Saturday, September 29, 2007

Burma in the British Empire

There you go. You start looking in places that you'd never glanced at before and all sorts of things pop up. Following my confession of ignorance about Burma, Hazar Nesimi sent this in the comments.

To stimulate trade and facilitate changes, the British brought in Indians and Chinese who quickly displaced the Burmese in urban areas. To this day Yangon and Mandalay have large ethnic Indian populations. Railroads and schools were built, as well as a large number of prisons including the infamous Insein Jail, then as now used for political prisoners. Burmese resentment was strong and was vented in violent riots that paralyzed Yangon on occasion all the way until the 1930s.[14] Much of the discontent was caused by disrespect for Burman culture and traditions, for example, what the British termed the Shoe Question: the colonisers’ refusal to remove their shoes upon entering Buddhist temples or other holy places. In October 1919, Eindawya Pagoda in Mandalay was the scene of exceptional violence when tempers flared after scandalised Buddhist monks attempted to physically expel a group of shoe-wearing British visitors. The leader of the monks was later sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted murder. Such incidents inspired the Burmese resistance to use Buddhism as a rallying point for their cause. Buddhist monks became the vanguards of the independence movement, and many died while protesting. One monk-turned-martyr was U Wisara, who died in prison after a 163-day hunger strike to protest a rule that forbade him from wearing his Buddhist robes while imprisoned.[15] Kipling’s poem 'Mandalay' is now all that most people in Britain remember of Myanmar’s difficult and often brutal colonisation.

However, without casting any doubt on the above, there is the obverse of the coin.

The colonial government built roads and railways, and river steamers, belonging to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, operated between Rangoon and Mandalay. The British brought electricity to Rangoon, improved urban sanitation, built hospitals and redesigned the capital on a grid system.

While the British set about building and modernizing, they benefited greatly from an economic boom in the Irrawaddy delta region. When they first arrived in Burma, much of the delta was swampland. But under the British, Burmese farmers began to settle in the delta and clear land for rice cultivation. In 1855, paddy fields covered 400,000 ha; by 1873 the forests had been cleared sufficiently to double the productive area. Land under rice cultivation increased by another 400,000 ha roughly every 7 years, reaching 4 million ha in 1930. Population in the area - which was about 1.5 million in the rnid-1 9th century- increased more than 5-fold.

From the beginning of the colonial period, the British stressed the benefits of education, and formal Western-style schooling replaced the traditional monastic education system. Rangoon University was founded in 1920 and a new urban elite evolved. They attempted to bridge the gap between old and new Burma by calling for the reform of traditional Buddhist beliefs and practices. In 1906, the Young Men's Buddhist Association was established in an effort to assert Burmese cultural identity and remain distinct from their colonizers. In 1916, the YMBA objected to the fact that Europeans persisted in wearing shoes inside religious buildings, which was considered disdainful. After demonstrations in over 50 towns, the government ruled that abbots should have the right to determine how visitors should dress in their monasteries - a ruling hailed as a victory for the YMBA.

Note, for example, the fact that the 'shoe' protests happened, that they were led by an organisation modelled on a British one and that it resulted in a change of the law. Wouldn't it be good it that was how things happened now?

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Hazar Nesimi said...

Agree that there was some positive in British Raj, who wouldnt, especially trade. But wouldnt it be good if Burma was not occupied and suppressed so brutally. Benefit of trade can be spread without force and blood spilled, but with a goodwill on all sides, but for British trading posts were followed by army occupation, and army by white settlers and their memsahibs, who did not know or care about their new country. Also did you notice the nations not colonized by West, Thailand, Turkey, China, Japan, Russia are not doing badly? Besides, what was so difficult about removing shoes entering a house. If you live in Italy you notice swarms of turists trying to get into churches in shorts and tank tops, sounding offended when they are given a cloak to wear.

NoolaBeulah said...

It's a huge question: how does change happen?

I remember when I first came to Manchester, in 1983, I was shocked. I had never seen failure spread so wide as to fill the horizon. Ugly, I could have accepted, but the emptiness, the lack of energy was awful.

It was merely a victim of the very process that it had begun: industrialisation and globalisation. And now other people were doing it better and more cheaply. The environment had changed; Manchester hadn't - I witnessed the consequences.

Who changes willingly? Very few individuals, let alone groups. At some point everyone goes down; sometimes (like Manchester) after a lot of pain, they get up again. Sometimes they don't.

These changes are more dramatic now than ever before because the whole world is involved. In the past, the number of people, the gaps between them, the area affected - all these were much smaller.

I have often wondered if Colonialism is, in part, the effect of differences in development and the means by which development spreads. Those differences are a constant friction and, in the end, the weaker will give way. I'm not trying to justify it; just understand it.

These changes rarely happen by mutual consent because no-one likes to give up what they have, no matter how little they like it.

[That doesn't excuse the rudeness of those British tourists. Another universal: the strong are arrogant.]