Myanmar: pre-colonial & colonial socio-economic developments

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011
29 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of content


1. Geographic & historical basics of socio-economic developments until 1948

2. Overview: The history of Myanmar

3. Pyu City States (ca. 100 – 850 B.C.)
3.1. Pyu City States: Background
3.2. Pyu City states: Socio-economic conditions and developments

4. Socio-economic developments during the Konbaung Empire
4.1. Konbaung Empire: Background
4.2 Konbaung Dynasty: Socio-economic conditions and developments

5. Burma under British rule (1852 - 1948)
5.1. Burma under British rule: Background
5.2 Burma under British rule: Socio-economic conditions and developments

6. Conclusions: Socio-economic developments in Myanmar until 1948

7. Appendix

8. List of illustrations

9. Bibliography


Modern-day Republic of the Union of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is shaped by its geographical idiosyncrasies and its history. Both factors are blended into the socio-economic developments of the country which are addressed in this paper. The focus here lies on the pre-colonial and colonial times. The names Burma and Myanmar are used equivalent and without political implications.

To approximate an assessment of those two phases, it is necessary start with a short introduction to the crucial geographic and historical factors affecting the social-economic developments until 1948, the year of Myanmar’s independence. The definition of the term socio-economic developments is allocated here as well.

Subsequently a short overview on the most important periods of Myanmar’s history is added. The following detailed description of history and socio-economic conditions and developments of three distinct periods, the Pyu city states, the Konbaung Dynasty and the British rule, enables a general view on the socio-economic developments of the time before the state’s independence in 1948.

This paper will proceed along one basic assumption: Independent of their time and their technological cultures all three Empires dealt with in this paper had to face the same difficulties: the scarcity of work force due to low density of population and the divide between the ‘rice basket’ Lower Myanmar and huge areas often depending on its supply of food in the rest of the country. Consequently the history of socio-economic development in Myanmar is hence the history of how each of the examined regimes dealt with those difficulties.

1. Geographic & historical basics of socio-economic developments until 1948

As aforementioned geography and history shaped modern-day country of Myanmar. Among the most formative geographic influences is the general north-southbound direction of mountains ranges, valleys and rivers; as well as the varying quality of soil for agricultural use and the seasonal changes due to the monsoons. Water is the third determinant: Due to the natural barrier for rain clouds of the mountain ranges and the seasonality of the monsoon the availability of water is not always given.

The development of settlements and later realms was triggered by and adjusted to the geographical conditions. Especially the availability of water and arable soil was indispensable for the establishing of permanent settlements and the change from hunters and gatherers to peasants. Although historical reflection is limited by the number of archeological finds it is possible to distinguish several phases in the more than 750.000 years old history of the country. Myanmar’s history until the middle of the twentieth century was coined by three dominant forms of government: city states, dynastic empires and foreign rule in the time of colonialism. The size of the country and its fragmentation into several geographical distinct parts offer an explanation why almost none of the Empires covered the whole area of today’s country. Another and possibly even the more crucial factor limiting the possible size of a dominion was population: To control an area a sovereign needs people stationed and living there. Uninhabited country is indeed no man’s land. Low density of population marks Myanmar throughout its history. It also indicates why the ruling systems of the different times had different population politics: Some were intended to keep people at one place, others to relocate them somewhere else. Labour force was a scarce resource, thus stable economic development required circumspect population politics often including slavery. To gain surplus labour above the level of pure subsistence was necessary:

Thus a characteristic of rice was that it could be grown on the same land year after year, without in any fall in yields. Given an adequate water supply, the major determinant of production was labour. (KAUR 2004: 122)

Each period of Myanmar dealt with the labour force problem in an individual way and therefore had characteristic socio-economic developments. The term socio-economic is in this paper used according to the definition by Leser:

“Sozio-ökonomisch: Bezeichnung für Sachverhalte, Strukturen, Entwicklungen usw., die auf Kräfte, Verhaltensweisen, Aktivitäten und Entwicklungen im Bereich von Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft zurückgehen. […] Hierbei können die sozialen und die ökonomischen Sachverhalte häufig nicht voneinander getrennt werden.“ (LESER et al. 2005: 863)

Transferred to a historical view on Myanmar a number of dominant factors for the socio-economic dynamics manifest themselves: The rice cultivation and its needs; the integration in transnational and even transcontinental trade routes; the low density and inherent mobility of population and last but not least the cohesive religion, the Theravada Buddhism. Based on these conditions different regimes developed, influenced the socio-economic developments of their time and vanished again. The next part of this paper will present a short overview on Mynamar history; followed by an analysis of three main periods in detail. The periods discussed are the Pyu city states, the Konbaung Dynasty and the colonial time under British Rule.

2. Overview: The history of Myanmar

In the context of this paper a historical review in detail is neither possible nor intended. Furthermore the extant findings do not allow conclusions about the socio-economic developments throughout every stage of history.

In general, the history of Myanmar is divided in three main phases. Those are the precolonial times (until 1855), the colonial period (1855 – 1948) and the modern history after the independence in 1948. This paper will focus only on the first two periods. The precolonial times faced a range of migrations and different systems of political organization. The two precolonial systems dealt with in this paper are the Pyu City States and the Konbaung Empire. Those two eras were selected not only due to their importance in the history of Myanmar, but also due to their different approaches to rule: independent, interacting city states (similar to ancient Greek Polis) versus semi-divine centralized Dynasty with hegemonial claims. The annexation by British troops and the transformation into a part of the colony British India marked a caesura of Myanmar’s history. Thus the time of the annexation and the decades under British rule and their enormous consequences for society and economy in Myanmar are dealt with as third important period of socio-economic changes.

The prehistory and history of Myanmar is more than 750.000 years old.[1] For the oldest periods finds are rare and thus absolute conclusions are not possible. For later periods more evidences are extant. The different and clearly distinguishable periods of Myanmar precolonial and colonial history are sketched in the table below.

Table 1. Periods of Myanmar history. All dates according to HTIN AUNG (1967) & MOORE 2007

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

3. Pyu City States (ca. 100 – 850 B.C.)

3.1. Pyu City States: Background

After the Neolithic Revolution[2], beginning around 3500 B.C., and the associated change of economic behaviour from hunting and gathering to agriculture, permanent settlements evolved in Myanmar. A number of larger settlements already existed when the process of Neolithic change was concluded in 300 AD. These first towns are ascribed to two different cultures, the Mon people and the Pyu people. Those two groups may be described as carriers of the transformation from Bronze-Iron cultures to Hindu-Buddhist walled cities (MOORE 2007: 129). The Pyu, and their city states are portrayed in this part of the paper. The focus is here on the way the Pyu dealt with geographical conditions as well as on the socio-economic developments of the Pyu time.

The question is who were those people whose religious sites and walled cities are still traceable in modern Myanmar? The Pyu people were a lingo-ethnic group which migrated into Ayeyarwady delta in the first century AD. Among several waves of migrants departing from the mountainous region of Eastern Tibet moving southward, the Pyu people are the earliest known wave (LING 1979:5). Traces of them are also found in foreign texts:

“The first known mention of them is certain Chinese texts of the Tsin Dynasty (265-420CE), which refer to the Pyu as wild and disorderly tribes living in the mountains of China’s Burma border; they tattooed themselves, and some were cannibals.“ (LING 1979: 5)

The Pyu moved into Burma following the course of the river Ayeyarwaddy and came in contact with the Mons and the Buddhism (LING 1979:5). Along their way southwards they founded a number of settlements, some of those later became kingdoms (HTIN AUNG 1967: 7). Their cities existed until the 9th century and were protected by walls including the agriculturally used areas. Their settlements were strategically positioned close to lakes, ponds and streams (MOORE 2007: 10). This was so important because, depending on the monsoon, 80% of the rainfall for some regions occurs in just five months’ time. (MOORE 2007: 33).

The Pyu were according to Htin Aung “… more vigorous and more united and thereby able to make the Mon kingdoms to their vassal states.” (HTIN AUNG 1967: 8). A clear distinction between Mon and Pyu is on the other hand not always possible. Moore suggest to use the terms Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman groups instead of Mon and Pyu, regarding the two groups not as irreconcilable cultures but as two fragmented language families labeled Mon and Pyu (MOORE 2007: 233). Keeping the difficulties of comparing and distinguishing groups or cultures without sufficient number of sources and finds in mind, I will carry on naming the two ethno-linguistic groups Mon and Pyu in this paper.

3.2. Pyu City states: Socio-economic conditions and developments

The Pyu territory was not marked by one dominant kingdom or a unified empire: The Pyu founded city states which were per se self-sufficient, but interrelated by changing systems of dependencies (HTIN AUNG 1967: 8). They profited from Myanmar connections to transnational trade routes (HTIN AUNG 1967: 7). It is assumable that profits from trade along the overland routes between China and India enabled the formation of the rich and important city states. The favorable location at the mouth of the Ayeyarwady delta enabled maritime trade in addition for the most important city Sri Ksetra. Situated close to today’s city of Pyay (formerly Prome) the city state Sri Ksetra was the outstanding Pyu settlement. Economic significance and political dominance allowed the building of religious architecture and strong fortifications as well.

“By the seventh century the Pyu kingdom of Sri Ksetra [modern: Prome] had become famous in the Buddhist world.” (LING 1979: 6)

Sri Ksetra covered an area of around 30km², surrounded by walls of about 15 kilometres length. The name of this largest city of the Pyu means “field of glory” or “auspicious land” (MOORE 2007: 167).

The further question is why were the Pyu so successful in cultivating the land and establishing their cities? The Pyu were able to adapt very well to their environment. Like their Neolithic predecessors they chose to group their settlements close to water sources (MOORE 207:130). Their agriculture and consequently their whole economy were adapted to geographical idiosyncrasies of their new home land. Their success was based on their ecological opportunism.

“These patterns [of change to Hindu-Buddhist walled sites) were largely determined by ecological opportunism in the very different environment found in the north and south of the country. In the arid but fertile lands bordering the Ayeyarwaddy, available streams and in-gyi or lake were maximized to boost cultivation, aided by the incipient local iron production. The production of brick, for buildings and walls, was an essential corollary in the digging of shallow moats buttressing the walls, the water in resulting depressions augmenting the crop yield while demarcating site domain.” (MOORE 2007: 130)

The flourishing of the Pyu cities and their trade was enabled by their agricultural expertise. The Pyu were integrated into transnational trade routes, at the latest after the increase of trade with India after the first century. [3] Wet rice cultivation[4] in the favorable delta region even enabled a surplus extraction and hence trade with the staple food. Like in other Pyu cities, Sri Ksetra’s walls did not only include palaces, houses and religious buildings like pagodas and monasteries but also large agricultural area. This fact illustrates both the importance of rice and the permanent danger of war. A common reason for war was the acquisition of labour force, which was the limiting factor of Pyu economy. The common consequence of defeat was the enslavement of the people of the population. The Pyu states’ economic power was defined and limited alike by their control over people. The low density of population made humans a valuable good. War slavery and peonage due to crime or debt were common (HTIN AUNG 1967: 8). Therefore the architecture of the walled city states indicates the constant danger of war, the necessity of protection by walls and the ability to resist a long siege by including cultivated land. Need for labour force marked the whole region and made slavery a common consequence of war. The importance of the labour force created by enslavement and the special status of the slave is described by Kaur:


[1] Prehistory marks the period before first written sources, history “begins” with still extant written records. This distinction is here made according to historiographical standards.

[2] The term Neolithic Revolution inclines the dimension of change from hunters and gatherers to a lifestyle based on agriculture and permanent settlement. Please see the definition of Neolitische Revolution by Leser “Neolithische Revolution, Neolithic revolution, in der Jungsteinzeit relative rasch stattfindender Umbruch in der Menschheitsgeschichte, in dem die Grundlagen der höheren Kulturentwicklung gelegt wurden, insbesondere durch sesshafte Lebensweise mit Pflanzenbau und Tierhaltung und die Anlage erster stadtähnlicher Siedlungen.“ (LESER ET AL. 2005: 606) In addition it is necessary to keep in mind that the Neolithic Revolution did not take place at the same time, in the same way or the same speed everywhere.

[3] The trade between India and Myanmar was increased after the Roman Empire cut the eastern trade due to Vespasian’s prohibition to export gold. Please see Aung: “… a great expansion of trade between the two regions [India and Roman Empire] occurred. As the balance of trade was so much in favour of India there was a great drain of gold from the Roman Empire, and Emperor Vespasian (A.D. 69-79) was constrained to prohibit the export of gold from his dominions; India was then forced to turn to Southeast Asia for a new source of gold. This gold crisis coincided with the great advance in navigation, as a consequence of the ‘discovery’ of the monsoon winds by ‘outsiders’.” (AUNG 2002:9)

[4] Concerning rice: The rice plant Oryza sativa is not a water plant, but needs high and constant water supply. Therefore irrigation works are often necessary. Labour is the crucial factor for surplus extraction.

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Myanmar: pre-colonial & colonial socio-economic developments
University of Cologne  (Geographisches Institut)
Oberseminar Socio-economic developments in Myanmar
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Fokus: Entwicklung der Gesellschaft im Rahmen der Geschichte und der sozio-ökonomischen Entwicklungen. Mit eigenen Abbildungen. Bewertung durch Professor: sehr sorgfältig und gründlich, sehr gute Quellenrezeption, gut: eigene Abbildungen, sorgfältige Beurteilung. 1,0.
Myanmar, Socio-econmic, history, agriculture, development, prehistory, British India, colonialism, imperialism, British Empire, Konbaung Dynasty, Pyu States, Burma under British Rule, Asia, South East Asia, Yangon, Sri Ksetra, Japanese Occupation
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Andrea Lieske (Author), 2011, Myanmar: pre-colonial & colonial socio-economic developments, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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