After the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1826 two former provinces of the Burmese Empire, Arakan and Tenasserim, were governed by British commissioners. The two provinces developed distinctly different forms of government. In Arakan colonial policy paid little deference to traditional Arakanese or Burmese institutions; rather, it reflected more strongly the influence of neighboring Bengal. In Tenasserim the British built on existing forms of government, using indigenous leadership and codifying local law. In 1862 Arakan and Tenasserim were united with the rest of Lower Burma to form the province of British Burma. The administrative layout in theory conformed to the Indian model, but in practice tended to conform to Burmese traditional methods. The mode of government used by the British during this period was not unlike the Dutch system in Java, in which indirect rule prevailed.

In Upper Burma, which remained under Burmese rule until the third Anglo-Burmese war of 1885, the economy became dangerously dependent on the export of mainly cotton and teak. In the teak industry elaborate contracts and concessions were developed over time and honored to such a degree as to warrant substantial investments on the part of British-Indian trading houses. At the same time, in other fields royal monopolies often excluded independent merchants. Rice however had to be imported in ever-larger quantities, which drained Upper Burma of cash. The world depression of the 1870s led to a dramatic decline in prices and plunged the Burmese state into economic hardship and fiscal collapse.

Under British rule Lower Burma developed into an export-oriented economy depending almost totally on rice production. Lower Burma’s rice exports helped make up for food shortages in other parts of the empire. In this sense the colonial state in Burma developed within the context of a larger set of imperial, economic, political, and strategic interests.

Immediately at the end of the third Anglo-Burmese war, with the last Burmese king in exile, several important decisions were taken by the colonial power, which would dramatically change the way Burma was governed. A first attempt to govern through the old royal council, the Hlutdaw, failed. The reforms the British subsequently introduced meant nothing less than a complete dismantling of existing institutions of political authority. They resulted in the undermining of many established structures of social organization. In contrast to India the British decided that Burma would be governed directly, without making use of local elites. The monarchy, the nobility, and the army all disappeared. In the countryside local ruling families lost their positions. The existing political framework vanished. Only in outlying areas like the Shan states did the British use local intermediaries in government. In the heartland of the old Burmese empire, the Irrawaddy Valley, the colonial rulers imposed bureaucratic control right down to the village level. A wholly new framework of government rapidly supplanted existing institutions.

From the late nineteenth century onward village headmen were frequent targets of peasant uprisings, indicating how much they were perceived as tools of the colonial administration. At the same time the colonial power failed to adopt the symbols and roles that had legitimized precolonial rulers. The precolonial state had relied for the maintenance of order and security on its intimate involvement with the symbolic and spiritual life of society. The colonial state viewed its role very differently. The British administrators were not only foreigners, their idea of government presumed a marked distinction between the public and private spheres of life. British rule in effect destroyed the Burmese cosmological order and signified for the Burmese the end of a Buddhist World Age. This produced armed resistance in which Buddhist monks played a significant part. Burmese monks fanned rural rebellion, notably during the economic depression of the 1930s. The main causes of rural unrest and rebellions in the 1930s were taxes, usury, and depressed rice prices.

At the end of World War II, Burma was equipped with social and political institutions established only at the beginning of the twentieth century and without roots in local society. Apart from Buddhism, it would be difficult to define a supra-local institution that survived from precolonial times. As for the colonial administration, it had been shattered by the Japanese during the war years. Burma thus faced at independence in 1948 a weak institutional legacy, a vacuum that would be soon filled by the army.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Desai, Walter Sadgun. History of the British Residency in Burma. London: Gregg International, 1968. Harvey, Godfrey. British Rule in Burma 1824–1942. London: Ams Pr., 1992.


...Posted By... Arakan Research Centre ...Date... Friday, October 28, 2011. ...Post Title... , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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