Ultranationalist or Xenophobiac Burmans in history

Source: Burma in Limbo, Part 2 in New Mandala, New perspectives on mainland Southeast Asia

Comment by Moe Aung // Sep 1, 2010 at 8:31 am

….Race riots are the stuff of uneducated gullible people who follow populist leaders and demagogues all over the world.  Indeed race and religion are the refuge of scoundrels. The military dictatorship in Burma has found this very expedient whenever they get into difficulties.

But that’s entirely different from the nationalism inherent in national liberation struggles in the colonised world.  It’s when the colonisers failed to realise when it was time to get off. Churchill didn’t believe the Burmese were ready for self rule when we had been a sovereign state for at least a millennium before the British came.

Colonialists and dictators are unfortunately not in the habit of stepping down of their own accord. Churchill also said “Jaw, jaw, not war, war” when it suited him, but he was an arch colonialist who never shirked from violence when that suited him.

It’s nice to know that in your cosy little liberal democracy you are now a rehabilitated sinner. The peoples of Burma, notwithstanding Buddhism and other peaceful religions, sadly cannot afford to be totally committed to non-violence when state violence is an everyday  reality.

“Burmese politicians and the army should just talk, negotiate, and compromise as there are enough killings already.”

How we would love to just talk and negotiate around the table, round the clock if needs be. Look where it’s got ASSK and the NLD. It’s a one way traffic if you haven’t noticed. Are these people ‘extreme nationalists’? Perhaps they should be. And may I ask who’s done most of the killing so far? “Not war, just peace baby” is ever so convenient when your generals demand, beyond resonable compromise,  just straightforward collaboration and capitulation  with a gun pointing to all our collective head.  You lot are so scared that the worm will turn it’s pathetic.

Many of us came down with what I call a bad case of “Wow Syndrome” as soon as we landed in the West,  some never to recover from it.  I’ve lived in the West for longer than I care to remember, and I don’t stop at merely scratching the surface. It has only reinforced the world view and outlook on life that I came with.

It’s a common fallacy where people once they’ve settled in the West start thinking its wonderful ways of doing things simply ought to be transplanted or extrapolated on to their native land and all will be well.  What they don’t always realise is that what these lucky people take as their birthrights were fought for and won by their forefathers shedding tears, blood and guts  a long time ago. Many of  them may well believe that it all evolved as a matter of course.  The history of these lands in their more settled and peaceful times is still a series of progressive liberal reforms  punctuated by right wing backlashes, the last one proving extremely durable so far. It is so easy to live a very shallow life in these lands.

From the Main Article:

Burmese civil leaders participated in the Burma Round Table Conference in London in 1931. Daw Mya Sein, the only daughter of U May Aun,g was one of them to discuss the future constitution of Burma. The Government of Burma Act (1935) by the British Parliament   finally separated Burma from India and a new constitution (the very first constitution of Burma), providing for a fully elected legislative assembly and a responsible cabinet, was established in 1937.

Apart from the elected representatives from the Burmese majority the 132-seat Legislature also had seats reserved for significant minority and immigrant groups. Twelve seats were reserved for Karen, eight for Indians, two for Anglo-Burmese, and three for Europeans. In addition there were twelve seats set aside for various ethnic communities’ chamber of commerce, four for labour unions, and one for Rangoon University.

Even though dehumanized and vilified later by the nationalist Burmese writers and the successive nationalist governments these large communities of immigrants basically built the modern Burma together with the indigenous races under fair but firm and stable British rule. The rice bowl of Burma the Delta was basically uninhibited land before the British arrival. Burmese kings or Mon kings and queens didn’t build lower Burma.

British did build Lower Burma and Rangoon. And everybody came.

Everybody meant really everyone from all corners of the earth. English, Irish, Scottish, Germans, Jews, Indians, Chinese: almost every race. Rangoon quickly became an exciting melting pot of so many races.

A particularly nasty line in our nationalist-rewritten history of Burma described these immigrants and their descendants as British-sponsored greedy foreigners who sucked the blood out of us Burmese and almost destroyed our Burmese race, and if their growth was unchecked they would eventually swallow us to the point of extinction.

“Earth shall not swallow our race, only other races will swallow our race.” was the large slogan commonly mounted on the front office wall of every immigration office in modern Burma.

Whenever I saw the thriving communities of proud Indians in Singapore or Chinese in Kuala Lumpur or Penang I was convinced that the brutal racist treatment of Indians and Chinese in Burma was one of the main reasons British Burma failed after Independence while British Malaya prospered after independence.

After forming a coalition government with the support of the minority groups in the Legislature Dr. Ba Maw, a noted lawyer with a PhD from the French University of Bordeaux, became the first official Prime Minister of Burma. This translated extract is what Thein Phe Myint, a typical leftwing nationalist writer of that time, wrote of Dr Ba Maw’s government.

“Though his party is called Sinyetha (The Poor) Party, Dr Ba Maw is just using the poor as a stepping stone. On the one hand he tricked the public especially the educated youth by issuing a policy directive declaring not to treat people purely based on their races as whether English or Burmese or Indian, while on the other hand he became a PM by forming the coalition  government with the votes of English and Indians in the Legislature.”

For some strange reason even Burmese have trouble understanding almost all the popular writers then in Burma were lefties. Their enormous influence over the unsuspecting populace is one of the major reasons Socialism and Nationalization were widely accepted in postwar Burma while Capitalism and Private Enterprise were frowned upon as the tools of colonialists and imperialists. Even decades later, in the 1960s, Ne Win’s weird “Burmese Way to Socialism” was supported by the influential politician-cum-writers like Thein Phe Myint and welcomed by the gullible people of Burma.

Thein Phe Myint as a Communist intellectual who once declared that Parliamentary Democracy was not real politics couldn’t really understand the workings of a modern democratic government like Dr Ba Maw’s coalition government.

A serious anti-Indian riot broke out in Burma in March 1939 and hundreds of people were killed in Rangoon and Mandalay. And the Legislature concluded that Dr Ba Maw had failed to solve the problem of Indian minority and passed a motion of no-confidence. He was forced to resign and succeeded by U Pu another lawyer from Middle Burma.

Also a new money economy had taken hold of the country by 1890 and Burma became increasingly prosperous, experiencing considerable growth in trade and agricultural acreage and population. The last was due to the growth of then half a million strong Indian immigrants and a smaller but significant number of Chinese immigrants mainly from the British Malaya and Singapore,” Khin Thida also wrote.

British reforms had rapidly transformed Burma especially lower Burma with an originally uninhabited vast delta into the rice bowl of the British Empire. The vast, extremely fertile, and still southward-expanding Delta teeming with wildlife like elephants and tigers and pythons would soon be cleared and land reclaimed and transformed into vast tracts of highly productive paddy land.

After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 the export of Burmese rice grew many folds and to meet the ever-increasing demand of rice from continental Europe the colonial authorities opened the uninhabited delta of lower Burma to anyone willing to clear the thick forest and farm the virgin land normally roamed by mighty herds of wild elephants.

Cheap money from the British banks like Chartered Bank flowed through Indian money lenders and the British trading companies to rapidly develop trade and commerce in lower Burma. The Irrawaddy Flotilla particularly was responsible for the introduction of the Indian Hundi system into the Delta.

Apart from rice, the Delta also became the main provider of freshwater fish and prawns and duck-eggs to the whole of Burma through the fish market and egg dealers in Rangoon mainly because of the Hundi system. No pesky banks, no cumbersome bills of lading, and no hard-to-get letters of credit were needed in that Hundi system of short-term trade finance.

Like the rest of the Delta our township has the criss-cross of interconnecting waterways from the nine major tributary rivers of Irrawaddy to produce plenty of fish and prawns and to raise thousands and thousands of free-range ducks that produce massive number of duck-eggs every single day. The Hundi system helped the merchants ship their excess produce into the hands of consumers nationwide.

For example the Chinese fish mongers and egg dealers in our little town shipped tens of tons of fish and prawns and hundreds of thousands of duck-eggs every day to Rangoon by the overnight ferry ships of the British Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. And they didn’t need to wait to get paid for their shipment.

Once their cargo was on board the ship, a clerk would pay them the cash for the value of their cargo, already agreed between them and their buyers in Rangoon, minus 1% commission. In turn the town merchants could pay the fishermen and the duck-farmers daily for their goods. The Irrawaddy Flotilla would deliver the fish to the fishmongers in Rangoon Fish Market and the duck-eggs to the egg dealers in Rangoon’s Chinatown and at the end of every month settle the accounts with them.

The Irrawaddy Flotilla became not just a shipping company but also a short-term financier of trade and their resident agents in the Delta towns were the most influential in the towns’ civic affairs together with the money lender Chittys.

That system helped the trade grow many folds, eventually almost every village household in our township had at least 100 or 200 ducks under their houses on the stilts by the stream banks and the humble, white-colored duck-egg become a staple for Burmese consumers. Unlike in Thailand or Australia the common omelet in Burma is of duck-egg not chicken-egg. The Irrawaddy Flotilla also made huge amounts of money from the lucrative trade finance.

And the food was abundant not just in the fertile Delta but also the whole of British Burma.

Stephen. // Aug 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Thanks Hla Oo, another interesting post.

Given your critical view of Thein Pe Myint, would you be more sympathetic to Maung Htin?  Like you, he was also critical (for example, in Ngaba) of the anti-Indian and anti-Chinese fervor of the nationalists.

But to be fair to Thein Pe Myint, although he sought to explain (and therefore justify?) the anti-Indian riots of 1930s along class lines (i.e. Burmese labourers against Indian capitalists), he also tried to distinguish between Indian capitalists and Indian labourers.  In a contribution to the Nagani Book Club (here) he praised the Indian labourers for siding with their Burmese co-labourers in the oil-field strikes, as quoted here:

But actually, I don’t think the ordinary poor Indians, who came and lived in Burma are ungrateful. They never attack the Burmese. They don’t treat the Burmese as their enemies. And sometimes they work together with the Burmese for better or for worse. In oil-field strikes such as Yenan-gyaung and Syriam and some other strikes, Indian workers and Burmese workers were inseparable. And it is certain that even if the capitalist and middle class Indians try to break their unity, they will not be divided.

From Part 1 in BDigest

But for me that blind belief and trust in our hero slowly vaporised  as I left Burma for a university in Bangkok and started having access to  all sorts of books in English about Burma from the university library.  Books like George Orwell’s Burmese Days and other essays were  real eye openers for an information-starved Burmese like me. They taught  me to see the difficult things objectively without a racial bias and  also without the emotional filters.

Then one day I had a rather very long and heated discussion with a  visiting Indian Professor who had a very strong blood connection with  both pre-war and post-war Burma. His many uncles basically grew up in  Rangoon and they were summarily kicked out of Burma by the army in the  1960s and they lost everything. I still remembered the exact wording of  his angry remarks about our national hero.

“The real villain is not just the Burmese Army but also their  founder Aung San. He gave them the super-inflated-legitimacy and the  totally-misguided-purpose as a sole patriotic national institution. A  bad institution that is violently-racist, narrowly-nationalist,  left-wing army continuing the old marshal tradition of the  empire-building brutal Burmese kings from the distant past well before  the arrival of British.

He was almost an exact replica of our own Nazi, Subhas Chandra  Bose. If the British didn’t stop the Japs on the border in 1944 we  Indians would now have Bose’s Indian National Army terrorising us  exactly same as what Aung San’s once Burmese National Army is doing now  in Burma!”

Even though I was seriously upset at him at that time his angry  remarks have forced me to dig deeper into our country’s past to discover  more about our Bo-Gyoke. My main question is why Burma is in limbo for  so bloody long and still gripped by more than 60 years of hellish civil  war since 1948, the year of independence from Great Britain.

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One Response to “Ultranationalist or Xenophobiac Burmans in history”

  1. Burmese Pauper princess in India « Dr Ko Ko Gyi’s Blog Says:

    […] Ultranationalist or Xenophobiac Burmans in history (drkokogyi.wordpress.com) […]

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