Once you start learning about war, you get a different idea about what's normal. If my life--driving to work and watching TV -- if that's normal, then a place like Burma's as far from normal as you can get. But the more I find out about the world, the more normal Burma seems and the weirder my life in Fresno looks.
Burma is a place where war is a permanent fact of life. There are wars between the Burmese and all the little tribes they stomp on to stay in power. There are wars between the Christians and the Buddhists. There are wars between the opium dealers who run the Army and the freelancers in the hills. There may even be a few Communist rebels left in the mountains, gathering around the ol' red flag. Burma has wars the way Fresno has Armenians.
Burma is one of these multi-ethnic places, and that usually means trouble. My Social Studies teachers used to talk about the wonderfulness of multiethnic stuff, but let's be honest here: what "multiethnic" really means is if your car breaks down in the wrong neighborhood, you get beaten to death with your own tire iron.
And that's exactly how it works in Burma. If you look at a map of the country, you can get a quick idea of how the tribal splits work. It's basically a long river valley surrounded by hills. The Burmese, the big dominant tribe (70% of the population), grabbed the good land down in the river flats and the other tribes had to head for the hills. Literally.
Now they get called "hill tribes," like they have some kind of romantic attachment to high altitudes, but that's not how it happened at all. If you live by farming the way people used to, you want the flat land by the river, because the silt makes good soil and the water means you can flood the rice paddies. When your tribe takes the river flats, anybody from the old tribes who's not dead scrambles off into the hills to live like goats for the next few hundred years.
What makes it so hard for us to get is that in California the rich people live up in the hills on little windy streets, and the ordinary people who drive pickups live down on the flats. But that's because we don't have to make a living from our own land. If we did, the rich people'd hire mercs to wipe out the nobodies down on the flats.
You can't say when the wars started in Burma -- because they never stopped. The Burmese fought the Mongols (and lost), the Chinese (won a few, lost a few) -- they even got invaded by the Sri Lankans. If you don't think that's weird, have another look at your map and see where Burma and Sri Lanka are. The Sri Lankans managed to burn the Burmese capital to the ground in spite of the fact that most of their fleet got lost trying to cross the Indian Ocean. In the late 19th century the British invaded Burma, just so they wouldn't get left out of the fun. They burned the capital down again, messed the place up like they usually do, then wanted the Burmese to turn into loyal Limeys when the Japanese tried invading India through Burma in 1941.
The Burmese weren't buying that, and started an anti-Brit, pro-Jap guerrilla group led by a guy who renamed himself Ne Win, which supposedly means "bright as the sun." (Sounds more like "no-win" to me, but nobody asked me.) The Japs occupied the country from '41 to '44 and the Japanese Imperial Army did its usual job of turning friends into enemies. Ne Win and his comrades hunkered down in the jungle, decided that even the Brits were better than these crazy Japs. When the Brits turned the Japanese back at the battle of Kohima in 1944, and pushed them out of Burma, Ne Win's BIA (Burma Independence Army) helped out. In fact, Ne Win did everything right in the last two years of WW II. He ended up with an army strong enough to convince the Brits to leave peacefully, and fast, in 1948.