A Tale of Two Monuments



Today I’d like to talk about two monuments that represent, respectively, a bit of Britain in Burma, and a bit of Burma in Britain.

The first can be found down a narrow side-street in Yangon in the grounds of the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. A large red pyramid of laterite rock, it is a monument to one Major J. Walker of the Madras Army, who died storming the stockade at Rangoon (Yangon) in the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824. It is likely that the tombstone was removed here from the English Cantonment Cemetery near Kandawgyi Lake when the Burmese military took it over in the 1960s.

The First Anglo-Burmese War pitted the forces of the East India Co. and their Indian allies against the mighty Burmese Empire which had just completed a period of great expansion, defeating the kingdoms of Assam, Manipur, Siam and Arakan in quick succession.

An assault on the principal stockade of Rangoon during the First Anglo-Burmese War.

Burmese troops had been making incursions into British Bengal in the area of Chittagong and the “Honourable Company” simply could not abide this violation of its liberties any longer. The British landed at Rangoon and promptly attacked the Burmese forces, who put up a strong defense, but were ultimately defeated. The War would drag on until 1826 with the Treaty of Yandabo, in which the Konbaung kings were forced to cede the provinces of Arakan, Assam, Manipur and Tanintharyi to the British and pay an indemnity of 1 million pounds.

This was a Pyrrhic victory, however, as the fighting had already cost the British 5-13 million pounds,  precipitated economic collapse in India, and left behind 15,000 British and Indian dead. One of those casualties, no doubt, was the late Major Walker, aged 42 years at the time of his death.

His sacrifice to the Crown, and that of others, would be commemorated in similar monuments throughout Burma and India, literally inculcating the British victory onto the Burmese landscape. Within thirty years, Rangoon would fall into British hands and be completely re-designed in the manner of a European city to house a foreign population of Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Armenians and Jews, becoming barely recognizable in the process.

But just as Britain’s global conquest would have a lasting effect on the geography of Burma, scattering it with the physical markers of British dominion, so too would the influx of wealth from Burmese and other colonial possessions change the landscape of Britain, swelling the port cities, filling the coffers of the British landed gentry and resulting in a profusion of museums and monuments to the British imperial endeavor.

One of these monuments remains today on the North Terrace at Windsor Castle (the traditional home of the British royal family). It is a large bell from Mandalay that was seized by the British during the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885-6, flanked on either side by two French and Portuguese cannons, also taken from Mandalay. The British Empire was not above stealing and displaying such spoils of war and Burmese artefacts (thus purloined) fill the collections of museums throughout the country and the Western world today.

Order of the Garter Service 2018
Windsor Castle, Windsor, England

In the case of the bell at Windsor,  it originally hung in the Mandalarama Monastery in Aungmyethazan Township in Northeast Mandalay where it would have been rung three times by worshipers after venerating the image of the Buddha (once for the Buddha, once for his followers, and once for his teachings).

The bell has an interesting provenance. It was donated to the monastery by the Khampat Myo Sa, one of the chief ministers of the Burmese Konbaung Dynasty (1752-1885), in 1878. The Khampat Myo Sa was the leader of one of several warring factions in the hluttaw or parliament under King Thibaw, the last king of Burma (Source: U Sein Maung Oo, Gaun Laun Sar “The Book of Bells”).

Scandalously, the Khanpat Myo Sa’s granddaughter Daing Khin Khin was at the centre of a plot to break Queen Supayalat’s notorious hold over her husband Thibaw. Thibaw’s closest confidant, Maung Maung Toke, introduced Daing Khin Khin to Thibaw hoping that the King would be smitten and take the beautiful seventeen year-old as his wife. Thibaw fell in love with her immediately, but upon hearing of her husband’s infidelity, Queen Supayalat flew into a rage and quickly neutralized Maung Maung Toke, Daing Khin Khin and her entire family’s influence. Supayalat was in fact unusual in the history of Burmese royalty not for her tenacity, but for insisting that Thibaw limit himself to one queen – herself (Source: Sudha Shah, The King in Exile).

Queen Supayalat
Daing Khin Khin.

When the British marched into Mandalay in 1885 they stole much of the King’s jewels, gold and royal regalia, and ransacked the holy pagodas and monasteries. Among this loot must have been the Windsor bell as well as an additional three bells taken by the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers from the Atumashi Monastery and sent back to Britain. One of them is still on public display at Wrexham in Wales, another ended up at the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum at Caernarfon Castle, and is not clear what happened to the third.

Many other specimens of Burmese art taken from Mandalay were displayed in museums, public squares and private collections throughout Britain, making the British public more knowledgeable about Burma, while at the same time reinforcing the bonds that tied Britain and Burma tightly together through the unequal logic of empire.


Mandalay Bell, Windsor. Source: Bo Bo Lan Sin, BBC Burmese
Major Walker Monument Source: Streets of Rangoon

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).






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.







Burmese and Scottish Lighthouses

Alguada Reef Lighthouse
Alguada Reef Lighthouse during the colonial period. Cape Negrais, Burma

Another more tangible example of the many imperial connections between Scotland and Burma is the lighthouse at Alguada Reef, just off Cape Negrais in the Andaman Sea.

One of many British lighthouses in Burma, it was completed in 1865. The lighthouse stands 44 metres (144 ft.) tall and took 6 years to build because of its remote location.

The structure was originally designed by Scottish engineer Lieut-Col. Alexander Fraser (who also laid the original plan for the city of Rangoon), after a boat carrying 300 “coolie” laborers from Calcutta to Rangoon ship-wrecked on the reef in 1855. Only 11 men survived.

Alexander Fraser, Bengal Engineers

Then-Governor General of India, the Marquess Dalhousie, tasked Fraser with designing and building a light that would avoid further wrecks and be visible from 20 miles out at sea. Fraser made a tour of lighthouses on the Western coast of Scotland and England before submitting his plan.

He eventually settled on a design directly inspired by the Skerryvore Lighthouse in Scotland, which was built by engineer Alan Stevenson (uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson, of Treasure Island fame) in 1844, though Fraser altered it “to suit the requirements of an eastern climate.”

Skerryvore today
Skerryvore Lighthouse as it appears today.
Alan Stevenson, lighthouse designer and engineer
Alan Stevenson (like Alexander Fraser) was from a long line of Scottish engineers.

Building the light was especially difficult as construction was only possible during the Winter monsoon from Nov.-Apr. Moreover, storms frequently destroyed the work-site and, before a camp was built, it was impossible to stay on the island during high tide.

The granite for the tower came from 200 miles away in Callagouk (now Kalegauk Island) on the Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) Coast, and also from as far as Singapore. The workmen were convicts from the prison at Moulmein (Mawlamyaing), the contractors were from England, and the stonemasons were from Hong Kong.

Alguada Reef Lighthouse, Illustrated London News, 21 October 1865
Alguada Reef Lighthouse from the London Illustrated News, October, 1865

Taken from Lighthouses and Lightships of 1870.Plan for Alguada Reef from Engineering Magazine, March, 1866

The Skerryvore Lighthouse.

When completed, the structure housed 2 European light-keepers, 5 local assistants, and a cook for seven months at a time – a lonely existence for such a long time out at sea.

Although its sister lighthouse Skerryvore is still operational, the site and tower at Alguada Reef are now closed. Nevertheless, they are still visible from satellite imagery available on the internet.

Satellite photo of Alguada Reef today
Alguada Reef with lighthouse, satellite image.
Location of Alguada Reef off of Cape Negrais
Location of Alguada Reef Lighthouse off Cape Negrais in the Andaman Sea.

Burmese Students in Britain

Chan Toon
Chan Toon, the nephew of the King of Burma, was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1888.

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.

U Tin Tut
U Tin Tut was perhaps the ablest man of his generation in Burma. Sadly, he was assassinated in 1948.

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 Burma Society Club in Hammersmith, 39 St. Peter's Sq.
The Burma Society’s Club in London as it appears today (Albion House, 39 St. Peter’s Sq., Hammersmith).

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).

Pe Maung Tin
Pe Maung Tin
Sir Joseph Maung Gyi
Sir Joseph Maung Gyi.

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.

U Shwe LLay
A “well-to-do Burmese gentleman”. Moulmein businessman U Shwe Llay c. 1910

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.

A. J. Stockwell. Leaders, Dissidents and the Disappointed: Colonial Students in Britain as Empire Ended,” in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 36:3, (2008), p. 487-507.

A Bamar Contribution to the Allied War Effort in WW2?

recruiting poster for the Burma Rifles
A recruitment poster for the Burma Rifles.

As I wrote in my previous post on Myanmar Troops in WW1, large-scale Bamar enlistment in the British Indian army was not a common feature of colonial warfare in Burma.

The Indian army in Burma was mostly comprised of Indian troops with a smattering of ethnic minorities such as the Shan, Kachin, and Karen to round out the core.

Even after the separation of Burma from India in 1937, the number of ethnic Bamar serving in the new Burma Army was only 23 percent despite being 75 percent of the population of the colony (Mary Callahan, Making Enemies, p. 42).

In fact, the Burma Army stopped recruiting Bamar in 1927 altogether, and only started again in earnest when the exigencies of the Japanese Invasion in WW2 required them to do so.

Thereafter, only three battalions of the Burma Rifles contained Bamar troops – the 5th, 6th and 7th – and the first two only contained one company apiece (The Burma Campaign).

Recently, however, Richard Duckett’s insightful blog The Special Operations Executive in Burma has unearthed records of 79 Bamar men who served in British SOE intelligence units during the war.

These were mostly farmers recruited by British officers in the field, who trained as soldiers in India and then parachuted back into Burma to fight the Japanese. There were also a few career soldiers such as Kyaw Ohn, who had completed seven years of army service by 1945, and Maung Shwe, who had served in the Burma Sappers and Miners.

Maung Po Zonei
SOE recruit Maung Po Zonei Source: soeinburma.wordpress.com

A number of Bamar recruits distinguished themselves in the field, such as Maung Ba Aye, whom his commanding officer described as “a grand fellow, full of good humour, and eccentricity, and outstandingly brave.”

Among these recruits was also Thakin Ko Ko Gyi, a nationalist who succeeded in convincing the BIA forces at Mandalay to betray the Japanese.

Maung Ba U
SOE recruit Maung Ba U. Source: soeinburma.wordpress.com

Many Bamar soldiers worked on Operation Character, a guerilla operation against the Japanese in the Karen hills. Duckett writes: “Contrary to what is, perhaps, a common perception, many Burmans…formed the nucleus of Special Groups on Operation Character, demonstrating that Karen and Burman fought the Japanese together – and that Character was not only a Karen operation.”

Records like these highlight the Bamar military contribution to the Allied cause in WW2. Too often historians have portrayed the Bamar as either automatic collaborators with the Japanese or else as an invisible population pushed back and forth between two warring armies.

There is no doubt that many Bamar collaborated with the invading Japanese, including the nationalist leader Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, but life during wartime was never so simple as good guys vs. bad guys, black vs. white, especially for occupied peoples.

When caught in the middle of a conflict between empires with little concern for their safety or national self-determination, many Burmese people exercised their agency to choose sides like anyone in a similar situation might do.

A Young Thein Pe Myint
A young Thakin Thein Pe, a Burmese nationalist who worked with the British to convince Aung San’s BIA (Burma Independence Army) to turn against the Japanese.

And their contribution to history is poised to be lost. Thankfully, attempts have been made to track down and interview the veterans who fought on the Allied side, most notably for a new film from Grammar Productions entitled Forgotten Allies. But more needs to be done to catalog the experiences of veterans on both sides of the conflict as this generation quickly disappears.

Their stories are a reminder that the Burmese people were not always pawns in an imperial game, but that they actively sought to shape their own destiny and fulfill their own vision of what they wanted a post-war Burma to look like.

Murder and Mystery at Maymyo

everest 1921
George Mallory’s 1921 Reconnaissance Team on Everest. Henry Morshead is furthest at right, seated. Source: Wikipedia.

It was the morning of May 17th, 1931 in Maymyo, Burma, and a riderless pony trotted into the compound of Syed Ali – the owner of the Maymyo Electric Supply Company – its saddle-back covered in blood.

Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin), situated at the furthest edge of the Shan plateau, was the principal British hill-station in Burma, to which the colonial government in Rangoon decamped for three months during the hot season. Its manicured lawns and prim, trimmed-back rides recalled the English countryside. “The suggestion of a Surrey landscape is unescapable,” remarked one well-known traveller and plant-collector, “if only Surrey rejoiced in such a climate!”

It was down one such ride that morning that Captain Rawdon Briggs of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, having received a telephone call from Syed Ali’s house, led a search party of Gurkha soldiers, only to retire when night fell. The next day they were out early, and at 7:30 a.m. Briggs discovered a body some 200 yards from the path in the underbrush.

The corpse was that of Henry Treise Morshead, a well-known explorer, fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and director of the Survey of India’s Burma circle operations. Morshead was perhaps best known for his involvement in George Mallory’s 1921 and 1922 attempts to summit Everest, during which he lost three of his fingers to frostbite, and for discovering the source of the Dihang River in Tibet. Now he was lying dead on the forest floor in one of the remotest regions of Britain’s global empire with a bullet in his chest and one in his back. He had been shot at point blank range.

The timing of Morshead’s murder could not have been worse for the government in Rangoon. On the night of 22 December 1930, hundreds of miles to the South, a number of armed Burmese peasants, spurred on by the nationalist agitator and renowned medicine man Hsaya San, had attacked forestry officials near the town of Tharrawaddy. Within weeks the unrest spread like wild-fire throughout the rice-growing region of the Irrawaddy Delta and spilled onto the Shan plateau, mutating into a full-blown rebellion against British rule that would take the British two years to put down.

Hsaya San.

The Burmese grievances were real. The global depression sparked by the Wall Street crash of 1929 had ripped the bottom out of the rice market. In the resulting squeeze, the predominately Indian landlords and moneylenders who owned most of the agricultural land in the Delta were calling in their debts. At the same time, a movement for Burmese independence had been gaining ground since 1920, led by the GCBA (General Council of Burmese Associations) in the city and the wunthanu athins or “own race” associations in the countryside.

Ethnic tensions were high. The previous spring, a group of Indian stevedores had struck on the docks in Rangoon. Burmese workers had been called in as scabs, but when the company eventually reached an agreement with the Indian workers and called them back to work, the incoming Indians clashed with the outgoing Burmese. The resulting three days of anti-Indian riots cost hundreds of lives and left thousands wounded. The British police did nothing, and the army was not called out for three days.

This powder keg of racial, political, and economic animus was fueled by the perception among Burmese Buddhists that the arrival of a new chakravarti or universal ruler was nigh, someone who would revive the legacy of the Buddha’s teachings, his sasana, and raise Buddhism to its former glory as the state religion of Burma.

Nevertheless, British authorities were surprised by the speed and scale of the rebellion. Having put down several following their conquest of the country fifty-five years earlier, they believed they were dealing with a coup on the part of a pretender king to the Konbaung throne – the official government report talked of magic, bullet-proofing tattoos and a secret crowning ceremony involving a blood-pact.

In fact, for all his regal rhetoric, Hsaya San was not a pretender king, but a modern political leader, a district leader of the GCBA, and a well-known speechifier.

According to the historian Maitrii Aung-Thwin, the British were used to viewing rebellion in Burma through the lens of their own ideas about Burmese superstition, criminality, and “traditional” Burmese culture. The source of the rebellion, it turned out, was much simpler, and far more dangerous – it was general dislike of British rule. In the British magistrate and author Maurice Collis’s words, every “man and woman in Burma wanted to get rid of the English Government.” In this context the death of a well known British civil servant would have far-reaching consequences beyond Maymyo.

The Rangoon papers quickly caught wind of Henry Morshead’s death and began to speculate wildly as to the identity of the killer. The rebellion was still ongoing and dacoits – gangs of armed rebels – had been seen in the area of Maymyo the night before the murder. There had been other attacks. A few weeks earlier, an Indian man by the name of Ahmed Ali had attempted to kill a British forestry official named Heaney. The man was a disgruntled employee and he was agitated so he missed Heaney entirely and was quickly disarmed. Morshead had been present at the scene. Perhaps the murder was part of a larger plot against the British administration at Maymyo?

But the papers somewhat ironically (given his status as a senior British civil servant in a British colony) claimed that Morshead had no “obvious” enemies and was well-liked by all who knew him. The government began to conduct inquiries and quickly arrested two local inhabitants of Maymyo – a Gurkha and a Burmese man – neither of whom were named in the subsequent report.

The Gurkha admitted to having gone hunting in the vicinity of where the murder took place on the same day with a gun he had borrowed from the Burmese man. He said that he mistook Morshead for a stag and fired at him, hitting him in the back. But when he realized his mistake, and Morshead advanced on him to take the gun, it went off in his hand, hitting Morshead in the chest and killing him. The Gurkha even had a bruise on his head to suggest a struggle.

But the final report was ambiguous. It was determined that the Gurkha’s story could not have been true, because it was impossible to cover the distance between his house and the scene of the crime on foot in the time required by the sequence of events. Furthermore, it was determined that there was “no evidence to connect the attack with rebel activity,” even though dacoits had been seen in the area the night before.

Ultimately, Whitehall declared that “the case must remain a mystery.” The King and Queen expressed their condolences to the family via the deceased’s brother, the Royal librarian Sir Owen Morshead, and promised to ensure a pension which never really managed to materialize. Henry’s widowed wife, Evelyn, left for England with her five children, never to return to Burma or the scene of her husband’s death.

But Morshead’s murder was so upsetting to his children and the case left so clearly unresolved that his son, Ian Morshead embarked upon a journey to Burma in 1980 to revisit the scene of the crime and perhaps solve the mystery surrounding his father’s untimely death.

Arriving in Maymyo, a town he remembered well from his childhood, Ian called at the house he had grown up in and was soon dining with the man who held his father’s position in the now-independent Burma Forest Service. He walked the same streets he walked as a boy and followed the same woodland rides (now bullock tracks) to the place that the report said his father had been murdered – all the while looking for clues as to the circumstances of his death.

One thing stood out to Ian in the reporting of Henry’s death: the riderless horse returned to Syed Ali’s compound and not to Henry’s house. Looking through his father’s diaries, Ian realized that his father often looked after the horses of neighbors. From this he surmised that since the horse had returned to Syed Ali’s compound, it must have been Syed Ali’s horse. His father’s colleague Kenneth Mason confirmed that Henry often borrowed other people’s horses to train them. If the horse was indeed Syed Ali’s horse, then was it possible that Syed Ali had arranged the killing?

Morshead’s house as it looks today. The house – Upperfold – was also the residence of Charlotte and Otway Wheeler-Cuffe. Source: Malaysia Traveller

Ian asked his aunt Ruth – who had been living with her brother in Maymyo at the time – about Syed Ali and she said that her brother hated him. Morshead reportedly had a nasty temper and, as a regular old sahib, was quick to throw a book at his Burmese teacher or to discipline his servants. Ali was a prominent businessman in Maymyo and a member of the Freemasons. Morshead’s diary had him dining as guest of honor alongside Ali at the United Club Anniversary dinner only a few nights prior. Was it possible that one or the other of the men had held some sort of grudge?

As Ian walked the still tulip-lined lanes of Maymyo, a tip led him to the house of John Fenton, an Anglo-Burman who had worked for the forestry service during the period of his father’s death. When he arrived, he wrote, Fenton took one look at him and promptly sat down to write a statement.

The old man claimed that he had seen Syed Ali out riding one day with “a lady” related to Mr. Morshead and that he had heard a rumor at the time that Morshead had objected to Ali riding with his sister Ruth and that he had had it out for him. Soon after the murder, Fenton said, Ali left Maymyo – the implication being that he had been deported.

This added a whole new dimension to Morshead’s search and provided him with the twist to his book on the subject of his father’s death. Returning to England, Ian sought out his aunt Ruth who denied ever having met Syed Ali, but speculated that “your father must have made an enemy somehow.” Morshead chose to believe his aunt and did not pursue the matter any further.

The death of many of the people involved in the case (including Ian in 2014) means that the time is right to shed new light on the question of Henry Morshead’s murder. Many of the writers of the history of British Burma were direct actors in the events they described and therefore their accounts deserve a re-analysis in the light of new approaches to imperial history and the history of the region.

New understandings of ethnic conflict, the growth of pre-colonial nationalist movements, gender relations in the colonial environment, and the relationship between the colonizer and colonized mean that we can now probe deeper than ever before into areas of the archive that might have seemed unimportant or sensitive to past historians.

Amorous relations between the races in Burma was a subject of much debate during the 1920s and 30s in elite circles. Of particular concern to Burmese and English commentators alike was the influx of Indian immigration to the country and marriages between Indian men and Burmese women. The resulting mixed population were known as zerbadis and were distinctly disliked by the Burmese. Moreover, relations between Asian men and European women were the subject of legislation on the part of the colonial government. In 1902, European bar-girls were banned in Rangoon and Calcutta out of fear that they might be dishonored by their Asian clients. Sex and race were one more way in which the imperial elite aimed to create what Ann Stoler has called “categories of difference”, that is ways to distinguish colonizer and colonized, and any slip-ups here – such as the illegitimate offspring of European men and Burmese women – were an embarrassment to the colonial order of things.

Morshead as director of the Survey of India, Burma Circle.

In this environment, perhaps the colonial government wanted to save Ruth the “embarrassment” of a further inquiry into her relationship with the Indian Syed Ali. Or maybe – in light of the recent attacks on Indians – they did not wish to probe the matter further for fear it might exacerbate pre-existing ethnic tensions.

Though it was ruled out at the time, it is still possible that the murder was politically-motivated. Under the 1929 Simon Commission, the Brits were busy readying Burma for political separation from India. A high-profile murder of a British civil servant in such a political climate might have bolstered the argument that Burma was not politically ready for separation, or that the safety of British officers in the country could not be insured without the help of the Indian Army.

Another possibility is that the murder was motivated by the intersection of politics and business interests. One of the major grievances of the Hsaya San rebels was that they were being denied access to forest products such as bamboo to build their houses, firewood to cook their food, and thanaka and cutch (one of the key ingredients in betel quids) to sell at market. In the years leading up to the rebellion, the number of forest-related “offences” – such as theft, arson, and illegal grazing – sky-rocketed alongside the general crime rate in Burma and forest officials were often targeted as some of the most visible agents of the colonial regime.

Morshead was not with the Forest Office, but he was Survey of India, the body which consulted the Forest Office on where to cut down and where to re-plant trees. He may have been seen as being “in league” with forestry officials and therefore have become a target. The Maymyo Electric Supply Company run by Syed Ali had originally struck a deal with the government for access to timber, but by 1932 was reducing its requirements. Perhaps Ali was mad at the Forest Office and so was resorting to other sources of power such as coal. Perhaps he sought revenge for some business disagreement? Or perhaps local residents had decided that Morshead was the next-worse thing to a forestry official and so he had to go?

We will likely never know for certain what transpired on that spring day in 1931, as so many of those involved seem to have been dead-set on covering up the truth. But what we do know is that the murder of Henry Morshead was not an isolated incident. Yes, his murder was odd in that dissatisfaction with the colonial regime was generally directed at the ethnic groups that performed the functionary roles of British power – the Indians, the Chin, Karen, Kachin and Shans. But at the same time it was indicative of some of the larger issues at play  – namely, ethnic conflict, state control, fears about inter-racial relationships, the fight over access to natural resources and the growth of Burmese nationalism on the whole – topics which remain relevant to the Rohingya Crisis and the Myanmar of today.


Aung-Thwin, M. The Return of the Galon King: History, Law and Rebellion in Colonial Burma (University of Ohio Press, 2010).

Bryant, R.L. The Political Ecology of Forestry in Burma 1824-1994 (University of Hawai’i Press, 1997).

Collis, M. Trials in Burma (Faber, 1937).

Morshead, I. The Life and Murder of Henry Morshead: A True Story from the Days of the Raj (Oleander Press, 1982).

Report on the Forest Administration of Burma Excluding the Federated Shan States (Rangoon, 1925; 1932; 1933).

Stoler, A. and Frederick Cooper. “Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda,” in Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (University of California Press, 2007).

Wright, A. “Maintaining the Bar: Regulating European Barmaids in Colonial Calcutta and Rangoon,” in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 45 (2017).

Myanmar Troops in World War 1

burmese troops
Source: British War Photographs. US National Archives.

I’ve been taking a bit of a hiatus from the blog these past few months to work on a book about my two years living in Myanmar, but this photo was simply too good to pass up.

I always suspected that troops from Myanmar fought in WW1 as the country was then part of India and troops of the Indian army took part in the Battle of the Somme and fought the Germans in East Africa, but I assumed that these Burmese soldiers would simply have been swallowed up amidst the amazing ethnic diversity of the Indian Expeditionary Force.

Then I came upon this photo showing Burmese troops serving in France in 1917. As it turns out, not only were there Burmese troops serving on the Western Front, but they served together in exclusively Burmese units.

The photo is captioned “Burmese troops hold a council of war upon rats. Contalmaison, 2.9.17” and shows a group of men conversing together. Immediately, the image hints at three interesting aspects of Burma’s participation in WW1.

The first is that most of the troops sent to France were from ethnic minorities such as the Chin, Shan and Kachin peoples of Upper Myanmar. Michael Charney’s entry for Burma in the International Encyclopedia of the First World War tells us that these groups were viewed as “martial races” by the British, whereas the British thought the Bamar (Myanmar’s majority ethnic group) “only suited to be cultivators.” As such, while the highland minorities were recruited to fight in France, the Bamar were mostly recruited as drivers, sappers and miners on the Mesopotamian front. It is likely that the men in the picture are not ethnic Bamar, but rather from one of these upland minority groups.

The second is hidden in the caption to the photo: “Burmese troops hold a council of war upon rats.” This is a joke at the expense of the Burmese men in the photo and underscores the whole of the British attitude towards colonial troops in the First World War – that they were not really suited to modern warfare and were more or less inept.

The caption seems to suggest that these troops would be better suited to fighting rats than fighting Germans. It is unlikely that these troops would have been given either the glory of the front lines, or the more cushy tasks of garrison duty. Rather, they were probably used to dig trenches, build bridges and clear roads. The photo also contains all the hallmarks of the ethnographic photography of the period (the Burmese have been caught in a very “Burmese” pose – squatting in a circle – one that can still be seen in Myanmar today and not in the heat of battle).

The third is that Burmese and Indian troops were woefully unprepared for war on the Western Front. The men in the photo are wearing cowls and woolen tunics to protect them from the cold, but lack the great coats of the British troops. They are pictured here without weapons, recalling the Indian Army soldiers who arrived at Ypres in 1915 and were unfamiliar with their new Lee-Enfield rifles and wholly without artillery support, the consequence being that they suffered from low morale and high casualty rates. It is likely that these Burmese soldiers had to reckon with similar problems of poor training and lack of equipment.

Nevertheless, the presence of Burmese soldiers on the Western and Mesopotamian fronts is the missing link in the story of the growth of Burmese nationalism. These men (and their Bamar counterparts in Mesopotamia) no doubt returned home with a new sense of self-respect and a new appreciation for the inequities of empire (or in the case of the minorities, perhaps even reinforced loyalties to the British crown). Michael Charney suggests that following the end of the War and the publication of US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, Burmese politicians felt buoyed to fight for greater concessions from the British – how much of this new political climate was down to military service in the war?

Finding out what these unknown soldiers lives were actually like and what they hoped to gain from military service to the Empire would no doubt be a worthy topic of research.

The “Mad Men” of Colonial Burma

I first noticed them in a number of restaurants around Yangon: rusted old tin signs in still-vibrant colors advertising a wealth of different products from whiskey to baby formula. They were evocative of a time and place that I knew very little about.

The Burma Biscuit Factory. Tin sign in 3 languages: English, Burmese and Mandarin.

Some were familiar – advertisements for European imported items the likes of which I had seen in the modern-day shopping malls of Yangon: Staedtler pencils, Nestle coffee, Horlick’s malted milk, while others were for brands that had long since ceased to exist (Ebensen’s Danish butter, Bile Beans, and Sanatogen “brain tonic”). In addition, there were a number of local and Asian brands I recognized from the supermarket, such as the ubiquitous Tiger Balm, and others I didn’t (Tea Pot Brandy, anyone?). Many of the signs appeared in two or three languages (in the case of Tiger Balm, in four: Burmese, Mandarin, English, and Malay), and as such they spoke to a multilingual audience.

Tiger Balm tin sign advertisement. Note the leaping tiger and the presentation in 4 languages. Source: Sharky’s Restaurant.

I was intrigued, and as I came to study Myanmar’s colonial history, what were initially pieces of quaint décor took on a new and significant meaning for me as some of the only remaining evidence of Burma’s distinctive cosmopolitan past.

At the turn of the nineteenth-century, so the story goes, British Burma was exporting natural resources like rubber, teak and petroleum to the West and importing European manufactured goods. But what few people know is that gradually as the century progressed domestic Burmese manufacturing took on a more important role. Though always smaller than the import trade, Burma did produce new products for the regional market. For instance, Tiger Balm was first created in Burma in 1870, when an apothecary passed on his secret recipe to a pair of Chinese brothers Haw and Par, who began to market the analgesic all along the Straits of Malacca and even further afield to Europe and China. They amassed a great fortune and became philanthropists, building (among other charitable ventures) a memorial hall (still standing) at the Yangon Centre for the Blind, complete with the brand’s logo, a leaping tiger, over the entrance.

Image result for boon memorial hall yangon
Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par Memorial Hall and the Yangon Educational Center for the Blind in Insein Township as it looks today. Note the leaping tiger.

A quick internet search turned up a number of other local manufacturers making products for the Burmese market. They were the remnants of a Burmese industrial era gone-by: the Dawood Match Co., Imperial Waters, Burma Enameled Iron Wares Ltd., Bo Ohn Thee Toy Company and the Burma Biscuit Factory to name a few. Moreover, many of them proudly claimed to be “Made in Burma” a slogan that was distinctly hard to come by in the modern-day supermarkets of Yangon. Later on, a glance through the book Twentieth-century Impressions of Burma, published in 1910, revealed several other local companies manufacturing at the time: for instance, in Rangoon alone the Phoenix Coach Works made “dog carts, buggies, gharries and victorias”, Misquith and Co. made pianos and the Diamond Co. made ice and aerated water.

“Sailor” brand safety matches manufactured by Adamjee Hajee Dawood and Co. in Burma.

The largest market, however, was still for imported goods and it was in this area that advertising began to play a major role in dictating the Burmese encounter with modernity and the West. In order to create a demand for foreign products, foreign import firms began to try to appeal to the Burmese consumer (at the time, foreign companies rarely had advertising staff, and so they left the marketing of their products up to the local distributors, often Burmese).

Advertisement for Rodania Swiss watches.

In her book Refiguring Women, Colonialism and Modernity in Burma, Chie Ikeya suggests that these firms marketed their products to Burmese consumers using a new rhetoric of “modernity” and “science”. Foreign luxuries could, seemingly instantaneously, transform the Burmese customer into a paragon of good taste and health. To give one example, this advertisement for “Waterbury’s Compound” brand of cough syrup depicts a Burmese family in a spotless home. Mother and father wear the latest fashions, while one child plays with a toy car. The illustrator has even included a radio at the center of the room. The by-line reads: “may every family have a clear conscience when it comes to health”. The message is not only one of domesticity and better living through science, but the ad (with the radio and toy car) also hints at the promise of a new Burmese modernity in which the consumer need only buy the product to participate.

Advertisement for Waterbury’s Compound Cough Syrup.

At the same time, the “foreign” was becoming increasingly popular in Burmese advertisements. Foreign English and Scottish products held a certain cache, as suggested by an “Imperial” mineral water sign that boasted its product came from a “trademarked Scottish Company”. In another ad, Burmese consumers were told that in order to keep up with the rest of the world they had to buy Model T cars. In fact, the ad stated, model T’s were already popular in Myanmar, so those without one were behind their neighbors. The desire of some Burmese people to keep up with other countries must have been great and Ikeya tells us that advertisements like these “insinuated…that those not using the advertisers’ products were falling behind the times,” the so-called “modern age” or the khit kala.

The Ford “Model T”. “It is obvious that the Ford Model Car is in many cases well liked in Myanmar”. Source: Byblos Bar.

But clearly not all Burmese buyers were convinced and advertisers were pushed to market foreign goods in more and more far-fetched ways. Take for example this almost comedic ad for “Peek Frean’s Famous English Rich Fruit Cake” that suggests it is perfect “for offerings to phongyis (monks) and receptions during water festival and new year.” This strange adaptation of a foreign product for the Burmese market was not unusual, but whether or not Burmese consumers would go in for it was an entirely different question (as many modern Western brands new to Asia have discovered, what works in one place may not work in another). At the end of the day, the Burmese consumer also decided on what he or she wanted to buy, thereby dictating Burmese tastes and, ultimately, the path of Burma’s entrance into modernity.

Peek Frean’s “Famous English” Rich Fruit Cake. ‘For Offerings for Phongyis’. Source: Pansuriya Cafe and Restaurant


Footwearing Prohibited: the Legacy of the “Shoe Question” in Colonial Burma


Any visitor to a pagoda or Buddhist shrine in Myanmar today is likely to encounter a sign at the entrance simply stating “Footwearing Prohibited.” Despite what it seems, this is not an injunction to amputate your own limbs, but a warning to remove your shoes before entering the pagoda or monastery compound. It is common in many Asian countries to remove your shoes before entering a building, but in Myanmar this rule extends to the outdoor areas of Buddhist sites as a sign of respect to the Buddha and the legacy of his teachings, the sasana. These signs are near ubiquitous at pagodas throughout the country, and, if you forget to remove your shoes and socks, a friendly caretaker or Pagoda trustee will usually quickly remind you to do so.

The rule is in fact codified in Burmese law under Section 13(1) of the Immigration Act, in which foreigners can be prosecuted for not adhering to Myanmar customs during their stay in-country. The punishments can be quite severe, as in the case of a Russian tourist who, in August of last year, refused to remove her shoes at several religious sites in the ancient capital city of Bagan, despite numerous requests from the authorities to do so. She was arrested and given the choice of a $500 fine or a month in prison. She chose prison and her sentence has since been extended to six months with hard labor for “defaming the sasana.”

But why is Myanmar so strict about footwear in pagoda compounds, especially when its neighbors Thailand and Laos only require visitors to remove their shoes inside of the shrine itself? Many natural tourist destinations in Myanmar such as caves and mountaintops are in fact holy sites and therefore require the visitor to go barefoot. In my travels I have often found myself squelching through mud and betel spit, walking up a mountain on hot gravel, or slip-sliding down a poorly-lit cave all in my bare feet. Why does the rule extend to places like these? And why such high punishments for breaking it?

The answer, of course, lies in the country’s colonial past, and, specifically, in two separate but equally important events: the growth of Buddhism as a religion and the struggle for national independence. When the British arrived in Burma in the late eighteenth-century they were keen to display their country’s power and to entice the Burmese to trade. First, however, they would have to master the Byzantine codes of conduct and elaborate rules of respect of the Burmese court of Ava.

For instance, no envoy was allowed into the Burmese King’s presence without first removing their shoes and then prostrating themselves before the monarch in a deep bow called a shiko. The established narrative has it that the British were terrible at doing this; being uninterested in the local customs, they ignorantly stepped shoe-shod all over Burmese tradition and law.

Scene Upon the Entrance of the Great Dagon Pagoda at Rangoon, 1824-6
“Scene Upon the Terrace of the Great Dagon Pagoda at Rangoon”. British soldiers walk on the platform at Shwedagon Pagoda in shoes. During the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-6 many pagodas were desecrated and soldiers quartered in monasteries.

But this narrative is only partly true. Yes the British were callous, but the reason for their disrespect was not ignorance. As the journals of Henry Burney, an early British envoy to the Court of Ava show, British disregard for local custom was often a strategic power-play to wear down the sovereignty of an Eastern monarch. Traditionally, envoys to the King had been made to remove their shoes “in the dirt or hard gravel of public streets, a hundred paces before you come to the spot where the king may be sitting.” But following the British territorial gains in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826), Burney had gotten the rule reduced to “the foot of the hall of audience steps” and hoped that with a bit more cajoling “the remaining space between the steps and the hall itself might [be] dispensed with.”

Eventually, the British would take the whole of Mandalay palace for themselves, but this process of wearing down the rules of respect allowed them to apply gradual pressure on Eastern rulers like the Burmese king while at the same time appearing to be the guiltless party. The neighboring Thai king Mongkut (of The King and I fame) was able to circumvent the problem altogether by allowing Europeans to wear shoes in his presence, thereby taking the diplomatic upper-hand and at the same time retaining his sovereignty. But in Burma, the question of wearing shoes would become a stand-in for debates about trade, power, and the deeply-fraught encounter with the West.  Later on, the controversy would give the British colonial government in Lower Burma the opportunity to begin separating Buddhist religion from the state and society, thereby further weakening the old regime.

Arthur Phayre with King Mindon 1854.
Sir Arthur Phayre meets with King Mindon c. 1854. The fact that Phayre is wearing shoes in the King’s presence shows how far the British have pushed Burmese political norms. Source: the V&A Museum.

This approach was perhaps so effective in Myanmar because of the deep, enduring ties between religion and the state. In Theravada Buddhist cosmology, the King is the heaven-ordained defender of the sasana and all his subjects are required to prostrate themselves before him as they do before images of the Buddha. In return, he supports the monks and the people as an act of merit-making. In this universal model, there is no society separate from religion or the state: all three are fused.

In Burma, the British quickly identified this blending of state/society/religion as a powerful tool of Burmese resistance and so they attempted to undermine it as best they could. As Alicia Turner has shown in her book Saving Buddhism, when Burma fell to the British in 1885 and King Thibaw went into exile, the colonial government removed direct state support for the monks and pagodas according to a policy of separation of church and state that they imported from India.

But by treating Buddhism in Burma as just another religion alongside Islam and Christianity, they inadvertently sparked a crisis within Burmese Buddhism itself. Without the King, who would feed the monks and who would look after the Buddha’s sasana? Who would pay for the scriptures to be painstakingly copied? Turner says that the crisis that followed saw ordinary Burmese citizens leading the charge alongside the monks to revive the Buddha’s teachings and reclaim control over their moral universe. The mounting anxiety about the decline of the sasana (as referenced in my earlier posts) led to an outpouring of donations, a range of ritual and scriptural reforms, and the growth of Buddhist lay associations and schools all across the country – a Buddhist renaissance of sorts.

Despite this newfound agency, it was the British, not the Burmese, who would set the terms for what constituted proper conduct and respect, and they deemed that each of Burma’s ethnic groups would show respect in the way that was “traditional” to their culture. What was “traditional,” of course, would again be determined by the British. Therefore, Europeans would remove their hats, but not their shoes before entering a building or pagoda compound; Burmese their shoes, but not their hats. Early photographs of Europeans “on tour” at various holy sites in Myanmar show them wearing shoes – a highly disrespectful act in the eyes of Buddhists – as well as hats, highlighting the degree to which the rules were really just a double-standard in favor of Europeans.

Group at Shwedagon pagoda (early 20th).
European visitors to the Shwedagon Pagoda wearing both hats and shoes. Early 20th-century.

The first challenge to this state of affairs actually came from within the Buddhist clergy, or sangha, itself. Turner highlights the case of the Okpo Sayadaw, a highly venerated Buddhist monk, attempting to make a point about the importance of the inner moral life over outer ritual when he mounted the stairs at the Sandawshin Pagoda in Pyay in 1892 wearing sandals.

This act would spark a series of debates among Burmese Buddhists about whether or not it mattered if other people wore shoes to the pagoda, as long as the worshipper’s heart and mind were orientated towards prayer and doing good deeds. One side advocated intention rather than action; the other argued that wearing shoes at the pagoda was a sin that affected the karma of everyone around and threatened the sasana. This group even went so far as to argue that non-believers should not be allowed in to the pagoda at all, as was the custom with mosques. In the end, the Sayadaw’s stunt had the desired effect. The question of wearing shoes in pagodas had been raised amongst Burmese Buddhists and it would soon become integral not only to the definition of Buddhism as a religion but also to the Burmese struggle for independence from the British.

The “Shoe Question,” as it came to be called, resurfaced again in 1901, taking on a new racial guise. In that year, the Irish-born itinerant Buddhist monk U Dhammaloka challenged an off-duty Indian police officer on the platform at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, demanding that he remove his shoes. Dhammaloka, no doubt, felt that as a Buddhist and a European he could make the Indian officer remove his shoes. Indians traditionally removed their shoes at pagodas, but this man was an employee of the government. The altercation led to a series of reports and a newspaper controversy over the so-called “Shoe Question.”

U Dhammaloka
U Dhammaloka. The “Irish Pongyi”.

The authorities immediately asserted that what was implicitly being discussed was the question of Burmese independence, even though the question of shoes in pagodas had been a subject of debate within Burmese Buddhism for some time. Nevertheless, in the following years, more and more Buddhist monks began challenging shoe-shod Europeans on pagoda platforms, and in 1918, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) met to draft a resolution that endorsed removing the dispensation for Europeans at pagodas throughout the country. Pagoda trustees began complying with the YMBA resolution and removed the exemption for Europeans from their signs. The “Shoe Question” had become political. In protest, the government argued that with the First World War raging, the actions of the pagoda trustees would cause sedition. Turner tells us that the two sides went back and forth, and under increasing pressure from the public, the government reluctantly gave in to the pagoda trustees in 1919.

Immediately afterwards the European community went on the defensive and began boycotting the pagodas, but the initial foray had been made, and it would only be a matter of time before the independence movement gained significant support among the Burmese Buddhist population. If the Burmese could change the law regarding footwear in pagodas what else could they change? Perhaps more importantly for our question, the relationship between Buddhism and Burmese nationalism had been cemented for good. From then on, the fight for Burmese independence would be dominated by Buddhist rhetoric and vice versa.

Ba Gale Shwedagon Shoe Controversy 1917
The artist Ba Gale’s famous cartoon ridiculing both the British and the obsequiousness of some Burmese collaborators during the Shoe Controversy of 1917.

This fusion of Burmese nationalism and Buddhism lingers on in Myanmar to this very day in the form of laws that are designed to maintain and protect the Buddha’s teachings. Recently, tourists have been deported or jailed for showing disrespect to the Buddha, ranging from a Spaniard who was detained and advised to leave the country for having a Buddha tattoo on his lower calf (a disrespectful place in Burmese thinking), to a British bar manager who was imprisoned for 30 months for creating a flyer with a picture of the Buddha in headphones on it, to a Dutchman who was jailed for three months for pulling the plug on an amplifier at a monastery event. The deeply interwoven relationship between Buddhism, Burmese ethnicity, and the state in Burma has exacerbated the various conflicts raging in the border regions, and makes simple tasks like getting a passport a nightmare for non-Buddhist, non-Burmese citizens. Ultimately, the question of wearing shoes in pagodas is not one of simple “custom” or “tradition,” but has always been a stand-in for questions of Burmese sovereignty, xenophobia, and Myanmar’s geopolitical place in the world.

Soldiers remove their shoes at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, 1945
Soldiers remove their shoes before entering the Shwedagon. c. 1945.


Alicia Turner. Saving Buddhism: the Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma, (2014).

G.T. Bayfield and Maj. H. Burney, “Historical Review of the Political Relations between the British Government in India and the Empire of Ava” (Calcutta, 1835).