On This Day

The End of Shikoing Before the British

By Wei Yan Aung 16 August 2019

YANGON—Ninety-six years ago today, the Secretariat of the British colonial government instructed British officers across Burma not to ask Burmese citizens to shiko as a form of greeting and showing respect to British officials, as well as not to ask Burmese citizens to take off their shoes and socks when visiting the offices or houses of British officials. 

The word shiko covers everything from a slight bow with the hands joined to complete prostration.

The instruction followed critical reports in the local press of the conduct of British officials, who  were said to expect Burmese visitors to their homes or offices to shiko and enter without their shoes and socks. 

“Officials should be careful not to show by word or look that they expect a particular form of salutation,” read the instructions issued by C.F. Grant, the chief secretary to the government of Burma. British officials, however, did not heed the instruction. 

After the British annexed Myanmar, they expected Burmese citizens to treat them as masters, preferring that Burmese citizens address them as phaya, a form of address used by ordinary citizens when speaking to the king, superiors or Buddhist monks that can be broadly translated as “your honor” or “my Lord.” 

In 1903, an instruction had been issued that, inside the Secretariat, Burmese clerks entering the office of British officials must take off their shoes, shiko before the official with a slight bow and the hands joined, then address the official as phaya when speaking to them. The policy was later abolished.

Though some British officials showed disdain for the practice—the British novelist and former colonial officer George Orwell famously disparaged it in his novel Burmese Days—it spread from the Secretariat to lower-level government offices and British companies like the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. 

From there it easily spread across society, Burmese citizens being already accustomed to addressing their kings, ministers and superiors as phaya in monarchical periods. Some among the educated classes of citizens believed the British to be avenging their being earlier required to shiko before Burmese kings and address them as phaya when they first arrived in Burma.  

The practice waned in cities as anti-colonialist movements gained momentum then ceased completely during Japanese rule, but it continued for some time in remote, rural areas even after independence. It has ceased completely today.

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