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 When the small British element was withdrawn in 1947 the scaffolding did not collapse, even under the pressures of partition.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.


Third Christmas on Road

Two years ago I was freezing in Osaka Japan. Year ago awing the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra India and now wandering the old city of Chiang Mai, North Thailand.

December 2010 — Merry Christmas from Osaka, Japan!

Heavy rain clouds are swaying over city as am doing my first wanderings near hotel in Tennoji area. Weather in coast has been little warmer than in Kyoto. Train took about an hour, all the way through urban sea of buildings, roads, bridges etc. The second most populated metropolitan area of Japan.

Was bit surprised how well one can manage with English here, compared what the reputation is (hard). All larger street names and metro lines are small printed in English, as well as restaurant menus, adds, slogans, brands.. People often speak least word or two. European like division younger generations being more fluent speakers than older ones does not seem to exist.

Watching people at street, shops etc. people feel a bit reserved, compared to, say, spontaneous and always laughing Africans. Its hard to get smiles back on the street. But once contact is made, and “ice broken”, Japanese do not hide their curiosity. And after knowing even better, not their feelings either. Code of hospitality and manners are also quite unique and bit funny for stranger. When passing by street construction for instance, there is usually one worker, an older man in his blue working clothes and a helmet, guiding pedestrians very politely, nodding, smiling and waving to the safe passage. Even if there is no car coming either direction! @ Osaka

December 2011 — Merry Christmas from Agra! Am stucked, it seems, to city of Taj Mahal. Trains are packed this time of year, and trying get next train to Mumbai, am only on waiting list at number 26th. Indian railway booking on small stations is ordeal of unique kind. Usually booking window has half circle of travel agent guys overtaking everybody else, coming and going, talking each other and phone, arguing and yelling with the booking officer behind the window. Behind this half circle is normal queue of other people, hoping some miracle of getting their turn with ticket buying. To avoid the hassle, one can buy tickets in advance from big stations like Delhi. Or pay some extra (though not what they ask at first) for travel agent to buy ticket either from net or the station. Takes bit of practice, but after a while, using trains in India is no issue at all.

Went to see today Taj Mahal. What a breath taking sight! Of course not only foreign travelers want to see Taj, but Indians from all around the big country as well. Inside the mausoleum where Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal are resting, queues and rushing was just crazy. But marble jewel of Taj Mahal still took breath away from this visitor! I tried to schedule visit at sunset for the best light, and it worked. Cloudless evening sky was giving beautiful orange and purple hues to white marbled buildings. That was the Christmas this year for me. Wonder how it will be in 2012, hopefully with friends and family, with nice ham and other Christmas delicacies. @ Agra

December 2012 — Missing traditional Christmas foods and seeing relatives, but other than that not much. Definitely not the weather! My Thai visa is almost over, so walked to bus station and bought ticket to Laos border. Tomorrow, not a single regular bus. So am going 26th and visa ends 27th. Bus should arrive to border little before it closes at afternoon, so lets see what happens. Busses can go all the way to Luang Prabang, but decided to be bit adventurous and take a boat on Mekong river from border to city, slow one, two days on river. Thats the plan at least!

Been enjoying my time here in Chiang Mai, visiting water falls, parks on the hills covered by lush forests and saw also fascinating old ruins of Wiang Kum Kam where Lanna king first found the capital for his kingdom, some 800 years ago. Location wasn’t very very good one. After 15 years from of its founding, flooding river buried it to thick mud. So city was rebuilt to current place. Pretty expensive and laborious trial and error for ancient city planners! What todo this Christmas here? Probably go see new Hobbit movie with a friend. Christmas dinner will be big bowl of steaming hot delicious Thai pork noodle soup, very spicy! Merry Christmas! @ Chiang Mai

Backpacker Ghettos or Meccas

Its either, depending your preferences. I love them! Three best ones I have visited are Big Bazaar Road in New Delhi, Khao San Road in Bangkok and Thamel in Kathmandu. My first visit was in the last one, arrived Kathmandu at night and got taxi to hostel through sleeping, dark city at early morning hours. Next day after sleeping jet-lag off, I walked into a noisy chaos of people, animals, scooters, cars all blended to one living mass on narrow and dirty roads. I got complete culture shock, never ever experienced anything like that! Honestly felt like running back in, hide from it!

While Thamel is whole area of old town, two others are streets, spreading to side streets and neighborhood. All have multitude of street shops, hawkers of varying degree of pushiness and skills of convincing you buy their product. Hostels are plenty but don’t expect to find Hilton and likes from among them! Cockroaches, rats and other funny pets are part of the bunch. So how can anyone willingly stay in such places, like them? For me its the Asian atmosphere, mix of cultures and races, total world apartness from sterile and over planned West, multitude of photo opportunities. Most interesting people, other backpackers you can find from there. All the life and creatures passing in front of your very eyes, its mind-bogling! Thats why. @ Bangkok.

Swakopmunde and Pondicherry

Swakopmunde is in Namibian coast, South West Africa. Pondicherry East coast of India. They have very little else in common, but what history had reserved for them after high hopes in the beginning.

October 2010 — Swakopmunde is similar low profile small town with neighboring Valves Bay, 30 mins drive North. Came this morning in a shuttle bus, and have walked through the city attractions now around 2pm. Town tries to balance on a thin line between desert and ocean. Beach is nice, and South Atlantic waves are magnificent. Sun is merciless, winds strong and water cool. German language comes across everywhere such as street and building names, as well as German tourists who probably feel homey here. Early 1900’s posters about steamer connections to Hamburg adds nice touch. Atmosphere is sleepy, waiting.

Had a long chat yesterday in Walvis with a young rapper calling himself Smooth James, I met when walking and admiring flamingos of Walvis Bay Lagoon. This light voiced, 20 year old kind looking Namibian boy dreams about career as singer in USA, has made few songs (got copy of his CD) and tries to make his way in local sing contests and auditions. Only advice I could give to the boy was try also to get an education, despite his bigger ambitions. Don’t know how feasible my advice was e.g. money wise, but least it wasn’t rejected out right. Maybe just politely ignored. @ Swakopmunde

February 2012 — Since Madurai, been traveling ten days in South India. My train took me to Chennai, former Madras and British starting point of colonizing India since 1700’s. After few days in Chennai, jumped to bus back South. I wanted to see some more of Bengal coast history and cultural places. So I arrived today to Pondicherry, small town and former colonial outpost. Its architecture and feel immediately reminded the visit to Swakopmunde in Namibia coast.

This was not German but French, but similarities were striking, long strait coast and towns oldest buildings built right on edge of sea. Kind of outpost, where to load the boats from Europe: soldiers, equipment, goods. Many Indians still speak French, after all this time. Pondicherry’s destiny was similar to Swakopmunde’s. It eventually got occupied by British in the wars between the European powers, and then reduced to secondary status since they already had main port (taken earlier and from better place) in the region. @ Pondicherry