The Colonial Era (1885-1948)

The Early Years

Prior to the arrival of the British, education took place within the Sangha and most young men passed through monasteries as novice monks. In addition to providing an education and a religious vocation, the Sangha garnered respect for the monastic community. The arrival of British colonial policy in Burma fundamentally undermined this system, and is at the heart of contemporary intercommunal and interreligious violence. By undercutting Burmese political and religious authority, the British marginalized the Burman community while granting ethnic minorities access to power. The British introduced a radically different educational system from the traditional Sangha, basing the new system on secular modernity. Most of the graduates of the new system joined the ranks of civil servants in the colonial administration. The Sangha resisted this Western education, maintaining that secular knowledge contradicted a Buddhist worldview.

The British did, on occasion, work with the Sangha when it suited their needs, and Buddhists responded to these encounters in various ways depending on their region and social class. However, the Sangha saw rapid decline and fragmentation during the colonial period, especially after 1895, when the British neglected the traditional duty of the ruler of Myanmar to appoint a new leader of the Sangha (thathanabain).1

Woman sittingOn the other hand, ethnic minority communities benefited from British rule, and foreigners flooded the major cities in pursuit of opportunities under the Pax Britannica—a systematized, hegemonic international legal and maritime control system regulating trade across the empire. The British also oversaw the immigration of thousands of predominantly Muslim Bengali Indians as cheap labor to support the expansion of the colonial economic infrastructure. Nationalism therefore developed in keeping with specific ethnic (Burman vs. non-Burman), religious (Buddhist vs. non-Buddhist), and economic associations. The economic competition between Burmans and Indians lent a class dimension to anti-Muslim and anti-Bengali narratives that continue to resonate today.

Christian missionaries also came to Burma throughout the colonial period. While conversion to Christianity was rare among Burmans for whom Buddhism was an intrinsic aspect of their identity, ethnic minorities such as the Chin and Kachin were receptive to British and American missionary efforts. Among the Kachin, missionary education helped to create a sense of shared identity across its various tribes, laying the groundwork for solidarity and armed resistance following independence.

Aware of potential nationalist threats, the British banned political groups, but they tolerated religious organizations. As a result, Buddhist groups such as the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (1906) and the General Council of Buddhist (Burmese) Associations (1920) incubated nationalist thought. These organizations produced popular slogans that linked religion and ethnic identity, such as “to be Burmese is to be Buddhist.”2

Under British colonialism, lay Buddhist nationalists were inspired by the activism of Buddhist monks.3 In 1921 U Ottama was the first monk to be jailed for his political activities; he and others died in prison. Monastic resistance reflected the historical role that the Sangha played as a counterbalance to state power, and their imprisonment foreshadowed continued crackdowns on the monastic community under military governments in years to come.

The Later Years

Burma was a major frontline between Britain and Japan during World War II, and the fighting devastated the country. Britain’s scorched earth policy destroyed much of the infrastructure built during the colonial period, and the majority of the Burmese welcomed the Japanese, supporting the invaders from 1942 to 1945. Future political leaders (and ethnic Burmans) Aung San and Ne Win were members of a small army backed by the Japanese, known as the Burma Independence Army. As it became clear that Japan would lose the war, General Aung San shifted the army’s loyalty to the British and fought alongside the Allies for the remainder of WWII. These shifting allegiances exacerbated ethnic tensions. The British had originally barred Burmans from the military and instead gave positions to the Karen, Kachin, and Chin in exchange for ambiguous promises of autonomy. Violence was therefore commonplace between the ethnic minorities who were allied with the British and the Burmans who were initially allied with the Japanese.

Aung San in UniformFollowing the end of the war, Burmese governments demanded independence from Britain and stressed the need to maintain “unity” in the face of fragmentation. As a result, Burmese leaders drafted the Panglong Agreement, a product of the 1947 Panglong Conference that brought General Aung San together with representatives of many of Burma’s ethnic groups in order to form the Union of Burma. The new constitution included protections for religious diversity, but it was completed without input from representatives of some ethnic minorities; most notably, the Rohingya were not recognized in the Panglong Agreement as a legitimate Burmese ethnicity. Plus, even with the protections that were in place, the new Burmese government failed to enact their promises, and power was rapidly consolidated in Buddhist Burman hands. While this break from Britain is commemorated annually on February 12th as Union Day, in reality, a centralized, coercive force over peripheral communities persists, leaving the country far from unified.


The colonial years are remembered with bitterness; in 1989, as part of an effort to roll back some of the influences of colonialism, the military government renamed the country “Myanmar” from “Burma,” along with hundreds of other place names.

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1 Juliane Schober, “Buddhism in Burma: Engagement with Modernity,” in Buddhism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, ed. Stephen C. Berkowitz (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 82.
2 Juliane Schober, “Buddhism in Burma: Engagement with Modernity,” Buddhism in World Cultures, ed. Stephen Berkwitz (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 86.
3 Bertil Lintner, The Resistance of the Monks: Buddhism and Activism in Burma (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2009).

See also: Myanmar