2009, a conflict known as the Kokang incident broke out in Shan State in northern Burma. For several weeks, junta troops fought against ethnic minorities including the Han Chinese, Va, and Kachin. From August 8-12, the first days of the conflict, as many as 10,000 Burmese civilians fled to Yunnan province in neighboring China.