Understanding the Legacy of British Imperialism on Burma’s Internal Conflicts

16 October 2018

The U.N recently published a report that called for top Burmese military commanders to be investigated for crimes against civilians under international law, including rape, murder, torture, and genocide. The report follows the mass exodus of Rohingya people since August last year, which has forced at least 900,000 people to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

Arson in a Rohingya village in Northern Rakhine State

But the discrimination of groups based on religious and ethnic factors is not a new trend. The significance of the persecution of the Rohingya stems from their exclusion from the country’s 1982 citizenship law that identified 135 ethnic groups in Burma, however, this is not the only contributing factor. The atrocities against the Rohingya are often experienced by numerous other non-Buddhist groups, such as the majority Christian Kachin and Shan, whose freedom to express their belief in a country that is majority Buddhist is often repressed. The Kachin are further targeted due to available resources, and the Tatmadaw has previously launched air strikes in the gold and mining region. As a result, these groups are besieged by the nation’s military, the Tatmadaw, in counter-insurgency campaigns that target civilian populations in their attempts to suppress ethnic armed organisations (EAOs).

EAOs operating in Burma mostly share the common goal of self-determination, aiming for the establishment of democracy and a degree of autonomy against a government that has been headed by military figures. The instatement of the de facto leader State Counsellor Aung San Su Kyi was expected to bring significant change and pave the way to democracy in Burma, however there has been little apparent change. Although she is often deemed complicit in atrocities enacted against minority ethnic groups, Aung San Suu Kyi remains in a sticky situation as she attempts to mediate between her goal of peace and a powerful military that maintains much of the control it possessed prior to the 2015 elections.

EAO Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are training cadets in the struggle against the Tatmadaw

Burma as a British Colony (1886-1947)

Following the absorption of Burma into the British empire, the territories that had previously been ruled by various groups were divided into the two systems of administration; ‘Ministerial Burma’, and the ‘Frontier Areas’ whichmaintained autonomous rule under traditional rulers, whilst the former was dominated by the Burman majority. This led to varying degrees of development, dividing the groups and exacerbating cultural differences – contributing to contemporary relations between the Burman and ethnic nationalities. Additionally, resentment towards Rohingya Muslims originated during the period of colonialism, as Bengali Muslims were encouraged to the region as a source of cheap labour for the British Empire.

The Burma Independence Army (BIA), headed by Aung San and  backed by Japan, was provided with an opportunity to drive out the British with the outbreak of World War II, which marked the beginnings of ongoing tensions, as minority ethnic groups fought against the BIA and Japanese alongside the British. The successful expulsion of British Forces resulted in an agreement between General Aung San and British Prime Minister at the time, Clement Attlee that united the Frontier Areas with Ministerial Burma, opposed by ethnic nationality leaders.

Soldiers patrol the remains of Burmese town Bahe during the advance on Mandalay in the Second World War (January 1945)

Ethnic divisions have been apparent following the end of British Imperialism in the region, as Burma regained its independence in early 1948. The 1947 Panglong Conference was attended by members of the Executive Council, and representatives of the Shan, Kachin and Chin States, excluding many of Burma’s nationalities in discussing the future of the nation. The outcome was the promise of full autonomy for frontier areas, with the potential for a separated Kachin State. Combined with the assassination of General Aung San and the rapid exit of the British, tensions between the majority Burmese and the multiple ethnic groups were never resolved.


Post-Independence Tensions

The military coup in 1962 put General Ne at the head of a single party state with a goal of a united, socialist Burma that isolated the country from the outside world, and began the counter-insurgency campaign in rural areas, against the numerous EAOs. 1988 witnessed hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, calling for a transition to democracy, and allowed for the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, who campaigned for a democratic Burmese government. However, amid fears relating to Daw Suu Kyi’s growing popularity, the ruling dictatorship put the National League for Democracy (NLD) under house arrest, where she would remain for a total of 15 years in the period 1989-2010.

Numerous ceasefires between the Burmese Army and various ethnic resistance movements have been negotiated since 2010, however, the root cause of division remains, and minority ethnic groups remain targets of human rights abuses. Furthermore, ceasefires are often violated, such as that between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Tatmadaw of this year whereby Tatmadaw attacks resulted in armed clashes. 

Today, conflicts continue as the Kachin, Chin, Shan and many other ethnic groups witness the disregard of the 1947 Panglong Agreement by the Tatmadaw, and the incessant insurgencies by the military government as part of a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’. This can in part be contributed to the aggressive nature of a government headed by military generals, but at the root, it is a product of a country born out of a hasty end to a colonial past that suffered from the British policy of ‘divide and rule’.


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