Continuity in Burma

The survival of historic forces

The good monks, on the other hand, commanded the king's respect; as a practicing Buddhist, he had to recognize their status and honor it with special privileges. There was, in effect, a balancing of forces. Thus in cases where execution had been ordered, a monk could fling his robe over the condemned and demand his life on condition that he retire to the monastery. Or where the megalomania of local officials became unbearable, the monks were the only ones who, in the name of the individual and humanity, could appeal to higher authority. Personal good faith and humanitarian ideals have functioned in this fashion through the centuries. This tradition—call it, if you will, the guarantee of civil rights by the spirit of religion—is part of Burma’s most precious heritage. And it is still very much alive today—a deterrent to totalitarianism or the ruthlessness of some socialist revolutions.

The frequent rebellions of our monarchical period were not aimed at the destruction of the idea of arbitrary rule but at the substitution of one individual, or rival family, for another in the enjoyment of royal power. So complete was the royal domination that neither hereditary courtier-official nor strong middle classes were ever able to arise in Burma. There was the king, and then, as Ignazio Silone said of the bad duke, there was nothing else, and then a long way afterward the peasants. Thus, when the British completed their step-by-step conquest of Burma in 1885 and deposed our last king, Thibaw, there were no vested interests to keep the tradition of monarchy alive. The British exiled Thibaw to a lonely island off the coast of India and attempted to substitute the image of the Queen-Empress Victoria. In this they never quite succeeded. Victoria never came out to Burma, and too many of her representatives isolated themselves from native ideas, affairs, language, and aspirations. She had the title "Defender of the Faith" but her faith was not that of the Burmese. The strength of the monarchist idea and its relevance to Burmese life shriveled away amidst alien symbols of power.

As the force of the monarchical idea declined, that of Buddhism gained strength. The psychological outlook of the Burmese at the final triumph of British arms accelerated this trend. Throughout their history, the Burmese had succeeded in maintaining their national identity and had fought off all their neighbors, including the Chinese under the great Chien Lung. Now in their forced integration into a larger and little understood world there were many factors to cause them dismay. As a fighting race they had been humiliated. Their commerce was negligible; their technical abilities were inadequate and obsolete. Painfully aware that their national pride—even their continued existence—was manifestly debatable, the Burmese had to produce something tangible and traditional to justify their future as a separate entity. They found what they needed in Buddhism. The assorted Europeans might be richer, stronger, better trained, but it was comforting to know that all this was as nothing because they did not possess the jewel of the true faith. Buddhism began at this stage to acquire nationalist overtones, and, at the same time, its emphasis on individualism became increasingly significant.

The Burmese were treated as inferiors by the British, but they themselves never felt that they were really inferior and sought in many ways to approach equality with the European. Even under their kings, before the final conquest, they had tried to discover what it was that made the European so formidable. The first impact of British power on Burma had come during the time of the East India Company. So King Mindon, in the 1860’s and ’70’s, set up various trading companies and manufacturing concerns. His chief minister, the Kinwun Mingyi, came back from a tour of Europe convinced that the panacea was constitutional government. It became obvious, however, that he had a personal ax to grind, and constitutionalism did not gather momentum. Various other ideas and theories were taken up, but gradually, as the new generation of Burmans began to study in England, the concept of the democratic system of government became more and more popular. It was in harmony with Buddhism and it could be turned against the British: their own people had self-rule, let them give it to their colonies as well. However, the kind of democracy which would eventually take root in Burma was to be largely determined by the influence of economic factors.

Presented by

U Kyaw Thet

Dr. KYAW THET is Professor of Oriental history at the University of Rangoon. Of Burman-Mon-Chinese ancestry, he was born in 1921 in Rangoon, took his doctorate of London University, and later taught for two years in the Graduate School of Yale.

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