Burmese Nationalist Movements: The Struggle towards Full Independence Introduction In Burma, several distinctive forces particular to the nation and functioning all over the period prior to 1942 considerably influenced the development path of the nationalist movements…
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This ethnic diversity has been an adverse element in the history of Burma, contributing to political division and creating a lasting barrier to the formation and strengthening of a stable, centralised power. Ethnic issues were a troublesome concern in the nationalist movement even in the 20th century, particularly as several ethnic groups, anxious of the supremacy of an ethnic majority, turned to British imperial officers for guidance and defence (Tarling 1992). According to Taylor (1987), numerous of these groups were indifferent to the possibility of independence or freedom within the walls of the colonial society and profoundly interested in the circumstances within which it could be attained. In the concluding postwar settlements resulting in the granting of independence to Burma, the most difficult challenges were not between the British and the people of Burma but between the different ethnic groups and the Burmans themselves (Gravers 1999). This enduring schism between ethnic groups is one of the major causes of the failure of nationalist movements in Burma to achieve full independence prior to 1942. This essay discusses this issue, and the other causes of such failure, in depth. The Ethnic Dilemma While the Arakanese, Mons, Shans, and Burmans embraced Theravada Buddhism, the other ethnic groups embraced animism, and numerous had been encouraged by American and European missionaries to embrace Christianity (Tarling 1992, 296). The marginal regions at the border of the Irrawaddy basin endured a more sluggish socioeconomic progress as well, and Shans, Karennis, Kachins, and Chins were governed by reputable native leaders and not by the colonial government of Britain, a system that left the boundaries of a self-governing Burma questionable (Steinberg, 2010). According to Herb and Kaplan (2008), “Even where minority settlements were interspersed with those of the Burmans, such as in the case of the Karen community in the delta, the British gave them (and immigrant Indians and Chinese) special political representation” (p. 781). Ultimately, the defence forces enlisted members of Karens, Kachins, and Chins and practically barred every single Burman. All through the war, ethnic groups’ campaign against the Japanese stretched the dividing line between these defiant ethnic groups and the Burman collaborators (Herb & Kaplan 2008). Thus, these different ethnic groups espoused their own nationalist ideology, which made the prospect of independence far from possible. The challenge of characterising Burmese nationalism is manifested in the language applied to define the idea. Hence, the name Dobama Asiayoun—“We Burmese Association”— tried to shun the more severely ethnically or culturally rigid ‘Burman’ or ‘Myanma’ and rather made use of the more ancient word ‘Bama’, which was at that time intended to cover each and every ‘Burmese’ ethnic group (Taylor 1987, 207). According to Steinberg (2010), although nationalist movements carried out symbolic attempts to plead to all ethnic groups and declared all their lands as pieces of a self-governing Burma, the nationalist movement continued to be mostly the business of Burmans. The course of building the Burmese nation was basically the same with the resistance against British colonialism. The appeals and claims of the people of Burma emerged from quite narrow and particular concerns in the early part of the twentieth century. Just afterwards did Burmese people take into
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