Colonial-era Burma

Colonial-era Burma

I’ve wanted to write an entry for a while, especially on the recent re-establishment of diplomatic ties between North Korea and Burma, but I’ve felt too self-conscious to do so.

But, today, I stumbled across a website “Southeast Asian Visions”, part of Cornell University Library’s Asian collection. While browsing its vast contents, I discovered a wealth of colonial-era Burmese journals and writings. Among my favorites is The Silken East, by V.C. Scott O’Connor, a late-1800s British writer.

He writes of the Burman man that “the earning of pence is a small thing to him by comparison with the joy of life, and material things themselves are but an illusion of temporary flesh.” and compares Burmese society a utopia, writing:

“Yet of all the peoples of the earth the Burmese are probably the happiest. Most of the requisites of modern Utopias they already possess: leisure, independence, absolute equality, the nearest approach to a perfect distribution of wealth; in addition, a happy temper, cheerful in all adversities.”

Perhaps the judgmental view of a Westerner unaccustomed to Burmese tradition and unease at British control, but nevertheless an interesting read. The Burmans were even dubbed the “Irish of the East” by Europeans during the 1800s to 1900s for their cheery and easygoing ways. Although I’m not sure, the fact that traditional Burmese society was very loose and equal may have spurred the ideology of the Burmese Way to Socialism and nationalization of industry (pyithu paing thein), which unfortunately concluded as a failure, as the mentality of common Burmese had drastically changed.

Rangoon port

Photograph of the Port of Rangoon

Strand Road, Rangoon

Photograph of Strand Road

Also in the journals are exquisite photographs revealing an empty Rangoon a century ago, a Rangoon uncluttered with skyscrapers and cranes carrying shipping cargo. The Rangoon of today is urbanized, chaotic, and decrepit, without the clean and well-maintained streets of yesteryear (even in my parents’ time, Rangoon was less cluttered). Maybe my interest in dated photos of Burma is just part of my wild fascination of colonial Burma. Nevertheless, many of the portraits are haunting and beautiful. They reveal the Burman lifestyle prior to intense Westernization, a time when men were tattooed and wore turbans (like gaungbaung for young men) and women dressed elegantly in sarongs (htamein) of silk and wore hairstyles that befitted royalty. Unfortunately, these fashions are increasingly rare in both urban and rural Burma, where sarongs (and even western-style pants) and tee-shirts are now the norm. Interesting vestiges of a long-gone era.

4 thoughts on “Colonial-era Burma

  1. Helena says:

    hi Aung Kyaw,

    I just stumbled on your blog after googling around on Burma. Congratulations on finding those great photographs! You know, on the colonial-era in Burma, you should really read “The River of Lost Footsteps” by Thant Myint-U (recently out in the US and UK) which has a few great chapters on that period in Burmese history and how it effected different parts of Burmese society. I think it’s very balanced, beautifully written, and has lots of new information. I just read it.

    Here’s the amazon link:

    Let me know what you think,


  2. Wagaung says:

    That the military elite actually believed in socialism in the sixties I’m afraid is a moot point. More a matter of convenience for their purpose, same as democracy today, a means to an end. No question it suits the Burmese mentality, both notions that is, as did Buddhism. What’s consistent about the ruling clique is their anti-communism and self-seeking at the expense of the people. See the traits they share with the global elite?

    O’Connor did have a romantic image of the Burmese but based on personal observations. I don’t know who said the Burmese are the Irish of the East, probably not him or any other Irish person. The gaunbaung you still see at weddings and official proceedings, a whole ‘army’ of those in parliament at Naypyidaw, but not the tattoos done like knee breeches or long hair done in a topknot at a rakish angle, not since the fifties. As for the longyi, neither the htamein nor the pasoe is likely to disappear altogether; people are much too sensible and practical to lose it. But I agree the onslaught of Westernisation is imminent though we’ve been there before, it’s called colonialism. We’ve long been subjected to indirect influence through Japan, Korea, Singapore, not least Thailand, in any case during the years of ‘isolation’. Tourists flocking to Burma to see the last unspoiled part of SE Asia, and our generals will watch Cobra Gold, such fun.

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