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Human habitation in the area around the Irrawaddy River dates back thousands of years. In the first century BC, the Pyu people moved into the area and, over the next five centuries, founded several cities, established a lucrative trade route between China and India, and adopted Buddhism. During the same time, the Mon people migrated into southern Burma, and established a few small kingdoms there.
Around AD 830, the Pyu fell to the invading Burman cavalry. In 1044, the Burmans defeated the southern Mon, uniting the Pyu and Mon territories under one ruler, and establishing a capital at Pagan. During their 240-year-reign, the Pagan Dynasty implemented many key changes that would impact Burma for centuries, including large-scale agricultural and irrigation projects
The Mongol hordes conquered Pagan in 1287, dividing Burma into small rival kingdoms. In the 16th century, Burma was re-united under the Taungoo Dynasty, which conquered additional territory in parts of China, Thailand, and Laos. But the expansion over-extended the dynasty’s resources, and in 1599, the Taungoo capital city at Pegu was sacked by Portuguese forces.
Despite the damage to Pegu, the Taungoo were able to regroup and reclaim some territory. By 1650, the dynasty had reunited Burma. They held on until 1752, when internal fighting again divided the country; in 1759, the Konbaung Dynasty took over.
In three Anglo-Burmese wars between 1824 and 1885, Burma lost all of its foreign territories and its homeland; its king was sent into exile in India. The British made Burma a province of India, reducing it to a backwater. The 1920s and 1930s saw resistance against British rule. The outbreak of World War II caused the Burma National Army, headed by independence activist Aung San, to join Allied forces in the hopes of gaining sovereignty.
After the war, Great Britain acknowledged Burma’s independence. Sadly, a political rival assassinated Aung San on July 19, 1947. Despite the shocking event, the new constitution passed in 1948. But the government’s hold was tenuous; a 1962 coup abolished the constitution and established military rule.
The military government’s extreme socialist economics meant that everything was nationalized, slowing the economy to a virtual standstill. In March of 1988, a student protest against the economic conditions won public sympathy and touched off a wave of protests and rallies. During this time, Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, emerged as the voice of the opposition party, the NDL (National League for Democracy).
In September of 1988, a group of generals used the army against the protesters. More than 3,000 activists were killed and roughly 10,000 fled. The country was placed under martial law and an election was announced to select an assembly that would write a new constitution. The government opposition—the NLD—won the majority in the 1990 election.
The military refused to let the assembly meet and put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she won a Nobel Peace Award in 1991. The Constitutional Assembly dissolved in 1996 and was not reconvened until 2005, with pro-democratic groups like the NLD barred from participating. Again, the assembly failed to produce a constitution. Although recent (2010) election results were largely pro-government, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 means the NDL may rally.