Socialist Worker

Britain's brutal record of imperialism in Burma

by Anindya Bhattacharyya
Issue No. 2071

Many people horrified by the brutality of the Burmese regime say that the 'international community' should intervene in the country. But the history of Burma shows that meddling by imperial powers has always made things worse.

By far the most damage was inflicted by the British Empire. Throughout the 19th century the British steadily moved into Burma from India and by 1885 conquered the country, deposing the king and incorporating the country into India.

The invasion was marked by savagery, with troops burning down villages and suppressing dissent with mass executions.

Once in control the British ripped up Burma's economy and environment. The mangrove forests were replaced with rice paddies, while British monopolies looted the country of oil, teak and rubies.

Over the following 20 years of British rule Burmese society disintegrated. The British maintained control through 'divide and rule' tactics, setting Burma's various national minorities against each other.

Despite this an independence movement emerged in the early 20th century, initially led by monks and students. By the 1930s a new radical movement known as the Thakin was formed.

Its leading figures included Aung San, U Nu and Ne Win. They began to look to neighbouring powers to help break the yoke of British rule.

When the Second World War broke out, Aung San was offered military help by the Japanese. He formed the Burma Independence Army that fought the British.

The Japanese took over in 1942, granting Burma nominal independence, but the Burmese soon discovered that their new masters were little different from the old ones. As Japan began to lose the war, Aung San's renamed Burma National Army switched sides.


After the war the British were unsure what to do with Aung San. One faction wanted him tried for treason, but the strength of the nationalist movement made this difficult.

Eventually the British agreed to grant Burma's independence, which was due to come into into effect in January 1948. On 19 July 1947, armed men gunned down Aung San and most of his cabinet in waiting.

After his death the Burmese national movement rapidly splintered into warring factions.

U Nu became the country's first independent leader, with Ne Win the head of the army. The army was sent out to fight Communist guerrilla forces and ethnic minorities who were in revolt against the government

By the early 1960s U Nu was losing control. In 1962 Ne Win staged a coup – with the approval of the US and Britain – ushering in the rule of the generals that has continued to this day.

The Burmese junta initially claimed to stand for a 'Burmese road' to socialism. In practice this meant the generals installing themselves as a new ruling class.

In recent years they have turned to countries such as China and India in search of investment.

Western governments such as the US and Britain have made noises about Burma's appalling human rights record. But in practice they are quite happy to back dictatorships in the region when it suits their strategic and economic interests. Burma's people will not win their freedom through Western intervention.

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