Command and Conquer: Britain and Burma

Aung Nay Htet Oo

We drove onwards in Myanmar. Looking out the window, I saw pagodas, mosques, shrines, strings of Chinese restaurants, and the ever-resilient Hino busses (an older brand of busses from Japan). A man adjusted his white robes while a woman stirred htamane. Everything appeared normal. But, when I looked carefully, the old government buildings, rural train stations, libraries, universities and downtown streets all distinguished themselves from the rest.

It was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. For more than four hundred years, British forces colonized large tracts of land and controlled millions of inhabitants. With additional access to natural resources, trade routes, and strategic locations, the British quickly built sub-empires. Some of them remained sturdy and loyal, others promptly failed. British imperialism was a mixed bag.

European colonial architecture and design are fossilized in Yangon’s downtown. Renovated buildings, religious shrines, and the rapidly winding carts that fill the streets, create a visual timeline of the land’s culture. History reveals itself when one walks through the busy arteries of downtown Yangon. But there is more to history than buildings, with their peeling paint and falling bricks.

Myanmar was formerly called Burma. Wealthy in all sort of natural minerals, along with its ability to provide trade routes to northern and eastern Asia, Burma became a target of the British Empire. The British colonized Myanmar during the 1890s. Though weak, the Burmese still fought bravely, managing to hold ground against the British for a over half a century. But, after the third Anglo-Burmese War, Britain gained complete control of the Burmese monarchy and colonized all of Burma. Britain’s Burman Empire expanded into nearby lands and eventually even rivaled the power of British India.

I was born in a peaceful era. But, like in the buildings, traces of that colonial era still remain. My family’s discussions often covered the present and future of the nation, but not much about the past. The history of my country was a mystery to me. I had never been taught of the heroes of the ancient monarchy, like the Major General Aung San and his comrades who fought for and achieved Burma’s independence.

Once in Burma, the British controlled the abundant natural resources and the networks of trade routes for those goods. To encourage control, the British expanded communications, built roads and railroads, and developed ports. Burma held the world’s most extensive teak (tropical hardwood) reserves. The British developed the much renowned Burma Forest Service, said to be the best in the world, to protect this valuable resource (Steinberg 32). Due to colonial activity, the landscape and economy of Burma changed. The British introduced their advanced mining, agriculture, and transportation technologies, which boosted trade efficiency. Rapidly, Burma lead the global market in jade, sapphire, tin, oil, teak, and rice.

Now, people from all over Asia interact in Yangon, Myanmar. I wake up to the sound of a kyeezee (a Burmese gong) as monks pass by, collecting their morning alms. I roll my grass mat, and turn on the electricity delivered by a previously British electrical grid. People make their way to teashops, ordering some arlu pute (Indian food with fried dough and potato curry), alongside la phat yay (tea with milk and sugar). Hino buses deliver us to and from our jobs. After a long day of work, families eat a dinners of rice and curry. Yangon is a city filled with a robust blend of people and culture, but not all remains calm. Outside of major cities, like Yangon, civil war still exists. The origins of these wars trace as back to precolonial times.

Although British geographical reign was temporary—if one can image four hundred years as temporary—it left permanent damage. As the end of WWII approached, Britain’s vast control over regions left colonies full of subcultures with new technologies and ideologies from different countries, especially in Southeast Asia. During Burma’s colonial period, previously oppressed minority ethnic groups saw British rule as an opportunity to rise in status. Elites from minority groups seized economic, social, and political stature and transitioned toward “British-western” culture. The Karen people would go as far as to create myths of a prophesied “coming of the white man” who would “save” them (Aung-Thawin 194). To this day, ongoing war and tension between states and ethnic groups exists as many still fight for independence, freedom, religion, and recognition.

Current wars between borders—especially northward, between the Rohingya (brought by British as labor force), the military, and the Burmese ethnic population—are still a major ongoing issue today (Solomon). I learned about my country’s rich history, opening great insights for me as well as a renewed sense of pride. Despite my years living at my home country, and my years studying it from abroad, I still have much to learn about the country.

 

References

Aung-Thwin, Michael, and Maitrii Aung-Thwin. A History of Myanmar since Ancient Times: Traditions and Transformations. Reaktion Books, Limited, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/pensu/detail.action?docID=1127617.

Marker, Sandra. “Effects of Colonization.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Nov. 2003, http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/post-colonial.

Peet, Richard, and Elaine R. Hartwick. Theories of Development. Guilford Press, New York, 1999.

Solomon, Ben C. “In Grim Camps, Rohingya Suffer on ‘Scale That We Couldn’t Imagine.’” The New York Times, 29 Sept. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/29/world/asia/rohingya-refugees-myanmar-bangladesh.html.

Steinberg, David. Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central.

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