A red and yellow map with a pale river snaking across it left to right. The edges are surrounded my mountains.

Burma to Myanmar: 1500 years of connection and isolation

By Alexandra Green, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia

Publication date: 18 July 2023

Hear from the curator of our upcoming show, Burma to Myanmar, as we explore a story of trade, faith and empire at the crossroads of Southeast Asia.


2023 is the 75th anniversary of Myanmar's independence from British colonial control. Yet, its path since 1948 has not been easy. The contradictions that characterise the country are demonstrated by the lack of a clear name: should it be Burma or Myanmar? There is no consensus.

A country that defies categorisation

Myanmar, as the country is officially known, is located at the western edge of mainland Southeast Asia. The country borders Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand, and sits atop the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea, and the Gulf of Martaban, stretching from the foothills of the Himalayas to the tropical Thai-Malay peninsula. It is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world and home to a variety of religions. While the majority are Buddhist, others are Muslim, Hindu, Christian and animist. Today, about 55 million people live in Myanmar (for comparison, 67 million people live in the UK), most of whom are farmers as the country is overwhelmingly rural.

Map showing Myanmar and it's neighbours, as well as it's place in a wider view of the world.
Map showing present-day Myanmar and bordering countries.

Although considered a developing nation, it is rich in natural resources ranging from jadeite, amber, and rubies to teak, rice, and petroleum oil, as well as rare earths. These materials have been made into extraordinary objects, like a gold and ruby letter written by King Alaungpaya to George II in 1756. It is these resources, together with its prime location, that have secured Myanmar's place in both overland and sea trade networks for several millennia.

A long golden panel decorated with a line of rubies a either end.
The Golden Letter of Alaungpaya, gold and rubies, present-day Myanmar, 1756.  Photo © Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek – Niedersächsische Landesbibliothek, Hannover, Ms IV 751a.

Despite being isolated from the global community since the early 1960s after a military coup and relatively unknown in the UK today, Myanmar's historic kingdoms, states, empires and kinship networks (complex social organisations and hierarchies based on blood and marital alliances) once enjoyed close connections with the world around them, as can be seen in the cultural outputs of its many peoples. The varied cultures of Myanmar have been shaped by engagement with global trade routes from India and China to Africa, the Middle East and Europe, as well as its religious networks and expansionary empires.

The crossroads of Southeast Asia

Trade has been an important means of cross-cultural interaction throughout Myanmar's history. A silver tanka coin in the show, for instance, indicates the trade networks of the kingdom of Arakan based at Mrauk U in present-day western Myanmar starting in 1430.

Both sides of a silver coin showing inscriptions in three languages.
Silver coin issued by Dhammaraja Hussain, present-day Myanmar, 1612–22.

From the 1580s–1635, kings minted coins with inscriptions in three languages – Bengali, Persian (written in Arabic script) and Arakanese – to express power and sovereignty across the region, as seen here. The king who issued this coin was known as both Manh Khamon and Dhammaraja Hussain, the latter a combination of a Buddhist title and a Muslim name, demonstrating the multi-cultural nature of the kingdom.

Ceramic jar

A nearly spherical light-brown ceramic jar
Ceramic storage jar, present-day Myanmar, 1200–1500.

Similarly, glazed stoneware ceramic jars from the kingdom of Hanthawaddy in lower Myanmar, like the one shown above, also played an important role in trade. Associated with the Mon peoples, the region of lower Myanmar has long been a multi-cultural space, having had early contact with central Myanmar's Pyu peoples, central Thailand's Dvaravati, and northern Thailand's Haripunchai. Situated on the Bay of Bengal, its port cities were filled with Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian traders, and later Portuguese, Armenian, Persian, Abyssinian, Venetian and Jewish merchants. The region is particularly known for its ceramic jars that were used to transport water and food, including dried or salted goods like pepper and mangos, on trading vessels to and from many parts of the world since at least the 1300s.


The highland regions, particularly what is now Kachin, Chin, Kayah and Kayin States and part of Sagaing division, are also highly diverse. Although not part of a unified state before 1948 when Myanmar became independent from Britain, highland peoples had considerable power as they controlled access to strategic mountain passes for trade and diplomatic purposes. The Kachin region's extensive contact and trade with China is in part indicated by the fact that the Kachin peoples adopted gunpowder at an early date (gunpowder was invented in China sometime in the first millennium AD), and Europeans looking for a trade route into China in the late 19th century collected Kachin objects associated with weapons in substantial quantities. Textiles also demonstrate the movement of people around the region through the appearance of different patterns, weaving techniques and fashions. The diamond pattern on this blanket is shared by many Kachin groups, while the tufting and spots are found primarily among the Nung-Rawang peoples.

A red a beige blanket with diamond patterns and tufts.
Nung-Rawang-Kachin blanket, hemp and animal hair, present-day Myanmar, 19th century. Photo © University of Oxford, Pitt Rivers Museum. 

Conquest and cultures

On two occasions kingdoms based in central Myanmar developed into large empires that extended across vast areas from Assam and Manipur in the west to Thailand and Laos in the east, and down the Thai-Malay peninsula. Warfare enabled cultural transfer in Myanmar as the emphasis was upon acquiring people, who were integrated into local society, rather than territory. For instance, the sack of the kingdom of Ayutthaya in central Thailand by the Burmese army in 1767 resulted in the movement of tens of thousands of people to central Myanmar, and the subsequent multicultural environment infused art and material production with new ideas, materials and techniques. Thai theatrical troupes performing the Ramayana epic narrative became greatly admired at the Burmese court, resulting in the popularisation of the story in Myanmar. It was diffused around the country by itinerant actors and reproduced in a variety of media, including textile hangings.

Detail from a textile hanging showing colourful figures and landscapes on a black background
Textile hanging (detail) with scenes from the Ramayana, present-day Myanmar, early 1900s.

Shwe chi doe, also known as kalagas, are panels of fabric appliqued to a velvet or thick cotton ground adorned with sequins and gold and silver wrapped threads. Long, thin panels like the one you can see above were hung in the eaves of roofs and would have been produced in sets to illustrate the many popular scenes of the lengthy Ramayana.

Colonial eclipse

As the Konbaung kingdom, founded in 1752 in central Myanmar, expanded in the early 19th century, it came up against the British in India and disputes about territorial rights led to the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1824–26. The second and third wars, over disputes about fines issued to British enterprises, followed in 1852 and 1885. Annexed piecemeal after each of these wars, British Burma was ruled as a province of India until 1937 when it formally became a separate colony. Parts of the country were administered directly in a parliamentary system, causing major culture shock, while others like the northern Kachin regions, Shan states and the Chin hills north of Arakan, were controlled indirectly through local rulers.  


The British colonial period led to tremendous changes in the country, impacting art, culture, religion and society extensively. One of the alterations was the imposition of hard borders with Thailand, China and British India. Where various Shan principalities once stretched across current borders, in the 1880s British, Chinese and local administrators worked to define a border between the northern Shan states and China. A map of an area along the Nam Mao (Shweli in Burmese) River shows the states of Namhkam (red), Selan (black) and Mong Mao (yellow) along an approximately 47km stretch of the river.

A red and yellow map with a pale river snaking across it left to right. The edges are surrounded my mountains.
Map showing three Shan states, paper, present-day Myanmar, about 1889. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Prior to the late 1880s, Namhkam had been independent with Selan under its political sway; after 1888, they were made part of the Hsenwi administrative division (now Myanmar) established by the British, while Mong Mao became part of Yunnan province in China. 

Buddhist world

Another result of British annexation was that as the Burmese kings' political control waned, they made efforts to expand their roles in the Buddhist world. King Mindon (reigned 1853–78) hosted a meeting of monks from around the region to examine Buddhist texts in 1871, for instance. In keeping with changes occurring across the Buddhist world during the 19th century, Burmese Buddha images became more naturalistic looking and, in addition to the standard seated pose, were also produced in standing and reclining postures to reflect the various events of the historical Buddha's life.

A gold Buddha stands on a flower, palms downward and outstretched.
Standing Buddha image offering a myrobalan fruit. Wood, lacquer, gold and glass, present-day Myanmar, late 19th century.

The above standing image, with its elegantly folded robes edged with glass inlays, offers the devotee a medicinal fruit as a cure for spiritual woes.

Modern-day Myanmar

The Second World War hastened independence from the British, which occurred on 4 January 1948. At this time, Burma was economically and physically devastated, and the government had the task of uniting groups and territories that had never been part of a single state. Civil wars began in 1949 because the promised federal system never materialised. The military then launched a coup in 1962, setting the country on the Burmese 'Path to Socialism' that resulted in severe isolation, violence and endemic poverty. San Minn's 1986 painting of a car with tank treads exposes the corruption where cars, housing, education and modern healthcare became available only to those with military connections. The colour red was often censored in art for its allusions to violence and rebellion, as it does here. 

Painting of a red car with tank tracks instead of wheels.
San Minn (1951–2021), Express 2. Oil on canvas, 1986. Reproduced by permission of the artist's family.

Modern-day Myanmar 2

In 2008 the military government adopted a new constitution and there was a transition to a semi-civilian government in 2010. This led to an explosion of new works and artistic experimentation with new imported materials, artists' residencies abroad and exhibitions of local and international material, as well as the increasing production of lacquer and other objects for export and the tourism industry. Although the National League for Democracy party won the 2020 election, the military declared the vote invalid and seized control again in February 2021, reinstating heavy censorship. Artist-activists have responded defiantly and making art in Myanmar has once again become an act of rebellion and a way of reimagining politics. 

Book now

See the objects Alexandra talks about here in our upcoming major exhibition, Burma to Myanmar, which opens 2 November. Book your early bird ticket now to save at least 20% on the standard ticket price. 

Supported by Zemen Paulos and Jack Ryan