Crossroads of Culture and Conflict: Tracing the Historical Relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh

Share this:


Sarder Ali Haider[1]


The regions of Burma and Bengal, with its historical expanse that now includes Bangladesh and parts of Eastern India, have shared a rich tapestry of interactions spanning several millennia. Nestled in the heart of Southeast Asia, Burma is a nation with a diverse cultural heritage and a complex history, marked by its numerous ethnic groups and the dominance of Buddhism. Bengal, on the other hand, straddling the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent, has been a cradle of ancient civilizations, a hub of maritime trade, and a center of cultural and intellectual movements. The proximity of these regions, coupled with their vibrant cultures and strategic locations along historical trade routes, has facilitated a plethora of interactions through the ages—from the exchange of goods and ideas to complex political and military engagements.

The importance of studying the historical relationships between Burma and Bengal cannot be overstated. This examination is not only pivotal for understanding the socio-political and economic dynamics of South and Southeast Asia but also for appreciating the intricate web of cultural exchanges that have enriched both regions. Historically, these interactions have shaped the identities, economies, and political landscapes of Burma and Bengal, influencing everything from religious practices to language and literature. In the modern context, this historical backdrop provides essential insights into current issues, such as migration patterns, ethnic conflicts, and bilateral relations.

The primary objectives of this paper are to:

  • Trace the Historical Interactions: Mapping out the key historical phases of interaction between Burma and Bengal, from ancient to contemporary times, highlighting how these exchanges have evolved.
  • Analyze the Cultural Exchanges: Delve into the religious, linguistic, and cultural exchanges that have occurred, examining their impact on the social fabric of both regions.
  • Understand the Political and Economic Dynamics: Investigate the political and economic dimensions of their relationship, including trade, conflicts, and alliances, and how these have been influenced by wider regional and global shifts.
  • Assess Contemporary Relations and Future Prospects: Explore the current state of relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh, addressing contemporary issues like the Rohingya crisis, and speculate on future directions.

Through this comprehensive exploration, the paper aims to provide a nuanced understanding of the historical relationships between Burma and Bengal, shedding light on the complexities and the enduring legacy of their interactions. By doing so, it seeks to contribute to the broader discourse on regional history, intercultural dynamics, and international relations in South and Southeast Asia.

Early Historical Context

The historical saga of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Bangladesh (part of ancient Bengal) is rooted in their early interactions, which laid the groundwork for centuries of shared history. Nestled between the lush landscapes of Southeast Asia and the fertile plains of the Indian subcontinent, these regions were connected by the Bay of Bengal, a natural conduit for trade, culture, and ideas. The initial contacts between these lands, dating back to the 1st millennium, were marked by the exchange of goods, the spread of Buddhism from India to Burma, and the intermingling of diverse cultures. This early period set the stage for a complex tapestry of relations that would evolve through the ages, influenced by geography, religion, and the ebb and flow of empires and trade networks.

Geographical and Cultural Backdrop

Burma and Bengal, each with their distinct geographical features, have been shaped by the landscapes they inhabit. Burma, with its lengthy coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, is characterized by its fertile plains, high mountains, and major rivers like the Irrawaddy and the Salween. These geographical traits have not only supported a rich agricultural base but also facilitated maritime trade and cultural exchanges. The region is known for its ethnic diversity, including the Bamar majority, alongside numerous other ethnic groups, each contributing to Myanmar’s cultural mosaic with their unique traditions, languages, and religions.

Bengal, bounded by the Himalayas in the north and the Bay of Bengal in the south, is traversed by the mighty Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, creating one of the most fertile regions on earth. This fertility supported dense populations and the development of early urban centers. The cultural landscape of Bengal has been marked by its role as a center for trade, a birthplace of major religious and philosophical movements, and a rich tradition of art, literature, and intellectual thought.

Initial Contacts and Influences (up to the 1st millennium)

The initial contacts between Burma and Bengal can be traced back to ancient times when trade and maritime exploration began to bridge the vast regions of Asia. These early interactions were facilitated by the Bay of Bengal, which served as a conduit for ships traveling between Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. By the first few centuries CE, there is evidence of burgeoning trade networks that linked the ports of Burma with those of Bengal, facilitating the exchange of goods such as silk, spices, and precious stones, as well as the spread of ideas and technologies.

One of the most significant early influences that traveled these trade routes was Buddhism. Originating in India, Buddhism found its way to Burma by the early centuries of the 1st millennium, profoundly shaping the region’s religious and cultural landscape. The spread of Buddhism into Burma is attributed to both maritime and overland routes, through which monks and traders brought Buddhist texts and iconography. This led to the establishment of Buddhism as a dominant religious force in Burma, influencing art, architecture, and governance.

In addition to Buddhism, these initial contacts facilitated a two-way exchange of cultural practices and knowledge. The influence of Indian culture on Burma during this period is evident in various aspects of Burmese society, including its language, script, and legal codes, which bear the mark of Indian civilization. Conversely, Bengal was impacted by its interactions with Southeast Asia, absorbing elements of Southeast Asian material culture and art, which were integrated into the local culture.

This early historical context sets the stage for the complex tapestry of interactions that would continue to evolve between Burma and Bengal. The geographical proximity, combined with the vibrant trade and cultural exchanges of this period, laid the foundational ties that would bind these regions through the centuries. As we move forward into the medieval period, these connections would deepen, influenced by the changing political, economic, and religious landscapes of both regions.

Medieval Period

The Medieval Period heralded a transformative era in the relationship between Myanmar and Bangladesh, characterized by the rise of powerful kingdoms, flourishing trade, and vibrant cultural exchanges. As both regions witnessed the establishment of influential empires—such as the Bagan Empire in Myanmar and the Pala Empire in Bengal—their interactions deepened, facilitated by strategic maritime routes that bolstered economic ties and cultural diffusion. This epoch was not only a testament to the regions’ political ambitions and economic prosperity but also a crucible for religious and artistic exchanges that enriched their cultural landscapes, weaving a complex narrative of mutual influence and interdependence.

The Rise of Regional Kingdoms and Empires

The medieval period marked a significant era in the histories of both Burma and Bengal, characterized by the emergence of powerful kingdoms and empires that played pivotal roles in regional dynamics. In Burma, the early kingdoms of Thaton and Bagan were instrumental in the further spread of Theravada Buddhism, not only within its borders but also across Southeast Asia. The Bagan Empire (9th to 13th centuries) is particularly noteworthy for its architectural achievements, including the construction of thousands of Buddhist temples, which stand as a testament to its religious devotion and artistic sophistication.

Concurrently, Bengal saw the rise of the Pala Empire (8th to 12th centuries), known for its patronage of Buddhism, and the subsequent Hindu Sena dynasty, which marked a resurgence of Hinduism. These dynasties were instrumental in fostering a rich cultural and intellectual milieu, contributing to advancements in art, science, and literature. The period also saw Bengal emerge as a major economic power, its prosperity underpinned by its fertile lands and strategic position along key trade routes.

Trade Relationships and Maritime Commerce

Trade and maritime commerce flourished during the medieval period, strengthening the connections between Burma and Bengal. The Bay of Bengal served as a critical maritime highway that facilitated the movement of goods, people, and ideas. Burma’s strategic location allowed it to become a crucial intermediary in the trade networks that linked the Indian subcontinent with Southeast Asia and beyond to China. Goods such as silk, cotton, spices, precious metals, and ceramics were exchanged, along with rice and timber from Burma and muslin and other textiles from Bengal.

The importance of these trade routes cannot be overstated, as they not only brought economic prosperity but also enabled cultural diffusion and diplomatic contacts. Port cities in both regions thrived as cosmopolitan centers where diverse communities—merchants, scholars, and artisans—intermingled, leading to a vibrant exchange of knowledge and traditions.

Religious and Cultural Exchanges

The medieval period was also characterized by significant religious and cultural exchanges between Burma and Bengal, facilitated by the movement of monks, scholars, and artists between the two regions. The spread of Theravada Buddhism from Burma to Bengal during this time is a notable example, influencing religious practices and art in Bengal. Similarly, the influence of Bengal’s Vajrayana Buddhism and later Hindu traditions can be seen in Burma, indicating a two-way exchange of religious ideas and iconography.

Cultural exchanges were not limited to religion alone. The intermingling of ideas contributed to the evolution of languages, literature, and artistic expressions. For instance, the Pali and Sanskrit languages played crucial roles in religious and scholarly works in both regions, while the influence of Indian epics and classical literature on Burmese culture is evident in its literature, dance, and theatre.

Moreover, the arrival of Islam in Bengal during the late medieval period through traders and missionaries introduced new dynamics into its relationship with Buddhist-majority Burma. The growing influence of Islam in Bengal, culminating in the establishment of the Bengal Sultanate in the 14th century, marked the beginning of a new era in Bengal’s history, which would, in turn, impact its interactions with its neighbors, including Burma.

This period of mutual growth and interaction laid the groundwork for the complex interplay of cultural, religious, and economic ties that would continue to evolve. The medieval era, with its flourishing empires, vibrant trade, and rich tapestry of cultural and religious exchanges, was a pivotal chapter in the shared history of Burma and Bengal, shaping the trajectories of both regions in profound ways.

Colonial Era

The Colonial Era marked a significant turning point in the histories of Burma and Bengal, as both regions came under British control, albeit at different times and under varying circumstances. This period was characterized by profound transformations in administrative, economic, and social structures, leading to lasting impacts on the socio-political landscapes of both regions.

Impact of British Colonization on Both Regions

British colonization began in Bengal with the British East India Company’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, leading to the establishment of British control over the region. Burma’s encounter with British imperialism came later, culminating in three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824–1826, 1852, and 1885), after which Burma was annexed to British India in 1886. The incorporation of these regions into the British Empire facilitated not only the imposition of foreign rule but also the integration of Burma and Bengal into the global economic system dominated by Britain.

Administrative and Economic Changes

The British introduced significant administrative reforms in both regions, reshaping the governance structures to suit colonial objectives. The introduction of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal and similar land revenue systems in Burma altered traditional land ownership patterns, concentrating wealth in the hands of a few and leading to widespread peasant dissatisfaction. These changes dismantled the existing socio-economic frameworks, making both regions integral parts of the colonial economy primarily as suppliers of raw materials and consumers of British manufactured goods.

Economically, the impact was profound. The colonial policy of promoting the cultivation of cash crops (like jute in Bengal and rice in Burma) for the global market led to the commercialization of agriculture, which, while increasing agricultural exports, also made local economies vulnerable to fluctuations in global prices. The construction of railways and telegraph lines improved transportation and communication but also facilitated the extraction and export of resources, further entrenching colonial economic interests.

Social and Political Movements

The socio-political fabric of both Burma and Bengal was deeply influenced by colonial rule. In response to colonial oppression and economic exploitation, a myriad of social and political movements emerged in both regions, laying the groundwork for nationalist sentiments and the struggle for independence.

In Bengal, the partition of Bengal in 1905 (although reversed in 1911) sparked widespread protests and became a pivotal moment in the Indian nationalist movement, leading to the rise of figures like Rabindranath Tagore and the intensification of the Swadeshi (self-reliance) movement. This period also saw the emergence of various socio-religious reform movements aimed at revitalizing Hindu society and countering the challenges posed by colonial rule.

In Burma, resistance to British rule manifested in several peasant uprisings and the rise of nationalist movements. The Saya San Rebellion (1930-1932) was one such significant peasant revolt against colonial economic policies. The formation of the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA) and later the Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association) marked the growth of national consciousness among Burmese, leading to demands for self-rule and the eventual independence movement.

Moreover, the colonial era saw the exacerbation of ethnic and religious divisions in both regions, as the British employed a divide-and-rule strategy to maintain control. This period also witnessed significant migrations, with many Indians moving to Burma for work, further complicating inter-ethnic relations.

The Colonial Era fundamentally altered the landscapes of Burma and Bengal, setting the stage for their future paths towards independence and beyond. The administrative and economic restructuring, coupled with the rise of social and political movements, not only challenged traditional structures and identities but also fostered a sense of nationalism that would eventually lead to the end of colonial rule.

World War II and Independence

World War II had profound and distinct impacts on Burma and Bengal, significantly altering their political landscapes and accelerating their paths to independence. In Burma, the war brought widespread destruction and suffering, as the country became a battleground between the Allied Forces, primarily British and American troops, and the Japanese. The Japanese occupation of Burma (1942-1945) was initially welcomed by some Burmese nationalists who saw it as an opportunity to gain independence from British rule. However, the harsh realities of military occupation and the subsequent Allied counter-offensive caused immense hardship for the Burmese population, leading to widespread disillusionment and a stronger desire for independence.

Bengal, though not a battlefield, faced its own set of challenges during World War II. The war significantly disrupted the region’s economy, leading to the infamous Bengal Famine of 1943, which resulted in the deaths of millions. The famine was exacerbated by wartime policies, including the British military’s decision to stockpile food for troops and the destruction of crops and boats to prevent them from falling into Japanese hands. This tragedy deeply impacted the socio-political consciousness of Bengal, fueling resentment against British colonial rule and contributing to the momentum for independence.

Paths to Independence

The end of World War II marked a turning point for both regions, setting them on their respective paths to independence. In Burma, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), led by Aung San, emerged as a major political force advocating for independence. Negotiations with the British led to the Aung San-Attlee Agreement in 1947, which promised Burma independence within a year. Tragically, Aung San was assassinated later that year, but his legacy and the widespread support for independence ensured Burma’s transition to a sovereign nation in January 1948.

For Bengal, the path to independence was intertwined with the broader Indian independence movement. The demand for independence gained unstoppable momentum after World War II, leading to the British decision to leave India. However, the process was marred by the partition of India in 1947, which divided Bengal into West Bengal, remaining a part of India, and East Bengal, becoming East Pakistan. This partition led to significant communal violence and a massive population exchange between the newly created India and Pakistan.

Post-independence Interactions and Conflicts

Post-independence, Burma and Bengal (specifically East Bengal, later Bangladesh) embarked on their journeys as part of two different nations, each facing its own set of challenges. Burma pursued a path of isolationism under military rule, which limited its interactions with neighboring countries, including Bangladesh. However, the shared border led to issues related to migration and ethnic insurgencies spilling over from one country to the other.

The independence of Bangladesh in 1971, following a bloody liberation war against Pakistan, opened a new chapter in Burma-Bangladesh relations. Despite a shared history and cultural ties, relations have been fraught with issues such as border disputes, the Rohingya refugee crisis, and concerns over security and drug trafficking. The Rohingya crisis, in particular, has been a major point of contention, with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar to escape persecution and seeking refuge in Bangladesh, straining relations between the two countries.

Both regions have navigated their post-independence periods under the shadows of their colonial pasts, with their interactions influenced by a complex mix of historical ties, ethnic affiliations, and contemporary political and humanitarian issues. The legacy of World War II and the manner of their independence have left indelible marks on their national psyches, shaping their policies and relations with each other and the broader international community.

Contemporary Relations

The contemporary relationship between Myanmar and Bangladesh is multifaceted, encompassing political, economic, and cultural dimensions, yet it is also marked by challenges and opportunities for cooperation.

Modern Political and Economic Ties

The political and economic ties between Myanmar and Bangladesh have been characterized by both cooperation and contention. On the economic front, there have been efforts to enhance bilateral trade and investment. The two countries share a strategic interest in exploiting the Bay of Bengal’s resources, including fisheries, natural gas, and maritime routes that are crucial for trade. Initiatives such as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor aim to improve regional connectivity and economic cooperation, although progress has been slow.

Politically, relations have been strained at times due to border disputes and security concerns. Both countries have conducted negotiations to address issues such as demarcation of their maritime boundary, with a significant ruling by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in 2012 settling some of the disputes in favor of Bangladesh. Despite these challenges, there have been efforts at diplomatic engagement to address mutual concerns and foster stability in the region.

Issues of Migration and Refugees

One of the most pressing issues in Myanmar-Bangladesh relations is the migration and refugee crisis, particularly concerning the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Systematic discrimination, statelessness, and violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State have led to mass migrations of Rohingya to Bangladesh, especially following the military crackdowns in 2016 and 2017. Bangladesh currently hosts a significant number of Rohingya refugees, placing a strain on resources and leading to calls for international support and a lasting solution to the Rohingya crisis.

The issue has drawn international attention, with Bangladesh seeking diplomatic support to ensure the safe, voluntary, and dignified repatriation of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. However, progress has been hampered by concerns over safety and citizenship rights in Myanmar, making the refugee crisis a central point of contention and dialogue between the two countries and the international community.

Cultural Exchanges in the Present Day

Despite the political and humanitarian challenges, there are avenues of cultural exchange and shared heritage that continue to link the peoples of Myanmar and Bangladesh. These include shared religious practices among the Buddhist and Muslim communities, culinary traditions, and aspects of linguistic and literary heritage. Festivals, music, and dance offer opportunities for cultural diplomacy and people-to-people contacts, although such exchanges are often informal and limited in scope.

In recent years, there have been efforts to foster cultural understanding and collaboration, such as through regional forums, cultural festivals, and academic exchanges. These initiatives aim to build bridges between the two societies, highlighting shared histories and common interests beyond the immediate political and humanitarian issues.

The contemporary relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh are complex, shaped by a history of interaction that spans centuries but is currently overshadowed by significant challenges, notably the Rohingya refugee crisis. While political and economic ties offer a framework for cooperation and dialogue, resolving the humanitarian issues remains a prerequisite for a sustainable and positive relationship. Cultural exchanges, though limited, provide a glimmer of hope for fostering understanding and peace between the two nations. As Myanmar and Bangladesh navigate their bilateral relations, the international community’s role in supporting dialogue, ensuring human rights, and facilitating development will be crucial in shaping the future trajectory of their interactions.


The historical relationship between Burma (now Myanmar) and Bengal (comprising modern-day Bangladesh and parts of Eastern India) is a narrative of profound interconnectedness, marked by centuries of cultural, religious, and economic exchanges, as well as periods of conflict and cooperation. This paper has traversed the early contacts between these regions, through the era of kingdoms and empires, the profound changes wrought by colonial rule, the cataclysmic events of World War II, and the complexities of their post-independence and contemporary relations.

Summary of Key Findings

  • Early Interactions: The geographical proximity and shared waterways facilitated early interactions between Burma and Bengal, leading to vibrant trade routes and the spread of Buddhism into Burma, significantly influencing its cultural and religious landscape.
  • Medieval Period: The rise of powerful kingdoms and the flourishing of trade and religious exchanges underscored a period of mutual influence, with Bengal’s Pala Empire and Burma’s Bagan Empire playing pivotal roles in regional dynamics.
  • Colonial Era: British colonization introduced administrative and economic restructuring in both regions, leading to shared experiences of exploitation and the emergence of nationalist movements that eventually propelled the struggle for independence.
  • World War II and Independence: The war and its aftermath accelerated demands for independence, leading to the partition of Bengal and the establishment of Burma as a separate nation, setting the stage for complex post-independence relations.
  • Contemporary Relations: Modern ties between Myanmar and Bangladesh are characterized by a mix of economic cooperation and political tensions, particularly highlighted by the Rohingya refugee crisis, posing a significant challenge to bilateral relations.

Current State of Burma-Bengali Relations

Currently, the relationship between Myanmar and Bangladesh is strained, primarily due to the ongoing Rohingya crisis and issues related to migration, border security, and the rights of minority groups. While there are efforts to engage in dialogue and resolve these issues, progress has been slow, and the situation remains a significant concern for both countries and the international community.

Future Prospects

The future of Myanmar-Bangladesh relations hinges on resolving the humanitarian issues and fostering a climate of trust and cooperation. Addressing the root causes of the Rohingya crisis, ensuring the safe and dignified return of refugees, and establishing a framework for lasting peace and security in the region are essential steps toward improving bilateral relations. Economic cooperation, particularly in harnessing the potential of the Bay of Bengal for regional development, presents an opportunity for collaboration. Cultural and people-to-people exchanges can also play a role in bridging divides and fostering mutual understanding.

The historical relationship between Burma and Bengal is a testament to the complexities and the potential of inter-regional interactions. As Myanmar and Bangladesh navigate their shared challenges and opportunities, the lessons from their past, coupled with concerted efforts toward reconciliation and cooperation, can pave the way for a more harmonious and prosperous future. The international community’s role in supporting these efforts and facilitating dialogue will be crucial in ensuring that the historical ties between these regions can evolve into a foundation for positive and constructive relations in the years to come.


[1] PhD Researcher, Bangladesh University of Professionals.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *