British rule in Burma lasted from 1824 to 1948, from the Anglo-Burmese Wars through the creation of Burma as a province of British India to the establishment of an independently administered colony, and finally independence. After three Anglo-Burma Wars (1825, 1852 and 1885) Burma was conquered and transformed into a British colony. Burma became an official colony on January 1, 1886. The British ruled Burma as a part of India from 1919 until 1937. In 1937, Burma was made a crown colony of Britain. Britain in part used Burma as a buffer zone between India and the rest of Asia.

The British named the country Burma in honor of the Burmans, the dominant ethnic group. Initially the British called it “Further India.” The Burmese called it "myanma naing ngan"—the source of the name Myanmar—or more colloquially as "bama pyi" or "country of Burma." Both these usages persist, and the national anthem still refers to "bama pyi." The British "imperial tongue" stumbled over Myanmar and adopted Burma, reportedly similar to the name Birmania given to the country by Portuguese traders.

Different portions of Burmese territories were annexed at different times. Tenasserim and Arakan were taken in 1826 by the British after their victory in the First Anglo-Burmese War. The delta region including Rangoon (Lower Burma) was annexed in 1852 after the Second Anglo-Burmese War. The annexed territories were designated the minor province (a Chief Commissionership), British Burma, of British India in 1862. Upper Burma fell to the British and the Mandalay-based peacock throne was toppled after the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. The last monarch, the cruel king Thibaw and his queen, were exiled to India: carried out of Mandalay in an oxcart. The following year, the province of Burma in British India was created, becoming a major province (a Lieutenant-Governorship) in 1897. This arrangement lasted until 1937, when Burma began to be administered separately by the Burma Office under the Secretary of State for India and Burma. Burma achieved independence from British rule on 4 January 1948.

Burma is sometimes referred to as the Scottish Colony, due to the heavy role played by Scotsmen in colonising and running the country – one of the most notable being Sir James George Scott, and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. George Orwell served in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma for five years, an experience that was the inspiration for his 1934 novel “Burmese Days.”

Divisions of British Burma: The province of Burma, after 1885 was administered as follows: 1) Ministerial Burma (Burma proper); 2) Tenasserim Division (Toungoo, Thaton, Amherst, Salween, Tavoy, and Mergui Districts); 3) Arakan Division (Akyab, Northern Arakan or Arakan Hill Tracts, Kyaukpyu and Sandoway Districts); 4) Pegu Division (Rangoon City, Hanthawaddy, Pegu, Tharrawaddy and Prome Districts); 5) Irrawaddy Division (Bassein, Henzada, Thayetmyo, Maubin, Myaungmya and Pyapon Districts); 6) Scheduled Areas (Frontier Areas); 7) Shan States; 8) Chin Hills; 9) Kachin tracts. The "Frontier Areas", also known as the "Excluded Areas" or the "Scheduled Areas", compose the majority of states within Burma today. They were administered separately by the British, and were united with Burma proper to form Myanmar's geographic composition today. The Frontier Areas were inhabited by ethnic minorities such as the Chin, the Shan, the Kachin and the Karenni. [Source: Wikipedia]

Burma Becomes a Colony After the Third Anglo-Burmese War

Britain made Burma a province of India in 1886 with the capital at Rangoon and ushered in a new period of economic growth. Traditional Burmese society was drastically altered by the demise of the monarchy and the separation of religion and state. Though war officially ended after only a couple of weeks, resistance continued in northern Burma until 1890, with the British finally resorting to a systematic destruction of villages and appointment of new officials to finally halt all guerrilla activity. Intermarriage between Europeans and Burmese gave birth to an indigenous Eurasian community known as the Anglo-Burmese who would come to dominate the colonial society, hovering above the Burmese but below the British. After Britain took over Burma, they maintained the sending of tribute to China, putting themselves in a lower status than in their previous relations. It was agreed in the Burmah convention in 1886, that China would recognise Britain's occupation of Upper Burmah while Britain continued the Burmese payment of tribute every ten years to Beijing. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The economic nature of society also changed dramatically. After the opening of the Suez Canal, the demand for Burmese rice grew and vast tracts of land were opened up for cultivation. However, in order to prepare the new land for cultivation, farmers were forced to borrow money from Indian moneylenders called chettiars at high interest rates and were often foreclosed on and evicted losing land and livestock. Most of the jobs also went to indentured Indian labourers, and whole villages became outlawed as they resorted to 'dacoity' (armed robbery). While the Burmese economy grew, all the power and wealth remained in the hands of several British firms and migrants from India. The civil service was largely staffed by Anglo-Burmese and Indians, and Burmese were excluded almost entirely from military service, which was staffed primarily with Indians, Anglo-Burmese, Karens and other Burmese minority groups. Though the country prospered, the Burmese people failed to reap the rewards.(See George Orwell's novel Burmese Days for a fictional account of the British in Burma.) +

Burma was grafted onto India despite the incompatibility of India and the Burmese heartland, which lacked a "Burma lobby" to explain it in Britain. Hugh Tinker wrote in “The Union of Burma”: The British community in Burma was so small and the period of British rule so brief that no comparable Burma connection ever developed. [Hugh Tinker, The Union of Burma, Oxford University Press 1937, ch.XII.]

One British chronicler wrote: “What will our descendants think of us when they read that the British banished the King of Burma, annexed his country, and proceeded to govern it by officials of their own race? Historians will add that we saw no harm in this, though we always resisted such a fate to the death when it threatened our own land. [cited in Maurice Collis:Diaries,1949-1969, Heinemann, 1977]

Why Burma Became a Colony of Britain

George Webb of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs wrote: “Burma's apartness from India was paradoxically among the complex causes of the Third Burmese War. Certainly external strategic considerations, prompted by French expansionism in the region, played a part...Certainly also there was a persistent commercial illusion of a practical trade route along which British goods might flow through Upper Burma to the imagined markets of Chinese Yunnan. This excited the Chambers of Commerce and influenced the annexation. It was a myth, resembling the monomanie du Mékong from which the French suffered. It [Source: George Webb, Royal Society for Asian Affairs, June 16, 1983 //\\]

“Such wider motives of strategy or commerce apart, Theebaw's cruelties and follies were enough to make Burma an intolerable adjacent state for an outward looking Indian Empire rising to the zenith of its power and self-respect. Here was one of the casualties of the nineteenth Century, knocked over by a momentum beyond its understanding. By processes familiar to Imperial historians, static Burma and dynamic British India had become provocatively incompatible. When the irresistible force was applied, the object in its path was too fragile to survive. //\\

“Burma's tragedy, through every stage of British penetration from 1826 to 1948, was on the one hand to be self-centerd, traditionalist, conservative, desiring only to be left alone; and on the other hand to be so situated as to be exposed to external pressures which she was powerless to repulse. This dilemma has contributed to a national frame of mind well known today for its determined preference for non-involvement and a "Burmese Way" in politics. It was not always so. In the eighteenth century it was not Burma's isolationism but her almost manic imperialism, ruthlessly asserted against her neighbours and in the end suicidally over-extended, that brought her up against the East India Company. The three wars that ensued led by stages to the ultimate surrender in 1885 at Mandalay. Kipling's view of Burma was acquired in the aftermath of that surrender, and must be understood in the light of preceding historical events, today largely forgotten. //\\

Theebaw, deposed in 1885, was the last of the Konbaungset dynasty of the Kingdom of Inwa, or Ava. The founder of the line, Alaungpaya, emerged in 1752 as a national resistance leader against the Mons to the south. Within fifty years he and his successors had defeated and in many cases subjugated most of the adjacent peoples, creating in the process an expanded nation-state with frontiers resembling those of modern Burma but in the north-west more extensive. It was an extraordinary explosion of military effort. The historian D.G.E. Hall wrote: “The most glorious moment in their history. . .the exploits of Alaungpaya had given the Burmese an entirely new estimation of themselves. They had become a conquering race and feared no one on earth.” //\\

“On the British side, there was at first no wish to tackle Burma, a profoundly mysterious country, alleged to have a huge population, certainly able to raise great armies. For generations, British merchants, like their military and commercial rivals the French, had dealt with the Burmese; but this was peripheral trafficking by outsiders, only tolerated for their wares. //\\

British Administration of Burma

Before the British colonisation the ruling Konbaung Dynasty practised a tightly centralised form of government. The king was the chief executive with final say on all matters but he couldn’t make laws and could only issue administrative edicts. The country had two codes of law, the Rajathat and Dammathat, and the Hluttaw, the center of government, was divided into three branches—fiscal, executive, and judicial. In theory the king was in charge of all of the Hluttaw but none of his orders got put into place until the Hluttaw approved them, thus checking his power. Further dividing the country, provinces were ruled by governors who were all appointed by the Hluttaw, and villages were ruled by hereditary headmen who were approved by the king. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The British controlled their new province through direct rule, making many changes to the previous governmental structure. The monarchy was abolished, King Thibaw sent into exile, and church and state separated. This was particularly harmful because the Buddhist monks were so dependent on the sponsorship of the monarchy. At the same time, the monarchy was given legitimacy by the Buddhist organisation, and the “church” gave the public the opportunity to understand national politics to a greater degree. +

Another way in which the British controlled their new colony directly was through their implementation of a secular education system. The colonial government of India, which was given control of the new colony, founded secular schools teaching in both English and Burmese, while also encouraging Christian missionaries to visit and found schools. In both of these types of schools, Buddhism and traditional Burmese culture were frowned upon in an attempt to rid the Burmese people of a cultural unity separate from the British. +

Finally, in order to control the country on the village level, the British implemented a “strategic hamlet” strategy in which they burned villages and uprooted families who had supplied villages with their headmen, sending them to lower Burma. Once these troublesome or unloyal Burmese were forced out, the British replaced them with strangers they approved of. If the British considered any Burmese to be criminals, they would act as both judge and jury, giving the Burmese no chance to a fair trial.+

G.E. Harvey wrote in his chapter on Burma in the Cambridge History of the British Empire: The real reason for imposing direct administration was that it was the fashion of the age, and modern standards of efficiency were the only standards intelligible to the men who entered Upper Burma. Few of them spoke the language, and those who did, came with preconceptions gained in Lower Burma.

Colonial Economy in Burma

Although Burma was the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia under British rule, as a colony it was seen very much as a backwater. Among its exports, the country produced 75 percent of the world's teak from up-country forests. The British made southern Burma into one of the world’s largest rice exporting regions and also exploited rubies and other products that they sold on the world market. When George Orwell arrived in Burma in 1924, the Irrawaddy Delta was leading Burma's exports of over 3 million tons of rice - half the world's supply.

The British ruthlessly exploited the countries resources and left little in return. The country was very much shaken. The system in which the wealthy patronized the monasteries was broken. The British became the wealthy and elite class. Most Burmans provided labor for the Burmese export economy. The British also brought in lots of Indians to Burma to perform labor, serve as clerks and run businesses. Large Indian communities still remain in Yangon and Mandalay.

The traditional Burmese economy was one of redistribution with the prices of the most important commodities set by the state and supply and demand mostly unimportant. Trade itself was not as important as self-sufficient agriculture, but the country’s position on major trade routes from India to China, meant that it did gain a fair amount of money from foreign trade passing through. Wikipedia +]

With the arrival of the British, the Burmese economy became tied to global market forces and was forced to become a part of the colonial export economy. The British immediately began exploiting the rich soil of the land around the Irawaddy delta and cleared away the dense mangrove forests. Rice, which was in high demand in Europe, especially after the building of the Suez Canal in 1869, was the main crop grown in and exported out of Myanmar. In order to increase the production of rice, many Burmese migrated from the northern heartland to the delta, shifting the population concentration, and changing the basis of wealth and power. In order to prepare land for cultivation, farmers had to borrow capital from Indian moneylenders at high interest rates as the British banks wouldn’t grant mortgages. Instead, the Indian moneylenders gave the mortgage loans out, but foreclosed them quickly as the rice prices and land costs soared. +

At the same time, thousands of Indian labourers migrated to Burma and, because of their willingness to work for less money, quickly displaced the Burmese farmers, who instead began to take part in crime, giving themselves a bad reputation. With this quickly growing economy, came industrialisation to a certain degree, with a railway being built throughout the valley of the Irawaddy, and hundreds of steamboats travelling along it. All of these mechanisms of transportation were owned by the British, however, and this meant that the Burmese had to pay higher rates to transport their goods to market. Thus, although the balance of trade was supposed to be in favour of Burma, the society was changed so fundamentally that many people did not gain from the rapidly growing economy. +

When the British began their imperial take over of Burma, the colony was immediately thrown into a world of exportation in which they had not ever been exposed to before colonisation by the British. This massive move towards foreign trade hurt the Burmese economy initially because suddenly a large amount of their resources were being exported for Britain’s benefit, thereby taking with it the resources needed by the Burmese natives to continue living their lives as they had before colonisation.

An account by a British official describing the conditions of the Burmese people’s livelihoods in 1941 describes the Burmese hardships as they must quickly adapt to foreign trade: “Foreign landlordism and the operations of foreign moneylenders had led to an increasing exportation of a considerable proportion of the country’s resources and to the progressive impoverishment of the agriculturist and of the country as a whole…. The peasant had grown factually poorer and unemployment had increased….The collapse of the Burmese social system led to a decay of the social conscience which, in the circumstances of poverty and unemployment caused a great increase in crime.” +

Immigrants and Infrastructure in Colonial Burma

According to Lonely Planet: The colonial era wrought great changes in Myanmar’s demographics and infrastructure. Large numbers of Indians were brought in to work as civil servants, and Chinese were encouraged to immigrate and stimulate trade. The British built railways and ports, and many British companies grew wealthy trading in teak and rice. Many Burmese were unhappy with the colonial status quo. A nationalist movement developed, and there were demonstrations, often led, in true Burmese fashion, by Buddhist monks. Two famous nationalist monks, U Ottama and U Wizaya, died in a British prison and are revered to this day. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Indian immigration to Burma was a nationwide phenomenon, not just restricted to Arakan—the region of Burma that bordered India. Historian Thant Myint-U writes: "At the beginning of the 20th century, Indians were arriving in Burma at the rate of no less than a quarter million per year. The numbers rose steadily until the peak year of 1927, immigration reached 480,000 people, with Rangoon exceeding New York City as the greatest immigration port in the world. This was out of a total population of only 13 million; it was equivalent to the United Kingdom today taking 2 million people a year." By then, in most of the largest cities in Burma, Rangoon (Yangon), Akyab (Sittwe), Bassein (Pathein), Moulmein, the Indian immigrants formed a majority of the population. The Burmese under the British rule felt helpless, and reacted with a "racism that combined feelings of superiority and fear." [Source: Wikipedia]

British in Burma During the Colonial Period

Under British rule, as a colony Burma was seen very much as a backwater. The image which the English people were meant to uphold in these communities was a huge burden and the majority of them carried expectations all the way from Britain with the intention of maintaining their customs and rule.

There were never really that many Britons in Burma. India. They were characterized by their English mother tongue, Christian religion, European lifestyle at home, Western clothes and employment in administration and service positions. The invention of the steam ship really opened up travel between Britain and Asia. The first run of the P&O steamer around the Cape of Good Hope took 91 days to to travel from Southhampton, England to Calcutta, with eight days spent taking in coal.

In his book Ornamentalism; How the British Saw Their Empire the historian David Cannadine said British empire had its roots in transplanting the British class system abroad not on racial pride and argues the whole thing was kind of as show. He wrote: the British Empire “was about antiquity and anachronism, tradition and honor, order and subordination; about glory and chivalry, horses and elephants, knights and peers, processions and ceremony, plumed hats and ermine robes; about chiefs and emirs, sultans and nawabs, viceroys and proconsuls; about thrones and crowns, dominion and hierarchy, ostentation and ornamentalism.”

Most of the British residents In India-Burma were male. With no English wives to tie them down, these Englishmen were fond of attending parties which featured food, drink, opium and fun with dancing girls who usually doubled as prostitutes. It was customary for unmarried British men to keep a local mistress-housekeeper who would raise their children. After the Suez canal opened in 1868, and travel was shorter and easier, more married English men and their families became more common and more British women arrived and married the single English men. After that the British community became more self-sufficient and more insular and separated from the India community.

Many Englishmen didn't last long enough to enjoy these fruit in climate where "two monsoons was the age of a man." Many dropped dead in the first six months from cholera, malaria, heatstroke, small pox, cobra bites or accidents. Other wasted away more slowly from syphilis, exotic jungle diseases and doctors who treated cholera with a red hot iron on the heel. Method for treating and avoiding disease left a lot to be desired. The English didn't boil their water but insisted on wearing red flannel underwear even in the sweltering heat.

Myanmar still uses English accounting systems and legal systems. One of the great chroniclers of life in Burma was Sir. J. George Scott, an adventurer and explorer who spent a lot of time in northern Burma studying and recording the habits of the Shan, Padang, Palaung and Wa.

Kipling’s Burma, See Literature

George Orwell in Burma, See Literature

Rangoon’s Infamous Pegu Club

Wade Guyitt wrote in the Myanmar Times, “It played host to British royalty, saw shocking racism and inspired a cocktail still served today. It also survived the battle for independence, the socialist era and the emergence of a new, democratic Myanmar. When the British conquered Pegu (now Bago) in 1852, they did so, according to one rather biased report, “in what may be called dashing style, while exposed to the fierce rays of a burning sun”. Nineteen years later, soldiers and officials in what was then called Rangoon found themselves looking for a place to escape those “fierce rays” and have a drink. Founded in 1871, their original watering hole appears lost in time. But they quickly grew in number, and their specially built teak-walled compound, completed in 1882, still stands today. [Source: Wade Guyitt, Myanmar Times, July 8, 2013 //\\]

“In the Imperial Gazetteer of India of 1909, the Pegu Club is prominently labelled. Bounded by Prome Road (now Pyay), Newlyns Road (now Zagawar) and Budd’s Road (now Padonmar), its location – north of the city’s built-up waterfront downtown, but south of the cantonment (or garrison) line which marked the edge of the developed city just north of Shwedagon Pagoda – afforded easy access to the barracks, parade grounds, prisons, lunatic asylums and burial grounds which marked the British view of Rangoon at the time. To the south was a safe shipping route for the empire; to the north, successive lines of “coolies”, elephants, and rifles defended against all comers. The map shows plantations and villages outside the lines but does not name them. For those tasked with seeing Myanmar culture brought to bended knee by any means necessary, anything beyond seemed the end of the world. As Rudyard Kipling recalled after his one visit to Rangoon in 1889 as a young newspaperman, the club was “full of men on their way up or down”. He had time for only two stops in the city: that “beautiful winking wonder” the Shwedagon Pagoda, and the Pegu Club. Both astounded him. “‘Try the mutton,’” he was told. “‘I assure you the Club is the only place in Rangoon where you get mutton.’” But what stood out most was the morbid chatter about “battle, murder, and sudden death”. Its casual nature (“‘that jungle-fighting is the deuce and all. More ice please’”) gave him his first glimpse of the wars colonialism waged beyond its walls. //\\

“One travelogue warned ladies should watch out for snakes upon exiting the club – living nearby: I can confirm this remains sound advice today. Inside, however, the club was the pinnacle of imperialist attempts to replicate England in foreign lands. Membership was open to “all gentlemen interested in general society”, the club’s rules stated, but in practice that meant whites only. “Rank, wealth, and birth had no relevance,” wrote Wai Wai Myaing in A Journey in Time, a family memoir. “The color of the skin was the only feature that mattered.” By 1910 the Pegu Club boasted 350 members, 25 of whom lived on-site. //\\

“The Prince of Wales came to dine in 1922. In “Burmese Days, “George Orwell reveals the garrison mentality of such clubs: “‘[N]atives are getting into all the Clubs nowadays. Even the Pegu Club, I’m told. Way this country’s going, you know. We’re about the last Club in Burma to hold out against ‘em.’” Orwell’s novel neatly skewers “those Englishmen – common, unfortunately – who should never be allowed to set foot in the East”. But set foot they had. The Straits Times commented on March 2, 1916, how “[a]t the Pegu Club in Rangoon you can meet lots of men who will tell you that if we had not made the usual mess in diplomacy and frontier dilimitation a considerable portion of Yunnan would be under the Union Jack”. The Pegu Club had become the sidelines from which the empire was run. //\\

Hill Stations

In the intense Indian summers, the English gentry and their servants fled the cities for the hill stations in the cooler mountains. The British built 96 hill stations in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Burma. The Dutch built some in Indonesia, the French in Vietnam and the Americans in the Philippines. Most were built between 1820 and 1885. Simla, the largest hill station, was the capital of British India for most of the year and headquarters for the imperial army.

The first hill stations were built in 1820 after it was discovered that British soldiers fighting Gurhkas in the foothills of the Himalayas felt better and came down with less disease in the high altitude than soldiers stationed at low altitudes.

The hill stations began as sanatoriums and convalescent centers, but it wasn’t long before they became places where healthy upper class people went to escape the heat of the lowland plains. Most of the hill stations were located above 6,000 feet because that seemed to be the ceiling of malaria-carrying mosquitos. Naturally cool air proved to be the perfect remedy for world where air conditioning, insect repellant and antibiotics had not been invented.

Most hill stations we built on ridge tops. Now, while this had its advantages in fighting disease. It was not practical for supplying water, especially when trees were cut down and ground water levels drops. In the early days there were no scenic train rides. Visitors were brought up the slopes in bullock cars, on horseback, or in sedan chairs.

Book: Great Hill Stations of Asia by Barbara Crossette (Harper Collins/ Westview, 1998)

Hill Station Life

The hill station were complete town with sanitariums, churches, cottages, clubs, libraries and activities. Social activities went on almost around the clock and status and rank was rigidly defined. The hill stations were set up like towns back home. They featured comfortable cottages, steepled churches, clubs, schools, libraries, tearooms, and gardens with European flowers.

Barbara Crossete wrote the Great Hill Stations of Asia , despite the awful government Burma remains "blessed by nature, where there are always things to eat or sell and the means to live in dignity." The hill station at Taunggyi was described in 1902 as “not merely for house-building but for racecourses, pol-grounds and public gardens.”

The atmosphere at the hill stations was both formal, strange and hedonistic. People attended full dress balls, drank a lot, slept on closed rooms to avoid the "miasma," indulged in extramarital affairs and had sex with prostitutes. One chronicler wrote, "I verily believe that when the white man penetrates the interior to found a colony, his first act is to clear a space and build a clubhouse."

One journalist described hill station life as "ball after ball, each followed by a little backbiting." Another said, "There is theory that anyone who lives above 7,000 feet starts having delusions, illusions and hallucinations. People who, in the cities, are the models of respectability are known to fling more than stones and insults at each other when they come to live up here. “

Missionaries in India-Burma

Missionaries that came to India-Burma endured numerous hardships and had little success converting the local population. Upon arrival many went to their boat cabins and wept with shock and prayed for strength after seeing throngs of sweaty Indians naked except for their loincloths.

Missionaries were often expected to live out their lives abroad and they were discouraged from coming home even if they were fatally ill. "It is better that our missionaries should die on the field of battle," one missionary board warned, "than to return to camp in a wounded or disabled state."

The primary activity of missionaries was setting up schools. They usually set up numerous primary schools and, if they were there long enough to get primary school graduates, a secondary school. Many people died of malaria and death rates from cholera were also high. Missionaries had to protect themselves against snakes, scorpions, white ants, winged ants and bats. One missionary described a huge spider that made a home in his shoe. It "was nearly the size of the palm of my hand...olive brown and covered with a soft down.” The missionaries also had to put up with dust storms, torrential monsoons and 130°F heat that lasted for weeks at a time. "Between the rising and setting of the sun," one missionary wrote, "a foreigner should not leave his house without the shelter of a carriage or palanquin or a thick umbrella."

Britain’s Impact on Burma

Traditional Myanmar society was drastically altered by the ending of the monarchy and the separation of church and state. Though the final Anglo-Burma war officially ended after only a couple of weeks in 1985, resistance continued in northern Myanmar until 1890, with the British finally resorting to a systematic destruction of villages and appointment of new officials to finally halt the guerilla activity. The economic nature of society also changed drastically. After the opening of the Suez Canal the demand for Burmese rice grew and vast tracts of land were opened up for cultivation. However. in order to prepare the new land for cultivation. farmers were forced to borrow money from Indian moneylenders at high interest rates and were often evicted for failure to pay back the loan. Imported Indian labor ended up with most of the jobs and whole villages became lawless dens full of the unemployed. While the Burmese economy grew all the power and wealth was in the hands of several British firms and the Burmese people did not reap the rewards. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Ben Macintyre wrote in The Times, “Like every country, Burma is a product of its history, in which Britain played a defining role, sometimes for better, mostly for worse. Aung San Suu Kyi's long and courageous campaign for democracy can be properly understood only against the backdrop of Burma's fractured past: three Anglo-Burmese wars, a century of exploitative British colonial rule, a brutal Japanese invasion, a remarkably peaceful transition to independence and a brief, unforgotten period of prosperity. The history of British intervention in Burma should be a source of considerable shame and just a little pride. As Burma finally inches towards democracy, Britain's involvement in Burma's past offers a unique opportunity to help shape its future. Ever since the 1820s, the British had regarded Burma as a lucrative sideline to India, strategically vital and, more important, a place to get rich. "An empire is primarily a money-making concern," wrote George Orwell, brilliantly skewering "the lie that we're here to uplift our poor black brothers rather than to rob them". [Source: Ben Macintyre, The Times, April 10, 2012]

In the process of removing the monarchy, the British destroyed the structure of traditional Burmese society. Resistance to colonial rule was savagely put down. Tribal divisions were compounded. This humiliation paved the way for the extreme nationalist militarism that followed. According to Thant Myint-U, Burma's foremost historian, the colonial experience fractured and divided Burmese society in a way that encouraged dictatorship, undermining institutions that had held the state together since the Middle Ages, leaving the country "adrift, suddenly pushed into the modern world without an anchor to the past".

Although precious little profit trickled down to the Burmese, Burma boomed under British rule, becoming the largest rice exporter in the world, with teeming ports and busy railways. The colonial architecture of Rangoon, preserved because the developers were never allowed in and now in dire need of preservation, speaks of a flourishing metropolis. The few precious years of democracy after Britain left, peacefully, are "looked back on as the golden age of the Burmese middle classes", Thant writes. Burma's "relationship with the British empire", Orwell wrote, "is that of slave and master". For a half-century, Britain's relationship with Burma was effectively non-existent. Now there is an opportunity to forge a completely different relationship, based on acknowledging the many sins and few virtues of a shared history.

Discontent in British-Ruled Burma and the Beginning of the Nationalist Movement

Burmese nationalism and patriotism arose in the late 19th century, finding initial support among the Buddhist monks (sangha), who traditionally had a central role in society. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, World War II and the Japanese occupation were politically oppressive times.

The British did not move in large numbers to the colony in Burma in the way they did to other colonies such as India. Instead, it was Indian workers who migrated to the country once it was under British rule, and competed with the local Burmese for jobs, lowering the standard of living in the country. The Burmese resented both the British and the Indian migrants, and staged guerilla warfare against the British army of occupation. The guerrillas were led by former army officers of the Royal Burmese Army as well as other former leaders (headmen, etc.). The guerillas fought hard against the foreigners, but were often captured and punished harshly. Their actions and the crime that began when the villagers were displaced by Indian workers, led to the British impression of their Burmese colony as a restless and violent place. [Source: Wikipedia +]

By the turn of the century, a nationalist movement began to take shape in the form of Young Men's Buddhist Associations (YMBA), modelled after the YMCA, as religious associations were allowed by the colonial authorities. They were later superseded by the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA) which was linked with Wunthanu athin or National Associations that sprang up in villages throughout Burma Proper. Between 1900 and 1911 the "Irish Buddhist" U Dhammaloka publicly challenged Christianity and imperial power, leading to two trials for sedition. +

A new generation of Burmese leaders arose in the early twentieth century from amongst the educated classes that were permitted to go to London to study law. They came away from this experience with the belief that the Burmese situation could be improved through reform. Progressive constitutional reform in the early 1920s led to a legislature with limited powers, a university and more autonomy for Burma within the administration of India. Efforts were also undertaken to increase the representation of Burmese in the civil service. Some people began to feel that the rate of change was not fast enough and the reforms not expansive enough. +

In 1920 the first university students' strike in history broke out in protest against the new University Act which the students believed would only benefit the elite and perpetuate colonial rule. 'National Schools' sprang up across the country in protest against the colonial education system, and the strike came to be commemorated as 'National Day'. There were further strikes and anti-tax protests in the later 1920s led by the Wunthanu athins. Prominent among the political activists were Buddhist monks (hpongyi), such as U Ottama and U Seinda in the Arakan who subsequently led an armed rebellion against the British and later the nationalist government after independence, and U Wisara, the first martyr of the movement to die after a protracted hunger strike in prison. (One of the main thoroughfares in Yangon is named after U Wisara.) +

Movement Towards Burmese Independent Under British Colonial Rule

In 1930 some of these dissatisfied students founded a new group called the Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association) whose members called themselves Thakin (an ironic name as thakin means "master" in the Burmese language – rather like the Indian 'sahib' — proclaiming that they were the true masters of the country entitled to the term usurped by the colonial masters).

The Burmese export economy was hit hard by the world depression in the 1930s. A rising sense of nationalism combined with suffering lead to the Saya San rebellion, a peasant uprising which was brutally suppressed by the British. In December 1930, a local tax protest by Saya San in Tharrawaddy quickly grew into first a regional and then a national insurrection against the government. Lasting for two years, the Galon rebellion, named after the mythical bird Garuda – enemy of the Nagas i.e. the British – emblazoned on the pennants the rebels carried, required thousands of British troops to suppress along with promises of further political reform. The eventual trial of Saya San, who was executed, allowed several future national leaders, including Dr Ba Maw and U Saw, who participated in his defence, to rise to prominence. +

The Saya San rebellion gave the Thakin their chance. Though they did not actually participate in the rebellion. they did win the trust of the peasants and displaced the older generation of London-educated elites at the head of the Burmese nationalist movement. They staged a strike in 1936 which was notable because it was during this strike that Thakin Nu and Aung San joined the movement. +

The second university students strike in 1936 was triggered by the expulsion of Aung San and Ko Nu, leaders of the Rangoon University Students Union (RUSU), for refusing to reveal the name of the author who had written an article in their university magazine, making a scathing attack on one of the senior university officials. It spread to Mandalay leading to the formation of the All Burma Students Union (ABSU). Aung San and Nu subsequently joined the Thakin movement progressing from student to national politics.

Saya San and the Saya San Rebellion

Saya San (1876 and 1931) was the leader of the anti-British rebellion in 1930-32 that bore his name. Born on October 24, 1876, Saya San was a native of Shwebo, a center of nationalist-monarchist sentiment in north-central Myanmar that was the birthplace of the Konbaung (or Alaungpaya) dynasty, which controlled Myanmar from 1752 until the British annexation in 1886. He was a Buddhist monk, physician, and astrologer in Siam (Thailand) and Myanmar before the rebellion. Saya San joined the extreme nationalist faction of the General Council of Burmese Associations led by U Soe Thein. Saya San organized peasant discontent and proclaimed himself a pretender to the throne who, like Alaungpaya, would unite the people and expel the British invader. He organized his followers into the "Galon Army" (Galon, or Garuda, is a fabulous bird of Hindu mythology), and he was proclaimed "king" at Insein, near Rangoon (Yangon), on Oct. 28, 1930. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

On the night of December 22-2, 1930 the first outbreak of violence that became the Saya San rebellion occurred in the Tharrawaddy district; the revolt soon spread to other Irrawaddy delta districts. The Galon army rebels, like the Boxers of China, carried charms and tattoos to make themselves invulnerable to British bullets. Armed only with swords and spears, Saya San's rebels were no match for British troops with machine guns. ~

As the revolt collapsed, Saya San fled to the Shan Plateau in the east. On Aug. 2, 1931, he was captured at Hokho and brought back to Tharrawaddy to be tried by a special tribunal. Despite the efforts of his lawyer, Ba Maw, he was sentenced to death in March 1931 and was hanged at Tharrawaddy jail. The revolt was crushed. By some estimates more than 10,000 peasants were killed during it. ~

Although Saya San's revolt was basically political (it was the last genuine attempt to restore the Burmese monarchy) and possessed strong religious characteristics, its causes were basically economic. The peasants of southern Myanmar had been dispossessed by Indian moneylenders, were burdened with heavy taxes, and were left penniless when the price of rice dropped in an economic depression. Widespread support for Saya San betrayed the precarious and unpopular position of British rule in Myanmar.

Burma Separated from India in 1937

The British separated Burma Province from British India in 1937 and granted the colony a new constitution calling for a fully elected assembly, with many powers given to the Burmese, but this proved to be a divisive issue as some Burmese felt that this was a ploy to exclude them from any further Indian reforms whereas other Burmese saw any action that removed Burma from the control of India to be a positive step. Ba Maw served as the first prime minister of Burma, but he was forced out by U Saw in 1939, who served as prime minister from 1940 until he was arrested on 19 January 1942 by the British for communicating with the Japanese. [Source: Wikipedia +]

A wave of strikes and protests that started from the oilfields of central Burma in 1938 became a general strike with far-reaching consequences. In Rangoon student protesters, after successfully picketing the Secretariat, the seat of the colonial government, were charged by the British mounted police wielding batons and killing a Rangoon University student called Aung Kyaw. In Mandalay, the police shot into a crowd of protesters led by Buddhist monks killing 17 people. The movement became known as Htaung thoun ya byei ayeidawbon (the '1300 Revolution' named after the Burmese calendar year), and 20 December, the day the first martyr Aung Kyaw fell, commemorated by students as 'Bo Aung Kyaw Day'. +

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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