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British Colonial Rule in Myanmar - Colonial-era History and Buildings

British Colonial Rule in Myanmar - Colonial-era History and Buildings

By Wendy Updated Sep. 10, 2021

British Colonial rule in Myanmar began in 1825 with the First Anglo-Burmese war. By 1886, after the Third Anglo-Burmese War, the British had succeeded in occupying all of present-day Myanmar and had established it as a province of British India.

The name Burma was given to the country by the British in honor of the dominant ethnic group, the Bamar people. This name was used as the official name of the country until 1989, when the military regime decided to change it to Myanmar.

Myanmar remained a province of India from 1919 until 1937, when it was made a colony of Britain. At times Myanmar was nicknamed the ‘Scottish Colony’, due to the significant role Scotsmen played in colonizing and running the country.

British rule in Myanmar continued until it was disrupted by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945 during World War II, and then the British regained control.

In the following years, Aung San, the father of the 1991 noble peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, played a vital role as the leading architect of the country’s independence.

Unfortunately, Aung San was assassinated six months before Myanmar became independent in January 1948. In Myanmar, he is referred to as the “Father of the Nation”.

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Colonial Buildings in Yangon

Yangon was the capital city of Myanmar from the beginning of British Colonial Rule in 1885 until 2005. In 2005, the military government made a sudden decision to move the capital to Nay Pyi Taw, criticized by some as unwise and wasteful.

Even after the capital city was moved, Yangon remained the cultural and commercial capital of Myanmar and most tourists start and end their journey here.

When you visit Yangon for the first time, one of the first things you will notice will be the aged colonial buildings, especially visible in the “Colonial District” of downtown Yangon. In fact, of all Southeast Asian cities, Yangon has the highest number of colonial-era buildings, some very well-preserved, others less so.

You can sense the influence of colonial rule as you walk past these colonial-era buildings, such as the High Court Building (built in 1914) and the Strand Hotel (built in 1896). The Strand Hotel reopened in 1993 and is now one of the most luxurious hotels in Myanmar.

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Myanmar (Burma) under the British

Under British rule, Myanmar boomed as an exporter of goods such as rice and rubies. Economic development, however, mainly benefited the British who became the elite classes, while the Burmese remained low-class workers.

One notable English writer, George Orwell, served in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma for five years. He described the relationship between Myanmar and Britain at the time in this way: “(Myanmar’s) relationship with the British empire is that of slave and master.”

The British brought in large numbers of Indians to do labour, run businesses, and serve as civil servants. Large Indian communities still remain in Yangon and Mandalay today. Their preference for employing Indians and Karen (ethnic minority) people over the Bamar (majority) people has aggravated racism between these ethnic groups.

Cultural Influences from Colonial Rule

Some say that most British colonial influence on Burmese culture has been swept away by 50 years of military rule.

One example can be seen in the education system. Before military rule, most high school graduates were able to speak English, but during military rule, English stopped being taught in schools, and even college graduates were no longer able to speak English.

More still remains, however, than just colonial buildings. For example, golf is common throughout the country, and so are tennis, hockey, badminton, and football (soccer).

Also, some English words, such as democracy, have slipped into Burmese vocabulary. As you walk downtown in Yangon and pay attention to the locals’ daily life, you may notice some of these reminders of the British presence in the past.

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