In this eye-opening blog the curator of our major new exhibition Burma to Myanmar takes us on a tour across this vast country, from the remote mountains of the north to the tropical coast on the Bay of Bengal.
Nestled between India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, and flanked by the Bay of Bengal to the south and southwest, the modern nation of Myanmar is a kite-shaped country, about twice as long as it is wide (about double the length of the UK). It is home to a tremendous variety of landscapes, from permanently snow-capped mountain peaks in the north in the foothills of the Himalayas to a semi-arid central zone and tropical rainforests in the south. The multiplicity of environments has resulted in great cultural diversity and the region's position along major land and sea trade routes has enabled its various peoples to exchange imports for locally mined and harvested resources including gold and silver, rubies and sapphires, jade, amber, marble, petroleum oil, teak, rice, cotton, opium, lacquer, sea products (such as pearls and shells) and ivory. The region is also now one of the largest producers of rare earths, elements crucial in the production of commodities such as mobile phones and wind turbines. In the past, natural resources were traded across land and sea, but goods were also transported via major rivers like the Irrawaddy, Nmai Hka, Mali Hka, Salween, Sittang, Chindwin, and Kaladan. Many smaller rivers and tributaries facilitated the movement of people and goods, while others created barriers because of their extensive rapids and steep shores.
Historically, Myanmar was composed of separate kingdoms and political entities (which were only brought together as a single state in 1948 upon independence from British colonial control), including: the kingdoms of Dhanyawaddy, Vesali, and Mrauk U in Arakan in the west; Thaton, Mottama (spelled Martaban in English until changed, along with many other place names, by the military government in 1989) and Bago (Pegu) in the south; Bagan, Toungoo and Konbaung in the centre; the Shan states in the east and north; and the complex kinship networks of the highland regions. Each of these had access to different landscapes and resources.
The highlands: from the Himalayas to Southeast Asia
There is a horseshoe-shaped ring of mountainous terrain around the modern state of Myanmar. This ring is a combination of rugged mountains and upland plateaus. In the far north, mountain peaks reach heights of nearly 6,000 metres. Narrow river gorges cut through the mountains, most of which are covered with dense jungle, making travel across land difficult. Mountain passes are therefore important for the movement of people and goods, and highland communities once commanded great power because of their control over these routes. Many highland communities became wealthy due to the plentiful resources in the mountains. Mines for materials including gold, gems and jade operated from at least the 1200s and probably earlier. People came from different areas, including from China, to work in the mines, adding to an already diverse human landscape.
The Shan states
The Shan states were principalities that emerged around the 1100s in the mountainous east and north-central area, becoming powerful from the rich resources of the region. The massive Shan plateau and river valleys allowed for the production of wetland rice, as well as cotton and indigo dye. Teak was a major export with logs dried and floated downstream to be used for boatbuilding in the ports of the coastal regions. A royal monopoly, teak was in high demand from at least the 1200s, being used as far afield as Java and Persia, and later by Europeans for the construction and repair of ships in the 1700s. Gems and metals were also mined in the Shan states, although the productive silver mines at Bawdwin were managed by Chinese people between the 1400s and the 1860s. Central Burmese kings then controlled them until the British colonial takeover of the area in 1885. In 1906, the mines were resurrected by European and American businessmen, including the engineer Herbert Hoover who was elected president of the US in 1928.
In the shadow of the mountains
The lowlands of the central region are semi-arid, a result of the interactions between the monsoon winds and the mountains that enclose the country. The mountains in the Arakan region on the western coast block the passage of the southwest monsoon that brings humid air from the Bay of Bengal; the result is that the west side of the mountains is wet, while central Myanmar is in a rain shadow with little precipitation. The Pyu peoples and later the Burmans based their cities and settlements near the Irrawaddy River for easy transportation and access to water for irrigation. Crops suitable for dry zone cultivation, which have therefore been grown in this area, are cotton, sesame and pulses, although it is possible to grow irrigated rice. The central region is also a source of white marble and petroleum oil, which have been extracted for many centuries. In fact Chinese records from the 1200s–1300s suggest that the central region was the earliest source of oil in Southeast Asia.
The Arakan coast
As with other parts of present-day Myanmar, humans have been exploiting the resources of Arakan for millennia, but it wasn't until about 1,800 years ago that substantial kingdoms arose out of the wealth this generated. The earliest of these were found in the Kaladan River valley, backed by hills, where the people used the rich flood plains to grow rice. Other rivers include the Le-mro and Mayu, as well as the Naaf estuary. Strong riverine tides enabled ships to sail up the rivers to inland ports. The region is characterised by the coastal and river lowlands and inland highland areas, with rice from the lowlands exchanged for highland products like beeswax and stick-lac (a type of dye). The lengthy coastline formerly also encouraged participation in sea trade across the Bay of Bengal, with networks reaching as far as Europe to the west and Southeast and East Asia to the east. Local rice, elephants and other commodities were exchanged for textiles, yarn, iron and other metals, ceramics and culinary goods such as pepper and butter. Humans captured in raids and wars during the 1500s to the 1700s were sold to provide labour for the spice trade in India and the Indonesian archipelago. Until the late 1700s, Arakan's ports also acted as hubs for goods transiting from sea to land transportation and vice versa, with trade routes stretching across central Myanmar, the highlands to the north and east, and into southwestern China.
Lower Myanmar too is a combination of mountainous areas and fertile rice plains fed by various rivers. The region was the seat of several states, the largest and most important of which was based at Bago (Pegu). It also had several ports filled with people from across Asia and beyond, including the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, India and China. The sea and archipelagos off the coast also provided easy access to products such as fish, pearls and tortoise shell.
From at least the 1300s, local sources of clay saw the rise of important kilns at Mottama (Martaban) and Twante, both of which produced sturdy jars for the transportation of food, water and goods on ships. In 1350 an Arab visitor, Ibn Battuta, commented on the popularity of these jars with merchants and how the Martaban jars were prized for their deep brown colour.
Colonial control and extraction
The extensive historical trade routes that crossed Myanmar were affected by the start of the British colonial period in the 1820s. As parts of Myanmar were annexed piecemeal in three wars – in 1824–26, 1852 and 1885 – the British drew hard borders between states. This was a novelty in Southeast Asia where spheres of influence and authority over people were of greater importance than control of territory, in part because the region was historically underpopulated. The new borders disrupted regional trade routes and divided communities. For example, some Shan principalities were incorporated into Yunnan province in southwestern China, while others formed part of eastern British Burma. A similar separation of related Kachin groups also occurred. Based at the new capital city of Rangoon (now Yangon), the British hugely expanded the extraction of resources for global trade. Agriculture in the delta of the Irrawaddy River flourished, eventually making British Burma the world's largest exporter of rice.
Oil production too increased, but the industry's infrastructure was destroyed by the British in the Second World War as they retreated before the Japanese occupation and damaged further by the Japanese when they retreated in 1945. The industry has yet to recover. Yangon was the largest city in Myanmar and remained the capital until moved by the military junta in 2005 to Naypyidaw in the centre of the country.
Exploitative extraction today
Since independence from the British in 1948, conflicts and nationalised industries have prompted the rise of black markets. Hazardous conditions and widespread abuses characterise resource extraction today, and communities in resource-rich areas are often subjected to systematic, state-sanctioned violence. The lives of local people and the surrounding environment have also been ravaged by pollution caused by extraction. For instance, harvesting teak has deforested vast tracts of land, while gold mining has resulted in mercury being dumped into rivers. Recent mine collapses have killed thousands of people. Lawless practices create huge profits that benefit the military junta, local militias and corporations. Since the military coup in 2021, unregulated extraction has risen massively.
Today, Myanmar's many landscapes are under threat from over-exploitation: forest cover is shrinking rapidly, fish populations have dropped dramatically, and air and water quality are often compromised by industrial work and mining operations. Since the country relies on its natural resources for economic growth, this is problematic for the future. The situation is made more difficult because of the poor distribution of Myanmar's resources, with most of the population living in poverty and not receiving the benefits of this natural wealth.
Discover how Myanmar's many different peoples have created extraordinary objects from the country's wealth of natural resources in Burma to Myanmar, which runs until 11 February 2024. You can also find the book that accompanies the exhibition in the British Museum shop.
Supported by Zemen Paulos and Jack Ryan