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On This Day: Burma Declares Independence from Britain

Written By Mark Moran
Last updated: February 13, 2023

On Jan. 4, 1948, Burma ended 60 years of colonial rule when it officially declared independence from Britain.

Burma’s Struggle for Autonomy

In June 1945, Burmese soldiers fought with the British to expel Japanese invaders from Burma during World War II. By the war’s end, nationalist leader Aung San, whose anti-fascist movement had been prominent in the struggle against Japan, had established a political and military power base from which to negotiate with Great Britain. He took office in the provisional Burmese government that formed in 1946.

Gen. San’s rule was troubled by conflicts between Burma’s rival ethnic groups, but he proved a unifying force for the nationalist movement. In January 1947, he signed an agreement with the British Prime Minister that granted Burma full independence within a year.

Before that plan came to fruition, in July 1947, Aung San and six other members of the cabinet were gunned down. The deaths were mourned throughout the country and for decades after.

The assassinations failed to halt the country’s advance toward political autonomy, which officially arrived on Jan. 4, 1948. “Thousands of Burmans caroused amiably along Rangoon’s steamy, tropical waterfront,” wrote Time. “Some still recalled the day in 1885 when Burma’s last king, brash Thibaw, sailed into exile and the British took over. Now, British rule was at an end.”

Historical Context: Colonial Burma

Sources in this Story

  • Channel 4 News: A Brief History of Burma
  • Time: End of Bogyok
  • Time: Independence
  • The Guardian: Burma: A brief history
  • The BBC: The Burma Campaign 1941-1945
  • Myanmar’s Net Inc.: General Aung San
  • The Council on Foreign Relations: Understanding Myanmar
  • The BBC: Burma’s 1988 Protests
  • U.S. News & World Report: The Burma/Myanmar Name Game

The British conquered part of Burma during the Anglo-Burmese war of 1824–26, but they didn’t establish full control of the region until 1886. For a time, Burma was part of British India, but it became a separate colony in 1937.

Japan invaded Burma during World War II and conducted a difficult struggle against British forces for years. For a time, Japan won many victories against the British—and even the support of Aung San’s Burmese National Army—but ultimately Japan lost San’s support and its hold in Burma. Aung San’s supporters rode a wave of nationalism and were positioned to take over British control when the war was over.

Key Player: Gen. Aung San

Many in Burma view Gen. Aung San as the father of the country’s independence. It was his ability to unify the people of Burma that helped end colonial rule.

He is also the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who served many years under house arrest between 1995 and November 2010. Few in Burma today even dare to mention Gen. Aung San’s name publicly for fear of angering their military overseers.

Burma Since Independence

Gaining Independence From Britain

Ethnic discord created problems for Burma’s first independent parliament. A central British administration had controlled Burma’s various ethnic groups, which then rose up against the majority ethnic group in the country, the Burmans. Still, democracy survived until Gen. Ne Win led a military coup in 1962. Win’s socialist party isolated the country and its economy declined significantly into the 1980s.

Win’s socialist party isolated the country and its economy declined significantly into the 1980s. On Aug. 8, 1988, thousands of protesters massed to demand political reform. Monks and students led peaceful demonstrations, which ended when the army opened fire, killing an estimated 3,000 people.

Burma’s ruling military junta—which changed the country’s name to Myanmar in 1989—has drawn sanctions from the United States and the European Union for human rights violations.

Charles Eames

Mark Moran is a seasoned Internet executive. In 1998, he became Executive Vice President and General Counsel of 24/7 Real Media. He led the company through dramatic global expansion and revenue growth, completing 14 acquisitions in two years.

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