On This Day

When Myanmar Cast Off Its Colonial Tongue Under Japanese Rule

By Wei Yan Aung 15 August 2020

YANGON—On this day in 1942, while Myanmar (then Burma) was under Japanese rule, the cabinet of the Myanmar government made the decision to use the Burmese language as much as possible instead of English at government offices.

The decision was part of Myanmar’s efforts to remove the relics of British colonial rule. The push made Burmese the official language of Myanmar for the first time since 1886, when the British annexed Myanmar, and monuments and statues were removed from cities across the country.

Following the Myanmar government’s decision, Japanese soldiers swiftly demolished statues of Queen Victoria, King George, British Burma Governor Spencer Harcourt Butler and other monuments of British rule.

During Japanese rule, cities named after British officials were given Burmese names. One of the examples was Maymyo or May’s town—a town named after British Colonel James May—was changed to Pyin Oo Lwin. Many of the names of streets in Yangon were also changed from English to Burmese. Films from England and the US were also banned from cinemas.

At the time, Japanese forces and some officers of the Burma Independence Army discriminated against ethnically Chinese residents, believing them to be spies for the Chinese nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-shek, and against people of mixed parentage, believing them to be spies for the British.

Until the early 1940s, there was a white marble statue of Queen Victoria in Maha Bandula Park, known as Fytche Square during British rule, and a statue of King George stood where the statue of Myanmar independence hero General Aung San now sits on Kandawgyi ring road. There was also a statue of Spencer Harcourt Butler at Yangon University.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.

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