11: British exploit Burmese arrogance

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The folly of Assam

Myanmar: “Unfortunately the Burmese dynasty based at Konbuang had not learned any lessons from its military escapades. Actually the rulers felt somewhat invulnerable - having repulsed a Chinese invasion three times. Further, although India, Ceylon, the Malay Peninsula, and the Indonesian archipelago had all fallen under European domination, my territory hadn’t been infected yet. Accordingly, my humans hadn’t developed a proper respect for these European invaders. They felt somehow that they were different than the rest.

Blocked from military expansion to the east because of the Siamese, the Burmese leaders looked to the west to annex Assam, a province in the northeast of India. The only province further east is Nagaland. The inhabitants are the numerous and diverse Hill Tribes, who never really belong to any country. In addition to Hindu, Tai languages were also spoken in Assam. So the region was quite similar to us culturally. However, according to my people, Assam was still quite backward.

"It’s due to be civilized,” the Burmese leaders said. “After all, Assam is famous for its headhunters, who decapitate their victims to increase the fertility of their lands. How barbaric. In fact many of the indigenous tribes in this area are headhunters, including the Nagas. We would be doing the inhabitants of Assam and the entire world a favor by bringing our superior Buddhist culture to them. This will bring us merit.”

My Burmese rulers were just like humans all over the planet - justifying their aggression with their notion of cultural/religious superiority. It was ironic that the Europeans justified their atrocities against my people with the same reasoning. The Universe has a strange way of balancing human events.”

Universe: “I just love my job.”

Myanmar: “Exploiting internal strife in the area, my last Burmese dynasty, the Konbuang, invaded and occupied Assam in 1817. Unfortunately they didn’t take into account the growing power of the British. The Burmese had conquered Thailand and had defended themselves against Chinese aggression. They felt that they were invincible. Their pride was to be their downfall. Ultimately, they came face-to-face with the British and their superior military technology.”

The First & Second Anglo-Burman Wars

British East India Company: “We had been busy conquering India. We hadn’t even been thinking about Myanmar. But their occupation of Assam inspired us. They had invaded our turf and needed to pay the price. Everything happened according to plan. We declared war in 1824. God was obviously on our side because he had given us better weaponry. Plus the arrogance of the Burmese had offended their Thai neighbors, who fought on our side against them. By 1826, our superior culture was victorious in this first Anglo-Burman War.

We took advantage of their weakness. In the Treaty of Yandabo, we forced them to withdraw from Assam and to cede the northern and southern sections of their coastline to us as punishment - the consequences of sin. The southern part connected up with our holdings on the Malay Peninsula, while the northern part joined with our Indian colony. To show how magnanimous we are, we left them the middle part of the coast where their capitol and main port of Pegu was located. We decided to save that for later.

We of the British East India Company were quite pleased with ourselves after this war. We had consolidated our grasp on India and had extended our coastal holdings. However after the rush of domination and victory wore off, we became dissatisfied again. It had nothing to do with money. We had more money than we knew what to do with. We were living in the lap of luxury with our Indian slaves, er I mean servants, to provide for our every need.

We had no material wants. It was just the stupid map. We kept looking at the coastline and seeing this big gap in our coastal possessions where Pegu was. Plus we kept hearing of merchant ships avoiding our ports to trade with the Burmese. Of course this was only a small dent in our profits. But that wasn’t the point. We wanted a coastal monopoly. We wanted all the wealth, not just part of it. We knew there was plenty to go around, but that didn’t really matter. We were playing the power game and wanted to win. The rush had worn off and we needed a new fix.

After a few more decades of looking at the maps showing our incomplete holdings, we decided to invade. We wanted, er I mean needed, to secure the entire coastline from Calcutta to Singapore. What a pretty map that would make. So in 1852 the second Anglo-Burman War began and ended. Their first defeat had lowered their morale and led to internal problems. They didn’t put up such a strong resistance this time. In this peace treaty, they ceded their entire province of Lower Burma, which included their famous port at Pegu.

We of the British East India Company were ecstatic. The entire coastline was ours. What more could we possibly want? We were rulers of the entire subcontinent of India and the entire western coastline of the Malay Peninsula. All trade between China and the West went through our hands. We were wealthier than Midas - the Greek king with the golden touch. Anything we wanted was ours. But then the craving began to grow again. The rush of military victory was over and we needed a new fix. Somehow no matter how much we had we still weren’t satisfied. Everything seemed so empty.

The Third Anglo-Burman War

Then we heard rumors of the legendary overland trade route to China through northern Burma. We already controlled the sea route. If we controlled the land traffic as well, then we would have it all. This would complete our portfolio. Plus Burmese rubies, the finest in the world, came from the north. Taking control of the mining and marketing of these precious gemstones would be a nice bonus for our hard work - icing on the cake, as it were. All we needed to do was to complete the conquering of Burma.

As soon as this thought emerged, it began to grow. It gave us no peace. We couldn’t get it off our mind. No matter where we went, there it was. No matter how good the dinner, no matter how fine the entertainment, no matter how luxurious our surroundings, we had no mental peace. Our wives, worried for our safety, kept telling us that we had enough, but the thought wouldn’t let go of us.

The only problem for this war was that the British government back home was beginning to get moral on us. The first war was justified because the Burmese had invaded our turf. We rationalized the next war according to the aesthetics of a complete controlled coastline combined with the necessity of neutralizing a growing military presence before it became a menace to British business. But these arguments didn’t work back at home any more.

We resorted to the moral prerogative argument that had proved so successful in the past. We were civilizing these savages by bringing them our superior culture. But they weren’t buying it this time. Parliament criticized our independence and ruthlessness to the indigenous populations of the world. Those moralists at home can be downright aggravating.

They don’t know what it is like out here in the wilderness. We are so far away from Great Britain that we are almost a government unto ourselves. And then they have the gall to try to tell us what to do. But we do need their funding for our military enterprises. Despite their liberal compassion, we need their money. Most of time they didn’t get in the way as long as the profits were rolling in. But that Charles Dickens character and those moral reformers awakened the compassion of the lawmakers. So we needed a new argument to loosen the purse strings.

It wasn’t really that hard. We told them that the Burmese king was a tyrant who was on the side of French. We knew that neither was true, but as Machiavelli said ‘the ends justify the means.’ We convinced Parliament that if they could just fund our military endeavor that we would overthrow the evil dictator and liberate the Burmese. Our argument was almost like poetry it was so persuasive.

‘As a benevolent father, we will eventually lead these savages into a parliamentary democracy like we have at home. It might take decades - maybe even centuries because they are so backward. However good Samaritans that we are, we only have their best interests at heart. Besides the evil king is in league with the French, and we don’t want to lose out to our rivals. If someone is going to civilize these barbarians, it should be us with our freedom loving culture. A vote against us is a vote for the French and the Burmese tyrant.’

The French connection turned the tide. Our legislators couldn’t vote for the French without risking the wrath of the public. Parliament granted our funding and we invaded Burma for the final time in 1885. We conquered their capitol and called a quick end to this third Anglo-Burman War. In 1886 Burma became a province of British India. We were so proud. All of our hard work was justified. For our triumph check out the following map.

The 'Insurrection'

Unfortunately, many of the Burmese weren’t going with our plan. Even after we declared that the war of 1885 was ‘over’, they continued their resistance to our Protestant Christian culture. Not accepting our claim of victory, the Burmese engaged in guerrilla warfare against our superior military technology, asserting that this was a continuation of the war.

Luckily, we had already officially ended the war. Consequently, as far as the international community was concerned, we were now dealing with insurgents. According to the Geneva conventions for war, insurgents have no rights. Prisoners of war in a battle between countries must be treated humanely. They must be provided with food, clothing and shelter. But insurgents are in a different category. We didn’t need to provide for them as prisoners of war, because we didn’t need to take any prisoners.

Since the Burmese who continued to fight were insurgents, we didn’t need to imprison or care for them any longer. Instead we performed mass executions on the Burmese rebels. After all, they were not fighting to defend their country anymore because their country didn’t exist. We had to bring 30,000 British troops in to quell this uprising. By 1890 this illegal insurrection was over.

How unusual that the same Burmese who were fighting us in 1885 had to be sheltered and provided for, if we captured them. However after our treaty was signed, we could torture or execute them, or any who supported them, without cause. It was great. Thank our merciful God for these international treaties.

After executing the rebel leaders, many of whom had been hereditary headsmen of their local villages for generations, we appointed headsmen, who were loyal to us. Many Burmese called them traitors, but this was because they were naive and didn’t understand the nature of international treaties. I know we wrote the laws to protect the ruling classes from peasant revolts and insurrections, but we are superior to the indigenous people, after all. It is almost as if we belong to another species.

Of course, these terrorist rebels were called freedom fighters or the Resistance by the villagers. They obviously don’t understand international law that well. Because of this we were forced to employ our strategic hamlet plan. This was one of the first places we used it. This meant that we would move entire villages to another part of the country, if they had supported the insurgents, who happened to be their relatives. I know that they had been living in the same part of the world for millennia, but change is good. We were doing them a favor by getting them out of their stagnant rut. We have had endless patience when dealing with our recalcitrant children. We are colonizing them for their own good. At least that is what we tell the moralists back home.”

 

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