Puneet Varma (Editor)

British rule in Burma

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Political structure  Colony
1901–1910  Edward VII
Founded  1824
Date dissolved  1948
1862–1901  Victoria
1910–1936  George V
Capital  Yangon
Historical era  Early modern period
British rule in Burma British rule in Burma Wikipedia

Languages  English (official)Scots (national)Burmese (forbidden)
Religion  Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam
Currencies  Burmese rupee, Indian rupee, Pound sterling

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. Various portions of Burmese territories, including Arakan, Tenasserim were annexed by the British after their victory in the First Anglo-Burmese War; 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.


British rule in Burma httpsuploadwikimediaorgwikipediacommonsthu

After the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, Upper Burma was annexed, and 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. British rule was disrupted during the Japanese occupation of much of the country during the Second World War. Burma achieved independence from British rule on 4 January 1948.

British rule in Burma British rule in Burma Wikipedia

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 Scott, and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company.

British rule in Burma A Burmese Tug of Words The New York Times

Divisions of British Burma

The province of Burma, after 1885 was administered as follows:

  1. Ministerial Burma (Burma proper)
    1. Tenasserim Division (Toungoo, Thaton, Amherst, Salween, Tavoy, and Mergui Districts)
    2. Arakan Division (Akyab, Northern Arakan or Arakan Hill Tracts, Kyaukpyu and Sandoway Districts)
    3. Pegu Division (Rangoon City, Hanthawaddy, Pegu, Tharrawaddy and Prome Districts)
    4. Irrawaddy Division (Bassein, Henzada, Thayetmyo, Maubin, Myaungmya and Pyapon Districts)
  2. Scheduled Areas (Frontier Areas)
    1. Shan States
    2. Chin Hills
    3. 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 with a Burma Frontier Service, and later 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.

By 1931 Burma had 8 divisions, split into a number of districts.

  1. Arakan Division (Akyab, Arakan Hill District, Kyaukpyu and Sandoway District)
  2. Magwe Division (Chin Hills District, Magwe District, Minbu District, Pakokku District and Thayetmyo)
  3. Mandalay Division (Kyaukse District, Mandalay District, Meiktala District and Myingyan District)
  4. Tenasserim Division (Toungoo, Thaton, Amherst, Salween, Tavoy, and Mergui District)
  5. Pegu Division (Rangoon City, Hanthawaddy, Pegu, Tharrawaddy and Prome Districts)
  6. Irrawaddy Division (Bassein, Henzada, Maubin, Myaungmya and Pyapon District)
  7. Sagaing Division (Bhamo District, Lower Chindwin District, Upper Chindwin DistrictKatha District, Myitkyina District, Sagaing District and the Hukawng Valley and The Triangle Native areas)
  8. Federated Shan States (Northern, Eastern, Central, Myelat, Karenni, Kengtung and Yawnghwe)


The First Anglo-Burmese War arose from friction between Arakan in western Burma and British-held Chittagong to the north. After Burma's defeat of the Kingdom of Arakan in 1784–1785, in 1823, Burmese forces again crossed the frontier and the British responded with a large seaborne expedition that took Rangoon without a fight in 1824. In Danuphyu, south of Ava, the Burmese general Maha Bandula was killed and his armies routed. The 1826 Treaty of Yandabo formally ended the First Anglo-Burmese War, the longest and the most expensive war in British India history. Fifteen thousand European and Indian soldiers died, together with an unknown number of Burmese army and civilian casualties. The campaign cost the British five million pounds sterling to 13 million pounds sterling (roughly 18.5 billion to 48 billion in 2006 US dollars) that led to a severe economic crisis in British India in 1833.

After 25 years of peace, the British and Burmese fighting started afresh, and lasted until the British occupied all of Lower Burma.

King Mindon tried to readjust to the thrust of imperialism. He enacted administrative reforms and made Burma more receptive to foreign interests. But the British effected the Third Anglo-Burmese War, which lasted less than two weeks during November 1885.

British troops entered Mandalay on 28 November 1885 and Burma was attached to the British Empire on 1 January 1886.

Burmese armed resistance continued sporadically for several years, and the British commander had to coerce the High Court of Justice to continue to function. The British decided to annexe all of Upper Burma as a colony, and to make the whole country a province of the British India, within the Indian Empire. The new colony of Upper Burma was attached to the Burma Province on 26 February 1886. Rangoon, having been the capital of British Lower Burma, became the capital of the province.

Burma before the British conquest

Because of its location, with trade routes between China and India passing straight through the country, Burma was kept wealthy through constant trade, although self-sufficient agriculture was still the basis of the economy. With the Indian merchants travelling along the coasts and along rivers (especially the Irrawaddy River) through the country, where the majority of Burmese lived, Indian cultural influences filtered into the country and still exist there today. It was also one of the first Southeast Asian countries to receive Buddhism, which went on to become the officially patronised religion.

Before the British conquest and colonisation, the ruling Konbaung Dynasty practised a tightly centralised form of government. The king was the chief executive, with the final say on all matters, but he could not make new laws and could only issue administrative edicts. The country had two codes of law, the Rajathat and Dammathat, and the Hluttaw, the centre 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.

Arrival of the British in Burma

Conflict began between Myanmar and the British when the Konbaung Dynasty decided to expand into Arakan in the state of Assam, close to the British possessions in India. This close contact led to the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824–26), which the British won with the aid of the Siamese. Myanmar was forced to cede Assam and other northern provinces. In 1852, the Second Anglo-Burmese War was provoked by the British who sought the teak forests in Lower Burma as well as a port between Calcutta and Singapore. The British were victorious in this war, and as a result desired access to the teak, oil and rubies of northern Myanmar. This prompted the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. The British government justified their actions by claiming that the last independent king of Myanmar, Thibaw Min, was a tyrant and that he was conspiring to give France more influence in the country. Thus, in 1885, after three wars gaining various parts of the country, the British finally occupied all the area of present-day Myanmar, making the territory a Province of British India.

Early British rule

Burma was declared a province of India in November 1885 on the orders of the Secretary of State for India, Lord Randolph Churchill, with its capital at Rangoon, a move that 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. 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, to prepare the new land for cultivation, farmers borrowed 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, most of 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 the ethnic Burmese were excluded almost entirely from military service, which was staffed primarily with Indians, Anglo-Burmese, Karens and other Burmese minority groups. A British General Hospital Burmah was set up in Rangoon, under the direction in early 1887 of Surg. Patrick O'Sullivan. Though the country prospered, the Burmese people largely failed to reap the rewards. (See George Orwell's novel Burmese Days for a fictional account of the British in Burma.)

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.


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.

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.

Colonial economy

The traditional Burmese economy was one of redistribution with the prices of the most important commodities set by the state. 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. 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 Irrawaddy 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. 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.

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 Irrawaddy, 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(source?). 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 on 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 was being exported for Britain's benefit, thereby taking with it a lot of 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.”

Daily life under British rule

The British did not move in large numbers to the colony in Burma in the way they did to other possessions 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. 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.

Nationalist movement

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.

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.

May 1930 saw the founding of 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 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.

Burma separated from India

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. 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.

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'.

World War II

The Empire of Japan invaded Burma in 1942; this continued through 1943, when the State of Burma was proclaimed in Rangoon. Japan never succeeded in fully conquering all of the colony, however, and insurgent activity was pervasive, though not as much of an issue as it was in other former colonies. By 1945, British troops had regained control over most of the colony.

From the Japanese surrender to Aung San's assassination

The surrender of the Japanese brought a military administration to Burma. British administration sought to try Aung San and other members of BIA for treason and collaboration with the Japanese. Lord Mountbatten realised that a trial was an impossibility considering Aung San's popular appeal. After the war ended, the British Governor, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith returned. The restored government established a political programme that focused on physical reconstruction of the country and delayed discussion of independence. The AFPFL opposed the government leading to political instability in the country. A rift had also developed in the AFPFL between the Communists and Aung San together with the Socialists over strategy, which led to Than Tun being forced to resign as general secretary in July 1946 and the expulsion of the CPB from the AFPFL the following October.

Dorman-Smith was replaced by Sir Hubert Rance as the new governor, and almost immediately after his appointment the Rangoon Police went on strike. The strike, starting in September 1946, then spread from the police to government employees and came close to becoming a general strike. Rance calmed the situation by meeting with Aung San and convincing him to join the Governor's Executive Council along with other members of the AFPFL. The new executive council, which now had increased credibility in the country, began negotiations for Burmese independence, which were concluded successfully in London as the Aung San-Attlee Agreement on 27 January 1947.

The agreement left parts of the communist and conservative branches of the AFPFL dissatisfied, sending the Red Flag Communists led by Thakin Soe underground and the conservatives into opposition. Aung San also succeeded in concluding an agreement with ethnic minorities for a unified Burma at the Panglong Conference on 12 February, celebrated since as 'Union Day'. Shortly after, rebellion broke out in the Arakan led by the veteran monk U Seinda, and it began to spread to other districts. The popularity of the AFPFL, now dominated by Aung San and the Socialists, was eventually confirmed when it won an overwhelming victory in the April 1947 constituent assembly elections.

Then a momentous event stunned the nation on 19 July 1947. U Saw, a conservative pre-war Prime Minister of Burma, engineered the assassination of Aung San and several members of his cabinet including his eldest brother Ba Win, the father of today's National League for Democracy exile-government leader Dr Sein Win, while meeting in the Secretariat. Since then 19 July has been commemorated since as Martyrs' Day in Burma. Thakin Nu, the Socialist leader, was now asked to form a new cabinet, and he presided over Burmese independence on 4 January 1948. Anti-British popular sentiment was so strong at the time that Burma opted not to join the Commonwealth of Nations, unlike India.


British rule in Burma Wikipedia