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The first people in Burma

People (and their dogs) probably reached Burma coming along the coast from India, about 47,000 BC, but there’s no evidence of them until about 11,000 BC.

History of Vietnam
History of Cambodia
The Quaternary period

Farming and iron

Soon after that, Burma entered the Neolithic, or Late Stone Age. They started to farm and to keep domesticated animals some time after 10,000 BC. Then around 1500 BC, they started to use bronze tools. They were growing rice and raising chickens and pigs. By about 500 BC, people in Burma were starting to use iron. But to put this in context, by 500 BC their neighbors in India were beginning to make high quality crucible steel.

History of bronze
Where does rice come from?
How about chickens?
Iron and steel

The Silk Road

With the rise of the Silk Road, traders started to sail between India and China. Some of them stopped in Burma, and so Burma became part of an international market. Many people in Burma worshipped Hindu gods.

More about Hinduism
What is the Silk Road?
India’s Mauryan Empire
China’s Zhou Dynasty

Pyu city-states

Then around 200 BC, people from the Pyu city-states in Thailand conquered part of Burma and moved in. These people were very much part of Indian culture. They brought Buddhism with them to Burma, at least for the richest, most powerful people, along with writing and the Indian calendar. Like Indians, they wore cotton clothing. But they also sacrificed cattle, unlike Indian people. And women had more power than they did in India, both as Buddhist nuns and as students.

More about Thailand
What is Buddhism?
Where does cotton come from?

The Pyu leaders started new city-states in Burma. Their cities were built along big rivers. They had big solid city walls. Probably that was more so they could collect taxes, than because of wars, but maybe both.

By 128 BC, these Pyu cities were stop-overs for trading caravans traveling over land between India and China. Starting about 400 AD, they used silver coins.

History of money
China’s T’ang Dynasty

Their early coins had a conch on one side and a hole in them, maybe because before they used coins, they used rare shells and beads as money. In 800, the Pyu ruler Sri Ksetra sent an embassy to the T’ang court, with thirty-five musicians.

Pagan Kingdom

But in the 800s AD, during China’s T’ang Dynasty, the Pyu city-states lost control of Burma.  Bamar people from southern China (Nanzhao) invaded Burma. In the late 800s AD, people in Burma stopped using coins. By about 1200 AD, the Bamar finished conquering all of the Pyu city-states. People stopped speaking Pyu and started to speak Burmese instead – the language of the Bamar people.

By the 1060s, Anawrahta pulled Burma together into one kingdom: the Pagan kingdom. They built a lot of Buddhist temples. Slowly even poor people in the country started to become Buddhists. This Burmese kingdom and the Khmer kingdom in Cambodia were the two biggest powers in Southeast Asia at this time. But then the Mongols invaded Burma from China in the 1200s. In 1287 the Pagan kingdom collapsed.

The Khmer in Cambodia
Who were the Mongols?

Chinese influence

The Mongols didn’t stay long, but a second wave of people from southern China moved in and they did stay. These immigrants started new kingdoms in the 1300s and 1400s AD. They built more Buddhist temples. People were rich enough to go to school. They wrote the first histories of Burma, along with other literature, and new law codes.

China’s Ming Dynasty

Taungoo Dynasty

Then in the 1500s, the young king Tabinshwehti fought wars and forced all of Burma into one kingdom again under his Taungoo dynasty. His general and brother-in-law Bayinnaung ruled after him and conquered even more land.

After Bayinnaung died in 1581, his empire collapsed. Portuguese soldiers took over some of Burma, and Siam (Thailand) took over some more. The Portuguese brought new foods to Burma from the Americas: spicy chilis and sweet potatoes and peanuts.

Charles V and the Portuguese
Medieval ships and sailing
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But in 1613 the Taungoo Dynasty pushed both the Portuguese and the Thai out. They started ruling their country again. Their kingdom did fine in the 1600s but suffered from civil wars in the 1700s. French and British armies gave guns to the Hanthawaddy rebels,  and the Taungoo collapsed in 1752. That was what the French and British wanted: they wanted Burma to be weaker so they could take it over.

Hanoverian Britain
Louis XV in France

British conquest

After some more civil wars, and wars with Thailand and China, the British gradually took control of Burma. They already controlled India, so Burma seemed to them like a natural next step.

British colonization of India
The Opium Wars in China

Burmese people hated being a British colony, because they felt the British disrespected their customs, especially their Buddhist religion. The British felt they couldn’t trust the Burmese. So they brought in many people from India to work in the British government there.

Most of Burma’s soldiers, traders, and construction workers were from India – all the good jobs. And the British also gave a lot of jobs to members of minority groups who had been oppressed by Burma’s kings. But that just encouraged the Burmese to hate the minorities even more.


The British controlled Burma until World War II. During the war, Japan and Britain and the United States fought over Burma. Most Burmese fought on the side of Japan, while the minorities fought with Britain and the United States.

World War II

After World War II, though, Britain wasn’t strong enough anymore to have colonies. Burma became independent under the general Aung San. But then his rivals killed him in 1947. In 1962, the army generals took over the country, in order to keep minorities from getting any power. Those generals still more or less control Burma today, and minorities like the Islamic Rohingya are still being oppressed and killed.

More about Thailand
Or Cambodia
Or Vietnam

Bibliography and further reading about the history of Burma:

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