Myanmar’s prehistory begins with the migration of three groups into the country: the first were Mons from what is now Cambodia, then came Mongol Burmans from the eastern Himalayas and later came Thai tribes from northern Thailand. The 11th-century Burman kingdom of Bagan was the first to gain control of the territory that is present-day Myanmar, but it failed to unify the disparate racial groups and collapsed before a Tartar invasion in 1287. For the next 250 years, Burma remained in chaos, and the territory was not reunified until the mid-16th century when a series of Taungoo kings extended their domain and convincingly defeated the Siamese. In the 18th century, the country fractured again as Mons and hill tribes established their own kingdoms. In 1767, the Burmans invaded Siam and sacked Ayuthaya, forcing the Siamese to move their capital to Bangkok.(Kachin Manao Festival)
Occasional border clashes and British imperialist ambitions caused the British to invade in 1824, and then again in 1852 and 1883. Burma became a part of British India and the British built the usual colonial infrastructure, and developed the country into a major rice exporter. Indians and Chinese arrived with the British to complicate the racial mix. In 1937, Burma was separated from British India and there was nascent murmuring for self-rule.
The Japanese drove the British from Burma in WW II and attempted to enlist Burman support politically. The Burmans were briefly tempted by an opportunity for independence, but a resistance movement soon sprang up. In 1948, Burma became independent and almost immediately began to disintegrate as hill tribes, communists, Muslims and Mons all revolted.
In 1962 a left-wing army revolt led by General Ne Win deposed the troubled democratic government and set the country on the path of socialism. The Burman economy crumbled over the next 25 years until, in 1987 and 1988, the Burman people decided they had had enough. Huge demonstrations called for Ne Win’s resignation and massive confrontations between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military resulted in 3000 deaths in a six-week period. Several puppets were appointed by Ne Win and then a military coup (believed to be instigated by Ne Win) saw General Saw Maung and his State Law & Order Council (SLORC) take control. The new leader promised elections in 1989.
The opposition quickly formed a coalition party called the National League for Democracy (NLD), under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of independence hero Bogyoke Aung San. In 1989, the government placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, but despite her imprisonment, the National League for Democracy scored an overwhelming victory at the polls.
The junta prevented the elected party leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, from taking office and then went about the brutal business of quashing Karen rebels and engaging the private army of drug baron Khun Sa. Reports of Khun Sa’s ‘house arrest’ at a cushy villa in Rangoon with personal aides, luxury cars, a military escort and a hotel and real estate empire has given rise to the suspicion of a smacked-out peace deal between Rangoon and Khun Sa’s Heroin Inc.
During Aung San Suu Kyi’s imprisonment, she won several international peace prizes, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Much to the joy of the Burmese people and her supporters abroad, the government released her in July of 1995. However, she was prevented from traveling outside of Rangoon, and was arrested again in September 2000 after trying to leave the city.
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