The Wild Wild West of Burma

Last week I attended a fantastic conference that celebrated the career of Prof. Ian Brown, my PhD. supervisor, who has recently retired. In Ian’s closing paper, he made an important reassessment of some assumptions that underpin the history of colonial Burma. He argued that John Furnivall’s influential argument that Burma experienced a uniquely dramatic increase in violent crime because of the social dislocation caused by British conquest, was not born out by the evidence. Firstly, the statistical data upon which Furnivall’s argument was made was unsound. And secondly, it is not self-evident that Burma was exceptional. Ian made the tentative suggestion that instead, Burma should be compared to parts of French Indochina and Siam that also experienced disorder. Illegality and criminal behaviour may not have been the result of conquest, but linked to the rapid rise in migration and expansion of cultivation in the delta rice frontiers of all three countries.

This has caused me to reflect on my book on corruption in the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) delta of Burma, south-west of the colonial centre of Rangoon. In it I argued that local Burmese and Indian officials were able to perform state power for their own, often corrupt, ends: policemen framed their enemies; magistrates took bribes; clerks forged documents; hospital assistants destroyed medical evidence… Meanwhile, British officials tolerated these corrupt acts because they reinforced the racial hierarchy of ‘incorruptible’ White men governing over an ‘untrustworthy’ Asian populace. As Michael Charney noted in his very generous review of the book in the American Historical Review, it would be interesting to know how locally specific these corrupt practices were. As he suggests, it is likely that state officials out in the sticks, in the late-nineteenth century, across the world behaved badly and without effective oversight from their superiors.

Pathein photographed by Harley Newcombe in 1906.
Pathein photographed by Harley Newcombe in 1906.

Many of the corruption cases that I looked at occurred in and around the town of Pathein (called Bassein by the British), located in the west of the rice delta. Like many frontier towns globally at the turn of the century, its population was exploding. By 1900 there were five times as many people living there than had been roughly a decade earlier. And it was also a violent place, it features in Digital Southeast Asia blog’s recent post on visualizing police deaths in colonial Burma. It was also the subject of a paper at Ian’s conference, by William Womack, who described the schisms among Baptists who preached there and told the story of local converts who operated on their own agendas with their own hybrid beliefs. I suspect that the history of this town – a nest of crime and corruption, of migrants seeking their fortunes in the rice market, and of new religious beliefs – is actually a rather common one.

I admit that the watery landscape of the Burma delta seems a world away from the American West, but perhaps there is scope for thinking about them in similar ways, or even in the same framework.

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