Seven decades after Burma freed itself from colonial rule, true freedom, prosperity and independence remain elusive for Myanmar, as foreign powers compete for influence and powerful military rulers continue to exert their grip. On the 70th anniversary of independence, we reexamine these issues by revisiting our cover story, originally titled “Independence Lost”, from The Irrawaddy’s January 2008 issue.
When Gen Sir Harry North Dalrymple Prendergast led his gunboats up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay in November 1885, King Thibaw and his army were ill-equipped to defend the city, let alone protect the nation.
The last Burmese monarch, who was 28 years old and had hardly ever been outside the confines of his palace, was quickly shipped into exile. Burma, a country that had in its recent history expanded to conquer neighboring countries, had lost not only its king, but its independence.
Thibaw and his queen were quietly escorted onto the steamer Thooreah by British troops and sent to Rangoon. Burmese subjects were later shocked to learn that king had been captured and exiled by the British colonialists to Madras. He never returned.
To the British and Gen Prendergast, invading Mandalay was like picking fruit from a low-hanging tree. The locals, however, refused to condone the kidnapping and resentfully determined not to welcome the self-styled “deliverers from tyranny,” as the British liked to consider themselves.
King Thibaw was pathetically weak and had not been a visionary in any way—prior to the British invasion, he received bad press in the West. He was portrayed as a monster, a mass murderer who killed princes and princesses, a womanizer and a drunkard.
Newspapers in Rangoon financed by British merchants had often called for an invasion or annexation of upper Burma. The British colonizers sought regime change and Thibaw was deposed.
Thant Myint-U, the author of “The River of Lost Footsteps,” suggested that Mandalay was a stepping stone to unopened markets in Asia for the British merchants.
The Burmese historian wrote: “Years of British machinations had also produced a lively exiled opposition, and more than one of Thibaw’s brothers were plotting to overthrow him from beyond the kingdom’s borders. That Burma was a potentially rich country no one seemed to doubt, certainly not the increasingly vocal Scottish merchants in Rangoon, eager for unfettered access to the teak forests, oil wells, and ruby mines of the interior. What seemed even more tempting was the prospect of a back door to China’s limitless markets.”
Burma fought back, but Burma is a land of love and goodwill, the land of Buddhism, and in battle, love and goodwill could not resist cold steel. Brave Burmans fell in resisting the invaders, many feats of daring were displayed to the wonder-struck British soldiers; the Burmese warriors brandishing “dahs” would rush at British gun nests and cannon posts, bullets would cut down the brave comrades, but still the survivors would come on. At times even British military science was puzzled by the lightning manoeuvres and tactics of the defenders. At times the “dahs” silenced the cannons.
But the fight was unequal from the beginning. British bayonets shed Burmese blood on Burma’s soil, and slowly, the guns moved in.
When the Third and last Anglo-Burmese War was fought, the organized resistance of Burma had become very feeble and there were almost no severe engagements. It was not a war really; It was just a coup d’etat, a sudden storm that came down on the puzzled Burmese and blew away before they could realize what had happened. When the people recovered from the shock and surprise, King Thibaw and his Queen had been taken away by General Prendergast of the British invading troops. A brass tablet fixed on an outer wall of the Palace at Mandalay reads, “King Thibaw sat at this opening with his two Queens and the Queen-mother when he gave himself up to General Prendergast on the 30th November, 1885.”
November 30, 1885: Burma’s King had been taken away. Burma’s throne had tumbled down. Burma had become “part of Her Majesty’s Dominions and will during Her Majesty’s pleasure be administered by such officers as the Viceroy and Governor-General of India may from time to time appoint.”
But Burma woke up, though too late in fact. The people shook off their shock and went into action. Organized resistance became impossible since the King was gone and a leader to consolidate all the forces of the country was wanted. But undaunted, patriots formed themselves into small groups and waged their own war under their own leaders. For years the war went on. In the British Gazette of January 1886, it was said that peace was in Burma and order had been regained. On paper there was peace. But in the country the battle grew fierce within months. Guerrilla bands often expelled British garrisons and administered the towns and districts. The people hailed their coming, helped them, and hid them during their movements in times of difficulty. The occupation troops were kept busy all the time and at one point a Military Force of 32,000 men with two Major-Generals and six Brigadier-Generals commanding was actually brought into the field against the Burmese patriots. Vigorous offensive operations were launched, but still the patriots fought on. The exasperated British called the patriots “dacoits” and “gangsters” but it was worthy of notice that the “dacoits” did not plunder the villages they could hold, that the villagers were happy whenever the “dacoits” came, that the “dacoits” were only bent on fighting the British.
It was during those long years of determined resistance that such Generals like Bo Min Yaung became famous. Bo Min Yaung was the terror of the British garrisons in Middle Burma and it is interesting to see that General Aung San, Burma’s war leader and front line fighter for freedom was a descendant of the famous Bo Min Yaung.
The claim that Burma had swung back to normalcy soon after the occupation was complete, could not hide the fact that when the Viceroy visited Mandalay, “the members of the Hlutdaw, preserved a defiant attitude, presented no address of welcome, took no part in the proceedings and sat with their shoes on in the Viceroy’s presence.” Sitting in the Viceroy’s presence with shoes on was but the mildest form of defiance which Burma showed to the usurpers.
Mopping up operations were intensified, the Military Force was strengthened, and systematic disarmament of the whole country was carried out. The patriots with no proper organization, no one leader to unite them, no set aims to inspire them, gradually became tired and disillusioned. Resistance thus ebbed slowly, but it was only in 1890, five years after the annexation, that the British could, with an approach to correctness, claim that law and order had been restored.
Burma resigned to her fate and gave up the struggle. It was not, however, a peace—it was but a truce. The storm had lulled, not died. Burma’s fight for freedom was to be resumed again.
The invasion of Mandalay did not bring peace to the region.
Disquiet grew in the rural areas—subtle signs of resistance were detected; officials who worked at the court in Mandalay became increasingly uncooperative with their British masters.
The insurgency that followed was put down ruthlessly by the British—summary executions were rampant and often held in public, as were the beheadings of prisoners or “dacoits.”
However, the unrest could not be quashed. The Burmese were too eager to restore their monarchy and establish independence.
Saya San, who named himself “King of Burma,” led a revolt against the British in 1930, forcing the government to deploy 8,000 fresh soldiers, equipped with machine guns, to quell the year-long peasant revolt.
Monks, farmers, students, workers from oil fields in central Burma and political activists joined in the struggle to regain independence.
A grassroots civil campaign was born—the “Thakin” movement. Thakin, meaning “We the masters,” an expression the British colonists used to denote themselves, was adopted by the young Burmese nationalists. Social welfare organizations and the Young Men’s Buddhist Association all joined the fray in the independence struggle. Nowadays, one can draw many parallels between the civic movements, such as the “White Campaign,” the “Open Heart Campaign” and the “Signature Campaign,” which were launched by students and activists to oppose the military regime, to those early nationalist movements in Burma.
But it was the domino effect of events far away that would ultimately lead to the demise of British rule in Burma—the outbreak of World War II.
The golden land of Burma became a battlefield. In 1942, the Japanese had taken away and trained a group of young Burmese, including Aung San, to liberate the country from the British. That group would later become known as the “Thirty Comrades.”
“Fifty-six years after Harry Prendergast’s overthrow of King Thibaw, British rule in Burma collapsed like a house of cards, its soldiers and officials tossed out together with hundreds of thousands of panic-stricken refugees by the elegantly mustached Lieutenant General Shojiro Iida and his Fifteenth Imperial Army. The Burmese had nothing to do with the war, but it destroyed their country,” wrote Thant Myint-U.
After the British retreated, it didn’t take long for the Burmese to realize that what the Japanese had granted them was no more than a “gold-plated independence.”
Enter Aung San, an eccentric, short-tempered law student from Rangoon University, raised by his grandfather, rebel leader Bo Min Yaung, who was later beheaded by the British.
Aung San’s single-mindedness, sincerity and straightforward speech won him friends and enemies alike. He realized that it would take nothing less than armed struggle to finally satisfy Burmese desires for independence once and for all.
Employing military tactics he had learned from the Japanese, Aung San led the Thirty Comrades in driving out the British. Ironically, a few years later, Aung San found himself allied with British battalions in bloody battles against the fascist Japanese army.
By age 32, Aung San had developed statesmanlike qualities and a readiness to lead his country. But this time the fight for independence would take place at the negotiating table.
During a stopover in India on his way to London to meet Prime Minister Clement Attlee in January 1947, Aung San delivered a speech, in polished English, declaring that Burma demanded “complete independence” with no question of dominion status.
Aung San also told the assembled press that his countrymen would have no inhibitions about contemplating either a violent or non-violent struggle, or both, if their demands were not satisfactorily met.
However, in July 1947, Aung San and the members of his cabinet—comprised of national and ethnic leaders who were ably equipped to lead the new union of Burma—were gunned down by rivals. U Saw, prime minister in 1940-42, ordered the assassinations, believing that he would naturally succeed as leader of Burma once more.
To this day, colleagues of Aung San who are still alive, in Burma and in exile, still believe that the British conspired with U Saw in the assassination plot.
In January 1948, Aung San’s promise of “independence within one year” was honored, though without his presence.
Burma’s independence was hailed by the international and local press, and a rosy picture was painted by most, including The New York Times, Le Monde, the Daily Telegraph and the London Times.
London’s Daily Telegraph wrote: “Though she is the first country to detach herself from the British Commonwealth, Burma’s future will be watched with goodwill and full sympathy.”
The New York Times heaped praise on the new nation: “Burma, last of the Asiatic nations to be swept by force into the British Imperial domain, now becomes the first to withdraw peacefully from the British Commonwealth.”
But trouble lay ahead.
After Aung San’s assassination and the British withdrawal, Burma plunged into turmoil and civil war, despite a plea by newly appointed prime minister U Nu on Independence Day, January 4, 1948: “On this auspicious day, there is no room for disunity or discord—racial, communal, political or personal—and I now call upon all citizens of the Burma Union to unite and to labor without regard to self and in the interest of the country to which we all belong.”
His message was not well-heeded—a full-blown multi-ethnic insurgency erupted.
Soft-spoken U Nu and his cabinet did not serve for long. However, many Burmese who lived in his era recall economic prosperity and the country’s potential to become one of the “tigers” of Southeast Asia.
In March 1962, another member of the “Thirty Comrades,” Gen Ne Win, stepped in and staged a military coup, claiming to save the nation from the abyss. The charismatic leader’s coup was well-received with few street protests. The newspapers of the day offered little in the way of criticism in their headlines.
However, students at Rangoon University foresaw trouble and became vocal opponents. Ne Win demonstrated his ruthlessness by demolishing the union building in July of the same year and killing scores of students.
Ne Win’s hands were now stained with blood and, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, he was compelled to retain the throne at any cost.
Ne Win died at the age of 92. He lived long enough to see his kingdom of 26 years fall from being Asia’s rice bowl to Asia’s basket case—one of the least developed nations in the world. Burma had not been saved—it had been ruined and left in a shambles.
In 1988, Ne Win resigned in disgrace, his socialist government facing mass protests. Before he left office he made what is now a famous speech. If the army shoots, he stated, it has no tradition of shooting into the air. It would shoot to kill. The speech was the green light to quell the uprising—about 3,000 street demonstrators were gunned down. Burma was a killing field yet again.
At the same time, Aung San’s daughter, Suu Kyi, who had returned from London to nurse her ailing mother, also gave an unforgettable speech, saying: “This national crisis could, in fact, be called the second struggle for national independence.”
Although Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism” program was thrown out, his dynasty and the military dictatorship went on. Snr-Gen Saw Maung, Gen Khin Nyunt and Snr-Gen Than Shwe, all emerged, not as saviors of Burma, but as ghosts of Prendergast who had stolen the nation’s independence.
The country is now colonized by a junta—this time, the invasion of our country was not by foreign colonialists but by its own home-grown military dictators who penetrate every corner of the country.
If Aung San were alive today, he would be shocked by his country’s standing in the world. He might even look on with envy at Burma’s neighbors who were also colonized by the British—India, Singapore and Malaysia.
In 1957, ten years after Burma proclaimed its sovereignty, Malaysia (then Malaya) declared independence, followed by Singapore in 1965. Today, the two nations enjoy the strongest economies in Southeast Asia and have promising futures. India is the largest democracy in the world and a growing superpower. Burma, for its part, lacks democracy, prosperity and stability.
Today, Burmese are not proud to call themselves people of Burma, a country identified with poverty, political conflict and military dictatorship. While Burmese citizens fight back to overthrow the regime, others flee the country. Burma is a pariah state and a troubled child in the eyes of the world.
Since the day Gen Prendergast arrived in Mandalay with his gunboats, Burma’s freedom, prosperity and independence have been suppressed and denied, first by foreign invaders and then by various military regimes.
Sixty years later the fight for true independence in Burma is still not over. The September uprising was a manifestation of Burma’s long struggle for independence and a reminder to the world community that the fight goes on.
This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.