A long thin scroll made of gold, studded with rubies at each end and covered in a fine script.

Myanmar's connected cultures: a timeline

See the exhibition

Burma to Myanmar is open from 2 November 2023 – 11 February 2024.

Journey through time at the crossroads of Southeast Asia.

The history of Myanmar – also known as Burma – is a complex web of faith, culture, trade and empire and this timeline helps you navigate through the millennia. Explore the rich plurality of the kingdoms, empires, trading hubs, kinship networks and states that once composed Myanmar; their colonisation by the British; and the events since independence in 1948.

Burma to Myanmar timeline

200 BC – about AD 900

Early peoples in present-day Myanmar

Two sides of a dull silver coin: with a conch shell and a studded periphery and the other with a srivatsa
Pyu silver coin with a conch (sankha) and a srivatsa symbol, present-day central Myanmar, AD 700–900.
Some of the earliest urban centres in Southeast Asia were occupied by the Pyu peoples from about 200 BC. The Pyu had cultural links to Indian kingdoms, the Himalayas, Sri Lanka, China and Dvaravati in present-day Thailand. Pyu silver coins circulated from around AD 500–900, ceasing as the Pyu culture slowly disappeared. The coins were standardised in size and weight, but whether they were used for trade or as a cache of wealth for rulers is not clear. Their shape and patterning – circular with central motifs and dotting – are similar to those found in India and Persia. The imagery includes auspicious emblems associated with Hinduism, Buddhism and kingship, such as conches, bulls, rising suns and the special 'srivatsa' symbol.

About AD 800–1300

Buddhist networks

A terracotta clay tablet the shape of an upturned teardrop, with a seated Buddha in the centre
Clay religious tablet with a Mon inscription, Bodh Gaya, northeast India, about 1070–1099.
Numerous kingdoms arose in different parts of present-day Myanmar between about AD 300 and AD 1300. Many of these, including Arakan, Thaton, and Bagan, had strong connections to the Buddhist world stretching from the Himalayas to India, the island of Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Around AD 800, the site of the historical Buddha's enlightenment at Bodh Gaya in northeast India became particularly important and pilgrims travelled there from all over the Buddhist world. This religious tablet was found at Bodhgaya, but it has a Mon-language inscription on the side, indicating that pilgrims from what is today lower Myanmar were present there by the AD 1000s. Bagan kings also sent embassies to repair the temple at Bodhgaya, and its architecture was replicated at Bagan. 

About 1100–1500

Trading connections

A globe-shaped storage jar, glazed a light olive green, with impressions of cockerels and elephants at the neck
Storage jar, glazed stoneware, present-day lower Myanmar, about 1400–1600. 
The location of Myanmar's kingdoms between present-day India, Bangladesh, China, and Thailand, and its position at the top of the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, meant that they were well placed to participate in global trade. The ports of the kingdom of Bago in lower Myanmar teemed with Chinese, Indian, Arab and Southeast Asian traders – and later with European, Persian and Abyssinian merchants. Goods came from far afield: examples of Roman glass and metalware have been found around the region. Imports and exports included products like gems, teak, sugar, cotton, rice, cowrie shells and cloth. The ports were also trans-shipment points with goods being taken over the extensive land trade routes to inland villages, towns and cities, as well as to highland communities like the Karen and Kachin and the numerous peoples in southwestern China. Twante and Mottama (Martaban) on the south coast made sturdy ceramic jars like this one which were popularly used on ships to store goods, water and food.

1500s–1600s

Flourishing kingdoms

An illustrated print of a city with mountains in the background, and palm trees, dwellings and elephants in the foreground. A ribbon banner in the sky says: Arrakan
Wouter Schouten (1638–1704), The Royal Capital of Arrakan. Paper, printed in Amsterdam, 1708.
Wouter Schouten, a Dutch naval surgeon, was one of the many Europeans who visited Arakan in the 1600s. On his return home, he published an illustrated account of his travels. This panoramic view of the cosmopolitan city Mrauk U from his book correctly depicts natural features, like the curves of the river. While the buildings are represented in a fanciful manner, the images offer a sense of the kingdom's scale and grandeur at the time. Made wealthy and powerful through trade, Mrauk U expanded into neighbouring areas, including the Muslim Bengal Sultanate, the Hindu Tripura kingdom, Portuguese-Asian territories and lower Myanmar, reaching its zenith in the 1500s–1600s. In 1784 Mrauk U was annexed by King Bodawpaya (r. 1782–1819) of central Myanmar and then, in 1826, it was acquired by the British as part of the settlement at the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War.

1550s–1820s

Expanding empires

A long thin scroll made of gold, studded with rubies at each end and covered in a fine script.
Golden letter from King Alaungpaya to George II, gold and rubies, present-day central Myanmar, 1756. Photo © Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library, Hannover, Germany.
After the decline of the Bagan kingdom in the late 1200s, several city-states arose in central Myanmar. The area became consolidated from the 1530s under the Toungoo dynasty, which expanded to become one of the largest Southeast Asian empires, absorbing the southern kingdom of Bago and the Shan states to the east, attacking the kingdom of Ayutthaya in central Thailand, and colonising the kingdom of Lan Na in northern Thailand for about 200 years. When Bago rebelled in the 1740s, the Toungoo dynasty collapsed, paving the way for the rise of the Konbaung dynasty, which also became a vast empire. The Konbaung founder, King Alaungpaya, sought to establish himself diplomatically and, in 1756, he sent this gold letter set with 24 Burmese rubies to King George II of Great Britain to introduce himself. He also graciously permitted the British to use a port on the south coast. Unfortunately, George never responded and merely sent the letter to his personal library in Hannover, Germany, causing great offence. 

1800s–1930s

Highland regions

A man sits on a shapely wooden chair, with long embroidered robes, headwear similar to a turban, smoking a thin metal pipe
James Henry Green (1893–1975), Photograph of a Kachin leader. Paper, present-day northern Myanmar, 1920s. Reproduced by permission of the James Henry Green Collection, Brighton & Hove Museums.
The diverse highland regions of Myanmar contained complex political networks often organised by kinship, rather than states. For example, the powerful Kachin peoples were linked by clans extending into Yunnan and north-eastern India. Highland communities like the Kachin held considerable influence between states by controlling areas rich in resources and access to strategic mountain passes. Inter-cultural knowledge and the ability to negotiate with different peoples were crucial to success in highland communities. Leaders often indicated their cross-cultural authority through their dress. Here, the Hkahku Kachin chief, Nga Lang La, wears a Chinese dragon robe, a Chinese helmet held in place by his Hkahku turban, and a Burmese man's skirt-cloth. He smokes a silver pipe commonly used across the region.

Until the 1880s

Spheres of influence

A map showing colourful mountains, a large expanse of red and of yellow, separated by a winding road or river.
Shan map, paper, present-day eastern Myanmar, about 1889. Reproduced by kind permission of Cambridge University Library.
Unlike today's notion of territory as defined by borders, power in Southeast Asia was historically exercised through spheres of influence. Because the region was historically underpopulated, territorial control was less important than retaining a tax-paying population and the support of surrounding polities. Political relationships were often maintained through tribute, gift-giving, protection and warfare. From about the 1200s, Shan principalities spread across the east and north-central part of Myanmar, each waxing and waning over time and becoming wealthy because of the areas's rich natural resources. This map shows an area along the Nam Mao (Burmese: Shweli) River where three Shan states converged – Namhkam (the area in red), Selan (black, in the top left corner) that was a tributary dependent of Namhkam, and Mong Mao (yellow). It may have been produced as a guide for when British, Shan and Chinese authorities worked together to determine borders in the late 1880s. The related Shan communities were divided when Mong Mao was given to China.

1826–1948

Colonial eclipse

A gilded, lacquered figure of a Buddha in a cross-legged position. The figure sits on a plinth adorned with scrolls of leaves and blossoms.
Seated Buddha image, lacquer, wood, gold, textile, shell, present-day central or lower Myanmar, about 1790–1824.
Britain annexed Burma in three stages, in 1824–26, 1852, and 1885. The First Anglo-Burmese War was triggered by border issues between the East India Company and the Konbaung dynasty's expansion into Arakan. In 1826, the British took Manipur (now in India), Arakan and part of the Thai-Malay peninsula from the Burmese. The rest of lower Myanmar was seized after the second war in 1852. Finally, on 1 January 1886, the whole country was formally incorporated into British India, with a new capital at Rangoon (Yangon). The British empire's administrative procedures were imposed and local social structures, like the monarchy, were abolished. The wars were accompanied by substantial looting, and this Buddha image was one of more than 170 objects obtained by the naval officer Captain Marryat. Figures like this were typically made in central Myanmar for sale in the Shan states. Elements like the jewelled band across the forehead were a new stylistic development at the time, suggesting the image was recently produced when Marryat acquired it.

About 1863

New materials

An embroidered tunic in deep blue, red and silver
Karen tunic (hse), cotton, felted wool, coix seed, probably present-day lower Myanmar, before 1863.
Expanding trade networks and industrialisation brought new technologies and materials to British-Burma. One trade item was synthetic dye. The majority of these dyes were developed in the 1850s, reaching Myanmar in the early 1860s. The exception is Chrome Yellow, which was produced as a dye from the 1820s. These new materials spread quickly along the trade routes that spanned the region. The British Museum's Science Department has analysed six Karen textiles in the collection, dating from the 1830s to about 1900, to understand when synthetic materials were adopted. This tunic, collected by Morden Carthew before 1863, combines natural and synthetic materials, indicating that today's remote areas were once closely connected with global trade.

1870s–1948

Ethnicities

Thirteen figurines of people in different styles of dress.
Wooden models of ethnic peoples, wood, possibly eastern present-day Myanmar, 1930s or mid-1940s.
While regional courts once conducted surveys for tax and mobilisation purposes, British colonial administrative procedures like the census, which began in 1872, also established boundaries and categorised peoples. Parts of present-day Myanmar experienced colonialism differently. Parliamentary rule was imposed on central and lower British-Burma and Arakan, while areas like the highlands and Shan states were controlled indirectly through local rulers. The British stereotyped the vast complexity of peoples and homogenised ethnically diverse Buddhists into a generic Burman identity. They partially defined ethnicity by classifying clothing through writings, collections, paintings and models like these. They failed to understand that local dress and customs were flexible, altering for changing contexts. Yet at the same time, the region's diverse populations developed their own modern local identities based on cultural contexts and historical experiences.

1940s

The Second World War

A marble bust of General Aung San
Bust of General Aung San, painted plaster, possibly present-day Myanmar, late 1950s–early 1980s.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there were many protests and strikes opposing colonial control. Some reforms were enacted, including separation from British India in 1937. The invasion of the Japanese in 1942 during the Second World War ended these changes. At first the recently formed Burma Independence Army (BIA) under General Aung San joined the Japanese as a way to escape British control. When it became clear the Japanese were merely a new coloniser, Aung San switched the army's allegiance, provided talks for independence began after the war. He also negotiated with the Shan, Chin and Kachin groups to persuade them to join the new Union of Burma. Aung San is regarded as the founder of modern Burma, although he was assassinated by a political opponent just before independence.

Since 1948

After independence

A painting of a red car with 7 visible wheels like those of a military tank.
San Minn (1951–2021), Express 2. Oil on canvas, Yangon, Myanmar, 1986.
Upon independence in 1948, Myanmar was still economically and physically ravaged by the Second World War. The new government also faced the monumental task of unifying a country that had never been a single entity before. Although the various regions were promised internal self-rule in discussions in 1947, this was not fulfilled after independence, resulting in civil wars. A military coup in 1962 initiated a period of severe isolation and violence. Protests over corruption in 1988 led to Aung San Suu Kyi (b. 1945), the daughter of General Aung San, becoming one of the founders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party. She was arrested and watched by the military until semi-civilian rule was allowed in the 2010s. This was a period of liberalisation that ended with the military coup of February 2021 and which plunged the country into another civil war. The impact of successive military governments and extreme censorship has been catastrophic for the population, as well as damaging for art and culture. Throughout Myanmar today, the legacies of colonialism, decades of civil war, repressive dictatorships and corruption cast a long shadow, as indicated by San Minn's 1986 painting of a blood-red car (only available to those with military connections) with tank-tread tyres.