Burma (1948- ), also called Myanmar by some these days, is the country just to the east of India. It is a land of rice fields and golden temples, much of it still untouched by the Machine Age. It is the land of Mandalay. It is also home to one of the few heroes on the world stage, Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the democracy movement against the generals, who have ruled Burma since 1962, longer than most of us can remember.
In 1988 there were protests to hold elections. The generals ordered the army to shoot on its own people. Thousands died. The protests were crushed. But in 1990 elections at last were held. Suu Kyi and her NLD party won a huge victory. But instead of becoming prime minister, Suu Kyi has been under arrest for most of the time ever since.
So things stood till 2007. In late August of that year tens of thousands of Buddhist monks came out to protest against the government. Most people in Burma are Buddhists, so the army could not very well shoot down the monks and think that would end it.
As the monks marched, people stood along the sides of the street and held hands as if to protect them. They came to Suu Kyi’s house. When she came out she cried.
But several weeks later the protests were brought to an end, at least for now. The government brought an end to the protests more by mass arrests than by mass killings, though it seems that hundreds were killed. But we do not know for sure since they cut the country off from the Internet (always a bad sign).
The monks came from the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the most sacred place in Burma. The pagoda is over 2500 years old. It has eight hairs of Buddha and over a thousand bells of pure gold. The pagoda is made of gold, diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Kipling called it a “beautiful winking wonder.” It gets over 10,000 pilgrims a year.
The pagoda is in Rangoon, also called Yangon, the largest city in Burma. Rangoon stands on the Irrawaddy river where it flows into the sea after travelling down the middle of the country. It was once the capital but in 2005 the little known town of Naypyidaw in the middle of the country became the new capital.
The Burma Road goes from Rangoon to China. During the Second World War the British used it to supply China.
Far up the river from Rangoon is Mandalay, the second largest city. Here the king lived till the British overthrew him in 1885. Mandalay was made famous in the English-speaking world by Kipling, the first to say “on the road to Mandalay”. It was where Orwell was stationed.
From 1885 to 1948 Burma was part of the British Empire.
Burma is poor and backward, as bad as parts of Africa. In the country people still use ox carts. The roads are bad and the army controls much of the rice supply, so many are hungry.