How a Nation Is Exploited – The British Empire in Burma

Following the recent troubles in India, we have asked our contributor, Mr E. A. Blair, whose investigations on ‘The Plight of the British Worker’ have already appeared in these pages, to tell us something of the unrest which has been fermenting in the sub-continent for some years, and which is threatening to spread to English Indo-China.

Mr E. A. Blair, who lived in Burma for some years, has written the following interesting article for us[1], which shows the methods the British Empire uses to milk dry her Asian colonies.

Burma lies between India and China. Ethnologically it belongs to Indo-China.

It is three times the size of England and Wales, with a population of about fourteen million, of whom roughly nine million are Burmese.

The rest is made up of countless Mongol tribes who have emigrated at various periods from the steppes of Central Asia, and Indians who have arrived since the English occupation.

The Burmese are Buddhists; the tribesmen worship various pagan gods.

To be able to talk in their own language to the people of such diverse origins living in Burma, you would need to know a hundred and twenty different languages and dialects.

This country, the population of which is one-tenth as dense as that of England, is one of the richest in the world. It abounds in natural resources which are only just beginning to be exploited.

There are tin, tungsten, jade and rubies, and these are the least of its mineral materials.

At this moment it produces five per cent of the world’s petroleum, and its reserves are far from exhausted.

But the greatest source of wealth-and that which feeds between eighty and ninety per cent of the population-is the paddy fields.

Rice is grown everywhere in the basin of the Irawaddy, which flows through Burma from north to south.

In the south, in the huge delta where the Irawaddy brings down tons of alluvial mud every year, the soil is immensely fertile.

The harvests, which are remarkable in both quality and quantity, enable Burma to export rice to India, Europe, even to America.

Moreover, variations in temperature are less frequent and sharp than in India.

Thanks to abundant rainfall, especially in the south, drought is unknown, and the heat is never excessive. The climate as a whole can thus be considered one of the healthiest to be found in the tropics.

If we add that the Burmese countryside is exceptionally beautiful, with broad rivers, high mountains, eternally green forests, brightly coloured flowers, exotic fruits, the phrase ‘earthly paradise’ naturally springs to mind.

So it is hardly surprising that the English tried for a long time to gain possession of it.

In 1820 they seized a vast expanse of territory. This operation was repeated in 1852, and finally in 1882 the Union Jack flew over almost all the country.
Certain mountainous districts in the north, inhabited by small savage tribes, had until recently escaped the clutches of the British, but it is more and more likely that they will meet the same fate as the rest of the country, thanks to the process euphemistically known as ‘peaceful penetration’, which means, in plain English, ‘peaceful annexation’.

In this article I do not seek to praise or blame this manifestation of British imperialism; let us simply note it is a logical result of any imperialist policy.

It will be much more profitable to examine the good and bad sides of British administration in Burma from an economic and a political standpoint.

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Let us turn first to politics.

The government of all the Indian provinces under the control of the British Empire is of necessity despotic, because only the threat of force can subdue a population of several million subjects.

But this despotism is latent. It hides behind a mask of democracy.

The great maxim of the English in governing an oriental race is ‘never get something done by a European when an Oriental can do it’. In other words, supreme power remains with the British authorities, but the minor civil servants who have to carry out day-to-day administration and who must come into contact with the people in the course of their duties are recruited locally.

In Burma, for example, the lower grade magistrates, all policemen up to the rank of inspector, members of the postal service, government employees, village elders etc. are Burmese.

Recently, to appease public opinion and put a stop to nationalist agitation which was beginning to cause concern, it was even decided to accept the candidature of educated natives for several important posts.

The system of employing natives as civil servants has three advantages.

First, natives will accept lower salaries than Europeans.

Secondly, they have a better idea of the workings of their fellow countrymen’s minds, and this helps them to settle legal disputes more easily.

Thirdly, it is to their own advantage to show their loyalty to a government which provides their livelihood.

And so peace is maintained by ensuring the close collaboration of the educated or semi-educated classes, where discontent might otherwise produce rebel leaders.

Nevertheless the British control the country. Of course, Burma, like each of the Indian provinces, has a parliament-always the show of democracy-but in reality its parliament has very little power.

Nothing of any consequence lies within its jurisdiction. Most of the members are puppets of the government, which is not above using them to nip in the bud any Bill which seems untimely.

In addition, each province has a Governor, appointed by the English, who has at his disposal a veto just as absolute as that of the President of the United States to oppose any proposal which displeases him.

Yet although the British government is, as we have shown, essentially despotic, it is by no means unpopular.

The English are building roads and canals-in their own interest, of course, but the Burmese benefit from them-they set up hospitals, open schools, and see to the maintenance of law and order.

And after all, the Burmese are mere peasants, occupied in cultivating the land.

They have not yet reached that stage of intellectual development which makes for nationalists.

Their village is their universe, and as long as they are left in peace to cultivate their fields, they do not care whether their masters are black or white.

A proof of this political apathy on the part of the people of Burma is the fact that the only British military forces in the country are two English infantry battalions and around ten battalions of Indian infantry and mounted police.

Thus twelve thousand armed men, mostly Indians, are enough to subdue a population of fourteen million.

The most dangerous enemies of the government are the young men of the educated classes. If these classes were more numerous and were really educated, they could perhaps raise the revolutionary banner. But they are not.

The reason is firstly that, as we have seen, the majority of the Burmese are peasants.

Secondly, the British government is at pains to give the people only summary instruction, which is almost useless, merely sufficient to produce messengers, low-grade civil servants, petty lawyers’ clerks and other white-collar workers.

Care is taken to avoid technical and industrial training. This rule, observed throughout India, aims to stop India from becoming an industrial country capable of competing with England.

It is true to say that in general, any really educated Burmese was educated in England, and belongs as a result to the small class of the well-to-do.

So, because there are no educated classes, public opinion, which could press for rebellion against England, is non-existent.

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Let us now consider the economic question. Here again we find the Burmese in general too ignorant to have a clear understanding of the way in which they are being treated and, as a result, too ignorant to show the least resentment.

Besides, for the moment they have not suffered much economic damage.

It is true that the British seized the mines and the oil wells. It is true that they control timber production. It is true that all sorts of middlemen, brokers, millers, exporters, have made colossal fortunes from rice without the producer-that is the peasant-getting a thing out of it.

It is also true that the get-rich-quick businessmen who made their pile from rice, petrol etc. are not contributing as they should be to the well-being of the country, and that their money, instead of swelling local revenues in the form of taxes, is sent abroad to be spent in England.

If we are honest, it is true that the British are robbing and pilfering Burma quite shamelessly.

But we must stress that the Burmese hardly notice it for the moment. Their country is so rich, their population so scattered, their needs, like those of all Orientals, so slight that they are not conscious of being exploited.

The peasant cultivating his patch of ground lives more or less as his ancestors did in Marco Polo’s day. If he wishes, he can buy virgin land for a reasonable price.

He certainly leads an arduous existence, but he is on the whole free from care.

Hunger and unemployment are for him meaningless words. There is work and food for everyone. Why worry needlessly?

But, and this is the important point, the Burmese will begin to suffer when a large part of the richness of their country has declined.

Although Burma has developed to a certain extent since the war, already the peasant there is poorer than he was twenty years ago.

He is beginning to feel the weight of land taxation, for which he is not compensated by the increased yield of his harvests.

The worker’s wages have not kept up with the cost of living.

The reason is that the British government has allowed free entry into Burma for veritable hordes of Indians, who, coming from a land where they were literally dying of hunger, work for next to nothing and are, as a result, fearsome rivals for the Burmese.

Add to this a rapid rise in population growth-at the last census the population registered an increase of ten million in ten years-it is easy to see that sooner or later, as happens in all overpopulated countries, the Burmese will be dispossessed of their lands, reduced to a state of semislavery in the service of capitalism, and will have to endure unemployment into the bargain.

They will then discover what they hardly suspect today, that the oil wells, the mines, the milling industry, the sale and cultivation of rice are all controlled by the British.

They will also realise their own industrial incompetence in a world where industry dominates.

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British politics in Burma is the same as in India.

Industrially speaking, India was deliberately kept in ignorance.

She only produces basic necessities, made by hand. The Indians would be incapable, for example, of making a motor-car, a rifle, a clock, an electric-light bulb etc. They would be incapable of building or sailing an ocean-going vessel.

At the same time they have learnt in their dealings with Westerners to depend on certain machine-made articles. So the products of English factories find an important outlet in a country incapable of manufacturing them herself.

Foreign competition is prevented by an insuperable barrier of prohibitive customs tariffs. And so the English factory-owners, with nothing to fear, control the markets absolutely and reap exorbitant profits.

We said that the Burmese have not yet suffered too much, but this is because they have remained, on the whole, an agricultural nation.

Yet for them as for all Orientals, contact with Europeans has created the demand, unknown to their fathers, for the products of modern industry. As a result, the British are stealing from Burma in two ways:

In the first place, they pillage her natural resources; secondly, they grant themselves the exclusive right to sell here the manufactured products she now needs.

And the Burmese are thus drawn into the system of industrial capitalism, with any hope of becoming capitalist industrialists themselves.

Moreover the Burmese, like all the other peoples of India, remain under the rule of the British Empire for purely military considerations. For they are in effect incapable of building ships, manufacturing guns or any other arms necessary for modern warfare, and, as things now stand, if the English were to give up India, it would only result in a change of master. The country would simply be invaded and exploited by some other Power.

British domination in India rests essentially on exchanging military protection for a commercial monopoly, but, as we have tried to show, the bargain is to the advantage of the English whose control reaches into every domain.

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To sum up, if Burma derives some incidental benefit from the English, she must pay dearly for it.

Up till now the English have refrained from oppressing the native people too much because there has been no need. The Burmese are still at the beginning of a period of transition which will transform them from agricultural peasants to workers in the service of the manufacturing industries.

Their situation could be compared with that of any people of eighteenth-century Europe, apart from the fact that the capital, construction materials, knowledge and power necessary for their commerce and industry belong exclusively to foreigners.

So they are under the protection of a despotism which defends them for its own ends, but which would abandon them without hesitation if they ceased to be of use.

Their relationship with the British Empire is that of slave and master.

Is the master good or bad? That is not the question; let us simply say that his control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested.

Even though the Burmese have not had much cause for complaint up till now, the day will come when the riches of their country will be insufficient for a population which is constantly growing.

Then they will be able to appreciate how capitalism shows its gratitude to those to whom it owes its existence.



[1] Raoul Nicole wrote on 22 March 1929, while Orwell was still in the Hôpital Cochin, to say he was sorry Orwell was ill and thanking him for his article on Burma. This would, he said, be included in an early issue of Le Progrès Civique, and, indeed, would have appeared already were it not that the journal had been embarrassed by a large number of articles on foreign affairs. Orwell was paid 225 francs for the article on 11 June. This was the last article he is known to have had published in Paris.

Published by Le Progrès Civique, 4 May 1929. CW 86. Translated into English by Janet Percival and Ian Willison