At the beginning of the twentieth-century Burmese students began arriving in Britain to study in growing numbers. Whereas in the nineteenth-century, Burmese students had been few and far between, by 1910 there were at least 80 students enrolled in British universities. Most were young men from wealthy backgrounds; some were studying law, whilst others were studying engineering or medicine. Many hoped to return to Burma as barristers, doctors and engineers, or to earn a coveted position as a magistrate in the British colonial government.
England was no doubt a new and scary place for these young scholars, and they faced many challenges including racism, financial difficulties and culture shock upon first arrival. But the range of Burmese student experiences cannot be boiled down to one generalized narrative of disillusionment with empire leading to greater nationalist sentiment when the student returned home to Burma. Often portrayed as either British stooges, or nationalist politicians in embryo, these early generations of foreign-educated Burmese politicians and intellectuals arrived in England for a variety of reasons – not all of which fit in with the prevailing narrative of the growth of Burmese nationalism.
First and foremost, Burmese students came to England seeking an education and a path for career advancement that was largely unavailable to them back home. The future Minister of Finance under Aung San’s government, U Tin Tut was one such student who attended Dulwich College and then went up to Cambridge, before being called to the English Bar. Tin Tut was familiar with British customs (he played rugby and wore club ties), but he was also keenly aware of the difficulties that Burmese students faced abroad.
In 1921, Tin Tut and two other students complained to the India Office about the situation of Burmese students in Britain. They argued that places should be set aside for Burmese candidates to study at Oxford and Cambridge (at the moment Burmese applicants were being placed at the bottom of the list of Indian applicants) and that funds should be allocated for the Burma Society’s club in London (located in a house in Hammersmith). Furthermore, they complained that if the quality of education were higher in India or Burma, Burmese students would not have to spend the money and time to come to England in the first place.
The rhetoric they used, however, was one of Burmese nationalism within the British Empire. Burmese students, they said, were ready and willing to engage in English social life (in comparison to Indians who sequestered themselves away) and gave “a favourable impression of themselves to the Englishmen they [came] in contact with”. Above all, the applicants were concerned with “the practical impossibility of attaining an appointment in an imperial service without an English education.” If better schools could not be had in Burma, the applicants were concerned with making it easier for more Burmese students to study in England. “The ideal age, for coming to England,” they wrote “is probably 15, when the boy has learnt to be a good Burman and is not too old to learn at public school the ideals of a good Englishman.”
Many well-educated Burmese, therefore, desired a part to play in the workings of Empire. They did not yet outwardly call for separation from Britain, and the focus of Tin Tut and other students at this point in time was not independence but rather to break the glass ceiling for Burmese civil servants (as Tut would later do by becoming the first Burmese officer in the Indian Civil Service).
An earlier generation of Burmese students had already returned home to hold high positions within the British Burma government. For example, Joseph Maung Gyi was educated at Oxford and then called to the bar at the Middle Temple in 1911. He would return to Burma to work as a judge and then as the only Burmese acting governor in the history of the colony (he was also later knighted). The illustrious Prof. Pe Maung Tin gained his Bachelor of Letters at Oxford before returning to Burma as the only Burmese appointed to the commission to set up Rangoon University in 1918 (showing that not all Burmese students abroad were concerned with so-called “practical” degrees such as medicine or law).
Many Burmese, no doubt, took the opportunity of study in England to learn about the wider world. A Moulmein native, U Shwe Llay was sent by his wealthy father to Carshalton House School in Surrey as a boy. When he returned home he entered the family business, but clearly he was unable to rid himself of the travelling bug. In 1892 he escorted a German captain to the Siamese border earning the German Order of the White Eagle for his services and in 1906 he embarked upon a round-the-globe tour of England, India, America and Japan (20th Century Impressions, 382). Burmese men returning home from abroad brought with them not only accolades and practical expertise, but also English habits such as wearing leather shoes, drinking whiskey, carrying canes and smoking cigarettes (as we see in the picture). More importantly, they became respected magistrates and businessmen within their communities.
Not all Burmese students, however, were as interested in playing the game by English rules. Some took the opportunity of studying in England to become involved in nationalist or revolutionary politics. Maung Oo Tin Kyaw originally arrived in England to study Political Science at the London School of Economics, but soon became involved with the British Communist Party, distributing revolutionary pamphlets to Indian workers on ships in the Port of London (Cities in Motion, 204). Scotland Yard caught wind of his dealings and proceeded to follow him, interrupt his mail, and freeze his accounts; all the while Kyaw protested that he was a British subject (he was) and that he was innocent (he wasn’t). Eventually the British government refused to renew his passport and sent him back home to Burma.
Alone in a foreign land, another unusual Burmese student turned to crime. The son of a wealthy magistrate in Prome (Pyay), U Ba Zan came to Britain as a student in 1910, but soon flunked out of school and quickly slid into debt. Within a year he had married a British girl named Monica, the daughter of the owner of the boarding house in which he was staying. He promised to live with her in Rangoon, but when she arrived he turned out to have a pre-existing marriage to a Burmese woman. Monica gave birth to a child at Rangoon General Hospital and then returned to England to live with her family. But upon discovering that Ba Zan had come back as well, she contacted the India Office in the hopes that they might compel him to pay alimony. At the same time, Ba Zan was arrested for stealing money out of his landlady’s purse and it became apparent that he had skipped out on several hotel bills throughout the south of England. The historical record stops there, though – and we are left with Ba Zan refusing to return to Burma, his father refusing to send him any money, and the India Office tearing its hair out over the matter.
Although unusual, this story perfectly encapsulates the stereotypical nightmare of British officials tasked with looking after Burmese students. Steeped in the racist anxiety of the times, British administrators were wringing their hands over the thought of young Burmese men, far away from home, sliding into sin. One E. Colson of the ICS published a pamphlet on precisely this subject in 1910 for the Burma Society in Rangoon, warning of the dangers that awaited young Burmese men in Britain. Colson lamented that, being non-Christian, Burmese students would be particularly susceptible to “public houses” and “dubious company” (the horror!). It seems that even some more conservative Burmese elders, such as one Maung Tin, concurred with the pamphlet’s contents (though he was likely more concerned about Burmese boys absorbing bad habits from the English, running into debt, or dishonoring their families).
There were also English administrators who expressed concern for Burmese students welfare, however, and the India Office Archive shows a long history of educators attempting to build hostels for foreign students who were being turned away from English boarding houses due to their race. Nevertheless, much of this charitable work can be boiled down to a concern that colonial students not become disaffected due to their inhospitable treatment in the metropole and return to their homelands in order to foment revolution. Too little was done, in this regard, too late.
What emerges from these stories, then, is that Burmese students’ experience of Britain in the early twentieth-century was an ambivalent one. Far away from home, they were faced for the first time with a whole new world of ideas, people, consumer goods, and experiences. They brought memories home with them and took advantage of the opportunities that Empire afforded them. But, at the same, their ambitions were often thwarted by racism and discrimination. Only later on in the 1930s, however, when it became apparent that Burma’s position within the Empire was no longer tenable, did many of these prominent Burmese switch their loyalties to the cause of Burmese independence.
Arnold Wright. Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma (London, 1910).
The Case of U Ba Zan, a Burmese Student. British Library India Office Records. IOR/L/PJ/6/1115. File 3908.
“In Defence of Burmese Students in England, 1921”. U Tin Tut, Yew Lock and CC Po. British Library India Office Records. IOR/Q/10/2/31
E. Colson. “Arrangements for Burmese Students in England.” British Library India Office Records. ORW.1986.A.126.
Su Lin Lewis. Cities in Motion (Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 204.