At first glance Burma seems a multicultural place. There are numerous Christian churches in the country’s biggest city, Yangon, dating back to colonial times when missionaries came to predominantly Budhist-Burma to build new congregations. In the Indian quarter there are mosques, but also the Jewish Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue – which remarkably has a Muslim caretaker.
St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral is enormous and when I visited it earlier this month it was still filled with sparkling Christmas trees. Designed by a Dutch architect and finished in 1899, the Neo-Classical building was visited by the Pope and Burma’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi last year. Across the city is St Mary’s Anglican rival Holy Trinity Cathedral, the foundation stone of which was laid by the Viceroy of India in 1886.
The city is abounding with other non-Buddhist religious buildings, ranging from an Armenian church to the Hindu Sri Devi Temple. It seems a very multicultural place.
But, as I discussed in my last blog, across Burma (officially now known as Myanmar) relations with the country’s ethnic minorities are far from good. The genocide that the Rohingyas are facing is on one extreme, yet it exposes a wider and serious problem for this southeast Asian country.
Rangoon (the old name for Yangon) under British rule was seen as liberal and tolerant place. Indeed colonial officials allocated specific plots of land in the city for Hindus, Muslims, Baptists, Jews and other groups to build their own places of worship. As I’ve already identified, most of these still have establishments that can be visited today.
“Like the rest of Britain’s imperial cities operating under the official ‘open door’ trading policy, Rangoon welcomed traders , labourers, priests, stevedores, adventurers and more from all corners of the globe regardless of race, colour or religion, all looking to make their fortunes,” wrote Richard Cockett in an excellent book, Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma.
“And as long as they accepted the basic structures of British political and economic hegemony, usually they enforced here with a fairly light touch, they were allowed to trade, sell or hustle pretty much as they liked. Just as importantly for many of them, they were also allowed to practice their religion and their cultures as they liked too.”
It was very much a city and country of immigrants. By the late 19th century around 80,000 people were arriving in Burma from India every year, and by 1940 more than half of Rangoon’s population was from the subcontinent.
The census also shows that in 1931 around 200,000 were living in Burma in 1931. There was also a thriving Jewish community in Rangoon (concentrated around 31st street), while the Armenians also came to the city – running businesses such as the Strand Hotel and establishing the nearby Armenian Apostolic Church of Yangon. After the First World War, Germans and Japanese also arrived in Rangoon, the latter often operating as dentists.
But the British also found when they arrived that there were also numerous ethnic minorities already living in Burma – they counted 135 different groups competing with one and another. And this situation would have far reaching consequences once the country achieved its independence.
Under colonial rule different ethnic areas of Burma were given autonomy. For example, the Karen – who who live in the eastern part of the country and are the second largest ethnic group after the Burmans (now Bamar) themselves – welcomed the arrival of the British. They sided with Britain from the first Burmese war and enjoyed many privileges and helped run the country.
From 1885 the Kachin, Shan and Chin regions were administered separately and there was considerable cooperation with the British. Many people living in these parts were converted to Christianity by missionaries and they would join the imperial army.
But the Burmans – Buddhists who today represent two thirds of the country’s population – was marginalised. As well as seeing special privileges go to other ethnic groups, they saw immigrants (particularly Indians brought over by the British) being given jobs at their expense.
George Orwell wrote much about the ills of colonial rule, but one article he wrote for a French newspaper stands out: “How a Nation is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma”. The piece described how the benefits of a country rich with natural resources wasn’t being felt by ordinary people. When new infrastructure, such as bridges and railways, was installed it was deemed only to further the interests of the colonial elite.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 boosted demand for Burmese rice and new areas of countryside was reclaimed for cultivation. But as the British set prices for agricultural produce the locals couldn’t compete and were essentially forced off their land.
Given that the Burmans were marginalised during colonial rule, it is hardly surprising that a nationalist movement emerged. In the 1920s and 1930s young educated people returning from Europe and those studying at universities in Burma, supported by Buddhist monks, demanded constitutional change. There is a monument at Shwedagon Pagoda marking the spot where in 1920 11 students met to oppose the Colonial University Act. As well as protesting against the British, there were also anti-Indian riots on account of those they felt were taking their jobs.
Burma was uncoupled from India in 1937 and, as part of a new constitution, given its own elected assembled and prime minister. But it didn’t halt the protests, with one of the most significant incidents taking place at the Burmah Oil Company, in which 13 unarmed protesters were shot dead in a crack-down after employees went on strike. The Second World War paused the hostilities in Burma somewhat, but they weren’t forgotten.
Ethnic divisions emerge
Japan – eyeing oil, rice and other commodities and supply lines to China – was given help to invade Burma in 1942 by nationalists who united into a group called the Freedom Bloc, with Aung San as secretary. Rangoon was evacuated and the Japanese were able to enter the city unopposed. They were seen by many Burmans as liberators and gave Burma its ‘independence’ in 1943.
On the opposite side, ethnic groups such as the Kachin and Karen fought with the British and Indian soldiers.
But Aung San, who had served as war minister and head of the army under the Japanese-backed puppet government, became disgruntled and switched the allegiance of his Burmese National Army to the British side. In October 1943 the Allies were able to re-enter northern Burma and make their way slowly through the jungle.
When Gurkha and Indian forces arrived in Rangoon in May 1945 they found that the Japanese had abandoned the city. The occupation – which led to the deaths of between 170,000 and 250,000 civilians – was over.
As independence from the British beckoned after the Second World War, the Anti-Fascist Organisation (later re-named Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League) emerged as the leading nationalist group. Founded by Aung San and Ba Swe in 1944, it won 176 out of 210 seats in the general election in April 1947.
But in July 1947 Aung San and six of his minsters were assassinated outside the Secretariat, a vast structure built to house to the colonial government, in Rangoon (the killing was blamed on U Saw, prime minster during colonial times, who was later hanged). For many this was the moment that hopes for a peaceful independent Burma were dashed. It is hard to say that one man could have prevented all the bloodshed that has occurred in subsequent years, but Aung San was certainly highly regarded as someone who could bring different groups and interests together.
Burma achieved its independence in 1948, with Nu Win, becoming Burma’s first post-independence prime minster. But the new country was soon hit by a civil war and communist insurgency.
General Ne Win, who was appointed head of the army in 1948, launched a coup in 1962. He advised that Burma was not suited to parliamentary democracy and, by launching the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’, attempted to build a communism nationalist-style economy which effectively closed the country to the outside world until the late 1980s. From 1964 the military-created BSPP (Burma Socialist Programme Party) was the only permitted political party.
The nationalistic government soon got to work destroying the pluralistic society that the British had created. Indians reported that they were forced at gunpoint to close their shops, some 400,000 of which left the country.
“It was an agenda of ‘race and religion’, directed against not only the colonial-era immigrants but also the ethnic groups on the fringes of the old Burman kingdom – the Kachin, Karen, Shan and others – who only joined the newly independent Burma on the understanding that it would certainly not be a homogenous society, but rather a confederated one,” wrote author Richard Cockett.
The generals launched a major ‘Bumanisation’ agenda, which meant that the only permitted language was Burmese. Missionary schools and universities were closed.
The Kachin, who live in the far north of the country and are mostly Christian, signed an agreement of cooperation with Aung San before he was assassinated in 1947. But after independence people there were discriminated against by the military and local governors that were appointed were typically ethnic Burman. Posters in schools read: “The speaking of a language that your teacher cannot understand is rude.”
They took up arms against the government and only officially signed a peace agreement in 2015. But there still unresolved matters with Naypyidaw, not least the fact that people say that the wealth generated by the mines is not spent on improving community services, and hostilities continue.
The Karen, who mostly live in Karen State in the south of Burma, signed a formal ceasefire with the government in 2012, but 140,000 people are still living in refugee camps along the Thai border. Baptist missionaries had considerable success in converting Buddhists here in the 19th century (about a quarter are today Christian) and were in favour with the British.
After demonstrating their loyalty during colonial rule (not least during the Second World War), they expected better treatment and to be properly rewarded when it came to independence. Many felt abandoned by the British and since 1948 the Karen are among those who have suffered the most. Villages were flattened by the military and some 200,000 were displaced.
So how will Burma succeed in the future? Author Richard Cockett puts it well. “If Burma is to function and prosper again, it will have to rediscover a real pluralism,” he said. “The Colonial-style plural society excluded the Burmese; a future, truly pluralist society will have to embrace all those who have been excluded from Burma ethno-nationalism.”