Two young men with servants

Burmese lady

British officers on horseback

Bullock cart with wooden wheels

photos from ‘Burman: a photographic journey 1855-1925’ Noel F. Singer

I don’t know how much you know about Burma and its past but, for someone like me, brought up in England, it exudes a romantic and nostalgic sense of past and present mystery.

That is, until you read about what the country went through under British colonisation and then, for the past fifty years, under Burmese military dictatorship. It is that distinctiveness that I would like to look at. That distinctiveness which caused early 20th century British Victorian visitors, filled with their own sense of superiority and accustomed to the servility of the Indians, to express surprise at the independent nature of the Burmese.

Today the country is called Myanmar, which was in fact its name before the British changed it to Burma under British occupation in the 19th century. Many people call it Burma still but, as one foreign diplomat who works in Burma told us, they call it Burma deliberately to get on the nerves of the junta there as they realise it really makes more sense to call it Myanmar.

Before visiting the country, I didn’t know much about it from a tourist’s point of view other than that it is not a very easy place to travel around, that you can‘t stay for more than 28 days, that there are large parts of the country which are totally out of bounds for visitors and other parts for which you need special, that is ‚expensive‘, permits to visit.

As far as the background of the country is concerned, I knew that Burma had been part of the Indian Raj and a British colony for nearly one hundred years between the 19 and 20th centuries, and that Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous leader of the NLD (National League for Democracy) opposition party in Burma had won a Nobel prize for peace in 1991 and had spent over twenty years of her life under house arrest, and that she was the daughter of a famous freedom fighter. That much I knew…

I read up a little bit about Burma, starting with the end of Burma’s last King, Thibaw, and his Konbaung dynasty. He was forced into exile to India with his family by the British in very unromantic conditions in 1885, following the third Anglo-Burmese war and the British never allowed him to return to his homeland; he died in India before his country regained independence. Apparently his grand daughter was still alive not long ago, living in miserable conditions next to a rubbish tip in an Indian coastal town.

The kings ruling over Burma during the Konbaung dynasty were known for their violent rule and were famous for terrible cruelty towards each other, especially when it came to who would succeed on the throne. Stories abound of dozens of family members being slaughtered by being trampled on by elephants while tied up inside canvas bags in order to grab the throne.

Still, it is hardly out of a concern for human rights that the British attacked and finally took control of the kingdom, but more out of a covetousness for the endless gems, teak wood and petroleum that the country possessed.

colonial hunter

Mandalay jail late 19th century

King Thibaw and Queen Suphayarlat



Filed under Burma

3 responses to “BURMA: PAST AND PRESENT

  1. ania Regan Olsen

    very interesting to find out about the background history

  2. Yes, that is something many tourists don’t get around to doing.

  3. Oonagh

    Gosh it really makes you feel like reading more. We know so little about the places we go to, although I have never been to Burma. But for instance now that I am travelling very regularly to Hong Kong and different parts of China. It would really be good to know more, to better understand the people and places I go to. China reminds me of a cross between communist Poland and africa, a mix between organised communistic features ( gigantic very straight roads, places, monuments) and the poorness of africa, the little shops, stands selling very cheap every day goods ( that they export to africa…). All the factories we worked in in China had no heating, even though there was snow outside, thats when I knew they would conquer the world. ( Ok I wasn t the first to discover that) they are used to so little and still smile!!!! and that s also where I caught a cold….

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