History, British Rule
Myanmar culture, Japanese troops, accretions, Japanese rule, animist
Myanmar culture, now submerged under a colonial overlay, had three aspects: the language, with accretions from Mon and Pali; Theravada Buddhism, which had come from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and mixed with local nat (animist) rituals; and the society of rice-growing peasant villages. Under colonial rule the linkage of government and religion was lost, the monastic orders fell into disarray, and the monastic schools, which had given Myanmar a higher rate of male literacy than England, declined as English became the language of social advancement. The indigenous culture nevertheless persisted in the magical world of the pwe (a type of folk opera), in the practice of Buddhism and nat worship, and in the language of the peasantry.
The British moved the capital from royal Mandalay to the port city of Yangon in 1886, developing it as a substation of the British Empire in India. This led to large-scale Indian immigration. Yangon thus became the hub of a “steel frame” of administration spreading out into the hinterland, where district officers maintained law and order, collected revenue, and administered justice. As the country was opened up to the world market, it became the world’s major exporter of rice—from 0.5 million metric tons before the fall of Mandalay, to 2 million in 1900, and 3 million before World War II began in 1939. British rule and economic penetration gradually engendered social disintegration and provoked a nationalist movement. This movement used modern institutions, such as the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, student strikes, and political participation in partial self-government to agitate for immediate reforms, including separation from India, and later for independence. In the countryside, the unrelated antimodern Saya San Rebellion of 1930 to 1932 drew widespread support, but was crushed.
The individuals who eventually forged an independent Myanmar began their political careers as student leaders with the title Thakin (master), a term that had previously been applied to the British. One of the student leaders, U Aung San, assembled a military force that was trained by the Japanese into a Burma Independence Army (BIA). When the Japanese invaded Myanmar in 1942, during World War II, the BIA accompanied the Japanese troops, fighting few battles but swelling their membership as a political movement in military garb. This political movement later took advantage of the strains of wartime occupation and the weakness of the Japanese-installed government near the war’s end to resist Japanese rule under the name of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL).
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