The key to controlling Myanmar is controlling the plains around the Irrawaddy River, which provide ample farmland to support a population as well as access to lucrative trade routes in the Indian Ocean. But the highlands around the Irrawaddy River Valley hedge in lowland powers, threatening them with invasion from above. The mountains are a natural buffer between the Irrawaddy lowland civilization and neighboring valley civilizations in India, China and Thailand. These neighbors, China in particular, also seek to use the highlands as a buffer and compete with the Irrawaddy Valley for influence over the area. For this reason, lowland powers must either absorb or dominate their highland frontier.
The country's lowlands comprise Myanmar's core, centered on the Irrawaddy River Valley. The river and its valley encompass more than half of the country's territory, with the Irrawaddy flowing south from the mountains of Myanmar's Kachin state through the central dry zone and then across the fertile Irrawaddy Delta to empty into the Andaman Sea. The lowlands are essential to the nation and are home to most of Myanmar's commercial activity, the majority of its population and its three main cities: Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw. Most exports travel out of Yangon by sea, and the Irrawaddy Delta and dry zone produce most of Myanmar's agricultural output. The dry zone is the heartland of the nation's ethnic majority Bamar, who make up 68 percent of the country's population of approximately 60 million and have controlled the government and military for most of Myanmar's post-independence history.
The highlands surround the Irrawaddy Valley on three sides. To the west, the Arakan Mountains run from India's Manipur state into Myanmar and include the lesser Naga hills, Chin hills and Patkai range. To the north, along the Sino-Myanmar border, the mountains split into two regions. The 3,000-meter (9,800-foot) Hengduan Mountains — the source of the Salween, Irrawaddy and Mekong rivers — comprise the northern portion of the border. Farther south these mountains slope down into a plateau called the Shan hills. From there, the mountains descend south along the Thai-Myanmar border, becoming the Karen hills and then the Tenasserim hills before ending as the Central range of the Malay Peninsula.
This horseshoe of mountains around the Irrawaddy core is essential to securing any lowland power center. The highland region is also difficult, and at times impossible, to centrally govern. Often, two villages separated by a valley will speak mutually unintelligible dialects. Rugged terrain makes it hard for lowland states to project force into the region or for a single dominant power to arise among the ethnic groups that inhabit the region. Instead, highlanders rely on small power bases, formed along ethnic lines. Worse still for lowland powers, the highland areas are only one part of a much larger complex of mountains that extends north into China, west into India and east into Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. This not only allows highland insurgents to flee easily into neighboring territory, it also leaves Myanmar open to foreign incursions by groups hardy enough to brave the terrain. The Bamar themselves originally invaded the Irrawaddy Valley from the highlands, sweeping down on horseback in the 9th century from the Tibetan Plateau.
The rugged terrain of the upland border areas has produced a number of ethnic minority groups that have not been absorbed into the state. They make up more than 30 percent of Myanmar's population and are divided between five main highland ethnicities (Karen, Shan, Karenni, Chin and Kachin) and a number of smaller groups, including the Wa and Pa-Oh. The highland's rough terrain historically has shielded highland power centers from lowland domination and prevented the lowland from absorbing them into the population. Today, the highlands afford cover for a number of ethnic insurgent groups supported by smuggling operations and foreign backing.
Loose Borders, Frayed Edges
The territory of Myanmar has only been unified under a single power during three periods of its history: the Pagan Empire (849-1297), the Taungoo Dynasty (1486-1752) and the Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885). None of these unifications resembled the modern conception of a state. Instead, the highland areas were governed lightly and operated more as buffer zones — owing allegiance to the lowland Irrawaddy and to other powers as well. These Irrawaddy states were also inherently unstable, tending toward chaos and eventual fragmentation under pressure from the uplands. Pagan dissolved through Mongol and Shan invasions, Taungoo because of pressure from India's upland areas in Manipur and Thailand's Chiang Mai, and Konbaung because of the British invasion from the western uplands simultaneous with a sea assault. Myanmar's geopolitics have always made it difficult to govern the highlands, which are key to the governance of the lowlands.
British rule left Myanmar with a legacy of essentially artificial borders. The British formalized the borders of what had been until then a loosely organized territory. The British colonial government also exacerbated the already deep ethnic divisions in the country by centralizing governance into a single source of power, ending the loose, at-will relations of the pre-British period. British administrations also relied on a "divide and rule" system that favored ethnic minority groups, which it called the "martial races" and used as the backbone of the British military in Myanmar to balance against the majority Bamar.
Toward Military Rule
Myanmar's modern history of rule by a military junta emerged from its innate highland-lowland dynamic and the circumstances of its independence. Myanmar (known as Burma at the time) became an independent state in 1948. (The military government changed the country's name to Myanmar in 1989 to reflect a more inclusive national identity — while Burma and Myanmar have the same etymology, Burma sounds more like "Bamar," the dominant ethnicity.) During World War II, the country was divided along geopolitical lines. The Bamar under Gen. Aung San (father of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi) invited the Japanese into the country as liberators while the minority groups fought a vicious guerrilla war against the Japanese in the hinterlands with British support.
Following the defeat of the Japanese and long negotiations for independence, Myanmar became a multi-ethnic parliamentary democracy, with broad representation given to its minorities. The country was a paragon of the newly independent states, with Myanmar diplomat U Thant serving as secretary-general of the United Nations and Sao Shwe Thaik, an ethnic minority Shan, as Myanmar's first president. But the divided parliamentary government and weak military could not keep the nation from fragmenting. The ethnic Bamar in control of the Irrawaddy were inherently divided. Three factions defected from the government and became insurgents in the Irrawaddy lowlands: the White Flag communists, Red Flag communists and military defectors known as the Revolutionary Burma Army. Splits and infighting continued through the 1950s. Simultaneously, the ethnic Karen, under the leadership of the militant Karen National Union, overran the city of Mandalay and laid siege to Insein township outside of Yangon.
The central government became so hedged in by insurgencies that it became known as the "Rangoon government," after the then-capital city of Rangoon (now known as Yangon) to which federal authority was confined. Over the following decade of political infighting, the military consolidated into the most effective institution in the nation. In 1958, Prime Minister U Nu invited armed forces chief of staff Gen. Ne Win to become acting prime minister and, after a brief return to civilian rule, Ne Win dissolved the parliament in 1962.
Under military rule, Myanmar was able to begin managing its internal conflicts. Ne Win put in place a highly centralized government with strong state planning and a major role for the military. Myanmar essentially became a siege state, diverting resources to support its military apparatus and shutting itself off from the international community in an attempt to avoid foreign meddling. Moreover, it tried to avoid taking sides in the Cold War by joining the Non-Aligned Movement. These tactics led to the gradual push of insurgencies to border areas and out of the Irrawaddy River Valley. These groups enjoyed the Cold War backing of regional powers — the Chin and Rakhine were supported by India, the Wa, Kachin and Shan by China, and the Karen and Karenni by Thailand. But junta rule also justified military abuse of power, corruption and its seizure of private and state resources.
By the mid-1980s, Myanmar's economy had stagnated because of isolation and mismanagement. Extreme currency reforms in 1987, meant to revive the economy, instead caused huge losses for the population and led to massive pro-democracy protests in August 1988, known as the 8888 uprising, in which Aung San Suu Kyi became prominent. The military attempted to open up economically in the 1990s while retaining its strong hold on the Irrawaddy, but the pressure of Western sanctions made this impossible, leading to continued economic problems. The military was left with one option: to trade in its assertive role against the insurgencies and return to the tactics of the 1940s and 1950s. In 2010, the military junta handed over power to a civilian government, albeit one with a strong role for the military.
Myanmar's core geopolitical divide remains the primary concern of any power seeking to govern the modern nation. Although Naypyidaw now is in the hands of a civilian government, the constraints of geopolitics and the ever-present need to assert centralized authority remain.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this analysis misstated the date of Burmese independence.
- Part 1: Myanmar Confronts its Geography
- Part 2: Myanmar's Quest for Unity Faces Challenges
- Part 3: Myanmar: Emerging with a Wary Eye
- Part 4: Myanmar Pushes for Control Over its Restive Border Regions