Through Burmese Eyes: Special War Loan Train 1918

What does it mean for a country to become modern?

By “modern”, historians often mean a variety of different and conflicting things. “Modernity” might mean that a country is technologically advanced, that its economic system is based on trade or securities, or that it has a positive attitude towards democracy, women or human rights.

Oftentimes, it is simply just a shorthand for all the socio-cultural attitudes and norms associated with Western countries.

But in order for a “modern world” to exist, there has to be a “primitive world” out there somewhere. “Modernity” therefore is based on the highly questionable assumption that a place can be behind culturally or with respect to civilization; literally, it is the idea that time moves differently in different places, which we know not to be the case.

When they first came to Burma in the eighteenth-century, British commentators noted a number of ways in which the Burmese were ahead of their European brethren in terms of civilization. Burmese women, for instance, because of their visibility in the marketplace and relative freedom of marriage,  were supposed to have an elevated position above that of European women (nevermind that they spent much of their day cooking food to offer up to the large population of sedentary male monks). Moreover, Burmese society was supposed to have a high rate of literacy and tolerance due to the mollifying influence of the Buddhist religion (in spite of the fact that the anti-Indian riots in Rangoon in 1930 began in a monastery).

The flip-side to this coin was, of course, the identification of a number of features that British administrators considered backward or primitive e.g. Burmese men’s lack of industry, the high rate of alcoholism and crime in Burma, and the practice of polygamy. Many of these features were in fact by-products of colonization (Britain had taken away traditional systems of patronage, administration and policing and replaced them with a corrupt civil service bent on exacting as much cold hard cash from the people as possible) but the British preferred to gloss over this fact. Ultimately, they concluded that such a society deserved to be dominated by a stronger, more civilized power.

These ideas about the Burmese were colonial constructions and they have been perpetuated in novels, histories and guide books even up to the present. Cultural stereotypes, after all, are the bread and butter of the travel and entertainment industries. It is amazing to read over and over again, for instance, that the Burmese people are the nicest, most welcoming people on the planet, and then take a look at the New York Times coverage of the conflict in Rakhine state. Such double-edged generalizations were and continue to be a means of controlling and dehumanizing “developing” populations around the world.

In contrast to the one-sided images of Burmese people provided by British writers in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, we might instead attempt to look at the archive through Burmese eyes. This is often a difficult task as so much of the Burmese experience of colonization has been obscured by the dominance of the English language, the gaze of the European, and the process of inclusion and omission. But it is not impossible, and oftentimes Western historians are simply unwilling to do the work necessary to uncover the day-to-day experiences of the colonized (e.g. learning indigenous languages, going to local archives, taking oral tradition seriously, conducting interviews, or simply asking indigenous historians what they think about an issue).

I recognize that this can be hard – but even in Western archives there is a way to read against the grain. In this light, an album of photographs in the India Office Records at the British Library recently caught my eye. Penny Edwards talks about the importance of getting properly “stuck in” to an archive and of discovering things that you would otherwise never have known existed if you simply looked at an online catalogue. These “archival detours”, as she calls them, are where the magic happens, often providing the methodical historian with the opportunity to see their subject in a completely different light. Her advice is not unlike Robert Caro’s recent injunction to young journalists to “turn every page” – you never know what you might find.

In this case the album was titled “Burma Railways Collection: War Loan Special Train,” but it was not until I opened the box and brushed the dust off the cover that I realized the importance of what was inside. In 1918, the Burma Railways in collaboration with the Government of India organized a “War Loan Train” in order to convince the inhabitants of Burma to buy war bonds and support the British in their fight against the Germans in WW1.

The train traveled around the country and people could buy war bonds directly from its carriages. It was, according to chief clerk Ba Sein, “the first gigantic advertising campaign in the East through the medium of a railway.” The train was fitted out on either side with hand-painted ads urging the Burmese to “put your money in cash certificates” and to “be wise and follow Shrewd John’s example” under which was a picture of a happy-looking Asian man holding two war bond certificates.

Further cartoons, likely by the artist Hla Maung, claimed that war bonds were “burglar proof”, safer than “hoarding” cash, and that they were a sound investment leading to wealth (in this case signified by a man in shoes with a cigar and cane, and his wife in a silk shawl, carrying an umbrella).

What was most amazing, however, was the turn-out at the various stations throughout the country. As I flipped through the pictures, I saw crowd after crowd of Burmese people staring back at me; wives and husbands, mothers and children, local merchants, dancing troupes, boy scouts and eligible young debutantes. At each station they were thronging the train such that in one town the photographers Wagstaff and Co. noted “only about a quarter of those who were on the platform come into this photograph. All photos of crowds had to be taken from roof of carriages as crowds so dense could not fit a photo otherwise.”

The train was a huge success; the sale of war bonds reached 5,038,213 rupees (£49,542,411 in today’s money) – a staggering sum for the time and one that doubly underscores the contribution of colonial Burma to WW1. The endeavor was financed in part by the preeminent Chinese businessman in Burma, Lim Chin Tsong, a rubber and oil baron with an impressive mansion on Inya Lake in Rangoon.

Tsong was keen to ingratiate himself with the British and he even donated a transport ship, the HMAT A49 Seang Choon, to the war effort (he would later receive an OBE for his fundraising efforts during WW1). By the time he accompanied the train, however, Tsong was already heavily in debt (his house alone had cost him upwards of 2,000,000 rupees). He would soon try to corner the rice market, but, when the British government prevented the export of Burmese rice outside of India in 1921, he was ruined. He died soon afterwards.

Tsong’s philanthropy was matched by ordinary Burmese citizens throughout the country who took advantage of the train to buy war bonds. Why they did so is an interesting question that strikes at the heart of the Burmese engagement with empire and the subsequent narrative of Burmese nationalism. In order to understand it, we have to look at the War Loan Train through Burmese eyes.

At the time, the government was guaranteeing a 5% interest rate on the bonds, a rate of return that David Lloyd George famously described as “penal”, and which would lead Britain to default on the loan in 1932. In fact, the entirety of the WW1 war loan was not paid back until 2015.

But it does not seem likely that Burmese investors were buying war bonds solely because they felt they were guaranteed a great rate of return (moreover, the bonds appear to have been capped at 10 rupees). The real explanation for the success of the train with Burmese people had more to do with their desire to compete with their neighbors and to keep up with the “modern” world. We see people, young and old, treating the arrival of the War Loan Train as a day out and a chance to show off to the community.

The advertisements on the train also appealed to a sense of patriotism among the population (at many stations Union Jacks were flown and there were banners reading God Save the King). Traditional tactics of fundraising (such as zat pwe orchestras, yein group dances and papier-mache mandats or stages) usually associated with pagoda festivals were re-purposed for the bond drive. People put on their very best clothing for the occasion and “the stations along the route of the train seem to have vied with one another as to which should best attract public attention to the train.”

The train was a spectacle – but not a spectacle of a foreign technologically-advanced power marching through a primitive land. Rather, it was yet another example of Burmese society adapting to suit its own image of itself as modern. Instead of lazy, alcoholic, poor, and crime-ridden, Burmese communities chose to present themselves all along the route as industrious, patriotic, fashionable, and wealthy. There was a world war on, and Burma, no doubt, wanted to do its part. The Burmese engagement with “modernity”, then, emerges less as a foreign innovation imposed on the Burmese from the top down, than as a local state of affairs, a renegotiation of old desires in new forms – to be looked at, to be respected, and, perhaps most importantly, to feel in connection with the rest of the world.

(Apologies for the low resolution pictures).

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Lim Chin Tsong at centre. The agent for the Burma Railways H.B. Huddleston second from left. The twin Burmese girls have “We are doing, now you all do yours” on their backs.

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