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British Colonial Burma, 1886-1942

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J.G. Bartholomew - Imperial gazetteer of India. New edition, Clarendon Press, 1907-1909.
After Mandalay fell into British hands, the most immediate task was the pacification of the countryside, a process that would take five years. Armed groups of bandits, which had sprung up before the fall of the kingdom -- remnants of the old Burmese army and royal princes seeking the throne for themselves - all offered resistance to British troops and police, who numbered some 60,000 by 1890. Several local leaders attempted to imitate Alaungpaya, setting up their own royal courts. The chief victims of the fighting were the Upper Burma villagers. They were treated harshly by both British and rebels, thousands being killed before peace was restored.

In Lower Burma there was also unrest. Ethnic antagonisms were deepened as the British recruited Karens, often led by Christian pastors or even Western missionaries, to fight Burman rebels who themselves were sometimes led by Buddhist monks who had laid aside their robes. By 1887 Burmans were no longer taken into the colonial army. The British felt the "loyal Karens" were more trustworthy as soldiers, along with--in later years-the Chins and Kachins. The Shan states were brought under British rule by 1889, the sawbwas retaining their traditional powers.

Under the Burmese kings there existed a top level of government consisting of royally appointed officials and a local level consisting of district or circle chiefs (such as Alaungpaya had been) and, below them, the headmen of the villages included in the districts. This local leadership was usually hereditary. Under provisions of the Burma Village Act of 1889, the districts were abolished in Lower Burma and district chiefs set aside; the village headmen were given many of their responsibilities. The village headmen's authority, however, was not based on personal prestige or village-level support, as had been the case under the traditional system. Instead, they were considered to be the lower level functionaries of the state bureaucracy who could be punished for incompetence or insubordination by their superiors. In 1907 these reforms were extended to Upper Burma. The result of this reform was that the villages, largely autonomous units in precolonial times, lost much of their vitality and cohesiveness. Overall, the British chose to remove, rather than co-opt, national and local elites.

The role of Buddhist ecclesiastical hierarchy under the new colonial arrangements was an issue that stirred deep emotion. The king, though not head of the aangha, was expected to give it material support and romote its purification. Pious acts, such as the building of pag or the holding of examinations on the Tripitaka, mutually strengthened the sangha and the state. In Ini however, because of its diverse religious communities, the British had developed a policy of religious neutrality. This was applied to Lower Burma after 1853, when they refused to appoint a thathanabatng with authority over the aangha in that territory. Although Thibaw's thathanabaing was allowed to retain his office after 1886 and a successor was chosen by an assembly of monks in 1903, his authority was greatly weakened by the fact that the new state was secular, not dependent upon the sangha for its legitimacy; civil courts, moreover, absorbed many of his judicial responsibilities.

The discipline and quality of the sangha deteriorated, for practically any male could put on the yellow robes of a monk, and the ranks of the Buddhist clergy were infiltrated with troublemakers and criminal types. Village monastery schools lost their appeal as modem education, much of it sponsored by missionaries, spread, and the thathanabaing prohibited the teaching of secular subjects in the monasteries. Knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures and the Pali language also declined, though the government did sponsor examinations in these subjects.

The British used the fringes of the center against the center itself, that is, recruiting hill peoples into armed units to control lowland Burmans or importing Indian soldiers to help keep the colony in line. Delicately courting the minorities, Britain created a precarious unity held together by the awe of the military might behind the system, much as matters had stood under a very strong king. Burma became a country by colonial definition, not by organic social evolution. When the source of colonial power departed after World War II, the illusion of unity was shattered.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2011 12:16:49 ZULU