World War II
Burma was a major battleground for the British and the Japanese. Three hundred thousand refugees fled to India, but by July 1945 Britain had re-taken the country from the Japanese. The Burma National Army, formed by revolutionary and nationalist Aung San in 1937, initially supported the Japanese, but in 1943, fearful that the Japanese promises of independence were not sincere, changed sides and joined the Allies.
After the war, Aung San was instrumental in restoring civilian politics from the military administration established by the British. He also negotiated independence for Burma with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee.
In 1947, the first elections were held in Burma since its split from the British Raj. Aung San’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) won 176 of the 210 seats, but Aung San and six of his cabinet ministers were assassinated by paramilitaries loyal to colonial era Prime Minister U Saw. Several British military officers were also implicated in the plot, and were tried and imprisoned. U Saw was executed.
The Union of Burma
Following Aung San’s assassination, the leadership of the AFPFL passed to U Nu, who oversaw the country’s final transition to an independent Burma in January 1948. U Nu became the first prime minister of the Union of Burma.
Under the constitution of 1947, a bicameral parliament was elected. General elections were held in 1952/3, 1956 and 1960, with the AFPFL continuing to dominate both houses.
In 1961, Burmese civil servant U Thant was unanimously appointed UN Secretary-General, the first non-westerner to hold the position. Among the Burmese staff he took with him to the post was Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San. But in 1962, just two years after the republic’s third general election as an independent state, the government of U Nu was overthrown in a coup d’etat lead by General Ne Win.
The ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’
Ne Win ruled the country as a one-party state until 1988, under the auspices of an ideology he called the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. This lead to economic and political isolationism, the expulsion of foreigners, and the nationalisation of industry.
Student protests at Rangoon University in 1962 resulted in 15 deaths, and similar student activism in 1975, 1976 and 1977 were also suppressed. In 1974, anti-government protests at the funeral of UN Secretary-General U Thant were quickly and violently suppressed by the military.
On the 8 August 1988, frustration at economic mismanagement and brutal oppression lead to the nation-wide protests known as the 8888 Uprising, in which students, monks, and citizens took to the streets to protest against the military junta.
Once again, the revolt was brutally put down, with many casualties. Precise numbers differ, with opposition groups claiming thousands of people were killed by the military, whilst the regime say only 350 lost their lives.
Rule by military junta
A group which was to become the still-ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), lead by General Saw Maung, seized power and declared martial law. In May 1990, the first multi-party elections were held in 30 years.
The National League for Democracy, lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 of the 498 seats, but the SPDC refused to relinquish power. In 1992, Saw Maung unexpectedly resigned for health reasons, and current dictator Than Shwe succeeded him as head of state, secretary of defence and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and has subsequently spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest.
In 2007, following the junta’s decision to remove fuel subsidies, causing the price of fuel to double overnight, demonstrations took place. After an initial crackdown, marches continued under the leadership of thousands of Buddhist monks. Thousands were arrested, and 14 of the leaders were sentenced to 65 years in the infamous British-built Insein prison.
Buddhist monks have been a rallying point for opposition since the early 20th century, when riots broke out over the issue of the British colonists refusing the remove their shoes in the temples.
Beyond the 2007 uprising
Ethnic violence continues in the country, with the Karen people of southeastern Burma particularly prominent in their insurgency. There has also been protracted conflict between the junta and the Han Chinese, Va and Kachin people in the north.
The devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 in the Irrawaddy rice-farming region was severe, with around 200,000 people estimated to have died. However, the isolationist stance of the junta and the endemic corruption in major industries and local government prevented either domestic or foreign aid having much of an impact. United Nations planes bringing food aid and medical supplies were delayed by the junta.
In 2009, an American named John Yettaw swam across Lake Inya to reach Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence for the second time (he first visited in May 2008), and was arrested and deported for breaching the terms of her house arrest. As a result, she was given a further 18 months’ confinement, meaning that she can take no part in elections held in 2010.
Under the new constitution ratified by referendum amid the devastation of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, the new democratically-elected assembly will reserve a quarter of its seats for the military. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, has said that it will boycott the elections because of laws that prevent their leader from participating.