Sep 7, 2018 |

Creation of the Land of Gold

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, commonly known as Burma, is often described in both academic and traveling literature as “… an anthropologist’s paradise.”  This is not surprising considering the country is home to approximately 135 distinct ethnic groups that each have their own unique histories, languages, and cultures.  

Situated between Thailand, Laos, China, India, and Bangladesh, human occupation began around 11,000 BCE.  The Pyu people, who migrated to present-day Myanmar from China, were the first recorded people to occupy the region and they established several city-states in the northern part of the country.  The Mon people occupied the lower part of the country and continue to do so presently.

Additionally, its location at the crossroads between South and Eastern Asia helped establish Buddhism as the most popular religion in the country. Its history of trade with Western Asia and Europe also brought Islam, Christianity, and Judaism into the country. Some of these places of worship can still be visited today, specifically in Yangon, which is home to many churches and even has a Muslim Quarter. Myanmar remains one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world today.

One of the most significant events in Myanmar history occurred with the establishment of the Pagan Dynasty (known as Pugan in some British historical texts) in 849 by the Mranma (Bamar/Burmese) ethnic group after their capture of the city of Pagan from the decline in power by the Pyu people. By 1044, under King Anwrahata, the Pagan expanded almost to the present day borders of Myanmar to border the eastern part of the Khmer Empire the Nanzhao Dynasty, the Chin Hills, and the Kingdom of Arakan to the west.  What was more impressive about King Anwrahata’s reign was his ability to unify nearly all of the kingdoms, most notably the Shan people. Theravada Buddhism also became the dominant religion during this time period. King Anwrahata used it as a means of legitimizing his conquest of the land and used the Mon’s knowledge of the Pali language and Buddhist scripture to educate Burmans about the religion thereby utilizing the religion as a means of forming unity, and creating a shared religious identity, among the various ethnic groups.  The consequences of establishing Theravada Buddhism as part of the Burmese/Myanmar national identity are felt today, such as the entanglement of Buddhist nationalism in both the Burmese military and pro-democracy factions.

The Toungoo and Alaungpaya dynasties followed, noted for their engagement in trade with the Chinese Ming Dynasty, the Portuguese, and the British.  These Bamar dynasties’ alliances with Shan, Rakhine, and Mon people allowed these groups to jointly resist colonization by China, Portugal, and even Great Britain up until 1824, the beginning of the first Anglo-Burmese War.

The First Anglo-Burmese War was launched by the British when the Rakhine state and Assam, which bordered British India, were captured by the Alaungpaya (also known as Konbaung) Dynasty.  The first war resulted in the British capture of Rakhine state, which forced the dynasty to officially cede it to Britain in the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826. Additionally, the Alaungpaya Dynasty had to pay the British one million pound sterling and agreed to a commercial treaty that afforded the British privilege of certain traded goods over that of other foreign traders in the region.  This marked the end of rule by indigenous people over the region until 1948.

The Second (1852-1853) was prompted by the British wanting control over the region, namely its natural resources to trade.  In the Second War, the British sought to expand their trade influence over both the Southeast Asian coastline and in the northern part of the country that was rich in teakwood and rubies.  Lower Burma was annexed by the British, ending the Second War. The Third and final war (1885-1887) was legitimized by the fears that the French would aid the Burmese in reconquering their lost territory.  The British captured Mandalay, the capital of the Alaungpaya Dynasty, and annexed the region. In 1886, the annexation of both Upper and Lower Burma resulted in the British claiming Burma as part of British India. King Thibaw and his family were exiled to Eastern India, where they died and their graves remain today.  Valuables held by the royal family and the Burmese government were stolen by the British military and were given as gifts to the British royal family and other nobility.

British Rule Over Burma, Part I: Divisions of Geography and National Identities

British rule over Burma began in 1886 after the seizure of Mandalay and the exile of King Thibaw and his family to Eastern India. Colonial rule over the country extended until 1948 when the Union of Burma was established. Although some may say that Great Britain’s occupation of the country was relatively peaceful, the manner in which the Crown imposed structural violence laid the foundations for ethnic conflicts of today.

The first form of sociopolitical oppression the British utilized in its newest colony was restructuring its governmental system. After the Crown exiled King Thibaw, it exercised direct rule upon Burma by declaring it a province of British India. It maintained control by only appointing an educated minority elite to run civil affairs, namely those of British or Eurasian descent, and denying technical education to the majority of inhabitants, mostly indigenous people of the region, of the Crown Jewel colony which they termed peasants. The abolition of the Burmese monarchy also enabled the British to seize power from Buddhist monks, who held a mutually beneficial relationship with the Burmese monarchy as they received financial support in exchange for political support. In this power vacuum, the British utilized the education system to further diminish the influence of the monks and Buddhism in the country through the establishment of a semi-secular education system in Burma in which Christian missionaries were encouraged to come teach.

Using censuses to categorize people in Burma was a seemingly innocuous way for the British to develop a greater understanding of the vast diversity of the region. The establishment of political borders by the British that resulted in questionable categorizations has correlated with ethnic tensions presently. The most egregious display of this occurred in the 1911 British census. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in what is now known as Rakhine State, were categorized as “Mahomedean” (Muslim) category of “Indian immigrants” to the Arakan Kingdom (Rakhine State) in Burma, thought to have been brought over as laborers from India. In a British census a decade later, Rohingya were categorized as “Arkanese”, meaning that they were found to be native to the Arakan Kingdom, which is now Rakhine State.

George Orwell made further note of the relation of oppression between the colonized and the colonizer in his Burmese Days, which is loosely based on his time in the Imperial Police Force from 1922-1927. Orwell utilized the British characters in the novel to explore the individual experiences of those living in Burma, and their attitudes regarding the “natives”, some regarding them as, “… black, stinking swine,” and others open to having friendships, and even romantic relationships, with them. The complexities of the friendships and romantic relationships in this novel show that the locals’ access to the colonizers gave them power over members of their own ethnic groups, and even over other non-white people.

The British also imposed structural economic violence on the people of its newest colony. Mr. E.A. Blair noted this his article, “How a Nation is Exploited, The British Empire in Burma,” that, “If we are honest, it is true that the British are robbing and pilfering Burma quite shamelessly.” The 1885 Division of British Burma has contributed to the economic inequalities and political tensions of today. What was called Ministerial Burma was comprised of the Tenasserim, Arakan, Pegu, and Irrawaddy divisions. Located along major waterways, these regions were the economic hubs of British Burma: they were used as ports and attracted the wealthiest and most educated and, therefore, were the most economically prosperous. The Shan States, Chin Hills, and Kachin tracts were excluded from the Ministerial classification and were, instead, given the title Scheduled (Frontier) Areas and were governed separately from the Ministerial Divisions by the Burma Frontier Force. Although these divisions were redrawn to create eight different divisions by 1931, which enabled better inclusion for the Scheduled Areas, the structure of the Burmese economy was based primarily on foreign trade. Economic hubs remained in the formerly titled Ministerial divisions and the Scheduled Areas became sites of natural resource extraction for the British: they seized control of Burmese mine and oil fields by battling their way in and further denied the aforementioned peasants socioeonomic mobility by importing laborers from India into Burma, primarily to the Irrawaddy Division where most of the British ports were located, as a means of competition for low-cost labor.

In reaction to the dominance of British in Burma, many formed associations to resist colonial influence in the region through military actions or political disobedience. Although many of them failed to make significant strides due to limited resources, they laid the foundation for other civil society groups to follow in their footsteps. One of the most prominent organizations was the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA). Comprised mostly of young professionals in Rangoon (Yangon), which was then the capital, its primary aims included changing colonial rule through systems already in place, improving social conditions of Burmese people, and preserving cultural identity. These fundamental ideas laid the foundation for the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA), which focused on more radical forms of resistance, such as protests. The GCBA also was successful in recruiting rural and working class people to join its causes.

The work of the GCBA inspired the Saya San Rebellion (1930-1932) named after the Buddhist monk, Saya San, who was executed by the British for his actions. Born in an agricultural village near Shwebo, known as the “nationalist-monarchist sentiment in north-central Myanmar”, he used his status as a local, advanced educational background, and alliances within the GCBA to organize the “Galon Army” in Rangoon in October 1930. The goal of the military coordination was to unite the people of the region and expel the British. In December of that year, the Galon Army attempted to overtake Rangoon, but were met with British machine guns. Saya San successfully escaped to the Shan Plateau but was later captured and sentenced to death. It is estimated that 10,000 peasants were killed in the rebellions.

In 1935, the Government of Burma Act established the means by which Burma would become independent of India by 1937. Originally part of the Government of India Act (1935), it served the same purpose as it in terms of creating a means by which natives would have more representation in their local and federal governments: it allotted specific amount of seats in parliament for Karens, Indians, Europeans, and Anglo-Burmans in Burma. The Burma Act also defined specific names for ethnic and racial categorizations, namely differentiating between those from Europe and those from India or Burma. However, it also established the potential for interchangeable national identity for Indians and Burmans, as the British had lumped them into one country during the colonization process:

(3) In this paragraph the expression “native of India or Burma” has the same meaning as the expression “native of India” has for the purposes of section six of the Government of India Act, 1870, and accordingly it includes any person born and domiciled within the dominions of His Majesty in India or Burma parents habitually resident in India or Burma and not established there for temporary purposes only. 

As demonstrated by this attempt to define who was to be considered Burmese as opposed to Indian, British imposition of rigid national identities upon people living in the region was problematic. The most obvious consequence of these categorizations is the classification of Rohingya as being “Mahamodean” Indians in one census and being labeled as “Arakanese” meaning they belonged to the Kingdom of Arakan, which was encompassed in British Burma and falls within the boundaries of modern-day Myanmar. Although activists like Hsaya San, and later Aung San, revolted against people of Myanmar defining themselves by British colonialism, the structural impact of sociopolitical borders has resulted in Myanmar people attempting to define who is indigenous to its countries borders based on colonial era classifications. The theme of defining Myanmar people by their own terms, and not by the Crown, also played a role in nationalist movements in Burma during World War II, and ultimately paved the path to Burmese independence.

1932-1947 - British Rule Over Burma, Part II: World War II and Burmese Independence

Not only did Burma serve as one of the theatres of World War II, but this tragic global event also set the stage for Burmese independence. Although the Saya San Rebellion failed in 1932, civil society organizing remained strong, especially on university campuses. Two student leaders, Aung San and U Nu, became the faces of this new student movement and even gained enough clout to create alliances between various political parties. Aung San went on to create and lead the Burmese Independence Army (BIA) alongside the Japanese military to force Britain out of Burma Proper. After achieving this goal, however, Aung San realized that Japan was not vested in Burmese independence. In 1945 Aung San along with members of the Communist Party of Burma reached out to British troops in India to oust the Japanese from Burma. By 1947 not only had they succeeded in this, but were in the process of formulating a civil plan of independence from Great Britain as well. However, many ethnic minority groups simultaneously feared that they would not be granted independence because of their financial instability and Burman domination over national political and economic interests because of their strategic position alongside ports and other waterways. The Panglong Agreement was signed in 1947 in order to meet these concerns, but this would not quell tensions between ethnic minorities and the Burman majority. The Union of Burma reached full independence in 1948 but fell into chaos shortly afterwards. Various ethnic minority groups created rebel militias to fight for their own sovereignty and political parties fought for control of the central Parliament.

Researched and Written by: 

Mary Marston

Contributing Author

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