History: Why did Burma fell into tyranny while India remains worlds largest democracy?

On November 8 2015, general elections will be held in Burma (aka. Myanmar). It’s a chance for a long time to fix some errors of the past. But what the two countries in subject had to do with each other and the question?

Lets start in India. Epilogue from Michael Edwardes book British India 1772-1947:

Implicit in the tenets of liberal democracy is the rule of law. Inefficient courts and the inappropriateness of their procedure often led, and still lead, to travesties of justice, but the basic principle that law controls the limits of government is entrenched in India.

It may seem seem very little after 175 years of direct British rule to have left behind only a system of government and of law, neither of which – according to some critics – work very well. But they were not abstract systems. They were supported by an administration framework which survived the transfer of power. Unlike the other European imperial powers in their Asian possessions, the British deliberately constructed the scaffolding of a modern state in which Indians themselves played an indispensable functional role. When the small British element was withdrawn in 1947 the scaffolding did not collapse, even under the pressures of partition.

Burma was annexed by British in three stages from 1826 to 1886 when Mandalay, the imperial capital, and rest of upper Burma fell to British hands. Burma was province of India (Raj) until 1937, after which administered from Rangoon but still closely linked with India.

Area of British India. At it’s largest in 1937, Raj was behemoth that covered modern day Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka

Here is where comes the interesting comparison: scaffolding that Edwardes describes, must have been taking form in Burma as well. Both countries gain their independence around same time, India 1947 and Burma next year. So what happened? Here are few points that can explain:

Time — British had 175 years of uninterrupted influence in some parts of India, Bengal in particular. Upper Burma in contrast, this was just over 60 years. Same person who’s birth and childhood in northern Burma was during reign of King Thibaw early 1880’s, could have seen Union Jack lowered and British Governor boarding on ship in 1948.

Border region — Burma was for a long administered from Calcutta and considered a mere eastern border of Raj. Buffer zone militarily, source of raw materials economically. Well before third Anglo-Burman war, British Secretary of State wrote to Governor-General of India (Terence R. Blackburn, The British Humiliation of Burma):

…it is of primary importance to allow no other European power to insert itself between British Burma and China. Our influence in that country (Upper Burma, still independent at the time of writing) ought to be paramount. The country itself is of no great importance. But an easy communication with the multitudes who inhabit Western China is an object of national importance.

This obviously does not automate things one way or other, but goes to show in which kind of hands the development of country was at the time.

Economy — Development of Burmese commerce, industry, education was slow because owned by foreigners. Not just European but largely in Indian as well. Need for civil servants to run state affairs was also different, in times when Burma received it’s orders from Calcutta or Delhi. Peace loving, tax paying, industrious middle class became one of corner stones of modern India, not so much of Burma.

World War Two — Burma became a war zone when Japanese entered the country 1942. They were forced out few years later by Allied army, but the damage was already done. Front lines were moving in Burmese territory. Effects on society and to democratic institutions can be easily be guessed. None of Burma’s major pre-war political parties survived until the independence. In comparison, Indian National Congress (INC) was founded decades before the independence, and is still one of the dominant political parties of the country.

Scaffolding that Edwardes described is still holding the worlds biggest democracy. In Burma it started collapsing after the independence, and came down entirely in 1962. Military took control of state powers (Dr. Maung Maung, Burma and General Ne Win):

Revolutionary Council (the junta) was deeply disillusioned with parliamentary democracy. In “The Burmese Way to Socialism”, a terse and powerful statement of policy issued by the Revolutionary Council on April 30, 1962, it was pointed out that “parliamentary democracy has been tried and tested in furtherance of the aims of socialist development. But Burma’s ‘parliamentary democracy’ has not only failed to serve our socialist development, but also, due to it’s very defects, weakness and loopholes, it’s abuses and the absence of a mature public opinion, lost sight of and deviated from the socialist aims, …

The last question: does it matter after all this time? Many things have changed and country has been taking few wary democratic steps in recent years. But the fact is that same clan of generals is still pulling the strings on state affairs. Human rights are abused when people try voice out their opinion. Ethnic minorities fight their desperate struggle against Burma Army. Couple examples from newspaper The Irrawaddy earlier this year: here, here and here.

Update after November 8 2015 election: (NLD) National League for Democracy won the landslide victory in election. People voted the only true democratic alternative, as opposed to parties and politicians appointed by military. Today mid December The Irrawaddy reported interesting meeting that take place between NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and former junta leader, Than Shwe. Positive signs, hope they continue to come.