The story of Myanmar is more about people than territory. The country as we know it today was only created in 1948, when what was then Burma achieved independence from Britain. Beforehand, it had never been a single political entity. Instead, for centuries the region had been home to competing kingdoms and clans, vying for control, as their fortunes ebbed and flowed. Some of these powers stretched into neighbouring India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand, yet all failed to conquer the highlands forming the north of modern Myanmar. And as battles were fought and kingdoms expanded or contracted, so too people moved with them. This area of Southeast Asia had a relatively small population for its size, so victorious armies often brought back cohorts of captives to resettle. As well as creating extra taxpayers to swell a kingdom’s coffers, such forced relocations also introduced new skills and ideas.
This complex history has made Myanmar one of the most diverse places on Earth, with over 100 languages and dialects spoken within its bounds. Understanding how the region developed comes down to appreciating the many ways in which this mosaic of groups interacted. Inevitably, such varied cultural encounters created many legacies, including the shaping and reshaping of artefacts produced in the area. It is these remarkable objects that are at the heart of the latest British Museum exhibition, Burma to Myanmar, which traces the story from around AD 450 down to the present day.
Riches to rags
In recent years, the news from Myanmar has often been tragic. The continuing persecution of the Rohingya is causing terrible suffering, while the latest military coup has brought more misery, and much of the population lives below the poverty line. Before that, a lengthy period of isolation was imposed after a coup in 1962, when General Ne Win set the country on the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’. The impression this can create of a country that is both naturally poor and occupying a position that lends itself to being shut off from the world is entirely false, though. Myanmar is – and was – an amazingly wealthy area brimming with rare and valuable commodities. That poverty remains so visible speaks more of how the country’s wealth is being distributed than anything else. Among the many lucrative goods that Myanmar has traded over the centuries are rubies, sapphires, jade, teak, opium, amber, lacquer, ivory, rice, gold, silver, and more. Its oil deposits were being exploited at least as early as the 13th century, making Myanmar the first known producer in Southeast Asia.
Myanmar’s prime location within the region allowed it to capitalise on these natural riches. Far from being isolated, the country is admirably situated to benefit from both maritime and overland trade. Its position on the Bay of Bengal provided access to Indian Ocean trade, and also established it as a key transhipment point. This status saw objects ferried from far afield to the shores of what is now Myanmar, with objects from the Roman Empire, for example, reaching Southeast Asia. Once ashore, such goods would change hands and could then travel by land into Southwest China, Northeast India, or Thailand. Just as importantly, Myanmar offered a reliable return route for goods produced in those regions to reach the Indian Ocean. Given, then, the enviable wealth and location of Myanmar, it need occasion no surprise that great powers once counted portions of the region among their heartlands.
One extraordinary expression of Myanmar’s wealth and confidence in the 18th century takes the form of a letter written by King Alaungpaya to King George II of Britain in May 1756. Alaungpaya was the founder of the Konbaung kingdom, which rapidly expanded thanks to a knack for aggression and success in equal measure. At its height, the Konbaung dynasty controlled one of the largest empires in mainland Southeast Asia. Alaungpaya duly addressed George II as an equal, but did not resort to paper for his letter. Instead, he wrote on a gold sheet studded with 24 rubies, which was rolled up and sent in an ivory case. In the text, Alaungpaya introduced himself in the classical style of Southeast Asia and offered up a fine gift: an advantageous coastal trading hub for the East India Company. Even though the letter was accompanied by a translation, it seems that his overture was still not fully understood. Instead, George II had the letter archived in Hanover as a curiosity, and did not trouble himself with a reply. It was an omission that caused grave offense to Alaungpaya.
The Konbaung dynasty enjoyed greater success in central Thailand in 1767, when they attacked and destroyed the capital city of the kingdom of Ayutthaya. Within the settlement they found a population skilled in many trades, ranging from blacksmiths and barbers to practitioners of incantations and magic. True to the traditions of the day, tens of thousands of them were brought back to Myanmar to start new lives. Of these assorted professions, it was the Thai theatrical troupes that proved to be the biggest hit with the Konbaung court. The actors’ popularity even prompted the court to develop a new form of formal dress, based on the Thai theatrical costumes. A staple of the repertoire was an Indian epic known as the Ramayana, which became very popular throughout the kingdom and was successfully adapted to grace other artforms, such as relief sculpture and silver ware. A particularly fine example is a textile hanging dating to the British colonial era that shows the plucky Prince Rama, who is seeking his kidnapped wife, Princess Sita, with the assistance of the white monkey known as Hanuman.
Lines on a map
Despite King Alaungpaya’s amiable overtures to George II, it was the British who were destined to bring down the Konbaung dynasty, over the course of three wars in the 1800s. Just like the earlier kingdoms and empires that had established themselves in the region, the British found that the peoples living in the northern highlands were adroit at evading the imposition of full colonial control. Indeed, some of these groups were never conquered, but still found themselves inside Myanmar when its boundaries were drawn in 1948. One consequence of tightening British control was an increase in Western influences. A study of 19th-century textiles from some of the supposedly more remote areas of Myanmar has revealed how quickly innovations from Europe could be adopted there. Analysis by the Scientific Research Department at the British Museum showed that traditional approaches to textile manufacturing – including the use of Chinese silk – endured through the first part of the 19th century, only to be superseded by synthetic colourants in the second half of the century, surprisingly swiftly after they emerged in Europe.
When Myanmar achieved independence in 1948, following devastation in the Second World War, the country changed once more. Although it is often the isolation, civil war, violent persecution, and widespread poverty that westerners are most aware of today, this is far from being the entire story. In 1955, Prime Minister U Nu undertook a world tour to highlight the county’s neutrality during the Cold War. Along the way, U Nu presented Queen Elizabeth II with a silver tea set that was seemingly rather better received than Alaungpaya’s gold letter. The country also rose to prominence at the United Nations in the 1950s, with U Thant, the Permanent Representative of Burma, becoming Secretary-General in 1961 and playing a leading role in the negotiations between Kennedy and Khrushchev during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But by the time that U Thant’s second term expired in 1971, General Ne Win had already set the country on a very different, inward-looking trajectory. One lesson from the fascinating British Museum exhibition is, then, that vast wealth does not always translate into comparable power. Instead, it speaks volumes that so many modern audiences can be surprised to learn that the region was once a cradle for great empires.
FURTHER INFORMATION • Burma to Myanmar is at the British Museum until 11 February 2024. For further information, see www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/burma-myanmar • A gorgeously illustrated volume edited by Alexandra Green has also been produced to accompany the exhibition: Burma to Myanmar (The British Museum Press, ISBN 978-0714124957, £35).