15 March 2006

Burma's Martial Legacy

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Burmese had built a reputation as one of the most militaristic of the peoples of southern Asia. They had sacked the Thai capital, caused grief to the Indian Mughals and had seen off the Chinese. In 1824, their great commander, Mahabandula, had sworn to bring the governor general of India back to Mandalay in silver fetters. Lord Amherst had not made that journey, however, and the Burmese had been sharply defeated in three major wars. The final one, in 1886, had seen the end of Burma's independence and its last monarch packed off into exile near Bombay. After 1886, the British did not recruit ethnic Burmese into their forces, as they had the Sikhs of the Punjab when they were conquered fiercely to resist British occupation for much longer than the Sikhs. Later, all sorts of pseudo-anthropological arguments were used about their unfitness. Burmese Buddhists, the British said, regarded soldiers as beings 'not very high on the human scale' because they took life. They, like the Bengalis, were supposedly 'effeminate' and could not take extremes of heat and cold.

This was all nonsense, as some British officials realized. A small company of Burmese sappers had done exceptionally well in the Mesopotamian campaign during the First World War where it had been 125 degrees in the shade. They also took the cold of the North West Frontier uncomplainingly. The basic reason that the British did not maintain the slightly increased percentage of Burmese recruits after 1918 was that Indians and recruits from the Burmese minorities were cheaper. All this meant that the vast majority of 'Burmese' in outfits such as the Burma Rifles and the Burma Frontier Force were Kachins, Shans, Karens like Smith Dun, or else locally resident Indians and Gurkhas. There were hardly a thousand ethnic Burmese officers or NCOs under arms in 1940. This stored up huge problems for the British in the Second World War. When the Japanese offered young Burmese military training, they leapt at the opportunity. It was a matter of pride as well as politics. How could the Burmese be a people if they did not have an army?
SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain's Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 82-83

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