Burma was unified by Burman dynasties three times during the past millennium. The first such unification came with the foundation of the Pagan Dynasty in 1044 AD, which is considered the "Golden Age" in Burmese history. It is during this period that Theravada Buddhism first made its appearance in Burma, and the Pagan kings built a massive city with thousands of pagodas and monasteries along the Irrawaddy River. The Pagan Dynasty lasted until 1287 when a Mongol invasion destroyed the city. Ethnic Shan rulers, who established a political center at Ava, filled the ensuing political vacuum for a short time.
In the 15th century, the Toungoo Dynasty succeeded again in unifying under Burman rule a large, multi-ethnic kingdom. This dynasty, which lasted from 1486 until 1752, left little cultural legacy, but expanded the kingdom through conquest of the Shans. Internal power struggles, and the cost of protracted warfare, led to the eventual decline of the Toungoo.
The final Burman royal dynasty, the Konbaung, was established in 1752 under the rule of King Alaungpaya. Like the Toungoo Kings, the Konbaung rulers focused on warfare and conquest. Wars were fought with the ethnic Mons and Arkanese, and with the Siamese. The Burmese sacked the Siamese capital of Ayuthaya in 1767. This period also saw four invasions by the Chinese and three devastating wars with the British.
The British began their conquest of Burma in 1824, expanding their holdings after each of the three wars. At the end of the third war in 1885 the British gained complete control of Burma, annexing it to India. Under British control, which lasted until 1948, Burma underwent enormous change. The British established strong administrative institutions and reorganized the economy from subsistence farming to a large-scale export economy. By 1939 Burma had become the world's leading exporter of rice.
Burmese nationalists, led by General Aung San and 29 other "Comrades," joined the Japanese forces in driving out the British at the outbreak of World War II. However, the Burmese Army switched sides in mid-1945 and aided U.S. and British forces in their drive to Rangoon. After the war, the Burmese, with General Aung San at the helm, demanded complete political and economic independence from Britain. The British Government acceded to these demands. A constitution was completed in 1947 and independence granted in January 1948. General Aung San was assassinated with most of his cabinet before the constitution was put into effect.
During the weak constitutional period from 1948 to 1962 Burma suffered widespread conflict and internal struggle. Constitutional disputes and persistent division among political and social groups contributed to the democratic government's weak hold on power. In 1958, the military was invited in temporarily by Prime Minister U Nu to restore political order. The military stepped down after 18 months; however, in 1962 General Ne Win led a coup abolishing the constitution and establishing a xenophobic military government with socialist economic priorities. These policies had devastating effects on the country's economy and business climate.
In March 1988 student disturbances broke out in Rangoon in response to the worsening economic situation which evolved into a call for change in regime. Despite repeated violent crackdowns by the military and police, the demonstrations increased in size as the general public joined the students. During mass demonstrations on August 8, 1988, military forces killed more than 1,000 demonstrators. It was at a rally following this massacre that Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, made her first political speech and assumed the role of leader of the opposition.
On September 18 the military deposed the Ne Win's Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP), abolished the constitution, and established a new ruling junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In an effort to "restore order," the SLORC sent the army into the streets to suppress the ongoing public demonstrations. An estimated additional 3,000 were killed, and more than 10,000 students fled into the hills and border areas.
The SLORC ruled by martial law until national parliamentary elections were held on May 27, 1990. The results were an overwhelming victory for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won 392 of the 485 seats, even though she was under house arrest. However, the SLORC refused to call the Parliament into session and imprisoned many political activists.
The ruling junta changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, but did not change its policy of autocratic control and repression of the democratic opposition. In 2000, the SPDC announced it would begin talks with the political opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been released once from house arrest in 1995, only to be detained once more. These talks were followed by the release of many political prisoners and some increase in political freedoms for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. On May 6, 2002, she was allowed to leave her home and subsequently traveled widely throughout the country. On May 30, 2003, Aung San Suu Kyi and a convoy of her supporters were attacked by a group of government-affiliated thugs. Many members of the convoy were killed or injured and others remain unaccounted for. Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her party were detained, and the military government forcibly closed the offices of the NLD.
The central government has had a contentious relationship with ethnic groups calling for autonomy or secession for their regions since the country's independence. In 1948, only the capital city itself was firmly in control of the Rangoon authorities. Subsequent military campaigns brought more and more of the nation under central government control. Since 1990, the regime has signed a series of cease-fire agreements with insurgent groups, leaving only a handful still in active opposition.